AAC lecture series investigates the relationship between mind, brain

This week, the Academic Affairs Committee put on a series of four lectures about the brain and what it means to possess a mind.

Senior and Vice-Chair of AAC Michael Vaughn had the idea for this lecture series as an attempt to foster inter-departmental communication within Geneseo. According to Vaughn, two students and two professors are presenting on different topics.

Each lecturer was only give two rules: to keep within the overarching theme of the lecture series, and make sure it is accessible to someone that isn't in their field.

"I want people to be able to get something out of it no matter who they are or what they've studied," said Vaughn. He also stressed that the lectures were meant to stimulate an argument on the topic, not to preach that each individual's argument was the only solution.

The first lecture of the series, presented by biology professor Duane McPherson on Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. in Newton 201, was titled "Healing the Mind-Body Rift."

McPherson said his initial inspiration came from reading Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind during his undergraduate education and was drawn to Bateson's holistic approach to the topic.

"It's very powerful to get a wider perspective rather than on an individual basis," said McPherson.

McPherson started the lecture by asking three questions: Are the brain and the mind the same thing? Is there a real separation between the mind and body? And is it even a problem?

To answer these questions, McPherson first brought up the theory of dualism in relation to René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and body are separated, and that the body is just a machine through which the mind functions. He also believed that there is a soul associated with the mind, stemming from his religious background.

It is with the notion of a soul being connected with the mind that McPherson segued into the discussion of what it means to possess a mind. He said that the common answer would be that "there must be a self-awareness … but it's not a clear-cut definition" because this also leads into the question of whether only humans possess a mind.

By looking at various animals such as iguanas and dogs, and then looking at paramecium, McPherson concluded that they too have minds due to the following criteria: In order to possess a mind, the organism must be capable to receive, process and use the information presented; they must be a robust and self-regulating system; and convert the information into stimuli.

In relation to emotions and feelings with the mind, McPherson described the three kinds of self, which are proto-self, core self and autobiographical self. He stressed that "you really are a body-mind," meaning that the body and mind are connected, and the mind is a continuous object that follows the body.

Senior Spencer Mehr, who was also a presenter in the lecture series, said he thought that McPherson's views on the topic were "interesting and cool," but we "need to hammer out a lot of other things before we get to this level of analysis."

On Wednesday Nov. 30, sociology professor Anne Eisenberg presented the second lecture of the series: "The Social as the Missing Link."

Eisenberg explained that most psychologists and medical professionals believe in a one-way relationship, where solely biological functioning causes mental disorders.

She continued with a new idea considering how the external aspects of a person's life – such as social interactions – can affect the internal biological functioning of the brain, instead of just looking at how the internal condition of the brain affects the external behaviors.

Eisenberg's passion for her current research was triggered by the loss of her mother to Alzheimer's disease. This research on the effects of loss of social interactions on Alzheimer's disease eventually led her to conclude that prescription drugs should not be a primary treatment for many mental disorders, but a last resort if other forms of therapy or counseling are ineffective.

She suggested that neurons are responsible for managing social interactions in which the quality and quantity of our social interaction will affect the degree and complexity of how our neuron networks are activated, causing development of our brain levels.

Eisenberg concluded that to have a healthier brain, it's necessary to build a large network of people with whom you can have meaningful interactions. There are mirror neurons that have a primary purpose of social functioning, and so the more meaningful interactions a person has, the stronger and more connected these neurons become in the brain.

Lauren Aulet, a sophomore psychology major, attended the lecture and said that she agreed with Eisenberg's hypothesis. She currently has a grandmother coping with Alzheimer's disease and said she has "definitely seen the correlation between my grandmother's loss of social relationships and decreased mental functioning."