Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
Patricia S. Churchland sees the brain differently. A noted neurophilosopher and MacArthur “Genius,” she begins her new book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, with a forthright statement: “My brain and I are inseparable.” For Churchland, “I equal my brain” and “brain equals me.” On its own, the former equation is hardly an existential challenge. The brain’s central role in selfhood is well known. (A loose screw affects both you and your brain.) But flip the equation—“brain equals me”—and a whole new cosmology is provoked. The implication is that I am definable, accessible, even divisible. The seeming solidity of me comes from a place, the brain—and what is the brain? The mental image Churchland conjures is that of a thicket of neurons and specialized regions of activity, all of them subject to pervasive unconscious actions and designs. Far from an ethereal soul or some intangible essence, then, selfhood means that I am the end result of innumerable processes occurring inside a pale pink, three-pound sack of meat. No spirit, no soul, no opaque differentiation between mind and brain. Put another way, I am just a brain.
Touching A Nerve is about this portentous centrality of the brain—what we currently know about how it works and the resulting ethical and existential implications. As Churchland puts it, she explores “the issues that tend to give us pause as we contemplate what understanding the brain might signify.” Morality, self-control, free will—scientific discoveries are finding that it’s all in your head. How this affects our ideas about human nature is one of Churchland’s main concerns as she points out the pieces of our brains that all together make me me, andwe we.
Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego, Churchland is a pioneering figure in the interdisciplinary field of neurophilosophy. The discipline examines neuroscience’s discoveries about the mind through a philosophical lens, searching for neural analogues to philosophy’s longstanding preoccupations with how we think and act, our basic essential nature. Identifying the physical regions where our perception of right and wrong originate, for example, or how the minds of some convicted criminals may be neurologically inclined to violence, neuroscience spurs people like Churchland to fundamentally reconsider and amend our understanding of morality, the culpability of mentally ill people who commit criminal acts, the differences between the sexes, the question of selfhood—whether we are eternal souls or just firing neurons. In both neurology and philosophy, Churchland impresses as an expert. But what makes her, and this book, work, what makes her a “Genius” is her unique, intangible mind. She’s quite a character. Funny and freewheeling, humanistic and hard-assed, she shares many personal anecdotes, stories that lend the work a human counterweight, balancing its often dispassionate survey of the brain. In a section about how unconscious processes regulate our speech—we don’t actively consider every word we vocalize; try it and see how stilted it sounds—she explains that, thanks to her unconscious mind, she is able to deliver lectures without having to remember not to curse, as she’s wont to do around friends. “Rock on, unconscious brain,” she writes.
Particularly remarkable is the brain’s astonishing complexity and interconnectedness. Few actions, Churchland shows, are independent or isolated. Consciousness, for its part, is believed to be the result of a looping impulse cascading through the brain, a process referred to as global ignition. And yet, for all its physicality, its empirical realness, Churchland notes, “There is no single place you can point to and say, consciousness is exactly there.”
And this is to say nothing of the iceberg-esque role of unconscious activity, what Churchland calls our “dark energy thought.” Reading this review right now, you are not consciously focusing on each individual word, then its meaning, then the next word, that word’s meaning, and so on. Instead, when you read, your eyes fixate and jump from one chunk of characters (about seven to 20 at a time) to the next. Beyond the curtain of your awareness, a lot is going on.
In the end, touch a nerve Churchland does. Equating her self and her brain brings her comfort:
It grounds us in what makes sense rather than in the futility of wishful thinking. It adds to the meaningfulness of life by enhancing the connections between our everyday lives and the science of how things are. Harmony and balance in our lives are deepened and enhanced by that connectedness.
As a reader, I also found solace. For example, Churchland observes that “brains love predictability,” which on the face of it, might suggest a picture of a conventionally minded brain. Yet in moments where I experience new sights and thoughts, when I am challenging my brain’s habit-anchored nature, I am forcing it to confront reality in new, generative ways. The brain, by consequence, creates news associations and mental connections to respond to and remember the action. In the process, it changes itself. Perhaps this explains why, although new and challenging experiences feel exhilarating or frightening, they also feel so transformative and life changing.
But the knowledge Churchland and her neurophilosophical peers reveal also has a dark side. If the brain is self, then changing the brain may radically change me. As we understand more about our minds, the possibility arises that we may be able to modify and control particular feelings, behaviors, ways of being. If you agree with Churchland, that “My brain and I are inseparable,” then to know the brain can be another way to know thyself. In the same way, the desire to change the brain is another incarnation, albeit a far-reaching one, of the frequent desire to change oneself. Whither goes the brain goes humanity and visa versa. Whether a final frontier or a new gateway, it waits to be seen what the brain reveals of us and what we find of ourselves in it.