Wednesday 31 August 2011

Brain studies

In the past, I've been tempted to consider that most attempts to 'understand' the brain better are doomed to failure, tending to end up in bald statements about 'neural pathways' and such-like, with associated behavioural phenomena which are meant to enhance or damage mental development. These are all varieties of mentalism - but mentalism has tentacles that spread not just to blatant positivism. It also infects constructivism: ("exactly where is the world constructed? where is it stored? how is it recalled?"). The net result is often rather alienating and carries unpleasant political overtones in the various exhortations to how we should or shouldn't behave, or the educational methods we should or shouldn't adopt.

However, I'm beginning to think my 'anti-brain-study' is a bit too strong. Maybe the alienating and unpleasant political overtones about brain-studies are the thing to deal with in all this, and once they are dealt with, a new perspective on the brain which is more in harmony with the current political climate might emerge.

There are remarkable things to think about. From a cybernetic perspective there is no reason to suppose that the brain's function is anything but regulatory. But what is regulated? How does the regulation work? And what is the relationship between the processes of regulation and our conscious processes of perception and action? I think Gibson was probably right about perception, that the processes of perception were geared into the relationships between living things and the environment... and those relationships have to be regulated somehow. Ulric Neisser's model of perception explores this more fully, showing I think explicitly how what Merlau-Ponty called "the flesh of the world" really interacted in the process of perception:
But although Neisser's model pinpoints the regulating activity of the brain in coordinating engagement with the environment, I think it fails to see the environment of the grey matter itself. Because for all those electrical and chemical signals, the same physical processes apply as to the environmental outside the body. In other words, it may be that Neisser's insight is but one level of a recursive process.

This is not dissimilar to Bateson's "criteria for mental processes":

  1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than energy.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
  5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which proceeded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e., more stable than the content), but are in themselves subject to transformation.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.
As an abstract cybernetic mechanism, this contains the essence of Bateson's theories from the Double-bind and double-description to levels of learning and logical typing.

But it is probably a mistake to lose sight of the grey matter itself, because it is not 'just wires' in the same way as Niesser and Gibson would argue that the environment is not 'just the environment'.

What may be needed as a way of approaching this is a clear distinction between
  1. those processes which operate (as far as we know) on physical and chemical laws and about which we have reasonable knowledge 
  2. those processes which operate on what (for lack of a better term) is a bio-psychosocial basis in maintaining homeostasis through regulation.
  3. the mechanisms which relate 1 to 2.
In essence, 1) deals with what Bhaskar calls 'intransitive mechanisms', and it may be the case that entropy is the driving principle. 2) deals with what Bhaskar calls 'transitive mechanisms', where morphogenesis is the driving principle. In 3) we are really asking:
"what is the relationship between entropy and morphogenesis?"

And it seems that entropic intransitive mechanisms go all the way down, as do morphogenetic processes. Perhaps if we could get a better grasp on this, then we would have a brain science which could guide us in sensible ways and in particular, tune us in to living more peaceful and fulfilling lives.

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