The Mind-body Problem and Cognitive Neuroscience A Brief History and Outlook

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Alex Ball


Cognitive neuroscience investigates the relationship between mental processes (such as perception, attention, thought, and memory) and physical states of the nervous system. This relationship gives rise to the mind-body problem, which has long been the subject of debate in philosophy. Over the last century, discussion of the problem has been informed by a deluge of empirical evidence from brain and mind sciences. While promising as a method of inquiry, cognitive neuroscience runs into an exceptional difficulty in explaining how non-conscious physical systems gain the ability to have an internal, first-person conscious experience that is characteristic of a mind. The challenge of this gap in explanation is commonly known as the “hard problem” of consciousness. Unlike the conceivably resolvable “easy problems” for cognitive neuroscience, such as merely correlating specific brain states with wakeful mental states, the “hard problem” does not have a readily apparent path to solving it. This article will explore early conceptualizations of consciousness, how cognitive neuroscience and related fields have changed how we think about conscious mental states, and what future possibilities there are for achieving a complete understanding of the conscious mind.

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Author Biography

Alex Ball, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Alex graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2023, where he majored in psychology with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience. He was a member of the Undergraduate Psychology Association and LGBTQ+ KiKi and is currently a research assistant in the Learning and Language Lab at UIUC under Dr. Jon Willits. In his free time, Alex enjoys reading and local music. He is passionate about approaching science from a philosophically informed perspective and hopes that his writing in Brain Matters will spark an interest in this point of view for others interested in neuroscience.