Sunday, September 22, 2013

Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D. - Anatomy of the Mind

Over at her Psychology Today blog, The Modern Mind, Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D. has posted a three-part series on the Anatomy of the Mind. She holds an essentially integral model of the mind (compared to most people working in the field), as expressed in her recent book, Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (Harvard University Press, 2013).

She argues, "the mind is a process which is supported by the brain but cannot be reduced to it, since it is a process of cultural, symbolic stimuli originating outside the brain in the specifically human, cultural environment." [italics added]

Hers is a culturally and environmentally embedded mind. I like that idea, and I thought you all might find these articles interesting.

The Anatomy of the Mind

Identity as a mental process

Published on September 7, 2013 by Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D. in The Modern Mind

In several earlier posts I have presented a central argument of my recent book that the mind is a process which is supported by the brain but cannot be reduced to it, since it is a process of cultural, symbolic stimuli originating outside the brain in the specifically human, cultural environment. In other words, the mind is culture in the brain. It is also individualized culture, because it results from and assures the adjustment of a particular animal organism to the cultural environment. The necessity of the human to adjust to the cultural environment (which for us is also the intra-species environment, to which other animals are adjusted genetically) and the specific nature of cultural, symbolic, environment in fact call for several interconnected processes, performing different functions in this adjustment, which together constitute the mind, and, since the mind, therefore, is not a homogeneous, but an articulated, process, one can speak of the anatomy of the mind. The central processes of the mind are patterned or systematic and can be seen as structures, by analogy to organs and organisms. The mind itself, though a process, can be likened to an individual organism, which exists in a larger structure/process, analogous to a species – a culture. Within the mind, culture, supported by the imaginative capacities of the animal brain, transformed by the symbolic environment into the specifically human, symbolic imagination, necessarily creates three such “structures.” These structures are compartments of the self or of I and include: 1) identity – the relationally-constituted self; 2) agency, will, or acting self, the acting I; and 3) the thinking self, I of self-consciousness.

Identity in this sense is symbolic self-definition. It is the image of one’s position in the socio-cultural “space” within the image of the relevant socio-cultural terrain. It contains and provides information regarding one’s social status and one’s standing vis-à-vis non-human symbolic presences, such as angels, ancestors, or the nation; one’s relevant others, mortal and immortal, individual and collective, and the types of relations one is supposed to have with them, one’s significant symbolic environment, including one’s immediate and more remote social and cosmic worlds, expectations one may have of one’s environment and vice-versa, conduct proper to one under various, likely to arise circumstances (i.e. foods one should like or dislike, clothes one is supposed to wear, questions one is supposed to ask and issues one is supposed to be interested in, emotions one may legitimately experience and ones of which one should be ashamed, people one may befriend, marry, respect, despise and hate, and so on). In short, one’s identity represents an individualized microcosm of the particular culture in which one is immersed, with the image of one’s particularly significant sector in it (which may include God and His angels, paradise and hell, or one’s immediate neighbors, colleagues, and fellow “Red Sox” fans) magnified and highlighted.

Identity is a logical implication of the nature of human environment. Since the primary environment for humans is cultural and since, above all, individuals have to adapt to the intra-species environment of the human society in which they happen to live, a cognitive map of this cultural social environment must be created in the brain. This cognitive map, which is the representation of the surrounding culture, and the social order (always in relation to the cosmic one), constructed on its basis, in the individual’s mind may be accomplished by something like place cells which are responsible for the spatial representations -- maps of the changing spatial environment -- in the brain of a rat. The individual’s identity is his/her place on this multidimensional symbolic map. Like the indication of the rat’s place on the spatial mental map, it defines the individual’s possibilities of adaptation to the environment -- or to refer to specifically human reality, “powers,” “liberties,” and “rights.” Because the cultural environment is so complex, the human individual, unlike the rat, is presented by the cognitive map with various possibilities of adaptation which cannot be objectively and clearly ranked. They must be ranked subjectively, i.e., the individual must choose or decide which of them to pursue. This subjective ranking of options is, in the first place, a function of one’s identity.

As the cognitive map is configured out of the information derived from the cultural environment, it is subject to change with some, but not all, of the changes in that environment. Only a most dramatic change of the map as a whole as a result of the virtual transformation of the environment is likely to affect one’s own place on it, that is, change one’s identity. This should be so because, at first, cultural stimuli enter the new human’s brain as a jumbled mess: their organizing principles must be figured out. As the child figures out the organizing principles of various symbolic systems and begins to deploy the symbolic imagination, he or she also figures out where precisely he or she belongs in the symbolic environment which is still in the process of being constructed itself. The significance of other objects on the map is then assessed in relation to that place. One’s identity organizes the mess and the cultural environment is observed from its perspective. This means that, rather than being determined by our experiences, the nascent identity ranks these experiences, storing those it selects for memory in accordance with their subjective significance and forgetting most of them altogether.

Because of its essential ranking function, identity must start forming early. However, the process of its formation may be long and is not always successful. Identity-formation is likely to be faster and more successful the simpler is the cultural environment in which it is formed – i.e., the fewer and the more clearly defined are the relations that must be taken into account in the relationally-constituted self. For instance, in an isolated village community, in which all the denizens are practicing the same religion, obey the same authorities, speak the same language, wear habits of the same kind, enjoy the same level of prosperity, it may be expected to form easily and quickly. But in a large cosmopolitan metropolis, in which people of different religions, political persuasions, levels of wealth, styles of life, and linguistic backgrounds mix, it would take more time and for many people would never be complete, especially, if the metropolis is also pluralistic and egalitarian, and therefore the cultural environment does not rank its different populations itself, but leaves all the ranking to the individual.

As a representation of the environment, identity should force itself upon the brain as any external stimulus. It as it were issues commands to the brain. Identity is a symbolic self-definition, a relationally-constituted self, an image a human individual has of oneself as a cultural being and a participant in a particular cultural universe. At the same time, it is clearly an essential element of human mental – cognitive, emotional, and pertaining to social adjustment -- functioning and health. Changes in certain peripheral aspects of identity are possible, but any change in its core (i.e., crises of identity, doubts about one’s identity, multiple identities) translate into mental problems, affecting one’s ability to learn and commit information to memory, the adequacy of one’s emotional reactions, and the degree of one’s social adjustment. Identity mediates between one’s natural or animal capacities to learn, memorize, adapt to the environment – the capacities of one’s animal brain – and one’s functioning as, in fact being, a person, one’s humanity. Obviously, an individual endowed with different natural mental powers from those of somebody else would learn, memorize, and adapt differently, but so most certainly would an individual with equal natural powers but a different identity. Similarly, a damage to one’s natural capacities (as a result of physical trauma or impaired growth) will undoubtedly be reflected in one’s mental performance, but a damage to one’s cultural identity (as a result of a traumatic experience, such as immigration or “loss of face,” or in consequence of impaired formation) will alter mental performance as dramatically.

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Anatomy of the Mind, Part 2

The reality of Human Will

Published on September 12, 2013 by Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D. in The Modern Mind

In this post I would like to continue the discussion of the central functions – or faculties – of the mind, moving from the process of identity (or relationally-constituted self), discussed in the previous post, to the process of the will.

Identity, which is the agent of a particular culture, does not issue commands to the brain directly; it does so through the “structure” of human agency, will, or acting self, the creation of culture in general. Human beings are carriers of will and discretion; they are -- each one of them, if normal -- independent actors in the sense of being capable of action and not just reaction, whose actions (except involuntary reflexes) are products of decision and choice. This will is a function of symbols -- to operate with these intentional, thus arbitrary, signs, we internalize the principle of their intentionality; the will, therefore, like identity, is logically implied in the symbolic reality of the mind. When reacting to a cue, whether externally or internally generated (for instance, the election of a new president or a spontaneously firing nerve that triggers a memory-recall of an unpleasant incident at a doctor’s office), we are capable of voluntarily interrupting the ensuing mental process, saying to ourselves, for example: “I don’t want to think about this now,” “I do not want to react to this in such-and-such a way,” and thereby of shaping our response. It is to this intermediate stage between stimulus and reaction/action, in which, for humans, the nature of response is still indeterminate and must be decided that the word “consciousness” is frequently applied.

Moreover, humans are capable of independently, i.e., at will, generating cues and starting mental processes. For instance a person may say to oneself: “I want to remember such and such episode” or “I want to begin thinking about such and such subject,” and thereby start the process of memory recall or manipulation. Humans are not genetically forced to want almost anything -- perhaps to evacuate and to sleep -- every other genetic imposition, including hunger, sexual desire, and pain, can be resisted by the will. How do we acquire binding volitions, i.e. desires which compel us to act?
The mind must include “structures” -- mechanisms capable of blocking the biological information the brain generates, when this information interferes with the processing or creating symbolic information. More generally, it must contain mechanisms which, for every event, select the “operative logic” (or logics) appropriate to the context, while suppressing other “logics.” The will, or agency, or acting self – that part of our mind that makes decisions, is such a structure or set of mechanisms. What does the will do, specifically? It arbitrates in cases of contradictory stimuli. Most often, such arbitrage is unconscious and involves no effort (of will) on our part: we simply receive, and obey, an instruction to follow a particular logic. If a consciousness can be equated with a particular symbolic logic, we all necessarily develop multiple consciousnesses and, depending on the occasion, skillfully select among them the appropriate one.

But will’s arbitrage may involve a conscious effort, and it is for the cases when it does that the language – at least, in the West – reserves the concept of the “will.” For instance, one may be tired and wish to lie down, but have unfinished work, in which case the will will instruct the organism: “You will pay no attention to your fatigue, but will be guided by the logic demanding you to finish the work you have started.” Late in the evening, however, it will issue a different instruction: “You will now lay down your work, though unfinished, and take care of your fatigue, (because otherwise you won’t be able to continue your work tomorrow)”. Or, in the case of a soldier fearing for his life, the will may declare: “The logic you will obey at present is that of a collective military enterprise. Therefore, you will expose your life to danger and disregard the survival instinct which instructs you to run away and hide.” It is in regard to such choices that we talk of the “free will.” By definition, the will is free: it is always up to the human agency, to the (acting) self to decide which symbolic tack to take. Everything else in a person may cry against a certain action, and yet the person’s will, the agency, will impose itself and the person will do its bidding. We refer to that will as a “strong” one, which systematically imposes on the person the ‘logic’ considered to be more difficult to follow. Of course, what is so considered changes with the context.

Symbolic imagination is travel over the links of various “logical” chains. Will, agency or (acting) self is the mechanism for making choices or decisions. We are able to deploy our imaginative capacities correctly, namely, in accordance with the appropriate symbolic “logic” thanks to the arbitrage of the will, while the will’s arbitrage, much as our capacity to learn and memorize, is mediated by identity (the relationally-constituted self). Clearly, it would be much easier for a person unambiguously self-defined as a soldier to risk his life in the face of mortal danger, rather than try to save himself; his identity will, in effect, screen the logic of self-preservation from him, making him, so to speak, “single-minded” in his sharp awareness of the dictates of proper soldierly conduct. A person unsure of whether being a soldier is really “him,” in contrast, will be much more likely to hesitate and run for cover. Problems with identity impair the will, making the person indecisive and unmotivated, while an impaired will interferes with routine functioning of symbolic imagination.

The will/agency/acting self is the function of the autonomy of human consciousness -- i.e., the mind’s independence from the natural environment and from learning and memory related to the natural environment, the mind’s being self-sustained, which makes possible a multitude of desires -- and of identity (or relationally-constituted self), which represents to the individual his/her options. Thus, it is the expression of subjectivity. There is no subjectivity in animals, unless these are pets, even though, given the nature of learning and memory, every rat’s and certainly every monkey’s brain is unique, and there is individuality in monkeys and rats. But because monkeys and rats do not have choices, the uniqueness of every animal’s brain does not give rise to subjectivity, and there is no need in agency, will, and self. However unique, the knowledge and action/reaction of a rat or a monkey are objective (shared by others within the species), making every rat or monkey a representative of all rats or all monkeys.

One can speculate about the system in the brain that supports the will. Perhaps, it is neurons similar to those that make possible in rats the perception of the stimuli which require an adaptive reaction, transmitting to other neurons the command: “do this or that,” neurons whose function it is to sense desires imposed on animals by their genes, but in us culturally constructed and mediated by consciousness and structures of the self (even though not necessarily consciously mediated: a person is not always fully aware of what he or she wants). Whatever that brain system, culture determines the individual’s likes and dislikes, programming the brain to will certain things -- programming the will, like the rat’s “will” -- i.e., rat -- is programmed genetically. Identity presents to the individual the possibilities for the given historical time, helping to establish their subjective ranking: because you are what you are (a Catholic or a Muslim, a wife or a soldier, a member of the aristocracy or a registered Democrat) you must will this and not this. It commands the will what to choose and to decide. In every specific case the will and the identity are determined by culture. The vast majority of the records or representations in memory are also determined by culture -- the contents of memory, thus, the raw material of the imagination, are culture-given. What is done to these records in the brain (i.e., how they are manipulated) depends both on the brain and the organization principles of the particular symbolic system(s). But cultural selection -- i.e., the social success of some imaginings and the failure of others depends exclusively on the historical context, that is, again, on culture. It is important to keep in mind that, unlike natural selection, cultural selection does not weed out imaginings not selected for success at a certain historical moment: they are not killed, but only left latent. In changed historical circumstances or in the presence of a genius there is always the possibility that these temporarily unselected imaginings will have their day.

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Anatomy of the Mind, Part 3

The Thinking Self

Published on September 21, 2013 by Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D. in The Modern Mind

In this post, I am continuing the discussion of the anatomy of the mind we can deduce logically from the nature of the cultural (i.e., symbolic) environment to which the human brain must necessarily adjust. In addition to identity, or relationally-constituted self, and the will, or the acting self, discussed in the previous two posts, there is the tremendously important structure, the structure of consciousness turned upon itself, to which Descartes referred in his great statement “I think, therefore I am.” This “I of self-consciousness” is the thinking part of us. In distinction to all other processes and “structures” of the mind, the existence of the “I” of Descartes is not a hypothesis. It is, rather, the only certain knowledge available to us. We are all aware of it. We all know directly by experience that it exists. This knowledge is absolute; it is impossible to doubt it.

It is very good that this is so, because the logical reasons for the existence of this mental structure are less obvious than those that help us to account for identity and will. Given the character of human environment, both these structures are necessary for the adaptation to this environment, and therefore, for the survival of every individual one of us. But one does not need the thinking self to adapt to life within culture. Dogs, for example, seem to adapt to the symbolic environment without necessarily developing the ability to think. And, if they can do it, we, presumably, can do it too. One can argue, of course, that a fully human existence would be impossible without it, but such quantitative judgment is quite likely to lead us eventually to the unacceptable conclusion that only a genius (a very rare, thus abnormal human condition which indeed depends on the thinking self) can be fully human.

The logical necessity for the thinking self is of a different kind. While human beings can well do without it, human existence without it would be impossible. It is a necessary condition for the culture process on the collective level: what makes possible self-consciousness for any one of us is precisely that which makes possible indirect learning and thus the transmission of human ways of life across generations and distances.  

Most of the circumstantial evidence regarding the mind comes from comparative history and comparative zoology -- comparisons between different cultural environments (the simple fact of their variety suggests the structure of identity, for instance) and between humans and wild animals (the self-sufficiency of human consciousness and its largely inexplicit and emotional character, symbolic imagination, and will or agency are deduced from comparisons between our environment and its demands, on the one hand, and the environment of organic life and the animals’ responses to it, on the other). Similarly, it is from comparative zoology we deduce that to transmit human ways of life we need the thinking self.

Based both on the circumstantial and on the empirical (direct, introspective) evidence, there are a few things we can say about the thinking self. Among all the symbolic mental processes, it is the one which is explicitly symbolic; it is not just a process informed and directed by our symbolic environment, but it is as essentially symbolic process as is the development of language, or of a musical tradition, or an elaboration of a theorem – or as is the transmitted culture, in general -- in the sense that it actually operates with formal symbols, the formal media of symbolic expression. This is the reason for the dependence of thought on language, which has been so frequently noted. Thinking is only possible if such formal media are available, as they are in music, mathematics, visual art, and in language, above all. Our thought extends only as far as the possibilities of the formal symbolic medium in which it operates.

This presents an enormous problem for neuroscience: how to account conceptually for the perception, storage in memory, and recall of purely symbolic stimuli which may only acquire sensual components in use, after they are conceived in the mind, and these components are necessarily minimal (e.g. these words I am typing and you are reading acquire a visual component only after I have thought them and you perceive them at once visually and in their meaning which touches only your mind, but none of your bodily senses)? What is a perception of an idea? What is perceived and which organ perceives it? The translation of such stimuli into the organic processes of the brain, which must occur, because everything that happens in the mind happens by means of the brain, is beyond the current ability of neuroscience to imagine. However, we have all the reasons to hope for a development in the science of the mind similar to that which happened in the biological sub-discipline of genetics which, called into being by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, started to reveal the specific mechanisms of evolution through natural selection some forty years after Darwin had postulated it. (See my previous posts here and here),

Similarly to the process of breaking organic processes into its physico-chemical elements that happens in the translation of organic stimuli, including the process of perception itself, into physical and chemical reactions in the brain, a process of breaking (from top down) of symbolic stimuli into its organic elements (reconstructing symbols as signs that are sensorily perceived, for instance) must be responsible for such translation, which would differ from the bio-physical translation only in degree of its complexity, i.e., quantitatively. We are capable of perceiving, storing in memory, and recalling at will various aspects of our environment. It makes sense that we would intuit – but intuition would break into perception – and thus perceive and recall a string of information couched in formal symbols in the formal symbols in which it was couched, that is, perceive and recall a word not sensually, but by its imaginary sound, a geometric shape by its imaginary sight, and a melody by the imaginary sound and/or the sight of the corresponding notation. Do we actually hear the words and melodies in our head? They are there, but the great majority of words in our vocabulary we know from reading only, some of them we have invented, and a composer hears the music before putting it on paper or trying it on an instrument, and can do so, as the astounding example of Beethoven proves, even while being physically deaf. This means that we are actually processing -- and experiencing -- unembodied sounds, sounds that do not have any material and, therefore, sensual reality (though they can acquire both these realities, when outwardly expressed or objectified in the course of the cultural process). The experience is possible because the symbolic (meanings) naturally breaks into the sensory (signs).

Our conscious recall of such non-sensual information would necessarily be an explicit recall. The act of will, under different circumstances implicit and, as a result, unobserved, in cases of recalling explicit symbolic information (human semantic memory) will be self-observed and become a subject of self-consciousness. The opportunities for observing one’s consciousness are numerous: we might recall stored explicit information for comparison with any new learning experience with explicit symbolic systems in the environment, that is, with music, mathematics, visual art, but, above all, anything at all in language, and then we might wish to recall and manipulate and re-manipulate it again and again. Then not only the process of consciousness and symbolic imagination, in general, which is largely unconscious (in the sense of unselfconscious and inexplicit), but the process of thinking -- of talking to oneself in language, mathematics, music, and explicit visual images -- becomes self-sustaining and self-sufficient. I suppose this is what we mean when we talk about “life of the mind.” The thinking self, which does not have to be involved in regular mental processes on the individual level (such as symbolic imagination which is for the most part unselfconscious) in such cases is perfectly integrated with and involved in them. It becomes an integral part of the mind as individualized culture and of the person. But it is important to remember that this is not the essential function of this mental structure, its essential function is to assure the symbolic process on the collective level. It is enough that some humans develop an active thinking self for this process to continue and for culture to be maintained.

~ Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D.
Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D.
Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D., is University Professor and a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. She is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (Harvard University Press, 2013) and other books about modern society and culture, including the ground-breaking Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (Harvard University Press, 2001; Donald Kagan Best Book in European History Prize). Greenfeld has been a recipient of the UAB Ireland Distinguished Visiting Scholar Award, fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, Israel, and grants from The National Council for Soviet & East European Research, and The German Marshall Fund of the United States. In 2004, she delivered the Gellner Lecture at the London School of Economics on the subject of "Nationalism and the Mind," launching the research connecting her previous work on modern culture to a new perspective on mental illness.
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