BRIGHT IDEAS shone forth on many pages in Scientific American Mind issue Number 1 for 2005, starting with the image on the cover itself. "Unleashing Creativity," by Ulrich Kraft, offered suggestions for tapping the inner muse. David Dobbs's "Fact or Phrenology?" explored the search for the mind arising from the activity of intricate physical mechanisms in the brain. "Neuroscience and the Law," by Michael S. Gazzaniga and Megan S. Steven, posited that a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying behavior could absolve criminals of fault--something to think about. More about these topics--and others--follow below for readers with curious minds.
Ulrich Kraft's "Unleashing Creativity" confuses artistic ability with lateral thinking. There is a difference between "thinking outside the box," which is really the subject of Kraft's discussion, and innate artistic abilities, such as drawing, musicianship or creative writing, which require genetic inheritance as well as a cultural environment to develop. Kraft equates creative problem solving with artistic skills, but they are different entities that sometimes coexist.
I fully agree with Kraft that creativity is often lost during the first 20 years of development. To encourage creativity, my friend Paul Aron and I have been working for more than two years on an online gallery called TheRightBrain--it is our attempt to enrich the right hemispheres of many in the medical profession: www.therightbrain.co.uk
Brain and Mind
The cover promised a discussion of "Does Brain Equal Mind?" but in the article "Fact or Phrenology?" David Dobbs discusses the rather narrow aspect of fMRI. Everyone approaching the subject of brain-mind from a scientific stance takes for granted that the mind arises from activity in the brain. That activity consists of far more than certain regions consuming more or less oxygen than others. Rather it is what is actually going on in and between those regions at the fine level of individual neurons and synapses that is important--and we do not understand those processes at all, as other Scientific American Mind articles have made abundantly clear. How the almost infinite complexity of the brain gives rise to any aspect of mind is a near-total mystery and likely to remain so for a long time.
Imaging can certainly give interesting clues. But using MRIs to learn how the brain--much less the mind--actually works is like studying human civilization solely by recording patterns of electrical consumption across the globe. That critique aside, the controversy over MRIs barely touches on the subject of the relation between brain and mind.
The essay on "Neuroscience and the Law," by Michael S. Gazzaniga and Megan S. Steven, is also disappointing for its once-over-lightly treatment of the question of free will in the light of the deterministic stance of neurophysiology. Particularly surprising is the omission from the Further Reading of The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel M. Wegner, a Harvard University professor of psychology. To oversimplify Wegner, free will is best understood as an emotion. Like all emotions, it has an inescapable psychological reality, no matter what its presumed underlying neurophysiological cause. There is no conflict between scientific determinism and free will any more than there is a conflict between determinism and the fact that people fall in love.
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Gazzaniga and Steven may be right to argue that moral responsibility is a human construct and not a physical property of the brain. Just as it is a mistake to argue that metals are not hard simply because their constituent molecules are not themselves hard, so it is also a mistake to argue that people are not responsible simply because responsibility is not a property of our neurons.