Saying that they are the same has been successful in treating patients with mental illness, but there are loose ends.
The controversy started over a message thread on Twitter which reopened the age-old discussion as to whether science accepts that mind and brain are the same.
The tendency to compare both concepts causes friction in conversations.
Jesús Ramírez-Bermúdez, a neuropsychiatrist at the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery, was the one whose tweets provoked dozens of comments from both sides of the spectrum: some inclined towards the brain; others, towards the mind.
“In short, the mind is a functional concept that refers to those brain functions which make the organization of behavior and the emergence of consciousness possible,” says the scientist in an interview for Tec Review.
The brain is an organ, and the mind wouldn’t have a physical point of reference without this activity in the brain.
“However, at the end of the day, we can’t say exactly where the mind is located in the brain. It’s rather a generalized process of brain activity,” says María de Lourdes Alegría Peña, a psychiatrist who trained at the Fray Bernardino Álvarez Psychiatric Hospital in Mexico City, in an interview.
Tec Review asked the specialist for her opinion on the metaphor that the brain is like a radio and the mind is like the (AM and FM) radio waves it tunes into. This was her answer:
“That description refers to the mind as something that can’t be seen, just like radio waves. It’s intangible, but it manifests itself in our thinking.”
However, Alegría Peña says that psychiatry is more inclined to deny that the brain is dedicated to interpreting what the mind dictates.
“I think it’s the other way around. The mind is a product of brain activity, but they go hand in hand. The mind can’t exist without the brain and the brain uses the mind to perform many activities.”
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But today’s science hasn’t explained how neurons cause the mind to emerge when they come together, just as it still hasn’t been possible for a laboratory to create life from non-living chemical substances.
This is because we don’t yet understand how a set of neurons begin to communicate with each other to create the mind, which is no longer reduced to just an interconnection of brain cells.
The mind isn’t only electrical impulses, it’s a third reality, beyond neurons and their connections. It’s the philosopher’s stone of psychiatry that would like to be see the brain as concrete, tangible, a material substrate.
The division between brain and mind inherits the ancient dilemma of body and soul. Historically, the first concept has been upheld more by materialist philosophy and the second, by idealist philosophy.
Psychiatry hasn’t taken sides; it simply sits on the fence, where it tries to reconcile both points of view -like a bridge- just like the balancing act of chemistry between physics and biology.
“Psychiatry doesn’t define the concept of mind very well. Usually, psychiatrists use the term to refer to the set of capacities that encompass processes of perception, thought, memory, consciousness, and motivation,” says Mariana Azcárraga Quiza, a psychiatrist at the Clinical Psychology Unit of the Pan-American University (UP).
And this is the result of the concept of the mind changing over the years. The modern interpretation of it is relatively new, from the last two centuries, influenced by the experimental scientific method.
“Previously, the concept of the mind was closely linked to that of the soul; it was thought that the mind and soul were the same. At that time, the body was believed to be separate from the mind, as authors such as Plato used to believe,” says the UP psychiatrist.
In the 19th century, the hypothesis that there is no mind as such, only the brain, began to be greatly supported. Both designations would point to the same material reality.
“Today, as a result of neuroscience, it’s said that perhaps the mind emerges out of brain activity. But if psychiatrists only see brain alterations, they’re probably not seeing the whole picture,” says Azcárraga Quiza.
Modern psychiatry also deals with behavior and emotions. Neurology, on the other hand, studies only the alterations of the brain in certain areas.
For all these reasons, we still can’t say that brain and mind are the same. According to Azcárraga, many psychiatrists don’t even enter into the discussion; they prefer to avoid it.
The three psychiatrists questioned by Tec Review don’t shy away from the debate but are open to contemplating different perspectives in order to achieve the most balanced point of view possible. At the end of the day, this is the scientific method.
Ramírez-Bermúdez, who reopened the controversy in the Twittersphere, sums up the current state of affairs with the following statement:
According to Azcárraga, this discrepancy allows psychiatry and neuroscience to communicate more with philosophy and other disciplines.
The specialist finally says that, sometimes, for therapeutic purposes, it’s convenient to tell psychiatric patients that their problem is like any other disease of the body, such as those of the liver, lungs, or bones.