Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why is neurology so fascinating?

Colin McGinn's review of V.S. Ramachandran's new book, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human is both appreciative and appropriately critical. McGinn rightly calls Ramachandran to the mat for his unwarranted reductionism and his over-reaching claims, while also affirming the bodily basis of consciousness. He ends with an excellent question:

Why is neurology so fascinating? It is more fascinating than the physiology of the body—what organs perform what functions and how. I think it is because we feel the brain to be fundamentally alien in relation to the operations of mind—as we do not feel the organs of the body to be alien in relation to the actions of the body. It is precisely because we do not experience ourselves asreducible to our brain that it is so startling to discover that our mind depends so intimately on our brain. It is like finding that cheese depends on chalk—that soul depends on matter. This de facto dependence gives us a vertiginous shiver, a kind of existential spasm: How can the human mind—consciousness, the self, free will, emotion, and all the rest—completely depend on a bulbous and ugly assemblage of squishy wet parts? What has the spiking of neurons got to do with me?

Neurology is gripping in proportion as it is foreign. It has all the fascination of a horror story—the Jekyll of the mind bound for life to the Hyde of the brain. All those exotic Latin names for the brain’s parts echo the strangeness of our predicament as brain-based conscious beings: the language of the brain is not the language of the mind, and only a shaky translation manual links the two. There is something uncanny and creepy about the way the brain intrudes on the mind, as if the mind has been infiltrated by an alien life form. We are thus perpetually startled by our evident fusion with the brain; as a result, neurology is never boring. And this is true in spite of the fact that the science of the brain has not progressed much beyond the most elementary descriptive stages.