How do I influence the minds of others

The problem arises in all its acuteness when scientists are confronted with phenomena such as the placebo effect. If I expect a sugar pill will improve my condition, why is it actually improving my condition? The researchers now know that placebo effects change the body. How does the thought "This purple pill will help me" affect my pituitary gland, which then releases the body's own opioids with analgesic effects?

Can thoughts affect the body? If so, does it mean that they are somehow immaterial and therefore different from my body? If so, what are thoughts made of? In view of the mysterious brain activation by placebos, many researchers fall back on variations of the following statement: We do not know how psychological factors interact with physiological factors. That was exactly Descartes' problem. If we are made up of two substances, how does the mind interact with the body?

Large parts of cognitive neuroscience are still based on a strong, albeit often covert, dualism. The mind is lifted out of the body. The reasons for this are historical and complex, but suffice it to say that the idea that an intelligently thinking mind could exist independently of the brain and the body containing that brain was an essential pillar of artificial intelligence and much of cognitive science. If one succeeds in finding the pattern or the shape of the mind, a pattern of computational information processing that the body only uses as a kind of software for the hardware of the brain, then the secret of consciousness will be revealed. I'm not the only one who thinks this is an intellectual dead end.

It is often important to know that we do not know

Many researchers in neuroscience (and artificial intelligence) have turned to the thesis of embodiment (the embodiment) on the mind-body question. They insist that the mind is not a problem-solving computing device that can be separated from the body. Even if not everyone is aware of it, they use both American pragmatism and European phenomenology. The American philosopher John Dewey and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty are outstanding forerunners of embodied cognition.

Does that mean that Alice's phobia is all about determining what is going on in her brain, because everything is physical, that Alice's fear could be reduced to her neural network? No, it's not that simple. The strength of embodiment-centered cognitive science lies in the idea that the body and the environment shape and structure our thoughts. Do we agree on how this works? Not at all. Does it solve the mind-body problem or the question of consciousness? No. Many questions remain open. The main thing for all of us, however, is that what we think about the relationship between the brain and the mind affects how Alice is treated, both for her brain injury and for her phobia. Often it is important to know that we do not know.

The American writer Siri Hustvedt has long been concerned with the connections between the mind and the brain. She now conducts research in neuroscience, neurology, philosophy and psychology, writes for specialist journals and gives lectures. She wrote this essay for Plan W.