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The Biological Mind

How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are

By Alan Jasanoff
18-minute read
Audio available
The Biological Mind by Alan Jasanoff

The Biological Mind (2018) debunks the “cerebral mystique,” the commonly held belief that our brains are somehow completely independent from our bodies and our surroundings. Using the latest insights from neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, this approachable primer demonstrates that what you see as yourself is much more complex than you thought.

  • Science buffs looking to keep up with the latest research
  • Armchair philosophers curious about questions of consciousness
  • Psychonauts seeking to understand their own minds

Dr. Alan Jasanoff is a professor of Biological Engineering, Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His lab at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research produces some of the world’s most cutting-edge research into neuroscience and brain functioning.

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The Biological Mind

How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are

By Alan Jasanoff
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Biological Mind by Alan Jasanoff
Synopsis

The Biological Mind (2018) debunks the “cerebral mystique,” the commonly held belief that our brains are somehow completely independent from our bodies and our surroundings. Using the latest insights from neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, this approachable primer demonstrates that what you see as yourself is much more complex than you thought.

Key idea 1 of 11

Most of us see the brain as a transcendental object rather than a biological organ.

The mammalian brain is one of the most complex structures in nature. Even a cow’s brain consists of billions of cells and trillions of neurological connections. It truly is a wonder. Yet, the mammalian brain is far more than just a complex – it’s also a tasty snack. 

Yes, that’s right, the brain is edible. Full of fat and vitamins, it’s pretty nutritious. Given the right recipe, it can be whipped up into a tasty soup or stew. Okay, if you’re like most people, brain isn’t usually on the menu. But this hasn’t always been the case. Archeological evidence from Kenya suggests early humans made animal brains a regular snack. It’s only relatively recently that its popularity as a food has declined, especially in the West.

So, why the aversion to eating what could easily be a hearty and healthy delicacy? It’s because of what the author calls the “cerebral mystique.” We see brains as more than just an organ. We see them as the seat of the mind, and the source of the soul.

The key message here is: Most of us see the brain as a transcendental object rather than a biological organ.

Our modern fixation on the special nature of the brain started in the early 1800s when German scientist Franz Gall popularized phrenology. Phrenology claimed a person’s intelligence and character could be mapped onto the size and shape of their brain. 

Despite being largely false, phrenology made brains a hot topic. Famous figures from Abraham Lincoln to Walt Whitman underwent phrenological exams. Universities amassed extensive collections of brains in jars. Entire colonial projects were justified based on flimsy comparisons between European and African skull shapes.

Of course, few believe in phrenology now. These days, our scientific understanding of the brain is much more nuanced. Decades of research show that the brain is a complex organ and its functioning is impacted by innumerable variables. Still, the “cerebral mystique” remains strong. 

Popular culture still depicts the brain as mysterious, elusive, almost supernatural. Just think of the pictures used to accompany magazine articles about anything neuroscience related: the brain is shown as ethereal, floating alone, bathed in mystical blue or green light. 

The next blinks will deconstruct this illusion. We’ll start with the widespread belief that the brain and body are somehow separate entities.

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