john_horgan's picture
Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology
Changing My Mind About the Mind-Body Problem

A decade ago, I thought the mind-body problem would never be solved, but I've recently, tentatively, changed my mind.

Philosophers and scientists have long puzzled over how matter — more specifically, gray matter — makes mind, and some have concluded that we'll never find the answer. In 1991 the philosopher Owen Flanagan called these pessimists "mysterians, a term he borrowed from the 1960s rock group "Question Mark and the Mysterians."

One of the earliest mysterians was the German genius Leibniz, who wrote: "Suppose that there be a machine, the structure of which produces thinking, feeling, and perceiving; imagine this machine enlarged but preserving the same proportions, so that you could enter it as if it were a mill… What would you observe there? Nothing but parts which push and move each other, and never anything that could explain perception."

A decade ago I was a hard-core mysterian, because I couldn't imagine what form a solution to the mind-body problem might take. Now I can. If there is a solution, it will come in the form of a neural code, an algorithm, set of rules or syntax that transforms the electrochemical pulses emitted by brain cells into perceptions, memories, decisions, thoughts.

Until recently, a complete decoding of the brain seemed impossibly remote, because technologies for probing living brains were so crude. But over the past decade the temporal and spatial resolution of magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography and other external scanning methods has leaped forward. Even more importantly, researchers keep improving the design of microelectrode arrays that can be embedded in the brain to receive messages from — and transmit them to — thousands of individual neurons simultaneously.

Scientists are gleaning information about neural coding not only from non-human animals but also from patients who have had electrodes implanted in their brains to treat epilepsy, paralysis, psychiatric illnesses and other brain disorders. Given these advances, I'm cautiously optimistic that scientists will crack the neural code within the next few decades.

The neural code may resemble relativity and quantum mechanics, in the following sense. These fundamental theories have not resolved all our questions about physical reality. Far from it. Phenomena such as gravity and light still remain profoundly puzzling. Physicists have nonetheless embraced relativity and quantum mechanics because they allow us to predict and manipulate physical reality with extraordinary precision. Relativity and quantum mechanics work.

In the same way, the neural code is unlikely to resolve the mind-body problem to everyone's satisfaction. When it comes to consciousness, many of us seek not an explanation but a revelation, which dispels mystery like sun burning off a morning fog. And yet we will embrace a neural-code theory of mind if it works — that is, if it helps us predict, heal and enhance ourselves. If we can control our minds, who cares if we still cannot comprehend them?