Last night I attended a fantastic event at the LSE; The Ethics of the Cognitive Sciences: What the brain can tell us about the mind. Speaking at the event was Professor Ray Dolan, Dr Peter Hacker and Professor Nikolas Rose and chaired by Dr Tali Sharot with the crux of the discussion focusing on what, if anything, can neuroscience teach us about the mind; does it help us illuminate human emotion and decision making.
The discussion was very interesting, and although I shan't profess that I am in a position to comment with any jurisdiction or knowledge, it did lead me to think about it in more detail. Even since the days of Aristotle, who believed the brain acted to cool the blood, and Hippocrates, who believed the brain was the 'seat of intelligence' the debate has been raging about the brain and mind. Although Aristotle's view seems ludicrous today, with scientific advances we know more today about how the brain works than ever before, I think it prudent to still look upon Neuroscience with some restraint.
In one hand, there is a growing backlash against Neuroscience with books such as "Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of Mindless Neuroscience" ridiculing Neuroscience by pointing out lots of inconclusive studies that have been taken out of context or articles on the internet stating that Neuroscience is a load of tosh.
The other hand, books which try to misrepresent Neuroscience as the answer to understanding female sexual desire ("Vagina" by Naomi Wolf) or "The Republican Brain" which tries to explain, using Neuroscience, that some people are 'wired' in a more republican aligning way. Books such as these, along with premature offshoots like 'Neurolaw' and 'Neuromarketing', and the simplification of explanations in media articles that willingly appear to accept Neuroscience explanations for, well, almost everything.
Neuroscience is still in its younger days, take a tool such as Neuroimaging, one could argue that the technology used today in Neuroimaging is about the same level as the, now laughable, VGA camera I had in my Nokia phone 10 years ago so who knows what advances we make in Neuroimaging over the next 10 years.
It has to be a juggling act, critics of Neuroscience shouldn't be so pessimistic about what the future holds with technological advances but lovers of Neuroscience should too move forward with caution and avoid using neuroscience to explain political, economic or emotional interpretations of experiences. The focus - both for and against - shouldn't be on what, or what not, Neuroscience can deliver but at the progress of advances to date, and into the future. To be over zealous of Neuroscience at an early stage could undermine it, and its potential to help us understand but to be reckless and attack it could strife funding and sacrifice potential insights.
One thing that is clear though, is that the idea of the mind being separate from the brain seems like utter rubbish and for now we need the likes of both Neuroscience to focus on the brain, and psychology to focus on the mind. We need to understand beliefs just as much as we do neurons and then to build a greater understanding of the two. We should not be debating on picking the brain over the mind, or the mind over the brain, but should aim to understand the two together, in compliment of each other.