Mind Matters - I
by Michael Brenner on 26 Apr 2021 6 Comments

Back in the days when the New York Review of Books took seriously its reputation as the stellar journal of English-reading intellectuals, the editors upon occasion published long, prolix essays on the recondite topic of the Mind-Brain relationship. I recall John Searle of Berkeley as one of the protagonists. Through dint of supreme effort and disciplined concentration, one could just about stagger to its end – by which point one had forgotten everything read before the penultimate paragraph. It all bore an uncanny resemblance to the great theologian dispute on whether the Son was OF the Father or IN the Father.


So, why did one bother to read the stuff? Because it was there – like climbing K-2. The test of one’s claim to being a truly omnivorous ‘intellectual.” Hence, were a colleague to ask: ‘Have you read….?, you honestly could answer ‘Yes.’ “What did you think of it?” ‘Highly instructive and heuristic….’


That all came back to mind recently in the course of an animated exchange with a psychiatrist friend over whether the most appropriate term to be used in describing the Trumpites in Congress was “Mindless” or “Brainless.” He made a powerful case for the latter. My preference was for “Mindless.” Being persons of good will, we eventually found “common ground” in agreeing on the compromise of “Witless.”  Barack Obama would have been proud of us. Anyway, that exchange set me pondering whether in fact there is any reason to separate conceptually mind from brain. Neither neurologist nor psychiatrist, I began with pretty much a blank slate. Here is what I came up with.


My first, impromptu thought was that Mind is not a mere extension of the Brain, although it depends on the brain. The human being could not survive and thrive relying on the instinctive behavior programmed in the brain alone. If one goes into shock from experiencing an event that evokes an earlier experienced trauma, the ensuing sensations do depend on the Brain’s neurological activity but that activity is neutral to the conscious experience. The Mind’s dependency on the brain – as receptor of data from the external environment, as storage manager, and as activator of engagement with the external world – is undeniable. It does not follow that the Brain is the initiator of action physical or mental.


Consider the body’s response to an extremity of heat or cold. The Brain signals that information to the Mind by registering the physical effects in unmistakable ways. But its remedial responses are restricted to a set of ‘pre-programed’ automatic activities, e.g. the body shivers, the body sweats. The Brain cannot on its own conceive of, or initiate ameliorative actions such as starting a fire or moving the body into the shade – much less conceiving of and directing the hands to construct a permanent shelter. That is the prerogative of the Mind.


This is not to say that the Brain is a completely passive participant in mental activity. Think of information and memory. The Brain inventories it as well as stores it. The Brain is librarian as well as hard drive. As studies have shown, it does at times link discrete bits of data in nodes and clusters. (Synaptic clusters and memory engrams are the scientific terms in common usage. Here they are lumped together into the shorthand ‘clusters’). The latter encompass several nodes that interact with each other. They thus are made available in semi-organized form to be accessed by the Mind. The decision as to what to look for is that of the Mind.


Those initiatives/searches are remembered by the Brain much as a website (Amazon, Facebook) remembers your previous activities on that site. In response, it automatically searches for related clusters and creates meta-clusters that can form quite complex matrixes. Moreover, this Brain activity includes bringing forward at the interface of the unconscious and conscious the clusters thereby created so that the Mind becomes aware of them and can make use of them. Intelligence of the IQ type perhaps can be measured in terms of the formation speed, number, accuracy and refinement of those clusters.


A problem is created by mental “pop-ups.” Either random eruptions emerging from the inventory shelves, or crude substitutions for more valuable (to the Mind’s task) clusters or ‘conditioned’ pop-ups stimulated by certain thoughts/feelings that recur. This last can result in “stupidication” – persons becoming stupider over time by the density and frequency of mental slogans and trite, ambiguous phrasing. Think of a public figure like Ted Cruz (Harvard Law) or Mike Pompeo (No. 1 in his class at West Point). However, they might score today on an IQ test (albeit probably somewhat lower than the score they registered at the age of 20), their thought and behavior in purely logical terms has seriously declined.


As soon as the Brain registers phrases such as: “I am delighted to be here again amidst friends in the beautiful city of;” “the great majority of middle class Americans who pay their taxes, obey the law…;” “we extend our deepest gratitude to the brave, patriotic men and women who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect American freedoms from the hate-filled terrorists in….;” “America’s best days are ahead of it;” “Fuck the EU…” the Brain immediately reaches for the cluster of shop-worn, trite phrases which is ready at hand. 


Over time, the Mind of this person lodges itself in the neurological neighborhood populated by those low-grade clusters. Some neglected items - potentially valuable - unconnected to the Mind’s conscious or even subconscious activity, gather dust in distant cells. In other words, they are relegated by the Brain to the equivalent of the satellite storage sites in the boondocks where university libraries exile unreferenced holdings. They are not shredded and incinerated. In theory, they are accessible upon request. In practice, they are inert, mute and unattended – accessible only with the greatest conscious effort.


This phenomenon is accentuated when small group dynamics come into play. Dense interaction with others whose thought processes are slow and superficial, whose behavior lacks logic and coherence, will militate toward more rapid and deeper deterioration in an individual’s functional intelligence. In the terms that we used above, clusters weaken or dissolve, new nodules and clusters are less likely to form, and the clusters that assemble simplistic/clichéd bits of information/ideas will move toward the fore of the subconscious.


Moreover, this devolutionary shift will occur in response both to the individual’s own consciousness and stimuli received from others. That is to say, the etic reinforces the emic.  This role of groups in lowering the practical intelligence of members is not at all rare – it is observable in various settings quite frequently. How many times have we heard the exclamation: “I can’t understand how so many bright (IQ) people could produce such a disjointed/confused/ misleading report/strategy/policy!”


Currently, heavy pressure is being generated by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to direct resources and research in the field of psychiatry on brain neurology. Notable progress in mapping brain functions and their relation to mental activity, especially abnormal mental states, has generated a movement to downplay traditional approaches to understanding behavior and mental illness. However, there are serious issues to be resolved about the significance of observed correlations between neurological/chemical states in the brain and psychological states in the mind.


What is the analytical and therapeutic basis for making a crisp distinction between the two? When we focus on one or the other, aren’t we prone to make the cardinal error of confusing the locus of analytical attention with the point of causal primacy? That is fundamental - even elementary. We are alerted to the danger of doing so in any serious course on Research Methods. Changes in either will register in the other. But causal primacy cannot be determined on the basis of a priori assumptions. The ability to trace shifts in mood/emotion through close examination of neurological activity or chemical balances cannot tell us that observable changes in body and mind are due to occurrences in one place or the other. The more exact the correlation, the more likely that this error will be committed. As for treatment, couldn’t one start at either place? or, based on the patient’s history make a reasonable estimate as to where causal primacy lay and place the main effort at amelioration there – at least at first?


Do we really we need the construct or concept of “mind” to converse meaningfully about what we do, hope, feel? Frankly, I personally am not particularly interested in conversing meaningfully about those things. Rather, I’m interested in what we do in the way of hope, feeling and behavior. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that any resemblance between the two is purely coincidental. The most interesting question is very simple; can the Brain alone do the things we humans do? The obvious answer is ‘NO’ - as I illustrate. Therefore, there is something else - however we conceptualize it. Beyond that, it’s always struck me as a game of words chasing words.


(To be concluded…)

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