How biology breaks the ‘cerebral mystique’

The Biological Mind explores how the brain, body and environment make us who we are


CHANGING MINDS  Many people view the brain as special and separate from the rest of the body. Alan Jasanoff argues that this “cerebral mystique” is the wrong way to think about the brain.


The Biological Mind
Alan Jasanoff
Basic Books, $30

At a small eatery in Seville, Spain, Alan Jasanoff had his first experience with brains — wrapped in eggs and served with potatoes. At the time, he was more interested in finding a good, affordable meal than contemplating the sheer awesomeness of the organ he was eating. Years later, Jasanoff began studying the brain as part of his training as a neuroscientist, and he went on, like so many others, to revere it. It is said, after all, to be the root of our soul and consciousness. But today, Jasanoff has yet another view: He has come to see our awe of the organ as a seriously flawed way of thinking, and even a danger to society.

In The Biological Mind, Jasanoff, now a neuroscientist at MIT, refers to the romanticized view of the brain — its separateness and superiority to the body and its depiction as almost supernatural — as the “cerebral mystique.” Such an attitude has been fueled, in part, by images that depict the brain without any connection to the body or by analogies that compare the brain to a computer. Admittedly, the brain does have tremendous computing power. But Jasanoff’s goal is to show that the brain doesn’t work as a distinct, mystical entity, but as a ball of flesh awash with fluids and innately in tune with the rest of the body and the environment. “Self” doesn’t just come from the brain, he explains, but also from the interactions of chemicals from our bodies with everything else around us.

To make his case, Jasanoff offers an extensive yet entertaining review of the schools of thought and representations of the brain in the media that led to the rise of the cerebral mystique, especially during the last few decades. He then tears down those ideas using contrary examples from recent research, along with engaging anecdotes. For instance, his clear, lively writing reveals how our emotions, such as the fight-or-flight response and the suite of thoughts and actions associated with stress, provide strong evidence for a brain-body connection. Exercise’s effect on the brain also supports this notion. Even creativity isn’t sacred, often stemming from repeated interactions with those around us.

Jasanoff is critical of how the cerebral mystique reduces problems of human behavior, such as drug addiction or eating disorders, to problems of the brain. Such problems are no longer viewed as “moral failings” but as a result of “broken brains.” This shifting view, its advocates argue, reduces the stigma associated with psychiatric disorders. But it also leads to other problems, Jasanoff notes: Society views broken brains as harder to fix than moral flaws, making life even more challenging for individuals already struggling with mental illness. People could benefit from a more comprehensive view of the brain, one that includes how biology, environment and culture shape behavior.

When mental processes are seen as transcending the body, society perceives people as “more independent and self-motivated than they truly are,” and that minimizes “the connections that bind us to each other and to the environment around us,” Jasanoff writes. As a result, he argues, we’re living in an age of self-absorption and self-centeredness, driven in part by our fascination with the brain.

In reality, the brain isn’t a miraculous machine, but instead a prism refracting countless internal and external influences. A few more specifics on how this prism works — details of what is going on at the cellular or molecular level, for instance — might have helped support Jasanoff’s arguments.

But he does leave readers with a thought-provoking idea: “You are not only your brain.” Grapple with that, he contends, and we could move toward communities that are much more socially minded and accepting of our interconnectedness. 

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Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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