Overview of ‘Thinking’
Here is my current understanding of ‘thinking’. I am a layperson and this is a summary of what I have read and constructed from my years of asking/learning about ‘thinking’ (Science/Religion, physics, chemistry (BA), biology, evolution, human origins, consciousness, belief systems, religion, etc.). I am a “biologist” in that I think it is all explained through biology.
1. The mind/consciousness/thinking occurs in the physical/biological organ we call the Brain.
2. The Brain is a neural network with electrical signals along pathways. We have an estimated 86 billion of brain nerve cells called neurons, and trillions of pathways. By pathway I mean a set of neurons connected physically because of their location, and connected through a biochemical process at the juncture of two or more neurons (axons and dendrites, synapses). This enormity of the brain circuitry is very significant and it is all biological tissue molded into a 3-D structure.
3. Neural pathways are excited by outside senses which provide input signals to the brain (eye, ear, etc.). Reaction to outside stimuli is handled by a “Stimulus-Response” system. This is a network of pathways spread over the brain with different sections of the brain handling specific functions. A signal comes in, and through various pathways in this network, a reaction is caused to happen. (Raise arm when hand touches something hot).
4. The neural pathways used more often become prominent. This could mean physically bigger, or it could mean a different spatial setup between synapses, or it could mean different biochemical factors. For whatever reasons, pathways used more often have dominance.
5. Part of the learning process is to lay down new brains cells and/or enhance (strengthen) existent pathways. Here is a question: can pathways be altered, reconstructed, reformatted, and reused? Probably yes. Learning (new brain cells and pathways) is a life-long process but is most significant in the first 25–30 years of life.
Learning is about patterns and repetition. Think about a child learning to speak, like the word Mom, copied from someone saying ‘Mom’. Copy the pattern (of sound), reproduce, (positive feedback) and repeat.
6. Memory is contained in brain cells or neurons and can be stored and retrieved. The mechanism of storage and its transfer is not fully determined. But we know that we can store ideas (images, sounds, smells) in our brains and we can retrieve them. So can dogs, cats, iguanas and hummingbirds. That is what brains do.
7. So the brain picture is of a massive amount of circuitry which can run in parallel sending information to various locations and other pathways in the neural network. We know about information transfer within one neuron, but how do you interpret the overall patterns and flow when there are trillions of connections many of which operate simultaneously. This is a fascinating area of things unknown. This is the mystery of the brain: how does that information flow turn into our understanding of the world?
8. The Brain has a ‘Stimulus Response’ system and an ‘Internal Dialogue’ component. The S-R system, as indicated, causes reactions to environmental factors. The Internal Dialogue is that voice in your head that is nearly constant and, at certain points in time, can be directed to external speech. The Internal Dialogue is an add-on to the mammalian brain and an enhancement to our species such that we have civilization. The Internal Dialogue is related to language and thought.
This point is so significant that I am going to repeat it:
Very late in the evolution line of primates, hominoids developed new brain functions by enhancing their communications skills (increasing e the set of sounds produced, received and understood). This led to language which exponentially increased the skill set of Homo sapiens.
Language and this internal dialogue, were a new function, an add-on, that gave humans the dominance they have today.
(Will we use it wisely?)
9. The Stimulus-Response system is the boss, because it has the control mechanism to listen and act upon interrupts (inputs from the senses). It can activate, through pathway signaling, the specific parts of the brain to respond to the input. One of the functions/components that can be activated is the module/modules in the brain that deal with thought, reason, and the Internal Dialogue.
Clearly there will be other responses besides ‘thinking’, such as raising the hand from a hot surface. Just as our senses can trigger hand movement, our senses can trigger an impulse or signal to the thought modules in the brain.
10. The pathways to language and thought must have come before language itself. Mammals (and before?) learned how to construct neural pathways to store memories, to distinguish sounds, to conceptualize space, to deal with time, and to perform a myriad of tasks. All this happened before anything that can be construed as language.
Conceptualization, or object memory/storage, recognition of motion, pattern or feeling recall, all came before language. The ability to store an image, or an object, and to connect it other objects had to be an early ability of the cognitive brain. This is a capability exists in mammals who have very limited communication skills.
As indicated in point 6 above, exactly how the information is stored in a set of neural pathways is one of the significant mysteries in neuroscience.
11. Use of sound (better production repertoire, better reception mechanism) led to distinguishing more sounds, storing more patterns and using the patterns to give meaning to sound. See my essay on ‘Sound to Civilization’.
12. Nouns were established first as labels for things, items, or objects. Before we (hominoids) started using sounds to identify objects, we had learned to visualize an object or the smell an odor, and commit this to some kind of memory. Our brains had learned to distinguish objects by some sensory perception and store the pattern long before we started apply sounds (nouns) to that memory.
But we started applying sounds (different sounds) to different objects. Nouns are labels. The use of sounds to identify objects greatly enhanced communication. If sounds could be converted to images and meanings, then the sounds which are produced with very low energy
13. Verbs were added next as action items. Verbs (sounds) represent procedures or steps or some activity. Nouns as labels for objects, verbs as activities. Put them together and we get sentences. Language starts.
14. To get to this point, we (hominoids) have learned through normal evolutionary forces. We had gained what Daniel Dennett called “competence without comprehension”. Our ancestors had no idea of why we/they developed these brain techniques, but because they worked, they enhanced the survivability of our species. We certainly were not aware of how our brains worked, but they worked. The use of sound, the neural pathways that led to language helped us survive and a species.
The key to this survivability was the socialization and group collaboration that came about after bipedalism and after the control of fire (better food, better shelter).
15. Socialization was the survivability aspect. Communication and language were one of the outcomes. Humans enhanced their communication skills by living sufficiently close to each other such that low-energy soundwaves could be captured and used for the enhancement of ideas.
Again, see my ‘Sounds and Civilization’.
16. Sounds and their meanings started moving through society. Dennett and Richard Dawkins have referred to these as memes and Dennett suggested that the ‘meme’ is the entity or item that is stored in the brain. Stored in brains means physically stored in some neuron or neurons and some pathway. (How?). Memes that survive are the ones that are stored in the most brains. Memes (ideas) are start of language and the start of civilization.
17. Pathways developed which allowed a sequence of thoughts (images, sounds, memories) to be connected a logical way. In a computer sense, this is like a program with a series of steps or instructions or pathways that do something. In our brains, it is not so digitized but it is broken in to pathways to be activated. With trillions of pathways, we are not close (to my knowledge) of the actual techniques and logic that these pathways employ. We have yet to read the language (patterns, programs) of the brain.
Consider, again, computers with a control program. The highest level of priority is watching for “interrupts”, and, then, responding to them. “Interrupts” are signals from some external source. The most fundamental part of the control program in our brains is the neural activity related to checking our senses and then responding somehow. (This routine in our brain never stops).
One response is to trigger our thought mechanisms or our internal dialogue. The interrupt from the senses, could/will cause a memory or thought to be activated, which then triggers a whole long response to the initial sensory interrupt.
It is important to note that the trigger response mechanism happens long before (milliseconds) any thought processes can offer any “rational” overrides to the automatic response. And the thought process may override the non-thought response.
It also seems, that when there is little activity in our stimulus response, the electrical activity in our modules that handle thought do not stop. They can be overridden by the rest of the brain in a fit of physical activity (running away from a tiger), but when all is quiet, thought continues. Pathways active, information flowing.
18. The earliest of these “cognitive” pathways helped objectify the framework concepts that help us understand our world. Concepts were like space (place, direction) or time (anticipation, memory), change (different visual or oral changes) triggering brain activity, or motion in general. Sounds were attached to pathways and conceptual understanding (competence without comprehension). Eventually, the development of sounds led to more concepts and, including concepts not sensed, but simply imagined. Ideas have a physical property as stored in brains, but ideas can be about non-physical items (love, beauty, philosophy).
19. Once we developed the ability to objectify and store and retrieve “concepts”, and pathways to attach meanings to sounds, we were on the way to language and thought (in language). This led Internal Dialogue (a continually running stream of thought in our heads). This led to reasoning and all that has come with our cognitive abilities.
20. Words/memes are implanted in brains. Ideas are physical. Information is transferred between brains, the good memes (words and/or ideas) travelled further (more brains) and persisted in time.
21. The rest is pre-history.
So in summary:
· electrical activity in millions of neural pathways travels through our brains,
· pathways constructed by habit and use.
· responses to stimuli trigger activity in thought processes
· the thought processes run continuously but can be overriden
· thinking consists of using language (through memes and active pathways) to understand and describe our world. And to communicate, collaborate and build civilization.
But the program or language or coding of those trillions of pathways working together has yet to be determined. How do you go from signal to actual specific thought?
That is enough for now.