“Brains?” Do you mind?

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I think it would be a bit conceited to think that anyone reads my blog posts and hangs on every word, but it may or may not have struck you that I tend to avoid mentioning the brain unless I’m talking about the organ. Since I study cognition, I tend to say things like “cognitive system” or “mind.” A lot of people conflate these things, but I try to avoid doing so. This difference may seem pedantic or insignificant, but I would protest that on a few points.

  1. The brain is a piece of meat. It’s certainly a critical portion of the cognitive system and mind, but it is not the whole system. For example, the enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as “the second brain.” While they may/not be overstating the the neuronal activity by comparing it to our brains, it is undeniably a factor in our cognition.
  2. Beyond the second brain, our bodies play a major role in our cognition. Sensory organs transform raw inputs before they ever reach our brains. Making changes to posture can impact mood. Hell, even holding a pencil in our teeth can change how we feel about things we see and hear. Our brains are part of our bodies and are intimately linked to form our cognition.
  3. Words matter. A concept known as Cartesian Dualism – a separation of the brain (mind!) and body – still permeates our culture today despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even researchers that focus exclusively on the brain when studying cognition, when pressed, would acknowledge that the brain is NOT the mind.

Clearly, I prescribe to the Embodied Cognition paradigm. In a nutshell, it means I doubt if the brain and body can be separated in a meaningful way when talking about cognition. The two are part of the same whole system. The brain controls the body, and the body controls the brain. It’s all interrelated and should be considered holistically.

I’ll freely admit that there’s more than one way to interpret this thing called the mind. But I won’t go around reducing our cognitive systems to “the brain.” That would be like pointing to a tiger and merely calling it a cat: it’s mostly right, but also incredibly misleading in some crucial ways in the wrong context.