Mistaken Identity: The Mind-Brain Problem Reconsidered (Book Review)

Author:  Brothers, Leslie
Publisher: New York: SUNY Press, 2002
Reviewed By: Margaret Beaudoin, Summer 2003, pp. 52-54

Leslie Brothers’ Mistaken Identity: The Mind-Brain Problem Reconsidered is a neuroscientist’s own critique of the goals and practices of cognitive neuroscience. This critique centers around the particular solution to the mind-body/mind-brain problem that underlies and informs the field of cognitive neuroscience. The book also attempts to propose an alternative solution to the mind-body problem, which Dr. Brothers considers the proper underpinning of the field of social neuroscience. And according to Dr. Brothers, it is social neuroscience that is necessary for any successful neuroscientific study of mental phenomena.

But should we, as psychoanalysts, concern ourselves with a book about the mind-body/mind-brain problem? It can be fruitfully argued that as psychoanalysts we are of necessity concerned with the mind-body problem insofar as our entire arena of theoretical and clinical study is the embodied mind. For Freud (1915) drives are not purely bodily or purely mental, but rather psychical representatives of somatic forces. If the enterprise of psychoanalysis can be seen to exist at the borderland of mind and body, then the relationship of mind to body can be seen to be of fundamental importance for our understanding of psychoanalysis.

In this second Decade of the Brain it is less likely that we would require a rationale for concerning ourselves with a book about neuroscience. And this point brings us to the main point of Mistaken Identity; that cognitive neuroscience, and our present day culture, is essentially and mistakenly neuroistic. Leslie Brothers defines neurosim as “the position that the mind can be explained in terms of the individual brain” (p. 3). Her argument against neuroism is spelled out in the 10 chapters of this short and clearly written book.

Brothers begins with a simplified restatement of the mind-body problem, i.e., the difficulties involved in attempting to understand the relationship of our subjective experience to our physical body.

“First, it is hard to explain how something that exists in space (the body) can contain things that aren’t physically bounded, like thoughts and beliefs. Second, how can the way it feels to have an experience be based on physical stuff (like the brain)? And third, it is extremely difficult to explain how mental things like reasons get translated over into the physics and chemistry of bodily movements (p. 1).”

She then gives a sketchy, overly condensed and thus somewhat misleading summary of the basic philosophical positions one could assume in attempting to answer these questions. The interested reader should turn to a more complete and correct summary of these positions, such as Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness, also written for lay audiences. In any case, Leslie Brothers correctly identifies cognitive neuroscientists as materialists (i.e., they believe that mind, like anything that exists, is dependent on matter). In fact cognitive neuroscientists are typically either reductive or eliminative materialists. They believe that mental states can be reduced to physical states or that mental states (and psychology) will be eliminated and properly reconceived as physical (neurological) states. This position entails the notion that neuroscience will ultimately solve the mind-body problem. Brothers adds that cognitive neuroscientists have an internalist view of the mind. In other words, they believe that mind is internal to the individual and dependent on the individual brain. This reductive or eliminative, internalist, materialist position is what she terms “neuroism,” i.e., that the mind can be explained in terms of the individual brain.

Leslie Brothers believes that this extremely pervasive position is incorrect and misleading, as well as potentially harmful. Coming, as they do, from a trained psychiatrist and neuroscientist, these claims are rather bold and even courageous.

“There are pretty fair financial rewards for using cognitive neuroscience terminology to persuade people…Society has a keen interest in and avid appetite for brain-based explanations of human behavior…[But] there are significant cracks beneath the glossy surface of neuroscience’s declarations of imminent triumph over the mind-body problem, cracks that have been masked by the enthusiasm of both neuroscientists and the larger public (p. 6). Neuroism is entirely mainstream, for the brain is in fact a sacred object in our contemporary secular culture” (p. 58). In the contemporary culture of neuroscience, it is close to contemptible to doubt that the neurons of the individual brain are the basis of all human phenomena (p. 60). In sum, neuroscience narratives regarding emotion and clinical psychiatric narratives appear to be coevolving- which would be expected if a common market interest is penetrating both (p. 66).”

The common market interest is, of course, that of the pharmaceutical industry.

Anti-neuroist that I am, I found myself disappointed in the actual argument Brothers makes against neuroism as logically unsound. She attempts to use Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy to argue that the languages of mind and brain are two separate discourses, and that the neuroist must and cannot eradicate the gap between the two discourses in their accounts. This is an unfortunate choice of argumentation for a number of reasons. Ordinary language philosophy is problematic on its own account. Further, the argument amounts to question begging insofar as it requires neuroists to link the languages of mind and brain when they, as reductive/eliminative materialists, do not believe that there are two separate discourses. However, her analysis of the neuroist literature along this dimension is quite interesting in its own right.

Brothers states that in the cognitive neuroscience literatures’ attempts to deny or undo the existence of a gap between mind and brain language take multifarious forms. Superficial similarities in psychological and neuroscientific terms are taken to be identities by ignoring the very different context from which the terms get their meanings. One example she gives is Allen Schore’s statement that “an anatomical locus…is equivalent to …the controlling structure which maintains constancy by delaying ‘press for discharge’ of aroused drives that has been described in the psychoanalytic literature” (1994). Brothers points out that here Schore assumes the equivalence of an anatomical locus and a controlling structure on the basis of a semantic similarity between ‘locus’ and ‘structure.’

Marc Solms (1997) is cited as “one of the subtler attempts at grammatical remodeling” (p. 32). Brothers accuses Solms of “asserting a link between brain and mental apparatus as studied by Freud, through the useful contextual ambiguity of the word ‘unconscious’” (p. 32). The descriptive usage of the word unconscious, i.e., out of awareness, is confused with the notion of a structural unconscious, i.e., a posited theory about the nature of the mental apparatus. Brothers argues that Solms uses this grammatical identification as an argument for the identification of mind and brain. Solms goes on to parallel the external perception involved in observing the physical brain, to the internal perception involved in experiencing the mental apparatus and concludes that “I am perceiving the same thing in two different ways…This distinction between body and mind is therefore an artifact of perception” (Solms and Turnbull. 2002, p.56). This is a double-aspect monism position on the mind- body problem. Mind and body are one substance seen from different viewpoints. The problem with this position is not only that the nature of the one substance that we are is left completely unelucidated, but also that what is meant by ‘viewpoint’ is also unclear. Solms, it seems to me, conflates ‘point of view’ with ‘observation’ and ‘observation’ with ‘scientific observation’ and in so doing prejudices his whole account. Psychoanalysis as a science of mind is relegated to providing interesting and enriching data for neuroscience, as the true objective science, to explain and confirm.

Leslie Brothers follows her critique of neuroist writing with a scathing portrayal of the place of neuroism in our culture. She maintains that in our present culture, the brain is treated like “a sacred object at the center of a cult” (p. 61). “As with other oracular mutterings, the significance of data from neuroscience research laboratories requires special interpretation, by experts, to be made intelligible” (p. 59). She makes an analogy between our defining ourselves in terms of the brain and then requiring an experts’ intervention to have access to ourselves, and pre-Reformation notions about the care of ones soul. “The experts are something like the officials of the church in the Middle Ages: in those times, one’s soul was managed and maintained only through participation in the church…Neuroism is akin to a religion in which the essential control of the self…belongs to an elite class of brain experts” (p. 92). And she has much of interest to say about “how financial interests work to spin the web of ideologies” (p. 65).

Leslie Brothers’ initial research was on the neural basis of social cognition in primates. Her first book, Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind, was a review of recent work in the field of social neuroscience. In it she attempts to show that mind only exists in a social context, that there is, in effect, no Robinson Crusoe without Friday. In her present work, as her argument progresses it becomes clear that Leslie Brothers’ main objection to neuroism is not that it is a materialist account (she is a neuroscientist after all) but that it is an internalist account of the relationship of mind and brain, i.e., that it sees mind as inside individual brains. Leslie Brothers’ position is that mind is not internal to individuals but is rather constituted by our participation in a network of social acts. Mind is socially created and our brains are specifically wired to be responsive to social stimuli.

Brothers holds that social neurobiology, as opposed to cognitive neurobiology, is the appropriate field to serve as a neural basis of mind. While she recognizes that this proposal is open to some of the same arguments that she has levied against neuroism, she brushes this recognition to one side with some very weak arguments. She suggests, for example, that because social interaction is evolutionarily fundamental and because neuroscientists were not expecting to find evidence for social specialization when they did, social neuroscience has a more legitimate claim than cognitive neuroscience as the real basis of mental activity. Claiming that mind happens between brains rather than within them gives Brothers’ position the admitted advantage of not being reductionistic, of avoiding neuroistic determinism. However, this does not logically entail that mental activity is (or is not) the result of material processes. This is just assumed by Brothers, as it is assumed by the neuroists she criticizes.

While Brothers externalist position effectively dodges the mind-body problem, it leaves her with the problem of personhood. Again, she recognizes the difficulty but brushes it to the side. “In fact, externalism also does some slight violence to our ordinary ways of speaking of persons…Nevertheless, the ordinary language stance can take us in the direction we want” (p. 89). Interiority is a part of what it means to be a person, and is not accounted for by Brothers’ point of view. How would she explain, for example, that while memory may be socially determined, individuals remember things selectively and differently, or that a common set of gestures that make up a social interaction can be interpreted differently by different individuals?

On the other hand, there is much that is positive in Brothers’ position. It dovetails nicely with the contributions made by attachment theorists and object relations theorists to psychoanalytic theory. We have become quite comfortable with the idea of psychic life being created out of social interaction. It is decidedly nonreductionistic, and as such does not aim at replacing psychology.

“Our neural machinery…doesn’t produce mind; it enables participation…Therefore it is incorrect to look for any particular part of our vocabulary of mind-attention, memory, emotion, or even some modified forms of them-in brain processes. Instead, we must study the brain to understand further how it supports our participation in elaborate social forms (p.92).”

Finally, and this benefit is one that is clearly close to Leslie Brothers heart, it provides an important corrective to neuroisms tendency to “focus on neural tissue as the cause of our collective tensions and failings, instead of looking at our social organization”(ibid.) as sources of human difficulty.


Brothers, L. (1997). Friday’s footprint: How society shapes the human mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
Churchland, P.M. (1984). Matter and consciousness. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Freud, S. (1915). Instincts and their vicissitudes. Standard Edition, 14:111-140. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.
Schore, A. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Solms, M. and Turnbull, O. (2002). The brain and the inner world: An introduction to the neuroscience of subjective experience. New York: Other Press.
Solms, M. (1997). What is consciousness? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45:681-703.

Reviewer Note

Meg Beaudoin is a member of IPTAR and has a private practice in Rockville Centre, New York. She can be contacted at 88 Allen Road, Rockville Centre, NY 11570


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.