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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Seven Levels of Mentality, and Why Brains Can't Explain the Last One

Can we account for all of man's mental activities by assuming that they can all be explained by the brain? When considering this question, it may make sense to distinguish between different levels of human mentality, with each level being more more difficult to explain than the previous level. For it might be that our brains are sufficient to explain one level, but insufficient to explain a more advanced level.

Below are seven levels of mentality we can distinguish.

Level 1: Let us imagine a very young baby lying in a crib near a window. A red bird flies and lands on the windowsill. The baby looks out at the bird, and perceives the bird's color. But there is no recognition, and the baby feels neither fear nor wonder at the sight of the bird. There is no thought or emotion, but merely sensory perception.


Level 2: Let us imagine the same event happens. The baby is lying in its crib, and a a red bird flies and lands on the windowsill near the crib. But let us suppose the baby is a little older, and now something a little more advanced happens. The baby feels an emotion of wonder or delight. But there is still no recognition, and no memory is involved.

Level 3: Let us imagine the same event happens. The baby is lying in its crib, and a a red bird flies and lands on the windowsill near the crib. Let us imagine this baby is now almost a toddler. The baby feels an emotion of delight or wonder at seeing the bird, but now some memory is involved. Without thinking any words, the child has a vague feeling of recollection, the feeling that he has seen such a bird before.

Level 4: Now let us imagine the child can walk, and he sees the red bird out in his back yard. When he sees the red bird, not only is there a feeling of delight, and a recollection, but also a use of language. Now the child points to the bird, and says, “I see birdy.”

Level 5: Now let us imagine the child is seven years old. Now he sees the red bird in his backyard, and the sight produces not just emotion and language, but also abstract thinking. The child makes an observation, “Wow, that sure is a beautiful bird,” or perhaps asks a simple question such as “I wonder whether birds like that get tired when they fly.”

Level 6: Now let us imagine the child is now thirteen years old, and is old enough to engage in philosophical thinking. So when he sees the red bird, he asks an advanced question such as “I wonder how it is that birds or any other species ever started to exist,” or “Is it morally right for us humans to be putting birds in cages?”

Level 7: Now let us imagine the person is no longer a child, but is now sixty years old. He can write in depth about many advanced philosophical questions; he can feel many refined emotions; and he is quite capable of writing an entire book about birds. Moreover, he can instantly recall memories that happened five decades ago. So perhaps he remembers the day 50 years ago when he first saw a beautiful red bird in his backyard.

Now, which one of these levels can we explain by assuming brain activity? Some philosophers would deny that even Level 1 can be explained by brain activity. As rudimentary as Level 1 is, it is still an example of Mind, and some philosophers say that we cannot explain how Mind can arise from mere matter. But perhaps they are wrong, and perhaps we can explain Level 1 by assuming that it involves merely sensory perception, which parts of the brain might explain. Conceivably we also might explain Level 2 also by imagining that some kind of hormone or chemical produces a feeling of wonder or delight.

But we cannot explain Level 7 through brain processes. For we cannot explain any way in which the brain could store memories for decades; we cannot explain how brains could instantly recall distant memories; and we cannot explain how a brain could generate abstract thoughts.

Consider the storage of memories. It has been proven through the work of scientists such as Bahrick that humans can store memories fairly reliably for more than 50 years. In order for you to have a workable theory for how brains can be storing memories, a neuroscientist would need to plausibly explain how human memories could be stored in a brain for 50 years. No scientist has done any such thing.

The main theory for how the brain stores memories is the idea that our synapses store memories. But there is a reason why this theory does not work. As discussed here, synapses are subject to very strong molecular turnover and structural turnover which should prevent them from storing memories for longer than a year. The proteins in synapses have an average lifetime of only about a week.  As a scientific paper puts it, "Thus, the constituent molecules that subserve the maintenance of a memory will have completely turned over, i.e. have been broken down and resynthesized, over the course of about 1 week."

Not only do neuroscientists fail at explaining how very long-term memories can be stored in the brain; they also fail to explain human memory retrieval. The two main problems in explaining human memory retrieval are these: (1) the problem of explaining how a human being could find the exact location where a memory might be stored in the brain; (2) the problem of explaining how we are able to recall obscure and old memories with such blazing speed.

If human beings took 30 minutes to retrieve a memory, the difficulty would not be so great. We might imagine that a brain simply scans all of our memories, looking for the right one, like a person flipping through the pages of a book looking for a topic. But given the instantaneous memory recall of distant, trivial memories shown on TV shows such as Jeopardy, it is obviously not true that you read through all your memories until you find something.

How are computers able to retrieve information so quickly? Through indexing, which requires sorting. But there is zero evidence that the brain does any type of physical sort or physical indexing. The brain does not have the type of architecture to support physical sorting or indexing. So our memories cannot be indexed in the way that computer information is indexed.

In short, there is no viable explanation as to how a brain could be able to find so quickly a spot in the brain where a memory was stored. Nor does it work to claim that memories are stored everywhere in the brain. The idea that every memory is stored everywhere in the brain is nonsensical.

Although neuroscientists are very bad at explaining how a brain could store or instantly retrieve memories lasting for decades, neuroscientists are even worse at explaining how brains could possibly be generating ideas and abstract thought.

If you go to this page on the “Expert answers” site quora.com, you will be treated to some answers illustrating the utter failure of modern neuroscience on how a brain could possibly generate new ideas. The page gives some answers to the question, “How does our brain form new ideas?”

The first answer by Tanush Jagdish begins by saying, “We don't know,” but then suggests “synaptogenesis,” the creation of new synapses. This is not a plausible idea. Some text such as “tall blue cold triangle” can instantly create an idea in your head that you have never had before, and you certainly did not have to wait for new synapses in your brain to form before you had such an idea.

The second answer by Jeff Nosanov is a circuitous answer that explains nothing, while claiming incorrectly that “ideas cannot be made to happen.” Nosanov ends by saying “that was not a physiological explanation.”  Then the page has some answers by non-scientists which are not illuminating.

A similar page on the “Ask science” sub-reddit at www.reddit.com offers equally little illumination. A Google search for “how the brain generates ideas” will result in a vast wasteland of results failing to offer a single neuroscience study offering any real illumination on this topic. One of the items you will get is a Harvard news story with the title “How the brain builds new thoughts.” But the story is discussing some research that does nothing to explain such a thing – just another one of those oh-so-dubious brain scanning studies in which some scientists scan brains and find trivial differences in blood flow (see here on why such studies are typically of little value).

Essentially the only idea that neuroscientists have to explain a brain creating ideas is some idea of combination, kind of the idea that you create a complex idea by combining simpler ideas. This does not explain the miracle of abstract thought. Let us imagine a savage who experiences 100 cold days, and who then reaches the abstract concept of coldness. This idea is not reached from any type of combination – it is reached by abstraction. Similarly, a person who sees 100 other humans may reach the abstract idea of a human being. But that idea is not reached by combination.

Computers offer not the slightest clue as to how abstract thinking can occur, because no computer has ever had a concept, an idea, or an abstract thought, something that requires a conscious mind. Don't be fooled by the type of computer program called an idea generator. Such programs are typically just programs for combining words into novel combinations. Until a human reads the output of such a program, an idea is not actually created. 

In short, there is no plausible brain explanation for how humans could be storing memories for 50 years; there is no  plausible brain explanation for how humans can instantly retrieve distant memories; and there is no plausible brain explanation for how humans can even create abstract ideas.  See here and here for additional support for these claims. It is sometimes argued that we need to postulate something like a human soul or spirit (something beyond the brain) to account for paranormal phenomena such as ESP and near-death experiences.  It may also be argued very forcibly that we need to postulate something like a human soul or spirit to account for certain types of normal mental functioning that we observe every day. 

Postscript: Just after finishing this post, I read this new scientific article, which quotes a neuroscientist speculating about memory storage. The article says:

Neuroscience has also been struggling to find where the brain stores its memories. “They may be ‘hiding’ in high-dimensional cavities,” Markram speculates. 

High-dimensional cavities? Cavities are holes, not information storage media.  I think the quote bolsters my claim that scientists do not have any plausible explanation of how brains can be storing memories for 50 years.

Post-postscript: Reporting something similar to what was reported by the physician John Lorber, a professor of neurological surgery recently made an observation about some of his patients: 

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English. 

Cases such as these seem incompatible with the idea that you brain is the sole source of your mind, but are quite compatible with the idea that your soul is a large source of your mental functioning.