Is it all in your head? A Brief History of How We Came to Conclusions on the Relationship Between the Mind and the Brain
By Bailey Salimes
The connection (or lack thereof) between the mind and body has been an unanswered question for many philosophers, neuroscientists, and medical doctors. Depending on where one is in the world, some believe the soul is also a part of this mystery. According to many religions, the soul is the gateway to the afterlife; in science, there is no absolute evidence for a soul, but the entity of mind is acknowledged. Whether or not the brain and mind are two independent entities has been heavily debated. We have found ways to discuss how we are feeling, but we may not be able to physically see those feelings in the brain. People express their emotions through physical actions, such as crying from sadness, laughing from amusement, and raising one’s eye from curiosity. Scientists can also use brain imaging techniques, such as MRIs, to see which parts of the brain are more active when certain emotions are evoked. However, picking out a particular piece of matter in the brain that is “anger” has proven much more difficult.
As neuroscience has become an increasingly popular area of study, many scientists have concluded that the mind and brain are one in each other; a mind would not exist absent of a brain to contain the mind. The neural circuits in the brain give way to the emotions, feelings, and thoughts people have in their minds (Quiroga, 2020). In order to understand how researchers came to this conclusion, we must first examine the history of neuroscience.
The science and study of the brain has recently become a popular field of study for students, but scientists have been discovering new information about the brain for centuries. Around 1700 B.C.E. Edwin Smith wrote the first record of the nervous system when he wrote about a surgery on papyrus (Finger, 1994). Though it was not nearly as detailed as surgical procedures today, he still made note of what we now consider to be the nervous system. The famous philosopher Plato brought in some of the first ideas about the brain being the source of mental functioning, around 387 B.C.E (Finger, 1994). In addition to scientists and philosophers recognizing the brain, the eye was of great fascination to many who studied the nervous system. From 500 B.C.E. to 1000 C.E., many doctors who described the optic nerve, the optic chiasm, and attempted to understand how the eye worked and sent information to the brain (Finger, 1994).
After 1700, thousands of developments were made in neuroscience. In 1749 a philosopher named David Hartley was the first person to describe the English term “psychology,” and this spawned a cascade of new research that questioned the relationship between the brain, mental states, and behavior (Finger, 1994). In the early 1800s, hospitals for the “mentally insane” were being built, and psychologists were making slow progress in learning how to treat patients who were having mental difficulties that led to physical difficulties (Finger, 1994). In the early 1950s, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was first published by the American Psychiatric Organization. This manual provided psychologists and psychiatrists with information regarding mental disorders and potential disorders of the mind. Since then, the DSM has been updated five times. As research in psychology and psychiatry developed, the DSM was updated each time with new diagnostic information.
What does the history of neuroscience have to do with current standings on the brain and the mind? Because of developments in neuroimaging technology–MRI scans, PET scans, dye techniques that allow researchers to visualize neurons, among others–we are now able to observe which parts of the brain are active while someone is experiencing a specific emotion, disease, or visualizing stimuli intended to evoke a reaction (Frith, 2007). Psychiatrists have been limited because of the problem of being unable to connect mental diseases and mood disorders to something that is physically occurring in the brain. While not every problem of the mind has been solved by observing physical manifestations in the brain, scientists have been able to track things such as hormone levels, effects of neurotransmitters, and brain activity when certain mental events are happening (Frith, 2007). High levels of physical processing occur at nearly every level of brain activity (for example, the optic nerve and the intricacy of visual processing), and much of this brain activity is what many scientists acknowledge as bringing out states of mind.
Although science has a long way to go in creating technology to further understand how mental activity is regulated by the connections in the brain, psychiatrists and researchers in physics and chemistry have been working together to establish new relationships between the mind and brain. Using knowledge of brain circuitry for treatment of psychological disorders has great potential. Between the unknowns in neuroscience and the new studies on the mind, it has been made clear that there is a connection between our mental processes and the chemistry of the brain.
About the Author
Bailey Salimes is a junior at Boston University studying Neuroscience and Psychology.
Finger, S (1994). Origins of Neuroscience, New York: Oxford University Press.
Frith, C. (2007). Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Gabbard, G. O. (2005). Mind, Brain, and Personality Disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.4.648
Quiroga, R. Q. (2020). Closing the gap between mind and brain with the dynamic connectome. PNAS, 117(18), 9677-9678. doi:10.1073/pnas.1921475117
Wickens, A.P. (2005). A History of the Brain: From Stone Age Surgery to Modern Neuroscience, New York: Psychology Press.