A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What is the Mind ("UnifiedPsychology" Version)

I've been following the Unified Theory of Psychology blog for a little bit. It is written by Gregg Henriques, who works down at James Madison University, and recently published A New Unified Theory of Psychology. His work is incredibly ambitious. In the service of his efforts to explain what psychology is, he creates an elaborate framework to show how psychology fits within the context of all the rest of science and human knowledge. I've been looking for an excuse to link to, and comment on, some of his work, and his most recent post is about the mind-body problem, which seems like a good excuse. The post is long, and a little dense with Gregg's terminology, so I am going to try to give a summary here, and maybe we can generate some discussion in both locations.

Gregg starts by laying out the mind-body problem: "As I sit here pondering what to write, what is it exactly that is doing the pondering?... How does the 3 lb mass of grey matter that is my brain give rise to the felt experience of sensations and thoughts?" Gregg's post hopes to add some clarity by 1) clarifying terminology, 2) distinguishing four categories of "energy-information flow" that might be relevant to the discussion, and 3) showing that "mind" is a term that sort-of muddles two of those types of flow (two types of behavioral processes). Then he is going to talk about what is left over.

1) What do we mean when we say "mind"?
Typically "mind" means the ethereal, conscious "I" of common-sense dualism. This is problematic for several reasons, including the insights about "unconscious" mental processes (ala Freud). Thus, the mind-body problem might be better thought of as either "Consciousness-Brain-Body problem or the Consciousness-Mind-Brain-Body problem."This is supposed to help, because it allows us to discuss the relationship between "mind", "brain", and "consciousness", which is not possible in the simplistic mind-body phrasing. [Note, as much as I am suspicious of replacing two-factor mysteries with three-factor systems, this seems oddly appealing.]

Gregg moves on to praise the cognitive revolution, with its information-processing model, particularly because if "mind" is the information processing (e.g. the flow of information), then we can talk about how that flow relates to the physical brain structure, and the extent to which we are consciously aware of the flow. [Note, I still think the information-processing model is bad for many reasons, but this particular praise of it seems somewhat sensible.]

Gregg is sure to note that the problem with the cognitive revolution, is that once the mind and brain were conceptually separated, researchers  started focusing on their highly artificial models of the mind with no regard for the equally necessary study of the brain. [Agreed! This is certainly one major problems with standard cognitive psych.]

2. Categories of information flow
In Gregg's "Tree of Knowledge" (ToK) system, informational complexity exists at four levels: Matter, Life, Mind, Culture. At the junction between "life" and "mind" are neuronal processes. At the junction between "mind" and "culture" are symbolic processes.

[Always nice to be able to give a link to the Review of General Psychology, an excellent outlet for people interested in broader interests like this.]

3. "Mind" is in two of those levels
When people talk about "mind" they are ofter referring to things at the "Mind" level, but other times they are referring to things at the "culture" level, and this creates a lot of confusion. Gregg adds that "consiousness" is 'experienced' information flow. ["Yes!" on the first count, "hmmmm" on the second.]

Two important sub-parts of Gregg's Unified Theory of Psychology are Behavioral Investment Theory - basically that neuronal processes can be described as engaged in a costs-benefits analysis based on available information and with an output in terms of performed action - and the Justification Hypothesis - basically that a major function of symbolic processes is to justify action (at various levels and in various contexts). [I don't like the Behavioral Investment Theory because of its implications that the brain is some sort of central control system, but I might not object if that aspect were toned down.]

With those categories, we can be more clear that "Mind" refers to behavior of animals mediated by the nervous system. If we only used "mind" in that way, we could bring a lot of clarity to other issues.

Gregg then admits that we don't understand any of this quite well enough to reverse engineer it, indicating that many details are yet to be worked out.


To add my part to this discussion
First, I have some question about the use of terms: "awareness", "consiousness", "self-consciousness." I'll post that question over on Gregg's blog, because it is mostly about clarifying his position.

Second, I want to nit pick the claim that:
"Mind" refers to behavior of animals mediated by the nervous system. 
This is problematic, for two interrelated reasons, 1) for most animals "behavior" and "mediated by the nervous system" are synonymous, and 2) for other organisms don't have nervous systems, or at least not systems set up similarly to our own, and they seem "do" that whole mind thing (in at least a primitive way) pretty well. Typically when we talk about behavior we are exactly talking about nervous-system-mediated movements. Thus the above sentence implies two things, where there should only be one. We do not want to get stuck talking about the relationship between nervous-system mediation and behaving. That is, while redundancy is not the worst type of problem, it can lead to further confusion down the road, if people mistake the redundancy for indicating two distinct things. Getting high on my horse here, I would suggest that Gregg's claim should be simplified either to

Mind refers to behavior of animals.


Mind refers to mediation of movement by the nervous system.

The former would be my preferred phrasing. The latter works for most organisms we care about, so long as: 1) We remember that animals move for many non-nervous system related reasons... like gravity, or being hit by a car. 2) We realize that we have now defined mind as only possible given a nervous system. We might have to revise that if we discover vastly different "higher" life forms, or if we want to hedge a bit by creating a fuzzy grey-area to include some "primitive" life forms.


Thoughts about any of that? My part or otherwise?


  1. Eric,
    An excellent post and review of my position. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. I will try to limit my reactions.
    First, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts and critique of Behavioral Investment Theory. Although I do posit that the nervous system functions as a centralized control system, I am not necessarily arguing that it is programmed that way in any type of top-down way.
    Second, I am basically fine with your definition of ‘mind’ as the behavior of animals, given your caveats. In regards to your second caveat, from the ToK vantage point, we do indeed want to definitionally connect the term mind to the nervous system, even if there are functionally analogous forms. For example, slime molds http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/science/04slime.html?scp=1&sq=slime%20molds&st=cse demonstrate coordinated patterns of behavioral investment, but we should not consider these behaviors mental. However, it is fascinating to consider how such coordination arises in the absence of a central nervous system. I think chaos/complexity theory, dynamical systems and self-organization are the key. And these concepts provide the frame for understanding some of the fascinating points made in Beyond the Brain…

  2. Gregg,
    I am intrigued. How can something be a "centralized control system" but not be a "top-down" control system?