Being Human


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The problem of the relationship between the brain and the mind has troubled generations of philosophers. Psychologists discarded it as a sterile debate almost a century ago. Part of the difficulty is that in trying to relate one to the other one is crossing system boundaries and changing the domain of discourse. Mind is a subjective experience of self-awareness, feeling and rational thought. Brain is an electro-chemical, physiological organ specialised for processing information.

The idea that different parts of the brain are associated with particular character traits was popular in the nineteenth century. In the early part of the twentieth century the nervous system was described as a gigantic telephone exchange. Early neurophysiologists showed that some parts of the brain were associated with sensory and motor functions. More recently the brain has been thought of as a massively powerful computer. There are elements of truth in all these images.

Nervous system is composed of cells (electro-chemical biological and physiological building blocks) specialised for processing information – combining, differentiating, moving and storing data. The nervous system including the brain is clearly structured in an anatomical sense and it appears to be structured in terms of how it processes information. Different areas appear to be involved in and sometimes to be critical to certain sorts of information processing and particular behaviours. The simplest form of behaviour is the knee-jerk reflex that involves just two nerve cells in the lower spinal chord which responds faster than conscious thought. One principle of the operation of the whole system seems to be that all the cells are spontaneously active but are organised so that higher functions inhibit the activity of lower centres.

I am impressed with the enormous flexibility in the function of the brain. Large areas can be removed without removing the organism’s ability to live and sustain itself. The normal brain looses thousands of cells an hour. (Within limits), behaviour is impaired sometimes severely but not removed. The brain has a huge capacity. It can store and recall details of a whole life, both real and imagined. Each cell in the brain, of which there are billions of billions, is at least as powerful as a single computer chip.

The computer analogy is instructive. Imagine what it would be like if one attempted to work out what a computer was doing, (for example, rendering a movie, simulating paranoid behaviour, preparing a balance sheet, playing a game of Myst or forwarding emails) by studying the circuit boards, chips and electric currents of the hardware. Obviously there is a close causal relationship between hardware, information processing and behaviour but it is not very helpful (at least to this discussion) to specify those relationships precisely and reliably. The link is reflected in the software, programming and storage structures that are ephemeral and dynamic. They are the specification for how data is to be turned into information that informs decisions and actions – hence behaviour.

I believe the same can be said of the mind and brain. There is a close and causal relationship. The one constrains and influences the other but the mechanisms are not well understood - but fascinating to some of us. Although neuropsychologists have made staggering progress in understating the information processing systems of the mind and brain, we are still a very long way from knowing how data is represented in the brain or the information mechanisms of thought, experience and imagination.

For now we only need to know that we can talk rationally about behaviour without knowing how the physiology works. We do of course need to take account of the limitations and capabilities of the underlying physical device – as far as we know them.

The information processing model of how humans behave is almost certainly incomplete and inadequate but it is better than electro-mechanical ‘telephone’ models, mystical phrenology models or supernatural interventionist models. ‘Better’ because it integrates and coordinates reliable observations, raises testable predictions, provides a language that we can use to think about and talk about our brains and our behaviour.

Learning is an ability that humans have above all other animals. There are several different ways of learning. The ones that I think are vitally important are mimicry (copying others), trial and error actions, doing as one is told, learning and obeying rules (and signs), learning and using principles (heuristics employed to guide decisions and choices), building and employing relations and theories, building (mental) models of mechanisms from which one can predict behaviour, explaining observations and with reasoning, solve problems. We can all do these things (some of them from birth, some of them from late teenage) however some of us are more comfortable with directed behaviour, rule-based behaviour, principled behaviour or theoretical mechanisms as the basis for most of our behaviour.

Thinking is difficult; most people don’t do it avoid it and dislike it. It’s easier to let someone else do it. If we all do it, we reach different conclusions – hence there is conflict, lack of coordination and delay when it matters. Early societies developed a hierarchical structure where people higher up make the decisions and those lower down did what they were told. This structure is still with us and still very effective and even preferred. [Notice that relinquishing thinking and decision-making responsibility carries with it many things, including trust and integrity as well as the opportunity for oppression and immoral exploitation]

The mind or the experience of mind is essentially subjective and internal to oneself. It is no less complex than the physical brain and we understand it no more.

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