The brain-in-the-ass hypothesis (Where is my mind?)

The Pixies well known song “Where is my mind?” has seen cover versions in Dutch and German, in which the title is transformed into “Where is my head?”. It seems that the prevailing discourse around minds and bodies harbours a strong framing assumption that minds are located inside heads. While this view makes no sense within an enactive approach, even enactivists must conduct their discourse with some nod to convention, and so let’s look just a bit at why the notion that minds might be in heads seems so widespread.

Head/mind overlap is clear in common expressions such as “he was out of his head”, or “I just can’t get you out of my head”. It is presented graphically in the remarkable vision delivered by the film “Being John Malkovitch”, in which homuncular subjects literally live inside the protagonist’s head, peering out through his eyes at a remote world. It lurks beneath the Brain-in-a-vat thought experiment of Putnam or it’s better known rendering in the plot of The Matrix, and it seems to gain some support from Crick’s amazing disastrous hypothesis that “‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

With this kind of consensus, it is no wonder then that some brief introspection (or should we say “phenomenological analysis”?) seems to be consistent with this way of thinking. For if one believes that the brain generates experience (or exudes consciousness), and one has to locate experience or consciousness somewhere, then isn’t the head a rather obvious place? I can make pre-theoretic sense of the notion that I see out through my eyes (a framing that is completely at odds with what we know about vision), that I have access to an “inner” world, e.g. where I can imagine counterfactuals, recall memories, and listen to private voices.

But let us now consider a small thought experiment, much less drastic than the brain-in-a-vat, which required some superhuman capacity to mimic the action of both a body and a world in order to supply the “inputs” and interpret the “outputs” of the notional brain. Let us instead consider a relatively trivial rewiring of the central nervous system, by placing the brain somewhere outside the skull. This is the brain-in-the-ass scenario. On this hypothesis, the optic nerve still runs from occipital lobe to eyeball, the auditory nerve still runs from inner ear to auditory cortex, and so on. Under these conditions, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that there would be any substantial change to the character of experience, the nature of consciousness, or the sense of “being inside my own head”.

In a brain-in-the-ass body, I would still use my head and neck muscles to orient my head, still use the complex muscles that cradle and control the eyeball to direct my vision here or there. The relation between me and the world, from a visual point of view, would be entirely unchanged. If we partition experience into distinct sensory modalities (an intellectual achievement, done on the basis of a sophisticated understanding of how the senses contribute to a manifest world) then the visual contribution remains unchanged, and we can recognise that it was the eyes, muscles, and the biomechanics of seeing that led to the feeling that we were seeing from a head. This also makes the notion of an “inner” and an “outer” space immediately less plausible.

But there are other reasons that we feel our conscious experience lies in the head. Consider those inner voices. Whether it is just you silently enumerating your intended shopping purchases, or you are listening to a hoard of malevolent demons urging you to go on a killing spree, we all “hear” silently, and our best guess for where those voices might be seems to be in the head. Now consider what it is to speak. When you speak, you cause a pattern of vibration in the air that is available to others, but you also cause your skull to vibrate, and you hear your own voice primarily through bone conductance. (This marked difference in the perception of your voice compared with everyone else’s voice, is why people typically get such an unpleasant shock when they hear their voice from a recording for the first time.) Assuming that an inner voice is very similar in origin to an overt utterance, it seems unsurprising that your experience of speaking silently to yourself should bear a strong resemblance to the situation of hearing yourself speak out loud. This relation between hearing and the head, though, is based on the location of the ears, the conductance of vibration through the skull, the location of the larynx in the neck. It does not depend in any way on the location of neural activity, and so in a brain-in-the-ass body, inner voices will still be in my head. The location of the brain is again irrelevant.

Young infants first engage with their worlds through the mouth, in suckling, but also in exploring the world through touch and taste. In common with speaking, this may serve to fix the head as the locus from which we engage with the world. But once more, it is the body and its engagement with the world that seems important, not the location of neural firing.

And so the brain-in-the-ass thought experiment might serve some purpose, to help us to distinguish between the veridical interpretation of the head as an important locus in engaging with the world in various ways (hearing, seeing, tasting, suckling), and the rather mistaken notion that experience might lie in the brain itself. Shift the brain, and nothing happens. Just be careful sitting down.

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