The ‘still-brain effect’ – brain-aversion and the ‘still-face’ experments

Mind-brain identity theory proposes that mental states are identical to brain states. One worry with this philosophy of mind is how a person can have mental states if the brain is just a lump of meat? Interestingly, the effect of this worry is very similar to a well-known phenomenon in developmental psychology – the ‘still-face effect’.

First reported in 1975 by Ed Tronick and colleagues, the still-face effect describes a type of event in which an infant, following three minutes of face-to-face ‘interaction’ with a non-responsive and expressionless (‘still-face’) mother, ‘rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.’

Perceiving the brain as a lifeless piece of matter, rather than the astonishing ‘wonder tissue’ it really is (in the words of Daniel Dennett), encourages aversion, as observed in the infant in interaction with the still-face parent. So, it seems as though there is a genuine ‘still-brain effect’. The irony in the worry is that the perception of the brain as inert is itself caused by brain activity. Would stating this fact to the worrier make any difference?


‘The human fetus cannot feel pain’

Fetal pain perception is often modelled on the same neural structures as in the adult.

However –

(1 The neural structures involved in pain processing in early development are unique and different from adults.

(2 Some of these structures and mechanisms are not maintained beyond specific developmental periods.

The immature pain system plays a signalling role during each stage of development, and fulfils this role using different neural resources available at specific developmental times.

Thus, the error here is reading the adult into the fetus.

Life’s ‘ratchet game’

How do we think about reality in a way that improves upon the old ways?

There is good news here: it is not entirely up to you to improve reality. Your children, and their children will do the job. So, sit back a little. Enjoy the ride!

Human beings have the unique capacity to play life’s ‘ratchet game’. Children learn the best society has to offer, and can improve upon it. And, your children’s children can start where your children left off. And so on.

My kids are already way ahead of me, since they started where I left off long, long ago, and also vastly ahead of cro-magnon humans. By contrast, chimpanzees start where their ancestors left off, and stay there. They don’t move from this place (chimps are still very cute, though).

Thus, humans can produce science and technology, and pass it on to their descendents. This gives human beings the chance to deploy science and AI tech to create increasingly accurate representations of ‘mind’, ‘DNA’, ‘autism’, ‘pain’, ‘happiness’, and so on. The ratchet game takes us beyond the familiar into exciting new territories.

(I wonder: Can academic philosophy play life’s ‘ratchet game’? It seems to me that philosophy is not terribly good at reaching out to other disciplines, and learning from them in the way that children naturally learn from parents.)