Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Where is your mind?

During the recent Connectivism Conference, Bill Kerr posed the following question:

“What is the mind, where is it and how does it work?”
This question formed part of his challenge to connectivism as a learning theory. However, it struck a chord with me last night when my husband read me a report called The Power of Hope in Time magazine of 12 February.

The report is largely based on an anecdote from the author, Scott Haig, MD. He was treating a patient with terminal lung cancer that had metasticised. The patient's brain tissue had been completely replaced by brain tumours, and he had entered the final moments of his life. He had been unconscious and completely incapacitated for some time. Then, suddenly, in the last moments of his life, this man regained consciousness and made very lucid farewells to his family.

As Dr Haig says:
"it wasn't David's brain that woke him up to say goodbye that Friday. His brain had already been destroyed. Tumor metastases don't simply occupy space and press on things, leaving a whole brain. The metastases actually replace tissue. Where that gray stuff grows, the brain is just not there. What woke my patient that Friday was simply his mind, forcing its way through a broken brain"
All our advanced, sophisticated understanding of the brain has still left us a long way short of finding, let alone understanding the mind. If a man with effectively no brain still has a mind, still has a will, where does that leave us? Will our on-going study of the physical brain really tell us what we need to know about that which makes us essentially who we are?

There are so many sciences associated with the brain. Haig summarises:
"Neuroanatomy is largely concerned with which spots in the brain do what; which chemicals have which effects at those spots is neurophysiology. Plan on feeding those chemicals to a real person's brain, and you're doing neuropharmacology. Although they are concerned with myriad, complex, amazing things, none of these disciplines seem to find the mind. Somehow it's "smaller" than the tracts, ganglia and nuclei of the brain's gross anatomy--but "bigger" than the cells and molecules of the brain's physiology. We really should have bumped into it on the way down. Yet we have not. Like our own image in still water, however sharp, when we reach to grasp it, it just dissolves."
Haig is not the first doctor to be amazed at the power of the mind over the brain. Extensive research identifies that a specific part of the brain deals with such-and-such a skill, then along comes a girl with half a brain or a young man with no brain to speak of ("Is Your Brain Really Necessary," Science Dec. 12, 1980, p. 1232.) and defies all that we think we know. People constantly learn new skills and/or rehabilitate from the loss of physical and neurological functions - the mind forcing the brain into new pathways by dint of will. As Haig says elsewhere in the article, "a mind or will, clearly separate, hovers under the machinery, forcing it toward a goal."

I know it sounds cheesy, but Haig's article made my heart sing - we truly are wonderfully made, and we are a long way from unravelling the mysteries of how it all works! I will quote his final paragrph in its entirety to end this post:
"But many think the mind is only in there--existing somehow in the physical relationship of the brain's physical elements. The physical, say these materialists, is all there is. I fix bones with hardware. As physical as this might be, I cannot be a materialist. I cannot ignore the internal evidence of my own mind. It would be hypocritical. And worse, it would be cowardly to ignore those occasional appearances of the spirits of others--of minds uncloaked, in naked virtue, like David's goodbye."

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