You are not your brain

William M. Reddy is William T. Laprade Professor Emeritus of History and Professor Emeritus of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. His many scholarly contributions to the history of emotions include The Navigation of Feeling (2001) and The Making of Romantic Love (2012). He is co-editor of the book series Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions.

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Professor Reddy uses his own personal experience to shed some critical light on the idea that your brain can make you do things.


You are not your brain. This is not a point about whether or not you have a “soul,” or whether your “mind” somehow operates independently in a place outside your head. This is a completely down-to-earth, obvious, objective fact.

There is, to be sure, a very remarkable one-to-one mapping between certain aspects of brain functioning and certain aspects of personal experience. But, as far as you, yourself, are concerned (or me, myself, or anyone else), the brain is—not you—but something much larger: it is the whole universe. Every aspect of the universe insofar as you experience and know it, is to be found, quite objectively, not out there somewhere, but in your brain.

Some titles recently grouped in a bookstore suggest the current explosion of interest in the “brain” variously understood.

We tend to acknowledge this obvious fact only when we make mistakes. For example, if I am fooled by an optical illusion, I am willing to concede that there is something about my visual system (i.e., a feature of my brain) that is responsible for this—especially when I am shown that everyone is fooled (or a lot of people, anyway) in the same way. I am even more sure of this when I am shown that, when I make this kind of mistake, neuroscientists can show me why. They may point out that brain physiology offers a structural element that is responsible for the mistake, or that brain imaging reveals certain characteristic patterns of activation in my visual cortex.

Blind spots

A good example, which fascinated me as a twelve-year-old, is the blind spot, which can be manipulated to make an object out there simply disappear. If I cover one eye, and something “enters” the blind spot of my other eye, it goes from being there to not being there. A part of the universe is erased, as far as I am concerned. The blind spot has been shown to correspond to the point where the retina connects with the optical nerve. At that point, there are no receptor cells with phosphors in them to respond to light. The visual system of the brain usually “fills in” the blank, by pasting in colors from the surrounding visual field. So I only notice it is there if I carefully aim the focus of my left eye to the right of a dot on a piece of paper (for example) or my right eye to the left, until the dot “disappears.”

(For detailed instructions and a fuller explanation, see the dedicated page on Eric Chudler’s fascinating “Neuroscience for Kids” website. The same page has a bunch of other optical illusions to explore.)

The systematic concealment of the blind spot under normal circumstances underscores a simple fact about life: even when I see things correctly, what I am “seeing” is only some phenomenon, or set of phenomena, in my brain. So, my brain is not “me”; it’s the whole ball of wax, the world, the universe. I only see the brain’s role when I can occasionally look “behind the curtain” and catch my “brain” doing odd things like making spots disappear.

A lot of people would put it this way: What I am seeing is “represented” by the functional interaction of a network of brain parts. This visual “system” provides various kinds of overlaid mapping of the visual field that I can use. For example, recognition of shapes and recognition of spatial locations seem to be handled by separate dorsal and ventral pathways; the results are then reintegrated somewhere further up the processing stream. In most cases, it appears to be that this overlaying of (identified) items onto (located) places is reasonably “accurate” in the sense that it aids me in doing things I want to do.

But it is never transparent. After generations of research and vast terabytes of publications, neuroscientists have been unable to find any windows in the brain. There are “cameras” (the eyes) but there is no view finder; there is no movie screen that “I” can “look” at—just as there is, for that matter, no “me” in there somewhere to do the “looking.” The “I” is as much a creation of my brain as everything else is. (And sometimes I get the feeling that my brain is not as interested in me as it ought to be—but that’s another story.) If seeing is grasping a “representation” created by the brain, then as far as I am concerned, that representation—the very concreteness of the thing that I take to be real—is not out there, it is inside.

When I am connecting the look of an apple with a certain sweet smell and with the crunch of my teeth through something crisp and juicy, that is my brain working some kind of miraculous operation that permits it to combine inputs from various senses (vision, smell, touch, hearing, taste) into a single bundle which I think of as this apple in my hand. But the apple that my nervous system is “making” for me is not inside me. The apple and me are both happening somewhere “in” a network of activations in “my” nervous system of which “I” happen to be just one facet or dimension.

You might object at this point that your brain may be your universe, but it is not the universe. This is a perfectly good point. But, since this is true of everyone, it follows that the universe, insofar as there is, by definition, only one them, is no more than an array of shared features that individuals find are reliably available for discovery within many individual my universes. It is only because there turn out to be such shared features, that stay reliably the same from one day to the next, that we can successfully talk about anything at all—including brains.

My left leg

This point was brought home to me in a very personal way in spring of 2010 when my left leg began to disappear. I could still see it, I could still move it. But the information that I usually had available about what arrangement its joints were in, and where my left foot was currently located, began to go away. If I wasn’t looking at my left leg, I lost track of it. Even explaining it in these words was difficult for me initially. I first and most forcefully noticed a problem when driving my manual shift car. Sometimes, when I tried to push the clutch pedal in, I missed it entirely. At other times, I hit the side of it and my foot slid off. This was potentially quite dangerous, and I had to switch to my wife’s car, which had an automatic transmission, so that I did not have to rely on my left foot to put the engine in and out of gear. Meanwhile, her left knee was causing her pain, and she was not happy to be pushing a clutch pedal. But, I felt no sympathy. “Your knee may be causing you pain,” I answered. “I should be so lucky. My whole leg is disappearing.” I was frantic not only about what was happening but also about how difficult it could be to explain it to other people.

I remember the worst moment of all. This was about three weeks after the problem started. I was sitting at the kitchen table reading a novel, when suddenly a panic attack swept over me as I sensed that my left leg seemed to be simply gone. I looked down, and I could see that it was still there. I tried to move it. (This is hard to explain. How do you try to move something that is not there? Anyway, that is what I did.) To my great relief, I saw it start to move. I jumped up in a panic and began dancing around, kicking it up and down like a majorette. Gradually, I began to feel where it was again. As I sat back down, I felt profoundly shaken.

Something was making my left leg disappear from my sense of my body’s shape and position, just like that dot disappears when it moves into your blind spot.

It was hard to get other people to realize the depth of my anxiety. It was probably a pinched nerve, they said. The sciatic nerve was a likely culprit. It could cause pain, tingling feelings, numbness in the leg. Or it was a problem with one or more vertebrae in my back. I soon learned that back pain was often chronic and difficult to diagnose, and that there were various theories about it. One approach, I learned, was simply to ignore it, simply rise up each morning determined to have a good day and push through it. It seemed to me that I had no choice but to do this, any way. I had a demanding job and a very full schedule to keep up with.

However, I had no back pain. I did not notice any numbness, of the kind one feels when a foot or an arm goes to sleep. I did have tingly feelings sometimes, but they were hard to pin down, and seemed to shift to my other leg, or both feet. (I realized much later that the tingly feelings in my feet were just what happened when my feet were cold, but at the time, I was in such a state of heightened vigilance that many of my bodily sensations seemed strange and inexplicable to me. I had not ever thought about them with such intensity before.)

When I got in to see a neurologist, he assured me that most of these kinds of symptoms go away in a few weeks without ever being diagnosed. However, he did suggest we do an MRI scan of my lower spine. That first scan found nothing unusual, it all looked good. So we tried my upper spine. Also fine. My neck: no problem. This process took three or four weeks to get through, because each time I had to make an appointment at the imaging clinic, then wait for a follow-up appointment with the neurologist. (Of course, it could all have been done in a single day—but that, too, is another story.)

Well, at this point, the neurologist said, we could go ahead and scan my head, but he thought it was a 1 in a 1,000 chance we would find anything. My wife was along for this appointment, for support, as I was becoming increasingly desperate. She asked the neurologist, “What would you do if it was your wife?”

“My wife?” he answered. “If it was my wife I would order the MRI of the brain.” So that settled it. (Thank you, thank you, Isabel, for asking that question.)

I went for an MRI of my head three days later. Afterwards, I met Isabel at a cafe. I had a feeling of freedom. If this last scan showed nothing, then I would just have to tough it out, get on with life. The symptoms would probably go away. At least I could walk pretty well, and reliably move the leg around, even if it was unclear exactly where it was going. But as we sat down with our lattes, my phone started chirping. It was the neurologist. He wanted me to come to his office immediately. My wife and I arrived there about twenty minutes later.

The radiologist at the imaging clinic had taken one look at my brain and hit the panic button. He had called my neurologist and emailed the scan results over within minutes of my departure. The neurologist pulled it up for me on his screen and showed what they had found: a golfball-sized growth was pressing down on my right parietal lobe. It appeared to be a “meningioma,” a tumor of the meninges, the thin film of tissue that lined the inside of the skull. It was not, technically, a brain tumor, but by pressing down on the outer layers of the parietal lobe, it was cutting off the blood supply. My left leg was disappearing because the middle right parietal lobe was the location that “processed signals” from those nerves that kept track of my left leg’s position and movement, and sent signals to the muscles on the left side of the body. For some reason, the tumor was cutting off this proprioceptive information, even though it was still allowing outgoing directives to my muscles. I could still move my leg, even though it wasn’t there.

But for “me,” until that moment, there had been no problem located in my brain. This is one of the things that confused the neurologist. How could I have such a large growth, without experiencing any headaches, disequilibrium, trouble focusing, and so on—the usual signs of a meningioma? Apparently, it had something to do with the position of the growth. The odd result was that “I” had no symptoms in my head at all, just the uncanny experience, not of a brain problem, but of my “leg” disappearing. And my left “leg,” the leg I knew so well (or thought I did), the leg that was as real as it could get, was, indeed, disappearing.

By about 6:30 pm that same day, my wife and I had gone to a suite of offices down the block and were meeting with a highly regarded neurosurgeon. He was smiling as we discussed the scan. If you had to have a lump in your head, he remarked, this was the best possible lump you could have. Not only were nine out of ten meningiomas benign, but this one was conveniently located near the top of the skull. The surgical team had merely to cut a hatch above the lump, carefully extract the lump, and pop the hatch back on, fastening it down with six titanium screws. With titanium, I wouldn’t even have to worry about going through metal detectors, he told me cheerfully.

Three weeks later, after eight hours in the operating room, I was freed of my intracranial golf ball, the titanium screws were in place, and my symptoms disappeared overnight—or rather I noticed that they had disappeared within about 48 hours, after the anaesthetic wore off, and they stopped giving me the powerful steroids and morphine drip that are necessary features of postoperative care following a craniotomy. My “leg” was back. Not my parietal lobe, my leg.

Your brain does not make you do anything.

Because of this experience, I always laugh when people say, my brain made me do it. Your brain does not make you do things, your brain makes, literally, everything there is, always has and always will.

While I was suffering from these odd symptoms, of course, I was not entirely responsible for my actions, not in the normal sense. Suppose that, before I became aware of what was going on, I had missed the clutch pedal while driving one day and run into the back of the car in front of me. The police officer would certainly have given me a ticket. But once I had the brain MRI in hand, I could easily have gotten a ruling of innocent. I could point to the three-dimensional display of the lump pushing down on my cortex, and say, quite legitimately, “My brain made me do it.”

But claims of this kind can be misleading in two respects: (1) My brain, of course, “makes” me do everything that I do. For example, it “makes” me able to profess love to my sweetheart, to say “I do” at the altar, and to remember that moment twenty years later as I fondly regard her across the dining room table. So really, it is an empty truism to say, “My brain made me do it.” What is it that my brain has not made me do? Nothing! (2) When I thought I was pushing down on the clutch pedal, but missed it, I did not experience my brain taking action separately from me, and screwing up. What I experienced was, first of all, that the clutch pedal had mysteriously moved to the right. However, when I looked down at it, I saw that it had not moved at all. After this seemed to happen a few times, I realized that my vision and my sense of touch were out of sync, slightly but critically in disagreement. This often happens in, say, tennis or baseball, when balls are whizzing by at 50 to 100 miles an hour. But it should not happen in dealing with a clutch pedal that sits reliably in front of the driver and goes up and down when pushed—for years at a time, without change. I decided that my vision was more reliable than the sensations from my leg. And thus I began to build a concept of what was happening, which could be expressed in this way: “I cannot tell where my left leg is.” It was only then that such things as “nerves,” “spinal cords,” and “brains” came up as hypothetical sources or causes of this “malady.” And it was only then that I could conceive of seeking out the help of a neurologist. After four MRIs, finally, I was able to say “My brain made me do it.” But what this really meant was “Lack of blood flow to a part of my right parietal lobe was depriving that part of my brain of ‘information’ that ‘it’ relied on for its usual operation, and ‘I’ experienced this as the gradual disappearance of my left leg.”

“My brain made me do it”—this statement, by itself, is, in all circumstances, nonsense. If it were true, it would also be true that “My brain made me think that my brain made me do it.” In effect, if it were true, it would be impossible to know whether it was true or not. After all, if my brain “makes” me do anything, it makes me do everything that I do. You really aren’t conveying much information when you say this. Generally, of course, we reserve this kind of comment for mistakes, such as those caused when my left foot missed the clutch pedal, attributing those mistakes to aspects of the operation of a neurological system (such as the blind spot, or the fight-flight response) that may sometimes operate without any immediate prompting from “volition” (whatever that is). But confining this affirmation to that special usage (mistakes) does not in any way get us off the hook. It is still nonsense. For either I had some mistaken thoughts and desires which I acted on, or else I was sleepwalking. If the former, then I have some kind of responsibility for them (what kind remains to be discussed) and pushing them off on my “brain” is just a cop-out. If the latter, then it is enough to say I was sleepwalking. To say that “my brain makes me sleepwalk” is just an empty truism, similar to saying that “my body makes me ill.” Still nonsense.

In my case, I could say that part of my parietal lobe was “asleep,” that is, was being starved of oxygen and nutrient. That would be informative. It would still be nonsense to say “My brain made the tumor pushing on my parietal lobe make my leg disappear.”

When I print a document, I don’t say, “my computer made me print it.” The question is, did I click on the “print” command or not?


Follow Professor Reddy on Twitter: @WilliamMReddy 

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