philosophy science

neuroplasticity analogy

Neuroplasticity refers to the changeable-ness of the neurological structure (so-to-speak) of the brain – achieved (among other things) through focused mental activity/experience.

In terms of mind/body discussions – there is a key distinction between the idea of neuroplasticity being the mind changing the brain, or the brain changing itself.  The side question of how the human brain-and-or-mind developed is not the question here.  Rather it’s the question: does ‘mind‘ = brain?

A simple analogy comes to mind (err… comes to brain… or… comes to mind+brain)…

I see the mind/brain question as directly analogous to the soul/body question.  I am quite certain that any kind of non-physical mind we have will have more interaction/inter-section with our physical brains than, say, my underpants.  In this sense, while rejecting a Platonic dualism between mind/brain, I do not reject at all a duality between mind/brain.

Those with the view that the mind is ‘nothing but the brain’ (and nothing at all!…  never!…  ever!…  no possibility!…  no discussion needed!…  we know in advance!…)  will say that neuroplasticity is ‘just’/’only’ the brain changing the brain.  I think that view is a) reductionistic (hence the ‘just’/’only’), and b) un-necessarily so.

Again, I’m quite sure that neuroplasticity involves (at least) the brain, and I’m also quite sure that the toning of muscles through exercise involves (at least) the body.  Neither of these certainties in any way are contrary to the involvement of either the minds role in neuroplasticity or the souls role in fitness.

Further, this is not an argument for some kind of (again) Platonic ‘ghost in the machine’ – that is dualism.  Rather, it is an observation that a) we need not see humans (in their entirety) as only biological machines, and that b) a mind/brain (or soul/body) duality is perfectly harmonious with what we see the brain (or body) doing.

17 replies on “neuroplasticity analogy”

If I can impose another analogy I think that the mind is to the brain as a wave is to water. The mind is what the brain does and a wave is what water does. It’s neurons doing something just like a wave is water particles doing something. The big difference being that the mind happens to us and is an enormously complex process.

We can see that when we interfere with the molecules of a wave we change what the wave does. If we take away the molecules the wave can’t exist. Similarly with the mind we see that we can interfere with the neurons that make up our brains and we change what the brain does. And if we take away the neurons all together we are left with no mind.

Many dualists believe that the mind will continue after the neurons are destroyed but they have no evidence or reason beyond a fear of death to base this belief on. We all know that our minds gradually emerge through infancy. Good evidence of this is that we can’t remember what happened before we were born. Those who claim they remember past lives I believe to be tricked by either a belief system that suggests these memories should exist or by a misfiring of neurons a bit like deja vu.

It is beneficial to think of the mind as a special entity just as it is beneficial for a surfer to think of a wave as a wave rather than molecules of water. It is totally valid and perfectly normal to perceive a group of entities as an entity in and of itself (i.e. a song of binary bits on a CD or a wave of water molecules or a mind of neurons).

I can understand how it is easy to believe that the mind is somehow independent of the body (because I used to) but I just don’t see any evidence to support that belief.

The latest Brain science podcast had a very relevant book review (Neurons and free will). I think the author of this book makes the strong point that the mind should not be equated with the brain. The equation is with the brain/body. That is the mind is embodied (not embrained).

An important distinction, when you think about it. Emotions, for example, are intimately integrated with the body.

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen,
Damian, the wave analogy is interesting. Not to pick at it (after all, no analogy is ever perfect), but wouldn’t wind, the moon (tides) and gravity be said to be affecting what would otherwise be a ‘still’ sea? How would that affect your analogy?
And the issue of what kind of existence a person may or may not have after (or before) this life doesn’t directly affect the monism, dualism, or duality discussion/question.
Ken, appreciate your link (I’ll check it out). Certainly, the entire nervous system (in and out of the skull :) ) must also be included in all this.

but wouldn’t wind, the moon (tides) and gravity be said to be affecting what would otherwise be a ’still’ sea? How would that affect your analogy?

What we see, hear, feel, taste and smell affects what our neurons do. Also, a mixture of electrical and chemical signals are responsible for the fact that neurons fire in the first place. Without some form of stimulus there would be no such thing as a mind and without outside input our minds wouldn’t be configured in any particularly interesting way.

I do think it’s a different ball of wax with the mind/brain. You seem to be using the word ‘mind’ to refer to no-more-and-no-less-than the sum total of neural activity in the (physical) brain/body.
I’m wanting to affirm that it is perfectly responsible (and fits wonderfully with our continual experience of rational insight) to see the ‘mind’ as ‘beside/behind/amongst/throughout’ the brain/body. And again, not a dualistic ghost in the machine, but rather another level/kind of existence altogether. I do find the brain=radio and mind=radio-waves metaphor (though incomplete) useful.

In other words, I don’t think the observation of neural activity can be equated to ‘getting inside people’s minds’.
For example, the ocean/sea/water-molecules cannot at all resist or change the influence of wind/moon/gravity/etc., but ‘we’ (can choose/affect/filter/choose-to-react-differently to what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell.

This, I understand, is what takes place with neuroplasticity – ‘we’ change our brains/bodies. In this sense, whilst I affirm everything that modern brain science has or will accomplish, and have no problem with explanations/understandings at the physical level being taken as far as possible, I don’t think neurological observations can falsify a brain(body)/mind duality any more than looking at someone’s head can. :)

You seem to be using the word ‘mind’ to refer to no-more-and-no-less-than the sum total of neural activity in the (physical) brain/body.

Nope, I think our ‘mind’ is a combination of genetics, meat and configuration doing something which is hugely reliant on outside factors. But I think that our perception of what a mind is is similar to how we perceive a wave. We think of it as an entity in and of itself because it’s useful to do so most of the time. But I don’t see any evidence that would lead me to believe that where a wave is merely water molecules doing something our minds require something more.

Fluid dynamics can’t falsify the claim that waves are really the physical manifestation of invisible rolling water worms but it can (coupled with other sciences) try to account for the motion of atoms, tides and so on to provide a testable hypothesis for why we see waves. We don’t know everything about waves yet – how to atoms work??? – but it’s the best we’ve got and it doesn’t seem to need to invoke the mystical.

Neurological observations can’t falsify a brain(body)/mind duality but they can (coupled with other sciences) try to account for the effects of experiences, evolution, chemistry and so on to provide a testable hypothesis for why we have brains that guide us around and why we experience this as what we call a ‘mind’. We’re still baffled by many aspects, especially consciousness, but this doesn’t automatically qualify the mystical as an explanation.

You seem to repeatedly claim that you don’t believe in dualism but I’m a little uncertain; do you believe that the universe consists of matter and something that isn’t matter (or a configuration thereof – i.e. numbers which reside as symbols in our brains)? If so, then surely you are a dualist?

Or is it that your type of dualism is more of a ‘grouping’ dualism? By this I mean that you acknowledge that a wave consists of nothing more than water molecules moving but that, when grouped, we can consider this as a new type of entity – a wave.

Cheers Damian,

…a testable hypothesis for why we have brains that guide us around and why we experience this as what we call a ‘mind’. (emphasis mine)

Yes, our brains do a lot of things for ‘us’, but at the same time, ‘we’ can also do things to our brains by focused, routine ‘brain training’ (as ‘we’ do to our bodies with things like jogging).

We’re still baffled by many aspects, especially consciousness, but this doesn’t automatically qualify the mystical as an explanation.

Call it mystical, unknown, not understood (scientifically) yet, or whatever – the view that we somehow immanently transcend our physicality is perfectly harmonious with both scientific observation and our everyday experience of consciousness.
The only kind of person who should have any problem whatsoever with the idea of a more-than-physical ‘mind’ is not the neurologist employing naturalistic methods (‘methodological naturalism’), but the convinced naturalist employing naturalistic philosophy (‘philosophical naturalism’).

…do you believe that the universe consists of matter and something that isn’t matter

…for what definition of ‘the universe’ (or ‘matter’ for that matter – pun intended)? But seriously – you’d be well aware that I’m not a philosophical naturalist – so no, I don’t think ‘matter’ is the only ‘real’ expression of existence in reality.

Or is it that your type of dualism is more of a ‘grouping’ dualism?

There is a subtle distinction between dual-ity and dual-ism (as opposed to the more obvious/stark distinction between dual-ism and mon-ism). Duality and dualism are alike in that they both affirm a dual-ness or ‘two’-ness to a given thing, but dualism so sharply distinguishes the ‘two’ that it really strains the relationship between them. Duality (dual[two]-unity[one]) expresses more of a two-and-yet-one perspective. The two are distinct enough to actually be two in that neither of the two can be reduced to the terms of the other, but the relationship between the two is so strong that they are also ‘one’. That’s how I understand it anyway! :D

I think that for the sake of clarity you should call yourself a dualist and be done with it. It’s kind of like not calling yourself a Christian because you don’t agree 100% with what Catholics believe. If you believe that there is more than just the material universe then you are a dualist.

As an aside, where does/do out of body ( including brain) near death experiences fit in all this? I was reading a feature article about it in the Sunday Times (not today’s, last week’s). It wrote of thousands of people experiencing this – so many that it needed investigation. Now I know just because many people experience something – doesnt make it real (just look at what happens with alien sightings, a bit of media attention and loads of stories appear) but apparently there was a landmark case where a woman was totally unconscious and briefly ‘died’ during an operation yet she spoke of being above the surgeons and observing them working on her. They doubted her until she recalled their very conversations, the tools they used and the clincher – a description of an old sneaker that was up on a ledge that she couldnt have known about or been able to see. So the article went on to say that many people have this experience, and interestingly many also see a divine figure but only the one that they worshipped …ie some connection still to brain? Anyway they have decided to research these out of body/brain experiences by placing random objects up high in the operating theatres where several people die and are resusitated each year, to see if they report seeing them and they are going to do brain scans during the risky ops too – to check for any activity. Will be interesting to see the results- tho it wouldnt be that reassuring prior to your operation to be told that they would be scanning your brain in case you die and have a weird experience!

Hey Jack,
I think I found the article you refer to here.
Cheers for the comment – very interesting. Maybe I should be a dualist after all :) But seriously, I’d be very interested in the data gleaned from such testing. If they got a substantial occurrence of positive confirmations, that would begin to be ‘scientific evidence of a soul/mind’, I think. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m interested.

Jack, I’ve read a bit about near death experiences (NDEs) and, specifically, out of body experiences (OBEs). Susan Blackmore (who is mentioned in the article) had a vivid OBE when she was younger and experimenting with drugs that led her to spend years studying the phenomenon in an attempt to validate both her experiences and the claims of others. Her research led her to the conclusion that OBEs don’t really happen but that it is a result of, perhaps, our brain’s ability to mentally hold a ‘map’ or ‘model’ of our own bodies that in some circumstances (drugs, NDEs, etc) can cause us to perceive our bodies as separate from our consciousness.

This explanation seems reasonable to me but, still, the more research the better!

I can see the point about a mental map/model of our bodies, etc.; but the case of recalling a conversation, tools used, etc. would point to phenomena that the mental map/model cannot account for. I’m not bringing down the gavel, just yet, of course, :) but just simply pointing out that memory of specific events during the NDE/OBE cannot be explained sufficiently by the mental map/model explanation.
Indeed, as you say, the more research the better.
((though I note in passing that we’ll no doubt still continue the thousands-of-years-old conversations pondering even ‘IN-body experiences’ and ‘BEFORE-death experiences’ for quite some time in the future, I’m sure :) ))

Good searching skills – I couldnt’t find it online but that was it! Like you both, I haven’t made any conclusion but think its great that that science is finding ways of testing the hypothesis rather than ignoring it as something to be put aside into the ‘supernatural.’ But hey, that relates more to your other post :-)

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