Minding Our Minds

Adam Gopnik considers how we interpret knowledge of neuroscience:

Neurology should provide us not with sudden explanatory power but with a sense of relief from either taking too much responsibility for, or being too passive about, what happens to us. Autism is a wiring problem, not a result of “refrigerator mothers.” Schizophrenia isn’t curable yet, but it looks more likely to be cured by getting the brain chemistry right than by finding out what traumatized Gregory Peck in his childhood. Neuroscience can’t rob us of responsibility for our actions, but it can relieve us of guilt for simply being human. We are in better shape in our mental breakdowns if we understand the brain breakdowns that help cause them.

This is a point that [Brainwashed authors Sally] Satel and [Scott O.] Lilienfeld, in their eagerness to support a libertarian view of the self as a free chooser, get wrong.

They observe of one “brilliant and tormented” alcoholic that she, not her heavy drinking, was responsible for her problems. But, if we could treat the brain circuitry that processes the heavy drinking, we might very well leave her just as brilliant and tormented as ever, only not a drunk. (A Band-Aid, as every parent knows, is an excellent cure whenever it’s possible to use one.)

The really curious thing about minds and brains is that the truth about them lies not somewhere in the middle but simultaneously on both extremes. We know already that the wet bits of the brain change the moods of the mind: that’s why a lot of champagne gets sold on Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, if the mind were not a high-level symbol-managing device, flower sales would not rise on Valentine’s Day, too. Philosophy may someday dissolve into psychology and psychology into neurology, but since the lesson of neuro is that thoughts change brains as much as brains thoughts, the reduction may not reduce much that matters. As Montaigne wrote, we are always double in ourselves. Or, as they say on the Enterprise, it takes all kinds to run a starship.