Elfed Huw Price

Personhood and the Brain

This paper urges greater attention and research to the processes by which the brain constructs (or co-creates) entities.

In 1940, the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown commented on the contrasting approaches of “physiologists and psychologists” and “social anthropologists”. Whilst the former scientists, he noted, were primarily interested in the individual as a “biological organism”, the subject of study for social anthropologists was the person, i.e. the “complex of social relationships”. Today, almost 80 years later, despite substantial noises in favour of interdisciplinarity in and between both fields, a gulf remains between the nearest proponents of the two cultures. Social neuroscientists continue to explore the processes facilitating the (biological) recognition of and interactions between (biologically defined) persons. Meanwhile, historians of science, culture and medicine have argued that notions of individuality and personhood are (re)constructed and created over time, and need to be considered within the broader cultural context.

In order to bridge this divide, I urge a greater focus on the role that the brain plays in creating entities by attributing personhood and agency. To this end, I revisit the writings of nineteenth century physiologist and philosopher George Henry Lewes, who argued that our ability to create identities – or as Lewes put it, to “personify” – was a defining characteristic of humankind.

I will illustrate the implications and explanatory power of this approach in the case of Capgras Syndrome, a psychiatric condition in which patients misidentify one or more loved ones as imposters. If personhood is viewed as a biological ‘fact’ then Capgras Syndrome appears to be a mis-recognition of the other person. However, if personhood is viewed as a subjective construct, then the delusion becomes a disruption or distortion in the patient’s ability to recreate and represent the loved one’s identity correctly.