In applying philosophical questions to neuroscience and the study of how we think and feel, Georg Northoff’s new book is a game changer.
Neuro-Philosophy and the Healthy Mind: Learning from the Unwell Brain applies philosophical questions to subjects such a consciousness, the self, the understanding of time, identity, the brain, and the mind. In it, Northoff, himself a neuroscientist, philosopher, and psychiatrist at the University of Ottawa, seeks to answer philosophical questions such as Where do thoughts begin? Does consciousness exist in the mind or the brain? How is the self defined and understood? and How is time determined?
The conclusions that Northoff reaches are not just fascinating, but may shift our understanding of consciousness.
Northoff begins with the classic debate of mind-body dualism. He draws upon studies of people in vegetative states to demonstrate how the abnormal state reveals something about the normal state. Among his findings: substance dualism (that the mind and brain exist separately) is better understood as interactive dualism (that the brain and mind exist in continuous and interactive relationship to one another).
In this integrated relationship, the development of consciousness is bound by the degree to which information is linked and integrated in the brain. What forms, Northoff tells us, is an “organizational template” from which we produce a “spatial and temporal structure of the brain’s intrinsic activity.”
To put it simply, we have hardware and we have software. The hardware is our spatial and temporal organization — the structure of consciousness — and the software is how we use this organizational template to interact with the world around us.
One of the most compelling findings Northoff arrives at has to do with the balance between intrinsic activity of the brain (self-focused processing) and extrinsic activity (interaction with the outside world). All people exist on a continuum of interaction, he writes, with some spending more time in intrinsic interaction and others spend more in extrinsic. However, if we spend too much time on either end of this continuum, we arrive at disorder.
In the case of too much extrinsic stimulation (and the resulting loss of identity), we have schizophrenia. On the other hand, too much time devoted to self-focus is characteristic of depression. What we must have to retain our sense of self is psychological continuity, Northoff writes.
The self, he explains — and this is an important point, “can be found through the relationship between the brain, body, and environment.”
And so, too, perhaps, can emotions.
“The self,” Northoff continues, “is a relation rather than an entity; it is intrinsically relational, a continuous process of structuring and organizing the relation between brain, body, and environment.”
To help us understand how this reciprocal balance between the self and the environment determines the healthy brain, Northoff looks to studies of depressed patients. Those with depression, he tells us, “have an abnormally strong self-focus, often accompanied by rumination, and simultaneously feel disconnected from the environment.”
But the detachment from the world that depressed patients often feel, he writes, goes far beyond just feeling. It is embedded in the environment, too. Depressed people, Northoff writes, have a depressed neurological response to external stimuli.
Through an examination of both depressed and schizophrenic patients, as well as other types of unwell brains, Northoff presents a fascinating model of who we are and just where we and our emotions exist. It is a model that has important implications for clinicians.
But for lay readers, too, the book offers an exciting way to reframe our understanding of ourselves.
Neuro-Philosophy and the Healthy Mind: Learning from the Unwell Brain
W. W. Norton & Company, January 2016
Paperback, 256 pages