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My Amygdala Made Me Do It

Brain connections – that is, the neurons and the sparks, ions, and biochemicals that fire them – were the topic of no less than 30 Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine in its first 100 years.


A large amount of structural, electrical, and molecular data has accumulated.


But it has brought us no closer to the ultimate questions of human memories and emotions, much less consciousness. And it’s no wonder. All of the research was done on animals, but often not even whole organisms.


Consider the work of the 2000 Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, whose initial experiments were on sea slugs, then nerves extracted from sea slugs, and this progressed to using lab-cultured sea slug nerves, to genetically engineered sea slug nerve cells.

How could this lead to answering questions of human motivations?


It is common for Nobel laureates in this field to offer perspectives on the relationship between their discoveries and human consciousness. My favorite is 1932 Nobel Prize winner Charles Sherrington.


In his 1933 Cambridge lecture Brain and Its Metabolism, he denied a “scientific right to join mental with physiological experience.”

Sherrington did not find any basis for a physical brain structure or location for things like the finer aspects of personality, detailed memory, reasoning, ethics, and faith. He argued that we would never find the mind in the physical brain. In Man on His Nature (1940), Sherrington described how the brain could not possibly be the mind. He wrote,

As followers of natural science we know nothing of any relation between thoughts and the brain, except as a gross correlation in time and space. [The mind] goes therefore in our spatial world more ghostly than a ghost…it is a thing not even of outline; it is not a ‘thing.’

The 1967 laureate George Wald had this explanation:

Consciousness itself lies outside the parameters of space and time that would make it accessible to science, and that realization carries an enormous consequence: consciousness cannot be located. But more: it has no location.


And yet the end of the century saw an aggressive ad campaign called Decade of the Brain, that while not resulting in any significant discoveries, did a great job of convincing much of the public that our essence is a bag of biochemicals, which can be improved by prescription drugs.


A quarter-century later, many who grew up with these ideas are now parenting age, whose toddlers are being taught “my amygdala made me do it,” to justify behaviors.


A genetically engineered sea slug nerve cell may have fired, but it’s not your amygdala, dear.


For more opinions on science and human consciousness, see Boneheads and Brainiacs of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the speculations of Nobel laureates Sherrington, Richet, Pavlov, Adrian, Moniz, and Hess.

See Heroes and Scoundrels of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the philosophies of mind by Nobel Prize winners Eccles, Wald, Granit, Crick, Edelman, and DeDuve.

Read about the mind/brain theories of the Nobel elite, including Snell, Sperry, Levi-Montalcini, Neher, and Carlsson in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, (coming in August 2024).

And take care of that amygdala!


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