The mind versus the brain

Philosopher Evan Thompson brings new technology to old questions by Jenny Hall

Who are you? A funny person who loses her temper easily? A hard-working late-bloomer who tends to run late? Or maybe you have a deeper sense of self beneath these kinds of traits.

Evan Thompson wants to know how you know.

As a philosopher of the mind, he grapples with some of the oldest and most enduring questions around: What is the mind? What is the relationship between the mind and the world?  Thanks in no small part to advances in brain imaging technology, these timeless questions are being examined anew with insights from such seemingly disparate fields as neuroscience, psychology and linguistics.

Thompson’s particular interest is the self.  “What is the self?”
he asks.  “What are the different ways we experience being a self?”

One sense of self we have is autobiographical.  “We have a sense of our life as a storyline. We project ourselves back into the past though memory and into the future. This sense of self is very much bound up with personality traits we attribute to ourselves: I’m confident, I’m easygoing, I’m anxious.”

Another completely different sense of self is our awareness of being in our bodies in the present moment.

Thompson collaborates with neuroscientists who use the minds of meditators to help illuminate the self. If you or I tried to meditate, we would likely find our minds wandering, typically because our autobiographical sense of self kicks in. We mentally compose our grocery list for later, or replay conversations from earlier in the day. Skilled meditators can turn off this autobiographical sense of self and shift into the embodied sense of self. Switching between these two senses of self while having their brains imaged can show researchers which parts of the brain govern which senses of self.


For his part, Thompson wants to understand our overall sense of self. A book due out in 2013 will explore how sense of self changes across different states of consciousness like daydreaming, being attentive, sleeping, dreaming and different kinds of meditation.“There’s never been a better time to be a philosopher of the mind,” says Thompson. As a member of the Mind and Life Institute, he works with researchers studying the minds of Tibetan monks as they meditate, and believes that as much as philosophy benefits from advances in neurosciences, it also contributes a great deal in return. In the case of studies of meditation, for example,  “Neuroscientists need people who know the philosophical tradition of the meditators and theoretical underpinnings of the practices that come from that tradition.”In other words, it’s not just about the brain.

“Saying that you can understand the mind in terms of the brain is like saying you can understand a Gothic cathedral in terms of the stones that make it up,”  he says. “Stones are crucial, but so is architecture, iconographic traditions, the overall environment—that’s what makes it a Gothic cathedral.

“Our identity as persons isn’t just a matter of the brain.”