Can neuroscience explain all of who we are?

Intelligence, emotions, personality, decisions, consciousness, dreams … Everything that the human being is, resides in the brain. 

“Knowing the brain is equivalent to finding out the material channel of thought and will, surprising the intimate history of life in its perpetual duel with external energies”, described the Nobel Prize in Medicine Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who laid very important bases of neuroscience that today still amaze researchers.

In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’Can neuroscience explain all of who we are?’’ We will enter into a discussion about the great contributions of neuroscience and its unsolved problems. Can neuroscience explain the essence of the human being? Let’s find out.

Can neuroscience explain all of who we are?

No, neuroscience cannot explain who we are. At least not for the moment, there are still many things unsolved, especially the problem of consciousness, which is what makes us “human”.

“Neuroscience” is the science that studies in a multidisciplinary way everything related to the nervous system. The first function of the nervous system is to help give unity to the living being man.

In reality, the human being acts as a unit and does so: especially because it has a nervous system. Thanks to the nervous system, it is the whole man who participates in all actions, even the most intellectually complex and sophisticated that he performs.

For this, the nervous system must have information about what happens in all the organs and systems of the individual and must be able to act on all of them.

To do this properly, you must integrate the information you receive from the body itself and its environment and develop a specific response. This response can be continually modified due to its effectiveness or changing circumstances.

In the case of man, unlike what happens in animals, these responses can occur in the form of organized spoken or written language, and in addition, man has subjectivity, has the ability to reflect on desires, intentions and beliefs and finally has freedom.

For all this you need a special and highly complex nervous system, of which I will only provide a few strokes.

Neuroscience, when investigating the brain and the most intimate phenomena of the person (thoughts, decisions, emotions, evaluations, etc.) touches the most essential of the human being, its supposed dimension of free and spiritual identity.

That is to say, it is no longer a question of questions of analysis about what motivates human behavior, the character and the thinking of the human person, but of the definition of the latter; and a definition that not only identifies her as an individual belonging to a species, but also expresses their very essence as human.

We are our brain: Identity Concept

Identity is understood to be the articulated set of specific traits of an individual or a group. By way of introduction, the thinking of two important psychologists who worked on this topic will be considered: Erik Erickson and Erich Fromm.

According to Erickson, identity represents the perception of the sameness and continuity of one’s existence in time and space and the perception of the fact that others recognize that sameness.

For his part, Fromm argues that the need for a feeling of identity is so vital and imperative that man could not be healthy if he did not find some way to satisfy it. According to this author, identity is: 

An affective need (“feeling”), cognitive (“awareness of oneself and the other as different people”) and active (human beings have to “make decisions” making use of their freedom and Will).

Now, the question arises about Where should we locate that Identity? How are Identity, Personality and Self Awareness related?

This famous mind-body problem has been treated in both Philosophy and Biology, from different perspectives and under different schools of thought. This approach raises questions about the nature of the mental and its relationship with the corporeal.

The first, which considers that mind and body are two separate entities, is called dualism, a component of all idealistic religions and philosophies – Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Wittgenstein, Eccles and Popper.

The most popular varieties of dualism are animism and interactionism. Obviously, the notion of an immaterial mind that controls human behavior is deeply rooted in human history. Today, some scientists and philosophers subscribe to these ideas.

The second family of doctrines, assuming a single entity, is known as monism. Monism can be idealistic, neutral, or materialistic. The latter, in turn, has different forms: behaviorism, reductionist or eliminative, physicalism and emergentist.

Origin of Identity: Phylogenetic Perspective

To begin, we must consider the biological aspects of the human evolutionary origin, the process of hominization, and the emergence of characteristics and human development, the process of humanization.

When considering what makes the human species different from other animal species and what differentiates it from the rest of the primates, the answers to these questions are multiple, obviously, but one of the most compelling is, what makes it really different it is your brain and the functional manifestations of it.

Each increase in the brain’s mental capacities introduced improvements in the hominins’ lives, which resulted in a better supply of nutrients to the brain, which could thus further improve their cognitive abilities.

On the other hand, a complex brain allows greater sociability, and a stable and strong social group improves the survival of organisms and stimulates the interaction of their individuals; but the social groups that survive best are those that develop complex strategies, for which even more developed brains are required.

The rise of complex human brain capabilities

Biological evolution endowed the human with innate functional capacities, that is, elementary or basic cognitive capacities, of evolutionary origin such as: perception, memory-learning, attention, motivation and thought. Its impact on behavior does not only depend on its effective potential, but on their development.

Humanization was achieved on the basis of the emergence of the most complex human capacities, and as a starting point, cognitive development and the capacity for reflection.

The educated subject, the ethical subject, and the spiritual subject may have arisen and evolved with the development of a social brain, along with the advent of four fundamental capacities: self-awareness, executive brain functions, language, and free will-decision making.

Human consciousness is a brain function that allows, on the one hand, the state of consciousness, and on the other, the internal processes of which it is possible to become aware.

And it is in this last sense, the so-called self-awareness, which can be defined as our continuous stream of knowledge of what surrounds us, of what we feel or of our thought sequences.

It is the human capacity to connect with the external environment, to separate themselves from the objective world, taking “knowledge” of their relationship with the world and with others, their own being as a person, their behavior, their actions, thoughts and emotions, of your wishes and interests.

Origin of identity: Ontogenetic perspective

If the notion of identity can be given a cerebral location, this should be the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a fundamental area in relation to human behavior and cognition. In this cortex rests the capacity for self-criticism, that of elaborating plans and active and autonomous behaviors, and that of assessing the consequences of said behaviors.

Thus, the alteration of these complex capacities leads to difficulties in the initiation and organization of actions, such as imitative behaviors, motor perseverance, uninhibited behavior and apathy.

All this deficit falls on a series of mental abilities that are known as cerebral executive functions. These functions are at the base of the human intellect.

The Executive Functions intervene in the general coordination of thought and allow a person to carry out certain schemes and concentrate on the activities that he is developing.

The schemes imply the formulation of goals, selection of response, programming and, finally, the initiation of action, where executive supervisory mechanisms control all non-routine motor processes.

The Executive Functions can be grouped into five brain activities a) working memory, b) internalization of language or self-instruction, c) tone of wakefulness and attention, d) self-control of motivation / emotions, and e) reconstitution.

So, can neuroscience explain all of who we are?

No one denies that neuroscience has made amazing discoveries about how the brain works. Nor that from these findings it has been possible to implement advances that are a great help for people.

For example, treatments for severe mental illnesses, data that promote learning and memory, or the invention of a wheelchair that receives commands directly from the brain.

Where there is no consensus at all is at an earlier and deeper level: is the brain the cause of everything we are; are we predetermined by that materiality? Or is man a free being, despite being subject to natural laws?

This type of questions and reflections was what caused the entry of philosophers and scholars of ethics to the world of neuroscience. They began to see that this discipline was exceeding the limits of science, pretending to give an explanation of what man is through experiments.

The most materialistic ones argue, for example, that since the brain determines the actions of a person, there should not be the concept of guilt or responsibility for a crime, since that person did not have in their hands to act otherwise.

Does the brain think or does the person think?

The disagreement that exists at the academic and clinical level has its roots in different ways of approaching research and interpreting data. Those who argue that the human being, with his decisions and emotions, is free, think that those who maintain that he is predetermined by his brain are excessively optimistic in their research.

For them, although it is true that more and more is known, it is necessary to recognize that most of the questions still have no answer.

The same has happened with the finding of the plasticity of the brain, which refers to the capacity that this organ has to change. There are sectors that think that a modification in the brain changes the person and others argue that it is the other way around: that the brain changes because the person changed.

Thus, if a drug addict stops being one, it is not because his brain is plastic, but because he decided to rehabilitate himself and put his will at the service of that goal. This change in behavior is what produces changes in the brain that, in turn, make it easier to maintain the new habit.

For some, cases like this illustrate that our brain determines us. On the other hand, others explain that a change in the brain obviously produces changes in the person, just as breaking a leg makes us limp.

For them, human freedom remains intact, because that is what our freedom is about: we cannot do anything – like flying or being in two places at the same time – because it is a freedom that occurs in a being that has a body with its laws and their limits.

FAQS: Can neuroscience explain all of who we are?

How is neuroscience related to psychology?

The goal of relating the brain to the mind is the task of cognitive neuroscience. It is a cross between neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The latter deals with the knowledge of higher functions such as memory, language or attention.

How can neuroscience explain behavior?

Neuroscientists will eventually be able to explain behavior, since behavior occurs thanks to brain processes and their interaction with the environment.

What would neuroscience fall under?

Before neuroscience was considered a division of biology. Currently, it is considered as an interdisciplinary science in relation to other disciplines such as engineering, philosophy, psychology, medicine and mathematics.

Who is a famous neuroscientist?

Eric Kandel, won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for studying the synapse process of a sea snail and his important studies on memory.

Is Neuroscience difficult?

Yes, neuroscience is difficult. Studying the brain and the nervous system is not easy at all, especially because it is one of the most complex structures in the universe. In addition, you must have knowledge of many disciplines.

In this post we answered the question ‘’Can neuroscience explain all of who we are?’’ We’ve entered into a discussion about the great contributions of neuroscience and its unsolved problems. Can neuroscience explain the essence of the human being? 

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


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‌Can Neuroscience Explain Human Experience? (2013). Retrieved November 1, 2020, from Psychology Today website:

‌Adolphs, R. (2015). The unsolved problems of neuroscience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(4), 173–175.