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Is it more important to understand the mind or the brain?

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Here, we are faced with the fixed, biological complexity of the brain and the intricate concept, which is open to vast influential change, of one’s mind. The question proposes the task of whether the understanding of the brain or that of the mind holds more significance. However, what this discussion essentially requires is the exploration of the two as an integrated process, as they are indefinitely interlinked; as Frith (2014) simply puts it, “minds depend on brains” (1).

As Linden (2007) describes, “at every level of brain organisation, from regions and circuits to cells and molecules, the brain is an inelegant and inefficient agglomeration of stuff, which nonetheless works surprisingly well (2).”  From Linden’s quotation we uncover why it is that psychologists are so intrigued in the functioning of the brain; from which we are going to explore the importance of such study. To appreciate the complexity of the brain, Pascual-Leone’s contribution to the idea of neuroplasticity describes how our brain is flexible in the sense that the brain’s structure adapts to experience. For example, the research finding that the area in the brain involved in navigation (the parietal lobe) has been found to be larger in London cab drivers (1). It is this unique capacity for change which supports Linden’s comment of the brain as functioning “surprisingly well”.

The mind however is a much more challenging aspect to define, one which is commonly a misconception among the general public. Whenever someone mentions the study of the mind assumed phrases such as ‘mind reader’ and ‘psychic’ are often offered. It is these assumptions of the mind which highlight the importance in that we understand, correctly, the importance of the mind. To define the mind in basic terms it is the association of thoughts, consciousness and other mental processes which shape our behaviour (3). A ground-breaking contribution to our understanding of the mind arises from the work of Freud (1856- 1939) who defined a component of our mind, our unconscious mind, as being the part of our mind that is beyond our conscious awareness; shaping our personality, moral development and other cognitive processes such as dreams.

The first point of discussion is to consider the brain and the mind as independent mechanisms, to enable us to evaluate the importance of each as individual components. To argue the mind’s individual importance, Freud (1909) placed great emphasis in the importance of the first few years of life in the subsequent development of personality; that nurture is important in our self development. Freud argues that children experience many emotional conflicts and that their future development depends on how well these conflicts are resolved. The role in which Freud’s famous idea of the ‘unconscious mind’ performs is that it is theorised to contain all our unresolved conflicts and has a powerful effect on our behaviour. A report which illustrates the significance of Freud’s research on the mind is his (1909) case study analysis of a phobia in a five-year old boy (Hans). Freud conducted his analysis through his conversations with Hans’ father in order to resolve a unique phobia of horses which Hans had developed. The starting point of the analysis originates from Hans’ father reporting that ‘[Hans] is afraid a horse will bite him in the street, and this fear seems somehow connected with his having been frightened by a large penis’ (4). Freud concluded that as this fear had developed shortly after Hans had experienced anxiety dreams of losing his mother and was warned about playing with his penis, that Hans had focused his libido onto his mother. Over time Hans’ fear of the horses become considerably worse due to what Freud suggested as having unresolved conflicts present in his unconscious mind, supporting how our mind appears to hold significant importance in shaping our behaviour. An interesting aspect of Hans’ phobia development was that Hans began to use giraffe ideology to symbolise the conflicts he was unconsciously undergoing in relation to his father; Hans experienced a dream where ‘in the night there was a big giraffe in the room and a crumpled one: the big one called out because I took the crumpled one away from it’. Hans’ father reported that Hans liked to get into bed with his parents but he (the father) often objected to it. Freud interpreted this conflict as Hans being the ‘big giraffe’ that had called out and the mother as being ‘the crumpled giraffe’ which had been taken away. This case offers support for Freud’s theory of sexuality; that our unconscious mechanisms within our mind undertake this role of expressing our sexuality. Hans’ experiences reflected elements of what Freud termed the ‘Oedipus complex’- one of his psychosexual stages; Hans experienced a desire for his mother but feared castration as punishment from his father for this desire (4). From the study we can analyse that Hans’ phobia of horses symbolised the fear for his father, as horses are considered to be strong and powerful animals, much like father figures. Freud proposed that the majority of individuals develop through these psychosexual stages and become mature, healthy individuals. However, if conflicts are too assertive in our mind, as we saw in Hans’ case, psychological problems may arise. Freud’s research highlights the significance in understanding the mind, as treatments can be developed for underlying problems not displayed on our surface. Such treatment includes psychoanalysis which was developed upon the basis of Freud’s ideas and is still largely used in therapeutic practice today.

Contrary to this, we can evaluate the significance in understanding the brain through the BPS Research Digest’s (2016) article “what does fear do to our vision?” (5) The article discusses research which particularly highlights why understanding the brain is most important. The article describes how, when under “intense momentary stress”, we experience what is known as ‘freezing behaviour’; automatic mental and physical effects which prepare our body for the ‘fight or flight response’. This response is associated with the autonomic nervous system which regulates involuntary functions within the body such as heart rate, which is key in the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is subdivided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which increases our heart rate, constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which slows heart rate and increases intestinal or glandular activity (6). Referring back to freezing behaviour, a recently published study aimed to uncover what effect freezing behaviour has upon our visual perception, and whether these could explain the frequent tragedies of police mistaking harmless items for guns. Lojowska et al (2015) tested a sample of 34 participants who were informed they were taking part in a visual perception task. To create the ‘freezing behaviour’ in participants, the researchers periodically showed participants a red dot which was subsequently followed by a mild electric shock. The researchers found that freezing behaviour was elicited in participants due to the anticipation of the shock, which was indicative by the red dot as a stimulus, rather than due to the shock itself. Participants’ expectation of the shock triggered their SNS to prepare their body for the ‘fight or flight’ response, and hence, responding with freezing behaviour. The perceptual task participants undertook involved judging the orientation of two sets of lines; one in low detail and one in high detail. Following this, the researchers concluded that, from their results, that participants were better at perceiving low detail when scared. The nature of these findings stem from our evolutionary past; we have an advanced skill in identifying basic detail as it would take us too long to perceive a fearful scene in high detail, jeopardising our safety. Analysis of these results can provide an explanation to the incidents of police mistakenly identifying individuals as carrying guns; it is beneficial to our survival to be able to identify an object quickly. Therefore, our brain often makes mental shortcuts which can conclude to errors in our visual field. Findings like this underlie how important it is to understand visual processes within the brain. For example, Lojowska et al’s research has influenced how training programmes for police may enhance their performance in situations where they are prone to freezing behaviour, saving the lives of many innocent people.

However, to conclude this discussion we must regard the brain and the mind as a sophisticated system rather than as individual components. Advanced research in modern medicine has led to Canavero (2015) announcing that we are scientifically ready to perform head transplant (cerebrosomatic anastomosis) surgery in 2017. The controversial, Frankenstein-like procedure claims to have potential to cure previously incurable conditions such as muscular atrophy which is where the muscles waste away due to a lack of physical activity (7). The procedure requires a donor body who has been declared brain-dead, in which the donor and the patient would simultaneously have their spinal cord severed. The patient’s head would then be transferred onto the donor body using a ‘glue’, known as  polyethylene glycol to fuse the spinal cord together. Next, the muscles and the blood supply would be stitched up and the patient is required to stay in a coma for four weeks to allow for the healing process. Whilst in the coma, the patient is administered with small electric shocks to stimulate the spinal cord and to strengthen connections between the head and body. After the four-week period, the patient would be required to take strong immunosuppressant drugs to prevent the new body from being rejected. Additionally, the patient would require thorough psychological support (7).

The implications of this project display a necessity that the medical industry needs to fully understand how the mind and the brain functions. So in cases like these, both the mind and brain are of considerable importance. In regard to the brain, the obvious implications are that of the brain rejecting the new body. Animal research of the cerebrosomatic anastomosis procedure yielded a success in the transplant procedure, but followed by animals surviving no longer than nine days. The consequence of such surgery could result in the dysfunction of the peripheral nervous system which depends on the connection between the brain and the body, which could in turn, lead to death as previously seen in animal research. Additionally, what effect will the surgery have on important nervous processes such as the role of neurotransmitters, when the peripheral nervous system of the body is unfamiliar to neurons within the brain? Another point to consider is the role of memory; our memory is largely the result of activity within the hippocampus. This may cause a conflict to arise between our memory of a skill and the new body’s inability to do so; electrical impulses from the brain may become ineffective in a new environment, and so frustration and confusion in the individual may occur. These risks are noticeably unethical; it appears that, considering the successive death of animal patients, that the project has lost a degree of objectivity and is doing so for the sake of advance in science. However, it is evident that more research needs to be conducted into the potential repercussions of the surgery.

Alternatively, the procedure additionally poses risk of the individual’s processes within the mind. Transgender surgery is already knowledgeable of the mental health risks associated with an individual feeling as though they are ‘trapped in another person’s body’, so much that they desire gender reassignment surgery, which is exactly what patients of such a procedure could experience. Although Canavero and his colleagues are aware of these psychological implications, with their intentions of offering psychological support, with such a controversial procedure the mental health effects may be irreversible. For example, the NHS states how changes in the brain have been found to cause an onset of psychosis (8). Additionally, higher levels of the neurotransmitter chemical dopamine (associated with feeling something as significant or interesting) has been associated with psychosis. An excess of dopamine restricts specific pathways in the brain which are associated with other important processes such as memory. This is an example of a potential problem with cerebrosomatic anastomosis patients, as severing the spinal cord interferes with the peripheral nervous system, which could result in changes in neurotransmitter levels and hence cause psychological problems such as psychosis to occur.

Therefore, there is real-life, modern application of understanding both the brain and the mind as being indefinitely interlinked. We can conclude that medical professions need to be aware of the deeper insight of such so that they do not advance too quickly, causing a medical catastrophe due to ignorance of the brain and mind’s systematic functions, as essentially, “minds depend on brains”.

Bibliography

  1. Seth, A. 2014. 30- Second Brain: The most 50 mind-blowing ideas in neuroscience, each explained in half a minute. United Kingdom: Icon Books Ltd.
  2. Jarrett, C. 2011. The Rough Guide to Psychology: an introduction to human behaviour and the mind. London: Rough Guides Ltd.
  3. McLeod, S. A. 2007. Mind Body Debate. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/mindbodydebate.html
  4. Banyard, P. and Grayson, A. 2000. Introducing Psychological Research, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded. New York: PALGRAVE.
  5. Hogenboom, M. 2016. What does fear do to our vision? Retrieved from http://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/01/what-does-being-scared-do-to-our-visual.html
  6. Medicine.net [website]. Definition of Autonomic nervous system. Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=2403
  7. 7. Griffiths, S. 2015. Human head transplant edges closer to reality: Chinese surgeon teams up with Italian doctor to perform controversial procedure in 2017. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3227954/Human-head-transplant-edges-closer-reality-Chinese-surgeon-teams-Italian-doctor-perform-procedure-2017.html
  8. NHS [website]. Psychosis- Causes. Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Psychosis/pages/causes.aspx

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