Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Book Review: The Biological Mind


Alan Jasanoff is an award winning neuroscientist and bioengineer at MIT. He obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard College. He earned a Masters in Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK, and completed his PhD studies in Biophysics at Harvard University. Jasanoff joined the faculty of the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT in 2004. The Jasanoff laboratory is focused on developing new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods to study the neural mechanisms of behavior. The research in the Jasanoff lab is at the interface between neuroscience and biology. In his book The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body and Environment Collaborate To Make Us Who We Are Jasanoff provides strong arguments that we are more than our brains. When asking what makes you who you are, Jasanoff answers by pointing out you are not only your brain, but you are the product of interactions among the brain, the body outside of the brain and the environment. The brain is important but so is the rest of the body and the environment in determining who you are. The current article provides a review of  The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body and Environment Collaborate To Make Us Who We.


Jasanoff introduces the term cerebral mystique. The cerebral mystique reflects a belief that the brain is much more important than anything else in determining who we are. Believing that the brain is all that matters, in determining who we are, is derived from a false perception of the organ and its significance as being independent from a system that includes the body outside of the brain and the environment. The mystique promotes age-old conceptions about distinctions between mind and body, free will and the nature of the individuality of humans. The cerebral mystique can appear in multiple forms including beliefs in superstitious entities, exaggerated sophistication of brains as promoted in fiction and media, beliefs regarding cognitive functions that emphasize inorganic qualities or identify mental processes as isolated functions occurring only in specific neural structures. These mystical like conceptions regarding the brain are ubiquitous in laypeople and scientists.

A positive outcome of the cerebral mystique is that glorifying the brain can help influence public interest in neurobiological research, which may lead to valuable findings that can benefit society. However, overemphasizing the importance of the brain may conceal a basic finding of neuroscience: human minds are biologically based, stemming from physiological processes and are subject to the principles that govern nature. By exalting the brain we run the risk of creating a sharp distinction between the brain and the body and the brain and the environment. This leads to losing sight of the interactive reality of our world.

In the first part of the book the cerebral mystique, and its various forms, are presented. Issues related to the cerebral mystique promote a brain-body distinction that is similar to the well known mind-body dualism found in Western philosophy and religion that has existed for hundreds of years. By viewing the brain and body as distinct  we may think of people as more independent than they truly are, and we minimize our connections to others and minimize how the environment influences who we are. To reiterate, this separation between brain and body acts as a stand-in for mind-body dualism; the belief that the mind and body are comprised of completely separate substances.        

In part 2, the author explains why a biologically realistic view of brains and minds is important, and how this view could improve the world. Three areas (psychology, medicine and technology) that are heavily influenced by the cerebral mystique are discussed. In psychology, the mystique promotes a view that the brain is the sole cause of thoughts and behaviors. This leads to an exaggerated view of the role of individuality and downplays the influence of context in a range of phenomena. In medicine the negative consequence of the cerebral mystique is to perpetuate the stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses. Society tends to think of brain disorders as broken brains. Broken brains are often conceived as being untreatable. Viewing mental disorders as synonymous with brain disorders leads to a greater reliance on medications and less use of cognitive and behavioral interventions. Mental illness conceptualized as a brain disorder ignores the issue the mental pathologies are frequently culturally relative and subjectively defined. In technological areas, the cerebral mystique revolves around science fiction and ideas regarding breaking into the brain: “hacking the brain.” Technological advances have historically involved high levels of injury risk and benefited mostly debilitated patients.  Currently, the most successful innovations used to improve elements of cognition are external sources. In Jasanoff’s view writing is probably the greatest cognitive aid ever invented.

The Cerebral Mystique

The most popular analogy for the mind is the computer. Many scientists and philosophers  accept the analogy, whether it be implicitly or explicitly, between computers and minds. Popular science magazines are full of brain-computer analogies, that compare brains with computers in terms of information processing , speed of computations and efficiency. Brain and computer analogies have been proposed since the beginning of the digital age. Computers and brains are noted for their electrical signaling. Both use electrical signaling, but the brain also uses chemicals. Electrical signaling in a computer is much different than the sort of electrical based, multi-factorial activity happening in the brain. Only considering the roles of neurons and electrical activity in neurons leads to an incomplete view of brain processes. Approximately half of the brain’s cells are neurons. The brain also contains other cells: glia and endothelia. In addition, the brain is rich in fluids and chemicals that participate in brain processes. Reducing cognitive processing strictly to the neuron’s electrical signaling misrepresents brain signaling. Accepting the notion that brains function according to exceptional principles, that are not displayed in other biological entities, is a result of the cerebral mystique.

The brain is complex; an appreciation of the complexity can spark further interest and research in brain science, but it can also lead to less interest in the biology of our bodies outside of the brain. Exaggerated views of its complexity can lead to abandoning a biologically based view of the mind. The brain is a multi-faceted, multi-purpose structure that doesn’t operate detached from the body. In describing brains in accordance with their exceptional complexity it creates a brain-body distinction as in other forms of the cerebral mystique.

Thousand of neuroimaging studies are published each year. An imaging technique that has almost become synonymous with discussions on neuroscience is the functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).  It is the subject of popular science and sometimes promoted as revolutionary in contributing to an understanding of the human brain. To perform an fMRI a person lays in an imaging machine while a series of brain scans are occurring. The image series is analyzed for time varying changes that are correlated with whatever the person was experiencing at that time. These changes indicate how different areas of the brain are involved when engaging in specific tasks. Brain imaging appears fascinating  for lay people and some scientists, as it provides a physical basis for cognitive and emotional processes. Jasanoff argues that we must consider more than brain imaging for a deeper understanding of the brain’s role in human nature. Brain imaging is subject to contradictory interpretations, doesn’t allow us to read the mind and its persuasive value in many contexts is unwarranted. It might seem surprising but some mind-body dualists welcome functional brain imaging studies as a way for examining the disembodied mind. The Dalai Lama has worked with researchers on topics relating to the brain and meditation.  Neuroscientists use brain imaging in this context to examine how brain activity underpins meditation and the mind. The Dalai Lama has expressed interest in neuroscience as he wants to learn something more about how the immaterial mind influences the brain. To the Dalai Lama and other  people holding similar views brain imaging doesn’t provide evidence of a biological mind. Pictures derived from fMRIs provide valuable information regarding brain activity, but they have limitations. Functional brain images are highly processed, statistical representations of data that are at times “as distant from underlying biological processes as bologna is from a pig” (Jasanoff,  2018, p.81). Understanding how mental processes work at a deep level requires multiple levels of analysis; it is important to look beyond neuroimaging techniques.

Looking at brains through the lens of popular neuroscience brains can become exceptionally complex, mystical machines, rather than biological organs consisting of flesh and blood. The rest of the body seems to be dispensable when compared to the brain. Personification of the brain is reflected in statements such as “my brain is exhausted” or “my brain doesn’t work that way.” Mental states are influenced by bodily cues in addition to those occurring in the brain. The brain is required for an awareness of these ailments, but the ailments influence mental states are often indirect. As examples of indirect routes consider malaria and bone disorders. The parasite that causes malaria has an impact on blood vessels and influences consciousness by disrupting blood flow and oxygen carrying capacity. Bone disorders influence the mind by causing inflammation and pain in areas outside of the brain. Various mental dysfunctions can be caused by bodily problems including those of the lungs, heart or endocrine systems. When malfunctions occur in the body outside of the brain the mind can be negatively influenced. A growing body of research supports embodied cognition, which shows that how we move through the world and the particular use of our bodily structures has an impact on our mental systems.

All thoughts and actions are consequences that are influenced by a system including environmental and bodily (including the brain) interactions. Sensory organs are continuously sending signals to the brain. Our senses are active at varying levels, even when sleeping. When examining sensory biology it becomes evident that our brains are heavily influenced by external stimuli, and this occurs even when we are unaware (unconsciously) it is happening. A surprising phenomenon first identified in the early 21st century shows some areas of the brain are deactivated by many stimuli. These regions of the brain have been termed the brain’s default mode network and involve a fair portion of the cerebral cortex and areas outside of sensory or motor processing areas.

The Importance of Being Biological

A brain based model isn’t beneficial in identifying and treating factors associated with addiction. Peer pressure, family structure and socioeconomic status are well-known risk factors for addiction. Explaining addiction as a brain disease can have negative consequences such as diverting attention away from behavioral therapies that may benefit addicts. Another area that often places too much emphasis on a brain based model is the study of creativity. Media often talk about the creative brain or present colorful brain illustrations showing creative parts of the brain. Most brain scientists agree that brain biology is important regarding cognitive capacities; however, it is also acknowledged that culture, economic status and education are factors nvolved with creative acts. Research involving the study of creativity in molecular biology labs show that creative ideas are most likely to come from group discussions involving diverse inputs, rather than from single brains working in isolation.

Mental illness is a worldwide problem, with depression being the leading cause of disability. Ninety percent of US suicides are associated to mental disorders. Some have argued that equating mental illness with brain disease will help in treating these ailments and can reduce stigma associated with psychological problems. Jasanoff disagrees and presents three general points challenging the brain disease model of mental illness. First, the brain disease model introduces a new stigma that works against those with mental health problems: the stigma of a broken brain. Second, by focusing on the brain potentially effective therapies, such as cognitive and behavioral therapies are not considered. Third, too much emphasis on problems with individual brains overemphasizes neural causes of mental illness while understating the role of environmental and cultural factors. Equating mental health illness  with brain disease doesn’t seem to prevent the stigmatization of those with mental health issues. An international analysis over a 20 year period found no improvement in social acceptance of people with mental illness, despite the public’s exposure to neurobiological explanations of mental illness. Evidence indicates internal and external factors influence mental health. The brain is involved with behaviors of all sorts, at some level, but whether a brain abnormality is an underpinning cause or second order effect is hard to determine.

Neurotechnology has led to the concept of hacking the brain. Most people think of hacking the brain as it relates to the brain-as- computer analogy; it involves breaking into and manipulating the brain. Fascination with neurotechnology is based on ideas that hacking the brain will free it from the body’s constraints. However, it also reflects thinking derived from the cerebral mystique and carries with it a few problems. The first problem, is the thought that the brain and body are distinct from each other. The second problem, is the sense that the brain is stronger or has less limitations than the body outside of the brain. In fact, the brain and body structures other than the brain have similar weaknesses, such as limited endurance and capacity, as well as vulnerability to decay, infection and injury. The cerebral mystique limits thinking about neurotechnologies similar to ways in which it restricts thinking in regards to mental illness and the individual’s role in society.

The final chapter of the book is written in a different style than the previous chapters. The author provides a fictional tale of what it would be like to have your brain preserved in a vat. A vat is a large tank or tube generally used to hold liquid. Would you still have the same experiences if your brain were detached from your body, preserved and functioned by brain-computer- interface? Jasanoff says, no. He points out that a lot of what makes us who we are is due to environmental factors, somatic signals, sensory cues, social interactions and so on. The key message perpetuated throughout the book is “you are not only your brain.” Recognizing you are more than your brain and understanding how the brain is interactive with the body and its surroundings can help us appreciate our place as biological beings in a universe consisting of complex interrelationships. 


I think a different subtitle for the book should have been chosen; the subtitle How Brain, Body, And Environment Collaborate To Make Us Who We Are implies separation of brain and body. Jasanoff is promoting the opposite: brain and body are inseparable. The subtitle would be a better representative of the contents of the book if it were How Brain, Body Outside of the Brain, And Environment Collaborate To Make Us Who We Are. Other titles would work, just so they reflect that the brain isn’t distinct from the body. I would have liked to have read a more on the motor system and how sensory feedback neurons influence movement , and the mechanisms involved with exercise and its impact on brain structures and processes. A little more coverage of embodied cognition would also have added to the value of the book. Those few critiques by no means take away from the value of this work. 

The book is choked full of useful references and provides updates regarding the latest philosophical views and scientific studies regarding the mind. The book places emphasis on  a need for different levels of analysis in an attempt to understand the mind. This book would be a good addition to anyone’s library that has interest in the brain sciences and philosophical discussions related to neuroscience, psychology or related fields.


Title: The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate To Make Us Who We Are / Alan Jasanoff. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2018.