What Makes a Mind?

By Dr Llewellyn Cox, Principal, LieuLabs

prima sextilibri
ASK a person to describe themself, and they will probably recite a list of their physical features — their height, weight, the color of their skin, hair, and eyes. If they’re more a more externalized type, they might mention their job, sexuality, religion, or a major life achievement. Some might feel a desire to be precise and catalog their external features: their eyes, face, arms, hands, legs, feet, fingers, and toes for you.

Few will ever mention their brain.

One of the most iconic anecdotes from the early days of modern medicine concerns the case of a young railway worker from Vermont. In 1848, Phineas Gage was the foreman of a crew preparing the route for the Rutland & Burling­ton Rail­road line near Cavendish, VT, when he suffered a sudden and horrific head injury.

Phineas was tamping down an explosive charge for a rock-clearing blast when the black powder suddenly ignited, shooting the nearly-4 foot long metal tamping rod clean through his head, entering just under his left cheek, passing up behind his left eye, and out through the top of his skull, just in front of his hairline. Contemporary witnesses report the rod flew a further 80 feet through the air before coming to rest, upright like a javelin in the dirt. Phineas was extremely fortunate to survive both this incredibly traumatic injury, as well as the inevitable infection that developed in his wounds (this was 1848, after all). Incredibly, Gage was remarkably lucid immediately following the accident, walking with assistance and talking with his rescuers and the town doctor, John Martyn Harlow, to whose dedicated and skillful care in the aftermath he most definitely owed his survival. Following his recovery from infection and coma, Phineas was reportedly walking around town unassisted within a month of the accident.

Phineas Gage’s skull and iron tamping rod, photographed in 1868

Although the facts of the tale of Phineas Gage have been embellished, hyperbolized, and twisted to fit various philosophical agendas since that fateful day in September 1848, this incident stands out as a key moment in the development of the scientific understanding of the human brain. Following his recovery, Phineas’ very personality seemed to have undergone a significant change:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage” — John Martyn Harlow, Attending Physician (1868)

While many reports of Gage’s later life are inevitably exaggerated and distorted, the injury clearly caused a very specific type of damage to his brain that significantly affected his personality and impulsiveness, but not other mental faculties, such as speech, movement, and sensation. Gage’s unique injuries caused significant damage to the very front part of his brain — his left frontal lobe. Although uncertainty about the exact nature of his brain injuries and subsequent behavioral changes has infuriated scientists studying the case as far back as the 19th Century, this incident was a significant milestone in establishing that distinct mental processes take place in different parts of the brain, and that some higher-order processes, such as logical decision-making and social reasoning, are performed by the frontal lobe of the brain.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the CIA ran a secret research program called MKULTRA to investigate the potential of LSD and other psychoactive drugs for use against the Soviet Union.

Headed by spymaster Sidney Gottlieb, the program involved the collusionof at least 44 US universities & colleges, 15 chemical or pharmaceutical companies, 12 hospitals, and 3 prisons. The goal of MKULTRA was to identify “mind control drugs”, either to create a “Manchurian candidate” who could infiltrate and influence foreign governments, or a “truth serum” that would force subjects to divulge secrets, or even switch their loyalties, under drug-assisted interrogation. Over the course of the next two decades, innumerable subjects would be given psychotropic drugs, often without their knowledge or consent.

Employees of the government, military personnel, doctors and members of the public were dosed with LSD or other drugs, sometimes in public places, and their reactions were monitored. In one notorious experiment, known as Operation Midnight Climax, the CIA set up a series of brothels in San Francisco and New York; prostitutes were employed to lure unsuspecting men into the house, where they were unknowingly plied with LSD and monitored through a one-way window. Although these experiments were no doubt highly useful to the spy agency with regards to developing their techniques for blackmail, surveillance methods, and tricks for covertly administering debilitating drugs to unsuspecting individuals, there is very little evidence that the program came anywhere close to achieving its stated goal of mind control.

The Deputy Director of the CIA revealed that over thirty universities and institutions were involved in an “extensive testing and experimentation” program which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens “at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign.” Several of these tests involved the administration of LSD to “unwitting subjects in social situations.” At least one death, that of Dr. Olson, resulted from these activities. The Agency itself acknowledged that these tests made little scientific sense. The agents doing the monitoring were not qualified scientific observers. — Sen. Ted Kennedy, 1977

The program only came to an end in 1972, when Gottlieb retired from the CIA, describing the entire MKULTRA effort as “a complete waste of time”. The following year, CIA director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of all documents related to the MKULTRA program, ensuring that only a few thousand (originally misfiled documents) survived when Congress investigated the scope of CIA domestic spying activities in 1977, as testament to a program that involved the widespread abuse of the rights of unknowing Americans for years.

Subjects had gone insane, lost their jobs, families, and dignity, even died as a result of their treatment under the MKULTRA program. However, the Agency failed to produce any significant results whatsoever with regards to the project’s actual goals; LSD and other drugs are effective at inducing hallucinations, interfering with a subject’s grasp on reality, or their ability to think coherently. No progress was made toward a genuine mind control drug that would actually bend the will of the subject to the interrogator. Psychotropic drugs could be used as a weapon of fear and assault against the sensibilities of the mind, but ultimately were not effective as agents of truth or control. The mind, the foundation of human autonomy, appears to be more deeply rooted than any drug, even one with effects as pervasive and widespread as LSD, could dislodge. Many of the victims of these experiments were badly harmed by their treatment, but not one of them became a programmable zombie agent for the CIA.

The idea that there is a singular, essential part of our physical being — a mind or soul, that defines our identity, our thoughts and feelings, is as old as human history itself.

At some point in history, the heart, lungs, brain, stomach, even the liver, have all been suggested as the seat of the human essence by some civilization — most probably due to the absolute necessity of each for continuing life. The rise of logic and deductive inquiry in ancient Greece led to the realization that the brain, the most complex and mysterious of human organs, was what allows us to see, hear, feel, and think:

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain alone, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant… I hold that the brain is the most powerful organ of the human body… wherefore I assert that the brain is the interpreter of consciousness… (Hippocrates: On the Sacred Disease.)

Further progress on the question of how and where a human brain could house such an incredible thing as a mind would have to wait until after the intellectual revolution of the Renaissance and the new rigor it bought to the study of human anatomy. Over the next few centuries, the brain has been endlessly dissected and debated as scientists sought to understand its workings. Cases of focal brain injuries like as the unfortunate Phineas Gage provided early evidence that the brain is compartmentalized, with different mental functions taking place in separate parts of the brain.

Localized processing of language functions in the brain. Image: NIMH

Modern scientific research, enabled by scanning technologies such as PET and MRI, has enabled a much more detailed examination of how the the brain handles sensory information, processes thought, and directs action. A major research initiative at the National Institutes of Health now aims to map all the connections in the human brain in their entirety to better understand how it functions. The biological location of a singular mind has however remained elusive.


Part of the problem might be that we don’t really know what we are looking for. The answer to where in the brain we might find the locus of mind will differ, depending on our own philosophical preconceptions of what we think the mind represents:


Location of brain structures. Image: NIA

If we consider the mind to be the summation of our memories, we might conclude that the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory formation and curation, should be the seat of the mind. If instead, we define the mind as the essence of self-awareness, then our conclusion may instead point toward the insula, an isolated piece of cerebral cortex buried deep in the fold between the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. Similar logic could be (and has been) applied to the pre-frontal cortex (strategic thought and decision making), the limbic system (motivation and emotion), or the brainstem (essentiality for continued living).

By themselves, each of these regions of the brain directs a specific function, but none acts alone as an isolated island of thought — each and every mental process involves nerve cells in many regions of the brain acting in concert. Dramatic pictures of brain scans, where one region “lights up”, signifying increased mental activity, are actually highly processed representations of very messy data. Innumerable electrical signals are constantly passing through every part of the brain. When we see brain scans showing one isolated area of increased activity, they have already been extensively airbrushed to remove all the warts and pimples of this “background” signaling, assuming it to be irrelevant. The degree of over-interpretation and misleading presentation of brain imaging data has now reached such a level that it has spawned an entire subfield dedicated to debunking inflated claims and dodgy data.

While certain functional aspects of what we consider to be the mind have been shown to be coordinated by particular parts of the brain, the totality of an individual’s identity has never been erased through brain injury. Nor could the CIA’s experiments with psychotropic drugs erase the foundation of a person’s mind without destroying it entirely. Consciousness, self-awareness, and strategic thought all require a level of abstraction and integration that require the participation of many separate parts of the brain concurrently. It may be that what we call the mind is inseparable from the complex integration of dozens of brain regions, and each of their billions of constituent nerve cells.

We are rapidly entering an age where worn-out and defective human body parts can be readily replaced with bionic devices.

The FDA recently approved the first prosthetic arm that is capable of performing multiple simultaneous powered movements. The Deka Arm, codenamed Luke in reference to the Star Wars character’s replacement hand, represents a great step toward the vision of a fully functional replacement limb. A key new technological feature of this prosthetic limb is that it senses muscle signals in the remaining biological arm, and translates those signals into movements. This enables the wearer to learn how to move the arm, just as we originally learned to use our biological limbs in our first years on Earth. Essentially, signals from the wearer’s brain will control the device’s movements.

As prosthetic devices become even more refined, it is not unreasonable to expect this signal control will be extended bidirectionally — that sensory information from the bionic limb would be passed to nerves in the biological arm, and thus on to the brain. Already, there are sensory prostheses that bypass defective organs to send sensory data directly to the brain. The advent of devices that integrate with the nervous system both to act on brain signals, and deliver sensory feedback, is surely not far off.

He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil. — Obi-Wan Kenobi, Return of the Jedi

Would having a fully-integrated sensory/controllable prosthesis make us any less human? Most people would say ‘no’ without even needing to consider the question, and amputees might be justifiably offended that you even asked. What if we replaced all our limbs? What about vital organs, such as the liver or heart? What if we were to replace the entire corporeal body, leaving just a biological head and brain in control? If we are still to believe Hippocrates after all this time, then we would maintain the essence of our human mind in this scenario.

The idea that these bionic substitutes would not diminish our essential humanity suggests that we do not consider our entire nervous system inviolable — inpopular culture at least, we can accept doing away with the entire spinal cord, leaving just the brain as our biological executive control center. Even though there are billions of nerve cells in and around the spinal cord that connect directly with all parts of the brain, we seem comfortable to imagine future humans where all sensory and motor processes below the neck could be synthetically replaced — without a loss of the human mind itself.

If we could synthetically replace individual parts of the brain, what then? As brains age, they naturally become less efficient, and are prone to developing degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. If we could somehow cure these diseases by replacing the defective nerve cells with electronic devices, would that diminish the essence of our human mind? If we could integrate a memory chip to enhance or replace our biological memory, would that diminish our humanness, as the sum of our experiences would now be contained on a disk drive rather than in brain tissue? Descartes famously declared “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)” — but if the brain is integrated with a computational machine, who is really doing the thinking?

“I thought you said you could just read his brain electronically,” protested Ford.

“Oh yes,” said Frankie, “but we’d have to get it out first. It’s got to be prepared.”

“Treated,” said Benjy. “Diced.”… “It could always be replaced,” said Benjy reasonably, “if you think it’s important.”

“Yes, an electronic brain,” said Frankie, “a simple one would suffice.”

“A simple one!” wailed Arthur.

“Yeah,” said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, “you’d just have to program it to say What? and I don’t understand and Where’s the tea? Who’d know the difference?”…

“I’d notice the difference,” said Arthur.

“No, you wouldn’t,” said Frankie mouse, “you’d be programmed not to.”

-Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

A future where we can order up functional replacement parts for any worn-down or diseased organ or limb is fast approaching. In a world where synthetic components could replace any body part, what then of death or disease? The only remaining barrier to biological immortality would be the integrity of the brain itself. How much would it be possible to enhance or replace our brains before we became less human? Would synthetic computational components enhance our capabilities, or diminish our human soul?

We may soon be able to stimulate the brain’s own populations of stem cells to regrow and repair injured or disease-damaged tissues. Perhaps we will also make a therapeutic breakthrough to prevent the damage inflicted by neurological diseases or stroke. In a future where we could maintain a healthy biological brain in perpetuity, then we will have reached the threshold of biological immortality. Would we be content to remain there, or is it our destiny to push the limits of synthetic enhancement until we no longer recognize ourselves?

Cogito ergo sum in sempiternum?

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