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On the idea that neurological activity defines psychological and mental states

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

Take Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Here is a figure whose character is stand-offish and remote (more than aloof). Brontë sets him up as a romantic figure on this basis; Jane Eyre would not have responded to him as she did – and within such a context – had this not been so.

It is however, likely that Mr. Rochester and characters similar to him would, these days, be diagnosed as exhibiting some form of autism. That being so, the kind of rich romantic interaction that Brontë sees as a possibility in relation to Mr. Rochester’s conduct would be absent, as his behaviour would be reduced to a medical condition with its attendant reductionist label (something for which we would have to make allowances). The change that we see between how Mr Rochester’s behaviour was conceived by Brontë in the 19th Century and how it would likely be conceived by healthcare professionals today (importantly without the background of the novel to give such behaviour context) is not a change in Mr. Rochester’s behaviour or the brain states that are concomitant with it; rather, it is a change in how others respond to it. Mr. Rochester’s neurological activity would have been the same in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries; it is our responses to it that are different (a change in the ways others react to it).

Changes in how other respond may, of course, presage changes in a modern-day Mr. Rochester that would not have occurred otherwise, but this does not alter the sameness of type of his initial behaviour. Accordingly, our psychological and mental states cannot be defined by brain-states; neuroscience cannot define our psychological and mental states, as it is behaviour – our interacting responses to one another – that provide the foundations for our psychological and mental-state concepts, and determine how they are used.

Autism is a concept the grammatical foundations of which rely on certain kinds of responsiveness that were absent when Charlotte Bronte was writing. But that in no way means that the neurological activity in Mr. Rochester’s brain was any different; nor does it mean that the more we discover about the brain the more we will be able to define our mental and psychological concepts through neurological activity as opposed to behaviour.

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