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 Jason Spicer on September 18, 2009 at 9:45pm
Free Thinker, I agree with your description (if I understand it correctly). If you get a chance, you really should check out Damasio's Descartes' Error. It's really interesting, and it seems to be along the lines you're thinking--Damasio draws a complete picture from sensory input to cognition, arguing that our bodily senses are what the mind is built up from and constitute an integral part of how it works. I'd be curious to see if you think he's talking along the same lines as you.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 18, 2009 at 9:31pm
Hi Jason,

The monism versus dualism debate misses the point in my opinion. The mistake they both make is not recognizing the role that synthesis (of environment, sensory organs and brain) plays in the integration of mind. Consciousness is a phenomenon of synthesis in as much as it can't exist with any of its basic components missing. The human brain is a biological (neuronal/electro-chemical) complex system that has evolved to interact with, and learn from, the world around us.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 18, 2009 at 7:21pm
I was mostly referring to Free Thinker, who said, "Specifically, that the mind is MORE than the brain. This is actually in response to physical reductionists who claim the mind IS the brain." While I have read articles (in a recent issue of Skeptic, if I recall) which claim that there is no such thing as the mind, and that people who think so are confused, I wouldn't characterize the mind as being more than the brain. Rather, I would say that the brain produces the mind--that the mind is what the brain creates when it's firing on all cylinders. The mind is how the brain represents itself internally--it's how it thinks about itself. Some pathological states of diminished brain activity to not rise to the threshold necessary to create the mind. I think a CNS-in-a-vat would be incapable of producing a mind, because it would lack sufficient inputs; it wouldn't have enough to chew on.
Comment by Scott on September 18, 2009 at 4:35pm
I do not believe that I implied any mystical dualism. What I stated was purley biological. To say that the mind is a necessary biological function of the brain is absurd! Again, people live in a comatose state for years! That is basically the brain at work, not the mind. No mysticism there, just biology.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 18, 2009 at 1:35pm
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 exists in the same way that a football game exists--it is what happens when you get a couple of football teams together to play. The game stops when the teams leave the field. The mind is what happens when a brain is functioning. No need to overcomplicate things.

On the other hand, undercomplicating things is also not reasonable. There are those who claim that there simply is no such thing as the mind, but I think that's a blinkered (and frankly bizarre) view. Few physical reductionists think that the mind does not exist. They just think that it is obviously the physical result of healthy brain/CNS function, which, clearly, depends on a certain minimum level of healthy body function.

In regard to the thread topic, no, a mind could not happen with a disembodied CNS, because it would lack the necessary sensory input to create a meaningful conceptual framework for anything. There might be brain activity, if you have all the plumbing hooked up correctly to a brain-sustaining device, but there wouldn't be anything we'd recognize as a mind. To go back to the football game analogy, you might see teams doing some calisthenics and practice drills, but there would be no football game without a field, referees, rules, a timekeeper, etc.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 18, 2009 at 12:29pm
Scott,

Please see my previous reply to Anne, per brain and CNS.

The FACT is, the brain is an organ distinct from the nervous system and the autonomous system. This doesn't mean they're not integral systems. But for the purposes of this discussion, I've isolated the brain with a hypothetical scenario purely for the purposes of discussing the brain and mind. Specifically, that the mind is MORE than the brain. This is actually in response to physical reductionists who claim the mind IS the brain. By using this hypothetical scenario, it's easier to illustrate the essential roles played by the environment, sensory organs, CNS and brain.

Yes, the mind requires sensory input and is dependent on the brain. And yes the brain is not dependent on the mind.

But if you want to view the brain and CNS a one organ, then FINE. It doesn't change anything. The mind would still be dead in the water without the environment (for stimuli), sensory organs (for detection) or brain/CNS (for processing detected stimuli).
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 18, 2009 at 12:09pm
Anne Halligan,

Surely you don't think that anybody believes the brain and nervous system ARE exclusive! Give me a break.

You do understand the purpose of the question, don't you? It's a hypothetical scenario meant only to rule out any interaction between the brain and anything outside the brain -- ever.

If you find that scenario too clinically imprecise, then go with the sci-fi scenario.

Yikes!!
Comment by Scott on September 18, 2009 at 11:28am
I agree with Anne that the brain and the central nervous system are not mutually exclusive. In fact, to even use two terms in describing them is flawed. They are both parts of one system. The nerves in our limbs, organs, muscles, etc... are just an extension of the brain. Obviously, this system can sustain a fair amount of damage and continue to function! But to remove Either of the key components would mean death. Its like removing the cylinders from an engine and wondering if it would still fire! lol!

As for the mind, well, that is another story in itself! The mind is a state of conciousness. It requires sensory input to exist and is absolutely dependent on the brain. On the other hand, the functions of the brain are not dependent on the mind.
Comment by Anne Halligan on September 18, 2009 at 10:55am
A brain cannot function without the remaining components of the CNS. The CNS includes the brain and the 2 are not mutually exclusive.

"What it would be like if you were born completely paralyzed...?" Well it wouldn't happen. A foetus without a functioning CNS would die in vitro. Basic instinctive functions like breathing and excretion would not occur and therefore the foetus is not viable. Total paralysis causes death. With no life there is no brain function ergo no mind.

The argument is moot.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 18, 2009 at 4:29am
Hi Jason,

I agree that the brain would atrophy if not used. But for argument's sake, let's assume it doesn't. You just happen to be born with a congenital defect that prevents the nervous system from joining up with the brain/brain stem. Let's say you've been living this way (completely paralyzed and a total mental vegetable) since you were conceived and you're now 60 years old. Would your brain be conscious? Would there be any thought of any kind?

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