The Neurocredulist: From Self to Neuroself, Part 5


Continued from Part 4

My name is Peter Freed, and I am a neurocredulist.

I would like to say “was” – I am tempted to say “was” – but like all addicts I must admit there always lurks a chance of relapse.  I must not flatter myself.  I must be honest.  I must stay real.  And most of all, I must not go back.

For many years – by my estimation, eighteen – I was in recovery.  I suffered proudly from neurocredulity’s gateway condition.  I was a neuroanatomist.

For all those years I labored over steel tables with scalpels and manuals, dissecting the brain in search of psychology.  In the amygdala was anxiety, the manual said, and in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex attention, and in the ventral tegmental area hope.  I cut and cut, and found and knew.

I was passionate back then. I threw myself into that strong elixer – or rather, threw it back.  To map the self onto the brain was my fondest hope, and I pursued it with ferocity, tenacity.

I had taken no science in college, but after graduation went to San Francisco State, studied my way through all the pre-medical requirements, survived on $17,000 a year working half-time as an orthopaedist’s clerk, and over the next two decades wound my way through two degrees into three forms of expertise.  I became a psychotherapist, psychopharmacologist, and functional neuroimager, focused in each case on the self.  I willed myself into becoming – at least in fantasy – the psychiatric triple threat.  I became my own university, learning to touch the self with words, molecules, and electromagnetic fields simultaneously.

I assumed naively that as my knowledge piled up unification would follow, like that elephant would have done if only those blind men had compared notes.   I railed against my psychology and social work colleagues who were not anatomical.  They were fools; I knew the way – I would understand the self from the inside out.  And not forget humanity along the way.  I could hold my drink.

I did not know then that the problem of induction made this impossible.  And I did not dream that even with it solved, or rather worked around, the self would still not map onto the brain. I never considered what I now know is true: that to find a neural self would be for the CIA to find Santa Claus in Mecca, or Greenpeace Atlantis in the Arctic Sea. And yet today it’s true: I read my colleagues’ claims that MRIs had found the self in the brain’s midline structures the way I read in The National Enquirer claim NASA’s Hubble telescope had found Waldo on the moon.  For eventually the inner logic of the Enlightenment got through to even me. I saw that the whole neuroanatomist mission was to fail.  There was no self in the brain.  It was just tissue as I cut it.  Or perhaps I should say the bottle was empty as I tipped it; I could not even drink my way to truth.

I have just explained this realization process in the last post – the slow understanding that neuroanatomy and psychology do not mix.  But what I have not yet explained is that, like all addicts, I was tempted, just as I hit hit bottom, to give myself over completely to addiction.  The hope was that somehow it has my sobriety that caused my pain.

And so I said if self could not map onto it, the brain alone was real.  My warped reasoning went like this: if there was no liquid in that bottle, I would eat the glass.  I threw psychology overboard entirely, and went all-in with anatomy.

I wish that I could say I knew that this was desperate, and that I saw even then another option – that neither brain nor self was right.  I wish I had considered that the problem lay in my assumptions.  But I did not.  Like many scientists, I gave in to my addiction. I moved from neuroanatomy to harder stuff.  I succumbed to neurocredulous temptation.  I deserted folk psychology, and said the mantra:

Brain is all.

In doing this – in humming, as I cut the organ, no longer searching for self or meaning, brain is all – I was following materialism to its final implication.  It may seem like an excuse, but the thing is, it really is one. It was peer pressure that made me do it.  I was sucked in.

Materialism.  That strange philosophy carries us not as a current in a river, but as a riptide in the sea.  By the time we are conscious of ourselves, we have dipped our toes into the ocean and been pulled out twenty miles to the depths.  At five – let alone twenty five – we are all too far gone to remember where we came from.  The land is out of sight, and we have grown flippers, gills and tails.   We are surrounded by a billion colleagues, swimming round and diving down, buying, buying, buying. All those who decry materialism today – ha!  They are materialists too.  They want to save the polar ice caps, or polar bears.  Because they believe in things. Even for them, the brain is absolutely real. The world is absolutely matter. The universe is absolutely physical.

And Plato was a fool. 

Continued in Part 6

One thought on “The Neurocredulist: From Self to Neuroself, Part 5

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.