“M.R.I. studies suggest that all of a person’s neural connections form by age 3.” New York Times Magazine, “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid The Least?” January 14, 2018
I ask you to question is the way that the scientific paradigm has been appropriated by laypeople who really do not understand what has and has not been scientifically proven.
Science has made exponential progress over the last few centuries but still does not know how a human brain functions any more than it can explain how gravity causes the tides to move in and out. There are theories. There are correlations. Correlations have been observed and noted. But the goal of science is to ascribe causality, not correlation.
No scientist worth her salt will say, “I have located and isolated the gene that causes people to be homosexual” or “I have mapped particular neurological firings consistent in all human beings that occur when they decide to vote Republican.”
Try on this metaphor, please: the brain is the hardware and the mind is the software. Although it is in vogue to discuss neural plasticity and neural pathways, the next time a meditation teacher tells you that you will create new neural pathways when you meditate, please ask him to show you which neural pathways are created.
A brain can be discussed only with the aid of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. Most people do not have these $1.5–$3 million machines constantly at their disposal, so it is easier to reach an agreement about a Jackson Pollock painting than about the electricity bouncing around inside a human head.
Human beings do not have direct introspection into brain states. At no time in your lifetime will you hear someone say, “Synapses 85,932 and 700,774 just fired. I need to take an aspirin.” Or: “I just created a new neural pathway for a color between orange, brown, and green!” You will never hear someone say, “I can feel the dopamine rushing through my brain!” You will hear: “I am happy.” You will never hear someone say, “My serotonin levels are very high.” You will hear: “I feel good.”
We must continue to use the concept of mind to mediate between what we sense and feel and how those stimuli are processed through our brain states and then translated into language.
We cannot directly see into, or otherwise sense, our brain states or any other parts beneath our skin, so it is inaccurate to talk as if we do. When I speak with neurologists, they tell me they are baffled by the ignorance of laypeople who feel qualified to discuss neural plasticity and how our brains create neural pathways. Of course the brain creates new neural pathways — so what? We will never directly observe our brains creating neural pathways, so why is it popular to use these terms today?
Laypeople prefer to have an inaccurate accord about brains than to speak with precision about consciousness.