Transcript for Patricia Churchland on "Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain"

Anne Strainchamps: For centuries, philosophers have argued over and spun theories about how the mind works, but they never wasted that much time thinking about the brain, all that squishy stuff inside the skull, and that seems wrong to Patricia Churchland. She's a pioneering neurophilosopher and the author of the book, "Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain." And it was when she teaching at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg that she first realized that she needed to learn more about the human brain. As she tells Steve Paulson...

Patricia Churchland: I went down to the medical school and talked to the anatomists, the neuroanatomists, and said, "You know, I really that I want to understand the brain, to the degree that we do understand it, so that I can approach questions about the mind, about how we reason or remember, why we sleep and dream, what it is to be conscious, but I know I need to understand the brain." And that was kind of the beginning of this long journey that was so wonderful and so exciting, and such fun.

Steve Paulson: And I'm guessing that was pretty unusual, for a philosopher to go to the medical school, wanting to learn about neuroanatomy. Probably not too many other philosophers were interested in the science of the brain.

Churchland: No, it's quite true. It was rather unusual, and I think it was fortunate that I was at Winnipeg, where people were used to lots of eccentricity and didn't think it was a terrible thing for me to do. On the other hand, within the profession of philosophy, many people, I think, thought I was just nuts, and that if you want to understand the mind, you don't need to know anything about the brain. Part of the reason they said this, and this was really a very strong idea, was that the mind is like the software, and the brain is like the hardware. And just as, if you want to understand what's wrong with your word processing application, you pay attention, not to the nuts and bolts of the machine, but to the software, so you don't need to know anything about the brain in order to understand the mind.

Paulson: Well, it strikes me that there has been just a huge sea change since then. I mean, hardly any serious scholars, including philosophers, would say that you can really talk about the mind without at least making reference to the brain. I mean, you sort of can't separate the mind from the brain.

Churchland: It's pretty hard now, I think. It was easier 25 years ago. But it's very difficult now to say that because there are such tight corrolations between changes in the brain and changes in psychological states, such as remembering or making a decision. And I think that the first bit of neuroscience that really blew this all wide open were the split-brain results, where patients with intractable epilepsy underwent a surgery whereby the two hemispheres of the brain were separated. And the astonishing thing was that there was what's called a disconnection syndrome, and that is one hemisphere might have access to information that the other didn't, and that that had an effect on behavior. Given that, it was very hard for anybody to say, you know, "Well, there's really a soul in there. You know, a ghosty thing in there that somehow has also become disconnected." And I think the split-brain results were tremendously important, and then many, many other things followed on after that.

Paulson: Well, you have gone on to pioneer this relatively new field that has been called neurophilosophy. But I'm wondering, if you could do it over again, would you have become a neuroscientist instead of a philosopher?

Churchland: You know, it's always hard to imagine yourself back, because what exactly do you imagine? That it was the same situation as when you were actually there, or if I were, say, 21 now, would I go into neuroscience? I think the answer is probably, if I were 21 now, I would go into neuroscience, as both my children, actually, have. And I think neuroscience, of course, is a huge field with many levels at which people study nervous systems. So, there's many, many questions that people can address and make progress on. And I think that the really sharp people in psychology, philosophy, biology, are going into neuroscience because it's so exciting. It's the new frontier.

Paulson: Well, it raises the question of whether philosophy has anything to add to the study of the mind or the brain, or is all the action really in science, in neuroscience?

Churchland: Well, of course, philosophy covers many things beyond philosophy of mind, and so there are people who think a lot about the history of philosophy, including Asians such as Confucius and Mencius, as well as the Greeks like Aristotle and Plato. So, there's certainly something to be done there. But within the domain of philosophy of mind, my view is that if you really want to make progress, then you need to pay attention to the science. Now, the science might be quite high level, it might involved mostly behavior, or it might be very low level and involve molecules that have to do with how information is stored and retrieved. But, if you think that you can answer questions, for example, about the nature of decision making, without knowing anything about the psychology and the neurobiology of decision making, you're probably deluding yourself.

Paulson: Now, another issue that you explore is this classic philosophical problem, "Do we have free will?" Churchland: Aha. Paulson: As you point out, a lot rides on how we define free will. How do you define it?

Churchland: Well, I like to think of decision making, which is really the ambit of free will, I like to think of decision making as involving varying kinds of control. So some, you might think of this as a very simple case of a decision, but from the point of view of the brain, a decision is, for example, a reflex. You make a noise over to my right, my eyes turn and my head turns, automatically. On the other hand, of course, I could control that. So, if I know that you are up to no good, and you want me to turn my head, I can steadfastly look away in the direction I'm currently looking. So, there are levels and levels and levels of control, and we know that control can be compromised by many things. If I'm very tired and very hungry, my control is apt to be poorer than if I'm rested and fully satisfied. And we also know that control can be compromised by certain drugs like heroine or cannabis or alcohol, and so forth. So, I think it's important to put the whole idea of free will in the context of control, and the mechanisms for control. Now, the sad fact is, of course, that at this stage of neuroscience there's so much about the details of the mechanisms for control that we don't really understand.

Paulson: I think the way this translates to most people is, given two choices in front of us, can we choose one or the other? Or, is there something inside of us that is sort of pushing us to make that decision for us? I mean, I don't know, at the unconscious level or something like that. I mean, do we actually have free will to make that choice?

Churchland: Well, if you think by "we," the "we" here, let's just use a different pronoun. Let's say the "I" here. I am a product of my brain. There is no difference between the me that I am and the brain that I have. So, my sense of self, and my sense of being an agent who can do things is all something that emerges from the way the brain organizes itself to efficiently behave and get itself around the planet. So, when you say is there something causing me to do this behavior, I want to say, well, the brain is a causal machine, so causal effects are in place, of course. But, that doesn't mean that there is no difference between someone who, say, has obsessive-compulsive disorder and someone who doesn't. I wash my hands because they're dirty, because I don't have obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, the way to think about it is not that, "Are we free from all causes?" but rather, "Which are the causes that allow us to be held responsible for what we do, and to do what we plan and we organize, and what's in our interest to do?" Are there differences between those causes and the causes that, where we don't-- We say, "I wish I didn't have to go back and check the stove, but I just have to." And the answer is, yes, there are differences, and we're beginning to understand the nature of those differences, and they involved relations between frontal cortex and sub-cortical structures.

Strainchamps: Patricia Churchland is the author of "Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain." She talked with Steve Paulson.

Comments for this interview

Self as brain, software/hardware analogy (Melvyn Magree, 07/07/2013 - 7:50pm)

We enjoyed the interview with Prof. Churchland very much, but I was struck by her analogy of separating software and hardware on computers. Actually these also can be intertwined so that it is hard to know where the problem really is. A software error can uncover a hardware error that might go undetected with well-performing software.

I know of one case where this happened on a mainframe and it could have happened on my own laptop last month.

In the first case the computer kept crashing because of corrupted data. After many months I got the customer to give me the program that often was present during these crashes. In short, the program was writing outside its assigned memory and the computer's memory protection component was not functioning. See

The second incident involved my laptop's keyboard locking up. Geek Squad could find no problem. I then discovered that an Outlook database that had not been rebuilt in a long time might be the culprit. I rebuilt the database and the keyboard has been working fine since. See