Why You Are Not Your Brain

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Does consciousness exist along a continuum, beginning in the simplest forms of life, rather than being an event which springs out of nowhere once a certain level of evolution has been achieved?

In the last of my now-ancient series of posts on the self, I looked at the conclusions made by two eminent neuroscientists.

Metzinger demolishes the self with some relish, insisting that “there has not ever been any such thing as selves”, suggesting that our sense of ourselves is a model produced by the brain, which represents our experience back to itself. (See “Being No One – Neuroscience Disproves the Self?”.) We are, then, models condemned never to be able to turn around and catch a glimpse of ourselves at work.

Damasio reclaims the place of feelings and emotions, firmly placing the brain’s activities within the body and proposing not one self but three, all a part and parcel of our existence as embodied, conscious organisms. (See “Antonio Damasio on What Makes ‘Me’, Me”.)

Does Damasio however still remain within the confines of the Cartesian view (“I think, therefore I am”), which assumes that my consciousness, what I call ‘myself’, is some kind of separate thing inside me, something my brain produces?

Alva Noë, in Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness , makes a persuasive case that we are not equivalent to our brains, and our brains are not machines with the task of representing reality to ourselves and telling us what to do. We do not need our brains to translate the world to us, we are not strangers in a foreign land extrapolating what to do by observation, we are native speakers. We are right inside reality, inseparable from it, able to apprehend it directly and interact with it — without any need to represent the world back to ourselves in some sealed off inner space.

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Consciousness is not something which happens in the brain, which is just conveniently kept alive by the body. It is not something which we have, located in one point or another, but something that we do. (Noë 2009, p. 24)

Of course, we need a brain to “do consciousness”, and particular areas of that brain need to be working properly in order to perform particular tasks. But this is different from saying that our language capacity, or aggression, or motor skills actually reside in a certain area of our brain, or are produced by a part of the brain (Bennet 2003) — which currently seems to be the assumption behind much popular media reporting of any kind of psychological study. While we need a steering wheel to point a car in the right direction, and if the steering wheel were to be removed we would no longer be able to do that, it is not literally the steering wheel that does the work but the whole mechanism of the car, which in turn is dependent on fuel.

Noë returns to us a sense of being whole, living organisms, doing things which make direct sense within the immediate context, complex as that context may be should we attempt to observe and analyse it from a distance. There is never really any distance, we are always already immersed.

Noë discusses a range of phenomena, from the scientific investigation of vision, and the experience of immigrants (who know very well how permeable and environmentally dependent their sense of self is), to the behaviour of sea snails. These small creatures, with a meagre 20,000 neurons, withdraw when touched, but after repeated harmless touching they become desensitised and no longer withdraw. Electric shocks “teach” the opposite effect, a persistent sharp withdrawal response. This kind of behaviour, commonplace in humans, is usually put down to the brain, our learning about the situation, hypothesising what is likely to happen next time, and acting accordingly. But in the case of the marine snail, as Noë puts it, “Where is Mission Control”? (Noë, p. 92)

The sea snail has no decision-making centre. It has sensory neurons and motor neurons, and their interconnections are strengthened or weakened by what happens in the environment (the harmless touch or the electric shock). The sea snail, its physiological responses and its environment act together, in a dynamic interchange, without any separable part of the organism being “in control”. Noë argues that even a bacterium shows some kind of primary agency in its search for sugar (p. 74), a kind of agency which is a basic part of being a biological organism rather than due to possessing some particular complex interior organisation — much less a brain. Is this kind of primary agency a primitive form of consciousness? If so, then consciousness might be seen as a continuum, beginning in the simplest forms of life, rather than an event which springs out of nowhere once a certain level of evolution has been achieved.

The actions that conscious organisms perform are not projections into the world but responsive forms of adjusting into their environment. This environment is not created by our brains, it is already there. Our brains, and the actions of our whole organisms, simply allow us varying degrees and kinds of access to it. Using this access, everything we do in turn affects the environment, mixing the boundaries between internal and external.

It starts to seem a little strange to separate our consciousness from our bodies or cut ourselves off from the world at the boundaries of our skin to announce our independence and autonomy.

What do you think?


Bennet, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Noë, A. (2009) Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang.

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