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The five mysteries of the mind, and their consequences

Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/s0028-3932(98)00060-8
  • Consciousness
  • Free Will
  • Split-Brain
  • Memory
  • Philosophy
  • Chemistry
  • Communication


Abstract While Western man has recognized for almost 2500 years that mind derives exclusively from brain, clothing this fact with explanatory detail still proves elusive. First, is consciousness per se, created by processes demonstrably limited to certain, but still unspecified, neuronal arrangements and activities. Then there is perception, its ineffable qualia, and the fact that it arises from neuronal activity widely dispersed in space and time within networks of vast complexity. Voluntary control is equally dispersed as to neuronal participation, and nescient as to origin. An often overlooked mystery is the unity of mind and behavior that prevails despite the potential for bihemispheric duplication of processes and experience. Finally, there is memory, which while credibly within grasp of understanding as a synaptic alteration maintained via activation of the nuclear genome, still wholly defies comprehension when viewed as commanded recall of myriad, randomly selectable details of the past, a largely effortless and ‘instantaneous’ flood of memories. For two centuries science has endeavored to demonstrate how these mysteries proceed from physics and chemistry, as indeed they do; but viewed from this direction alone, mind is but the babbling of a robot, chained ineluctably to crude causality. In a bold and revolutionary stroke, Roger Sperry has conceived a more credible paradigm, that the totality of neuronal action, as a richly intercommunicating system, gives rise to effects transcendent to the individual physicochemical elements that compose it. A major achievement of this position is that it is immediately consonant with everyday human experience and belief. While neither Sperry’s vision, nor the reduction of the mysteries to a dance of ions can yet be proven, the vast advantage of Sperry’s thesis is that it again imbues human thought and action with responsibility, and opens morality to the light of science, while the long wait for certainty unfolds.

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