The mysterious mind

One author doubts that we will ever explain and control the brain.

Published October 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, writer Lisa Belkin recounts her flirtation with a grotesque new technique, borrowed from animal husbandry, that enables parents to choose the sex of their offspring. Belkin's craving for a daughter, and her craving for control, motor the story along until she decides, in the end, to forgo the procedure as alluring but a bit much. She boxes up the pink dresses in her basement and mails them to her sister-in-law -- a lucky breeder who got her baby girl the old-fashioned way. But just having the freedom to choose the brave new world of sperm-sorting, the author finds, has been soothing. "By its very existence, it has given me an oblique but precious form of control," she writes. "I can have my daughter if I want her ... [the technology] opened the door. I chose not to walk through it."

This mishmash of feminism and eugenics, this capacity to breed children to fit one's own specifications, would seem to mark a new threshold in human consciousness. Now that we can choose the sex of our babies, how far off is our ability to choose other traits?

Scientists already do it with mice -- deleting genes in the embryo stage to make rodents thinner or sicker or cleverer at negotiating mazes. Granted, children have their own subjectivity that must be taken into account, but so, some would say, do mice. Scientists such as Lee Silver, a Princeton geneticist, have toyed with the prediction that the privileged elite of the future will have their children designed in fabulous labs while the rest of us are condemned to parent the drones of chance. True, most bench scientists laugh off such predictions as impractical. But in theory we're at the point of altering the underlying mechanics of human behavior, of altering the fate of consciousness. And all of it using technology whose workings are essentially digital: gene on, gene off, amino acid in, amino acid out.

And because of this newfound ability to tinker with the brain, we think we might be able, at last, to understand the mind. Genetic tests that show a link between a protein's microscopic unfolding and a person's desire to smash things; the pharmaceutical industry's design of drugs that alter brain chemistry by snapping into cellular receptors; the advent of sophisticated imaging machines to take pictures of the brain in the process of thought -- these all give the impression that the mind, mystery of the ages, is about to explain itself once and for all. In his new book, "The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication and Explanation," the provocative science journalist John Horgan argues convincingly that this is not the case.

Instead, Horgan says, Freud's totalizing view of the mind, once dominant, has been supplanted by the seemingly more scientific but just as inadequate theories of behavior genetics, evolutionary psychology, pharmacology and computer science. Horgan's book is a sequel of sorts to "The End of Science" (1996), which gloomily posited that mankind had answered all the big questions it was capable of answering. After a leading neuroscientist gave Horgan a tongue-lashing for his dismissal of mind science in the earlier book, Horgan writes, he set out to review the evidence more closely.

Readers who would inquire about the latest specific findings of neurobiology should consult other sources (such as Antonio Damasio's intriguing but opaque new book, "The Feeling of What Happens"). Horgan plays the iconoclastic gadfly here, giving entertaining but once-over-lightly treatment to the disciplines that have shoved Freud aside in favor of Darwinian theory and high-tech measurements of the meat inside our skulls. All in all, Horgan doesn't see much progress here in terms of understanding consciousness. He agrees with the critics that Freud wasn't a rigorous scientist and may have been a fraud and evil to boot. But he was a great writer and there was something in his yarn-spinning that reached the truth of consciousness in a way science hasn't come close to touching yet.

In 1983 the philosopher Joseph Levine coined a phrase for this patent inadequacy of science -- his term, "explanatory gap," described the inability of physiological theories to account for, or describe, subjectivity. Using positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging, scientists can watch entire areas of the brain light up during certain kinds of cognition or activity. They can slice and dice a monkey's brain to find which mass of neurons were most active when it was figuring out how to get to the banana.

But then what? Horgan calls it the Humpty Dumpty dilemma -- how to put all the bits of information back together. Unlike physics or biology, which have their quantum mechanics and DNA, neuroscience lacks a unifying insight of how the mind works. "As researchers learn more about the brain," Horgan writes, "it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how all the disparate data can be organized into a cohesive, coherent whole."

The theories of mind that seek to replace Freud are tautological, unsubtle, untestable and lack common sense, Horgan finds. The evolutionary psychologists (evo psychos, writer Natalie Angier calls them) state that all human behavior must perforce have evolved as elements of a strategy to get laid -- if our genes don't promote behaviors that further their reproduction, goes the circular logic, they get replaced by other genes. It's an attractive dogma, and Horgan describes the zealotry of the evo-psycho world with relish. But he sides with linguist Noam Chomsky, who describes the Darwinians' endeavor as "a philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in."

When it comes to psychotherapy, it is the tyranny of neurobiology to insist that it's not all in your mind, but in your brain -- and therefore the corrective lies in better chemistry, Prozac being the current epitome. But Horgan makes the crucial point that Prozac and its chemical relatives are rather crudely understood drugs and, if one looks closely at the data, no more effective than the older generation of antidepressants, the tricyclics. In fact, some recent studies have shown Prozac to be no better, on average, than a sugar pill in treating depression -- and certainly no better, overall, than the talking cure.

In an intriguing digression, Horgan suggests that the writer and psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of "Listening to Prozac," bears some responsibility for Prozac's conquest of psychotherapy. Just as Freud's theory rested upon certain brilliantly presented case histories -- which are now controversial -- Kramer's narrative focused, if uncomfortably, on the transformations, ignoring patients who didn't do as well or suffered serious side effects. In the absence of a better understanding of the mind, the dominant therapeutic continues to be placebo, Horgan says, and the placebo effect of Prozac and its ilk has been boosted by a neurobiological Zeitgeist conjured up partly by bestselling intellectuals such as Kramer.

Mind scientists themselves are divided about the knowability of the mind. Some, like philosopher Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, are convinced that understanding is within grasp once we've teased out each function of the three-pound flesh computers resting beneath our beetled brows. Others, whom Horgan describes as the mysterians, doubt the mind can know itself, or think understanding may only come through a flash of revelation. In the meantime, death-defying science will identify new errors in the brain, and provide new molecules to fix them, and machines that segregate sperm containing the Y chromosome. "When it comes to the human brain," Horgan writes, "there may be no unifying insight that transforms chaos into order."

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

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