A Biological Theory To Underpin Cognitive Behavior Management: There are fundamental laws about complex systems, but they are new kinds of laws. They are laws of structure and organization and scale, and they simply vanish when you focus on the individual constituents of a complex system – just as the psychology of a lynch mob vanishes when you interview individual participants.” The brain-mind question is, according to one neurologist, a question of the survival of the fittest. Perceptual categorization is the first step, and it is crucial for learning, but is not something fixed, something that occurs once and for all. The evolution of thought allows for learning.
Reductionism in search of cause and effect concerning animal behavior is simply not helpful in its present state. While one cannot ignore the biogenic aspects of behavior, it is absurd and irresponsible to suggest that a ‘chemical imbalance’ is responsible for behavior. While it is clearly true that electrochemical process must take place for any behavior to take place and that a genetic propensity allows for optional levels of performance to be available, reduction of mind to brain is simply not a valid approach.
There is an acute incompatibility between observations and existing theories about the mind which has pressed science to develop A New Vision of the Mind. Oliver Sacks in his article of that name, suggests that new theories arise from a crisis in scientific understanding, which virtually excludes the concepts of ‘mind’ and consciousness’. The new vision that he reports on is a theory developed by Gerald Edelman with his colleagues at the Neurosciences Institute at Rockefeller University. This biological theory of the mind, which he calls neural Darwinism, of the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection [TNGS], serves quite well as the underpinnings for the management of cognitive behavior. What follows is a synopsis of the Sacks article. Any errors in concept or intent are mine.
The answer Edelman proposes, is that an evolutionary process takes place – not one that selects organisms and takes millions of years, but one that occurs within each particular organism, and within its lifetime, by competition among cells, or selection of cells for, [or rather groups of cells] in the brain.
Edelman discusses two kinds of selection in the evolution of the nervous system; ‘developmental’ and ‘experimental’. The first takes place largely before birth. The genetic instructions in each organism provide general constraints for neural development, but they cannot specify the exact destination of each developing nerve cell, for these grow and die, migrate in great numbers and in entirely unpredictable ways; all of them are ‘gypsies’, as Edelman likes to say. Thus the vicissitudes of fetal development themselves produce in every brain unique patterns of neurons and neuronal groups [‘developmental selection’]. Even identical twins with identical genes will not have identical brains at birth; the fine details of cortical circuitry will be quite different. Such variability, Edelman points out, would be a catastrophe in virtually any mechanical or computational system, where exactness and reproducibility are of the essence, But in a system in which selection is central, the consequences are different, here variation and diversity are themselves of the essence.
The creature is born, thrown into the world, there to be exposed to a new form of selection based upon experience [‘experiential selection’]. Despite a sudden, incomprehensible [perhaps terrifying] explosion of electromagnetic radiation, sound waves, and chemical stimuli; the world encountered is not one of complete meaninglessness and pandemonium, for the infant shows selective attention and preferences from the start. These (innate) biases, Edelman calls ‘values’. Such values are essential for adaptation and survival. These ‘values’ – drives, instincts, intentionalities – serve to weigh experiences differently, to orient the organism toward survival and adaptation, to allow what Edelman calls ‘categorization on value’. ‘Values’ are experienced, internally, as feelings: without feeling there can be no animal life. Cognitive approaches acknowledge that emotions place value; thus what a person loves or hates are the most important objects, propositions or schema to them. This is highly compatible with the ‘value’ of Edelman.
At a more elementary physiological level, there are various sensory and motor ‘givens’, from the reflexes that automatically occur [for example the response to pain] to innate mechanisms in the brain, as, for example, the feature detectors in the visual cortex that, as soon as they are activated, detect verticals, horizontals, angles, etc., in the visual world. Thus we have a certain amount of basic equipment; but very little else is programmed or built in.
It is up to the infant animal, to create its own categories and to use them to make sense of, to construct a world – and its not just a world that the infant constructs, but its own world, a world constituted from the first by personal meaning and reference. The personality of the individual is just such a construction, built upon the ‘categories’ which make up the schema which make up the whole person.
A unique neuronal pattern of connections is created and then, experience acts upon this pattern, modifying it by selectively strengthening or weakening connections between neuronal groups, or creating entirely new connections.
The connection that Edelman identifies are what might be referred to by some biologists as ‘hard-wiring’. However, as we shall see, the wiring is not so ‘hard’ after all.
Thus experience itself is not passive, a matter of ‘impressions’ or ‘sense-data’, but active, and constructed by the organism from the start. Every perception … is an act of creation. This perceptual generalization is dynamic and not static, and depends on the active and incessant orchestration of countless details. Such a correlation is possible because of the very rich connections between the brain’s map connections, which are reciprocal, and may contain millions of fibers. A continuous ‘communication’ occurs between the active maps themselves, which enables a coherent construct such as ‘chair’ to be made.
The outputs of innumerable maps not only compliment one another at a perceptual level but are built at higher and higher levels. The brain ‘categorizes its own categorizations’, and does so by a process that can ascend indefinitely to yield more generalized pictures of the world, providing a world view.
This re-entrant signaling is different from the process of ‘feedback’, which merely corrects errors. At higher levels, where flexibility and individuality are all-important and where new powers and new functions are needed and created, one requires a mechanism that can construct, not just control and correct.
The construction of perceptual categorizations and maps, the capacity for generalization made possible by reentrant signaling, is the beginning of psychic development, and far precedes the development of consciousness or mind, or of attention or concept formation – yet it is a prerequisite for all of these. Perceptual categorization is the first step, and it is crucial for learning, but is not something fixed, something that occurs once and for all. On the contrary – there is then a continual recategorization, and this itself constitutes memory. Unlike computer-based memory, brain-based memory is inexact, but it is also capable of great degrees of generalization.
Primary consciousness is the state of being mentally aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present. But it is not accompanied by any sense of [being] a person with a past and a future…In contrast, higher-order consciousness involves the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts and affections, It embodies a model of the personal, and the past and future as well as the present…It is what we as humans have in addition to primary consciousness. Edelman
The essential achievement of primary consciousness is to bring together the many categorizations involved in perception into a scene. The advantage of this is that ‘events that may have had significance to an animal’s past learning can be related to new events.’ The relation established will not be a causal one, one necessarily related to anything in the outside world; it will be an individual (or ‘subjective’) one, based on what has had ‘value’ or ‘meaning’ for the animal in the past. The ‘scene’ is not an image, not a picture, but is a correlation between different kinds of categorization.
Higher order consciousness arises from primary consciousness- it supplements it, it does not replace it. It is dependent on the evolutionary development of language, together with the evolution of symbols, of cultural exchange; and with this brings an unprecedented power of detachment, generation, and reflection, so that finally self-consciousness is achieved, the consciousness of being a self in the world, with human experience and imagination to call upon.
Higher order consciousness allows us to reflect, to introspect, to draw upon culture and history, and to achieve by means of a new order of development and mind. To become conscious of being conscious, Edelman stresses, systems of memory must be related to representation of a self. This is not possible unless the contents, the ‘scenes’, of primary consciousness are subjected to a further process and are themselves recategorized.
Language immensely facilitates and expands this by making possible previously unattainable conceptual and symbolic powers. The use of words to describe the variation of emotional levels is the cognitive construct which links here. Teaching a person to discriminate between rage and irritation is not simply an expansion of vocabulary; it is an expansion of conceptual and symbolic powers making possible new links.
Thus two steps, two reentrant processes, are envisaged. First, the linking of primary (emotional or ‘value-category’) memory with current perception – a perceptual ‘bootstrapping’, that creates primary consciousness; second, a linking between symbolic memory [cognitive] and conceptual centers – the ‘semantic boot strapping’ necessary for higher consciousness. “Consciousness of consciousness” becomes possible.
In suggesting the necessity for flexibility in the classification process, Sacks relates that the theory suggests that the body-image of a person is not fixed, but plastic and dynamic, and dependent upon a continual inflow of experience and use; and that if there is continuing interference with one’s perception of a limb or its use, there is not only a rapid loss of its cerebral map, but a rapid remapping of the rest of the body which then excludes the limb itself.
Such an experience is not unlike the cognitive restructuring process in which present schema are disputed and replaced. Repetition soon overwhelms the memories [schema] providing that the continual inflow of experience provides evidence of a better way to predict and control future events. The term ‘hardwiring’ is obviously not appropriate for the ‘experimental’ evolutionary process although it may be for the developmental. For purposes of ‘higher consciousness’ the theory allows for the very changes that cognitive restructuring requires.
A companion article by Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi called ‘Neural Darwinism; the brain as a selectional system’ is available to outline the scientific details of the theory and the biological bases of psychological phenomena, which is not necessary for the average reader. Both articles, however, can be found in NATURE’S IMAGINATION, edited by John Cornwell and published by the Oxford university Press in 1955.
While the theory holds much promise, we will need to continue to seek and document its compatibility with the learning theory processes of cognitive behavior management.