What is consciousness? What are mental processes? What is the (conscious and unconscious) mind? And how does it connect to the brain? The mind/brain problem strikes at the heart of the brain sciences. Solving it is of intense interest because it would enhance neurotechnology, applied neuroscience and the brain sciences generally.
However, there is a major hurdle to overcome. It’s not a shortage of technological prowess, engineering capability, or data. Rather the problem lies in a poor theoretical understanding of the mind. No one agrees on its contents, nor are these defined accurately: either generally or within a specific instance in real time. Yet, the mind is critical. Most of what the brain does relates to it. The brain I argue cannot be understood without understanding the mind within.
Comprehending the mind and its neural correlate has great practical value. The ability to clearly and accurately define the mind, and its connection to neural activity, would turbo-charge the already-promising field of applied neuroscience. Fields potentially enhanced include CNS biomarker development, neuroprosthetics, brain computer interface, cognitive computing, and bio-inspired robotics.
The good news is a proposed answer already exists! A conceptual framework is explained below. Granted, it will not make 100% sense at first because a) it is a new paradigm, and b) the subject matter (human consciousness inside the brain) is difficult to conceptualize. However this paradigm I argue is not only logical and fits the facts, but its value is easily demonstrated.
A Summary of the MA Method:
1. First, conscious experience exists! Subjectivity exists. The mind and all mental processes exist. This includes our experience of sight, sound, somatosensation (hot/cold, pain/pleasure, hunger…) recognition, identification, meaning, thought, language, executive control, goals, emotion, intention, imagination and the rest of the mind.
The mind may not be physical like the brain, but it is very real. One’s awareness is filled with something (actually multiple things) every moment of the day. If the conscious mind is an illusion or a hallucination, it’s a very real one!
2. If the mind exists, where is it located? By far the most likely candidate is inside the brain. For example, let’s look at voluntary motor control. The basal ganglia & motor cortex receives inputs not only from the premotor cortex but (directly or indirectly) most of the brain. The efferent motor control signal is relayed from the basal ganglia/motor cortex to the spine, and from there to the limbs and rest of the body.
Subjectively, one’s mind controls movement. “You” (the self) decide or choose how to move. Therefore you (as part of the mind) control the afferent signal sent to the spine. For example, you might think “I need to reach my left arm forward, quickly” and that signal is sent. The fastest and most reliable way the mind could possibly do this is to act from WITHIN the brain.
3. If mind operates from inside the brain, it would need to have a neural correlate. I argue the correlate is the large scale, function neural network (FNN) activity that coincides with it. (More on this below).
4. The mind/brain system is neither 100% brain, nor 100% mind. It’s both. Mind and brain are 2 sides of the same coin. The conscious mind is the first person subjective view. FNN activity is the third person objective view. Mind = the brain’s set of FNNs.
5. Because the mind is expressed moment-by-moment inside the brain, defining these mental processes is the first step in mapping them to the brain. What components of mind are active through a given period of time, in a given situation, environment, task, and other context? To map the mind to the brain, you have to first define what you’re mapping!
6. It’s quite possible to define the mind. You can list the mental processes at play within any common situation and during any common task. You can weigh their strength, and connect them into networks. And this can be done accurately. This set of networks becomes a roadmap for labeling the neural activity corresponding to it. For example, the FNN activity during a “move the cursor to the left” task would include “perception of my arm & hand,” and “imagine arm, hand, and mouse moving to the left.” It might also include “a calm & focused emotional state.”
7. Why is this simple idea – that the mind (not a particular task, or resting state) can be used to map the brain’s function – all but ignored by the brain science community? Mainly, it is because the mind remains resistant to comprehension. Many researchers know a lot about, and have keen insight into, various aspects of the mind. But no one can DEFINE the mind in a way more than a handful of people agree with. And these definitions are usually quite vague. Specific examples of the mind during daily living are avoided. In this “mind vacuum” what IS understood to some degree — the brain — has filled the void. The brain has become the focal point of study, to the point where many believe the mind is irrelevant to the brain!
8. Cognitive neuroscience is populated by very intelligent, talented professionals doing excellent work. Their knowledge and skills are invaluable. However, none of these experts can define any mental process — either generally, or within a specific (task) context – with accuracy. Nor are changes to these processes well-defined: across time, people, learning, environments, situations, and other context.
9. This shortcoming is no one’s fault. The cause is a faulty conceptual framework. The mind is compressed into the brain, and experience is ignored. Mind and brain are said to “process” or “compute” (external and internal) experience. Yet, the structure and function of both mind and brain have little in common with a computer. More importantly, memory and experience are all but ignored in most brain theories. Yet it’s obvious memory plays a key role. Memories are made, stored, shaped, and activated every moment of the day. And it’s also obvious the content of memory is built from (the information of) experience.
10. What the mind/brain system (primarily) does is activate memories. This activity takes the form of recognition (ex; my coffee cup), meaning (hot coffee), thought (I want to be more alert), goals (read this article, take a sip of coffee), intentions (reach my right hand toward the cup), emotion (desire — for coffee & more knowledge about what I’m reading), state of arousal (tired, interested) and most of the mind.
11. A closer look at any mental process (during daily activities) reveals it is, at its core, memory. For example, a voluntary movement “reach for coffee” is comprised of a set of memories: “my right arm and hand,” “grasp,” “my fingers,” “liquid,” “caffeine,” and “drink,” These are perceptual, cognitive, and emotional memories.
12. Other than immediate, low-level perception, the mind = (mostly) a set of general memories, the formation of which is based on past experience. For example, seeing a dog includes the memories “dog,” “dogs are fun,” “dogs can bite,” “fear,” “attend to his body language” etc. The content of these thoughts, goals, and intentions are all memories of those past events.
13. A general memory is not only built from, but comes to represent, a group (or more precisely, range) of similar past experience. This is common knowledge. For example the memory “dog collar” is built from a person’s past dog collar experiences. This memory has perceptual content: a typical size, shape, texture, color, weight, sound when dropped on the floor, etc. It has higher meaning and other associations: dog, leash, walking, exercise, health etc. This memory is general because it represents not a single collar, but a range of experiences and meanings. In other words, it represents all the ways in which “dog collar” can be expressed, when activated. “Dog collar” = a range of “dog collar” experience.
14. A person’s state of mind is continually converted to memory. Conscious and unconscious perception, recognition, meaning, thoughts, state of arousal, goals, sense of self, executive functions, attention, intention, and motor control are all mental processes active during most tasks and behaviors. These expressions are continually converted to episodic memory, and work to shape general memory.
15. In short, a general memory = the INFORMATION of (past, similar) experience; and general memory — in an active state — creates most of present experience, and all of its meaning.
16. If memories are comprised of experience, what does this mean? It means the brain runs on experience! This seems counterintuitive – isn’t an active memory manifest as the activity of neurons, synapses, neurochemicals etc.? However, this is the third person objective view of memory. A first person subjective view of an active memory is present simultaneously — the experience of, and subjective information expressed, during that memory’s activation.
17. The brain is a biological and electrochemical organ. Its wetware is very different from that of a computer’s hardware and software. The brain does not process like a computer either. Rather the brain’s function — in relation to the mind — is to store, activate, express, and shape, memory.
18. The ongoing brain signal interacts with itself, and with the sensory signal, simultaneously. This triggers a continuous, coordinated, semi-connected set of (excitatory/inhibitory) general memory activation.
19. If mind and memory are manifest within the brain, does this make the mind 100% physical, and mechanical? I argue no. I believe higher aspects of mind – creativity, inspiration, love, beauty, passion, selflessness etc. – can play a large role in mind, and brain. I think these higher states of mind have a strong element of mystery. They are neither 100% predictable nor comprehensible. The mind can be powerful in ways that are not easily understood, and are far from having an obvious “mechanism.”
20. My personal view is the “higher self” — creativity, inspiration, compassion, love, spontaneity, humor, wholeheartedness, integrity, insight, genius, spiritual or religious experience etc. — is a key part of the mind. It provides crucial context in which the mind during daily living plays out. Part of the mind therefore is connected to the brain in a non-predictable way. Some of what the mind/brain system is, and does, is a mystery!
21. Once general memory is understood subjectively, an obvious candidate for its neural correlate becomes apparent: a functional neural network (FNN) range. Both are highly associative — in dormant or active state. Both function, simultaneously, as signal transmitters (of their own signal) and receivers (of associated signals). And each dominates their respective (mind/brain) systems.
22. In summary: one’s state of mind = (mostly) a set of active general memories, based on past experience = a corresponding set of FNN ranges.
The MA Method of mind-to-brain mapping enables a brain scientist or research group to define the mind, and map it to the brain, with significantly greater accuracy and precision than is currently possible. This can be done across people, tasks or movements, environments, measurement situations, disorders, external devices, and other variables. The mind can be envisioned quite clearly as it operates through space and time in the brain.
Being able to generate accurate mind/brain maps is a valuable asset for most applied neuroscience companies and research groups. One example is brain computer interface (BCI) technology. Here the user’s state of mind, via the corresponding brain signal, controls the external device. If you can define the user state of mind accurately, you can then use it as a (well-defined) target for the user to “hit.” The user and her research team can construct optimal mind/brain “targets” for BCI control.
More accurate and better-understood mind/brain targets benefit the BCI designer. A device’s capabilities can be designed to mirror or connect more effectively to the targets if the targets are accurate representations of the user’s mental state.
Better mind/brain targets also empower the BCI user. Optimal states of mind can be researched, considered, and selected by the user. The criteria for optimal targets might be states of mind that are easy to achieve consistently (across tasks, situations…), natural to attain, and most desirable. State of mind targets intelligently and deliberately selected by the user & her team will be much more effective than targets where user input is minimal, or targets poorly understood.
The MA Method takes most of the mystery and guesswork out of cognitive neuroscience. Estimated improvement is from 30% to 80% accuracy. Mind-to-brain mapping done the “right way” is fun, exciting, and illuminating! More importantly, it’s an effective tool for enhancing and bringing useful insight to most applied neuroscience projects.