Thursday, April 22, 2010

Random Theory Fragment - There is no mind/body problem

I have all these scraps of paper with notes that I've jotted while reading various books. Some of them are fodder for blog posts, some of them are half-baked theories, and most of them are just sitting there in a pile collecting dust.

So my new plan is to record them here so I can develop them more or at least throw the scraps of paper away - a series of "Random Theory Fragments"


So this scrap came up in response to The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them by Owen Flanagan. He is essentially arguing against the idea of the soul, or any other dualism-based conception of consciousness and arguing for a reductionist version of mind = brain.
Framing the conflict in terms of two dominant visions of the mind--the "manifest image" of humanistic philosophy and theology, and the scientific image--Owen Flanagan demonstrates that there is common ground, and that we need not give up our ideas of moral responsibility and personal freedom in order to have an empirically sound view of the human mind. This is a profoundly relevant work of philosophy for the common reader.
His "common ground" is scientific materialism. I have no really issue with that viewpoint, but I do object to his equation of mind and brain being one and the same.

The mind is the sum of the brain, the central nervous system (which is actually the brain, spinal cord, the retina, and all associated nerves), the peripheral nervous system (somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system; some textbooks also include sensory systems) the enteric nervous system, the skin, and every other sensory aspect - or more simply, the mind is the body in its entirety. But it's more than that - it's also interpersonally, culturally, environmentally, and temporally located and embodied.

Even if one takes the broader definition of brain as the entire central nervous system (as does Daniel Siegel), there is still is much missing from the definition. But Siegel takes his definition of mind much further:
The Mind:

A Definition – The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

Mind Emergence – The mind emerges in the transaction of at least neurobiological and interpersonal processes. Energy and information can flow within one brain, or between brains. Naturally other features of our world, nature and our technological environment, can also impact on how the mind emerges. Within psychotherapy, we can see that relationships with another person profoundly shape the flow of energy and information between two people, and within each person.

Mind Development
– The mind develops across the lifespan as the genetically programmed maturation of the nervous system is shaped by ongoing experience. We now know that about one third of our genome directly shapes the connections within our brains. Though genes are extremely important in development, we also know that experience shapes our neural connections as well. When neurons become active they have the potential to stimulate the growth of new connections among each other. With one hundred billion neurons and an average of ten thousand synaptic connections linking one neuron to others, we have trillions of connections within our brains. These synaptic linkages are created by both genes and by experience. Nature needs nurture. Experience shapes new connections among neurons by how genes are activated, proteins produced, and interconnections established within our spider-web like neural system.
I like his definition of mind because it includes both the intrapersonal and the interpersonal. Yet this definition - which is excellent considering that Siegel is working mostly in the neuroscience field now (interpersonal neurobiology) - still misses all of the other elements I think are necessary to a full understanding of mind.

I am beginning to once again think about an argument I made 20+ years ago in a college philosophy class. In response to an essay question about the mind/body problem on the final exam, I argued for something I called Singularism, which is the definition of mind I gave above.

Singularism is a unitary definition of consciousness.

Mind and consciousness are entwined
Consciousness is the experience of mind

Mind is the sum total of . . .
Or more simply, the mind is the body in its entirety

But it's more than that - it's also interpersonally, culturally, environmentally, and temporally located and embodied.

In this model, experience is both top-down and bottom-up. The body-brain is a feed-forward and feedback loop - with information flowing in both directions, which is why is more appropriate to see it as a single system rather as two entities.

* * *

Damasio offers a good definition of the self within the boundaries of the skin, and while he acknowledges the important of the external world on the development and experience of the self, I feel his model is lacking. But since he is very good with the neural part, I want to present his perspective.

In Antonio Damasio's model of the neural self (see The Feeling of What Happens), the proto self is comprised of all the basic nervous systems of the body (pre-conscious and sensory-based), and the core self then maps all the data coming up from the proto self. In Damasio's newest conception, however, the core self also monitors the autobiographical self, which draws on permanent (though modifiable) memories as well as mapping responses and directions from the reflective self (the element of self or consciousness that is able to reflect on thought, emotion, and all other objects of awareness).

Another way to think about these levels of self is like this:
Core consciousness has a single level of organization and remains stable across the lifetime of the organism. It is not exclusively human and does not depend upon memory, reasoning, or language. In contrast, extended consciousness has several levels of organization. It evolves across the lifetime of the organism and depends upon both conventional and working memory. It can be found in a basic form in some nonhumans, but only attains its highest peak in language-using humans. According to Damasio, these two kinds of consciousness correspond to two kinds of self. He calls the sense of self that emerges in core consciousness core self and refers to the more elaborate sense of self provided by extended consciousness as autobiographical self.(23) From a developmental perspective, there are little more than simple states of core self in the beginning, but as experience accrues, memory grows and the autobiographical self can be deployed.(24)

[Zahavi, D. (2007). Self and other: The limits of narrative understanding. Published in D.D. Hutto (eds): Narrative and Understanding Persons. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 179-201.]
In Damasio's newest iteration of his "neural self" model, the brainstem acts a neural process and not just a relay as previously thought. His model serves to integrate the body and brain into a single unit, even though he likes to discuss them as separate.

While this vision of the "self" is better (less reductionist) than people like Dan Dennett, Damasio expands his model with the following definitions:

Mind: objects/events inside and outside the body in perception and in recall, often in the form of images.
Self: (1) organization of images in mind, (2) assembly of neural surrogate of organism toward which images are oriented - serves homeostatic needs - perceives, protagonist = autobiographical self.

Images come in three forms: (1) internal structure and state, interoceptive, (2) other aspects of organism, body, proprioceptive, (3) external world, exteroceptive.

For Damasio, consciousness is the integration of self processes into an awake mind, a sense of ownership of the mind. Mind's contents are constructed in service of the mind's perspective - agency.

Consciousness takes three or four perspectives: (1) Introspection, (2) Behavior, (3) Brain Events, and sometimes a (4th) Evolutionary View.

All of this is very cool - and yet it fails to accommodate most of the socio-cultural elements on which both George Lakoff and Jerome Bruner place enormous importance. There is also the whole aspect of narrative selves (plural) - and which I will have more to say about in a later post (including a possible explanation in terms of body-centered metaphor).

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