How does the mind work?

This article is a summary and a complement to the theory set out in detail in “Stratium” (published in french by editions L’Harmattan), and extended in “Diversium” (available in french and English on Lulu.com and Amazon).

One of the most remarkable qualities attributed to the human mind is look think itself, evaluate, and know if it is wrong. How does? Be wrong, compared to what references? Such an analysis is based on a remarkable scaffold of concepts nested to each other. They are not connected at random; how can all this acquire and maintain satisfactory stability, in the middle of the permanent influx of new situations to deal with, unknown phenomena, events inconsistent with the expectations?

The theory proposed in “Stratium” is simple: concepts are organized in successive layers of complexity, and each level performs with respect to the previous the same task as the conscious summit: it evaluates and fixes, based on its own criteria, crossing a threshold of additional globality. The addition of a large number of levels helps to understand how sensorimotor reflexes become a psychology. It helps to understand how the upper levels, connecting all of the neurological system to form what we call consciousness, acquire this feeling of freedom and control on the neurological pyramid underlying.

How does this organization, in practice, from one level to the other?

Without doubt, the most important to understand, is that each level is the owner of its rules. It is certainly subject to the constraints of the underlying floors (variable flow of information to treat) and overlying (retro-control) but has a relative independence. The consequence is that each level crossing results in a shift of paradigm. Each additional level « sees things in its own way ».

Let us explain from the bottom up: a signal comes from a nerve ending of the patellar tendon. Goes to the body of the sensory neuron, which transmits it to the different connected cells, including the motor neuron, and finally to a muscle fiber of the quadriceps, which raises its contraction: it is the very simple patellar reflex, well known to doctors. It seems independent of consciousness. However, if the person is in a state of muscle tension and stress, this reflex is impossible to search. It is therefore not closed circuit; it is influenced by a higher instance.

In detail the things are more complicated: this isn’t a neuron but a group of them triggering in a coordinated way their motor impulses. The fibers contract together because they produce the same function: tow in a specific axis, that of the muscular bundle. Other bundles will produce slightly different effects; they are controlled by neurons independent of the previous group. The two groups are coordinated closely. Because they provide close functions, it makes no sense that one contracted strongly and not the other. But differences in power they develop refine the overall function of the muscle made of these bundles. Slightly staggered insertions of the bundles on the bones allow movement in a range of possible axes and greatly increases their accuracy.

The two groups are coordinated by other neurons. Upper organization. The ‘vocabulary’ of organization becomes slightly different. Has been enriched with new words. Above ‘contraction’, we now have ‘contraction of Group 1 to 60% + contraction of Group 2 to 40% ‘, and many other variants. These new words are more complex than “contraction” and all include it. Their richness is proprietary of the level that uses, while based on the filiation of the “simpler”. The paradigm of any level used without its filiation is ‘independent’, which has two meanings: it defines a fragment of additional identity to the psyche ; but also: it is applicable only to the level where it was born. It has no power on the globality. Remain prisoner of an independent paradigm is the common fallacy called “belief”, including religious fanaticism as well as scientism.

Each successive neural organization plan enriches global language, until the oral language, reflection of the richness of paradigm occupying the consciousness, able to manipulate the underlying, but conflating them frequently. An example of current medical scientism is the claim to treat depression by a biological response (antidepressant) while the symptoms are especially part of the psychological paradigm, i.e. a complex organization overlying, long established, more or less adapted to its environment.

A self-organized system. But what initiates this organization? What pulse continue? This isn’t a soul, which one wonders with what tentacles it would tinker our biology. This isn’t quantum mechanics, that certainly plays a role in the life of the neuron to the molecular level, but cannot place them on a probability wave that would determine our personality. There are many intermediate levels between the material and the metaphysical. A simple and repetitive law must allow the spontaneous construction of additional levels. What is it?

We defined it in “Diversium” as the conflict of the unit and the collective. It is possible to follow from elementary particles to social strata. Let us concentrate on the form it takes in the neurological system:

We use to explain the construction of the psyche the image of two streams: one, intrinsic, is innate impulses, instincts, bodily needs. Another, extrinsic, is that of the environmental information from the senses. The border is not clearly defined: the senses convey the information in a way very owner, almost illusory sometimes. Emotions are both instinctive and mimicked from social environment. The difficulty of separating the two streams comes from the complexity of the mixture which is made by climbing the neural pyramid. However it is possible to find our fundamental principle: unity (the individual, personal destiny, the perpetuation of ‘I’, this body maintenance) versus the community (family, social conscience, the interest of our species, the environmental constraints…).

The work of organization of each level is to reconcile the two streams and the particular form that take their claims into the local paradigm.

Back to the neuroscientist observation: these two sreams do not correspond to separate nerve pathways. Certainly it is necessary to keep the classic evolutionary differentiation between the archaic brain and modern cortex: the first is more dedicated to the treatment of the instinctive stream and the second at the environmental flow. In reality it is the growth of the layering of the mind which makes them appear so. When the brain was reduced to its archaic part, it is this which also addressed the evaluations provided by the environment, using a conceptual grid much less elaborate than that of the cortex.

Any nerve centre receives and processes the two streams. We said, this is not a matter of independent nerve connections, but two phenomena in competition: the formation of the network programmed by the innate, and retro-control of the local organization by external information. We might think that this information fall into two categories: neutral data (for example a simple pressure on the skin) and judgments (a criticism or a congratulations). In fact almost all information contain these two facets, because they are editable by a reaction. The pressure on the skin is not neutral as a movement it increases or decreases it. Even the vision of an object as independent as a rock can have very different effects in our mind depending on how it fit, and connects to geological, aesthetic, biographical knowledge. The rock has not moved, its image yes. Its representation returns us an assessment more or less fair to our knowledge.

The root of individualism is thus how innate will tattoo the successive scaffolding of our levels of neural organization. Collectivism is the adaptation, on each level, of laws of local treatment, by environmental pressures, all sensory information together, intrinsic and extrinsic, depending on the strength of their connections with the level concerned.

The stability of the whole is based on two phenomena:

(1) The delay between information processing and feedback. On an important succession of levels, this time becomes so important that physical action started before the conscious evaluation is formed. A reflex with proven efficacy can still be exercised regardless of the ‘idea’ that we have of it. Only repeated failures will do it reform.

(2) The reaction of neurons remains identical in a range of stability, even when the information to be treated is slightly different. Continuous variations are transformed into discontinuous response thresholds. Quantification allows the formation of micro-conceptual marks, a categorization.

The mental system can ultimately be seen as a permanent conflict between, on the one hand, the stability of the existing (innate, individualistic), and irreconcilable events from the environment (materiality, society, collectivism), each trying to impose on the other. Each conflict “resolved” strengthens the position individualistic or collectivist, according to the solution found.

At conscious level we say for example that the result of a social event encourages the egocentric or communitarian personality aspect. But well before that, the process has concerned all psychic construction, level by level. It is responsible for the very structure of our “character”. In fact it is miracle that these characters resemble and still communicate, after so many ranges of alternatives crossed. It must be the narrowness of our social connections that permit this.