Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Making up the mind" by Chris Frith

Quotation from

This is another excellent book written by an eminent scientist for the general reader. The purpose of the book is clearly stated.

In this book I shall show that this distinction between the mental and the physical is false. It is an illusion created by the brain. Everything we know, whether it is about the physical or the mental world, comes to us through our brain. But our brain's connection with the physical world of objects is no more direct than our brain's connection with the mental world of ideas. By hiding from us all the unconscious inferences that it makes, our brain creates the illusion that we have direct contact with objects in the physical world. And at the same time our brain creates the illusion that our own mental world is isolated and private. Through these two illusions we experience ourselves as agents, acting independently upon the world. But, at the same time, we can share our experiences of the world. Over the millennia this ability to share experience has created human culture that has, in its turn, modified the functioning of the human brain.
By seeing through these illusions created by our brain, we can begin to develop a science that explains how the brain creates the mind. (p. 17)

Take the blind spot in the eye, the saccade in the eye movement or the range of electromagnetic spectrum for the human eye. Or why do we not feel we're moving every time we turn our face, just as we feel we are moving when we see the next train moving through a window of a train that is stopping at a station? It is evident that what we 'see' is something that is constituted by the brain. It is not a 'true' representation of the reality ("thing in itself" by Kant).The "I" believes it directly sees the reality, but it is its brain that makes it believe so. We only see or indeed experience anything just as our brain prepares for us.

Through its ability to learn and predict, my brain ties me to the world with many strong threads. Because of these threads, the world is not a buzzing, confusing mass of sensations; instead, everything around me exerts a push or pull because my brain has learned to attach values to them. And my brain creates more than mere pushes and pulls. It even specifies all the actions I might need to perform to reach some things and avoid others. But I am not aware of these strong connections -- my brain creates the illusion that I am independent being quite separate from this physical world.
Whenever I act in the world, moving my limbs and moving myself from one place to another, I cause massive changes in the signals striking my senses. The pattern of sensations on the retina at the back of my eye really changed. And my brain manages to create for me the experience of a constant, unchanging world through which I move. I can choose to attend to the various parts of my body, and then they too become part of this external world. But most of the time I, the actor, move through the world invisibly, a shadow that one can sometimes catch a glimpse of from the corner of one's eye before it moves on. (pp. 109-110)

Our 'reality' is a model that is produced by the brain. The "I" only sees the end product of the model. Since the world as the "thing in itself" is beyond our cognitive capacity, the model that our brain provides is only an appropriate creation, or fantasy if you may, for us (Poor little earthling!).

Our brains build models of the world and continuously modify these models on the basis of the signals that reach our senses. So, what we actually perceive are our brain's models of the world. They are not the world itself; but, for us, they are as good as. You could say that our perceptions are fantasies that coincide with reality. Furthermore, if not sensory signals are available, then our brain fills in the missing information. (p. 135)

This "fantasy" evolves into a more finely tuned one when its carrier (You) interacts with something (a.k.a. your neighbor) that you assume to be another carrier of the "fantasy" or the mind, to use a less provocative word. In communication, you realize that your model (mind) is slightly (if not incommensurably) different from that of your neighbor. Assuming that your neighbor is another carrier of the mind like you, you compare the two models and try to accommodate yours (or your neighbor's if you dare) so that two models can co-exist better. In the process, you just don't emit your ideas; you edit your ideas so that the different mind can understand them better.

I can know that my communication has been unsuccessful when my prediction about what you will do next is not quite right. But the process does not stop there. If I know that my communication has not been successful, I can then change the way I communicate. I should also have a clue as to how I should change the way I communicate. I compare my idea and my model of your idea and I see that they are different. This is the prediction error. But I can also look at the nature of the error. Where precisely are the differences between my idea and my model of your idea? The nature of the prediction error tells me how to change my communication: which points I should emphasize and which points are not important. I don't just choose my words because of what they mean; I choose my words to suit the person I am talking to. The more I talk to someone, the better an idea I get of what words will suit -- just as I get a better idea of how to perceive the world around me the more I look at it. (p. 171)

When communication is successful, I'm able to understand your model of the world and you're able to understand mine. I share your model and you share mine. I'm not alone, and neither are you.

In a successful communication the point is reached where my model of your meaning matches my own meaning, and I no longer need to show you that there is a problem. And, critically, at the same time, you too have reached that point where there is no discrepancy between your model of my meaning and your own meaning. At this point of mutual agreement communication has been achieved. By building models of the mental world, our brains have solved the problem of how to get inside the minds of others. And it is this ability to make models of the mental world that has created the great gap between humans and all other species. Without the ability to build and share mental models of the world, there would be no such thing as language and culture. (p. 175)

Communicating minds are much better than a solitary mind, for you can share other person's mind which is better at predicting about the physical world. You can not only borrow the better mind, but also adapt your mind to make it like the better mind. If you have many other minds and those minds interact and exchange ideas, chances are that we're better off. (Cf. The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley)

In the very distant past our ancestors too were alone, constructing their models of the physical world, but unable to share them with others. At that time truth had no relevance for these models. It did not matter whether the model was a true reflection of the physical world. All that mattered was that the model worked by predicting what would happen next. But once we can share our models of the physical world, then we discover that other people's models are slightly different from our own.(p. 179) Some people are experts who clearly have better models of some aspects of the world. By putting together the models of many people, we can construct a new model that is better than any model produced by a single individual. And our knowledge of the world is no longer derived from a single lifetime -- knowledge passes from one generation to the next. (p. 181)

But not always with a happy ending. If what we share is a better approximation of the truth as in the culture of science, we're better off. But if it is a collective deception (as in the crazy speculation in the financial market) or an insane delusion (as in the belief in the cult group), we're doomed.

By making models of the minds of others (in the same way that it makes models of the physical world), my brain enables me to enter a shared mental world. By sharing my mental world with others, I can also learn from their experiences and adopt the models of others that are better than my own. From this process, truth and progress can emerge, but so can deception and mass delusions. (p. 183)

Despite these occasional unfortunate endings, it's better to communicate. And in communication, we assume that we're detached and we only have to guess other person's mind. This assumption is correct in that our qualia are inaccessible by others. But we're not unreachably separate because we can borrow and share other person's mind. We have the learning culture that we've developed over the past millenniums. In the culture, we've learned that it's better to treat other persons well, for that's the way we can learn better mutually.

There is an intimate relationship between our experience that we are free agents and our willingness to be altruistic, feeling pleased when we are behaving fairly ourselves and feeling upset by the unfairness of others. For these feelings to arise it is crucial that we experience ourselves and others are free agents. We believe that all of us make deliberate choices. Otherwise our willingness to cooperate would fall apart. This final illusion created by our brain -- that we are detached from the social world and are free agents -- enables us to create together a society and a culture that is so much more than any individual. (p. 193)

That's all for my arbitrary summary. I hope I was not unfair. But for a fairer share, get the book and read yourself.

Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World


Go to Questia Online Library

No comments: