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Mindful : April 2013
mind/body The brain, the three-pound slab of tofu-textured tissue inside our skull, is recognized (by scientists, at least) as the physical source of all that we call mind. If you are having a thought or experiencing an emotion, it’s because your brain has done something—specifically, electrical sig nals crackled along a whole bunch of neurons and those neurons handed off droplets of neurochemicals, like runners handing off a baton in a relay race. Neuroscientists don’t object to mind talk for casual conversation. But most insist that we not invoke the mind as if it is real, or distinct from the brain. They reject the notion that the mind has an existence independent of the brain (often called Car tesia n dualism, after René Des- cartes of “I think, therefore I am” fame). Obviously, avoiding mind talk would be a problem for a column about the science of the mind in a magazine called Mindful. I fell afoul of the no-mind rule last year during a talk I gave in Salt Lake City on neuroplasticity—the ability of the adult brain to change its structure and function in response to outside stimuli as well as internal activity. I was talking about mind changing brain, a possibil- ity that intrigues scientists who have investigated the power and effects of mental training, including mindfulness. I used exa mples such as people with obsessive-compulsive disorder practicing mindfulness to approach their thoughts differently, with the result that the bra in region whose overactivity caused their disorder quieted down. Ta da: mind changing brain. Not so fast, said one audience member. Why talk about something so imprecise, even spooky, as mind? Why can’t the explanation for the OCD patients be that one form of brain activity (that taking place during mindfulness) affected a n- other (the OCD-causing activity)? Why do we need mind talk? Well, we need mind talk because although most neuroscientists reject the idea of a mind different from brain, most civilians embrace the distinction. This competing view of things gets expressed in the real world in stark and startling ways. Take, for example, how the mind-brain dichotomy can play out in the criminal justice system. Neurosci- ence holds that the brain is the organ of the mind. If something goes wrong with behavior, then it’s because something has gone wrong with the brain (in the same way that if something has gone wrong with, say, insulin secretion, it’s because something has gone wrong with the pancreas). We can probably all agree that criminal assault and downloading child pornography both count as something “going wrong ” with behavior. Yet in these and other cases, judges presented with evidence that the behavior had a biological basis have meted out more lenient sentences than in cases where no such evidence was presented. To which neuroscientists reply, a re you out of your mind? Why a re you rely- ing on such a distinction? What else is behavior but the result of bra in biology? Yet the fact that criminals are treated more harshly if their mind (motives, an- ger, a ntisocial feelings...) made them do it than if their brain (aberrant activity pat- terns, pathological circuitry...) did shows just how deeply average folks believe that mind and brain are distinct. This dualism gets at a profound philo- sophical issue that has divided schola rs for decades: what is the most produc- tive and helpful level of explanation for mental activity? When do we go too far in reducing mental mat ters to physically obser vable activity? Is it more illuminat- ing, for instance, to explain why Teresa loves Dave by invoking their person- alities and histories a nd tastes, or their brain neurons? Consider trying to ex- plain confirmation bias, in which people remember examples that support their point of view—“ You never take out the garbage!”—a nd forget counterexa mples. Is it more illuminating to explain it as the result of the huma n need to shore up our beliefs or by invoking synapses a nd neurochemicals? One case for mind talk is that we have access to our mind. We can rec- ognize and describe what we know, remember, and think. We do not have access to our brain: we ca nnot tell which regions (my hippocampus? my anterior cingulate?) are active during pa rticular activities. But many neuroscientists say mind talk is just hand waving. As a result, you can ha rdly call yourself a psychologist or neuroscientist (cognitive, affective, so- cial, or otherwise) unless your resea rch uses brain imaging. In a 2012 study, resea rchers performed fMRI sca ns on volunteers playing a made-up game in which they had to decide how much money (given to them by the scientists) they wanted to share with others—a test of their altruism. (fMRI pinpoints areas of the brain that are more active, or less, than the baseline during a particular mental function.) The researchers found that a region involved in perspective taking—allowing us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes—is more active in the most altruistic individuals. I don’t know about you, but learning that people who are good at understand- ing things from someone else’s perspec- tive tend to be more altruistic doesn’t tell me much about altruism that I didn’t already suspect. I mean, did anyone think altruistic people would turn out to be bad at perspective taking? The mind–brain debate is not about to go away anytime soon, so in this column I will be keeping an eye on the dialogue between brain talkers and mind talkers and to keep exploring what the latest science has to teach us about our minds and our brains. For example, can brain biology alone “define, predict, or explain the emergence of mental phenomena,” as Ala n Wallace, a pioneer in the scientific study of the effects of meditation on cognition, behavior, and physiology, has asked? What kind of scientists are willing to talk about mind, and to what extent? What qualifies as “proof ” that a practice like mindfulness is improving our lives? Are scientists finding ways to ma ke mind talk like “thought” and “emotion” more rigor- ous, so we don’t have to be embarrassed around them when we talk that way? And above all, how can what scientists are learning about both mind and brain help us make our way a little better in a challenging world with the tools we have available, whatever names we choose to call them? ● We need mind talk because although most neuroscientists reject the idea of a mind different from the brain, most civilians embrace the distinction. 32 mindful April 2013