10 May 2012

The brain... It makes you think. Doesn't it?

The UK Guardian ran a nice little debate between David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis on the role of the brain and the unconscious processes in our behavior (April 28 2012). Eagleman is a neuroscientist interested in the neural correlates of mental activity (and author of Incognito), and Tallis is a professor of medicine who challenges just how truly important the unconscious processing really is. I think it sums up the debate pretty well. While I side closer to Tallis, I think his style is a little obnoxious, and Eagleman keeps it polite. Here's a bit of it:

Eagleman -A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed.

Tallis: Some of what you have just said sounds like common sense and a retreat from the radical thesis advanced in Incognito. There you put unconscious brain mechanisms in the driving seat – which is why your book has attracted such attention – and argue that important life decisions are strongly influenced by "the covert machinery of the unconscious".

Even when you concede in Incognito that "consciousness is the long-term planner", you still can't let go of the idea of the largely unconscious brain being in charge. This is because you want to privilege brain science. Your case is assisted by personifying the brain, as when you say things like "the brain cares about social interaction".

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