Are our brains who we are?
Are our brains who we are? “Yes,” answers Tom de Graaf, final-year PhD student at cognitive neurosciences and recently one of the team captains of ‘Brein in Beeld’; the UM team that won the public award during the 2011 Academic Annual Award. “But the point is that people attach all kinds of scary things to a statement like that. For example, they draw the conclusion that if we are our brains, then that thing in our heads predetermines everything. Upbringing and social environment would have no influence. They assume that the brain is something fixed. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains are changing all the time. Otherwise how could we learn something new, remember things or have memories?”
Another “scary” conclusion: “If I am only my brain, then I am doing nothing wrong, but it’s my neurons that make a mistake. This implies that personal responsibility and free will would not exist. I knock that on the head immediately: We are our brain, so we are also our neurons, and free will and responsibility come from that.”
De Graaf also brushes away the popular remark that everything is so flat, so bare, so without mysticism, religiosity or metaphysics. “The brain consists of approximately a hundred billion neurons, each of which makes up to ten thousand connections. The complexity is so immense that it is impossible to comprehend. It shows us only a tiny bit. That is where the mysticism is. What more would you want to be? It is the smartest system in the world. When you start to understand a little more about the brain, it is mind-blowing.” And yes, that is also where our consciousness is, he says. Just like the subconscious: “We are unaware of most of the things that happen in our brain; a tremendous amount of information processing happens subconsciously. I won't comment on Freud’s subconscious, because I know too little about that.”
De Graaf himself also draws a “scary” conclusion. “What would it mean if we were not our brains? What would we be then? Something immaterial that lives on after we have died? Something that we cannot say anything about with any certainty? I would rather be my brain, at least we can understand that. I admit that it is also a kind of belief, but then one based on data.”
One more thing: “If you have doubts about whether you are your brain, do the following mind game: if you could stay alive by having an arm or heart transplant, would you do that? Most people would say yes. If you could stay alive by having a brain transplant, so getting someone else’s brain, would you say yes to that too? If your answer is no, then you are well on the way to accepting that you are your brain.”
The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has listed the 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands. The 50th is the result of a competition, which was won by two UM researchers.