Wednesday, December 10, 2014

all in your head

IT'S TRUE THAT HEADS contain brains, but the idea that brains or heads can be said to wholly contain thoughts amounts to a kind of myth. The brain isn’t a central command center out from which thoughts emanate like bubbles. The body isn’t an inert vessel whose sole purpose is to house and nourish the brain as it walks it from location to location.

     It’s tempting to believe that the brain — cerebrocentrism — is the exclusive locus of cognition, that somehow wisdom, intelligence, reason, emotion, memory, thought, etc., could be found inside the head — cephalocentrism — if only we knew how to crack it open delicately enough and examine its contents with precision. 
     There’s more than a hint of cerebrocentrism in the belief that if only we could measure every fold of Albert Einstein’s pickled brain we could solve the riddle of his genius. You may have heard the urban legend about how Walt Disney was frozen when he died so that he could be re-animated at some point in the future. (Actually he was cremated.) Interestingly, as the urban legend gained steam, it wasn’t his body that was frozen, it was only his head, as though his head alone would be sufficient — assuming the freezing and unfreezing proceeded according to plan — to preserve his creative potential. That’s cephalocentrism.
     When you see questions on internet forums such as, “Does the head remain briefly conscious after decapitation?” and “ Does the brain stay alive for a few seconds after a person is guillotined?” These are versions of that same myth. I’m often asked if brain transplants are possible, more often than not in jest, but sometimes in all seriousness. It’s a great question because it gets to the meat of this grand myth we swallow without realizing, the belief that consciousness — or thought or knowledge or wisdom — is somehow contained in the brain, that the brain is the heart of it all, and if only we could figure out how to move it from one body to another we could transplant a person’s essence.
     Versions of these myths are pervasive, even among those who should know better — neuroscientists, for example, many of whom subscribe to the notion that if only we could comprehensively characterize the brain’s interconnections, if only we could devise sensitive enough instruments to discern every brain emanation, we could fully describe the mind. Medusa’s beheaded head still turns onlookers to stone.