New mapping studies won't help us understand the brain-mind connection until we start thinking differently
Reading the news, you might be excused for thinking that scientists are on the verge of understanding the human brain.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are diligently mapping all 100 trillion neural connections between our 86 billion neurons, and President Obama has just announced a $100 million Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative that will study all those networks in action.
The neurologist Robert Burton is skeptical, to say the least. His new book, “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind,” is a scathing indictment of reductionism in all its guises, and a stirring call to consider whether scientists are even asking the right kinds of questions. Recently I met with Burton in his Sausalito, Calif., home. Over coffee he explained to me what neuroscientists are getting wrong, how neurology can be improved, and why the mind is so perplexing in the first place.
In your previous book, “On Being Certain,” you argued that our sense of certainty is totally unreliable. How does your new book expand on that idea?
A number of mental states that feel like conscious thought are actually involuntary mental sensations. Originally I focused on the feeling of knowing – from a hunch to the sense of utter certainty. I now realize that feelings of knowing are a small part of a larger brain-generated mental sensory system that includes the sense of self, the sense of choice, control over our thoughts and actions, feelings of justice and fairness, and even how we determine causation. These sensations also comprise much of what we experience when we talk about the mind.