The Mind Myth: Reimagining Consciousness Should you trust your intuition? "Things don't have thoughts." Did Descartes get it right? "Matter and mind are both fully real and irreducibly distinct, though they interact." The first quote is from Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem; the second from Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. Today Nagel isn't the only philosopher still endorsing a version of Cartesian dualism, but four centuries of brain research have muddied the metaphysical waters. Both intuition and theory must now contend with strong evidence that consciousness occurs solely within a living, physical brain--a thing. If this is true, how can one avoid "reducing" mind to matter? In Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, Giulio Tononi, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist who has specialized in sleep research, discusses the multitude of proven connections between subjective mental phenomena and brain function. He derives his own theory of consciousness directly from his neurological studies, and admits that apart from the brain, science has so far found no other repository of consciousness. Yet he comes to a conclusion very much in sync with Descartes and Nagel. Conscious experience “is maximally irreducible.”
If consciousness can’t be reduced, then let us expand it, starting with our indoor cats, Fanny and Xander. They put up with us for nine months each year. In winter we go west; they stay at home with a live-in house-sitter. Within minutes of our return, Fanny does four things in rapid succession: She places herself in the dining room, catches my eye, and races through the living room to the far end of the TV room, where she rolls over. (I, of course, follow her and pet her vigorously.) Does anyone doubt that Fanny is acting in response to a compound memory, combining her memory of a specific person—she doesn’t do this to my wife or the sitter—with a specific pleasurable activity, performed in a specific place? My expected response likely reinforces this pattern in her memory. Does anyone doubt that she is both feeling and thinking, insofar as her pattern of physical actions has been guided by a memory pattern in her brain?
Her brother Xander gives a similar display of long-term memory every spring, when we prop open the kitchen door to our screened porch. Both cats like it out there, and watch everything that moves beyond the screen. They pay close attention to visiting cats, tracking their progress across the lawn. If a visitor moves away from the porch, heading toward the southeast corner of our house, Xander bounds indoors, runs through the kitchen (west), the dining room (south), and finally turns into the living room’s bay window (east), to watch the other cat approach. Apparently he remembers both where the cat must be heading and how to get there himself.
My point isn’t that we live with clever cats, but rather that each cat is moved to a particular pattern of behavior by a particular pattern of memory. Just as Fanny never coaxes my wife to our petting place, Xander never runs to the bay window for a passing squirrel. And each cat’s brain holds other associations for each of these places: sunning spot; napping spot.
I’m fairly certain that my own memories are kept in a similar way, not only as discrete things— I, door, mailbox—connected by discrete actions—open, go, look; but also as integrated patterns: I-open-the-door-to-go-outside-and-look-in-the-mailbox. And such patterns rarely occur without some sort of affect, in this case curiosity about what I will find in that box. My long-term memory is thus made up of more than nouns and verbs of experience. Frequently it reveals a complete sentence; occasionally a long paragraph; much more rarely, a Russian novel.
To say “my long-term memory reveals” is another way of saying “the neurons firing in my brain bring into my subjective consciousness.” We can’t begin to talk about mind and body without acknowledging the reality of subjective experience along with the reality of brain activity. Although we may disagree with Descartes, Nagel, Tononi, et al, about the origin, nature, and function of consciousness, we do not dispute that it occurs.
One of the marvelous aspects of all those neurons firing in the brain is the way they allow memories, thoughts, and emotions, whether simple or complex, to mix and match, to combine and recombine, in an apparently infinite number of ways. I hear the word “house” and think of my home, a child’s drawing, a realtor’s listing, a boathouse, a teepee, a turtle, a TV character, a legislative body… Depending on the context in which the word “house” arises, the brain may juxtapose it with a word, or thought, or feeling, or another sort of memory appropriate to that context. If I’m thinking about the place where we live,“house” may call up the idea of “home.” If I’m writing a rhyme, it may more readily call up “mouse.” If I’m writing a rhyme about home, it may satisfy both associations with an emotionally charged image of my spouse.
Such combinations and their subsequent recombinations allow the brain to layer memory upon memory throughout a human life. During each waking moment—and likely during non-waking ones—the brain adds memory, not only a bit of new information, such as the sound of a bird’s tweet outside my window, but also a byte combining that new bit with associated old bits, such as remembered bird sounds, the view outside my window, my response to a tweet on Twitter.
If this is an accurate description of the growth of memory in the brain—a process of gathering experiences, associating them with others, combining the associations in various ways, and storing the lot—it suggests that the addition of each new fragment of memory entails a multiplication of existing ones. Such an enormous system of interwoven and retrievable data gives each human brain the potential for something quite astonishing. It can create, within itself and by its own action, an original memory. “We” can, by the intentional juxtaposition and manipulation of appropriate fragments of memory, think a thing (have a rational idea) that wasn’t there before. “We” can also, by the unintentional juxtaposition of such fragments—e.g. during REM sleep—imagine things that weren’t there before. On rare occasions, a combination of firing neurons allows both sorts of juxtaposition to occur at once, leading to an imaginative leap in the sciences, or to genuine creativity in the arts, or to some other sort of breakthrough.
What is it like to be a cat? We can’t know, although observations of cat behavior suggest that their brains operate like ours in many respects. We see that they dream during sleep, and we suppose that they do it much as we do, even if their paws knead and their legs kick in response to memories likely different from our own. We similarly suppose that cats feel pleasure and pain much as we do. They cry out if their tails are stepped on; they purr when their heads are massaged. They often position themselves in anticipation of pleasure (waiting by the door to the porch) or of pain (staying clear of the idle vacuum cleaner). Meanwhile Fanny distinguishes her name from Xander's name; her bowl from his bowl; her favorite chair. Certainly she exhibits all the signs of intention. Does one go too far to imagine subjectivity in her as well?
Our sense of subjectivity has been reported so thoroughly and for so long that we are tempted to think it a universal human phenomenon: “I awoke; I felt; I wanted; I reasoned; I imagined…” We experience a subjective response to a color, a crying baby, a movie, and a caress. We also experience subjective intention: “Today I will buy bread; read a book; mow the lawn.” Such experiences pose no difficulty for us as we go about our normal lives. For philosophers since Descartes, however, they have posed a very great difficulty indeed: What is the relationship between our immaterial consciousness—which appears to experience all of this subjectivity— and our material brain—the physical origin of these thoughts, sensations, and emotions? This is the “mind/body problem” with which we began. Recent scientific work with larger-brained mammals has tweaked the question in a dramatic way: Are self-awareness and subjectivity unique to humans, or are they a matter of degree, dependent on brain size and complexity?
Over time a sense of self grows as naturally and organically in a human brain as does its massive cache of memory. How should it not, insofar as the one always comes attached to the other? We have supposed that each moment of lived experience adds a “noun” or a “sentence” or more to the brain’s total memory. But who learns the noun; who reads the sentence? The one element present in every remembered experience must be the experiencer. Do you recall the landscape of your childhood? Who saw it? Remember that song you enjoyed when you were fifteen? Who heard it? One's every memory, thought, and emotion has reinforced this “I.”
Now if all of my thoughts and memories are lodged in my physical brain—a matter of matter— and all of my emotions and subjectivity are lodged in there as well, why do I experience these things as though they were lodged in an immaterial mind? In his review of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, H. Allen Orr admits to sharing the author's sense of mystery: “Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness, but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.” First we must pause to smile at the words “mere objects.” If there are any objects in the known universe less deserving of the term “mere,” I have yet to encounter them. But Dr. Orr aptly states our intuitive response to mind versus matter, which hasn’t evolved since Descartes.
Let me suggest, therefore, that the solution to the conundrum rests only partially with science, specifically neurobiology. Theory and experiment in this field have already done some heavy lifting, showing the degree to which mind is contingent upon matter, and connecting specific areas of the brain with self-awareness. It will be no small thing to discover, insofar as we can, the precise mechanisms by which brain activity is experienced as mental activity. But it is equally important that we come to view these mechanisms as natural and comprehensible. We must educate our intuition to see consciousness as a biological phenomenon.
Xander hears the sound of a can being opened in a distant room. His brain remembers that a past occurrence of that particular sound led to a past experience of eating tuna. Remembering also that he enjoyed the experience, his brain tells him to jump down from his chair and hurry to the place where the can was heard to open. The structure of Xander’s ears, his nervous system, his cortex; the transformation of his past experience into memory, including affect; the application of that memory to this new situation; the direction of his motor functions—all of this is quite marvelous if we pause to think about it. But we don’t. “Cat likes tuna. Big deal.” I hear the sound of corn popping. My brain remembers a past occurrence. When I arrive in the kitchen, my wife infers from my behavior a sequence of events largely identical to those involving Xander. For any observer other than me, the cat and I have done same thing for the same cause. Our brains have played the same role. Nothing mysterious here. Nothing eerie.
No, the strangeness creeps in only when I begin to reflect upon my actions. “Popcorn-yum-go-eat” may not rank high on the scale of subjective consciousness, but thinking about the event surely does. Wow: Here I am, imagining I’m outside myself, watching my actions and pondering their meaning. How cool is that? Cool indeed; but even if such brain events may be unavailable to Xander (due to his brain size), they are still brain events and not something else. To the mix of subjective memory, emotion, thought, and action already in my brain, that same brain has added further subjective data about memory, emotion, thought, and action. No amount of “meta”—thinking about thinking—changes the fact that thinking is a biological function.
What then is my mind (meaning consciousness) doing while all of this brain activity is going on? Is it not also hearing, desiring popcorn, deciding to get some, and thinking about what just happened—perhaps in perfect parallel with the brain? No. The mind is doing nothing, because it is not the projector of our private movie but the screen. While processing a myriad of data, our complex brain brings a portion of it forward into awareness. What we call consciousness is the brain allowing the body a window into its conversation with itself. Therefore consciousness has no agency, either to experience a new sensation, think a new thought, or record a new memory. The experience of being conscious arises from one part of the brain reacting to a trigger of awareness in another. Your mind is the canvas upon which your brain paints your life.
How does one explain this to anyone who thinks consciousness is running the show? How do we illustrate that mind is never a cause, always an effect? Happily we have at hand an analogy unavailable to Descartes. Imagine the brain as a processor; the mind as a monitor. 1) When the processor is turned off, the monitor goes blank. When the monitor is off, the processor continues to function. 2) The processor is active, feeding data to the monitor. The monitor is passive, showing only what it receives. 3) The processor stores data, organizes it, manipulates and sometimes deletes it. The monitor does none of these things; it displays. 4) Much of what the processor does remains behind the scenes, never appearing on the monitor at all.
This last point is significant, because it is consistent with what we know about how the brain reports neural information from all other parts of the body. It is highly selective, allowing us to hear a sound but not feel the movement in our middle ear that helps make the sound audible. It allows us to gaze at a portrait but not feel the rapid eye movements that help us see details. We know that the brain is instrumental in making us aware of a muscle ache or a mosquito bite, but also that it can, by shifting focus away from the pain or itch, make us less aware of them. The brain applies the same sort of selectivity to making us aware of its own activities. Imagine the alternative—a data dump of our accumulated experiences, sensations, feelings, thoughts, over a lifetime! Most of this is in there (physically stored in memory) and retrievable, but our “minds” are never asked to be aware of the totality all at once.
Philosophers who imagine consciousness as a subjective state or an immaterial entity argue that physical processes alone cannot account for the movie playing continuously in our minds. But what if we imagine that movie itself as a physical process: the ongoing integration of two sorts of awareness inside the brain? From moment to moment, we instantly accept our brain's representations of the world outside of us because they mesh so well with representations already stored within. We don't experience our movie as impersonal; each of us is the star of our own narrative. We don't experience our movie without emotion; our brains are at least as affect-rich as our pets' brains. Importantly, we don't experience our movie as continuous. Neuroscientists have long studied one aspect of the brain’s control mechanism, relating various sleep states to activity in the thalamus. They currently investigate neurons in the insular cortex that regulate waking states, shifting our attention from intense concentration to daydreaming and back again; and pausing at other states along the way. The well-observed discontinuity of conscious experience points to its origin in, and dependence upon, the physical brain.
Reflect on your own consciousness. Do you experience your thoughts as a linear progression, marching like a syllogism from “if” to “then” and undisturbed by voices outside your window? If you are like me, your brain is filled with a hodgepodge of competing data, at times able to focus on one thing (typing an essay, for example), at times floating among images, sounds, feelings, and scraps of thought. Most of the time it is neither fully focused nor fully random. Instead groups of disparate but often related ideas take center stage, to be bumped a moment later by ideas suddenly deemed more salient. Is it reasonable to suppose that an immaterial entity called “mind” is fading itself during REM sleep, turning itself off during deep sleep, and choosing various levels of awareness while awake? Or does your intuition find it more likely that the same physical brain that regulates sleep states regulates waking ones?
You are walking in the park and thinking about Paradise Lost. Suddenly you stub your toe. You stop walking while the pain subsides. Now you smell lilacs. You know that your brain controls motor function, signals pain, and translates sense data into thought. Do you now imagine that your mind, busy with Milton, has been interrupted or temporarily superseded by your brain? Or does your intuition suggest a seamless succession of brain events experienced as mental events? At home an hour later, your memory replays this scene in every detail: Satan falling; toe pain; your halt; the fragrance. Do you imagine that your immaterial mind has gathered and organized these subjective experiences, sent them to your brain for storage, and now signaled the brain to recreate them? Or does your intuition tell you that’s nuts?
The crucial question is not “Do subjective, self-aware experiences occur?” Of course they do. The crucial question is not “Do such experiences occur independently of a living brain?” We have no credible evidence that they do. Rather, since both research and reason suggest that our brains are where such things occur, the question becomes “Why do we need a separate thing called ‘mind’ to tell us about them?” Clearly we do not, if what we mean by the term is animmaterial entity, fully real and irreducibly distinct, which interacts with the brain. What we commonly call “mind” or “mental activity” is actually our brain talking to itself and allowing us to listen. Consciousness isn’t an interaction with the brain but an expression of the brain.
What purpose, if any, might be achieved by giving “us” this window into brain activity? One guess: Consciousness may help the brain create its own memories. Each time it foregrounds a particular experience, bringing it into our awareness, it creates an awareness-memory of that neural event, to be associated physically in the brain with the original memory. Just as all the memories sharing the same actor allow the brain to construct an autobiographical “I,” so do the host of memories made conscious allow the brain to construct an awareness of my awareness. (How this may be useful to the body in which the brain resides is yet to be discovered.)
Another guess: Our consciousness might be part of a natural evolutionary progression toward the fundamental goal of every living organism, self-preservation. By giving “us” this partial awareness of its functioning, the human brain intensifies the sense of self that our interweaving self-as-participant memories have already established. By providing a brain-created theater for a brain-created audience-of-one, it increases our sense of subjective identity. More precisely, it ties the identity of each organism to its brain function, each physical body to its physical mind.
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