Emergent Property – The Mind in Action in Higher Education

April 4, 2016 at 11:23 AM
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Emergent Property – The Mind in Action in Higher Education


Sheina Leboeuf SD’17 and Jim Stellar


Sheina is a Sophie Davis CUNY combined BS-MD degree program student who transferred there from Queens College, a fairly rare event at CUNY. She also told me recently that she is also the only Sophie Davis student to have ever majored in Philosophy while working on her MD degree. Some time ago, we held seminar that she organized at Sophie Davis to discuss the broad implications for higher education of the work of Antonio Damasio, beginning with his book Descartes Error, and that conversation spilled over to this blog post.


Sheina, let us begin by having you tell us about what made you, a student deeply interested in philosophy, seek a medical degree.


Actually, my interest in medicine preceded my interest in philosophy. It was in my seventh grade biology class that I decided I would someday be a doctor, and I’ve remained committed to this goal since.


My interest in philosophy, on the other hand, evolved gradually – perhaps with my mind. It began with existentialist literature, continued with introductory philosophy courses during high school, and eventually culminated in philosophy as a second major.


Perhaps the most obvious bridge between medicine and philosophy is the field of bioethics. Practically, the study of bioethics is important for the medical student and for the physician, as it trains the physician to achieve the ultimate patient-doctor relationship as well as that between the physician and his community in addressing public health issues. Victor Frankl said that there are “decent” people and “unprincipled” people in the world; a “decent” physician is one who is guided by ethical thinking and as a result, whose actions always preserve the humanity of his patient.


So, can you define what is the idea about emergent property of a mind arising out of its neurological parts?


The difficulty in acquiring a mechanistic explanation for the relationship between the intangible mind and the neurological parts that comprise a brain is perhaps part of what fueled Descartes’ dualism – but let’s explore this relationship: How does the mind emerge from the brain?


We know that damage to the frontal lobe compromises at least part of what we’d call the mind – after his accident, Phineas Gage completely lost his personality, his capacity to reason logically, and his sense of morality. Very specialized functions – such as those that define our moral agency – are entirely dependent upon the integrity of the brain’s physical structure.


A cognitive property of the human being such as the capacity for decision-making, therefore, is one that emerges from the frontal lobe and its interactions with many neurological circuits that provide it with sensory and even emotional input. We may even say that for a human to reason, to make ethically sound decisions, and to function in a human community, he must be informed by the sensory experiences and the emotions that result from his interaction with the world.


How does this interest the medical student?


The physician who is aware of the relationship between the neurological – or more generally, the physiological – structures of his patient and the emergent mind – the person, essentially – is enabled to address the patient both as a physical and psychological entity. A good physician sees his patient as a whole human being complete with neurons as well as a mind that thinks and complete with ventricles as well as a heart that feels.


Paul McLean refers to the “triune brain” where the top level (what McLean calls the primate brain) is our conscious awareness connected to our higher faculties of logic and reason, perception and awareness, planning and action. However, below that level is the mammalian brain. I think of that is what we have in common with mammals like your dog who is quite capable of deciding at what we might call an instinctive or “gut” level what is good for him and how to go about getting it. Presumably the dog lacks the high-end symbolic reasoning of humans that supports language, math, art, etc. It turns out that many decisions are made there in the mammalian brain. Some go even farther. In his most recent book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt says the conscious mind is like the rider on an elephant (unconscious mind) to refer to the proportion difference in control. Further he says the conscious mind is really more like the press secretary of the unconscious mind. David Eagelman says in his book Incognito that the unconscious mind supplies the conscious mind with conclusions like headlines, which the conscious mind assumes it originated. One of the reasons this distinction may be important is that Phineas Gage may have lost that connection so that the conscious mind was no longer informed by what conclusions were made in the mammalian brain. So, when the mind emerges from the neurological bits, it does so in two flavors – primate and mammalian, head and heart.


What makes this discussion so relevant is the last statement about thinking and feeling as separate but related ways the human mind operates. I see no reason why the good student should not operate in the same way as the good physician and apply both thinking and feeling techniques to their education. Since one of the goals of undergraduate education is to help the student find their way into a career path, whether that means a job after college or more schooling, it seems worthwhile to see what else higher education can do besides provide a fine set of courses wrapped up in a compelling curriculum that leads to a degree. What else we can do is provide internships, study abroad opportunities, undergraduate research, service-learning, and other experiences outside the classroom. Then we have to integrate the two ways of thinking. This could be hard. Remember Blaise Pascal, the 18th mathematician and philosopher once said that “the heart has reasons of which reason does not know.” I take this statement as true and it gives us a second challenge to integrate the “heart reasons” around the appeal of an internship with the head reasons from the academic study in that particular college major.

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