Sum ergo cogito

Descartes is famous for saying “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am” (though the original phrase was actually in French- “je pense, donc je suis.” This phrase has become a philosophical foundation and an aphorism embraced by many. If we’re ever doubting our existence (not that I think this is a common worry for people), the very fact that we’re about to have such dubious thoughts enforces the fact that we must exist.

Cogito ergo sum? Image:
Cogito ergo sum?

I just read an article on embodiment that ends by suggesting maybe a different aphorism is more appropriate in light of growing evidence that our physical bodies play a crucial role in cognition- I am, therefore I think. I think this radical reversal of such a well-known, seemingly-timeless phrase really nicely demonstrates the radical shift in cognitive science that’s being brought about by the embodiment hypothesis. Until recently, thought was assumed to reside solely in the brain. Even though we use our physical bodies to perceive the world, those sensations were considered to be merely signals that were meaningless until the brain made sense of them. But now, evidence  that our bodies are an inseparable part of the thinking process is rapidly growing, and cogito ergo sum seems to miss the mark as a descriptor for the relationship between body and thought.

Brain Porn

This article by Sally Satel really hit the nail on the head for me by articulating some fMRI feelings I’ve had more eloquently than I could do myself. Brain scans are undoubtedly pretty:


And the idea that we might be able to understand what’s going on when we have certain thoughts and emotions and even to induce them is really seductive.

But it leaves out context, the most crucial ingredient in understanding the mind. fMRI scans are necessarily done in a lab, specifically in a really noisy, claustrophobic machine. Personally, most of the thoughts and feelings I have in life don’t occur in that environment. They occur in real-life situations, with other people, and in situations in which I’m not aware that I’m being scrutinized. Without a doubt, fMRI data teach us a lot about the human brain and some correlates of thoughts and emotions, but it’s not the single explanation for all that goes on in our minds, as many people wish and expect it to be. Satel writes that “mechanism is not meaning. The brain creates the mind through the actions of neurons and circuits, yes, but it cannot reveal its nuanced contents.”

If we want to truly understand the thoughts and feelings that make us human, we have to look beyond the pervasive pretty rainbow pictures of “brain porn” that may at first seem enticing, but in the long run won’t bring the satisfaction we’re looking for.