By Iciar Iturmendi Sabater

For a week in late July, about fifty neuroscientists, clinicians, biologists, biochemists, physicists, biotechnologists, psychologists, and philosophers gathered in the Magdalena Palace in Santander. A course organized by CINET (International Center of Neuroscience and Ethics, recently created by Tatiana Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno Foundation), which took place in the Universidad International Menéndez Pelayo, brought us all together to explore the capacity of neuroscience to answer some questions we all shared despite our different academic backgrounds: can the study of the brain reveal the workings of the mind? Or is the study of the mind unreachable to the scientific method? This dilemma lays at the core of the Mind/Brain Problem.

On the first day, we were warned by Dr. Javier Bernácer, scientific director of CINET and co-director of this course: ‘Do not expect to end this course with a clear picture of whether the neuroscientific study of brain can decipher the function of the mind. Rather expect to leave with more questions than you arrived with’. That is, beware that the Mind/Brain problem remains unresolved, and at this point the most promising way forward consists of formulating further questions which motivate the definition of novel, creative hypothesis to be empirically tested in the future.  

To illustrate the importance of imagination and creativity in generating new scientific enquiries, Dr. Miguel Ángel García-Cabezas, co-director of the course, opened the week starting from the very beginning: he introduced a new perspective on the embryologic development of the nervous system (NS). ‘Throughout my thesis I realized that the long-standing columnar model of NS development taught in embryology textbooks was being challenged’. The development of innovative neuroscience methods in the 1990s (in this case, neuroarchitectonics), made it possible for Dr. Luis Puelles, Professor of Medicine at the University of Murcia, to re-evaluate the histological development of the NS and formulate a new theory of NS embryologic development, known as the prosomeric model. But this change in epistemology, that is, in the way we come to understand the brain and NS through neuroscience methods, would not have been enough if Dr. Luis Puelles had not dared to ask whether the longstanding modular postulate of nervous system development stood under a novel epistemological approach. In this way, imagination became a driving force to update our understanding of NS system development.

But how does the mind emerge (if it emerges at all and is not an independent entity) after those first steps of NS embryologic development? Dr. Lorena Chanes Puiggros, Associate Professor at the Neuroscience Institute of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, also presented her work to target this issue. Again, her research challenges longstanding ideas that the brain’s cortical areas are the seat of conscious experience, and rather suggests that the limbic cortices, as defined by their simpler cytoarchitecture, are responsible for sensory integration and the emergence of one’s sense of self. In her case, this novel conception of consciousness is not simply made possible by novel scientific methods, but further promoted by integrating cytoarchitectonic, structural observations with connectome-wide functional findings. This highlights the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary work in neuroscience to formulate comprehensive theories about the workings of the brain.

 In between talks, the clinicians and psychologists in the audience reminded to keep a foot on the ground, arguing that theoretical models of brain function and structure seem to be insufficient to capture the complexity of every individual experience. Dr. Carmen Cavada, Professor of Anatomy and Embryology at the Autonomous University of Madrid described how neuroscience methods evolved throughout the 20th century from studying the dead brain through lesion studies, onto investigating living animal brains taking a translational leap, to finally reach the capacity to observe human brains in vivo through neuroimaging. Such technological advancements now allow to guide surgical interventions in cancer, epileptic and ictal patients. Yet as Radiologist Dr. Juan Álvarez-Linera explained in the course, one of the most common mistakes radiologists make is thinking that metabolic brain function as visualized through imaging methods is normal without first understanding that function in context. For example, what may appear as a normal level of activation may in truth be reflecting a compensation for underlying qualitative abnormalities at the structural or metabolic level, which still require intervention. Brain imaging may not go as far as revealing such causes. But listening to patients’ subjective experience does. Thus, the clinician’s and psychologist’s perspectives here become crucial to understand brain function in context.

Clinicians are not alone in considering patients in context. Some philosophers agree who have worked on the idea of 4E Cognition: cognition is Embodied, Embedded, Enacted and Extended, rather than confined within isolated brains. Dr. Manuel Heras, Juan de la Cierva incoming researcher at the Philosophy department of the University of Granada, explained the potential of going beyond the functionalist assumption of cognitivism, which equates the human brain to a computer. Studying the brain from a 4E Cognition perspective we can understand its functions not only as a computational mediator with the surrounding environment, but also as a generator of novel experiences and mental states through the interactions we have with our surroundings. In summary, this novel philosophical approach implies that to understand the brain’s relation to the mind we may need to look beyond the brain and understand how our actions and interactions feed back into our body in a continuous process of change. Thus, the mind may relate to the brain when we understand the brain in context, rather than in isolation. Such philosophical insights may guide basic scientists in the design of empirical studies and interpretation of findings. The question of whether understanding the brain in context may help bridge the gap between mind and brain remains untested. 

On the course’s last round table discussion, a raise of hands was called: ‘how many of you consider yourselves dualists, or believe the gap between the mind and brain is unbridgeable?’ Less than ten in an audience of fifty revealed themselves, perhaps not surprisingly since most of us dedicate our professional careers to bridging this gap. To which another debate followed: is dualism a coward attitude towards the Mind/Brain Problem? By negating science’s ability to overcome this problem, we may simplify our research goals and concerns. Yet one may also argue it is harder to embrace the uneasiness of not grasping the physical basis of the mind than believing with security that the mind can be equated to the brain. To untie this argument with positivity, we all may agree that it is brave enough to dare think about the Mind/Brain Problem as a neuroscientist, belonging to a minority in an academic field mostly unconcerned with such a metaphysical issue. 

To wrap-up the course, co-director Dr. Miguel Ángel García-Cabezas posed that regular scientists are those who systematically describe their observations, while great scientists are those who identify consistent patterns throughout a life’s work of observations. But only those who take a leap of faith, follow their intuition, and can imagine unobservable relations between phenomena to later come to prove them empirically become exceptional scientist like Ramón y Cajal. For me, still a PhD student, it is striking to think that most neuroscientists are not concerned about the Mind/Body Problem after attending a long week course on this topic filled with passionate debates. I leave with the hopeful, positive illusion that discussions like the ones held throughout this week will continue to trigger imaginative questions of the type of Cajal’s. These enquiries may get us closer to understanding the Mind/Brain Problem, whether it can ever be resolved or not.