Digging Deep into the Brain and the Mind

Himeka Hagiwara '11
Himeka Hagiwara '11
When it comes to the mind and the body, we live immersed in two opposing viewpoints. While many of us believe in the power of science and the firing neurons of the brain that account for many of our actions, we continue attributing our sensations and thoughts to a separate concept of the “mind,” an abstract entity only loosely connected to the physical body. Working with John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy Richard Werner and through an Emerson grant, Himeka Hagiwara ’11 is exploring the longstanding issue of the mind-body dichotomy and the conflicting perspectives that are so prominent in our culture.

One of Hagiwara’s primary concerns in her project is about mental states and their relationship to science. Mental states are the processes or conditions experienced by a thinking, feeling individual, such as feeling pain, thinking, desiring or intending. Are these mental states, Hagiwara asks, necessary for understanding ourselves and others? What would we lose if we abandoned them for a purely scientific explanation?

To begin answering these questions, Hagiwara will tackle literature from some of the most highly respected philosophers of language and the mind, such as Daniel Dennett and John Searle. She will use these resources to examine the functions of the mind as attributed to purely physical properties—for example, when you feel pain, it is because of agitated nerves that send their messages to the brain, not our abstract perception of “pain.” But attributing all human faculties to chemical changes raises questions of human agency and free will. Hagiwara is especially interested in the social implications of this scientific philosophy, hypothesizing that, by attributing all of their actions to physical reactions, people may excuse themselves from responsibility of themselves.

Folk psychology is another subject that will drastically change should scientists prove that the mind is just a part of the brain. Folk psychology is the everyday language in which people understand and discuss human psychology, namely, in terms of our beliefs, desires and feelings. We attribute mental states and desires to others because we assume that similarities exist between their thought processes and our own, but would this process of understanding others’ behavior be confirmed or undermined should scientists prove that our concept of the abstract “mind” is simply another product of your physical brain?

The strongest proof of the dualist (separate mind and body entities) versus scientific debate is in our language. Whenever anyone says that they “felt” a certain way, they gloss over all of the physical reactions that had to happen for the sensation of feeling to be processed in the brain. Crediting an inner yet distinct I—saying “I don’t know what I was thinking,” for example—also reveals the dualist philosophy that is deeply ingrained in our culture and language. But, if scientists do prove that the mind is nothing but firing neurons, aspects of this language will become obsolete. And can we change our language if we cannot use free will to make the change happen?

Hagiwara will begin to address these difficult questions through her research this summer, hopefully also preparing herself to write her final paper in her upcoming senior seminar in philosophy.

Hagiwara spent the past year away: in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the fall, then on the New York City program in the spring. Studying at the University of Edinburgh, Hagiwara had the opportunity to take two courses about the relationship of philosophy, psychology and language, which sparked her interest in digging deeper into such a fascinating topic. Now that she is back at Hamilton, however, she is excited to return to her IM soccer team called 40 Ounces and Moonbounces and to return to the close-knit Hamilton community.

Hagiwara graduated from Woodside High School in Woodside, Calif.
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