The Frontal Cortex

3 lbs.

3 lbs, the new neurosurgery show on CBS, premiered last night. My initial reaction: good, but no Grey’s Anatomy. The show is derivative to the point of banality – if you’re a fan of medical dramas, you can literally predict what the next scene will be – but sometimes repetition can still be entertaining. There are the requisite randy doctors, the gorgeous attendings, the palpable sexual tension, the loud pop music. Needless to say, I don’t want these people touching my brain.

But one aspect of the show leapt out at me. Even as 3 lbs firmly demolishes the myth of brain-mind duality – there is no soul, you are just a mass of gelatinous fatty membrane – it uses its characters to symbolize the seeming chasm between the brain and the mind. The new fellow, Dr. Jonathan Seger, represents all the ethereal elements inside our head: emotion, top-down processing, the nebulous self, etc. Dr. Doug Hanson (Stanley Tucci) sees the brain as nothing but “wires in a box”: he’s the Dennett-esque reductionist, convinced that consciousness is just an epi-phenomenon. Here’s a sample of their witty repartee:

“It’s my experience that the emotional state of the family can impact the physiological resilience of a patient,” Seger tells Hanson.

“I’ve found taking the tumor out of the patient’s skull is fairly effective as well,” Hanson replies.

So which character do I like more? Ordinarily, I side with the mushy anti-reductionists. As I’ve noted before:

Self-consciousness, at least when felt from the inside, feels like more than the sum of its cells. Any explanation of our experience solely in terms of our neurons will never explain our experience, because we don’t experience our neurons.

That said, the gruff materialist (Dr. Hanson/Stanley Tucci) has much better jokes.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    November 15, 2006

    Self-consciousness, at least when felt from the inside, feels like more than the sum of its cells. Any explanation of our experience solely in terms of our neurons will never explain our experience, because we don’t experience our neurons.

    We necessarily do not experience the things responsible for our experience. By your reasoning, there is no potential explanation for consciousness that is adequate.

  2. #2 Jonah
    November 15, 2006

    Exactly. I’m a new mysterian. I hold that there is no neural explanation for consciousness which will ever satisfactorily explain my own subjective experience.

  3. #3 ChemJerk
    November 15, 2006

    There’s derivative and then there’s plagiarism. I swear to goodness I couldn’t tell when last night’s episode of “House” ended and when “3lbs” began. The story line was lame and the ironic twist involving Tucci’s character is an insult to the intelligence of the viewers. Whoever gave this show the green light should be producing community theater in Kansas.

  4. #4 Caledonian
    November 15, 2006

    Exactly. I’m a new mysterian. I hold that there is no neural explanation for consciousness which will ever satisfactorily explain my own subjective experience.

    Then what in the world are you doing on the ScienceBlogs?

  5. #5 Otto
    November 16, 2006

    Demolishes the myth of mind-body duality? Nagel, Jackson and Chalmers refuted by an American television show. Doesn’t get any funnier than this.

  6. #6 Otto
    November 16, 2006

    Caledonian: If you know all the physical facts of what it is like to be another conscious animal (eg. a bat), then do you know what it is like to be that conscious animal?

    Does Mary see red?

  7. #7 Caledonian
    November 16, 2006

    The issue in the famous thought experiment is whether Mary learns something new, not whether she sees red, and the premise given is traditionally that she has complete scientific knowledge of all aspects of vision.

    Ignoring the gross ignorance of a person who would consider a thought experiment involving “complete scientific knowledge” and limiting Mary to a merely extraordinary understanding that encompasses everything that a human civilization working in finite time might eventually learn about vision, she learns absolutely nothing.

  8. #8 Jonah
    November 16, 2006

    I think the nature of conscious experience, and the possibility of a reductionist explanation for conscious experience, remain a very contentious issue, about which informed people can disagree. I know plenty of neuroscientists who don’t believe that consciousness has a scientific solution, and I’ve read plenty of philosophers who disagree. Only time will tell who is right.

    That said, I think it’s a fascinating question. So let’s try to keep the tone civil.

  9. #9 Caledonian
    November 16, 2006

    I think the nature of conscious experience, and the possibility of a reductionist explanation for conscious experience, remain a very contentious issue, about which informed people can disagree.

    You are right about the first point – in the sense that there will inevitably be enough people willing to argue the matter for it to be ‘contentious’, and if we accept the friendliest meaning of ‘reductionist’ – but utterly wrong about the second.

    The most charitable interpretation of your claim to be a “New Mysterian” I can find is that you don’t believe human beings are intelligent enough to find and comprehend the explanation for how neural tissue can perform the information processing we call ‘consciousness’ – and since you most certainly aren’t able to specify either how difficult that task is or what the upper bounds on human intelligence are, the most charitable things that can be said about your claim are that it is entirely unfounded and utterly unscientific.

    There are only so many ways to civily point out that a position is garbage. Your stated criteria rule out the possibility that an explanation can be found because you require that the existence of logical impossibility be necessary for the criteria to be met. This is incoherent at best – mysterianism is to psychology and neurology what vitalism is to biology.