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  • Writer's picturemattfaw

05 What is the Mind?

Updated: Apr 3

My mind appears to be the essence of Me. It seems to be the decision-maker, the source of voluntary action, the part that feels and thinks and indeed, the part that counts.

But of course, these appearances are deceiving. The mind is clearly a process of the brain, and is decisively affected by pathology, substance, or fatigue.

Dr. Benjamin Libet was the first to show that our seeming 'volition' is an appearance, rather than a choice. The brain acts, without any need for a mind to guide it. Those brain actions often lead to the perception of the will to do something (although in the case of sleep-driving, for example, or other distracted action, it's possible that awareness may never form, as consequence of those brain actions).

The fact that the brain actions happen before the 'perceived will' shows that the actions were the causal force, not the perceived will. The perception of will is rather an after-the-fact construct, created for the sake of memory, so that episodic memories can contain in them reminders of 'what I chose', so that future lessons can incorporate my mistakes and successes within them.

In this way, we can recognize the perception of 'will' as another form of 'qualia' (as discussed elsewhere in the FAQ). It is a mnemonic of the memory system, so that when I recall the memory, I can remember making choices within it.

The same is true for the rest of what we call 'mind'. Mind is an appearance, rather than an engine of behavior. All those aspects of mind, like thinking in words, or imagining in images, are forms of qualia. Even more subtle qualities of mind, like the feeling that my thoughts and my will belong to me, those feelings are qualia (i.e. mnemonic reminders in the form of feelings) to help structure memories for accurate recall.

However, minds, especially human minds, seem especially good at working not just for the far future, but also for the near-future, at figuring out what behavior should come next, for example. This seems to imply a causal link between Mind and Behavior, and seems to cast doubt that Mind is just a part of the episodic memory loop.

However, we already know that most of what we call 'Mind' functions are actually performed by the Core Network (please see the three systems post), using the hippocampus as its staging area. The hippocampus has the most efficient memory buffers in the brain, and those buffers, along with the hippocampus' experience-generating powers, make it a great organ for staging mental simulations. It is a virtual workspace for the Core Network to play its simulations upon.

As discussed in the three-systems post, the hippocampus evolved to simulate reality for the sake of creating a memory movie. The Core Network, which first evolved to make sense of memories, then learned to use the hippocampus' memory and reality-simulating powers to buffer and manipulate concepts in the virtual workspace. This virtual workspace is what we call mind.

This is why we humans think in words. Because the hippocampus already evolved to buffer, record, and recall words, and the Core Network just piggy-backed upon those abilities when using the hippocampal experience-generator to create simulations. The Core Network itself does not think in words, of course, but it enlists the language-generating parts of the Immediate Action Network in populating the hippocampal buffer with words. The hippocampal buffer allows the words and concepts within it to be manipulated and rearranged, in order to find new solutions.

The same is true of the relationship between imagination and imaging. The hippocampus evolved to buffer, record, and recall views, in order to pattern-match landmarks, etc. And, as discussed in the three systems post, imagination was always a necessary part of the Core Network's pattern-matching noisy incomplete stimuli within memory, by mentally transforming one memory-pattern into another. These functions of the Core Network and Hippocampus together evolved from the ability to pattern-match incomplete stimuli into the ability to pre-visualize things that have never existed before.

Likewise, Theory of Mind is an extremely important mental simulation, in which the Core Network uses its mental models of other people, piggy-backing on the hippocampus, which evolved to remember a lot of details about other people, including tone of voice and past behavior. Once again, the Core Network leverages parts of the memory and simulation powers that the hippocampus evolved to have, in order to simulate other minds, within the appearance of our own minds.

So the Mind is an appearance, a virtual workspace, in which the Core Network plays out its mental simulations using the hippocampus' experience-generating powers. It is information, buffered within the hippocampus for the sake of assisting abstract problem-solving. As information, it does not have direct causal power on behavior, but of course, it can influence behavior. The Core Network is just one of many networks tugging at the reins of behavior, and it actually has very little power in affecting immediate behavior. But it remains the best system that the brain has, for simulating future outcomes, and for extrapolating beyond the immediate environment.

Our experience of Mind is always part of the hippocampal memory loop, so we experience Mind as part of the overall Subjective Experience. Mind is remembered along with the experience of the outside world, and can be an important part of memory recall. It always involves the same three systems that give rise to episodic memory, and thus it is well-represented within memory/perception (whereas data from certain parts of the brain, like the brainstem or cerebellum, are barely represented at all within Experience). I think this is part of why the Mind seems to be such a compelling appearance, and why we are so easily fooled into thinking that Mind = the real Me.

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Kakpo George
Kakpo George
May 23


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