02/06/2015 13:03 BST | Updated 02/06/2016 06:59 BST

Want to Get Out of Your Head?

More and more, people are telling us that we are our brains. We're being told that everything we think and do - politics and religion, art and literature, morality and criminality - is in the brain. We're being told that we're hard-wired to believe in God, to be racist, and to accept celebrity health advice.

But if you think that you, and what you think, are all in the brain, then think again. If you're starting to feel trapped inside your head, then relax - it's time to get out of your head.


We are not brains. We are people with bodies. The brain, by itself, is somewhat limited. It can't breathe. It can't eat. It can't see or hear. It can't walk or talk, smile or kiss, laugh or cry, have sex or raise children. There are all kinds of things that the brain can't do, but you can do, because you are not a brain.

The brain, of course, is a wonderful thing, but it's not the whole thing. It's the centre of our thinking, but it's not the whole of our thinking. Thinking is bigger than individual brains. From the moment we're born, we're constantly interacting with the world, and with each other. In the process, we work out how to think, and what to think ... about politics, religion and everything else.

Our beliefs about politics or religion may be in our heads, but we get them from other people. We hear people express views, or read about them, and then we decide whether or not we agree. We choose our beliefs from a long menu that's already out there in the world. The beliefs that we hold so dearly, which we think define us, began outside our heads.

Our desires may be in our brains, because other people put them there. The things we want to own, the way we want to look, the goals we have in life, are made desirable ... by parents and teachers, politicians and priests, and people who want to sell us things. Nobody is hard-wired to want manageable hair, or a flat screen TV, or to be on TV.

Our memories are often outside our heads. We remember by writing shopping lists, posting post-its and setting alarm clocks. We recall through buying souvenirs, and by looking at them later. We take photographs, and place them in albums, or post them on Facebook for all to see. We are reminded by strangers, whether in traffic or in toilets, to wear our seatbelts or to wash our hands.

Even our innermost thoughts and feelings are meaningless without the world outside the brain. After all, how can I understand what's going on inside my head? First, I need language, which I learned from other people, who learned it, in turn, from other people. Language evolved, and continues to evolve, through people interacting with each other. We create language among ourselves, and then we use it to understand what's going on inside our individual heads.

Second, where do we find the words to understand what's going on inside our heads? From outside the brain - where else? We understand our thoughts in terms of how we see the outside world. We can see what others mean, but we have our own views, according to how we look at things. We understand the way we feel in terms of the outside world. This is why we feel high or low, rough or fine, dull or brilliant. We can feel bright as a button, solid as a rock, flat as a pancake or fresh as a daisy. We rely on the outside world to understand how we think and feel.

We are more than our individual brains, and so are our thoughts, feelings, memories and desires. Of course, these things depend on connections in the brain, but they also depend on other connections: the ones between our brains. These connections are in what we say and do, in how we interact with the world, and with each other. Without these connections, we would not, and could not, think the way that we do.

That, after all, is why you're thinking this, right now, instead of something else. I have put down these thoughts, so that you can read them, and now, at this moment, they are in your brain. We put our thoughts out there, and the things that we think are responses to what others say and do. Together, we work out how to think, what to think and who we are.

Peter Lamont will be Thinking Outside the Brain at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival on 4th June