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How Does the Brain Generate Experience?
by Art Ticknor

The past quarter of a century has witnessed numerous advances in neuroscience, such as neuroimaging and non-invasive electrical brain stimulation in humans, and optogenetics in animals (the highly selective activation of neurons using laser light, see Fennon et al., 2011).

If we believe that 'minds are what brains do' (Minsky, 1988), we might expect this to lead to improved treatment of mental health problems.

et arguably, the only appreciable impact of neuroscience research on routing mental health practice has been in the use of animal models to develop new drugs, which has yielded few new treatments in this field over the past decade.

This disconnect between modern neuroscience research and mental health practice partly reflects the unresolved 'hard' problem of consciousness: How does the brain generate consciousness?

Mapping between activity in neurons or circuits and subjective experience remains a huge conceptual, indeed philosophical, challenge.

"Good science (including clinical science) requires reliable measurement, and neuroscience deals with what can be measured objectively at the level of the brain.

In animals, neuroscience measurements and manipulations can be causally related to behaviour, but experience can only be inferred indirectly; human studies have attempted to link brain function to subjective experience measured using self-report, but for ethical reasons these studies are largely correlational.

More broadly, we lack a generally accepted neuroscientific explanation of how brains make minds (though there have been some attempts, e.g. Craig, 2009).


~ "What Has Neuroscience Ever Done for Us?" Jonathan Roiser (winner of the British Psychological Society's Spearman Medal 2013) considers the case of mental health. From Brain in the News, Vol. 22 No. 4 - April 2015, The Dana Foundation.

Does the brain generate experience?

If so, how does one explain the reported experiences of people who recall witnessing activity in an operating room from above, including observing their inert bodies lying on the operating table, during a period where medical devices recorded no electrical activity in their brains – the accuracy of which, including things such as mismatched socks on a surgeon who came into the room during that period, was later verified by hospital personnel?

Do "brains make minds"?

If we look at our own first-person testimony about experience, how do we account for where the experience "pictures" (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) appear? All we know directly is that we experience. The whys and wherefores are merely conjectural.

Can we rely on third-person testimony about our experience? We're conscious, and all that we "know" or witness are objects in our consciousness: thoughts and feelings, perceptions and conceptions, including "other people."

Suppose we were able to witness the images of our brain activity as they're produced while we're in an MRI machine: How could we conclude whether the electrical activity of the brain was causing our experience or whether our experience was causing the brain activity?

What do you know for sure?

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