Is the mind a neurobiological process?

The most elementary sense of the connection between mind and brain goes as far back as the times when holes were drilled in the brain to release evil spirits, treat epilepsy, induce hallucinations, treat headaches and fractures of the skull. Today the connection between mental functions and the biological brain with its electro-chemical constituents and mechanisms is viewed as an indisputable fact. Of course the debate whether mind and brain are the same or two different substances, and related questions of how they connect, interact and influence each other is still far from settled. The mind-body or more recently mind-brain problem, is still an intellectually challenging area for both scientists and philosophers. 

The two main frameworks of thought within which this problem is debated are monism and dualism but today we have innumerable variations and versions (including their extremes like subjective Idealism and reductive Physicalism) of these which have been exploring the length, breadth and depth of this connection and its problems, so to speak. We would like to refrain from subscribing to any of these frameworks as our starting point. Although we are aware that our propositions will be viewed through the lenses of these frameworks but the steps we have taken in our inquiry do not emanate from any a priori preference or rejection of these frames. We have only tried to follow the logic of the relationship and connection between the brain and mind, and discern the nature and substance of the mind from known knowledge and our own intellectual observations and reasoning. And that too keeping in view our objective which is neither mere intellectual curiosity nor addressing mental disorders or malfunctioning through brain manipulation but enabling the mind to undertake its own evolution (restructuring/engineering of the existing mental complex) at an intelligent level.   

 

The rationale for viewing mental processes beyond the brain process

Our inquiry into the mind and the brain has brought us to the following conclusions. All our thoughts, feelings, ideas and other emotional and intellectual processes are not supernatural and have an objective existence. Which means they would be existing in terms of some energy form/process arising out of the brain but not reducible to the brain. Their constituents would not be any of the existing forms of matter (atomic or molecular) and energy (electromagnetic) in the brain but a variety of energy forms not yet within the grasp of our experimental and theoretical (constructed for experiments) frameworks. Logically if ‘mental images’ (as referred to in Scientific literature on mind and consciousness) or what we would like to call the purely mental processes i.e. intellectual and emotional processes were existing in terms of known matter and energy forms in the brain then discourse on the nature of mind would be history.  Let us explore the possible reasons for the above proposition. To begin with, for us the vast quantities of data and information received and processed by the innumerable mental functions/processes on a continuous basis seems incongruous with the known quantities  and working mechanics of electrical, electromagnetic and chemical energy in the brain. If the mind was working in terms of these energies, it would need enormous quantities of them, requiring a separate and quite a large source, in order to carry out the unending and diverse kinds and levels of mental processing. Logically therefore the mind cannot be operating in these terms. It would need to operate in some lighter or more appropriately massless forms of energy. 

A further explanation of the above reason can be derived from looking at the history of computation or computing technology for information processing. We have seen how in search of more computational power to store both more data and programs for data processing, and to process increasing volumes of information, we have been changing the forms of switching. We have been going for smaller switches, which are faster, more efficient in processing, use less energy, produce less heat and occupy less space. The journey from electromechanical switches in early room size computers to purely electrical switches in mini-laptops and smart phones and the drive towards further miniaturization, which led to work on photonic, magnetic bubble and more recently carbon nanotube switches built into increasingly smaller chips is well known and clear evidence of this. 

If we transpose this experience with computing technology on to the already existing computer in the brain, i.e. the human mind and the amount of computation work it has to undertake, then logically the form in which its 0s and 1s are being generated and handled has to be of an order which corresponds to the energy and space constraints in the brain. It has to have the most economical way of manipulating its 0s and 1s (switches) to perform its innumerable tasks. We know that electron based computation requires heat dissipation systems like heat sinks, liquid helium and other ventilation systems which are not available in the brain although blood circulation going to the brain does serve some purpose in this regard. So if our thinking, feeling, memory and all other mental processing was happening in terms of heavier energy forms/particles then our brain would have burned out and reduced to ashes. But we find very limited and small quantities of heat being generated. From this we can infer that our mental processing and its products would logically be operating in terms of these massless or more precisely massless magnetic energy forms. 

Our proposition of a post-neural and post-biological phenomenon emerging out of the existing neurobiological mechanisms of the brain is not about a process which has no precedent in Nature. There are many processes in Nature wherein out of one phenomenon a new phenomenon with a different energy basis emerges. To take a simple example, light emerges out of heat. And we also know that emitted photons in that light can be harnessed to produce a laser, which can then be put to many different uses. A similar process might already be happening in the brain. Where the neurobiological process might be harnessing massless magnetic energy forms and then organizing them into functional structures, which we call our mental processes/functions. Another reason to support our suggestion of a post-biological mental process concerns the nature of the biological molecules themselves, which are the basic constituents of neurons and their electrochemical functions. The biological molecules, which are the starting point of neurons, are reactive and not self-activating substances. They require some inputs, stimulus or external energy source for their activation as they do not have a self-contained process of activation. That is why energy forms which activate neurons come from outside of them and there is no suggestion that the nucleus of neurons generates that source of activation. This source can be both external or internal (from some other part of it) to the biological unit. For example, the neurons can get activated from external energy sources like photons, sonic energy, pheromones, etc. as well as nerve endings in the stomach. To them stomach nerve endings are as much external as the photons. The problem with biological molecules and their products like neurons is that once they become a composite form they acquire a  balance which can only be altered from some external stimulus or in other words an appropriate (in accordance with their logic) energy input from outside. That is why we are calling them reactive and not self-activating. 

Coming to mental processes, from what we know about them so far, they begin after sensory perception and not with energy input coming from outside the neurons and the reactions generated within them. The first mental process begins with the interpretation of sensory data received in the form of energy input from some external source. Here we would like to make the distinction between reacting and interpreting. Interpreting is putting a value on something while reacting is merely a reaction of a thing to some stimulus in accordance with its own structure. There is also a very important difference in the consequences arising from both these processes. A reaction changes the existing balance of a form or in other words its structure but interpretation does not lead to such a change. For instance, we know the changes that arise in the structure of neuronal molecules after they get stimulated from and react to some energy input but the process of interpretation does not lead to such a structural change in these molecules. It is not a mechanical function. Interpretation as a mental function is a completely new kind of process. Before its emergence we only have reactive processes in Nature, which produce mechanical responses without any interpretation. While the process of interpretation is an elaborate one, having not only multiple levels, steps and requirements, existing even in molecule based structures/forms, but most importantly the reference point of these steps is a subjective need, which is not rigidly fixed. Any interpretation of inputs or signals from outside cannot be done without a scale or reference because interpretation is not only of some positive or negative factor but also its quantity, dimension, etc., which are correlated with the subjective need that varies from specimen to specimen and also depends on many other factors (internal and external). To take an example. The subjective need for food in every animal is different along with the quantities of food intake. For this purpose, the animal takes multiple inputs and then correlates and compares them at multiple levels. Now that is not a reactive process but an interpretative process. When these interpretations reach a sufficient level of accumulation, a problem solving process follows, which could either involve choosing from existing solutions or discovering a new solution not yet known. This kind of problem solving which involves discoveries is certainly not a reactive function but a creative capability, a very complex form of interpretation. It involves multiple interpretations and many steps requiring a lot of back and forth. That is why it is undertaken in a piece meal manner and many functions have to be repeated. 

 

In the light of the above, existing reigning assumptions of disciplines like Neuroscience, Neurobiology, Brain Sciences, etc., which propose that mind is a biological process operating in terms of neuronal constituents do not seem plausible. The reactive molecular and electrochemical processes of neurons cannot logically perform the complex interpretative mental functions. They can and probably produce a post-biological phenomenon which then performs these mental functions. It is possible that they are harnessing the massless magnetic energy forms existing in Nature and integrating and organizing them into a specific architecture (what we are calling mental), which also has a life of its own, in addition to the biological process. Actually this architecture would not have one fixed structure but many possible structures. It can create stable mental processes which have an autonomous existence of their own and also those mental processes which are partly dependent and partly autonomous of their connection with neurons. Both these possibilities would pertain to all our different mental functions and processes. 

For us therefore the problem of the nature and substance of mental processes is no longer a difficult and irresolvable issue.  Especially in the light of the above reasons informed by the rich experience and theoretical and practical knowledge we have already acquired of computational processes in computers and Artificial Intelligence, particularly the work on intelligent robots which can modify their circuits themselves. In this context we can work our way backwards and see how the mind would be working as a computational system, which is not a reactive but an interpretative one, and is probably existing and functioning in terms of different energy forms. Of course we do acknowledge here the gap in our understanding and knowledge of how exactly the computational process of the mind is produced in the brain; the generation of its building blocks and how they get organized into a system, although we will be sharing some possible mechanics of this process in the next pieces of writing. 

The current problem of understanding the mind is that we cannot know or understand its process in a laboratory as it is not a chemical process which can be analyzed and experimented upon through known laboratory tools. Thus here we need to do what man has been doing when he confronted a phenomenon which he could not understand through known means and methods. That is, he would try to gather and accumulate observations about the behavior of that phenomenon arising out of experiments conducted outside the laboratory. Then he would keep drawing inferences from those observations and then scrutinize and monitor this entire process and continue to draw inferences. Currently this is how we can learn and know the computational system of our minds.

 

The need for seeing the mind as a post-biological process which can be inquired into, understood and intelligently engineered; implications of this approach. For us at present the most important reason for knowing how our existing minds are working is the clear experience and observation of the unending and new forms of problems they are creating for man which are a threat to the whole of his life (emotional and physical). These problems cannot be solved in the face of the existing level of our ignorance about our minds. Thus if modern man experiences and recognizes that he has a serious and acute problem with the way his mind is functioning at present then he will not wait for scientists to discover some verifiable knowledge and connected technologies to address these problems. He will himself start the process of inquiry with internal (mental) means and resources. If on the other hand he does not see and experience a problem and his attitude towards his mental functioning is similar to what he has towards headache pills then what we propose is of no use to him.  

 

The advantage of the above line of thinking about the mind beyond the neurobiological approach is that we will then have a designer and creative engineer’s approach towards understanding and changing our minds. We will not then be looking for drugs, or other chemical and electrical processes to alter mental functioning but for inputs arising out of the mind itself which can then interact with other mental processes in an interpretative and designer way and not inertly to produce reactions at the biological level. This will be intelligent mental engineering. When we are able to intelligently generate new specific mental processes and make them react with other mental processes (in a particular layer of the mind) in a designed way then we are moving onto the plane of serious mental engineering and not just mental manipulation and fixing through electrochemical means. But this process is only possible once we are able to clear the table of the existing dominant and operative paradigm equating mental processes with neuronal processes. Until we start approaching and working with our mental processes as a separate phenomenon we cannot discover new modes of changing it. So we need to shift our attention from an existing semi-relevant area (of neuronal functioning) towards the area where the real action is, i.e. the post-biological mental complex. 

Adopting this new approach will have two implications. One, we can focus not only on mental engineering to change our mental states and processes via intelligent interactions between different mental formations but also gradually develop a holistic understanding of them in all their layers, interconnections and interactions. This will then enable us to intelligently work out our rational priorities, which will in turn have far reaching positive mental effects, and make us healthy and happy. The other important implication will be that it will free us from thinking about ourselves the way we do at present, which is going nowhere in terms of creating any lasting or stable solutions but only producing more and new types of problems (primarily internal) and consequent anarchy and disintegration. That is the hitherto record of our existing approach towards the mind in which we have been looking at it as a project about what changes we can bring in the outside world to solve our problems. We are proposing that this approach is mistaken. We are not saying it is totally incorrect because we know that external inputs can and do affect us but on their own they cannot be the solution. They can only be useful if they are an adjunct to the basic solution we find internally from our mental engineering and designer approach. If we use an outward looking approach and rely on it solely for solving our problems then this will only create more and irresolvable problems and there will be no long-term solutions. This latter implication is very important because it takes us away from a mistaken view, which in reality only opens the doors to the weakest parts of our mental processes i.e. greed, ego, personality, self-centeredness, etc. Thus we are proposing that this is a healthier approach which can enable us to construct and use the best parts of our minds and for the purpose of seriously upgrading our internal and external existence as individuals, a collective and as a species in Nature.       

 

Notes

i. According to some accounts the practice of Trepanation or drilling of skulls goes as far back as 10000 BC. (DeMello, 2007, Retrieved from: http://books.google.com.pk/books?id=s0122BsqrZwC&pg=PA286&dq=trepanation+DeMello&hl=en&sa=X&ei=DlarUrSCJuHSywOL64GgAw&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=trepanation%20DeMello&f=false)  

 

ii. The commonsense reason being that mind we view as ideas, feelings, thoughts, perceptions, etc., which are not materially tangible while the body/brain are tangible material processes such as molecules, cell, chemicals, etc. 

 

iii. To get a basic gist of the problem and the main approaches of addressing it see the following link: (Taylor, 2010, Retrieved from: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Mind-body_problem:_New_approaches)  

iv. If they were existing in some matter form then chemists and biologists would have known and mind as an atomic or molecular process would have been verified and established.

v. We acknowledge and will be elaborating the role of brain processes in the mechanics of their generation but here we are referring to those processes which cannot be reduced to and explained just in terms of the working of the brain. 

vi. These include our ideas, feelings, motivations, sensitivities, memories, etc.

vii. We know that it is very much a live issue because we observe continuous supplementation, revision and modification of old theories (scientific and philosophical) and new ones coming up. And the contentions between them show no signs of abating. Presently, the balance between disputes on the one hand and resolutions or consensus on the other still tilts in favor of the former. 

viii. According to Davis (1999, p. 37) “…The brain’s electrical impulses amount to about 100 microvolts, or .0001 volt. The typical American home has a 120-volt electrical system—more than a million times as much voltage as the brain’s electrical impulses.”   

ix.. The existing quantities of electrical currents generated in cell walls of neurons and existing internal electromagnetic fields produced by neurons would be inadequate for this task. 

x. We are not implying here that mind is a rigid mechanical system like an electronic computer but a computational system based on input, processing and output which has its own 0s and 1s. This was to clarify to the reader what we mean by the mind as a computer or a computational system or process.  

xi.In terms of data and program storage and then processing and execution. 

xii. The mechanics of this process will be discussed in the next pieces of writing.

xiii. That is why apart from sensory neurons, which get activated by the five sensory organs, we have motor neurons and interneurons which get activated from internal energy signals from other parts of the brain and body. 

xiv. For instance, the functioning of a biological organ can involve some steps and stages but they are mechanical and largely inflexible and in accordance with its specific properties. 

xv. We do not view it like the ‘hard problem’ of qualia, so to speak. For us the basic approach towards an inquiry into the mind is the issue at stake and not some mental process which cannot yet be explained in known physical terms like our feelings. If we raise the issue of feelings to reinforce or support our basic underlying position that mind cannot be known and understood in some objective terms and has to be viewed as some ethereal entity existing without any energy basis then in reality we are only warding off any inquiry into the mind because we think it would be futile. Since we cannot know it so we cannot do anything about it hence we should keep on proceeding towards anarchy in our feelings and emotions and their relationship with other parts of our minds and also outside of us. And continue to temporarily address, fix and manage our problems. On the other hand, if we genuinely raise the issue of feelings because we see it as a problem which critically requires an understanding of the mind then it is a valid question which needs to be pursued irrespective of whether we have the scientific tools to grasp it or not. Because then we have a genuine need to understand the mind and feelings as our feelings are becoming more and more conflicting within us and also in our interactions with others. Then this issue of feelings no longer remains an insurmountable obstacle or a matter of mere curiosity or some academic pursuit for some specific personal agenda. Then we can objectively and with the best of our reasoning go into the area of feelings.

xvi. If we take a computer and add to it a kind of perceptual computational circuit along with a reactive system then we get an intelligent robot which has an in-built system of correcting and changing its own computational system. 

xvii. At present we have a very nascent understanding of massless energy forms and that too largely confined to what we have discovered through particle accelerators and through our theoretical cum mathematical models. So we do not have a very developed grasp of their mechanics and in how many ways and at what levels they can get organized into some stable structures which can perform other functions. We have been trying to harness some massless energy forms like photons but our experience is largely confined to working with heavier energy forms. Which means since our knowledge is limited so we cannot rule out the harnessing of massless energy forms into stable and functioning structures in the brain. We know how chemical processes produce electric current but maybe there is a further layer beyond the electrical level where these massless energy forms are also being harnessed. 

xviii. Where he keeps waiting for scientists to come up with better pills and other such means for addressing his problems. 

xix. It is relevant to the extent to which it can address that half of mental disorders and functioning/behavior which is connected with and dependent on neuronal activity. But that is not the whole story. So we must not confine ourselves to this area only. The complexity and nature of human mental problems today cannot be addressed in this framework.