A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind

What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves

Robert A. Burton, MD


Science cannot explain everything about the mind and the author doesn’t believe that it ever will. The long-standing nature-nurture controversy is now called epigenetics; the study of how genes are expressed due to the interactions of genetic predispositions with the environment and experience, but the temptation for some to believe that it is all in the genes is difficult to put to rest.


Since the Decade of the Brain (1990s), information from small studies is extrapolated beyond reason. These extrapolations are usually by the press to make a more interesting story and, after numerous repetitions, it is only the extrapolations that are remembered and perpetuated. Believing that we know more than we do can cause harm. The examples in healthcare over the last century abound. Research on the brain is fascinating but this research doesn’t explain how to improve function; how to become a better reader, teacher, therapist, or how to become a better person. Many philosophical questions about life will not be answered by science and will always be important to how we live and how we value life. Consider the following from Dr. Burton…

Our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.

We live in an ever-more-speedy environment where information passes as wisdom and the need for public recognition often trumps caution and confirmation.


Successful motor behavior is dependent upon continuously updated subconscious calculations…. Neuroscience has suggested that planning and predicting motor movements is the primary reason for having a mental life…. All motor behavior is the execution of some motor plan…. Brains are limited to organisms that move.

Most of the time you are not aware of what you are doing. What you are aware of is what you intend to do. As long as your intentions are fulfilled, you are not aware what movements you are actually making.



Consider a recent study on the genetics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Scientists from Cardiff University found a genetic difference between two groups of children – a normal control group and a group diagnosed with ADHD. According to the lead author, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, “Too often people dismiss ADHD as being due to bad parenting or poor diet. As a clinician it was clear to me this was unlikely to be the case. Now we can say with confidence that ADHD is a genetic disease and that the brains of children with this condition develop differently to the brains of other children.” The authors argue that the study proves that gene differences cause ADHD. The actual data: fewer than one-fifth of the 360 children with ADHD had a particular genetic variant, while more than four-fifths didn’t. After reviewing the same data, others with equal background and expertise have come to an opposite conclusion – most ADHD must be caused by non-genetic factors.

Is It All In Your Head?

ADHD Nation Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic

The Mislabeled Child

Movement helps children with “ADHD” maintain alertmess


Attention is intention.

We are not aware of the actual mechanics and steps involved; the nuts and bolts of cognition occur in utter silence in out-of-sight synapses and neuronal connections.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. Charles Darwin

As history has repeatedly warned us, reductionist statements about the genetics of human behavior carry an enormous potential for misuse and abuse.

There are no mind measurements; there are only stories derived from scientific data and filtered through personal perceptions.