The mind-body question


I run a course at Liverpool Hope University on Consciousness. It is actually part of a larger “module”* on the links between perception, conscious awareness, action and, finally, free will. I cover most of the bits relating to consciousness and awareness – mainly because of my background in metacognitive research.

Anyway, one of the first topics I introduce to my students is the Mind-Body problem, which, simply put, is the question of whether the mind and the body are made of the same substance. For a cognitive psychologist/cognitive neuroscientist this question tends to boil down to whether cognitive processes (the mind) are directly related to brain processes, and whether ultimately you can explain everything to do with cognition (and emotion, and mental illness, and so on) by understanding the central nervous system better (e.g., eliminative materialism).

A dualist would argue that the mind and the body are not made of the same substance, and therefore argue against a position that reduces the conscious experience to the inner workings of the brain. A monist, on the other hand, would be keen on arguing that there is only one substance.**

Whenever I ask my students, the overwhelming majority takes on a dualistic perspective. This typically happen towards the beginning of my course, so I don’t actually know if anybody’s mind changes over the lecture series, but generally my students do reflect the general population. You would normally expect a 2-1 ratio in favour of dualism.


(This is a photo of a stray cat in Cyprus and is totally unrelated to anything I am writing about here. I like the photo though. Feel free to name the cat)

Now, the reason I have been thinking about this (while on vacation!) is that I have been preparing in my mind a blog post that I hope I can put up soon (once some of my stuff gets published in the next month or so) touching on the relationship between brain size and cognitive performance. What sprang to mind was that, intuitively, we may believe that a bigger brain (within the normal range) should be linked with better cognitive ability (e.g., better memory). Say, for example, that a bigger hippocampus should be associated with better episodic memory ability. This belief is sometimes true, sometimes false, and sometimes ambiguous, based on empirical evidence, but it is itself of a clearly monistic denomination (brain -> mind).

What is interesting to me is the general inconsistency of the mind-body problem belief system – although this should not really come as much of a surprise considering how irrational us humans tend to be. Essentially, although most of us would generally subscribe to a dualistic interpretation when asked whether our conscious experience can be reduced to brain processes, we would also commonly veer in the opposite direction when asked a similar question in a different way. For example, despite most people being inherently of a dualistic belief, it is very common to prefer neuroscience-based explanations of psychological phenomena over explanations that have no neuroscience in them, regardless of whether these explanations make much sense or not.

That’s everything. Happy 2015!

* We don’t actually have modules at Hope anymore – we have an integrated curriculum.

** There are actually many different positions falling within the broad dualist-monist dichotomy.





About Davide Bruno

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University
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