Mind and Brain The Genius of Fortune

Jesus, according to the Bible1, tells his followers a parable about a man who, before embarking on a long journey, called together his three servants and entrusted them with the greater part of his wealth. To the first servant, he gave five talents2 of gold, to the second, two talents, and to the third, one talent. Upon his return several years later, he called upon his servants to deliver up the wealth which he had left to them.

The first servant reported that he had made productive use ofthe five talents entrusted to him and thereupon returned ten talents to his master, who was o delighted with this good and faithful servant, he rewarded him. The second servant made a similar report and returned not only his original two talents, but an additional two which he had earned during his master’s absence. The man was as delighted with this servant as he was with the first, and the second servant was similarly rewarded.

The third servant reported that, because he had dug a hole in the ground and hid the one talent entrusted to him, he was only able to offer back to his master his one original talent. This report angered the man, who took he one talent from the servant, gave it to the first servant, and cast the slothful servant out of doors, where, according to Matthew, there was much gnashing of teeth. The Parable of the Talents is intended to warn even those with the meanest ability to use to the best advantage his or herGod-given or natural “talents.

We do commonly observe that some people appear to exercise more or less talent than others, and these differing degrees of talent among individuals vary from field to field — for example, some have a higher degree of talent in artistic creation, others in their ower to solve problems in mathematics. Why is this so? Are these talents, as the parable may suggest, God-given, or is there some material explanation for varying degrees of artistic and intellectual Our inquiry builds upon the moderate immaterialistic view of the relationship between the mind and body, a view articulated by Mortimer J. Adler in his book, Intellect,3 and which may be summarized as follows:

The brain is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of conceptual thought. In other words, some immaterial substance (e. g. ,human soul, spirit, or intellect) is required for conceptual hought, but conceptual thought depends upon the operation of the material brain, without which we could not think conceptually. Upon that, it is submitted that the difference in degree among humans in intellectual talent — a difference, when evident in one extreme, we call gifted talent or genius — has its basis in the dependence of conceptual thought upon the structure and operation of the material brain. Specifically, an intellectual talent springs from physical conditions in the brain that are disposed toward the exercise of that talent — the better those conditions, the better the talent is likely to be. The causes of these bodily dispositions are, paradoxically, both material and, in a sense, divine.

This inquiry will begin with a brief review of the ancient concept of the mind or soul of living things, including their rational and non-rational powers, followed by a brief discussion of the human potentialities, acquired habits and bodily dispositions that influence human behavior. Recent neuroscientific evidence is shown to be entirely consistent with the thinking of ancient and Middle Age philosophy. Finally, this essay concludes with some final thoughts on an important question raised by he consequences of the conclusion reached.

The mind — its nonrational and rational powers Every living thing, believed Aristotle, possesses a soul and each soul has various kinds of powers. 5 Those animals that possess nutritive, sensitive, appetitive, imaginative, and rememorative powers use those powers to think perceptually — that is, using their senses they perceive real objects in the world, such as prey or predators, and by combining these senseswith their other powers they are able to recognize similarities between a real object and a stored image remembered — a process which has een called perceptual abstraction. To this perceptual abstraction the animal applies its appetitive powers to determine whether it should be attracted to the object or whether the object is to be avoided, and to act accordingly. The nature of an animal’s appetitive power determines its behavior toward objects it perceives. Lower forms of animals, such as ants, bees, and other insects, have appetitive powers that are completely determined by instinct, an innate, pre-programmed pattern of behavior.

Higher animals combine instinct with an ability to learn from experience. In both the lower and higher nimals, “thinking” occurs merely on the perceptual level, using only the nutritive, sensitive, appetitive, imaginative, and rememorative powers, what the ancient Greeks would call the nonrational powers of The souls of human animals, by contrast, consists of all of the foregoing non-rational powers, powers which are shared by many other animals, plus the rational powers, which only human souls possess.

The rational, or higher, powers of the soul comprise the cognitive (i. e. , the power of knowing or opining about real objects — things that are variable, such as things perceived by the senses), the alculative (i. e. , the power to reason or make inferences), and the conceptive (i. e. , the power to understand intelligible objects — things that are invariable, such as forms and ideas). These rational powers are used, together with our animalistic nonrational powers, to perform distinctly human thinking.

The possession of these rational powers of the mind — which provides us with the ability to think conceptually, rather than just perceptually — is what distinguishes man from all other animals. Perceptual experiences influence the appetitive behavior of all animals, but the appetitive behavior of ll animals is not governed the same way. Although a nonhuman animal’s appetitive power is governed by its instinct, the appetitive power of the human animal is governed by its rational powers. Humans have no instinct — no innate, pre-programmed patterns of behavior — to instruct the individual how to act.

Instead, humans are endowed with what we call a free will, the potential to allow our rational powers to govern our appetitive desires, so that, even in the absence of a preprogrammed instinct to tell us what is really good for us, our reason may prompt a desire to perform those actions that are really ood for us, our reason may prompt a desire to perform those actions that are really good for us, including those actions which involve no physical pleasure to attract us or those for which we suffer The natural powers, or potentialities, of the human mind are the same in every human being, under all cultural conditions, at all times, and at all places. 7 Potentiality is like a tablet on which there is nothing actually written.

Thus, the potential to use our rational powers for our own good is something all humans have and have to the same degree — that is, every person is born with the same potential to se his or her cognitive, calculative, and conceptive powers. Nevertheless, there is a difference between possessing something and using it — as in the difference between having the power to think rationally and actually exercising that power.

Accordingly, the degree to which a person’s “talent” in the exercise of his or her rational powers varies from the talents of others derives not from our innately endowed, natural potentials, which all humans possess on an equal basis, but from something that affects each individual’s exercise of their human potential. Thus, genius does not result from our equal owers or potentialities for rational thought — our immaterial, clean slate — but from something else. As noted, we use our rational powers to help govern the exercise of our appetitive powers — that is, we use our reason to govern our desires. 9 The proper governing of our desires is aided by the development of virtues, or good habits (and impeded by the development of vices, or bad habits).

Habits are dispositions of our appetitive powers and are formed by the repetition of particular acts. Being formed by actions taken after we are alive, habits are not natural powers, but products of urturing and are influenced by such things as cultural conditions and the individual’s social environment. Thus, a person may certainly acquire a “talent” through an acquired habit, such as taking piano lessons or practicing one’smath drills. It does not escape common observation, however, that certain individuals, though they may be the product of the same environment as others, such as a gifted child and his or her normal siblings, just seem better disposed than others to perform certain actions.

Thus, mathematical, artistic or other genius discovered in the very young cannot be explained solely by cultural conditions, social nvironment, or other factors that contribute to the development of good habits. In other words, genius does not appear to be an acquired habit. Genetic research has discovered that genius runs in families. Genes are physical causes. Thus, leaving aside acquired habits which may be employed to develop one’s talents, the degrees to which the exercise of human talents vary from individual to individual appear to be physically, or materially, caused. If genius is materially determined, then it is not a product of the immaterial, natural powers of man.

This is not to say that the exercise of genius is based in purely material operations: Genius nvolves the exercise of the immaterial powers of the mind; what is materially caused is the varying degrees to which individuals have the ability to exercise such immaterial powers. Thus, there appears to be something material that underlies the virtuous exercise of human potential — some physical structure in our body, perhaps genetically determined, that is particularly conducive to the development of good habits or the exercise of what we call genius or gifted talent. Is this not what Aquinas suggested in his examination of the question, “Whether one person can understand one and the ame thing better than another can”? 0 Experience shows, says Aquinas, that some understand more deeply than others, and in the following sentence, he suggests why this is so:

“[B]ecause some men have bodies of better disposition, their souls have a greater power Thus, the cause of superior intellectual talent appears to involve something else besides natural powers, or potentialities shared equally by all men, on the one hand, and acquired habits, the dispositions to act that we acquire by performing certain actions repeatedly, on the other. What’s new here are ispositions that are neither natural nor acquired — dispositions that are in-born, but material and which vary from individual to individual. We will call these, after Aquinas’s suggestion, bodily dispositions.

In pondering this material source of genius, it is useful to briefly review recent developments in neuroscience. Neuroscientists have been busily researching “the neural basis of mental phenomena. “11 These scientists estimate that a three to four pound human brain contains 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons, and believe that mental events can be correlated with patterns of nerve impulses in the brain. By studying how these neurons work, how they communicate with one another, how they are organized into local or distributed networks, and how the connections between neurons changewith experience, they believe they can unlock the key to the “grand synthesis of mental life.

By research conducted through the observation of abnormalities in human sensory perception, combined with new tissue-staining techniques and the advent of the positron emission tomographer (i. e. , a device which can measure increasesin regional cerebral blood flow when people perform pecific tasks), scientists have begun to discover that discrete areas of the brain specialize in certain sensory functions and work in parallel to accomplish particular tasks, such as vision. For example, the evidence suggests that the movement, color and shape of an oncoming tennis ball are each processed in a different area of the brain. How this “parallel processing” works remains a mystery, but it is hoped that further researchinto the structure and composition of the brain will uncover some answers.

This research has already revealed a great diversity in the kinds of neurons found in the brain, including ifferences in their shape, molecular structure, and chemical composition. Some neurons have short axons, or tentacular arms, designed to communicate with neighboring neurons and others have long axons that project to other regions. At birth, the brain is only one-fourth of adult size. The brain grows in size because its neurons grow in size and the number of axons and extent of their connections increase. The development of neural connections within the brain as it grows can be compared with the process of stringing telephone lines between homes and among cities.

2 This massive “wiring” roject is largely genetically determined, but genes seem to go only as far as sending the axons to the right “town. ” The hookups of axons to the right “addresses” is aided by molecular clues in the neurons, which can be influenced by external factors such as chemicals, hormones, and sensory stimulation. Thus, the specificity of synaptic connections that comes about during development of the brain is influenced not only by genetic factors, but also by a variety of other internal and external factors occurring during the growth of the brain while in the womb and during early childhood. Behavioral research is also beginning to reveal differences among individuals that cannot be explained by environmental or cultural factors.

For example, recent evidence suggests that men and women differ in the way in which they solve perceptual problems: men tend to perform better than women on certain spatial tasks, and woman tend to be better than men at rapidly identifying matching items. 13 Scientists are beginning to attribute these differences to the influence of sex hormones on the “wiring” or organization of the brain during its early stages of growth. If factors such as genetic makeup, chemical balance, sex hormones, and sensory stimulation, influence how the brain develops its specific structure, and if that structure plays a role in determining patterns of ability or talent in individuals, then was not Aquinas correct in his view that the souls of some men have a greater power of understanding, because of their “bodies of better disposition”?

The evidence does seem to suggest that the structure and composition of the brain influences how well an individual is able to perform certain tasks, and this seems quite consistent with Aquinass view of the matter as stated in O]ne may understand the same thing better than someone else, through having a greater power of understanding, just as a man may see a thing better with his bodily sight, whose power is greater, and whose sight is more perfect. 14 Thus, it appears some may have a greater power of understanding than others by reason of a better disposition of the body. For example, actors, and those who are said to have “photographic memories,” would seem to have brains disposed to the exercise of their rememorative powers, or potential to memorize, and recall on demand, lines of text,images or other information.

Of course, excellence in intellectual activities, such as art, acting, and calculating, can be created purely through the development of good habits, but no doubt, one who has the gift of bodily disposition toward a certain kind of intellectual activity would tend to out-perform those whose bodies are not similarly disposed Relationship between bodily dispositions and rational powers Thus far, it has been suggested, if not reasonably established, that material conditions in the body affect our exercise of human potentialities.

A key problem that must be addressed is whether material onditions in the body which affect intellectual thought do so by directly affecting our rational powers. For example, would a mathematical genius have a brain disposed to the superior exercise of his rational power of calculative thought, or do his superior calculative powers arise from conditions in the brain disposed to the exercise of some combination of nonrational powers, such as imaginative and rememorative?

In other words, do material conditions in the body better dispose the mind for nutritive, sensitive, imaginative and rememorative (nonrational) powers, which, being better disposed, aid the peration of the rational powers, or do material conditions in the body better dispose the rational Aquinas appears to have suggested that material conditions directly improve the exercise of both the nonrational and rational powers when he said that the effect of bodily dispositions applies to the intellect “in two ways”: “First, as regards the intellect itself . . . [and] [s]econdly, this occurs in regard to the lower powers of which the intellect has need in its operation. ” [emphasis mine] Moreover, he says, “The intellect is that which most pertains to form in man. “15 What if neurological research suggested hat even the understanding of form depends upon the material attributes of the brain? Consider the Blindsight patients are people who see but do not understand.

Because they are unaware of what they have seen, they have not acquired any knowledge. . . . [One such] patient has an extensive prestriate lesion [i. e. , affecting the visual association cortex] from a stroke that has generally spared area V1 [i. e. , the primary visual cortex]. He can reproduce a sketch of St. Paul’s Cathedral with greater skill than many normal people, although it takes him a great deal of time to do so. Yet this patient has no comprehension of what he has drawn. Because his V1 system is largely intact, he can identify the local elements of form, such as angles and simple shapes, and accurately copy the lines he sees and understands.

The prestriate lesion, however, prevents him from integrating the lines into a complex whole and recognizing it as a building. 16 It would appear that the patient’s rational power of cognitive thought [i. e. , the power of understanding real objects, things that are variable, such as things perceived by the senses] has been adversely affected by a material condition of the patient’s brain. Of course, it could be said that this proves nothing — that a closer examination of the facts would reveal that merely perception, not rational understanding of invariable forms, is impeded by the patient’s physical condition, in which case the answer may need await further neurological research.

Nevertheless, assuming that neuroscientific research has proven, or will soon prove, that our rational powers are directly affected by material conditions, does this suggest we must alter our assumption of the moderate immaterialistic view of the relationship between the mind and the brain? No. Intellect is only potentially the object of thought. 17 As Aristotle pointed out, potentiality is like that of the tablet on which there is nothing actually written. 18 In his work, On the Soul, the philosopher says, It was a good idea to call the soul the place of the forms, though (1) this description holds only of the intellective soul, and (2) even this is the forms only potentially, not We thus return to the important difference between possessing something and using it — between possessing our rational powers, which are merely potentialities, and the actual exercise of those powers.

It is the exercise of our rational powers, not the mere possession of them, which depends upon the material brain as a necessary condition, and, as noted above, it is the actual exercise of our rational powers, not the mere possession of them potentially, which influences the degree to which an individual’s talents vary from those of others. Nevertheless, because the immaterial potentiality — the empty tablet — remains a necessary condition of intellectual thought, a scientific finding that the recognition of forms, or any act of rational thinking, is influenced by the material condition of the brain s not inconsistent with the view that the possession of the necessary means of rational thought is purely immaterial. Accordingly, even if neuroscientific research successfully proves that our rational powers are directly affected by material conditions, the moderate immaterialistic view of the relationship between the mind and the brain stands unaffected.

The cause of superior intellectual —-power The material cause20 of a superior intellectual power (i. e. , that out of which the superior power is made) is, as we have said, a physical structure of the body or brain well disposed to the exercise of hat power. The exercise of intellectual power exhibits itself in a variety of talents and the particular talent is dependent on the particular structural and chemical composition of the brain. 21 The formal cause of superior intellectual power (i. e. , that into which the power is made) is, of course, the product of the exercise of the power — the particular display of genius — in whatever form the variety of human genius may take.

The efficient cause of superior intellectual power (i. e. that by which the power is made) is, as noted, a confluence of nature and art: the internal genetic makeup of the ndividual and external material factors (some of which are man-made) that influence the structure, chemical composition, and operation of the brain during its early development. Yet, there appears to be an additional factor influencing the degree of intellectual talent in an individual, and that is chance, or Fortune. As noted, parents who have certain gene structures may combine to produce offspring with brains conducive to genius. The environment into which one is born is, or certainly appears to be, entirely determined by fortuity.

Moreover, neuroscientists may well find that Fortune — a goddess they ay prefer to call, randomness — may even play a considerable role in the development of the brain, as the wiring of a billion neurons guided by “molecular clues” — like the development of a crystal into one of a seemingly infinite variety of structures — would appear to leave to chance a material role to play in But is the notion that chance plays a role in superior intellectual power a reasonable one? “There is noincompatibility whatsoever,” says Alder, “between the presence of chance, randomness, and contingency in the cosmos and God’s creation of it (and presumably, gift to man of conceptual thought). 22 The structure of all human brains are substantially similar, but as the film director, Cecil B. DeMille once said, “God is in the details. ” Not every human develops the material bodily conditions that are well disposed to the exercise of human genius.

However, if these conditions are material, as suggested, it would appear that man does have the capacity to create or modify those conditions, through genetic and pharmaceutical research. If neuroscience succeeds in understanding the structural and chemical composition of the brain and discovering techniques to artificially enhance the conditions that underlie human genius, then we will be orced to make a prescriptive judgment about whether we should use this knowledge to engineer genius in coming generations — the development of what marketers might call, designer kids. In considering that question, we would need look no further than to the final cause (i. e. , the purpose) of superior intellectual power.

Whether we determine that final cause to be the discovery of truth, the performance of virtuous acts, or just plain contemplation, it is clear that the improvement of our intellectual capabilities, essential to all three of these pursuits, would serve the end of intellectual ower. Would we not be justified in improving human contemplation itself, what Aristotle called the highest form of activity, an activity which is appreciated for its own sake? 23 As noted at the outset, the Parable of the Talents warns even those with the meanest ability to use to the best advantage their natural talents. If, therefore, through scientific inquiry we can find a way to improve our bodily dispositions to improve ourpowers of conceptual thought, it appears, from sources both reasonable and divine, that we should do so. But prudently.


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