By Carlo Fonseka –
Celebrating the Silver Jubilee of the Physiological Society of Sri Lanka
“What a piece of work is a man…, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…” marvelled Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For me, a man, a fortiori a woman, is not only the beauty of the world, but also the perpetual wonder of the world. At the heart of this wonder is the human brain, the quintessence of living, organized dust.
Philosophy & Physiology
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), the universally acknowledged father of modern Western philosophy, began to philosophize— as a proper philosopher should— by doubting everything, including the fact of his own existence. Agonizing about this philosophical doubt, he suddenly realised that to doubt was to think. He figured out that thinking was proof that there must be something that thinks. He jumped to the inevitable conclusion that he must be the “something that thinks”. “Cogito, ergo, sum”, “I think, therefore, I am”, he triumphantly declared. Rene Descartes, however, was a philosopher and not a physiologist. Philosophy consists of speculations about matters concerning which definite scientific knowledge is not yet available. For example, it was the Greek philosopher Aristarchus who first propounded the hypothesis that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way round, as was universally believed at that time. Later on, when science confirmed his speculation, the view that the earth orbits the sun became part of science. Thus, as Bertrand Russell once quipped, Science is what we know; Philosophy is what we still don’t know for sure. What we don’t know for sure may, of course, be wrong. What we know for sure is knowledge; more precisely, scientific knowledge.
The science of modern physiology has established beyond a whisper of doubt that it is with the brain that we think, we think. The brain of the paragon of animals— man—has, perhaps, the unique capacity to think about itself, as it thinks about itself. This is by virtue of its phenomenal capacity called ‘consciousness’. Consciousness enables us not only to know; but also to know that we know. Perhaps more accurately, it enables us to know that we don’t know and to know that we don’t know. By imaging techniques, modern physiology has reached the solid, evidence-based conclusion that thinking and feeling occur in specific regions of the brain.
Father of Western Medicine
Without the benefit of imaging techniques, Hippocrates of Cos (460BC- 370BC), the Father of Western medicine, declared: “Men ought to know that from the human brain and from the brain only arises our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears… It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or by day, brings us sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness and acts that are contrary to habit…”. The message is as clear as it can possibly be: if as Alexander Pope famously said, “the proper study of mankind is Man”, then we must, above all, study how the human brain works. That is to say, Human Physiology. For our happiness depends upon our physiology more than we like to think!
To the question: “Who am I?” Descartes’s answer was, “I am a thinking thing or a Mind”. He went on to identify this mind with his soul and indulge the desperate and fantastic supposition that the soul resided in the pineal gland. He declared: “…. I know that I am a substance whose entire nature is to think and for whose existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this “me”, that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from my body and is even more easy to know than is the latter; and even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.” Thus, by his own logic and at least to his own satisfaction, Descartes “proved” the existence of the mind or soul, quite distinct from the brain. This marked the formal philosophical beginning of dualism in Western philosophy. Directly or indirectly, under Descartes’s influence, physiologists are still living who, on one premise or another, subscribe to his dualistic view. On the assumption that the human mind is intrinsically incapable of understanding itself, they believe that physiology will never be able to explain fully the human mind in terms of brain physiology. This is the great challenge confronting modern physiology.
The proper study of mind must necessarily begin with the study of the physiology of the brain, which now rejoices under the title “Neural Science”. In addition to neurophysiology, it involves the study of neuro-anatomy, molecular biology, embryology, cell biology, and psychology or cognitive science. This comprehensive approach is leading inexorably to the conclusion that all human behaviour represents the expression of brain physiology; and that what we commonly call the mind is simply a set of operations carried out by the brain. I am not a prophet of any sort; but I will say with prophetic conviction that when the Physiological Society of Sri Lanka celebrates its Golden Jubilee, the conclusion: “no brain, no mind” would be old hat. Check me for accuracy in 2037.