An interesting paper came up in my Twitter feed. Neuroscientist Paul Cisek notes that many of our current models on how the mind works come from dualistic traditions, as well as psychological ones that were heavily influenced by dualism. He sees the concept of cognition having largely been created after dualism was abandoned. It made up for the missing non-physical aspect of the mind, sitting between perception and action.
In the paper, he proposes remodeling our concepts by studying the evolutionary biology of the brain. Along those lines, he provides an overview of the functional evolution of the vertebrate brain, from the earliest nervous systems up through the primate lineage.
Central to this view is the idea that living organisms are control systems designed to maintain their state within certain homeostatic parameters. Behavior should be seen as an elaboration of that control into the environment, control that is in a tight sensorimotor feedback loop. (There’s a lot of resonance here with Antonio Damasio’s biological value idea.)
There’s a lot in this paper, and it’s fairly technical. But I also came across a couple of videos of talks where he presents his ideas, although without the evolutionary history analysis. Here’s the short one. It’s about 49 minutes.
Some of us where having a discussion about how different regions of the brain talk with each other and the loops that are involved. This fits right along with Cisek’s ideas. All behavior is an ongoing loop of stimulus, a proliferation of possible actions in competition with one or two winning, followed by the next stimulus.
I’m intrigued by the possibility that the binding problem isn’t really a problem. The dorsal vision stream, the “where” stream, feeds into action selection, and the ventral stream, the “what” one, is used later by that process. Object identification becomes a detail of action selection.
All that said, I’m not entirely convinced that Cisek succeeds here in obviating the concept of cognition. Most of what he’s talking about seems to involve minimal foresight. Certainly, as he indicates, that is most of what animals do. And, lets be honest, it’s a lot of what humans do.
But humans also spend a good amount of time planning, both in the short and longer term. A lot of the actions he discusses actually happen below the level of consciousness in humans. Consciousness itself seems to be reserved for dealing with novel situations, where short term planning is needed, or longer term contemplation, such as planning the chess moves he dismisses.
All of which is to say, I’m not sure where imagination or introspection fit in his framework. It seems to be mostly concerned with in-the-moment decisions. And within that scope, I don’t know that his view of how this works is all that different from the conventional versions.
Still, the idea of analyzing mental functions by looking at evolutionary history appeals to me. The recent developments showing that the hippocampus, which was understood to be crucial for memory, is actually a navigation system, puts the evolution of memory into context of why early animals needed it. I suspect many of our “higher order” cognitive functions have similar grounded origins.