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Has the "literal link" between mind and body really been discovered?


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The Conversation

Javier Bernácer

researcher in the group Mind-Brain, Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), University of Navarra

A few days ago, the following headline appeared in the general press: A "literal link" between body and mind was discovered in the brain.

As researcher dedicated to studying the mind-brain problem, i.e., the enigma of how our brain processes relate to our mental activity, I was startled. Descartes' pineal gland had been discovered! The French thinker (1596-1650), the leading exponent of dualism, had located in this brain region the "point of contact" between the mind and the body.

I quickly turned to the original scientific article , published in Nature with the following degree scroll (my own translation): A somato-cognitive action network alternates with effector regions in the motor cortex.. The article proposes a new way of understanding a brain region called "primary motor cortex". Almost ninety years ago, Penfield and Boldrey established that distinct areas of the body were precisely mapped in this thin, elongated region of the brain. With direct stimulation of these specific areas, they saw that activation in one of them moved the lips, in another the hand, in another the foot, and so on, thus configuring the famous "Penfield homunculus".

Well, in the recent article in Nature, Evan Gordon (Washington University in Saint Louis) and his collaborators report that, while it is true that these regions appear in the primary motor cortex, there are others interspersed with a quite different function and Anatomy : they are related to the cognitive control of actions, and of physiological functions such as breathing, blood pressure, digestive functions and hormonal functions.

The article is so relevant that it is commented on in Nature news by David Leopold, a cognitive neuroscientist. It is a superb summary of Gordon's work which concludes by stating that it "opens the door to new insights into how the brain's motor circuits take the whole body into account as we perform everyday activities".

knowledge dissemination of neuroscience

The restructuring of the primary motor cortex is important, no doubt. But it is far from being the "literal link" between mind and body. It is a confusing and unfortunate knowledge dissemination of a neuroscientific research , which was disseminated with the same headline and content in most media both in Spanish and English.

In the scientific article , however, the relationship between mind and body - or brain - is not discussed until the last section. In a academic publication, these final paragraphs are usually devoted to conclusions or future applications of the research. The authors end their piece by talking about the integration between the brain and the rest of the body. The only accredited specialization to the mind occurs in the last sentence, where they state, "The finding that action and bodily control combine in a common circuit could help explain why mental and bodily states often interact." As a neuroscientist and philosopher, I am astonished to find that melon open in the last sentence, neither supported in the research nor justified in later sentences.

Transmitting the research neuroscientific is a responsibility

The common business of bringing neuroscience research closer to society is exciting and, at the same time, a responsibility. Therefore, one of the objectives of the International Center for Neuroscience and Ethics(CINET), of the Tatiana Foundation, is to promote a more realistic knowledge dissemination of neuroscience, taking into account all the actors involved. The reality is that we must all collaborate to achieve excellence in neuroscience knowledge dissemination : media, agencies, institutions and scientists.

Recent headlines in the press such as The revolutionary algae treatment that restored part of a blind man's vision or Memories can be selectively erased lead the lay reader to get the wrong idea of the real scope of neuroscience, of how the brain works in general and of its integration into the whole person. This is how terrible neuromyths are born.

A research in neuroscience can be neutral, but, if one is not careful, the way of talking about it in colloquial language can give an idea of the human being that is out of step with biological reality. Finding creative and rigorous ways of doing this will help to orient citizens, give prestige to science and generate confidence in scientists and communicators.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation