Cognition – Brain – Mind
Daniel Dennett describes an evolutionary process of mind beginning at a point “before any creature could think” (Dennett, 1996), when “there were creatures with crude, unthinking intentionality – mere tracking and discriminating devices that had no inkling of what they were doing or why.” They had know-how, but they still didn’t know that they had know-how. This theoretical story culminates in the emergence of consciousness in humans at which time we began to know we had know-how and to have not only an inkling of what we were doing and why, but a desire to think ahead and to choose – intentionality with aforethought. So how did we get that capacity to think, to know about our know-how, to ‘want’ and to ‘choose’ and wonder, – what part of us does that?
Eric Kandel states in Principles of Neural Science that:
“The central tenet of modern neural science is that all behaviour is a reflection of brain function. According to this view . .. what we commonly call mind is a range of functions carried out by the brain. The action of the brain underlies not only the relatively simple motor behaviours such as walking, breathing, and smiling, but also elaborate affective and cognitive behaviours such as feeling, learning, thinking, and composing a symphony. As a corollary, the disorders of affect (feelings) and cognition (thought) that characterize neurotic and psychotic illness can be seen as disturbances of brain function. (Kandel, 1991, p. 5)
This brain-centric view is common, though by no means universal. It leaves out mind and body as contributors to the brain’s ‘view’ of things. Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus, (Potter, 1996) imaginatively examines the idea of a disembodied brain. In this television series the brain, floating in liquid in a jar, has been wired for transmission – its dreams and memories beamed out into living rooms around the globe for entertainment. But does this brain ‘think’? Potter’s ‘brain’ is fearfully disoriented, unable as it is to ‘grasp’ at anything, living in a twilight world of dreams and memories. Ascribing affective and cognitive behaviours to brain function alone, as Kandel does, cannot help us much in considering the spatio-temporal nature of being sentient. Neither can it help us to answer questions about what difference there is between mind and brain and how the two are connected.
The biogenetic structuralism (the structural monist view) favoured by Laughlin, McManus, d’Aquili et al, holds that ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ are two views of the same reality that, “mind is how brain experiences its own functioning, and brain provides the structure of mind.” (Laughlin, D'Aquili, & McManus, 1992, p. 13). While this view acknowledges the crucial interconnection and dialogue between ‘brain’ and ‘mind’, it still places ‘brain’ in the driver’s seat, leaving the body as the vehicle. Does my experience, in ‘Ainslie’s Story’ bear this out? An apparent dislocation occurring between my body and my brain, with messages clearly not getting through, along with the temporary shutting down of the dialogue which is seen to be a characteristic of mind. Maybe, to some extent, but, as far as the outside world’s best assessment was concerned, I didn’t have a functional brain to experience my own functioning with, despite the fact that, from my viewpoint, my brain was without a doubt functioning and, presumably, providing the structure of my mind. Or was it the case that my body and my brain were still in dialogue, but that neither was being cooperative or obeying orders? My brain and my body weren’t talking, but my mind seemed to be aware of both recalcitrants and determined to hold the whole together. It would seem then, that it is the mind that is conscious rather than the brain.
Dennett draws a clear distinction between “mind stuff” and “brain stuff” (Dennett, 1991, pp. 28-29). He describes “brain stuff” as the mechanical activity of neurotransmitter chemicals on neurons, as in the case of liver, stomach and many other bodily functions. These important activities are occurring constantly within the body but “there’s nobody in there watching”. Events in consciousness on the other hand are, he says, by definition witnessed. They are experienced by some-body. The witnessed events, then, are the stuff of the mind where some-body is unquestionably “at home”, whether others are aware that they are there or not. This clearly implies that ‘mind’ requires a two-way interaction between body and brain – a dialogue without which consciousness would not be possible. I have added ‘the world’ to that requirement for interaction. Unless the mind can interact with the body and the brain and the world, consciousness is not possible.Dennett describes consciousness in spatial terms, with events occurring “within” it and the “some-body”, the living fleshed identity as being “at home” within it. If the witnessing of events in consciousness, is, as he says “the stuff of the mind”, that some-body, that body-mind must be included within consciousness. But that would put the body-mind spatially within consciousness rather than the other way round. There is a problem with this spatial reversal, unless we include ‘the world’ in the equation. This view of the mind-body existing spatially within consciousness (which I am not entirely sure Dennett intended) becomes entirely ‘sensible’ if consciousness is at some level lodged within the ‘flesh’ of the world (Merleau-Ponty & Lefort, 1968), rather than within the individual – consciousness lodged within the flesh of the world, mediated and made manifest by creativity.
In the discourse of everyday, the words that describe functions contributing to thought, self-awareness, perception etc. – cognition; consciousness; brain function; mind – are often used interchangeably. “I am conscious of your skepticism on this matter,” and “I am cognizant (I am aware, I am thinking) that you are skeptical about this,” “I perceive (I have seen, observed; I am alert to) a degree of skepticism in you, regarding this topic,” “I am mindful (I sense) that you harbour some skepticism on this subject.” Similar sentences with similar meanings. But is being conscious, cognizant, perceptive, alert, aware or mindful the same – or even similar? It would seem from this commonly experienced conflation (or confusion) of meanings that clear definitions are not readily available and that even when we seek them out, not all expert opinion is in agreement.
What do theorists say about consciousness? Where are our common sense definitions? There is general acceptance amongst those who study the ‘mind’ (across disciplines) that there are a number of levels of consciousness. There is less accord about exactly what those levels are, what words should be used to describe them, whether there is a functional hierarchy between the levels, which living things possess which levels of consciousness and to what degree.