The Brain Taboo

Medical science has advanced to the point where we understand the structure of our various organ systems and, in relatively accurate detail, can correlate these physical components with their respective function. Knowledge about the structure and function of the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, muscles and bone is of interest to many (if not most) people and we have entered an era in which many of these body parts can be replaced via transplantation or mechanical devices.

But, when it comes to the brain, such interest is tempered by a reluctance to attribute human thought and emotion to a physical network of neurons and chemical transmitters. While studies on the nature of dreams, savants, strokes, brain injuries, neurologic disorders and psychiatric diseases can be fascinating, we hesitate to relegate the brain to the status of other organs. We find it hard to accept that our conciousness and intelligence are the products of biologic components and processes alone. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that our brain evolved in concert with our other organ systems, we imagine that there is something special about the human mind. This conviction, expressed by the concept of spirituality, discourages a purely physical explanation for our awareness, our thoughts and our emotions.

Yet, recent advances in brain imaging have been able to demonstrate an intimate relationship between brain structure and neuro-psychiatric function. Could it be that all of our thoughts, perceptions and interactions (with other humans and with the Universe as a whole) are simply manifestations of brain anatomy and physiology? While pondering this question has long intrigued scientists, accepting its implication is a social and religious taboo.