Neurons come before my thoughts

Question to the brain

Dr. Carlos Zednik, Neurophilosophy, Otto von Guericke University, Magdeburg: That is the wrong question. Because in my opinion it is a misunderstanding to assume that one thing causes the other. One should actually say that neural activity, i.e. activity in nerve cell networks, constitutes mental phenomena such as thinking and imagining. That means it always happens at the same time.

This becomes clearer using the example of a chair: Basically, it consists of molecules and atoms. Even so, it would never occur to anyone to say that the molecules and atoms cause stool. Likewise, I wouldn't say that neural activity causes thoughts or thoughts lead to neural activity. Much moreconsists a mental process like thinking from neural activity.

So there is no causal connection, no cause and effect. Because in principle it's the same. If one were to speak of causality, the cause would always have to come before the effect. For example, one would trace a particular thought back to a particular neural activity. But when neuroscientists speak of this tracing, they don't mean tracing back in time or in cause. Instead, they mean a constitutive one: the first consists of the second. So the thought consists of neural activity. In contrast to causal relationships, constitutive relationships are always synchronous. So certain neural structures are active while a certain thought process is going on. So there is no chronological order between brain and thought processes; they always occur at the same time.

Even so, it is difficult to tell from brain activity what someone is thinking or about to do. And that although we can now predict pretty well which areas of the brain will be activated if you behave in one way or another, for example wiggling your thumb. This is called "forward inference". Especially when it comes to sensorimotor processes, i.e. movements and sensory perception, we can predict the brain regions involved. But the so-called “reverse inference”, i.e. the prediction of thoughts and behavior on the basis of neural imaging data, is not so good for us. Because most areas of the brain are active in many different processes. For example, an area related to thumb movement could also be activated while solving a math problem. Because the fingers can be used for arithmetic. This makes it very difficult to make predictions from imaging data.

The question of the chronological order between neural activity and thoughts cannot be answered in this way. Because the relationship between brain and thought processes cannot be understood as causal. Rather, it is a constitutive relationship: thoughts are made up of brain processes.

Recorded by Nicole Paschek