Brain research's 'golden age'

Coloured MRI scan of axial section through head
Coloured MRI scan of axial section through head showing a healthy brain

If there's one area of science that can be said to be reaping the rewards of dramatic advances in modern technology it's in the study of the brain.

Developments in non-invasive imaging technologies like fMRI, combined with advances in our understanding of brain chemistry and the underlying genetics of neural activity, have given rise to a series of exciting new insights into debilitating neurological disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and spawned a raft of claims about the neural activity underpinning everything from love and wisdom to antisocial behaviour in teenagers.

But what does all this new information really tell us about what it is to be human? Not a lot, according to Professor Ray Tallis the author of "Aping Mankind", who accuses neuroscientists of failing to grasp a fundamental distinction between the brain and the mind.

Neuroscience, he claims, is degenerating into a reductionist neuromania.

"My own view is that the brain is certainly a necessary condition of consciousness - you chop my head off and my IQ falls - but the brain is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition. You can't reduce my thoughts to a particular pattern of neural activity."The idea that thoughts have locations, he says, in the same sense that say pebbles have locations, is what philosophers would call a category error.

"I don't even think we're in a position to formulate clearly the question about what is the nature of thought, what is the nature of consciousness. And we certainly won't make any progress so long as we think consciousness is identical with neural activity."

Although he accepts some neuroscientists (and the journalists who report their work), may have been guilty of overestimating the power of their findings, the Director of UCL's Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience Professor geraint Rees believes Ray Tallis is also guilty of exaggerating for effect.

When neuroscientists talk about the link between neural activity and conscious thoughts, he says, they're not claiming that the bits of the brain that light up in scans are synonymous with the mind.

"Consciousness is a property of the person, not a property of a bit of the brain, and the neuroscientist is trying to explain which patterns of brain activity correspond to that consciousness of the whole person."

Speaking on the programme this morning the Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University Colin Blakemore went further claiming it was incumbent on neuroscience's critics to offer a better explanation for how consciousness might be generated.

"This is a debate that's really over. We have a brain, and people without brains don't have thoughts. So the brain must do it. It's a huge problem to discover how it does it, but that will come. There's no alternative".