Neurosurgeon says “I” am more than the “merely physical” brain
In today’s Open Page of the Hindu, there is this article by a Neurosurgeon Mr.Ganapathy from the Apollo Hospitals. The title is “Who am I? my brain or my mind?”. The article starts off with a conversation he has with his grand son, where the boy tries to evade punishment for something he did by saying his brain, and not he, was responsible for the act. The article then goes on to try defining where our sense of identity comes from and to talk about freewill and whether we can hold people responsible for what they do.
As I have written before, the brain is the place where our consciousness resides. There is nothing beyond the brain. If every atom of my brain was replicated exactly to make a copy, it would exactly be me. It will be everything that I am. There are a lot of points that I disagree with in the article and coming from a neurosurgeon, I thought it was worthy of some analysis.
The article starts off on the wrong foot with the title. It seems to suggest that the brain and the mind are different things. One can say the brain is the physical organ while the mind is what emerges out of it, but such a meaning means both are complementary and not mutually exclusive as the title seems to suggest. But I have personal experience where papers change the titles of the articles, and so I will move on.
As I said, the piece starts off with a conversation with his grandson raising the question of freewill. The article ends on this note:
Is human love, the agony and ecstasy we feel, only an electrical outburst of a circumscribed set of neurons? To explain me [Author’s emphasis] (the mind) as the functions of 1300 grams of a semisolid gelatinous mass, a palpable physical entity appears too naïve? Am I just a sum total of hope, despair, genius, dull mediocrity? Am I electrical impulses zapping from one brain cell to another, helped along their way, by a myriad of complex chemicals? How juvenile! Am I not something beyond the merely physical, something ethereal that is closer to a spiritual concept of the soul? How melodramatic! The truth, as all great truths are, though currently evading us, is probably somewhere in between.
The two options, he says, are that the mind is merely physical or something ethereal that is closer to a spiritual concept. He concludes that the truth is somewhere in between. I don’t understand this. What does he mean in-between? What could be there beyond the physical mind? There is really no doubt that all the feelings we experience are in our physical brain and not in some vague metaphysical concept. But I see two reasons why the author says this. The clearest hint is this para:
You become a Mother Teresa or bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile, the way your brain is wired and neurotransmitters jump across synapses. Rapists and hardcore criminals will seek clemency, as sophisticated neuroimaging has revealed functional and even structural ‘aberrations’ in the brain. Jumping out of your jeans lies in your genes! It is the hippocampus in my brain which is responsible for my behaviour, not me!
The author’s worry seems to be that, if we conclude that all our actions are determined by physical connections in our brain, then what about moral culpability. Can we not punish people for their mistakes? Do we have to let rapists off the hook?
There is a problem with this argument. Just because you wish to hold rapists and murderers responsible for their actions, you cannot argue that the mind has to be something more than physical brain. Facts cannot be twisted to suit what you wish were true. Facts are facts. It is upto us to handle the consequences. There is really no doubt that it is the brains of their criminals that are making them to do what they do. To argue otherwise is meaningless.
Does that mean we don’t have to arrest or punish anybody for their actions? Does that mean we do away with our judicial system? No. To see why, let us see what decides the way our brains are connected. Clearly, genes play a role. But so do your experiences in your life. If you had Dosa at a particular hotel yesterday and did not like it, you would not order it again at the same hotel. So, what you experienced previously affects what you do today. Similarly, if a small child is admonished today for being, say, impolite, the next time he will think twice before repeating the same mistake, because the previous admonishment too shapes his brain.
Thus, instead of doing away with our judicial system, we need to change the way it looks at punishments. Sentences should not be meted out in a sense of tit for tat. It should not be based on the logic that a criminal deserves to be punished. As I have argued before we do not have freewill and hence such a stand does not make sense. Sentences need to be given by looking at the future consequences of such a punishment. So, when punishing a murderer, we must not take away his life just because he took somebody else’ life. We should do whatever is necessary to make the society safer from people like him. That could mean jailing him or that could mean operating on his brain to remove a tumour which induces in him homicidal tendencies (read this article for a similar case of a person trying to sexually abuse his daughter because of a tumour in his head).
This is the way forward for a humane society. Of course, we cannot always anticipate the consequences of what we do today. But our present sense of justice based on moral responsibility is built on the shaky notion that we all have free will. We do not have that. But that does not mean, as the neurosurgeon does, we argue that there is something beyond the “merely physical” brain. Why should we think of it as “merely” physical? I do not think there is anything demeaning about our mind arising out of the physical brain. Is it not glorious to think that lifeless atoms can come together to come up with something as complicated as our brain?