Explaining brains: a cautionary fable

If you didn’t know anything about him, you’d have no reason to think he was anything other than cautious.

He moves around the house quietly, careful not to disturb me as I work. He keeps to himself, for the most part. He spends much of his time in his favourite battered armchair, snoozing, snoring lightly. When I come in to check on him, he will sometimes raise his head, if he is not sleeping. His green eyes are bright. When he’s had his fill of rest, he gets up from the chair and makes his way downstairs in front of me, his step agile and elegant, compared with my own thumping progress.

Then he usually sticks his face in a bowlful of tuna before rubbing himself against my legs, mewling to be let out into the garden.

Bump is blind, though you’d never know it. He was born that way, apparently; his optical nerve has never functioned. But he seems like an entirely normal cat, albeit a little more careful in his movements than your average feline. When you wave his favourite bit of elastic string in his face, he tracks its movement, for all the world like he’s keeping its dancing tip in view. What he’s actually doing, though, is sensing the movement of the air it’s displacing, listening to the little whispers it makes when it comes into contact with a surface, all of which he can do with such acuity that you’d swear – blind – he could see.

All of which points to a cautionary tail – sorry, tale. When reverse-engineering the mind, it’s easy to go wrong. If I conducted a behavioural study on Bump, I might very justifiably come to the conclusion that he has arthritis, for instance; this would explain his cautious movement and his seeming lethargy. Or he could just be a very lazy cat. But actually, he’s cautious because he can’t see anything. At any moment, there could be something in front of him with which he could collide; and every time he alights from his favourite chair, he is, in effect, leaping into a void. It’s amazing that he gets around at all, really.

Brains are a bit like cats. They can’t speak. And, more to the point, they can’t signal intent in any other way either – a brain is unlikely to mewl, to curl itself around my legs or to climb on my pillow at night when I’m trying to sleep. It might be easier, in fact, to reverse-engineer a cat than to reverse-engineer a brain. And my explanations of brain-behaviour are just as susceptible to gross error as are my explanations of Bump’s excessive caution, in the absence of having all the facts. Because, despite what neuroscientists sometimes imply, brains no more ‘speak’ than cats do.

Of course, we can still study cats; and we can still study brains. We should just be careful not to rely too much on any one methodology, however promising it might seem. And when we’re about to make pronouncements — or encourage journalists to do so — about having unravelled the secrets of the brain, it might be wise to assume, as a matter of course, that we are not yet in full possession of all of the relevant facts.

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