Table of Contents
The Mysterious Matter of Mind
The Return of the Whole Person
search for the mode of action of mind upon brain was continued
not only in Canada by Penfield but also by another of his pupils
who became a worthy successor, this time in the British Isles,
Sir John C. Eccles.
Eccles, now retired, is considered
by many of his peers to be among the world's leading neurophysiologists,
and recognition of his stature came in due time when he was made
Nobel laureate. For the last twelve years of his long active
career in research, Eccles was working in the United States as
Director of the Laboratory of Neurobiology at the University
of Buffalo Medical School.
His research led him ultimately
to adopt a form of interactionism very much like that proposed
by Descartes. However, he reached this position on the basis
of experimental evidence rather than armchair philosophy. When
he retired, he took the opportunity to reflect more deeply on
the fruits of his research.
Together, Popper and Eccles have
now set forth the
essence of these reflections
in a notable volume entitled The Self and Its Brain (referred
Evolution of the Mind or Creation?
Two Routes to the Same End
The format of
this volume, The Self and Its Brain, is unusual.
Its unique character stems from the fact that while both men
agree as to their main proposition indicated in the sub-title,
"An Argument for Interactionism," the route which each
came to this position was quite different. They disagree with
respect to the origin of the conscious mind, and they disagree
as to the destiny of it. In the matter of the origin of mind,
Popper sees almost certainly an evolutionary origin; Eccles seems
to favour some form of creation. In the matter of destiny, Popper
holds that we should not commit ourselves beyond the experimental
evidence, but should keep an entirely open mind on the question.
Eccles is clearly much more committed to the view that the mind
or "soul" (as he now calls it) has a destiny beyond
the grave for which this present life is strictly preparation.
Popper's view, in essence, is that
soul is an evolutionary emergent somehow arising out of
the activity of the brain but, once formed, having a measure
of independence which no longer allows it to be fully described
in terms of physics and chemistry. He elaborates this view in
the first part of the volume arguing, for the most part, on philosophical
In the second part, Eccles presents
the essence of the experimental findings and some of his conclusions
from a more strictly analytical point of view. Here we find evidence
of an essentially scientific nature interpreted in support of
the interactionist position, a position adopted by both authors.
Experimental Evidence of the Priority
of Will Over Action, of Mind Over Brain
Eccles refers particularly to the
work of H. H. Kornhuber as reported in l974. (74) Kornhuber discovered the existence of electrical
potentials generated in the cerebral cortex following the exercise
of will to action and prior to the actual performance
of motor activity. Between the conscious act of will and the
activity resulting from it, he consistently observed a measurable
interval lasting for a few seconds or less. (75)
74. Kornhuber, H. H., "Cerebral Cortex,
Cerebellum, and Basal Ganglia: An Introduction to Their Motor
Functions," in The Neurosciences, Third Study Program,
edited by. F. O. Schmitt and F. G. Worden, Cambridge (USA), Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Press, 1973, pp.26780.
75. Popper, Sir Karl and Sir John Eccles, The Self and Its
Brain, Springer Verlag International, 1977, p.283.
this brief but highly significant interval there is a flurry
of electrical potentials over a wide area that gradually centres
or concentrates the signals which then bring about the movement
willed. This takes the form of "a developing specificity
of the patterned impulse discharges" until the pyramidal
cells in the relevant cortex area are activated to bring about
the desired movement. The delay between willing and willed movement
is quite measurable. The nature of the will and the resulting
willed action correspond.
The problem remains, however, as
to how the neuronal impulses are set in orderly action
by the will. One has to assume, Eccles believes, that there is
a bridge of some sort "across the interface between the
mental world and the physical world." (76) Eccles admits that it is not yet possible to give
a scientific account of the nature of this bridge, but holds
that Kornhuber's experiments are presumptive experimental evidence
that action can indeed be initiated by the will without the introduction
of external stimuli in the chain of events leading from one to
the other. Moreover, he feels it important to bear in mind that
we have the ability to manipulate mental images without there
being any consequent overt movement. It is thus possible to exercise
"will" in two different ways: as imagined movement
or as actual response by intent.
Eccles describes Kornhuber's experiments
as follows: Elementally simple movements of the index finger
were executed by the subject entirely of his own volition, while
the very small potentials from the surface of the scalp in the
associated control area were accurately timed in respect both
to the moment of willing and the moment of responsive movement.
The onset of the action potentials resulting from movement of
muscles involved in rapid flexing of the finger were used as
time markers and compared chronologically with scalp surface
potentials. The scalp potentials always preceded the action potentials.
The Mysterious Matter of Mind
In each case,
the subject initiated "these movements at will at
irregular intervals of many seconds, extreme care being taken
to exclude all triggering stimuli" [emphasis mine]. (77) It was possible to average
from these experiments 250 records of the potentials evoked at
76. Ibid., p.285.
77. Ibid., p.283.
each of the several sites
over the surface of the scalp. It was found that a "readiness
potential" began as a rule about 0.8 seconds before the
onset of the muscle action of potential specific to the response.
It is rather like the effect of the non-specific warning command
given by a sergeant saying, "Company. . ." before giving
the specific command which is to follow. It seems to warn that
the will is about to act upon the mechanism. No such warning
signal or "attention-getter" seems to be involved when
action is involuntary. Consciously willed action takes
time to be set in motion.
Eccles summarizes Kornhuber's results
as follows: (78)
The trained subjects literally
do make the movements in the absence of determining influences
from the environment, and any random potentials generated in
the relaxed brain would be virtually eliminated by the averaging
of 250 traces. Thus we can regard these experiments as providing
a convincing demonstration that voluntary movements can be freely
initiated independently of any determining influences that are
entirely within the neuronal machinery of the brain. If we can
regard this as established for elementally simple movements there
is no problem in extending indefinitely the range of consciously
willed or strictly voluntary actions.
that "many other movements of limbs have been investigated
with similar results, and even vocalization." (79)
The evidence seems to indicate
that "will" initiates a preparatory signal in the brain
which is then responsible for the desired movement. Demonstration
of interaction can therefore be replicated and always in the
same sequential relationships.
The Basic Problem: The Nature of the Interface
Eccles is quick to point out, however,
that the outstanding problem which remains lies in the nature
of the voluntary control mechanism which bridges "across
the interface between the self-conscious mind on the one hand
and the modules of the cerebral cortex on the other." (80) The connection from there
on in, from cortex to motor neurons, seems clear enough. All
we can now say is that experimental evidence of interactionism
does indeed exist.
78. Ibid., p.294.
79. Ibid., p.283. An avenue of light on the relationship
between thought and action that Eccles does not mention might
be the finding, known for some years, that unspoken thought is
nevertheless accompanied by small detectable movements of the
vocal chords. When the congenitally deaf think (those who use
sign language), these same potential movements can be demonstrated
in the finger muscles rather than in the vocal chords. In reviewing
A. N. Sololov's Inner Speech and Thought [Moscow, 1968],
Katherine S. Harris observes that electromyographic indicators
of this sort may simply represent some kind of "overflow
phenomenon." This would seem to be further evidence of interactionism
the flow of thought initiating vocal expression involving
muscular activity that is not only unwanted but as far as possible
suppressed [Science, vol.176, 1972, "Book Reviews"
under "Silent Articulation."] See also J. C. Nunnally
and R. L. Flaugher, "Psychological Implications of Word
Usage," Science, vol.140, 1963, p.775. DOC
80. Ibid., p.294.
of what follows in Eccles' treatment is an attempt to map out
the problem itself by consideration of current knowledge about
the second stage of interaction. The basic problem of the first
stage, the mind/brain interaction, still remains.
The last third of the volume is
a verbatim record of a series of taped discussions between the
two men in which their essential agreement on the reasonableness
of the interactionist position is made very clear. Toward the
end, however, a clear difference of philosophical approach is
indicated by the fact (announced in the Introduction written
jointly by the authors) that Popper allows no transcendental
leanings to colour his thinking, whereas Eccles is clearly willing,
and indeed committed, to belief in God and a destiny for the
soul beyond death.
We thus have in this volume the
interesting case of two highly informed and intelligent men reaching
substantial agreement about the nature of the mind/brain relationship
but agreeably disagreeing as to the origin of the self-conscious
mind and its destiny after death. The points of disagreement
served the excellent purpose of sharpening the debate, largely
because both men had profound respect for the other's personal
bias. One wishes we could all debate such important issues with
the same kind of courtesy and restraint!
Insofar as Eccles felt free to
follow Penfield in "stepping across the boundary" without
abandoning the exercise of "critical judgment," his
observations at the end tend to open up broader avenues of discussion
and to carry the subject matter of this present study beyond
the cold hard facts of the laboratory and into the realm of metaphysics.
Eccles became fully persuaded as
a result of his experiments that mind was not an emergent out
of brain but somehow an independent observer and user of it.
He speaks of the mind as manipulating the brain, of being its
master not its servant. The mind searches the brain's store of
engrammed information and integrates what it extracts from that
store. It is an active search, not just a passive engagement.
It can select from the information it scans in the brain and
blend the information it acquires into a meaningful whole, rejecting
some of the information
and modifying it according to its own will. This deliberate process,
imposed upon the output of the brain, contributes in turn to
the circuitry and capabilities. Hence the title of the volume
itself, which was originally planned as The Self and the Brain,
was by mutual agreement between both authors rewritten as The
Self and Its Brain. The brain is seen as being acted
upon by the mind in a purposeful way and as being programmed
uniquely by its attached mind merely by reason of the fact that
the mind itself is programmer and programs into the brain only
what interests it.
Eccles: Mind is Autonomous and in Control
mind and brain as a clear-cut dichotomy (81) and goes so far as to equate self-conscious mind
with an entity called soul. (82) He rejects the parallelist view (83) as an evasion of the problem. The mind is not merely
a viewer of a TV screen who has no control of the TV program.
The mind is an active observer which can select the program,
change the channels, adjust colour, and even take part in the
original programming. There is, he believes, substantial evidence
of an active influence of the self-conscious mind upon the neuronal
machinery. The mind has no interest in the firings of individual
nerve cells any more than the viewer is concerned normally with
the functioning of resistor transistors, condensers, or the circuitry
of his own TV set. Such firings of individual nerve cells provide
the mind with no useful information in themselves, though another
mind may be deeply concerned in the event of malfunctioning of
the mechanism. It is the collective communal operation of the
large number of neurons that has to be the basis of the intelligible
and useful readout. (84)
This readout is normally a readout upon demand and is integrated
by the mind into a meaningful message. The brain's TV "picture"
is only a picture because the mind makes it one.
The mind is by constitution rarely
a spectator only, and even then only for brief periods. As a
rule it is highly involved. This is especially true in creative
thinking and in times of deliberate recall. Eccles agrees entirely
81. Ibid., p.471.
82. Ibid., p.560.
83. Ibid., p.474.
84. Ibid., p.477.
Popper's remark in this
I remember is equivalent
to I succeed in remembering. So only at the moment at
which its activity leads to a success is the self really a spectator
(and nothing else). Otherwise it is constantly, or almost constantly,
later to the parallelist view and observed: (86)
We can turn now to other aspects
of the basis for our strong dualistic hypothesis. I want to mention
just briefly that we have to assume that our self-conscious mind
has some coherence with the neuronal operations of the brain,
but we have furthermore to recognize that it is not in a passive
relationship. It is an active relationship searching and also
modifying the neuronal operations. So this is a very strong dualism
and it separates completely our theory from any parallelistic
views where the self-conscious mind is passive. That is the essence
of the parallelistic hypothesis.
All varieties of identity theories
imply that the mind's conscious experiences have merely a passive
relationship as a spin-off from the operations of the neural
machinery, which themselves are self-sufficient. These operations
give the whole motor performance, and in addition give all conscious
experiences and memory retrievals. Thus on the parallelistic
hypotheses the operations of the neural machinery provide a necessary
and sufficient explanation of all human actions.
Popper: There is an Active "Ghost
in the Machine"
With this overall
assessment of the situation Popper agreed a fact which
suggests that Eccles' dualism is not the result of his wishful
acceptance of the utility of a spiritual world, since Popper
statedly doesn't admit any such world. Nevertheless, he thus
far agrees with Eccles as to say with respect to the above: (87)
That is exactly what I tried
to express when, with a feeling of despair, I said in Oxford
in 1950 that I believe in the ghost in the machine. That is to
say, I think that the self in a sense plays on the brain, as
a pianist plays on a piano or as a driver plays on the controls
of a car.
forth from Eccles the following summary of his own personal conclusions
85. Ibid., p 488.
86. Ibid., p.494.
87. Ibid., pp.49596.
many years of active
As a challenge, I will present
a very brief summary or outline of the theory as I see it. Here
it is. The self-conscious mind is actively engaged in reading
out from the multitude of active centers at the highest level
of brain activity, namely in the liaison brain. The self-conscious
mind selects from these centers according to attention and interest
and from moment to moment integrates its selection to give unity
even to the most transient conscious experiences. Furthermore,
the self-conscious mind acts upon those neural centers, modifying
the dynamic spatio-temporal patterns of the neural events. Thus
in agreement with Sperry, it is postulated that the self-conscious
mind exercises a superior interpretative and controlling
role upon the neural events. [emphasis mine]
To this Popper
I think that is very good. The
only place where perhaps one should seek to make it even stronger
is where you speak of the liaison brain; namely, we could make
it stronger by making it clear that the liaison brain is, as
it were, almost an object of choice of the self-conscious mind.
. . .
So I go even a little further than
you in my interactionism, in that I look at the very location
of the liaison brain as being the result of interaction between
the brain and the self-conscious mind.
Mind as an Evolutionary "Outcrop":
A Biologically Irrational View
in the course of this dialogue, Eccles made what seems to be
a very important observation for those who propose that self-consciousness
was an advantage to its possessor and was therefore an evolutionary
outcrop that was favoured by selective pressures. Apart from
the fact that many forms of life below man forms which
can hardly be credited with self-consciousness seem to
have a far better chance of survival than man does, the derivative
of self-conscious mind seems unlikely for another reason. (90)
There is on the parallelist
view no biological reason whatsoever why the self-conscious mind
should have evolved at all. If it can do nothing. what is the
evolutionary meaning of it? . . . . It can only have survival
value if it can do things. [emphasis mine]
88. Ibid., p.589
89. Ibid. pp.559560.
90. Ibid., p.516.
course, if mind can act upon brain in this dualistic sense as
an independent force, then will can act upon matter without being
rooted in the matter it is acting upon. Such a concept raises
disturbing possibilities in physics and, in fact, could, as Eccles
himself suggests, involve a veritable transformation of physics.
(91) Eccles quotes
an observation by Erwin Schrodinger in 1967 apropos of
such a contingency: (92)
The impasse is an impasse.
Are we thus not the doers of our deeds? Yet we feel responsible
for them, we are punished or praised for them, as the case may
be. It is a horrible antinomy. I maintain that it cannot be solved
on the level of present-day science which is still entirely engulfed
in the "exclusion principle" (i.e., the exclusion of
all forces save physical ones). . . . The scientific attitude
would have to be rebuilt. Science must be made anew.
At the close
of this dialogue there are questions that carry us beyond the
range of science and perhaps even beyond the range of philosophy.
Thus Eccles says: (93)
I wanted to stress this pre-eminence
of the self-conscious mind because now I raise the questions:
"What is the self-conscious mind? How does it come to exist?
How is it attached to the brain in all its intimate relationships
of give and take? How does it come to be? And in the end, not
only how does it come to be, but what is its ultimate fate when,
in due course, the brain disintegrates?"
The Origin of Mindedness Remains a Mystery
observes that the poignant problem confronting each person in
his life is his attempt to become reconciled with his inevitable
end in death. The inevitability of death affects man uniquely
because in his development he has become self-conscious. In his
book Facing Reality Eccles made the following observation,
which he now quotes: (94)
I believe that there is a fundamental
mystery in my existence, transcending any biological account
of the development of my body (including my brain) with its genetic
inheritance and its evolutionary origin. . . . I cannot
believe that this wonderful gift of a conscious existence has
no further future, no possibility of another existence under
some other unimaginable conditions.
91. Ibid., p.543.
92. Schrodinger, Erwin, What Is Life? and Mind and
Matter, Cambridge University Press, 1967, pp.13132.
93. Popper, Sir Karl and Sir John Eccles, The Self and Its
Brain, Springer Verlag International, 1977, pp.55253.
94. Eccles, John C., Facing Reality, New York, Springer-Verlag,,
Later he says: (95)
Our coming-to-be is as mysterious
as our ceasing-to-be at death. Can we therefore not derive hope
because our ignorance about our origin matches our ignorance
about our destiny? Cannot life be lived as a challenging and
wonderful adventure that has meaning yet to be discovered?
that science has gone too far in breaking down man's belief in
his spiritual potential and giving him the idea that he is merely
an insignificant material being in the frigid cosmic immensity,
(96) a phrase perhaps
inspired (if that is the word) by Jacques Monod's bleak picture
of the future in his Chance and Necessity.
The following morning Eccles felt
it desirable to sharpen the issue by saying: (97)
If [mind] is an emergent derivative
of simply a brain developed to the highest level in the evolutionary
process, then I think, we give way finally to a view that makes
the self-conscious mind simply a spin-off from the highly developed
brain. . . .
My position is this. I believe
that my personal uniqueness, that is, my own experienced self-consciousness,
is not accounted for by this emergent explanation of the coming-to-be
of my own self. It is the experienced uniqueness that
is not so explained. . . .
So I am constrained to believe
that there is what we might call a supernatural origin of my
unique self-conscious mind or my unique selfhood or soul; and
that gives rise of course to a whole new set of problems.
By this idea of supernatural creation
I escape from the incredible improbability that the uniqueness
of my own self is genetically determined. There is no problem
about the genetic uniqueness of my brain. It is the uniqueness
of the experienced self that requires this hypothesis of an independent
origin of the self or soul, which is then associated with a brain,
that so becomes MY brain. [emphasis mine]
Brain, Not the Cause of Mind, but the Conditioner
The brain is
not, therefore, the physiological cause of the self, but,
as Viktor Frankl put it, it does condition it. (98) There is a great difference
between causing and conditioning.
95. Ibid., chapter 5.
96. Ibid., p.558.
97. Ibid., pp.55960.
98. Frankl, Viktor, in discussion of J. R. Smythies's paper,
"Some Aspects of Consciousness" in Beyond Reductionism,
edited by Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies, London, Hutchinson
Publishing Group, 1969, p.254.
The position which both Popper and Eccles take is
one of interactionism, the mind governing and employing the brain
as a necessary device for its own conscious purposes, but also
being in turn influenced by the brain's efficiency, limitations,
genetic endowment, and healthy or diseased condition. The brain
is limited in its programming by the mind: the mind is limited
in its program by the efficiency and capacity of the brain as
a machine. There is an interaction but there is a separation
between the two parties to the arrangement. The mind, if Eccles
is right, is not an emergent, a spin-off, an "arm"
of the brain. It exists in its own right.
Penfield found himself driven by
the evidence to ask similar fundamental questions and quite independently
came tentatively to rather similar conclusions.
He questioned what becomes of the
mind following death. Without a brain, the mind is finally robbed
of the instrument essential to its operation. What happens then?
All that can be said with any certainty is that the brain has
not yet fully accounted for the mind, and perhaps mind can carry
on afterwards without it.
If mind is dependent on brain for
its operation insofar as that operation requires some form of
energy, whence would that energy come from in the absence of
brain? Penfield suggests that perhaps the disintegration of the
brain in death sets the mind free to tap some other form of energy.
Unless this is so, it would seem that after death, mind must
vanish. Can it establish connection with "another source
of energy" outside the measurable world? (99)
Penfield seems to have in mind
a new source of energy and a new source of life. This is not
to be equated with pantheism, for the mind itself seems to have
acquired a self-conscious personal identity that persists even
when gross damage is done to the brain.
He cautiously suggests that perhaps
even during life some of this new energy comes directly from
God Himself. (100)
Origins and Destinies
The mind of
man is such that the idea of personal annihilation by death is
99. Penfield, Wilder, The Mystery of the
Mind, Toronto, Little, Brown & Co., 1975, p.88.
100. Ibid., p.89.
to conceive and hard
to accept. We have seen that mystery surrounds origin of
the mind, and mystery assuredly surrounds its destiny. Since
it seems impossible for us to achieve certainty in the matter
of origin by scientific means, there is even less likelihood
of achieving certainty in the matter of destiny by scientific
means. Where, then, shall we continue the search, since it is
inevitable that we shall do so?
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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