The simulaton life is a rich life experience provided by training our
minds to consider simulations of natural and human phenomena often
in order to gain depth in understanding, awareness, and compassion.
Book text is in a living document format, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. In other words, you are free to share this work for non-commercial purposes as long as you don't create derivative works of this material, attribute me as the author, and keep this license notice intact. For more information about this Creative Commons license, please visit: http://CreativeCommons.org.
neuroscience and a theory of mind
In chapter 1 we contemplated how a simulaton life is affected by our simulated reality. We reviewed the current theories on how external stimuli become inputs to our brains and gained some comfort that those theories were reasonable enough for our purposes. We concluded that the inner workings of the brain were significantly more complicated than our sensory organs and motivated why understanding those workings might be useful to us. We considered the hypothesis that the inner workings of the brain were just as important (if not more) as our sensory capabilities in shaping our day-to-day reality. We can linger here in chapter 2 to consider the brain's contribution to creating our mind. Chapter 3 provides a useful overlapping perspective.
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system in all of its aspects. Neurology, as a branch of medicine, differs from neuroscience, in that its focus in on diagnosis and treatment of disease. Neurologists are experts who specialize in neurology and are trained to investigate, or diagnose and treat, neurological disorders — those involving the central and peripheral nervous system. Neuroscientists have been performing research that provides insight and understanding about brain functionality — regardless of disease status. Much of neuroscience looks at structures in the brain to determine how they are used to convert our senses into awareness and intelligence. Vision, hearing, touch, and taste all have strong theories of how they work and neuroscience works toward developing similar theories for the nervous system that includes the brain's processing of nervous signals.
There is no shortage of future neuroscientists gaining requisite knowledge as you read this — and yet we might want more than those we're training should the work of neurologists become highly useful to society. We can expect the rate of insight into the brain's workings to only accelerate. So much of what we know about the brain has been induced through investigating abnormalities in, and injuries to, brain anatomy. Neurology has provided humanity a valuable knowledge base — one neuroscientists use readily to guide their hypothesis formation and exploration.
As we identify and inventory all the valuable services that our brain-body provides us, and document all those sensory processes that endow us with an ongoing coherent simulation of the world around us, we naturally wonder how we experience that coherent simulation through consciousness. Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. Our consciousness seems unique to us and yet we struggle socially if we haven't sold ourselves on the belief that others experience a consciousness as well — brought on by their beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge. The philosophy of mind — the branch of philosophy that studies components of consciousness as they relate to the brain and body — sheds light on the significance our consideration of minds has on our day-to-day behavior. If you can't attribute mental states to yourself and others, you are at risk of experiencing deficit disorders of the kind described in autism, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorders, or neurotoxicity. Your willingness to attribute mental states to other species has a huge effect on your contemplation of them.
The philosophy of consciousness appears to be relevant as a component of many issues that arise in human history. For those who believe consciousness comes from without as a gift from some other phenomena, consciousness lends itself to a god view on which many of the world's religions are formed. For those who believe consciousness is an emergent property of physical phenomena within the brain-body, neuroscience becomes a field on which one expectantly awaits every new strand of evidence. For those who are looking for continuums on which consciousness can be evaluated, the definition of the scale of each continuum becomes a focus (some scales lend themselves to support other species' consciousness more than others). If we can spend time investigating what the experience of our consciousness provides us in terms of its relationship with our simulated reality, we may at least get to know consciousness better in order to try and actively engage it as an ally for actively constructing our quality of life — irrespective of where it comes from.
There is a precedent coining of the term theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") as describing the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own. That theory of mind is an important theory, especially when considering interpersonal relations. A simulaton life respects that theory and keeps it handy in the background as we share simulations with others. The theory helps us expect others to have different perspectives as to what the significance or importance of considering a simulation and finding insights through interaction may be.
More recent uses of the phrase theory of mind refer to theories about unifying aspects of brain functions that create our mind — and the opportunity that mind has to affect our consciousness. Much of neuroscience involves looking at structures in the brain and determining how they are used to convert our senses into awareness and intelligence. The theory of our senses provides a hierarchical base for us to understand the simulated reality we experience. The theory of mind looks to extend that hierarchy up further towards our consciousness. Jeff Hawkins' hierarchical temporary memory system is an example of a theory of mind that uses the term 'theory of mind' differently from its initial philosophical meaning.
Jeff Hawkins' has spent significant time and resources to revitalize a theory of mind that suggests our brain constantly takes advantage of its ability to make predictions about the world by seeing patterns. He suggests that pattern recognition is the primary purpose of the brain and sheds light on how that purpose more than any other creates the mind we rely on for higher functions of thought. Atop the sensory processing function of our brain, higher hierarchical regions of the brain predict future sensory input sequences. Lower levels interpret or control limited domains of experience such as the effector systems — organ systems of the animal body that mediate overt behavior. Higher levels of the cortical hierarchy predict the future on a longer time scale, or over a wider range of sensory input. Connections from the higher level states predispose some selected transitions in the lower level states.
Hawkins' pattern recognition theory of mind — specifically his Hierarchical Temporary Memory system — is useful in suggesting ways the simulaton life might help us gain insight and understanding. As we learn to see the world around us as a complex interaction of phenomena, and then learn to take a systematic view of how phenomena interact, we can identify patterns of behavior that then provide insight and understanding across subjects of interest. If our minds are significantly involved in pattern recognition for prediction and input for determining future behavior, we can train our senses to promote opportunities for using our pattern recognition abilities. A simulaton life pursues a wide range of experiences to seed the brain with content from which to perform pattern recognition — assuming more insight and understanding will come from detecting patterns in that content. Those experiences provide us the opportunity to hone our perception, memory, and critical thinking — capabilities that seem to be observable with modern techniques at least within the neocortex region of the brain. Pursuing a hypothesis that the neocortex is primarily a hierarchical set of pattern-recognition devices — in which complex entities are recognized as a statistical function of their constituent parts — will let us investigate the potential of a pattern-recognition theory of mind for predicting how our minds work.
Our pattern recognition abilities are dependent on the time-sequence of inputs provided to brain function. As the brain works on new time-sequenced streams of inputs, there is a lot of feedback involved — evidenced by the way neurons are organized and connected in the brain — and there is a pattern to the hierarchy of those neurons as networks that seems to be important to their function. Intentionality, one of the hallmarks of intelligence, seems to fit well with a model that proposes that the basic function of all neural networks is to make continuous predictions and then correct the stored world view through evidence coming in from the senses. The brain is a forecaster, continually predicting future events, aided by a huge amount of memory. It's not always right, but it learns and adapts based on the mistakes it makes and resulting feedback from its environment.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this perspective seems reasonable. We were surrounded by threats in our environment as our brains grew in size. If we didn't anticipate those threats from evidence provided to our senses, we did not live long enough to reproduce. Our ability to recognize patterns, and correct those patterns through new evidence, may have been our most important skill for survival in times past. As we notice rates of change accelerating in many aspects of our daily lives, our ability to recognize patterns and correct those patterns may once again become critical to our mental effectiveness — not necessarily to stay alive to reproduction, but to stay effective in interacting with the world without feeling overwhelmed or underprepared. By recognizing patterns in multiple phenomena, we can predict future events across those phenomena better. The simulaton life searches out exposure to phenomena — to gain insight and understanding associated with attempting to predict future events.
The time-sequence aspect to this theory of mind deserves some further contemplation. We have relied on a formal school system to suggest the order in which new inputs should be introduced to the brain via our senses. We grew and honed our mathematical abilities with concepts of addition and subtraction coming before concepts of multiplication, division, fractions, variables, equations, continuity, and non-linearity. The order mattered in building mental abilities in an efficient and effective manner. We learned to read and write language similarly — from simple 'see Jane run' phrases to advanced uses of vocabulary in complex sentence, paragraph, and document structures. Providing thoughtful time-sequences of inputs to our brain-body system has been a significant contribution of a formal education theory.
Many who contemplate a theory of mind suggest a good theory of mind should be able to help us predict mental processes reliably more times than not. A theory of mind can be evaluated computationally by setting up an artificial system that replicates supposed brain function. Computational approaches take advantage of the benefit of reduction by limiting the inputs, processes, and outputs associated with simulating brain function. However successful any computational approach appears to validate a theory of mind, most agree there is no guarantee the human mind comes out of that processing. The computational approaches just provide a first cut at considering the merit of a hypothesis for testing. Certainly there are a variety of brain components that have been giving anatomical names based on their diversity. And, those components are seen to become active or stay dormant in patterns in result to stimuli or thinking tasks. Humans have an emotive aspect to brain functioning that computational methods have so far had a harder time simulating. Human emotions are complicating factors in a manner that sheds light on the messiness of mindfulness we considered in the previous chapter.
If emotions are primarily the by-product mental processes, we might expect a good theory of mind to help us predict emotions. Storytellers — no matter what medium they use to tell stories — rely on theories to invoke emotion from the stories they tell. The best storytellers can make us laugh when a laugh seems necessary for our mental health. Storytellers can effectively invoke emotions that get us to support a cause when support seems necessary for action. There is plenty of evidence that inputs are tied to emotion and emotion is tied to behavior. Perhaps we can't hope to predict emotions across individuals, but a good theory might predict emotion within an individual consistently enough to be useful.
We use our knowledge of some theory of mind implicitly. We know which piece of music we can play to bring about thoughts or emotions when we recognize a pattern that suggests the likelihood. We know stimuli to create verbally to affect another person with likelihood based on patterns we've observed before. We don't care about the details of a theory necessarily when we rely on it to form our behavior. This chapter isn't really about reinforcing a particular theory of mind, but reinforcing the value of a simulaton life when considering a theory of mind — in order to consider the ramifications. The theory of mind presented so far will help us think through the potential for improving our day-to-day reality.
Like those who get excited about the potential for a unifying theory in physics, there are those who think a theory of mind that could predict aspects of human thought and behavior would provide a key to unlocking many unknown research directions for understanding our place in the world. A motivation for such thinking includes bold statements like "reverse-engineering the human brain may be regarded as the most important project in the universe." If so, a unifying theory of mind would help set the direction for many related projects.
A reasonable critique of that point of view suggests that:
"To truly reverse-engineer the human mind, we may need a real consilience, to borrow a word from the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, a coming together of workers in artificial intelligence with researchers who study the human mind from a wide range of perspectives — neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, and maybe even artists, musicians, and writers, too. The challenge of figuring out how the mind works is too complicated for even the smartest of entrepreneurs to solve on their own."