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 is a central hinderance in the brain sciences. Solving it is of intense interest within the brain science community; because of its lucrative and useful applications in CNS medicine, neurotechnology, applied neuroscience and the brain sciences generally.
However, there is a major hurdle to overcome. It’s not a shortage of technological or engineering capability, or experimental data. Rather the problem lies in a faulty understanding of the mind. No one agrees on what it consists of, nor how to define its contents. This is especially true with the mind during a specific task or activity, in real time.
Yet, understanding the mind is critical. Most of what the brain does relates to it. The brain cannot be understood without being able to define the mental processes (components and associations) 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 enhance the already-promising field of applied neuroscience: from CNS biomarker development, to neuroprosthetics, brain computer interface, cognitive computing, and natural language processing.
The good news is a proposed solution already exists! A conceptual framework called the MA (Memory Activation) Method is summarized 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.
The MA Method:
1. First, conscious experience exists! Subjectivity is real. The mind and all mental processes exist. This includes all experiences 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, consider voluntary motor control. The basal ganglia & motor cortex receive inputs (directly or indirectly) from most of the brain. The efferent motor 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 one’s movement. You/me/the self 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 forward with my left hand, 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 have to have a physical manifestation i.e. 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 views of the same phenomenon. 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 inside the brain, defining it (accurately) is the first step in mapping it to the brain. What components of mind or mental processes are active through a given period of time, within a given environment, situation, activity, 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. The mental processes at play can be listed within any common situation and during any common task. One can also weigh their strength, and connect them into networks. This set of networks then 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 right arm & hand,” and “imagine arm, hand, & mouse all 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. Their hard-won knowledge is of great value. At the same time, 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 mental processes as they play out 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.
8. Cognitive neuroscience is populated by intelligent, talented professionals doing excellent work. Their knowledge and skills are invaluable. However, none of the experts can define any mental process — either generally, or within a specific (task) context – accurately. Nor are changes to these processes well-defined: across people, learning, environment, situation, and other context. This is (in part) because the context itself is sub-optimally defined.
9. This lack of mind/brain understanding is no one’s fault. The cause is a faulty conceptual framework. Here the mind is compressed into the brain, while experience is ignored. Mind and brain are said to “process” or “compute” experience. Yet, the structure and function of both mind and brain have little in common with a computer. More importantly, most mind/brain theories do not feature memory or experience. Yet it’s obvious both play a key role. Memories are made from experience. And (a large number of) memories are stored, shaped, and activated every moment of the day.
10. I propose that what the mind/brain does, primarily, is activate general 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 & motivation (tired, interested) and most of the mind.
11. A closer look at any mental process (during common, daily activity) shows it is, at its core, memory. For example, a voluntary movement such as “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 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 — when active — creates most of present experience, and nearly 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 both itself and the sensory signal, simultaneously. This triggers a continuous, coordinated, partly-connected & partly independent (i.e. “metastable”) 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, integrity etc. – often play a large role in mind, and brain. I also think these higher states 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, spontaneity, humor, wholeheartedness, integrity, insight, genius, spiritual or religious experience etc. — is a key part of the mind. It underlies the mind’s “lower” or more routine aspects; providing 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 connected to higher forces.
21. Once general memory is understood, subjectively, an obvious candidate for its neural correlate becomes apparent: a functional neural network (FNN) range. A FNN is a local or global, population-level neural firing event. Groups of neurons in distributed regions of the brain act in concert, via neural synchrony, to produce coordinated firing activity. Similar groups of FNNs (ex: THAT apple) form a FNN range (ex: AN apple).
Both memories and FNNs are highly associative. Both function as signal transmitters (of their own signal) and — simultaneously — receivers (of associated signals). And each dominates their respective (mind/brain) systems.
22. In summary: active mind = (mostly) a set of active general memories, based on past experience = a corresponding set of FNN range activity.
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 (much more so than task) controls the external device, via the corresponding brain signal. If you can define the user state of mind accurately, you can then use it as a 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 incorporate the targets more effectively — if the targets are accurate representations of the user’s mental state.
Better mind/brain targets can 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 the user poorly understands.
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 a highly effective tool for bringing actionable insight to most applied neuroscience projects.