We Are Not Our Brains

Out of Our Heads“There is no empirical or philosophical justification for the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness.”

So says the philosopher – or perhaps neurophilosopher – Alva Noë in his book Out of Our Heads, which challenges the idea that our brains are just a complex computer and that everything we do will eventually be traced back to the firing of the appropriate neurons. Instead, he argues that human consciousness is the result of our interaction with the world around us.

Noë is no shrinking violet. He even challenges the Nobel-Prize-winning research of David Hubel and Torstein Wiesel on the neurophysiology of vision. But his arguments are compelling. The tools we use, the languages we learn, the habits we develop, all these things contribute to our consciousness.

This makes a lot of sense to me. In my study of Aikido, I have discovered that I don’t truly understand something until I move with it and use it in response to another person. The pure idea is not enough without the physical movement. My Aikido teacher, Mitsugi Saotome, often emphasizes that what we learn from touch and awareness gives us the material with which to work and learn. It seems to me that our physical bodies and how they interact with the world are an integral part of who we are.

Noë studied with the late British philosopher Susan Hurley, who also wrote on these subjects. In his book he says Hurley referred to people as “dynamic singularities.” There’s an interesting phrase.

Reading Noë raises all kind of questions in my head. If he’s right that what makes us conscious is more than neurons firing in the brain, creating artificial intelligence will be a lot more complex than just developing an incredibly fast computer. A true AI will have to be set up to interact in the world and learn from it. And if it has an appreciably different body from human beings, it will probably learn things in very different ways — which would be fascinating but also could be very, very frightening.

I’d like to know what Noë makes of the singularity, and what the thinkers behind the singularity make of Noë. By the way, Noë works with the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Berkeley, in addition to teaching philosophy. He’s definitely knowledgeable about the latest neurophysiology research.

As usual, I’m fascinated by work by smart people that challenges the current thinking. This is a short book chock full of ideas that will shake up your brain. I recommend it.


Nancy Jane’s flash fiction this week is “New Year.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

Check out Nancy Jane Moore’s Bookshelf for more stories.



We Are Not Our Brains — 5 Comments

  1. Knitters will tell you that you cannot grasp a pattern by reading it. You have to pick up some needles and yarn and knit a repeat or two. No amount of discussion, instruction or tip-swapping can substitute for actually making the thing.

  2. I’m learning how to use a steno machine (court reporter training) and it’s the same there. Until you actually sit down and *use* and *do* the exercises, you do not own the movements or the words you type out.

  3. Because of damage from the disease, I put off an OD until I simply could not see a certain range of vision. What the specialist checked was color and field vision — sometimes I could see movement, but if I did not see the actual color of the wand tip — if I saw it as a different color, or as gray — it indicated a problem with color cones.

    My vision has shrunk to a porthole straight ahead, with a couple of blind spots. So I’m doing eye exercises with blinking LEDs. Turns out ODs and Neurologists are investigating areas of malfunction, or lack of programming, in certain color groups. Each color can correlate to immune system, physical body and function, neurological function. When the color field returns, health drastically improves. I’m on my third week. We’ll see.

    When I was an IMT, I often worked on areas in proportion of energy I could feel in the muscle. It takes anywhere from 6-18 months to fine-tune this, if you allow yourself to believe it’s more than a twitch from tight muscles relaxing. I know several LMTs who do not believe this is a real thing that can be followed. One of them, however, does pray over her patients. I haven’t pointed out that she’s asking for an energetic response.

    But it’s there. I know that sounds New Age, but ask any acupuncturist or serious martial artist — Chi is real, and can be channeled and controlled. And you must learn it by touch — reading, being told about it doesn’t work. You can even consciously instruct your body to do certain energetic things. I’ve done it, and the therapist working on me immediately noticed the energetic change and asked “What did you just do?”

    Communicated with the inner consciousness, apparently. It knows what the outer consciousness doesn’t know.

  4. Chi is absolutely real. I’m skeptical about a lot of New Age stuff, but between acupuncture, Aikido and Tai Chi, I know it’s there. I figure science will eventually catch up.