MIND: Identity rides this horse (2)

The BodyMind

These days the mind is rarely considered in isolation from the body.  Even in science fiction, with mind transplants, uploads, and teleportation, they write about how mind and body are entwined, so that new minds adjust to bodies, or they miss the old bodies.  It’s also true that when people speak about the brain and the mind, it’s a shorthand because what matters is really the whole nervous system.  As time goes on, research has expanded the physical basis of the mind.  We now know that bacteria in your gut can do things like make you want to eat sugar, apparently by affecting the large part of the nervous system in the gut.

So, in Figure 1 we don’t hold body and mind that much apart.  The map has one big beehive shape, the BodyMind, that is their combination.  Its orange outline is more or less the border of the body.  The rest of the diagram is a square-topped shape representing the Outside World.

Within the BodyMind there is the Ego Tunnel, and inside it, all that we are aware of: what the philosophers call the contents of consciousness.  The rest of the BodyMind, outside of the Ego Tunnel, represents the unconscious mind, which is everything from: the sensory organs and their output, to our past stored as memories, and all the other work of the BodyMind of which we are not consciously aware.

mindmodelV02

Figure 1: Map of the Embedded Mind

The Ego Tunnel’s surface (the blue, wavy line) looks like a border between conscious and unconscious territory, but it’s not just a border.  The Ego Tunnel is also a computational process, our own personal virtual reality generator that consumes some huge fraction of the processing power of our nervous system.  Also, in our visual metaphor, the inside of the Ego Tunnel is part of it, the reason for its existence — the Jamesian Self.  We have talked about the function of its parts before.  Let’s now look into how they fit into the overall holon called the embedded mind.

Metaphors for Me*

Figure 1 shows the I* immersed in/surrounded by the yellow space of the Me*The I* can be focused on things outside of the Self, via the senses, and it can be focused on itself, the Me*.  Some information, such as raw bodily sensations, no doubt flows directly to the I* from the unconscious, but many things observed by the I* are mediated by the self model, the Me*. Anything we say about the Me* is of course just a metaphor.  The Me* is a thing unlike any other, so we struggle to classify or describe it.

The narrative metaphor discussed earlier is helpful, but it’s doubtful that we could push that any further and think of the Me* as a book, even a book that continues to write itself.  People just don’t keep their whole life available to re-examine at any time. At its most reduced the metaphor would be something like Dennett’s “center of narrative gravity.”  But Dennett is a contrarian.  This is just one of his ways of saying that consciousness doesn’t really exist as a thing, that there is nothing about it that we need to explain, that there’s no Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Another powerful metaphor for the Me* is that of a model or simulation, as proposed by Metzinger.  Either term has the sense of something that stands for something else by virtue of simplifying it.  Prior to the digital age, use of either “model” or “simulation” would have meant that the simplification was rather extreme.  Even a mathematical simulation would lack dynamism and detail.  These days, however, computation allows us to simulate something to an astonishing degree of likeness, and our thinkers routinely imagine simulations of alternate realities as being possible.  So a simulation implies the dynamism that is lacking in a narrative.

But wait a minute — if you simulate part of the Self, what is the thing being simulated?  It can’t be some Self that is more real.  Philosophy’s usual answer to that question is that the simulation is of “what it is like (remember Nagel’s conscious bat from the previous chapter?) to be you.”  This still sounds circular: the Self is a simulation of the Self?  That’s why it always seems so helpful to say that there is an I*, which at least gives us something that is aware of the simulation.

Further understanding the functioning of the Ego Tunnel needs to consider what is outside the Tunnel and how it gets into consciousness.  Let’s turn to what is outside the Ego Tunnel’s border, a border that is, according to Galen Strawson “both murky and porous.”  As our diagram shows, there are two realms outside the Ego Tunnel: the outside world and the internal, unconscious mind.

Perception and Sociality.

Figure 1 shows perceptual processing, largely automatic and unconscious, as the gateway through which the simulation of the outside world arrives into the Ego Tunnel.  As we have seen, crisp and live as that world seems, it is only a model, poor in detail, with invisible gaps.  I have been hearing that refrain since my college psych courses, but always I (actually, my Me*) thought, ‘So what, it works well enough and any goofs (illusions) that it makes are just curiosities.’  The reality behind this unreal simulation is something else, however.  First of all, quantum theory completely destroys the solidity of the outside world.  All those particles that make up our illusory environment are continually forking into different parts of the multiverse as their wave functions collapse.

Suppose you shrug off the idea of quantum theory as being reality’s clown suit, and assume that the body of reality somehow stands naked and exposed to us. There is still gobs of evidence that we see and hear and feel things that aren’t there, yet not some things that are there.  Our abilities are designed to maintain the illusion of a stable outside world, even though the raw data we start with represent only bits and pieces of that world.  We all know about the visual blind spot, but we never see it.  Our eyes continually make tiny movements, but we never are aware of it.  When we scan across a scene our minds fill in the gaps between the images seen at the beginning and end of a scan.  The fine detail of the world’s visual appearance is only there for focal vision.  Peripheral vision is an entirely different, lower resolution simulation, but we believe that it and the focal world are continuous, one and the same.  We finely discriminate colors when they are side by side, but can’t identify them later in a line-up.  The same color perception can be caused by different combinations of light wavelengths.

There is a theory, called critical realism, that evolution has forced us to evolve senses that accurately model the outside world, because how else would we find our food and mates, and escape danger.  This theory is being replaced by one based on a mathematical proof[1] that what matters is identifying something more quickly while expending less energy to do it.  That would mean that we would evolve perception that matches reality only if reality was already structured in a way that meets our needs.  Most of us do not think that the universe was designed in some way that favors human beings over trees or rocks.  Therefore it’s most likely that we are perceiving the world in our species’ own quirky ways.  This is nature’s way.  For my dog, half of the world is food and the rest is a parking lot.

The model in Figure 1 does suggest that, for our minds, other people are as important, or more so, than is the rest of the outside world. Like other social species, our senses are tuned to immediately pick out and identify our conspecifics from an early age.  When we are touched by another person it lights up a different part of the brain than other touches do.  Robin Dunbar, a primatologist, popularized the notion[2] that we have big brains because they are needed to deal with the complex soap opera called other people.  He also looked at neocortex size in primates and found that it correlated with the size of their social networks.  For humans the number is 150, which pops up all over the place, from hunter-gatherer clans to army companies, to the number of people with whom we can maintain personal relationships.  Dunbar and others then looked at levels of social intimacy and found that, starting with an inner clique of 5 best friends, the sizes of our expanding social circles increase by a factor of 3 as levels of intimacy decrease.  This is shown on our Map as concentric arcs in the social environment.

As a onetime primatologist, my heart is warmed by the fact that Dunbar (who did his thesis on the Gelada baboon at the same time that I was studying rhesus monkeys) using primate data, contributed perhaps the most widely known quantitative theory in all of social and psychological science.  But he went further than that, all the way out to philosophy, when incorporating the concept called Levels of Intentionality.  We know that a child first realizes at age 4 that other people have their own mental states.  We say that the child now has a Theory of Mind (ToM), meaning that the child believes that other people have mental states as well.

Philosophers such as John Searle say that some subjective (mental) states are directed to the outside world, creating a relationship between us and that world called intentionality.  There are levels of intentionality, denoted by how many such relationships hold simultaneously.  A child may have a theory of mind about her doll with whom she is having tea.  This is level two: she thinks (level one) that her doll likes (level two) tea .  Dunbar thinks that many animals have level one (they believe something, or intend something); some might have level two.  So how far can this levels business go?  Listen to Dunbar as he describes the magic of storytelling.  Count the italicized verbs to follow the levels.

  1. “… the audience must understand that Iago intends that Othello believes that his wife Desdemona wants to run off with Cassio (which would probably not be much more than idle fantasy by Desdemona were Iago not able to convince Othello that Cassio himself also wanted the same outcome) … if they also have to factor Cassio’s complicity into the equation to make the deception convincing for Othello, the audience has to be able to work at fifth order intentionality.  But to do this, Shakespeare himself must operate at one level higher: he must intend that the audience understands …etc.  Shakespeare was having to work comfortably at sixth order intentionality, and this is now one level beyond the normal limits for most adult humans. “

So now we know one more way in which Shakespeare was a brainiac.  Dunbar and others emphasize the cognitive processing power (hence bigger brains) that is needed for higher order intentionality. Hence bigger brains exist.  In primates, relative neocortex size correlates with social group size and other social behavior measures.   But is all that work being done consciously, i.e. by the Me*?  Perhaps not.  Metzinger and others have noted that many things we perceive about other people happen immediately, like other, seemingly simpler, perceptions that don’t require conscious thought.  The standard example of simple perception comes from philosophers, who nearly always cite seeing and touching a book in front of them. One can only wonder why they pick that example.  On the other hand your brain can heat to the smoke point when figuring out the maddeningly subtle and indirect intentionality of the characters in a John LeCarre’ novel.

So in our Map, “sensory processing” is part of the unconscious part of the mind.  We recognize birds, books, smiles and eye contact without thinking. Indeed it’s likely that all body language and other nonverbal communication is usually below the level of conscious notice entirely.  Higher level social impressions, such as any exchange involving conversation, require some conscious reflection to be understood.  Much to do with our personal identity involves higher order intentionality, as in the sociologist Charles H. Cooley’s concept of the Looking Glass Self.  There are 4 levels (just count the verbs) in his prototypical statement about social influence:

“I am what I think that you think I am.”  Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, 1902.


[1] Natural Selection and Veridical Perceptions. JT Mark, BB Marion, DD Hoffman. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2010.

[2] The Social Brain Hypothesis and its Relevance to Social Psychology. RIM Dunbar, Annals of Human Biology, 2009.

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