Dualism and Neuroimaging

I can’t recommend highly enough Descarte’s Baby by Paul Bloom. I never found developmental psychology particularly interesting until recently. Bloom’s book is a great example of why I should have paid more attention to the field. He combines an evolutionary framework and a solidly cognitive approach to address (read ‘speculate on’) the things that are at the very heart of humanness.

One point he makes which doesn’t make it into my review for The Psychologist– which is embarrassingly gushing anyway – is the idea that our innate disposition towards dualism helps explain the popular appeal of neuroimaging research. The amazement that greets an fMRI experiment showing the involvement of the frontal lobe in thinking about whether to ask for a rise, or the involvement of your parietal lobe in thinking about how to assemble Ikea furniture [2] can be reduced to / explained as a simple amazement that anything to do with mind has a correspondence in the brain. Of course, to a cognitive neuroscientist that’s axiomatic. But to the layperson maybe their unquestioned dualism means they are still impressed that cognitive activity produces biological effects.

Persistent dualism might also be part of the reason that the ‘We only use 10% of our brains’ myth is so common. To a neuroscientist it’s a (sorry) no-brainer – Did you think that 90% of that 1.2 kg of your body was just sitting there, with no purpose?!– but many people still think of themselves as eternal souls, not as biological machines. From this point of view it seem entirely plausible that what we perceive as us could be pretty much independent of our brains.


[1] Descarte’s Baby – How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom
Publisher: William Heinemann. Date, Price & Format: July 1st, 2004, ?20 Hardback

[2] I just made these examples up, sorry. But you get the idea.

2 replies on “Dualism and Neuroimaging”

I’m not a dualist, per se, but what modern physics has taught us, is that we can only correlate phenomena, and not really posit cause-effect. After all, we’re locked into the mode of experience (qualia) and can only revel in patterns of experience. Dualism is a metaphysical concept that can transcend our epistemological efforts.

Very clever Glyn, you’ve managed to work out that causality cannot be inferred from correlation. However, if someone were to selectively remove your visual cortex, I think you’d be amazed how reliant on brain tissue perception actually is.

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