All in the brain?


Sir, – With reference to Joe Humphreys’s column (Arts & Ideas, January 10th) on the unthinkable great idea that “the mind arises solely from the activity of the brain”, may I suggest this “great” idea is “unthinkable” because it is wrong.

Dr Kevin Mitchell, the interviewee who promotes this great idea, suffers from the narrow vision that seems typical of many brain scientists.

He reminds me of the unfortunate scientist, Dr Hfuhruhurr, played by Steve Martin in the film The Man with Two Brains, who falls in love with a female brain kept “alive” in a jar. The film is labelled as a science fiction comedy, for of course we all appreciate that a brain cannot function in isolation from a living body. Yet Dr Mitchell says “mental states arise from brain states” and that “we don’t actually need anything else in our overall theory of how they emerge except brain states”.

He cites the reality that when the brain dies or is damaged the mind dies or is damaged. This is incontrovertible, but what it tells us is that the brain is necessary to the functioning of the mind, or the processes we call the mind. The brain is necessary but it is not sufficient, many more factors come into play. The mind, and its qualities such as the sense of self and consciousness, emerges from complex interactions of the brain with the body, the material world and the socio-cultural world of relationships and meanings.

Until neuroscientists such as Dr Mitchell realise this and broaden their perspective they will make no progress whatsoever in understanding the mind and they will soon come to a full stop in their understanding of the brain. Much remains to be discovered. The alternative to Dr Mitchell’s brand of neuroscience is not religion or poetry, as the article suggests, but better science. – Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus,

School of Psychology,

Trinity College,