The Brain, the Whole Brain and Nothing but the Brain

This blog post stems from another discussion (elsewhere) that segued into the topic of mind versus brain. In order to illustrate that the mind is more than just the brain, I described the following scenario . . .

What would it be like if you were born completely paralyzed, with a normal brain but without a sensory nervous system to deliver stimuli to your brain from your sensory organs? Would it be possible to think or to have memories? In what ways could you be considered human or alive or conscious?
If you were born completely paralyzed, you would not have motility. If you had no sensory nervous system, you would be 100% insensate: unable to detect the world in any way. No hearing; no speech; no olfactory, gustational (taste) or tactile feedback: absolutely nothing -- except an otherwise functioning brain. That is the scenario: a brain without any possible form of interaction outside of itself (i.e. your brain can't detect your own body or the external world).

Another scenario (though very sci-fi) with a similar result would be a fully human brain cloned in the laboratory. Using sci-fi technology, it is kept functioning and healthy in a high-tech container. However, it has no sensory nervous system or artificial means to receive stimuli of any kind. The only difference between this scenario and the original one is that the brain is housed in a high-tech container instead of the skull of a paralyzed and insensate human body.

My purpose in raising this prospect was to drive home the point that the mind is more than the brain. The mind relies on the sensory nervous system, sensory organs and environment as much as it does on the brain.
  1. Without stimuli from the environment, there would be nothing for our sense organs to detect.
  2. If there were stimuli but no sense organs, there would be no way to detect the stimuli.
  3. If there were both stimuli and sense organs but no sensory nervous system, there would be no way for stimuli to reach our brains.
  4. If there were no brain, there would be no way to process the stimuli from the environment that was detected by our sense organs and passed along by our sensory nervous system.

There has been research and findings that support my position. For instance, it is thought that ideas can't form without symbols. Also, feral children have consistently shown that the brain's ability to learn language is severely constrained after childhood. Obviously, without experiences, there would be no memories or learning. Creativity requires ideas. Where would ideas come from without contact with the external world? Emotions are contextual; what emotions could you have?

Anyway . . . my question, based on this scenario, is: can there be "mind" (cognizant consciousness) with just a brain and without interaction of any kind external to the brain?

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Comment by Atheist Exile on September 25, 2009 at 12:40am

You're a sweetheart, but you're likely to draw skepticism, if not frustration, from atheists if you espouse unscientific views. I'm sure nobody wants to disagree with you but that's all we can honestly do. Most of us simply don't subscribe to unsubstantiated and discredited claims about the physical, natural, world.

I really, REALLY, like your logical, insightful videos. But your attraction to things extra-sensory is driving me to distraction.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 24, 2009 at 1:02pm
Sigh. Heidi, did you read my post, and follow some of the links? Consciousness is simply not required to explain the plant activity we see (though I wouldn't object to calling it "behavior", since I don't think that implies anything in particular). There are quite well-understood physical mechanisms that explain it, no Psychic Duct Tape(TM) required.

You really seem to want psi phenomena to exist, and seem willing to ignore perfectly adequate mundane explanations in favor of things we can't detect. Please, please, please educate yourself on existing scientific explanations before you go chasing rainbows. We understand much more than you seem to think, and to assert the inadequacy of these well-established explanations without understanding them is ridiculous.

And this comment of yours is at least inaccurate: "We assume that our brain, exclusively, confers upon us the ability to respond to input from our senses." You would at least have to include the entire nervous system for this to be true, and even that may not suffice. Many behaviors originate in the spinal cord as reflexes, and the body has chemically reactive mechanisms entirely outside the nervous system, like synthesis of vitamin D from sunlight on the skin. It would be more accurate to say that scientists assume that the physical body is all that we have with which to interact with the world. That's because so far, that's all that we've found, and assertions to the contrary have not held up to scrutiny.
Comment by Heidi Guedel on September 24, 2009 at 10:44am
Hello FT,

"You're not equating plant photosensitivity to human consciousness, are you?"

Glad you asked (lol). No. I'm comparing plant responses to photosensitivity to human responses to our own physical senses. We assume that our brain, exclusively, confers upon us the ability to respond to input from our senses.

Meanwhile, plants (with no brain and no CNS) are able to respond to input from photo sensitive cells... resulting in Phototrophic behaviors. You might balk at the term "behavior" applied to a plant's growth and response to a light stimulus... but here is where it gets really interesting to me. Plants and animals "sense" the world around them in particular ways. Plants and animals respond to their senses in particular ways... yet we can accept the term "behavior" regarding animals, but not as to plants.

I presume this is because some of us sentient human beings attribute all of our behavior to brain activity.

Since plants do not possess brains, labeling their activity in response to external stimuli "behavior" might cause us (against our "free will") to enlarge our definition of "consciousness". It could also cause us to rethink the hypothesis that all consciousness is originated within brains. Perhaps brains and photosensitive receptors each developed via eons of input from adaptive morphic fields.

If the hypothesis that all consciousness originates with brain activity is, in reality, false, then your hypothetical scenario would play out differently. The consciousness associated with that brain should be able to glean experiences and stimuli elsewhere... although unknown to other biological organisms.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 22, 2009 at 5:44pm
Hi Heidi,

You're not equating plant photosensitivity to human consciousness, are you? It appears you are. All I can say to that is show me ANY scientific evidence which shows anything approaching approximation between the two. Don't bother looking in botanical, biological or neurological fields, you won't find any support there.

As for extrasensory perception (morphogenetic or other mental "fields"), there is ZERO scientifically verified confirmation of its existence. We've been over this one before and all I can say is show me the scientifically verified evidence.

My hypothetical scenario of an isolated brain is not a medical one; it's a philosophical one. It assumes isolation from birth (from conception, actually), so there would be no consciousness to escape being trapped.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 22, 2009 at 5:36pm
Or, and this is so obvious it pains me to even have to point it out, the plant's lack of consciousness is proof that consciousness is not necessary to enable an organism to develop and react to its environment, and may, in fact, mean that consciousness itself is an illusion, just a story the brain tells itself.

In any case, again, there are perfectly good explanations of why plants turn to face the sun, send roots down and stalks up, develop according to DNA blueprints, etc, without resorting to mysterious fields that we can't measure. Chemical reactions, pressure gradients, and osmosis explain many of these actions perfectly adequately. Why leap to an unwarranted and unnecessary conclusion? In fact, why not read up on the confirmed biology of plants to answer these questions? Many of these principles transfer to the animal kingdom.

For example, you might read up on phototropism, which is reasonably well understood, no Psychic Duct Tape(TM) required. For that matter, have a look at any of the other tropisms (in the See Also section). Mechanistic explanations suffice completely.
Comment by Heidi Guedel on September 22, 2009 at 4:49pm
This comment is actually an 'aside' - bringing peripheral examples into the discussion for purposes of comparison.

A plant develops from a seed and then reacts to its environment with neither a brain nor a CNS. It 'aims' itself at the sun while the sun's position in the sky changes throughout the day. It reacts to levels of light by opening or closing blossoms. It regrows damaged or severed parts. Without a brain or CNS/PNS/ANS I don't suppose these activities could qualify as functions of a 'mind' ... but they do 'happen'.

We humans struggle with what to call such functional adaptations to the environment by a life form which lacks anything similar to our brain and nervous system. But if the theorists who posit the existence of fields of awareness, and/or fields of consciousness, and/or morphogenetic fields are correct, the answer is clear, and applies across all forms of life.

To my knowledge we haven't identified a mechanism by which DNA passes on or controls behavior(s). A plant can 'experience' and respond to its environment. So what is the 'mechanism'? I think the 'mechanism' is not mechanical.

An animal with no function in its CNS/PNS/ANS would fail to respond to its environment in any physical way. That leaves pure consciousness trapped in a (somehow) living brain, which is what your hypothetical is addressing. I don't believe that consciousness would be trapped. I believe it would abandon the inadequate 'vehicle'.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 20, 2009 at 9:27pm
Hi Anne,

Thanks for your detailed reply. Unfortunately, you're still stuck on the CNS. It's you, not me, who injected the CNS into this dialog. But I must admit that I was less than specific by using the generic term, "nervous system". Nonetheless, my scenario has always been predicated on:

1.) The inability to move (no motility) by reason of paralysis.
2.) The inability for the brain to detect ANYTHING outside of itself (i.e. no sensory input).

HOW THESE POINTS COME TO BE IS OF NO SIGNIFICANCE WHATSOEVER. UNDERSTAND? That fact is made explicitly clear by including, in my original post, the alternate scenario of a disembodied brain maintained in a high-tech sci-fi laboratory.

The purpose of this scenario has been reiterated many times: to illustrate that the mind relies on the environment and sensory input as much as it does on the brain. In other words, the lifelong absence of ANY of these things would render the brain worthless.

By completely missing the point, I was lead to conclude you had read the post too quickly. However, your persistence in ignoring the same point that everybody else has recognized leads me to believe you are too fixated on an inconsequential technicality to get beyond it: so please just use the sci-fi scenario.

I repeat, you're missing the point. Your objections are of your own manufacture. I've NEVER mentioned the CNS until you brought it up. I later pointed out your mistake that it's the ANS and NOT the CNS which is essential for survival. Oh, by the way, the ANS is A PART OF the PNS -- as is clearly explained in the Wikipedia quote in my prior reply to you. Not that any of this matters to the scenario but the CNS is the brain and brainstem. Everything hooks up with the CNS. It's, essentially, the very thing contained in that high-tech, sci-fi, container. It's the ANS that controls basic life functions. The sensory nervous system is what stimuli travels through to the brain.

Anne, everybody wants to be right and hates to be wrong. But you're wasting time and effort here arguing about something that makes no difference to the scenario. We're discussing a HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO -- not a medical procedure -- as a springboard for discussion on philosophical issues, NOT anatomical ones.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 19, 2009 at 10:59pm
Hi Outlaw,

Yes, the mind is most often seen as an epiphenomenon of the brain. I'm saying that it's technically more than that: the mind is a phenomenon of synthesis between the brain, sensory system and environment. The mind is absolutely dependent on ALL these components.

I think of this synthesis as a "complex system". Adopting the lingo of complex systems, the phenomenon of mind would be an "emergent property" of the complex system. Feedback plays a multitude of roles (from the environment and our bodies and from within the brain itself) in this complex system.

I agree with you that it's better to think of mind as an "activity" or "phenomenon" than as an "object". The mind is an abstract projection, not a physical object.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 19, 2009 at 10:40pm
Okay, everybody,

I edited the original post and inserted the word "sensory" in front of all instances of "nervous system". I believe that removes any potential for tangential anatomical sidetracks.
Comment by OutlawGirl on September 19, 2009 at 9:15pm
There is no mystical dualism involved in positing the mind as a distinct concept from the brain/CNS. The mind is just what the brain/CNS is doing at any given moment. That doesn't make it unreal, it just means that the mind is an activity, rather than an object.

The mind is a verb! Mind your own business!

I like that. =)

Anyway, a brain in the state you described, primarily the sci-fi secenerio, would probably be incapable of thought. I doubt that brain would be capable of processing senory information if it were given at a much later date because it had been dormant for so long.



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