I dwell in Possibility– – Emily Dickinson
Why learn about the world with no immediate practical application?
Knowing how to bake bread or bake beans is clearly useful and there’s no question of practicality. Science, even at its most exploratory, seems useful as long as it promises more powerful manipulation of nature. Sometimes the possibility of science is obvious, as in understanding the role of an enzyme in energy metabolism to affect cellular function. Even when the connection is unclear, learning more seems to have potential value even if the present result is impractical. All information has value and there are no dead ends, only detours. Learning broadly is often necessary preparation for learning more narrowly and usefully
Is philosophy of mind of any use? Is it as useful as neuroscience itself? Might thinking about the nature of the mind at least contribute to the usefulness of information about brain structure and function? Why explore the relationship between mind and brain? Why worry about the apparent contradictions between deterministic physical models and subjective free will?
If I can’t tell whether the world is real or an illusion, does it matter? Is the mind made of ectoplasm attached to the brain by a neural-spiritual interface? These questions have been around for centuries. Every year we learn more about the brain. Do we know any more about the mind? Is what we’ve learned potentially useful?
I’d like to convince you that understanding how mind is generated from brain is a useful way to improve brain function. For me, this is a fundamental reason why brain science is important. Learning about the brain should be a path to deciding better.
Learning From Experience, Teaching the Brain
In the *Consolations of Philosophy“, Alain DeBotton writes, ”In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer’s words, to turn pain into knowledge." We know what art is and we know that art helps us learn to see. Philosophy, in the broadest meaning of love of knowledge is a similar direct path from experience to knowledge.
Ignoring the question and pretending that knowledge and brain are independent domains is to miss an opportunity to understand what it means to “know” and therefore try to improve the everyday use of knowledge.
So what have you learned personally from your years of mental experience? TYou’ve made good, profitable decisions about the world. You’ve made mistakes of course. Better yet, how often have you thought that you were right, absolutely sure you were right, and later learned that the true state of the world was not at all what you thought?
The stock market serves as a wonderful lab for training the mind to decide better if approached mindfully. There’s profit in correctly identifying an undervalued stock that subsequently rises in value. On the other hand, buying into hype and choosing a company close to failure is exactly the kind of pain that Schopenhauer was referring to as leading to knowledge. What is it that has improved from years of experience in the market that we call “knowledge”? Is it mind that has better judgement now? Is it the brain that can now choose more accurately under conditions of uncertainty?
The Brain Makes Maps
We are beginning, just beginning I think, to understand how knowledge is stored and retrieved in the brain. The insights go back to the beginnings of brain physiology, when recordings of single neurons in awake, behaving animals began to be possible. It was obvious from the start that you and I don’t perceive the world directly and whole, but broken down into very small elements. Our retinas are the light sensing neural arrays at the back of the eye. Like the individual pixels that make up the sensor array in a camera, each photoreceptor senses the light from a small part of the visual scene. The whole picture is represented, but its been deconstructed into a mosaic in which each element has been disconnected from every other element.
Somehow that array of light intensity is reconstructed into a sensory impression that we experience subjectively as seeing the world. What’s reconstructed is more than just a visual sensory impression, the seen world has meaning. Its as if there are little call outs from the objects- blue book, time, moving fly making that buzzing noise, so annoying …
The way in which sensory input is organized into coherent perception remains one of the fundamental questions in neuroscience. In the visual system, the brain starts abstracting local features like color form and edges from the map of intensities sensed at the eye. These features are mapped from visual space into brain maps, creating a neural representation of features in the scene. At higher levels, features become maps of objects with meaning like books and flies. The maps of words for these objects are separate, but can be called on when the fly or the book needs to be mentioned.
The brain is a set of maps, spatially orgainized, each representing different sensory streams or, on the action side, control of different parts of the bodies and movement of them through space. To catch a fly requires the map of visual space containing the fly to be registered with the map of arm and hand movement. The connections and coordinating systems to do all of that are known. In fact, simpler versions of them can be studied in frogs who need project a sticky tongue out into visual space for fly catching activities. Lunch in this case.
It’s a small conceptual step to suggest that valuation of stock, reading another person’s motivation, and understanding calculus are all brain maps of various types. They are simplified representations that model aspects of the real world. The maps are not strictly spatial, but reflect our models of how the physical world is laid out and how it can be manipulated. As simple models, they are not perfectly accurate just as a geographical map is not the terrain itself but rather a useful representation for navigation.
The Mind Mapped
Learning is the act of making better brain maps. The more accurate the model of the world is in the brain, the better it will navigate the world itself. Misconceptions, inaccuracies and the unknown are all bad or missing parts of the map that will make decisions more prone to error. A fully accurate and comprehensive map isn’t ever possible. By their very nature, maps are restricted representations of the world. The world itself is too big and complex to deal with directly.
The exploration of the relationship between mind and brain is for me an effort to create a more accurate map of deciding. We feel like we are creatures split in two. Our ethereal minds seem to inhabit and be constrained by physical bodies. A more accurate map would show just the brain working away and our subjective mental experience as a view into what that brain is doing. It becomes easier to discard distinctions like “rational decision making” and “intuition” when the underlying brain structure and function is the map of mind.