Brain Blank




Feeling the Brain



You can feel your heart. It beats perceptibly in your chest. Before you ever knew what a heart was you could feel it in there. When you learned about its anatomy and physiology you had no trouble recognizing the thing you knew about before: you didn’t doubt that they were one and the same. The identity was informative, given the different modes of presentation, but it wasn’t a matter of dispute. No one argues that the organ discovered in the chest is not the organ you feel thumping when you run hard—there are no heart dualists. No one thinks the heart he feels is an immaterial substance distinct from the heart described by anatomists. The anatomist simply informs us about the nature of what we feel inside. But none of this is true of the brain: you don’t feel your brain working and recognize that the organ described by the anatomist is what you feel. You don’t have sensations of your brain as it goes about its business: you don’t feel your brain transmitting nerve impulses and regulating your bodily functions, or perceiving, thinking, and feeling. That is, you don’t feel thatyour brain is doing these various things—this is not the content of any cognitive or sensory state of yours. You say “I can feel my heart beating” but not “I can feel my brain transmitting” or “I can feel my brain thinking”: your brain is not an intentional object so far as ordinary experience of the body is concerned—though it can become an intentional object by external perception of the body. You can feel your heart and also see it (in principle), but you can only see your brain not feel it. Your body awareness does not extend to your brain.

It is a question whether this is true only of the brain among bodily organs. Certainly we feel most of the organs of the body, particularly the muscles (of which the heart is one). Arguably we feel the bones, which are tightly interlocked with the muscles; also the stomach and intestines. But what about the liver, the kidneys, the spleen, and the pancreas—do we feel them? We can feel pain in these organs, but in the normal course of events we don’t feel their activities. Yet we sense the presence of a congeries of organs within the abdominal area, though indistinctly. I am prepared to allow that these are objects of awareness in an attenuated sense. But the brain is in a class of its own: no pain receptors and no afferent nerves leading from itself to the sensory centers. From a phenomenological point of view, it is as if it is not there at all. If you concentrate your attention on your head and face, you can make out your nose, ears, lips, eyes, forehead, back of head, cheeks—but you can’t get any sensation of your brain. It is simply not an object of awareness. The inside of your skull is a complete phenomenological blank, a sort of proprioceptive blind spot. If you turned out to have to have an empty cranium, nothing in your experience would be thereby refuted. You feel yourself to have a heart (etc.) but you don’t feel yourself to have a brain. It’s almost as if your brain is so much dead tissue so far as your self-awareness is concerned. You know your brain is in there—you have heard about it in school and maybe seen a brain or two—but you don’t have any basic proprioceptive sense of its existence, still less its nature. There is a gap in your proprioceptive field where your brain should be.

This doesn’t seem like a necessary truth. You couldhave been aware of your brain (maybe Martians have elaborate brain awareness). Suppose your brain contained pain receptors as well as afferent nerves connecting it to itself. Then you would feel pain in injured parts of it (“I have a dull pain in my hippocampus”) and you would have sensory experiences as of states of your brain, e.g. feeling that your occipital lobes are unusually active, or that the nerve impulses in your hypothalamus are sluggish. You might sense your brain’s gross anatomy, or the rate of cerebral blood flow. Just as you now say, “My heart is beating fast” you would say, “My brain is in a state of high excitation”. For some reason, evolution saw fit to keep us in proprioceptive ignorance of our brains—nearly all animals have no knowledge of their brain at all, though they sense their other bodily organs—but that seems like a contingent fact; we could have had basic first-person knowledge of our brains. Instead of coming up blank in the search for proprioceptive awareness of the brain, we might have had it at the forefront of our attention, a vivid pulsing presence in our phenomenal field. As it is, however, the contents of our cranium are hidden from self-awareness. Things would be different if the brain were a muscle. To be sure, we experience the effects of the brain, physical and mental, but the origin of these effects is omitted from awareness. We only sense the brain when we open the head and see it skulking in there, like a tortoise without its shell. It comes as a startling discovery, like discovering a new continent, not the ratification of what we earlier observed from the inside. We didn’t see thatcoming.

If we did sense our brain that would change the way we greet the discovery of it by external means. We would respond by saying, “Ah, so that’s what you look like, just as I pictured you (but I’m surprised at all the ridges)”. Our experience would have anticipated our discovery: we would be ready to accept that what we experienced before just is that thing now before our eyes. We knew about our brain’s existence from the inside and now we know about it from the outside—two modes of presentation of the same entity. As things stand, however, we greet the brain with something like incredulity: who would have thought thatwas lurking in there! We feel alienated from it, as if it is more like an intruder than an old friend. Hence our attitude to our brain differs markedly from our attitude to our other bodily organs (most if not all). And given the centrality of the brain to our own identity, this must seem like a remarkable discovery, and not a very welcome one. We had no idea what the organ of the self was like, nor even that there was such an organ sitting in our head, but now we see that it is thisunprepossessing thing. We are not disappointed by the heart, whose objective nature is close to how we anticipated it to be; but the brain strikes us as both unheralded and bathetic. If we had prior proprioceptive knowledge of it, we would have been prepared for the reality: an elevated (and erroneous) view of ourselves would have been preempted.

Someone might say that we areacquainted with our brain because we are acquainted with our mind, and the mind is just an aspect of the brain. As we feel our heart beating, so we feel our brain thinking. That is not a fatuous thought–indeed, it might even be true—but it doesn’t restore the analogy to the heart. For we don’t experience the fact thatour brain thinks: maybe it does, and maybe we experience the thinking, but it doesn’t follow—and it isn’t true—that we have experiences as ofour brain thinking. We don’t take our brain as an intentional object and attribute to it the property of thinking; it may havethat property, but we don’t experience it ashaving it (we don’t experience it at all). By contrast, the heart has the property of beating and we experience it as having that property—we attribute that property tothe organ in question. That is, we don’t, in thinking, attribute thinking to the brain that enables thinking. We just have the thoughts without predicating them ofthe brain. So our cognitive relation to the brain is quite different from our cognitive relation to the heart, even if thinking is a property of the brain that we are aware of. The thoughts are possible intentional objects, but the brain in which (allegedly) they exist is not (for us). So the brain maintains its peculiar status as a phenomenal blank: it never comes into view except as an object of external perception. It is not a felt reality of the body. It is the basis of all inner feeling, but it is not an object of inner feeling. We are aware of our nature as a muscular being, because of primitive self-awareness, but we are not similarly aware of our nature as a neural being; yet we are at least as much neural as muscular. We might never have known of the brain’s existence but that heads occasionally pop open to reveal it. And doesn’t that adventitious knowledge change our feelings about ourselves? It reveals something quite unexpected. What if we had never discovered it?[1]



[1]What branch of science does this essay belong to? Phenomenological physiology perhaps: the science of bodily awareness.

18 replies
  1. Anthony Tebbs
    Anthony Tebbs says:

    Many years ago I worked as a coal miner. During moments of danger, I was aware of an unusual sensation that seemed to be located inside my head. The nearest description I can give of the phenomenon is my brain felt somewhat icy.
    The experience repeated on multiple occasions – it was not a single occurrence.
    I have always been puzzled by this. It seemed to be conditional on being in a state of fear.
    Do those on active military duty report similar experiences?

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    The brain evolved to monitor and govern the body’s internal organs, and this is still its primary purpose. The anatomical gap you conjecture (it certainly has no pain receptors), assuming it is true, perhaps was also noticed by Nature. Maybe that is why mind and self-awareness evolved: I can’t feel myself, so I will know myself. It is clear from the study of the long standing Eastern traditions of yoga and meditation that the ability of the mind to observe itself, and uncover aspects of itself typically buried, is far greater than what has been explored in Western contemplative traditions. I note this to suggest that mind (not just the surface of the mind we normally swim in) may have in it more information on the state of the brain (and possibly other things) than we are aware. Might not the mind, the act of knowing, itself be another sensing mechanism? It may not be sensing the same aspects of the brain organ as the receptors monitoring the heart do. Perhaps it is sensing the logical or informational aspects, rather chemical. If it is a sensing mechanism, it is an unusual one that can sense the activities of itself.

  3. says:

    Originally, we experienced “something” beating in our chest. Empirical inquiry discovered it to be an organ—the heart. Similarly, we experienced ourselves, originally, as something thinking and feeling, and my guess is that we experienced it as originating ,say, Not in our big toe but in our head. Subsequent empirical inquiry discovered the origin of our experiences to be an organ—the brain. Paul Churchland has something to say about this, and it’s not that far removed, in a certain sense, from the reflective Eastern traditions referenced by Katis.

  4. FB
    FB says:

    Two years ago I had major brain trauma. I have had to relearn certain things. I am aware of the absence of function in certain physical and mental/cognitive skills. While it can be argued that these relearnings are distinct from awareness of the brain itself, I have an acute awareness of certain “absences” inside my brain. Every now and then an absence disappears and I remember how to do something again. The remembering comes back, so to speak. It is a different experience from relearning, and it seems mostly outside my control (although I persist with insisting my brain do these things again, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t). I also experience “brain fatigue” which is nothing like physical fatigue. Perhaps we don’t know how to experience our brains. Before and after of people who have had some experience of brain trauma could be instructive.

  5. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    There is a distinction between the brain’s capacity to sense a part of the body and the mind’s ability to be aware of the brain sensing a part of the body. The brain was sensing other parts of the body long before awareness evolved. So one question is whether the brain can sense or monitor itself (I am sure you will agree it presumably does this, and in a number of ways), and another question is whether the mind can be aware of the brain sensing itself.

    To help me understand your position better I’ll have another go at my question: what are the reasons why the mind, which I understand to be the reification of activities of awareness and cognisance, could not be a particular sense that brain uses to monitor, and maybe assist in governing, itself? I.e. literally that the general act of awareness is the brain using a sensing capacity to sense itself? From this point of view, the huge variety of mental states and feelings that form the contents of awareness, which include awareness of a variety of coarse and subtle body sensations, would literally be the brain sensing aspects of its own activities. From this perspective, our awareness of the brain sensing the heart or the gut is second order: it is the brain sensing its own activity of it sensing those parts of the body.

    You can probably see where I am going with this. In response to the criticism “sensations by definition require cognisance of an immediate object being sensed, a primitive sense of “other”, and general awareness does not come with such an object” I will say “these sensations you speak of are not actually the sensing activities of the brain, rather they are the reflection of those activities in awareness.”

    Now I am guessing the point of your post is that, while we can be aware of the brain sensing a pain in the foot, we don’t seem to be aware of the brain sensing aspects of itself. We know however that through training, introspection or just pointing out it is possible to cultivate awareness of sensations normally one might not have. A crude example would be the temperature of the air going in and out of one’s nostrils, and that it is warmer going out than in. More seriously, many sports and physical yoga practices cultivate awareness of sensations that individuals had not experienced, or fully apprehended, before the training. So, the question now becomes: is it possible to be aware of the act of being aware in a way where awareness is clearly the object of awareness (in the way an aching toe is the object of awareness)? This seems to be an empirical question, and just because no tradition in the West has cultivated such an awareness does not mean it is impossible to develop. (Another objection could be that most of us do not conceptually designate there being any object of general awareness, let alone it being the brain. My only response to this is that this could just be ignorance.)

    Finally, one might find this description, or narrative, overly restrictive as it seems to imply a very materialistic conception of awareness. But I think this is only true if your interpretation of “brain” is something that is completely reducible to physical properties. General awareness could be a type of sense some life forms evolved that is not based on physical quantities like temperature, pressure, chemical concentrations or electric charge, but something else; say, a sense of, why not just call them, mental characteristics for which we don’t yet have quantitatively measurable concepts (the current mathematical definitions of information not yet being up to the task).

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      This is getting complicated and terminological. My central point is just that proprioceptive awareness does not extend to the brain. We are not aware of the brain as we are aware of the muscles. Whether every organ apart from the brain is open to proprioception is a tricky question, but it is logically possible that other organs be like the brain, e.g. the spleen. So the point has nothing to do with the brain being itself a sensing organ. After all, most things in the world are not perceptible by proprioception, and some may belong to the body (e.g. hair).

  6. Jim Birch
    Jim Birch says:

    If the mind/consciousness is unaware of brain activity in general this will certainly be an evolved condition. We know this because we are evolved. That means that the awareness is not adaptive whereas awareness of the soles of our feet is adaptive. This in turn means that any benefits are outweighed by costs/risks. The obvious risks to me will be complexity and potential for misuse.

    The conscious process has very limited capabilities; Nick Chater’s The Mind is Flat makes a persuasive evidence-based argument that the mind can only do one thing at a time despite the apparent complexity and richness of subjective experience. (For example, there is evidence that we may be only able to experience one colour directly at a time: The multicoloured world is a memory trick.) If this is the case, we should not expect to be able to be aware of the electro-mechanical details of brain operation while we are using the brain for any useful purpose.

    An analogy: The trash container on your computer desktop is an useful illusion. It has a pattern of dots that we recognise/associate with a concept cluster about rubbish and elimination, but there is no actually trash can in your computer. When you “drag” a representation of a document “into” the trash icon we understand we are deleting it, but in fact what ensues is an extremely complex cascade of operations that result in changes to the computer memory that map to the screen display, and to ram and disk memory areas that represent the contents of the computer’s file system. These changes could in theory be done manually, byte by byte, but the process would be hopelessly error prone and take like hours for an highly specialised expert to complete. Instead, we have a dumb representation of a couple of simple objects and a familiar intuitive manipulation. We are not all low-level computer system programmers but nearly all of us can imagine there actually is a trash can and use it.

    Interestingly, the design of modern microprocessors and operating systems includes multiple layers of protection that make it impossible for ordinary users to change – or even access – the underlying computer memory areas – except, of course, by the proscribed representational mechanism. This prevents malicious and faulty programs from taking over your computer; but its main function is to prevent ordinary user errors from destroying it. This brings me to the second point: direct access to the brain mechanism teems with opportunities for misusing, or, more pointedly, gaming the system. When you are hungry, it is adaptive to satisfy the hunger by undertaking hours of energy-consuming effort, and even planning and undertaking perilous activity of killing another organism that may defend itself with lethal force. If we could low-level program the hunger away, we would. It’s safer and faster. This low-level brain reprogramming would be our drug of choice: “Everybody knows that you live forever, when you’ve done a line or two” (Leonard Cohen.)

    I think that this question actually arises from the general misunderstandings of consciousness. Physics tells us that consciousness must arise in the normal “physics” activity of the brain. (I’m not sure how to argue with someone who doesn’t accept that.) We prone to assume that it is thus somehow identical to the physical brain. Clearly, it is not, this assumption is problematic. I see the conscious process as being a kind of meta-language of the brain – a representational narrative, perhaps. Much brain activity is excluded from this process because it is expensive, useless or dangerous. Selected brain activity is fed into this process but it is always encoded in a weird representational language of sensations, thoughts, and words, a language that has evolved over a few hundred million years, and has been reworked and tuned up by culture. It is at a different logical level to actual brain structure and nerve functions, just as the trash can is a simplifying integrative representation of low-level computer complexity.

    In this model, the “irreducible qualia” of the subjectivist are the end game, not the building blocks. For example: We say a tree is green and “see” a tree as green, but in fact this is naive. There is no actual greenness in the tree, just reflected photons with a statistical mix of wavelengths. Greenness in the representational endpoint of certain nerves firing. Once we get that things have to be converted to a representation to get into consciousness – they don’t just “appear” they get encoded by an process that exists for a reason – then the question of what gets in and how it is represented becomes a practical empirical matter. The process of converting more basic brain activity into this representation language is itself also opaque, just like the substrate, I guess so that we can be lively responsive naive realists when it matters. As a practical evolutionary matter then, developing a process for converting the internal workings of the brain into conscious representations was never biologically successful; it was useless, superfluous or positively dangerous.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      No doubt evolution saw no benefit to providing knowledge of the brain from a first-person perspective, though it is logically possible. My question concerned the significance of this fact for our self-conception.

  7. says:

    Ought what is merely, “logically”, possible with respect to the relation between first-person knowledge and third- person knowledge have ANY relevance to our “self-conception”? Logic and pure mathematics have some claim to the relevance of what is logically possible—as, perhaps, does quantum mechanics, but only with respect to the varieties of its mathematical formulation. Paul Churchland argues for the possibility of an intuitively satisfying re-conception of first-person knowledge in terms of third-person knowledge, without that re-conception “endangering” the evolved information-flow of the brain. Churchland is interested in the scope and depth of and constraints on any such possible re-conception. Fodor hated this idea, but for no reasons I could discover other than the idiosyncratic.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      It shows that our current proprioceptive self-conception omits a central fact of our identity, i.e. our braininess. We could be rewired to sense our own brain, thus changing our self-conception.

  8. says:

    It’s logically possible that we could be re-wired to (“directly”) sense or track the information flow of our brain. Empirically speaking, however, the depth and scope and fidelity of that possible sensing or tracking is what’s at issue. Bio-feed-back already enables an indirect route to self-modulation, physiologically speaking. There are norms to the exercise of one’s intelligence. I wonder if it’s possible, through bio-feed-back, to track one’s fidelity to such norms in the course of one’s exercise of intelligence, irrespective of whatever degree of fidelity to those norms we feel ourselves reflectively capable of discriminating and modulating.


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