What Can Your Neurons Tell You?

Eric Edelman/RetroCollage.com
Eric Edelman: The Main Idea, 2010

The mind being an elusive thing, people are apt to be captivated by borrowed models of what it is and how it works. At one time the mind was likened to a theater, later to a hydraulic system (Freud), then to a collection of behavioral reflexes, more recently to a computer. Currently, there is a vogue to model the mind on the brain—the brain as a connected network of nerve fibers, operating by electricity and chemistry. The mind may not look very neuronal—this is not evident to introspection—but we are assured that there is really nothing more to it than neurons firing in the void. The atoms of the soul are microscopic cells, spiking with electricity. And there is evidently something to be said for this point of view, since the brain is undeniably what underlies the activities of mind: it constitutes the machinery, the hardware, the biological substrate. Nothing happens in the mind that is not prefigured in the brain. Everything you think and feel has its neuronal precursor or progenitor; and since neurons are made of molecules, the mind is fundamentally a molecular machine—it consists of molecules in action. So it is very tempting to suppose.

The book under review takes this perspective and runs with it. Jean-Pierre Changeux, the celebrated French neuroscientist and author of Neuronal Man, offers to recast Plato’s old trinity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the language of contemporary brain science. He sees himself as updating antiquated philosophy with thoroughly modern brain chemistry. He writes:

So, we shall take a neurobiological approach to our discussion of three of the universal questions of the natural world, as defined by Plato (428–348 BCE), and by Socrates (469–399 BCE) through him, in his Dialogues. He saw the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as independent, celestial essences or Ideas, but so intertwined as to be inseparable…. This leads us to a top-down approach, contrary to Plato’s, which we shall maintain throughout the book to place the Good, the True, and the Beautiful within the characteristic features of the human brain’s neuronal organization.

Accordingly, chapter 1 of the book, subtitled “Neuroesthetics,” discusses such topics as the perception of color, the physiology of hearing music, synesthesia, neural correlates of consonance and dissonance, and the physiology of art collectors. Changeux announces his conception of art in these words: “I shall define art as symbolic intersubjective communication with multiple, variable emotional contents in which empathy appears as an essential feature of intersubjective dialogue.” Notice that this definition contains no specifically aesthetic concepts—such as beauty or creativity or interest. As a definition, it is clearly inadequate, since it would make most discussions of moral or political issues a form of art: emotion and empathy are obviously involved in such “dialogue,” but they are not ipso facto art. Indeed, scientific…

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