History of the quest


The time has come to put forward the ideas that I (tentatively) favour. Tentativeness is important for me in the current state of knowledge. We cannot say, with any sort of completeness, what the cells in the brain actually do, especially the glia cells – maybe something to do with calcium movements and voltages that are not action potentials. Our picture of synapses is also somewhat foggy, especially the mechanics of how the number and strength of synapses changes as the brain forms memories and learns. The connections of neurons has only started being mapped. Some of the main highways are known but not the details. And so it goes. A wholly new aspect of the brain could appear out of left field any day and change the understanding of the brain overnight. So I must be tentative. Nevertheless it is constructive to speculate, and fun as long as it is not taken too seriously. In the next post, I will speculate, but first I give some history.

Every once in a while, we can experience a culture shock within our own culture. We find that some idea that we took to be a vague and sloppy metaphor, is a literal truth to many others. In my late teens (in the 1950s) I took a psychology course in high school. The material was not always believable but like a good student I learned it and gave it back in exams. That did not mean I had to accept it. Being a good student, I usually accepted what I was taught. However, I just could not believe 1950’s psychology. I became aware that the other students had no trouble accepting the material. It fit with their world. That was a culture shock. Shortly after this I first heard about dyslexia and realized that it explained my reading and writing difficulties. I made the assumption that the reason I had no feeling of comfort with Freud’s ideas was because I was ‘made differently’. The thing that was most unbelievable was that there was a ‘conscious mind’ and a separate ‘unconscious mind’ or ‘subconscious mind’. It was inconceivable to me that I had two separate minds. I had one and what was more, if I had to choose between a conscious or an unconscious mind then I would have to choose unconscious. This attitude on my part was because I thought of mind as the thing that thinks. As there was no trace of any mechanisms of thought in my consciousness, my thinking must happen elsewhere. I could not feel any metaphorical gears or levers or other mechanisms doing any thinking work in my consciousness, the only conscious awareness was of the finished final products. Pop, there’s another thought, nicely related to the last one. Even some puzzles done in a fixed stepwise fashion had no feeling of ‘how’ each step was accomplished. I had consciousness and I had a mind but not a conscious mind.

I became less sure that I was made so differently from everyone else when I questioned them and found that others did not see anything odd about what I said or did. They also could not describe any conscious thought processes either but just finished thoughts. I might be made different in terms of dyslexia but probably not in terms of conscious experience.

Sometime, about 40 years ago, in the 1970s, I sat on the top step of the stairs and tried to figure out how I knew when I was conscious. I realized that the answer was memory. If I could remember being conscious, I believed I was conscious at that time. If there was a gap in my memory, I believed I had been unconscious during that gap. If I was conscious, I had a memory and if I had a memory, I had been conscious. Introspection did not show me consciousness, memory of introspection did. I formed the tentative belief that consciousness was like the leading edge of memory and not really separate from memory. This is not particularly helpful because memory is almost as mysterious as consciousness, maybe more.

I took ‘Biological Basis of Behavior’ from the Open University and began reading papers and books on the subject of consciousness.

About 30 years ago, in the 1980s, I had an argument with a friend about whether it would be possible to draw a one-to-one mapping between a biological account of the brain, a psychological account of behavior, and a philosophical account of the mind. I thought that if you had the right three accounts, they would fit together and I tried to produce such a mapping. It had a lot of holes but I felt it showed that the enterprise would someday be possible. I have re-read it a couple of times since I wrote it and noted where more reading or thinking was required. The mapping is a sort of on-going project.

What started me creating this blog was the explosion in material on functioning of the brain. I thought of my friends who were not aware that a revolution as big as the Copernican revolution, or the Darwinian one or the quantum mechanical one, was just about to happen in neuroscience. It was going to be hard for people to change the way they thought about their minds. I could try to give them (and me) a head start in little incremental posts. I was already following the science and therefore just needed to write the posts.

The next post will be on my tentative model and then a summary of the first 100 posts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *