Do we really think of brains like we talk about them?

I just read an interesting post by Christian Jarrett called “‘My Brain Did It!’ Neuro Talk in Everyday Conversation.” He comments on how with the increase of scientific information regarding our brains, people use more and more language that suggests their brain is an autonomous, computer-like agent, separate from their bodies (things like “this menu confuses my brain” or “I can feel my brain whirring”). Perhaps, one researcher has suggested, language like this reflects people’s materialistic beliefs that the mind is reducible to the brain. In other words, they think that their thoughts, feelings, and emotions are equivalent to the physiological processes occurring in their brains. There’s also the possibility that an increase of language that suggests that mind=brain will influence people’s beliefs about their minds and their selves.

Image: rachelolsen.com

Image: rachelolsen.com

This is interesting, but I’m not convinced (about either). The possibility was also mentioned that we talk about our thoughts and feelings by referencing the brain for pragmatic reasons- it can facilitate getting our point across in certain circumstances. This seems more likely to me, first because I think most people actually hold a dualist view of the mind, one that contrasts pretty starkly with the mind=brain viewpoint. People who believe in an afterlife or those who believe in paranormal activity have to believe that there is more to our minds, or our souls, than just the physical brain.

Another reason that I don’t think language about the brain reflects speakers’ beliefs about their minds is that we talk about other body parts in similar ways, but we certainly don’t believe that they operate in isolation. We often say that our heart is breaking or that our stomach wants food, but we know that these organs don’t actually break or have desires.

It does seem like there could be some cool research opportunities here. Do some people use materialist-sounding language more often than others? And does their language use correlate with their beliefs about the mind? Actually, does the average person (who might say something like “my brain said, ‘you can do it,’ but my body said, ‘no, you can’t’) even have beliefs about whether his mind is reducible to the brain?

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