There are no adequate models of how the brain works. There are a lot of models, though. And, as they say in systems theory, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.”
Most brain models are the result of research projects. Someone sees a problem, comes up with a way to explain it, does some research, changes the model, and so on.
There are also models of the brain that are esthetic. An example is the holographic model of information storage in the brain. It is hard to imagine how very much empirical evidence in support of this model could be developed, but the model has its fascinations.
There are others, like quantum theories of consciousness or free will.
I am going to start offering one in this post, and some subsequent ones. It falls toward the esthetic end of the model continuum because it is a whole brain model and neuroimaging is still several years from being able to view the brain across all of its levels more or less at once.
My model is not about what reality is. I always thought it was peculiar to think that what our brains do gives us direct access to reality. This model is about how each of us creates and shares meaning over the always developing course of our lives. It is an evolutionary model, based on the idea that the brain evolved to help us individually and socially to adapt and anticipate.
The model is not original to me. I started thinking about it after reading a book, Making Up The Mind by Chris Frith, an entertaining, accessible, and dryly funny overview of research evidence related to how the brain uses its developed models to organize adaptive responses in life. My thinking could be called an extreme version of that model.
There are also many philosophical or conceptual versions of this same idea.
The other sources of the model were a variety of old neuropsychological research papers into how voluntary choice of movement occurs and what hallucinations are in the brain, mostly from Poland and the then Soviet Union.
So, let us say I have a formal event (a wedding or a funeral) to attend, and I spilled coffee on my only white shirt. I rush to the store, buy a new one, rush home, and rip the packaging off the shirt because I am now running late for the event. In the process, one of those little pins that are hard to find sticks in my arm. I swear and yell, “The pin hurt me!!”.
Now I know that the pin didn’t hurt me. It has been a long time since we have believed that the pin contains the essence of pain and that it transferred some of that essence when it stuck in me. We all know that causing pain has two different forms. One is that it is our brain that creates the agony and the other is that the pin triggered a series of brain events that result in our experience of pain. So creating pain and triggering pain are two different parts of the causal chain that result in our swearing. If the nerves between the site of the pain and our CNS were cut, we wouldn’t feel pain from the pin.
Also, the pin triggers our brain into noting the location of the pin so we can remove it and reduce the pain. This location is just as much a creation of our CNS as the pain, though we tend to think that the two parts of our unpleasant experience are different. One is real and the other is a concoction of our brain. My model says that in fact, the two aren’t different. The location and, for that matter, the whole arm are a concoction of the brain. More, the entire kit-and-kaboodle (which I will label as KaK so I don’t have to repeat it all the time) of our unconscious and conscious experience is created by our brain. Not just the outside world as in The Matrix, but also our self (and its parts) and the interface between what we experience as outside and what we experience as inside.
So, to take one example, a hallucination is the brain acting as though, say, a person whose image we remember is actually in the outside part of the model. The brain puts that person outside and we experience the person as outside. There is an “other side of the coin” kind of error where a person experiences something in the outside model as though it were part of the inside model.
This model is an entirely unique personal creation of each of us over the course of our lives. It begins about 30 days into embryonic development and it continues until our brain dies, even if disease interferes with the constant work of building. It is self-correcting (within very real limits) through a process of error detection that uses our perception abilities and consequent updating (we notice a difference between our perceptions and our model and correct it). Much of its operation is not conscious, though you can see a pure sort of its operation in infants, where most of the world isn’t yet in their personal model.
And it is fluidly coherent, changing constantly as a direct result of our living, but always using meaning to tie together what our model is right now.
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