What Makes Us Human?

Brain and Mind

Gabriel Rabin, a philosopher, makes a seemingly paradoxical statement. He says that the mind — something familiar, part of us — may be one of the last great frontiers of humanity's quest for knowledge. “Like deep space, or the bottom of the ocean, we know surprisingly little about what’s going on up there,” Rabin said.

Rabin’s main field is the philosophy of mind, the study of how thoughts and other mental processes relate to the body and the brain. The analogy Rabin uses is simple: the mind is a computer’s software and the brain is its hardware. “You could study the behavior of software and learn a lot about how it works without knowing how the processors work,” he said.

The brain-mind dichotomy is not particular to philosophy: it runs through fields like psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, and fascinating and important research is happening at NYU Abu Dhabi in all these disciplines.

Olivia Cheung is a psychologist who studies how experience and learning influence a person’s ability to recognize objects. For example, humans are very good at identifying faces, even though faces are very similar to each other. “It seems like we have a special ability to recognize faces, and I want to know if it’s an ability we’re born with, or if it’s something that requires learning,” Cheung said.

She uses a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that can peer into a brain and detect changes in blood flow. This tells her what part of a brain is activated when a person is exposed to a certain stimulus.

Scalp electrodes used in electroencephalograms.

In the lab, when people are shown a series of faces, fMRI tells Cheung that a region in the back of the brain called the fusiform face area is engaged. This leads her and others to believe that this part of the brain is responsible for the recognition and categorization of faces as they exist in the mind. “This kind research gives us a lot of information about how the brain works, and how the brain and the mind can be understood together,” Cheung said.

It doesn’t end there. Diogo Almeida works in the neuroscience of language, an interdisciplinary field that combines linguistics with psychology and neuroscience. Growing up in a bilingual family, Almeida was always interested in language. At the same time, he was fascinated with the way brain cells can give rise to the deep and complex mental life of a human. “When I realized that I could combine language and neuroscience, I was hooked,” Almeida said.