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".

 
Tom Feilden, Science correspondent, Today programme Article written by Tom Feilden Tom Feilden Science correspondent, Today

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    It was the pumping I was referencing, not the blood. I suppose it's not necessarily a prerequisite that you have a brain to have thoughts (as we don't know what other possible forms life can take) but that doesn't mean the brain isn't OUR source of thoughts.

    It is a fact that if a human doesn't have a brain, he does not have thoughts.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 7.

    Brent B, blood is a substance. The fundamental nature of thought is something which has not been established by neuroscience. Blakemore's argument is circular as it presumes that the brain is a prerequisite for thoughts and then derives from this that if that is so then the brain must be the maker of both mind and its contents.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    Apply very basic biology and engineering principles to the most complex piece of kit in the known universe, it hardly a surprise we no longer ‘know’ what we are beyond a bunch of contradictory ‘concepts’.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm-wNsH2LW8

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Silverman, I'd say a better comparison would be:

    You have a heart. People without hearts don't have blood pumping through their body, so the heart must pump blood. Your radio argument applies just as easily to this argument.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    I think the professor is simply wrong to say that consciousness is a faculty of the person and not the brain. It is quite remarkable that highly educated people such as him can still be muddying the waters so. The mind is [a very big part of] what the brain does. Consciousness is what it is like to be the self-reflexive representation of self in the world. What is so hard about understanding that?

 

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