The Mind-Brain Identity Theory: What Is It?

The theory of mind-brain identity is one of the fields of study of the philosophy of mind, which is, in turn, the branch of philosophy responsible for research and reflection on mental processes and their relation to physical principles, in especially with those they take place in the brain.

These issues have been addressed in very different proposals. One of them argues that mental states and their content (beliefs, thoughts, meanings, sensations, intentions, etc.) are nothing more than neural processes, that is, the set of activities complexes that it has place in a particular physico-chemical organ: the brain.

This approach is known as physicalism, neurological monism, or mind-brain identity theory.

What does the mind-brain identity theory say?

Philosophy of mind is responsible for studying and theorizing the mind-brain relationship, A problem that has accompanied us for many centuries, but which has worsened especially since the second half of the twentieth century, when computer science, cognitive science and neuroscience began to be part of it.

This discussion was already the first antecedent of what the American neurologist Eric Kandel would declare in the year 2000: if the twentieth century was the century of genetics; the 21st century is the century of neuroscience, or more precisely, it is the century of the biology of the mind.

However, the main exponents of mind-brain identity theory can be found in the 1950s: British philosopher UT Place and Austrian philosopher Herbert Feigl, among others. Earlier, at the turn of the 20th century, EG Boring was the first to use the term “identity theory” in relation to the mind-brain problem.

We could still go back a bit, and see that some bases were designed by philosophers and scientists like Leucippe, Hobbes, Matter or Holbach. The latter made a suggestion that would sound like a joke, but which, in reality, is quite close to the propositions of the theory of mind-brain identity: just as the liver secretes bile, the brain secretes thought.

Contemporary mind-brain identity theory holds that the states and processes of the mind are identical to the processes of the brain, that is, mental processes do not correlate with the physical processes of the brain, but that mental processes are nothing more. as neural activities.

This theory denies that there are subjective experiences with non-physical properties (which in philosophy of mind are called “qualia”), thus reducing psychic and intentional acts to the activity of neurons. This is why it is called physicalist theory or neurological monism.

Some fundamental principles

One of the central arguments of mind-brain identity theory is that only the physical laws of nature are those that allow us to explain what the world looks like, including human beings and their cognitive processes (i.e. this is why some also call this theory “naturalism”).

From there come proposals with different nuances. For example, that mental processes are not phenomena with their own realities, but in any case accessory phenomena that accompany the main phenomenon (the physical) without any influence on it. Mental processes and subjectivity would then be a set of epiphenomena.

If we take it a step further, the next thing is that everything we call beliefs, intentions, desires, experiences, common sense, etc. these are empty words that we put into the complex processes that take place in the brain, so that the scientific community (and the non-scientific community as well) can better understand.

And in one of the most extreme poles, we can find as part of the Theory of Spirit-Brain Identity, materialist eliminativism, a philosophical position which even proposes to eliminate the conceptual apparatus with which we have explained in mind, and to replace it with the concepts of neuroscience, so that it has greater scientific rigor.

Are we more than a collection of neurons?

A criticism of this philosophical position is that philosophical practice itself, as well as the construction of theories about the mind, could be negated when they lie in neurological physicalism or monism, for far from being theoretical reflections. and rigorous scientists, the mind would be nothing more than a collection of neural processes.

He has also been criticized for being a strongly reductionist position, Which denies subjective experiences, which may not be sufficient to understand much of social and individual phenomena. Among other things, this would happen because on a practical level it is difficult to get rid of notions such as sensations, thoughts, freedom, common sense, etc. because these are notions that have effects on the way we perceive ourselves and we relate to both the idea that we have of ourselves and of others.

Bibliographical references:

  • Sanguineti, JJ (2008). Philosophy of the mind. Published in June 2008 in Philosophica, online philosophical encyclopedia. Accessed April 24, 2018.Available atéfense_deflofi_de_n_den
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007). The theory of mind / brain identity. Originally published Jan 12, 2000; revised May 18, 2007. Accessed April 24, 2018. Available at

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