The science of brains

Submitted by AWL on 15 June, 2021 - 6:56 Author: John Cunningham

Is there a Marxist analysis of the brain? Probably not, but a materialist analysis of this amazingly complex organ is possible (and necessary).

Matthew Cobb’s book The Idea of the Brain: A History traces the history of our understanding of the brain from 1665, when the Danish anatomist Nicolaus Steno announced that the brain could be best understood as a machine, an idea that still resonates today. And, despite the intense research that has gone on over the years and the mountains of published scientific articles, brain research is still in the dark about how much of the brain functions. Indeed, we don’t fully understand the brain of the fruitfly (Drosophila) maggot which consists of just 10,000 neurons (nerve cells) — a mere drop in the ocean compared to the human brain (100 billion neurons, give or take a few billion).

Before the seventeenth century it was the heart, not the brain, that was thought to be the centre of inner life. This changed with Steno’s announcement and then with the growing interest in electricity. It was discovered that an electric charge could stimulate various parts of the body even if the creature was dead. Frogs were common subjects for these experiments but also, rather gruesomely, human cadavers and body parts, which were occasionally shown at travelling exhibitions. This partly led to the brain being studied as a series of electrical connections. Or chemical connections: for that, we must partly thank Albert Hoffman who, in 1943, fell off his bicycle in Basel, Switzerland after taking a dose of an apparently innocuous liquid he had synthesised a few years earlier. He was the first, unwilling, acid-freak: it is now known as LSD.

This led to research into the effects of various chemicals on the brain (some bad, some good). The next big step was to compare the working of the brain to a computer. That dominated research for many years. Today, many previously accepted views are being questioned, for example, the idea that functions in the brain are localised, in other words there is a part of the brain for smelling, a part for sensing movement and so on. The workings of the brain are much more complicated than that, and there is much cross and inter-connections between the different parts.

One aspect of Matthew Cobb’s book which is particularly interesting is the few mentions of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. He wasn’t particularly interested in the brain and his work adds little, if anything, to our understanding of it (the same can be said for Pavlov and his salivating dogs). Much of what Freud wrote is a load of twaddle (my words, not those of Matthew Cobb) and there is no evidence for the existence of the id, ego and superego, nor is there any evidence that the unconscious exists in the sense intended by Freud and his followers. Many questions remain unanswered: Is there such a thing as “free will”? What is the “mind”? What is ‘consciousness’? It may be years before satisfactory answers are found but it can be said, with certainty, that: Everything in the head is material.

Why does this matter? Partly, because as Marxists we should try and understand the science and partly because Freud, post-Freudians and various spin-offs (for example, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek), have propagated systems of ideas which in my view can only be described as mysticism. Despite this, their writings still resonate with elements in the pseudo-left.

Faced with the tosh churned out by Lacan, Žižek et al, we need to restate the importance and centrality of science and scientific research. Matthew Cobb, with this excellent and highly readable book, has performed a great service.

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