Presented at the conference “Neuro-mania as knowledge vehicle. A debate on neuro-reduction boundaries”, Bologna University, Aula Magna, Via Filippo Re 10, 16 March 2011
Neuro-mania as knowledge vehicle. A debate on neuro-reduction boundaries
ASIA Study Centre – Bologna University, Biology Dep.
Paolo Legrenzi’s and Carlo Umiltà’s book (Neuromania, Ed Il Mulino, 2009) is a valuable opportunity to reflect on the relationship between mind and brain, from an neuroscientific perspective. In fact, a neuroscientist and a cognitive psychologist are dedicated to highlighting the filters that we assume, even in science, when we look at these fascinating colored images of brains, now on each specialized scientific review and therefore widely on newspapers and television programs.
I must say that here today I found an excessive consensus on the assumption of physicalism which predicts the existence of only physical matter, and reduces to it- with varying degrees  – the mental dimension. My contribution starts from this assumption and aims to highlight three points, which can be expressed easily in questions:
1) Is there an issue of principle that limits the claims of some neurologists to reduce every mental event to a brain behaviour?
2) What is at stake in the enterprise of cognitive neuro-reduction? And which are the ethical implications of this vision?
3) Is a knowledge of the “lived mind”, complementary and supplementary to that of neuroimaging, possible?
1) Anti-reductionist Topic – go back
The study of the mind has been characterized in recent years by a shift from PSYCHO-suffix, that has dominated research and applications on the mind for many years (psycho-analysis, therapy, philosophy, psychological and behavioural tests, etc..) to the new suffix NEURO-(neuro-ethics, politics, aesthetics, theology, economics, marketing) . This shift configure, as written by Legrenzi and Umiltà, a widespread neuro-mania which assumes that the neural correlates drawn from neuroimaging are "explanation" of mankind.
However, there is much in common between these settings: are both theoretical representations of concrete ongoing experience. The settings of a psychological model found a more scientific framework in Functionalism, acclaimed in the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century, which saw mind as the software of the brain, a program which can be realized through different hardwares. The neuro-reductionist physicalist in vogue today see instead the mind identical to the brain, and try to explain causal links between neural and mental plane. Have an important role also physicalist non-reductionist theories that, without giving up a physical-neurological base, underline the emergence of different properties and laws layers from this base .
Whatever the theoretical framework that the speakers who have preceded me have assumed, in this debate the main evidence - that presents itself to me now - is the absolute primacy of my ongoing experience; each of us can check it now in first person and cannot deny it. So the theory that I support (psychological or neurological) and my asserting it, may be perhaps the product of functions or neurons, but first of all is experience, and it is experienced now. I'm not talking about the flow of thoughts and feelings passing through us, but the fact of making-experience of this contents. Each can check it by himself: if he tries to deny it he’ll live the experience of denial. So the theory that I support (be it psychological, neurological, emergentist) and my asserting it, is it produced by neurons, or is simply experience? And if I say “yes” or “no”, that answer is lived/experienced or neuro-generated? And this question?
In the beautiful text of Legrenzi and Umiltà, authors don’t accept an easy reductionism: for them aesthetic experience and feeling are not only cerebral events but "lived"; the brain has a fundamental role because it is a "prerequisite" for lived experience of feeling, and feeling determines ethical or esthetical judgments.
In this sense, they criticize the idea of man should be only a "social construction"  as it was intended in the almost "political" perspective of the ‘70s of the past century. This is just an abstract idea, a judgment that is preceded by a feeling and a brain. Rather they bring human nature to its concrete biological structural basis.
At the same time the authors criticize the excess of neuro-reductionism that they name neuro-mania: it gives scientific credibility to conspicuous hypothesis simply presenting them with circular explanations, i.e. false explanations that only re-describe the phenomenon from the neural point of view, but that does not add nothing. In fact sometimes they can mystify .
Sharing fully this criticism, I would like to put a question: is the brain the manufacturer of feeling and beliefs, including the belief in neuro-images, or the brain itself could be built, a non-explanation that only describes the facts in a consistent representation which, first of all, we are experiencing?
I would suggest that the brain may be just a building, which is useful but not true. A building not produced by the "bourgeois" or "proletarian" prejudices but by epistemological prejudices. The theory of scientific knowledge states - roundly - to be the result of neurobiology, while neurobiology is clearly the product of the same neuro-epistemology itself... In this circular building we are returned from representation (neuro-image) to representation (scientific epistemological theory) up to lose sight of the first fact: that in us, when we say all this, the phenomenological given and existential initial is that we are experiencing it directly and we believe - or doubt - about the theory and ourselves!
That experience and that "believe" is explicable and describable? Is it linkable to the nervous system? If it were, the experienced act of reducing and believing in the reduction, it would remain as an irreducible first act. An experience that could not be caught in a brain recording . In this sense we can put as an argument against reductionism its inability to account for experience, not as far as the contents or the "stream of consciousness" are concerned, but as a first phenomenological act always essential for each measurement and description.
It should be noted that this is not a Cartesian dualist position in which one side is the world of facts and the other side the world of the mental acts: there's only in-act experience, which creates the impression of mind and world and in consequence it embodies them in stable and recognizable res. At the beginning we live only in the experience of perceiving reality, no matter whether it's of mental or material nature.
Similarly, as far as the hearing and the neural basis of emotion are concerned, Legrenzi and Umiltà speak of an "universal grammar of emotions"  which has its own conditions of possibility in the mirror neurons, in the amygdala and in other limbic structures.
Instead, we can suppose -but it would be better to listen it in our experience- a phenomenological grammar of involved and engaged feeling, intrinsic to the fact of experiencing. This feeling should be listened before it cools down through the recognition of different emotions, before it converts into the internal dialogue around them. Recognize and talk about feeling are ways to normalize it, to determine it and enclose it in psychological or neurological terms . For example, now, in this debate we would like to support our points of view, we are discussing while we are crossed by interest and intensity… or puzzled by these words (even saying this, however, we are enclosing our ongoing experiencing with words).
The anti-reductionist argument has also mean in the debate between "neural localisationism" and "brain mechanisms": the first says that we must identify the brain areas in which brain functions are activated, the other -also supported this morning by Prof. Umiltà- that we must try to understand the deep biological mechanisms in the brain through advanced techniques of investigation (TSC - Transcranic Magnetic Stimulation, DTI - Diffusion Tension Imaging). In this debate are active also other research areas, that suggest that mental functions are not to be found in "places" in the brain, but in resonance and synchronization "times" between distant brain areas .
However, the second or the third approach - certainly useful for studying functional or anatomical lesions - are similar to the first approach in explaining who we are, for the following reasons:
- they are not causal explanations, but only linear or non-linear correlations between different variables that roundly describe the neural phenomenon without touching the mental experience;
- once again, this debate, which one is now in progress, it’s primarily an actual and immediate experience, not a given object outside of me. When I wonder whether it is better to look for locations or mechanisms, before it happens the asking phenomenon! “Or not?” - to express it in the terms of the philosophical school of ASIA founded by Franco Bertossa.
It 's just the succession of cultural trends incurred by media? Or the advance of cultural policies that favor a more cognitive and reductionist approach?
It is a fact that those who do research must follow a reductionist paradigm to have more chance to publish, receive quotes and high impact factor and therefore economic resources, if they want to raise the ranking of universities and laboratories . These elements are certainly present and should not be underestimated.
In fact, the stake is even higher and is a new mankind "narrative", not only to cure man but also to manage it  in the most delicate passages of his life.
The thorniest issues, today without governance, are all characterized by the need of a strong idea of man. These are the themes of bioethics (birth, care, sorrow, death, mental illness, etc..); the question of what is well-health-happiness and their social policies; the problem of existential malaise and discomfort; the idea of performance, social or sports. And so on.
This idea of man has ceased to exist because past narratives of the world and of mankind are too weak.
All philosophical-ideological and psychological views are fell down, only Neurosciences now to provide certainty as a concrete "neural body" . So the neural structure aspires to become the "true" nature of man and lead his personal and social behavior. Medical technology in particular urges us to adopt neuroscientific narrative in order to build up a "vision" that provides the “epistemic key brick” to truth and value.
As in 1800 phrenology and mesmerism  lost ground and effectiveness, now is the psychology which meets defeat. The neuro-medicine seems the winner for several reasons:
- neurosciences and neuroimaging have a normalizing power giving explanations, or at least correlations, in behavior and mental activities.
- neurosciences penetrate with strong and objective bases in the individual experience field, colonizing it and answering questions about what is mind, how it works, to what it needs that and this mechanism . Allow to change your mind, to cure it, maybe to replicate it. Neurosciences power gives relief, removes uncertainty; while at the same time it dominates us.
Knowledge consequences are relevant. As well Legrenzi and Umiltà show, it is advancing a form of neuro-positivism: having found in the "essence" of the mind in the brain it seems to be possible to extend it to each field (ethics, aesthetics, politics, theology, economics).
But for these extensions grounded bases in exact science are missing, it’s impossible to identify bridge-laws that allow us to reduce the psychic content (I, psyche, fear, satisfaction, belief) to the same physical laws .
And above all, we cannot reduce everything to the brain. As expressed with the argument introduced above: even if we could reduce it, it will never be possible to reduce the immediate act of "reducing" that we are experiencing.
Even the ethical consequences are very important; it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the body neural seat of sensations, feelings, thoughts and performance, and lived experience (experience in both senses: living psychic contents, but especially as the underlying original act of experience which recognizes its contents and itself).
If the line falls and we smooth only over the “neural body”, how to determine if the pill - ingested by an anxious depressed or an athlete - is a medicine or a drug? .
The risk is to keep only the description of neural birth, death, pain, care, mental illness, losing the multidimensional levels of lived experience. And the evidence that it has an origin, an initial, not surmountable act: sometimes we can call it "notice", "ask", "believe", "doubt".
3) The blind spot of knowledge and the methodological integration – go back
The French scientist and philosopher Michel Bitbol, colleague and collaborator of the passed away Francisco Varela, with whom the Centre for Studies ASIA leads for years a successful collaboration, defines the on-going-experience as the "blind spot" of scientific thought .
The character nearest to us, that most could face the question "who are we?" in vivo, result in fact invisible to science, one of the most extraordinary adventures of human thought.
This project intends to bring to the attention as the "blind spot" inaccessible to science remains intrinsically non-reducible.
To do this, he tried to highlight some forms of on-going-experience: noticing theories, believing in them, to be interested in them, opposing them, questioning, doubting, etc... These acts are the transcendental conditions of possibility of all on-going-knowledge, not reducible to a "known" neuroimaging.
But it is problematic to realize and accept the primacy of the experienced level than scientific one. The effect of this is that we fail to trust what we understand through direct, immediately placed in a body that feels, experience. Difficultly we believe in ourselves, unless our understanding is supported by NEURO- suffixed data.
How to remedy this? The possibility is to enable integration between different levels of knowledge so that experience would have the same force of scientific experimentation. It is possible to be trained at the meeting (in first person) experienced and examined through mental or physical facts, according to rigorous and shared phenomenological methods. The results should be discussed and argued with an intersubjective exchange (second person) in order to valid, examine and analyse the experience as far as possible. Finally phenomenological data can be included and compared both with neural data and psychological processes, in order to formulate an acceptable scientific discourse (in third person).
The most critical point to start with, remains the first; it needs an introspective and phenomenological education - a practice that passes through the lived-body - to check that on-going-experience . This approach has been pursued by meditative and contemplative traditions, that can be proposed in a non-denominational way, as proposed by the research program of the Neurophenomenology of Francisco Varela . The A.S.I.A. Study Centre with the continuous stimulus of its Director Franco Bertossa - whom the analysis presented here must be leaded back - has been working for years to deepen the "lived" mental dimension in dialogue with philosophy and science .
Reviving the "blind spot" of on-going-experience has important ethical consequences. We have seen how, in the case of the reduction of mental states to neuro-behavior, we must entrust to Neurosciences the last word on life, death, ethics or aesthetics. However, if we see that we can center ourselves in the beginning of on-going-experience, we can open us to the possibility of transforming our lives "from the inside".
And not because we become free to decide, but because we return to be the fulcrum -suspended but unavoidable– of every mental, psychological, economic, religious or artistic event. A fulcrum without suffix of determination, whether psycho-, neuro-or meta-.
by Roberto Ferrari
Asia Study Center
Translated from the Italian version by Stefano Poletti.
Notes – please click on the number to go back to the annotation inside the article.
 Morato, 2011
 Nesi, 2010
 Legrenzi e Umiltà, 2009, p. 82.
 Ibidem, p. 64.
 Bertossa e Ferrari, 2005.
 Ibidem, p. 94
 Perniola, 2001.
 Varela, 2001.
 Legrenzi e Umiltà, 2009, p. 11
 Ibidem, p. 103
 Biasi, 2010.
 Nesi, 2010.
 Morato, 2011
 Legrenzi e Umiltà, 2009, p. 108.
 Bitbol, 2001, 2002.
 Bertossa e Ferrari, 2006.
 Varela et al., 1991. Varela, 1996.
 Bertossa, 2002. Bertossa e Ferrari, 2005.
Bertossa F. (2002), Buddha e Heidegger: la vacuità e la differenza (2002), Asia a.m.v.a.i. n.19, in asia.it.
Bertossa F., Ferrari R., (2005), Lo sguardo senza occhio. Esperimenti sulla mente cosciente tra scienza e meditazione, Alboversorio, Milano.
Bertossa F., Ferrari R., (2006), Meditazione di presenza mentale per le scienze cognitive. Pratica del corpo e metodo in prima persona. in Neurofenomenologia a cura di M.Cappucccio, ed. Bruno Mondadori, Milano.
Biasi V. (2010) Neuromania, (Italian article).
Bitbol M. (2001), Non representationalist theories of knowledge and Quantum Mechanics, SATS (Nordic journal of philosophy), 2, pp. 37-61.
Bitbol M. (2002), Science as if situation mattered, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Science, 1, 181-224 (in asia.it: Una scienza in cui l’essere situati conta)
Legrenzi P., Umiltà C. (2009) Neuro-mania. Il cervello non spiega chi siamo, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Morato v. (2011), Commento a Neuromania di P. Legrenzi e C. Umiltà, Seminario “Neuro-mania: un dibattito sui limiti della neuroriduzione” Università di Bologna, Aula Magna via S. Filippo Re – 16 marzo 2011.
Nesi A. (2010) Neuro-mania. Spunti di riflessione circa l'ipotesi dell'emergenza di una funzione-NEURO. (Italian article).
Perniola M. (2001) Del sentire, Einaudi, Torino.
Varela F.J., Thompson E., Rosch E. (1991), La via di mezzo della conoscenza. Le scienze cognitive alla prova dell’esperienza, Feltrinelli, Milano 1992.
Varela F.J. (1996), Neurofenomenologia, “Pluriverso” anno II, n. 3/1997, pp. 16-39.
Varela F.J. (2001), The brainweb: phase synchronization and large scale integration, in Nature Review Neuroscience, vol. 2, pp. 229-239.
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