What is a Brain State?

Document Type: 
Article Type: 
Computational Nueroscience
brain state
Deposited by: 
Richard Brown
Date of Issue: 
Richard Brown
Journal/Publication Title: 
Philosophical Psycholog
Issue Number: 
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Philosophers have been talking about brain states for almost 50 years and as of yet no one has articulated a theoretical account of what one is. In fact this issue has received almost no attention and cognitive scientists still use meaningless phrases like ‘C-Fiber Firing’ and ‘Neuronal Activity’ when theorizing about the relation of the mind to the brain. Though the issue first arose in the context of the Identity Theory, having such a viable theoretical account is vital to the success of cognitive science. For, whether you prefer correlation, supervenience, causation, or identity as an account of how the mind and brain relate, you will need to provide an account of what states of the brain this relation is to hold between. To date when theorists discuss brain states they usually do so in the context of making some other argument for or against one of the afore mentioned mind-brain relations with the result being that any discussion of what brain states are has a distinct en passant flavor. In light of this it is a goal of mine to make brain states the center of attention by providing some general discussion of them. So, what are these brain states supposed to be? Feigl is clear that ‘neural process’ is a dummy phrase that will need to be replaced by a mature neuroscience, and I am sure that Place and Smart would agree. Feigl guesses that the neuroscience of the year 3000 might be sophisticated enough to do so (Feigl 1967). I contend that we are in a position to do so now. I believe that neuroscientists discovered the identity conditions for brain states about 15 years ago. A full thousand years ahead of schedule! However, no one has articulated the theory as such. Doing so is my second goal. Most philosophers take a much dimmer view of the matter. For instance Bectel and Mundale say, “The notion of a brain state is a philosopher’s fiction,” (Bechtel and Mundale 1999, p 177) and more recently Thomas Polger has argued that “we don’t really even have a clue what such things are,” (Polger 2004). My strategy is as follows. I briefly look at the argument of Bectel and Mundale, as I think that they expose a common misconception philosophers had about brain states early on. I then turn to briefly examining Polger’s argument, as I think he offers an intuitive account of what we expect brain states to be as well as a convincing argument against a common candidate for knowledge about brain states which is currently ‘on the scene.’ I then introduce a distinction between brain states and states of the brain (cf. Chalmers’ specific and background NCC’s (Chalmers 2000)). Particular brain states occur against background states of the brain. I argue that brain states are patterns of synchronous neural firing, which reflects the electrical face of the brain; states of the brain are the gating and modulating of neural activity and reflect the chemical face of the brain.
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