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A Strange Way of Speaking About the Brain


A psychology professor’s recent Senate testimony describing a terrible sexual assault included a memorable line. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” she said, “is the laughter” of her attackers. That was a disturbing way to hear a person talk about herself and her own memory. Was this manner of speaking another scar from a traumatic experience, or something else of more general significance?

As Michael Egnor shows in a couple of posts for Mind Matters, current trends in neuroscience produce some quite weird ways of thinking and weird ways of talking. A peculiar habit of disassociation is widespread among many who study the brain. It reflects a ground-level fallacy, says Egnor, the mereological fallacy which mistakes the part for the whole. Dr. Egnor, a neurosurgeon and fellow with Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center, comments on a TED Talk by Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex.

Seth opens by describing experiences under anesthesia when, he says, he “ceased to exist.” He recalls a “sense of detachment and falling apart, and a coldness.” At the end of the lecture he assures the audience, with an eerie look in his eyes, “when the end of consciousness comes,” that is when we die, “there’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing at all.” The whole thing is unnerving, enhanced by this scientist’s very strange overall mien. I don’t want to say more, but if you go ahead and watch, you’ll see what I mean.

The allusion to “falling apart” refers apparently to his idea, shared with other researchers, that consciousness is an illusion, a hallucination, produced entirely by the organ of the brain with its various parts. When consciousness ceases, these fall apart, since there is nothing, presumably no soul, to hold them together.


Seth asks: “How does consciousness happen?” He answers: “…somehow, within each of our brains, the combined activity of many billions of neurons — each one a tiny biological machine — is generating our conscious experience…”

There are three fallacies in this one sentence. In my earlier post, I pointed out the fallacy of Seth’s assumption that rational thought is a material power of the brain, which it is not. In this post, I’ll discuss Seth’s mereological fallacy, a fundamental fallacy which is endemic in neuroscience.

The mereological fallacy is the confusion of the part for the whole. It is the nonsensical attribution of abilities to the part that can only be abilities of the whole. It is the mereological fallacy to say that my mouth speaks. Actually, I speak, using my mouth. It is the mereological fallacy to say that my feet walk. Actually, I walk, using my feet.

This fallacy is employed incessantly in neuroscience. Neuroscientists commonly claim that the brain or a part of the brain understands, or imagines, or sees, or wills. For example, we are told, variously, that “the amygdala simultaneously comforts and aggravates” (Psychology Today, 2018); elsewhere, it “attaches emotional significance to events and memories” while the “hippocampus, meanwhile, reminds us which courses of action are congruent with our mood” (The Conversation) and the “prefrontal cortex calms the amygdala, helping us regulate our emotions” (GoodTherapy, 2015). A large crowd, it would seem, and each has a different agenda.

But of course, the brain and its parts do none of those things. The brain understands nothing, imagines nothing, sees nothing (it’s dark in the skull and the brain has no eyes anyway!). It wills nothing. We understand, we imagine, we see, and we will, using our brains.

The memory may ring with an attacker’s laughter, but the hippocampus does not. Read Egnor’s two responses at the Bradley Center site: 

There is something hallucinatory going here, but I don’t think it’s on my part in imagining that I am a spirit united with a body. Egnor writes:

Ordinary thought, which is a stream of thoughts about particulars and universals, is a composite of perception and reason, and thus is a composite of material and immaterial powers that make up the human soul. Human beings are at the cusp of the material and the immaterial. We are both corporeal and spiritual.

This comports with our experience, as with the best science. The illusion, the real hallucination, is in thinking that a human being is only corporeal. It’s a bizarre and addled error, that could only be foisted on smart people through continual reinforcement by our devolving culture.

Photo credit: djedj, via Pixabay.