Saturday, August 9, 2008

A no-brainer…

[The pun is so egregious, I almost couldn't type it, but it's so apt that I was forced to.]

My blog yesterday about the fallacies of neuroskepticism (vis-à-vis Michael Persinger's TSM studies and other brain-localizing claims) may be entirely academic considering Dandy-Walker syndrome (DWS). (This is not a phenomenon I just discovered, but it came back to me with great force in the wake of what I wrote yesterday, and what I am reading these days.) DWS, which occurs in one of every 25,000 live births, is a pathological condition of the cerebellum, usually seen in neonates and infants. Cerebral fluid enlarges the fourth ventricle. DWS is basically a result of hydrocephalus, or, literally, "waterhead". Because spinal fluid displaces the growth of the brain, brain tissue, especially in the cerebrum, is forced into smaller dimensions than normal. Ultimately, the brain takes on an improper size and shape, and some patients are severely brain-damaged. Some, but not all.

Some patients manage to do quite well, despite having a small fraction of a normal brain, and one that is shifted out of normal structure, to boot. Consider the case of a middle-aged French civil servant. The image of his brain, in comparison to a normal brain (see above), speaks for itself.

"…[T]he man[––a married father of two children, by the way––]has an IQ of 75, with a verbal IQ of 84 and performance IQ of 70. The bulk of people in society have a minimum IQ of 85."[1] It appears to be "more than a 50% to 75% reduction,‘ says Lionel Feuillet, a neurologist at the Mediterranean University in Marseille, France."[2]

His is not the only case of a functional but virtually absent brain. Dr. John Lorber studied the phenomenon fairly extensively and, in 1980, published an article in Science titled "Is the Brain Really Necessary?" [PDF link]. The following page, "Where is Consciousness? I've Lost It!" has a great deal of information on Lorber's studies and related issues in what I'll call "caput absentum".

The reason these cases may make my musings sheerly academic is that they strike against one of the key premises of the position against which I was arguing. That position, which I'll call "neuribilism", claims that there is a one-to-one correspondence between human cognitive capacities and the structure of the brain. This is all of a piece with mind-brain identity theory, which holds that mental functions are brain functions. What I was arguing for yesterday is the caveat that even if there is a clear connection between our cognitive abilities and our neurological structures, a correlation which I accept, this does not entail the former are simply identical with the latter. What caput absentum indicates, however, is that the connection between normal brain structure and mental activity is even more complicated, dare I say tenuous, than is normally thought. The middle-aged French civil servant quite literally lacks the normal components of a human brain––and yet he does not apparently lack any of the normal functions of a human person. What this suggests to me is that my objections to neuribilism may not go far enough, and thus may be merely academic squabbling in a narrowly neuribilist paradigm.

Caput absentum shows us just how cramped the regnant neuribilist, brain-mind identity paradigm is. A gainfully employed husband's ability to love his wife and raise two children is not compromised by his virtual lack of a brain. Why not? Because it was never really his brain that provided those capacities in the first place. Rather, it is the whole person, as a dynamic formal agent, that integrates all such neural, skeletal, physiological, etc. operations into one stream of conscious rational agency. Neuroscientists are loath to admit there may be a central processing unit in the brain, since this appears to draw them into the homunculus spiral (and outdated dualism, to boot! Oh my!). Yet, they are paradoxically drawn to the conclusion that the many modules in the brain do in fact need to have some kind of unity in order for them to operate (known as the binding problem). Whether it is Gazzaniga's General, or Ramachandran's Interpreter, or Baars's Central Workspace, or Dennett's Narrative Self, and so on, in every case, the astute thinker must allow for some kind of stable, decisive coherence that accounts for what we all experience––active selves interacting with other active selves. This Center ought not, according to classical Thomism, be somewhere in the brain––it was Descartes, after all, that located the immaterial will in the dangling hypothalamus––for the Center, the Self, is not in the brain! On the contrary: the brain is in the self! Notice I do not say the brain is the self. The self is, by definition, that greater whole that transcends and orders the lesser parts. The self, moreover, does not "use" these parts like some detached repairman surveying a workbench. The truth is that the person acts and, in metaphysical but not temporal turn, the parts of the self act in their appropriate ways.

This is a subtle point, so I will try to be clear without being effusive. Last week after receiving the Blessed Sacrament, I was kneeling, praying the Anima Christi. "Soul of Christ, sanctify me… Body of Christ, save me…." As I prayed, I beheld the large crucifix hanging behind the altar. And it hit me: By imploring the "soul of Christ", I am not looking to an invisible element somehow hovering inside the somatic frame of Jesus; rather, I am imploring the whole Christ, the same whole Christ present in the Eucharist. This is what ArisThomistic hylomorphism means on a mystical plane: we, as whole persons, in light of the whole saga of our lives, are our souls, and vice versa. This is why the Church's devout fear for "your immortal soul" is not an afterthought about the afterlife, but is a complete concern for the person as a total personal being. To "lose your soul" is to lose yourself. The soul simply is the whole living person. The soul is the active power, the enduring form, behind every "frame" in the story which a person lives. The body, meanwhile, is that pulsing palette on which a life's changes are marked. The soul is that substantial "element" of John which allows me to know John as John, as a unique individual enduring in space and time (and which, incidentally, Origen called eidos and surmised is the mechanism by which we can recognize loved ones in heaven). The body, meanwhile, is the material "substrate" which allows John to navigate through spacetime, and which, moreover, signals to me that he is free and fluid, changing and changeable, yet still the same person. The body changes as the soul lives, and the soul may change as the body lives. In other words, people change in numerous ways.

It is not, then, some elusive, esoteric brain module that integrates other modules into "the self", but rather the self itself which stands upon and is rooted in those modules as a coherent agent of integrated rational choice. This is why the obvious retort to my musings on caput absentum––namely, that the brain's plasticity accounts for its ability to keep functioning despite such major losses to white tissue––really only goes halfway. Yes, certainly, brain plasticity explains how the brain can adapt to such cramped conditions: the remaining white tissue is simply conscripted for carrying out the major operations normally assigned to tissue that should be there. This explains how, but not why. Why is the brain plastic in the first place? The reason is that the self supervenes on not only the skele and bones for executing gross spatiotemporal actions, but also on the very construction of the brain tissue for carrying out those actions in a neural mode. The soul of the person––the living identity of the person as such––is that dynamic fixture created in us by God which allows us to heal, grow, communicate, know, and, if the need arises, reshape our brains in stunning ways. Because we will to think and live and love, thus our various bits and pieces fall in line with the larger current of our rational agency. This heroic vitalism is, of course, the basic function of the vegetative-animal soul. Its humble perseverance is the foundation for the spiritual transcendence of the rational soul. It just so happens that in our case, being rational takes a brain, whatever shape it may take.

See the addendum to this post: "I am the river in the river…"

[1] "Report: Man with Almost No Brain Has Led Normal Life", Wednesday, July 25, 2007, FOX NEWS

[2] "Man with tiny brain shocks doctors", 12:17 20 July 2007, news service


Jeff Miller said...

Excellent post Elliot.

Martin T. said...

The short version of my story is this.
9 years ago my son was born and the was something wrong. The next day the CT scan showed what: Bilateral clefts occupying large areas where the brain should be. The neonatlogist took one look and sent us home with our newborn son. "When the apnea alarm rings. ignore it" she said. I thought my wife was going to punch her.

Martin is not going to grow up and start a family...or so negative dad says. Even mom doesn't tell everyone "He's going to be a priest" anymore. But he could be worse.
Ya never know what people will say when you post, do you?

From my Treo.

Martin T

The Cogitator said...


I can't make sense of the point of your comment. I am sad to hear about your son, but I also don't know if his case is meant as an argument against anything I said in this post, or in support of it. Or is it merely anecdotal?

Anonymous said...

simply free verse based on seeing the CT of the man's brain.

Very off topic. Maybe I shouldn't read late at night.

I suppose though if the neonatlogist had known of the french man she might have not been so quick to cut him off.