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Does neuroscience study the mind? What does ‘the mind’ mean? As a philosopher and expert on the mind, Frank van Caspel offers us an approach to understanding this issue.
illustration by Roselyne
Does neuroscience study the mind? I posed this question to a room full of neuroscientists, and, understandably, most of them didn’t quite know what to say. Can scientists study the mind? Is it in the brain? What do I even mean when I say ‘the mind’?
Relevant questions indeed! Philosophers like me have been bickering about how to define the mind for a while, and depending on which definition you prefer, neuroscience either can or cannot study it. So it matters quite a lot. For example, if you think the mind is some kind of immaterial soul, neuroscience can’t tell you anything about it. You can’t put a soul in a brain scanner.
Modern philosophers still like to think of the mind as more than just an organ in the head. There’s something more to it, they say, something non-physical. It has properties, like consciousness, that are different from physical properties like weight and shape. This means that it’s hard to come up with a definition of the mind which brings it fully into the domain of neuroscience.
So science can’t study the mind?
Not if we cling to defining the mind in terms of a thing. There’s a better way: think of mind as a type of activity!
Let’s draw an analogy with sports to clarify this idea. ‘Sports’ is a type of activity in which humans engage. It includes competitive cycling, football, tennis and many other activities. Now say we see an athlete competing in a cycling road race. From a scientific perspective, many interesting questions could be asked. Questions like ‘which muscles enable her to ride the bike?’ and ‘how is she able to keep her balance on the bike?’ But would it make sense to ask ‘where is her sports?’
Not quite. You would be confusing the athlete, or parts of her, with the activity in which she is engaged.
Now back to mind. Besides sports, humans also engage in mental activities. For example: thinking about a math problem, playing chess, or even communicating with other humans. For a human engaged in an activity of this type, we could once again ask many interesting questions, like ‘which parts of the brain enable this behavior and how?’
But somehow, when it comes to these types of activities, the question ‘where’s the mind?’ is not considered weird. Whereas, from the perspective of the mind as a type of activity, asking about the mind of someone who is playing chess is just as weird as asking about the sports of someone engaged in cycling. Do you need a mind to play chess? No! Just like an athlete doesn’t need a sports to compete.
Neuroscience investigates minding
So we don’t have minds, we do minds. We’re minding. And from this standpoint, investigating mind is no longer out of the reach of neuroscience. In fact, it’s what neuroscientists are doing everyday when they investigate how we perform many of the mental tasks we do.
So don’t let philosophers bring you down! Neuroscience can study the mind precisely in the way that matters: by investigating how humans (and other animals) perform mental tasks. Once we know that, we know all there is to know about minding.