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Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Grandma: Neurophilosopher

John Galliano is the British designer who got videoed being a bit unpleasant and ended up in court on racism charges.

His defence is that he was drunk and/or high. Which from the video he fairly obviously was. But here's an interesting quote from his lawyer:
Some things may have come out of his mouth that didn’t come from his brain.
So where did they come from, then... hmm. Don't answer that.

I doubt that the lawyer was actually trying to say that Galliano's mouth was moving of its own accord or under the control of some other organ. Rather she was expressing the idea that "my brain" in this context doesn't mean, literally, the whole of the grey blob of neurons in my skull.

Rather "my brain" means, roughly, "that part of my brain responsible for rational thought".

My grandmother once talked about a friend who'd had a stroke. She said, as far as I can remember, "Sometimes the stroke means you can't talk or walk, which is bad enough, but sometimes it gets into your brain and that can be really nasty."

Of course she knew that all strokes happen in the brain. What she was saying was that some strokes, but not all, affect the part of the brain responsible for "me" as a person - thoughts, emotions, and so forth.

So, this is all anecdotal evidence, but there seems to be a popular, common-sense temptation to believe in the "me part" of the brain, a tendency which neuroscientists are not immune to and which can lead to dubious conclusions.

I'd love to see someone do a proper study of what non-neuroscientists, ideally people with little exposure to neuroscience like children, think about the brain. A bit like this, but really in depth. I suspect that you'd find that many of the ideas underpinning today's neuroscience had their origins in pre-scientific, common sense intuitions.

We neuroscientists are human, and we have neuro-intuitions too. But if neuroscience has taught us anything, it's not to trust those.

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