The human brain is one of the most fascinating objects that is likely to be studied in a General Psychology class. As students delve into the research of the structures and functions of the brain, it is inevitable that they are confronted with an array of critical issues–the consequences for individuals of damage to their brains, the implications for human freedom and dignity of brain and behavior control, and the responsibility of providing a conductive environment for people to develop adequately.
Beyond these considerations are philosophical questions revolving around the mind-brain relationship which challenge the Christian to consider the human brain from the standpoint of the human person, and the person from the standpoint of God's purposes.
I. BRAIN-MIND RELATIONSHIP
The basic question of the relationship between the mind and brain has intrigued scientists and psychologists for many years. Philosophers and scientists have debated this question for centuries. One of those who troubled by this problem was Rene Descartes. Three centuries ago he proposed a dualistic view in which he described the brain and mind as distinct substances. The mind took up no space but acted on the body through the brain's pineal gland (Cotman, 1990). Descartes was wrong about the pineal, but the debate he stimulated rages on. How does the nonmaterial mind influence the brain, and vice versa? How does the Christian view the brain or the mind?
Roger Sperry, one of the foremost exponents of split-brain studies, advocates a "unifying view of mind and brain" in the 1977 American Psychologist. According to Sperry, the mind is an emergent property of brain activity. Once the mind has emerged, it assumes the dominant role of driving the brain (Popper and Eccles, 1977).
In recent years, neurobiologists have produced research that enhances our understanding of the human mind. Fischbach in an article published in the 1990 Scientific American, identifies the brain as "the organ of the mind." According to Fischbach, the brain, with its many specialized functions, is the central organ of the body. From the collective activity of all the brain regions emerges the most fascinating neurological phenomenon of all: the mind.
In agreement with Fischbach is Carla Shatz, professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Berkeley. She clearly asserts the fact that "the brain is the central organ that directs the intricate functions that make possible memory, vision, learning, thought, consciousness and other properties of the mind. . . In fact, during fetal development, the foundations of the mind are laid" (Shatz, 1990, p. 35).
For the Seventh-day Adventist Christian teacher, the brain is viewed as more than an anatomical organ. It is a marvelous organ created by God (Genesis 1). It is a complex organ that directs and interprets our sensations, thinking, reactions, evaluations, and helps us to discriminate right from wrong, good from bad.
Ellen White in her book, Education, confirms the power of the brain:
Our reasoning powers are given for use, and God desires them to be exercised. "Come now, and let us reason together" (Isa. 1:8). In reliance upon Him we have wisdom to "refuse the evil, and choose the good" (Isa. 7:15). (p. 231)
While the brain is a wonderful organ that directs the human functions, it should in no way be viewed as a mere machine. If we are nothing but machines, and if our brains are understood as clockwork toys, how can we be regarded as free agents?
To the Christian, the mind is understood as the sum total of all a person's conscious state which includes our thoughts, memories, feelings, and emotions. It is human mind that distinguishes the responsibility and uniqueness of the human person. Humanness demands creativity, the ability to think and act in totally new ways, to imagine new solutions and see things in novel forms. Hence, the mind distinguishes one person from another in the way the world is viewed, and analyzed. The brain allows a variety in how each person synthesizes ideas, argues an issue, or expresses a mood. However, when the brain is off, the mind is off!
In sum, the brain directs the millions of neurons that send different messages to various parts of the body. However, it is the human mind, that nonmaterial part, that takes these sensations and messages and expresses them in unique ways--different for each individual.
II. MARVELOUS POSSIBILITIES OF THE BRAIN
Storage and Retrieval
The brain is the structure that truly sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Together with the spinal cord, the brain forms the central nervous system that regulates our sensory, cognitive, emotional, physical, and motor abilities. The human nervous system is made up of networks of nerve cells that connect every distant bit of tissue with the ten billion nerve cells of the governing brain. Electric neural impulses travel along these pathways at speeds ranging from 200-300 miles per hour, leaping across narrow gaps between cells, relaying messages to and from the brain. This marvelous network system prompted Hippocrates in the 6th century B. C. to commit himself in no uncertain terms to the supremacy of the brain as the source of our intellectual powers. He wrote:
Man ought to know that from the brain and the brain only arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests as well as our sorrows, pains, grief and tears . . . . It is the same thing that makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or be day, brings sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent mindedness, and acts that are contrary to habit (Jones, 1981, p. 15).
Crick and Koch, in their study of visual awareness, admit that the structural variety of neurons in the brain indicates a marvelous organ with the capacity to store, retrieve, use and express information, as well as to experience emotion and control movement (Crick & Koch, 1990).