Are you a Person with a Brain, or a Brain with a Person?

When we think of our ‘selves’, where does this live? Have recent innovations in neuroscience caused a tendency to think of the ‘self’ as being intrinsically linked to our neural activity? Or, are we more likely to consider the ‘self’ as being a more fluid and dynamic entity, distributed and reflected through our daily connections, actions and interactions? What responsibilities must we have to our ‘selves’ and how do we expect fulfilling these responsibilities to affect our individual lives, and society at large?

“The belief that we can see the mind in the living brain, can observe the passions and its desires that seemingly underlie normal and pathological beliefs, emotions, and behaviours, has been a key element in the claim that neuroscience can produce useful information about the government of human beings, the conduct of their conduct in the everyday world” (Rose and Abi- Rached 2013 p. 13).

From ultrasounds to brain-imaging and the mapping of the human genome, technological progress in the sciences has brought us more and more detailed– microscopic, even– images of ourselves as human beings. And in parallel, humanity been given increasingly detailed levels of responsibility over ourselves and our health.

Consider the common example of health and fitness tracking apps, with which we have seen the rise of the ‘quantified self’. And even for those who have not adopted this trend, it’s common enough for us to calculate the amount caloric intake versus of physical output, and other factors of our overall wellbeing. With the rise of products making these kinds of measurements accessible and automated to us on an individual basis, suddenly scientific specifications of health and pathology become readily available for the general public– along with the responsibility to stay fit, eat right, and exercise regularly is seen as more individual than ever before.

Now, it seems, we have both the individual responsibility as well as the tools necessary for managing the ‘self’. We are both able to observe and act upon the brain.

As Rose and Abi-Rached explain, this doesn’t mean that that sense of ‘self’– or ‘personhood– is becoming ‘brainhood’. Instead, what it means is that processes that were once seemingly invisible are becoming mapped out onto nonconscious processes. This doesn’t mean that that our ‘self’ equates to the brain, and nothing more or less. Rather, it suggests that the brain is a catalyst for the production of the experiential self, because we can now understand our nonconscious processes like we have not yet been able to before.

Rose and Abi-Rached refer to mindfulness in particular as emerging at the intersection of neuroscience and spirituality, and as operating under the notion that:

“your brain is amazing; it is flexible; it can be trained, developed, improved, optimized: learn to use it well for your own benefit and for that of your society, perhaps even for the world. It is not that you have become your brain, or that you are identical with your brain, but you can act on your brain, even if that brain is not directly available to consciousness, and in so acting, you can improve yourself — not as brain, but as person” (Rose and Abi-Rached, 2013 p. 222).

The difference between the brain, the self and the mind is an ancient area of scientific study and philosophical reflection. And with the increasing dependence and ubiquity of technology in our lives, we will only continue to question it more.