Brain and mind

by Neil Rickert

What’s the relation between brain and mind?

That question came up yesterday, in a post on Jerry Coyne’s blog website.  Jerry was discussing a recent “60 Minutes” segment on schizophrenia, and took exception (Jerry called it a quibble) about the wording used:

After seeing this, the pair have this exchange:

Kroft: This is really a disease of the brain, and not a disease of the mind.

Lieberman: Absolutely.

That’s not good; for the mind is, as Pinker says, “what the brain does.” In the case of schizophrenia, if there is a genetically (or environmentally) based pathology of the brain, it also causes a pathology of the mind: racing thoughts, voices in the head, and desires to harm.  So it’s a disease of both the brain and the mind. Television shouldn’t perpetuate this duality.

Okay, it was only a quibble.  But it seems a rather strange quibble.

Most people make a clear distinction between a disease of the mind and a disease of the brain.  For example, they might consider nicotine addiction a disease of the mind.  But schizophrenia and bipolar disorder they would see as diseases of the brain.  The distinction is that with shizophrenia and bipolar disorder there are clearly identified organic problems in the brain that account for the disease.  It will take medical treatment to deal with those diseases.  By contrast, with nicotine addiction, many people seem to be able to learn their way out of the problem, to find a way of changing their behavior to solve the problem without special medical treatment.

Saying that there is a distinction is not to deny that the brain chemistry is involved in either case.  Still, the terminological distinction seems to be widely understood.

Jerry’s complaint is that he apparently sees an implication of dualism there.  I do not see any such implication.  It seems to me that Jerry is being overly literalistic about this.

Mind as metaphor

So, how do I see mind and brain?

Personally, I take the mind to be a metaphor.  I don’t see the term “mind” as referring to any object, material or immaterial.  So we have people saying “the mind is what the brain does” (ascribed to Pinker), “the mind is the software of the brain”, “the mind is the brain’s operating system”, “the mind is a Joycean computer” (Dennett uses that idea in his “Consciousness Explained”).  Those are all interesting ways of using the mind as metaphor.  If we want to take the mind as some kind of object, and not just a metaphor, then all of those statements would require evidence and I doubt that much evidence could be found for any of them.


8 Comments to “Brain and mind”

  1. the mind is the brain’s operating system – an operating systems is being used as a metaphor, for the mind.

    the mind is a Joycean computer – the Joycean computer is being used as a metaphor for the mind.

    They could be made into similes by inserting ‘like’ before ‘is’. Neither mention the brain.

    Even in ‘the mind is the software of the brain’ the metaphor is ‘operating system’ for ‘mind’, so the literal version of that sentence is ‘the mind is the mind of the brain’, but in ‘the mind is the software of the brain’, the second mind is being replaced by a metaphor, that is being used to imply that in some way the mind-brain relationship is similar to the software-computer relationship, in which the computer is the metaphor for the brain – the hardware for the wetware.

    Similarly the mind is a metaphor for what the brain does, but ‘mind’ is a noun, and what the brain does is think, digest, ruminate, analyse etc., but physicalists sometimes do use ‘mind’ as a noun that is the collective of all the things that a brain does, a metaphor for the collective ‘behaviour’ of the brain, and so in that sense ‘mind’ is a metaphor for ‘behaviour’.

    But ‘mind’ still has a strong association with dualism, and the religious would typically make a further association of the mind with the soul, which is an object to them, of sorts, if an immaterial object – and yet not abstract but real in some way. When scientists use the term mind as if it were some existent other thing it perpetuates the dualist association. I think Jerry was merely wishing they had emphasised the point that it’s the brain that is really diseased – there is no physical mind to be diseased.

    According to Pinker ‘brain’ would be a metaphor for that stuff inside our skulls.


    • But ‘mind’ still has a strong association with dualism, and the religious would typically make a further association of the mind with the soul, which is an object to them, of sorts, if an immaterial object – and yet not abstract but real in some way.

      However, the language that we use is not going to persuade the religious to change their view on this.

      When scientists use the term mind as if it were some existent other thing it perpetuates the dualist association.

      We should distinguish between use in a scientific research paper, and use in communicating with other people in the culture.


  2. Interesting post. I’ve been trying to understand the people who use “folk psychology” as an argument for the existence of God, recently, and I don’t get it at all. I see no reason to think the processes of the mind are not reducible to the activities of the brain, given sufficient understanding.

    But I also think, like you, that talking about the mind is a useful model for understanding the part of us that does thinking.


  3. Hmmm, ya got me thinkin’. Let me think outloud:
    So, consider two heart diseases: Mitral Valve Prolapse(MVP) and Coronary artery disease (CAD). MVP we can’t reverse no matter what activity we change, CAD IS actually reversible in many situations — simply with change in behavior.

    So is one a disease of the heart and the other of the MIRT (MInd-heaRT)?
    Should we invent a thing called a “mirt” to distinguish these two?


    • That seems to miss the point.

      I more-or-less go by Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. The distinction between brain disease and mind disease is in use, so we can make that distinction and people will be able to see the point we are thereby making. But your suggested “mirt” is not in use.

      There’s another way of looking at this. If we insist on always saying “brain disease” and never making the distinction, then the religious folk will just write that off as the dogmatic way that materialists speak. If, however, we only use “brain disease” for the cases where clear organic brain disease is discovered, then we seriously challenge fundamentalists Christians. For we are stressing the clear evidence that “demon possession” is nonsense, and so therefore is the new testament miracle about expelling demons.


  4. Right, I get your point, but it started me thinking about the differences between the disorders. For the majority of people (not all), mind-body dualism is a natural intuition/illusion. But with time, with much careful observation and thinking the delusion can be considerably weakened — much like wrong-headed stats are natural but with effort can be weakened. I was exploring that. The division between types of disease is often more artificial than we imagine.

    But I get your point.


  5. I addressed this indirectly in my post this morning — thanx for getting me to think.


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