We Are Our Brains

A Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies International Roundtable

The panoply of mental phenomena that define who we are – memories and feelings, desires and thoughts, the decisions that we make and the beliefs that we hold dear – are all mediated by events in the brain. Holding a worldview which situates the brain as the key organ that provides meaning to our lives is a perspective often termed neuroessentialism: the notion that we are our brains, and that when we think of who we are as beings interacting in the world, the we that we think of primarily resides in our brains1,2. We are also our bodies, our genes, our books, and more, but neuroessentialists suggest that these are less central to the concept of we than the we that we think of when we think of our brains. In recent years, the neuroessentialist perspective has moved from its traditional ambit among neuroscientists and philosophers to the larger domain of the public at large, with implications for such diverse fields as art, economics, sociology, and law, to name but a few.

The issue that arises is not so much that this neuroessentialist turn is ascendant, but rather the impact that it may have upon society. In many instances, neuroessentialist thinking can be anticipated to be prosocial: displacement of uninformed stigma by the considered understanding that people with addictions and mental illnesses suffer from a change in brain chemistry rather than a defect in character

The relevant question is not whether these musings represent the facts of the matter but rather how might the notion that this might be the way that our brains work affect the general public’s perspectives on interpersonal relationships? How does neuroessentialist thinking intersect with evolving perspectives over the biological bases of sexual preferences? Layered upon this set of enthusiasms and concerns is another important consideration: how might neuroessentialist thinking be perceived in different cultural contexts.

The roundtable is intended not to merely review these issues but to address an important normative matter: how should we move forward with the neuroessentialist agenda?

A key objective of the roundtable is to impress upon the participants that ideas gestated in the academy may have real-world impact, and that it is our responsibility as engaged scholars to evaluate their effects with due consideration.

The anticipated deliverables from the roundtable are two-fold. Academics will be invited to contribute to an edited volume on the topic of neuroessentialism to be published by the journal Neuroethics, and all participants, authors, artists and scholars alike, will be encouraged to impart their deepened appreciation of the field to the public by publishing an article in the popular press. Overall, the roundtable offers participants an extraordinary opportunity to shape the trajectory of public discourse on this important topic.

To hear more on neuroessentialism and its implications, listen to Dr. Peter B. Reiner's interview clip from CBC's The Early Edition (October 25, 2013) below: 

Audio Source: The Early Edition playlist, CBC Player,

1. Roskies, Adina., Neuroethics for the New Millennium. Neuron 35:21–23 (2002).
2. Reiner, Peter B., The Rise of Neuroessentialism. in Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (J. Illes and B. Sahakian, eds.) pp. 161-175 (2011).