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Book Forum: Mind/Brain   |    
Philosophy of the Brain: The Brain Problem
DAVID V. FORREST, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:408-409. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.2.408
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By Georg Northoff. Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2003, 429 pp., $119.00; $81.95 (paper).

Georg Northoff is a German philosopher who decided to investigate the major philosophical questions of brain and mind by immersing himself in neuroscience and neuropsychiatry, including taking leave from his teaching and clinical duties in Magdeburg and Düsseldorf to visit "the Department of Neurology at Harvard University in Boston." Apparently this is a departure from business as usual; so much philosophy remains aloof and abstract and does not deal with empirical neuromental parameters. Perhaps he made this departure because Northoff himself engaged in clinical investigation. The book cites a study (1) in which Northoff and his co-workers threw balls back and forth with 32 acute akinetic catatonic patients (an impressive number to have found) at the university psychiatric clinic in Frankfurt. Really, they did! They found a deficit in internal initiation and generation of movement, as in parkinsonism.

The present volume is organized in four chapters. In the first chapter Northoff deals with the "brain problem" in philosophy, which, to put it bluntly, has been its neglect in favor of discussing mind. He creates the neologism "embedment," a combination of embodiment and embeddedness, defined "by an intrinsic relationship between brain, body and environment" (p. 19), which are reciprocally dependent. Neurophilosophy is the investigation of philosophical theories in relation to neuroscientific hypotheses, and it can be phenomenal or cognitive, empirical or theoretical. The author says the brain has an epistemic inability to detect and recognize itself as a brain. The "autoepistemic limitation" means you have no first-person direct epistemic access to your brain states as brain states. What about fMRIs? This poses a challenge to philosophers, but a mock dialogue between a psychiatrist and a philosopher (p. 114) says you need a radiologist to help you. (What if you are a radiologist? What if you are a psychiatrist who reads journals like this one, which investigates brain imaging, and you set up mirrors to watch your own fMRI?)

Chapter 2 deals with epistemological issues under the headings spatial, temporal, mental, and reflexive embedment, the last being oddly termed "the own brain and other brains." The third chapter advances a philosophy of the brain as both embedded and dynamic, engaged in event coding. Careful reading reveals that the term "dynamic" is not used here in the usual psychiatric sense of a system of drives in dynamic balance with repressive self-controls, or the unconscious struggling to become conscious, or conflict between agencies of mind. Rather, the picture is one of vector-to-vector transformations and self-organization familiar to neural network modelers. On page 292, Northoff discusses dynamic causation as involving changes rather than stationary moments, but the crucial component of forces seems to be omitted here, as it often is in cognitive psychology.

Psychoanalysis is mentioned twice in the book and psychodynamics twice. "Psychologically, blockade of integration between past and present feelings/emotions may be reflected in defence mechanisms, as described in psychodynamics" (p. 153). "Phenomenal judgment," or conscious awareness, is "exploited in psychoanalysis" (p. 241). Emotions are seen as a paradigm for the convergence of environmental and bodily events. Consciousness is problematic:

Philosophers are always discussing "(mental) states" of consciousness, alertness and so forth. However, seen from the brain that is doing the job of creating consciousness, the (mental) state is ephermeral [sic]. When we look inside the brain we see no (mental) states, only constantly fluctuating scintillations of graded potentials and quickly flashing action potentials. (p. 190)

Northoff states that dynamic states are not neuronal states. They are constitutive for the co-occurrence of both neuronal and mental states. Nobody has detected a mental state by imaging, Northoff strictly rules.

The last chapter deals with the paradigm shift that is required by neurophilosophers, "as traditional philosophy is undermined and complemented" (p. 364). "The domain of philosophy consists no longer in the mind and the ‘philosophy of mind’ but rather in the brain and the ‘philosophy of the brain’ " (p. 364).

Northoff puts every term he defines in quotes. This leads to pages full of terms in quotes. For example, "Epistemically, the term ‘event’ is necessarily related to the context’ [sic—missing open quotation mark] which reflects the ‘environment’ " (p. 232). At times it seems as if there is a concern with what the definition of "the" is. But I quibble. This is thoughtful work, and Northoff, like philosophers generally, is concerned with the definition of terms. There is also an impressive amount of reference to specific brain structures, for a philosophical text.

This may be an important book for philosophy. My own preference in neurophilosophy is the work of V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D. His book, which I reviewed in the Journal(2), avoids a great deal of lucubration dwelling upon philosophical imponderables by simply designing brilliant experiments to provide answers. Northoff cites Ramachandran’s work, but, in view of his theme of "embedment," I was surprised at his omission of Warren McCullough, the psychiatrist who in 1943 authored the seminal work in neural networks, reprinted in the book Embodiments of Mind(3).

Northoff G, Wenke J, Krill W, Pflug B: Ball experiments in 32 acute akinetic catatonic patients: deficits of internal initiation and generation of movements. Mov Disord  1995; 10:589–595
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Forrest DV: Bk rev, VS Ramachandran, S Blakeslee: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Am J Psychiatry  2000; 157:841–842
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
McCullough W: Embodiments of Mind. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1965, pp 19–39
 
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References

Northoff G, Wenke J, Krill W, Pflug B: Ball experiments in 32 acute akinetic catatonic patients: deficits of internal initiation and generation of movements. Mov Disord  1995; 10:589–595
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Forrest DV: Bk rev, VS Ramachandran, S Blakeslee: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Am J Psychiatry  2000; 157:841–842
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
McCullough W: Embodiments of Mind. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1965, pp 19–39
 
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