Would you be angry? Would you, maybe, use foul language? Would you change from a mild-mannered cubicle-dwelling meekman (a nifty neologism) into a raving those-dirty-buggers vengeance-seeking whirlwind? The latter is what happened to poor Phineas Gage, who did get a 13-pound rod to the brain, and whose personality went from quiet to quarrelsome.
I say “Poor” not because of his accident, but because Gage is trotted out as proof each time a neuroscientist wants to insist that we are our brains. Take the peer-reviewed paper “The essential moral self” by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichol in the journal Cognition. They say that after his accident Gage’s “character changed so markedly that those who knew him said he was ‘no longer Gage’.”
They don’t mean this in the sense you say of your wife, “She isn’t herself today.” They mean Gage turned from Gage into a new man, a different person, coincidentally named Gage. Because why? Because changing Gage’s brain eliminated Gage and made somebody else, because materialism insists we are nothing but machines.
Head down to the body shop and trade your old for a new liver and everybody agrees you’re still you. But how much of the brain has to change before you’re not yourself? Swap out one neuron. You still you? Now two neurons? What about replacing “regions” of the brain “associated” with patterns of behavior or moods? Associated has to be in quotes because behaviors and moods are only statistically correlated with certain areas of the brain, a condition which means scientists cannot predict with certainty what would happen if part of your brain went missing or was replaced.
Strohminger and Nichol skate loosely over these facts and instead ask people on the Internet what parts of the brain they could lose and still be themselves. In one “experiment”, they gave 148 people a scenario like Gage’s (but a car accident), although this time the bolt could be removed and the part of the brain squished replaced. They varied the consequences of the surgery.
First was no change: Jim (the victim) was to all observation still Jim. Another was “morality”: Jim loses “his moral conscience—he is no longer capable of judging right from wrong, or being moved by the suffering of others.”
Participants then rated, on an inverted scale from 1 to 7 (making the scale numerical is what makes it science), “The transplant recipient is still Jim.” Curiously, those getting the control had a mean score just north of 2, which means (I’m guessing) that the participants knew they were in a “brain experiment” and gave answers in the direction they thought would please their interrogators. (There is, of course, little to no justification for calculating a mean from an arbitrary scale, but let that pass.)
The highest mean (nearly 5) was for the morality group. The authors: “The moral faculty is part of the mind most likely to be seen as the ultimate explanation for whether a person’s identity endures or fades away.”
The authors invented new ways of questioning citizens, including (citing Freaky Friday) “the soul switch”. To make it juicier, the soul to be switched was John, a pedophile. Most thought John’s soul shifting to a new body would carrying over his perversities.
What can be learned from this? Not much, except that people, including neuroscientists, haven’t given much thought about what it means to be human beings. The danger of misinterpretation is enormous. The researchers actually believed participants were answering the questions they got and were not translating them into language they understood. What is a guy in the street to make of a “morality” center of the brain? Many probably thought things like, “If Jim starts acting like a complete ass after his surgery, then I probably wouldn’t like him as much.”
Listen: these papers are important because they are part of the dark trend which equates humanity with machinery. Consequence? Once grandma starts down the mental slide, at some point she won’t be herself. That’s when you can get rid of her, as is happening in select nations in Europe, which dispatch a euthanasia van to cart what was grandma away. Happens in these United States, too, when we used to call doctors declare a person a “vegetable” (and what do you do with vegetables?).