A Symphony of the Self Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul that was the irreducible core of our self. This “little person” peered out through our eyes and listened through our ears and somehow made sense of the universe. Neuroscientists ejected the homunculus from our heads, however. The circuitry of our brains does not all converge on one point where the essence of ourselves can sit and ruminate. Instead whatever makes us us emerges from countless overlapping neural processes, in the same way that a symphony emerges from the playing of an orchestra’s musical instruments. One can analyze the instruments and the techniques of the musicians or watch the conductor or even read the musical score, but the actual music cannot be found anywhere until the performance begins. Studying how the mind and brain work sounds like it ought to be about as futile as trying to grab handfuls of air. Yet psychology, neuroscience and related fields have made amazing progress. This special issue introducing Scientific American Mind reviews just a sliver of the discoveries that investigators from around the globe have made about the workings of our inner lives.
The breadth of subjects tracks the vastness of thought. Several of our authors grapple with supremely tough questions: How does the gray matter in our skulls give rise to self-awareness? How can we have free will if our brains are bound by predictable mechanisms? How does memory work? Other articles describe how new genetic and biochemical findings elucidate causes of mental illness but also pose ethical quandaries. They illuminate mysteries of sensory perception. They explore how understanding of mental function can help us deal with mundane issues, such as solving problems creatively or making our arguments more persuasive. And a few celebrate the strange, unexpected beauties of the human condition.