Do you think that your intelligence exists solely within the confines of your cranium? Do you think that your mind is a separate entity from your body and from the rest of the world? Well, if this is the case, then your brain is doing a good job of fooling your consciousness!
The mind is the emergence of physical components- only some of which are in your head. No, I am not talking about religious spirituality, or extension, or even basic dualism. Rather, I refer to a different way of looking at human cognition- one that can be supported by the sciences. This different way involves embodied cognition, distributed systems, and basic neuropsychology.
Think of your brain as simply a medium that has been adaptively selected through millions of years to take input and produce output that results in the furthering of one’s reproductive success. Reproductive success can be operationalized to the number of children that your offspring are able to produce. In other words, your ability to create more reproductive humans (I know- that’s not a romantic way of putting it). This medium has become so good at fooling your conscious self (which is merely an illusion) that you have difficulty separating your arising thoughts and feelings from the physical world. Don’t be ashamed- there is no harm in seeing it this way. But, it may be more enlightening to reveal to yourself more of the picture.
Embodied Cognition, in its simplest form, tells us that in order for an organism to develop AND maintain cognitive intelligence, it has to have a body. In order to understand this easily, just think; your brain received inputs from the environment via sensory organs (photoreceptors in your eyes, mechanoreceptors in your skin, etc.). They all come into the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) in the same manner. That is, neural signals coming from the retinas do not differ in their constitution from neural signals that come from your taste buds! Your brain serves to sort these signals out via pattern recognition,memory, and prediction. Further, your brain exists to be able to produce output in consequence of these inputs from your senses (e.g. you move, flinch, react, listen, dodge, eat, and fight in response of your senses). These outputs also serve to increase your survival. therefore, understood at a primal level, you need a body with both sensors and motors (hope you like the robotic analogy) in order to create intelligence. Further, the sensor system and motor system must exist in an intimate loop that provides for sense, action, and accurate sense of the consequences of your action.
More strikingly put- YOU THINK WITH YOUR BODY! Yes, philosophers reason with their hands. Writers and artist conceive with their fingers, and modern mathematicians solve with their calculator (this doesn’t mean that their calculator is doing all of the work, and it doesn’t mean that the mathematician is doing anything less than significant).
However, this is only half of the story, for without society and culture, we humans would never have made it this far. I’ll save the ‘Which came first- brains or culture’ for another time….
Social structure provides for distributed cognition between two or more people. Notice how differently you think when people are around you? Notice how differently you think in front of a crowd? Or how about with different individuals- yes, I would even go so far to say that you are almost completely different personas with different friends of yours. This is because the brain is evolved to react to people, and it adapts to certain people differently. For instance, if I make jokes with a new co-worker at lunch, and he laughs a lot at them, I will be much more likely to be a ‘comedian’ whenever he is around me. I may not be conscious of this change, however. That is important to grasp, I feel.
If one is isolated from human beings, and is also completely detached from the world via loss of all sensory mechanisms (if that were at all possible), one could surely say that he or she were not even alive, let alone human, conscious, or intelligent. We’ve all heard of feral children who develop in their childhood severely separated from human contact. Depending on the severity, the age of rescue, and the work done to restore his or her humanity, we see this people very severaly retarded in cognitive growth. This is not because they are mentally challenged. Nor is it because they are are just genetically predisposed to be “stupid”. It is because they have been lacking the social inputs and interactions that allow for and maintain neural growth and organization. In fact, most feral children who grow up to live fairly decent adulthoods never learn to speak normal.
Now, it cannot be said that a person without a body is not intelligent, because he or she still has a vast amount of sensory organs that are working hard to create brain input form atmospheric stimuli. It does, however, get questionable with semi-coma patients are are alive and conscious in the strictest of definitions. This then is not because they lack sensory input, but rather the ability to create output. Some of these patients are referred to as having “locked-in syndrome’. We cannot say how intelligent they are, but we do not that their brains slowly begin to deteriorate when it learns that it is helpless to create interaction with one’s world.
In conclusion, the brain is not an intelligent organ by itself. Rather, it is an adaptive medium for intelligence. Only with interaction with the environment via senses and motor movement, as well as social interaction with other intelligent beings (yes, that’s what we call a loose term) can the brain exist and be considered able to account for intelligence.