How does the mind work?

Here's how the mind works... the basic structure is made of billions of cells that are all connected to each other in many ways. These connections are little chemically operated junctions, that cause the cells "following" them to trigger their output junctions if a sufficient number of input junctions are stimulated. A cell can have a few or many input connections - some have hundreds - and has one output connection (side note: you know, this doesn't entirely make sense to me - where would all those extra inputs come from? Gotta look into this...).

The state of the brain can be described by listing the neurons, their interconnections, and their individual states at any given moment. This could be done on a cell by cell or connection by connection basis, either "map" would mean the same thing.

The source of stimulations is initially sensory input, and there are certain modes of processing these inputs hard wired from the manufacturer. Soon after the brain starts to function, its own states also become starting points stimulating other areas of the brain.

The result, at this reductionist level, of stimulations, is to change the way the cells are interconnected, and their requirements for firing based on their inputs.

It is possible to crudely describe correlations between some observable states and what the owner of the brain is conscious of or experiencing, but this is vey crude and far from understanding what the thing we call consciousness "looks like" in terms of cellular or electro-chemical activity.

The main reason for this is the incredible complexity of the brain and its internal cause and effect links - and also the relative inaccessibility of the material under study. How do you catalog the input connections to a neuron and its triggering threshold when it is a microscopic bit of flesh buried amid millions of things very much like it, with blood supply routes interspersed between them all?

The key to the difficulty of how the mind works, without explaining how all this jumbled up interconnectivity creates what we call consciousness, is that the "software rewrites the hardware." If you think of the current state of trigger thresholds of all the cells as an incredibly complex computer program, what the brain does as it functions is rewrite this program almost continuously. Very simple, really, if you don't worry too much about the details!

The tougher part is this higher level stuff. It's one thing to say that the brain learns by "reprogramming" itself, we all know the story of Pavlov's dogs, and other less behavioristic examples of learning that really has nothing to do with any "conscious" mental activity.

It might even be possible for neuroscientists to crudely (as stated before) follow this process, especially in simpler critters. Perhaps it will be possible to show the parts of a rats brain that change as it learns how to navigate a maze to obtain food - to show where its memory resides, perhaps, and to show the active parts of the brain involved in the process of this learning - but what are the chances of ever being able to actually find a bunch of cells and their states that can be analyzed to show what the maze looks like?

If this were possible (and I'm not saying it isn't, just that it would be incredibly difficult), you could set up an experiment where the rat is simply an intermediary between two researchers. The first builds a maze, and trains the rat with food rewards to learn how to navigate it. The second researcher uses some process or device to examine the brain of the rat, and would be able to draw up a set of rules based on the information contained there describing how to get food in that maze! The information is there, we just don't know what the storage algorithm is.

This test could even be done double-blind, where the second researcher gets a batch of rats, some of whom have learned a maze, and some of whom have not.

An intermediate phase could be for the second researcher not to directly "read" the rats brain, but to test the rat in some sort of generic maze (one with no real barriers) to see what path it takes - but that would be cheating. The key is to learn how to get the information without asking the information bearer. This would have wonderful ramifications, since as it became moderately successful, large amounts of government money would become available for the research. Then spies or captives could simply be killed and "read" to see what they know...

Now, what I am proposing here, for you to accept, is the theory that at some level, in that rats brain, there exists a map of the maze it has learned. Perhaps not the whole maze, of course, but the part that matters - the route to food. This map is probably not going to look like a road map that you or I might be familiar with, it would be more like the way we navigate the streets in our town when we take a routine drive. We know at certain intersections to turn left or right, just by comparing what they look like with our goal (supermarket or work? left or right...).

These maps need never become "abstract" in order to work well. If all the "maps" in your head, again using street navigation as an a example, were of the form "turn left, left again, right at the old church, go three blocks and turn left and park," they would work just fine. But there is another level at which they can operate, and I'm not sure if rat brains can do this, but I know that human brains can. Mine does.

What happens is the "maps" consisting of directions get translated into broader chunks of information - the equivalent of a street map in our heads. The evidence of having such an abstraction of any type of information is to be able to provide answers to questions that have not been actually met in our experience. I may never have driven from the downtown block to a particular restaurant lying a bit outside town, but knowing where I am on my map, and where the restaurant is, I can piece together a set of "directions" describing how to get there. My directions may be the best route, or just a way that will work - it depends on what I know of the roads available, and how good I am at figuring out optimum routes.

Building these maps seems to be something we humans have specialized at in a way that is much less specialized than other critters. Bees have ways of describing where nectar can be found to other bees, but ask them how to get from one nectar source to another one that was there last year and I doubt the information is accessible to them, even if somehow it was stored. We humans, and quite probably more than a few other animals over-endowed with cerebral cortices (the part of the brain that seems to be most available for this programming and reprogramming), have developed the trait of being able to form these abstract maps on any subject where we have enough information.

Actually we build them even when we don't have enough information to do it well. It seems that a tendency to abstraction beyond what is known has been a bit of an evolutionary advantage, and it is easy to see why. If the abstraction is too tightly reined, it won't work very well in real life survival situations. Knowing the dangers posed by a predator under any circumstances rather than just the specific ones observed, or knowing the benefit or harm of eating various foodstuffs even if their appearance is only close to the original experience would be very useful.

This trait is what we have refined to develop the "scientific method." By removing the "running ahead of the facts" that our brains have evolved to do, we have distilled the ways that generalizations on experience can be formulated and tested fairly rigorously to build a framework of things that are known to be "always" true, under appropriate conditions.

This is why science conflicts so roughly with religion, and sometimes with "common sense." Religion is a cultural artifact often built on many individual maps of the world which have been assembled using a lot of "running ahead" of the information available - look at the very fact that most religious tenets involve things that cannot be directly experienced or answered. Common sense is basically the phrase we use to describe this running ahead on an individual basis. Good common sense works well - it does not run far ahead, or invent fantastical elements to fill out its maps. Bad common sense runs too far ahead of its data set, and fills in gaps with all manner of incorrect assumptions or poorly made deductions.

At some level in our brains, these maps begin to have a "tiered," or layered effect. There may be dozens, or hundreds, of maps relating to some kind of experience, and what happens - these maps become the input for the thing in us that "makes maps," and we make a map at a more abstract level than the source data - which are now maps of what is in our heads, not external information about the world. These layers should be termed "meta-levels" of consciousness, since they can be described relative to one another by how far removed from the original raw data they are. The human brain is incredibly adept at doing this, and so it is my thought that hundreds of these meta-levels can coexist in the human mind.

I have just described, probably rather poorly, how a large accretion of sensory input and memory can be built up into a very complex interwoven set of maps of varying meta-levels of abstraction. The key to remember is that no matter how "high" a layer is in your mind, it still operates by rearranging the interconnections of nerve cells and their firing thresholds!

In other words, raw sensory experience and the most sublimely abstracted model of the universe look exactly the same as they are being "thought about!"

It follows from these many and varied versatile map making functions that the critter doing the operations will quite likely develop a map of the stuff that ends at its skin. Itself. The thing that suffers pain has boundaries, the thing satisfied by food has a limit (temporarily ignoring empathy). That limit and its boundaries can then easily be "mapped" as one whole thing, with many meta-levels, of course. It is I.

I have ignored the function and problems of language in this piece, and I will continue to do so, and take it as a given in humans for the sake of proceeding forward rather than sideways.

Language is how we share our maps, from the simplest miming of death resulting from eating poison berries, to the most arcane and sublime theories about the universe we live in. Of course language will have words that indicate the thing bounded by the physical limits of what we experience directly, and in English the word is "I". The word we use to point back at ourself as an object, for others' reference and our own.

I will make a little sideways trip to point out that this limitation of the sense of self is fairly arbitrary - that our boundary of self is related more to our sense of touch and internal senses (hunger, thirst, pain) than, say, to vision or empathy. If we referred to everything we could ever experience as "I" it would alter all of our use of language and probably most of our metaphysics. The trouble is, the physical world would not be very well described in this fashion and a such this language would probably not survive evolutionary pressures - except as it helped a tribe or culture survive as a group, of course. This survival pressure would vary depending on the environment the culture found itself in and how usefully it was expressed. Examples of how this "greater" sense of self has persisted would be found in such abstract concepts as patriotism, and other more valid forms of sacrifice for others.

Having formed a word that refers to "ourselves," it is only natural (due to the nature of language, and how we are wired to use it) that we will start to form sentences using it that depend of various meta-levels of abstraction for understanding them. Starting with a statement like "I am hungry," a simple description of a world state which we alone are privy to and therefore must share for it to matter, we proceed to statements like "I feel good," and further to questions like "what am I?"

Again it seems to be in our evolved nature to try to answer questions (this is profitable at a simple survival level - "the food is gone, where will we get more?" deserves an answer!) as we formulate them, with the energy expended depending on the immediacy of the questions consequences ("are there tigers in these woods?" or "what are the stars?") and the amount of spare time and energy available to those confronting them.

A long, long time ago these basic tools proved themselves to be such incredibly good survival techniques that we began to accumulate some of this spare time and energy, since the ways we had learned to live no longer required us to spend all our time foraging for food and escaping from predators and the weather.

So we contemplated the questions. We abstracted them, we created meta-levels of kinds of questions that were basically impossible to answer (and ones that just tickled our brains like riddles). As these levels became shared more and more via language, there were formed ways of "answering" the questions that may not have been "true" but worked to remove the anxiety associated with them for most people. Some of these answers would have become the truisms and dogmas of early religious traditions, others may well have taken the form of rituals that were performed at times when the questions were most prominent - births, deaths, occasions of forms of "love," natural disasters, bounties, and beauties, and other such occasions.

The wise would have been the ones who could accumulate the best of these - along with useful survival knowledge needed by the tribe or culture. They would be the ones whose "answers" to the unanswerable were the least dangerous, required the least use of available resources and energies relative to how much the question pressed the tribe, and how well the answers survived in "cultural evolution" - that is, how well they helped the culture perpetuate itself.

This quest for answers is never ending... all it would take is for one culturally accepted answer to conflict with the actual experience of one perceptive member of a culture, and the seeds of learning and knowledge would be resown, perhaps to be trampled and killed, but sometimes to be nurtured and grow and produce yet another kind of understanding of what this life is all about.

Ironically, in a rich, open, and free culture, there is very little pressure to keep these "answers" useful! Everyone can have their own private little store of them, as accurate (measured against the "real" world) or inaccurate as they might be. Cultural evolution takes a cul-de-sac, perhaps one that leads to its demise, due to the proliferation of poorly understood and poorly tested ideas filling its members minds.

At this rather anthropological level of analysis, it matters not whether "God" exists or not, but what sort of useful knowledge and what manner of useful or foolish traditions and rituals are based upon the cultures belief about that "God." It is whether these cultural artifacts result in the survival or demise of the individuals on the culture that matter, not the alleged "truth" behind them.

As the millennia have unfolded, some questions have changed position in terms of their meta-level (depending on how you feel about rigorously predictable explanations of natural events, at least), and have left "religion" to become matters of "science," to us those terms very broadly. We no longer need or can accept fictions about what the moon really is, no matter how beautifully written or harmless they may be - we have been there and stood upon it, proving being a reasonable doubt all manner of theories about celestial mechanics and jet propulsion.

What remains for the fairy tale spinners and poets is what small (and yet, huge) parts of our world cannot be understood by these means - and it is hugely to the credit of science as a realm of human "answers" that it can sometimes stop and explain rigorously that it cannot answer a certain question or kind of question. Some say this means the question is irrelevant and fanciful, but I think it simply means the question has to be approached in other ways, by better forms of poetry more suited to the task than science.

At the middle of all of this, we in the West have an incredible investment in this thing we have labeled "I." I particularize this to our culture because as I pointed out above, there are many ways in which the map that results in our sense of self can be drawn, and cultural (and linguistic) influences play a large part in this process.

We have leapt far beyond simple "I am hungry" statements, to wondering what the thing we call "I" actually is. Our needs for survival have crafted the questions that come up as we observe death, in the increasing absence of compelling answers from our priests and scientists (the wise folk). What happens to "me" when this body "I" am experiencing dies? Hey, I know what my answers are to that question, but they are not rigorous, they are nothing more than my "religion."

We have gone from using a word to point to "the critter that is ourself" for useful conversational purposes, to using it to point to some imagined or real component of ourselves that is no longer bound to the evidence that produced it - our experience of the world. We build meta-level upon meta-level in our thousands or millions of maps of the world in our minds to play with the concept, creating a larger and larger amount of basic cellular connections that are devoted to this "sense of self." Over several hundred thousand, if not a few million years, as we keep passing these ideas along, with language and teaching, and refining them and exploring them, more and more of the stuff stored in our brain has aspects of "consciousness" tied up to it - its "picture of itself" uses up more and more of its canvas, as it were.

Our sense of self becomes more (and perhaps needlessly) complex, and a greater portion of what the perceive as "the world."

We become tied to our brain as a result. Our sense of self becomes more and more bounded by the stuff inside our head and less able to move and flow freely through all that exists in every form, since more and more of it is locked in all our thoughts and memories - which are experiences limited to our own self, our own body and brain.

Our mind and our sense of self becomes more and more an artifact that seems limited by our body - which may surely be the vehicle that keeps it alive and functioning, but just as surely is not the limit to its scope. Its true limit is everything we can ever experience, from the ridiculous and mundane to the sublime and transcendental.


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printed 30 January 2023
© Huw Powell