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The Origin, Evolution and Functions of the Human Mind
Considering the Brain’s Neurophysiology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Psychology
Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualization
Thought, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
Content of this essay:
1. Origin of the Brain and Mind: A New Energy Cycle on Earth leads to Mobility, Sensors, and Signal Processing for Strategy Formation – with some Structural Variations
2. Fundamental Capabilities Leading to the Human “Mind”: Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
3. The Basic Functions: Thought Sequencing, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
4. The Abstract, or “Virtual”, Functions: Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
1. Origin of the Brain and Mind: A New Energy Cycle on Earth leads to Mobility, Sensors, and Signal Processing for Strategy Formation – with some Structural Variations
Human mental capabilities, or functions, are understood and described by a variety of linguistic concepts. These concepts are the result of the human effort to arrive at an understanding of the esoteric nature of human mental existence. The great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome distinguished three aspects of human existence: soul (psyche = breath, principle of life, anima); mind (noos or logos, which means “knowing” and also “word”); and body. The early Christian era emphasized the key concept of “soul” as the essence of human mental or “transcendental” existence (beyond the physical one). Then, during the Renaissance, and more so with the Enlightenment and following Romanticism, the concepts of reason and emotions moved to the foreground. In modern times, psychology and neurophysiology (combined with cognitive psychology) arrived at new understandings of human brain functions or mental characteristics. In our time, the concepts of “human spirit” or “human mind” are most commonly used and, decreasingly, still the concept of “soul”. When going into further detail, there are several more concepts describing the specific functions of the human spirit or mind – specifically, reason, emotions, morals, personality, character, values, and art.
The two concepts of “human spirit” and “human mind” are similar in meaning but are not fully identical. In the French language, only the concept of ésprit humain is commonly used, and in German only der menschliche Geist. But the Italian and Spanish languages both permit the common usage of spirito/espiritu or mente.
In English/American usage, the concept of spirit is commonly used to represent the totality of an individual’s thought, emotions, character, and behavior; almost like a homunculus within the brain, very close to the traditional concept of the soul (a concept still very much in use among religious and spiritualistic groups, where it is often seen as the center of human sensation, cognition, and, mainly, personality). The concept of mind is commonly used to denote the mental consequences of the functioning of the brain, but more the thought processes than the emotional aspects of mental existence.
In a contemporary scientific perspective, emphasis is placed on the connection between the structure and functioning of the brain and that of human mental existence. Therefore, and for reasons of simplicity, the following essay will use only the concept of “mind” to denote the full spectrum of human mental capabilities or brain functions – including emotions, thought, visualizations, mental creativity, ethical thought or judgment, personality, artistic or aesthetic sensitivity, spiritual/religious sensations or visions, and more.
Linear nerve pathways permit reflexive behavior (if you burn your finger, your arm twitches and retracts the hand with that finger). A significant step in evolution occurred when a nerve began to act on another nerve. Two nerves with feedback to each other allow the formation of a “flip-flop” for “on-off” behavior with memory – with alternating dominance of one nerve over the other. More complex interconnections between nerves allow for complex memory and complex responses, leading evolution to form networks of nerves and, finally, brains.
Evolution brought the development of a variety of “neurotransmitter” substances for a biochemical signal transmission at contact points between various nerves. Thereby, biochemistry became a controlling factor in brain functions. The variety of neurotransmitters, some of them specialized for different functions in the body and brain, allowed for differentiated physiological influences on body and brain functions – as by other biochemical substances produced by the body, for example, adrenalin or dopamine in connection with emotions.
Large accumulations of interconnected nerves appeared in evolution close to the output of the most important sensors – for fast response, increasingly influenced by signal recognition and memory. This, in turn, led to the formation of the complex brains of mammals. The expansion of the brain cortex, mainly in its frontal regions, led not only to greater memory but, of equal or greater importance, to an increase in interconnectivity and greater addressability of memory elements – through augmentation of the white matter of the brain consisting of such interconnections. Thus, there appeared higher capabilities for mental creativity (intelligence) and strategy formulation – commensurate with a higher degree of consciousness – as well as language skills.
Certain midbrain functions specializing in the processing of emotions must have developed very early in the evolution of animals. This allowed for the fast and economic summary assessment of situations needed for such basic reactions as “fight or flight”. More importantly, “emotions” are the foundation of ethics and our human system of values that give structure, direction, meaning, and “value” to our lives.
The cerebellum (almost a second brain) evolved to assume routine motor coordination and controls, including those of skilled athletes, drivers, and musicians. It is quite a mystery how this second brain could have been developed and could function so efficiently in parallel with the main brain. It is, however, the foundation of “multitasking”, as the ability to walk while at the same time paying attention to one’s environment – or to talk while driving.
A variety of sensors evolved, preferably in the vicinity of the existing nerve concentration (the brain), facilitating fast and skillful food search, efficient competition with other organisms, and warning of predators. This evolution continued to let organisms prevail in territorial dominance, mating, and predatory or defensive behavior.
Not only sensors, but also memory – an ever larger quantity of memory and complex memory access – became a competitive advantage for evolving organisms. This evolution has been emulated in our time by the development of computers with ever larger memory and global data or information-memory systems (for example, the success of Google and Wikipedia).
The structure of the brain and consequent mental capabilities indicate some natural structural variations among individuals. How else can right-handedness and left-handedness be defined by nature? What are the ultimate reasons for Asperger syndrome and other forms of autism? On the positive side, how can extreme talents be explained, as for music (for example, Mozart) or poetry (Shakespeare) – or the simple talent for juggling?
2. The Fundamental Capabilities Leading to the Human “Mind”: Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
Four significant steps (or significant progress) in natural evolution occurred sometime during the last tens of millions of years in establishing the human mind and controlling human life:
- the appearance of emotions
- the capability for extensive and interconnected neural memory
- the capability for recognition, to match new perceptions with existing memory
- most importantly: the capability for “visualization”, hence increasing inventiveness
These capabilities appeared in a minor way in the brains of animals, but in humans were significantly expanded and structurally differentiated. All of these capabilities became the foundation of human evolution in the progress of civilization, the formation of behavior, including creativity and intelligence (as in the analytical and mathematical pursuit of the sciences and engineering), ethics (as in the foundation of society formation), personality expression, and art. These evolutionary steps led to vastly increased consciousness, possibly free will, and spirituality. All are described in some detail below.
These evolutionary steps opened new dimensions in existence!
Computer hardware and design can be studied in a branch of physics. But is computer software a branch of physics? The new field of “computer sciences” covers the software area. Does the creation of computer music or art belong to computer science? More to the point, is the study of the “mind” a part of neurophysiology or of biochemistry – as in the study of emotions, thought, creativity, ethical values, personality, and sensitivity for art? To some extent, the fields of psychology – and, more specifically, “cognitive” psychology – have assumed the position of sciences of the “mind”. But is psychology reduced to the study of neural signaling in the brain? Is “cognitive” the right term to cover all of what constitutes the human “mind”? Maybe there is a need for a new branch of science to study the human mind and its unique dimensions, albeit one based on what we increasingly know about the brain and its biochemistry.
Following are discussions of the specific dimensions of the human mind mentioned above:
Emotions evolved as neural functions that go beyond simple reflexes (which merely lead from sensation directly to consequent muscle movement). In primitive organisms with small brains, the need to assess danger and to very quickly avoid risk – or the need to fight – may be counted as the most basic “emotion” (if one does not count hunger, pain, and other such sensations as basic emotions).
As can easily be observed, fear and aggression do not simply lead to reflexive action, but they can exist and continue independently of muscle movement, as when muscles or behavior are restrained. In this sense, emotions are the setting of general predispositions or moods leading to behavior patterns. As we know from our own experience, these can be felt in awareness as intensely as they can in sensory perceptions.
Emotions led to the valuation of human life and behavior and to human ethical “values” (which are not to be confused with economic or commercial values). Our public debate and our concerns for society return again and again to the question of the proper ethical “values” for our culture and society.
The ethical emotions were generated and anchored by natural evolution in animal and human brains. They can be differentiated into three different categories and are described in detail in a separate chapter below:
ü caring for offspring (and “family”)
ü reciprocity in behavior with chosen partners (“friends”), occurring among “social” animals
ü self-sacrifice for the good of the pack.
While “ethics” became an important branch of philosophy, not enough has been researched about natural “counter-ethics”, as in seeking revenge or retribution (for instance, by difficult–to-quantize “punishment”) and in the feeling of offended pride or honor requiring satisfaction. These important counter-ethical behavior patterns still cause extensive damage to individuals and in society. There also are the minor ethical symptoms – often exaggerated in their importance – the requirement to say “please” or “thank you” or to express an apology.
In sum, the significance of emotions has varied through natural evolution and includes:
- The fast, summary assessment of situations at low “neural cost” (brain involvement)
- The rise of variously differentiated emotions – emotions coming in many “flavors” – such as hunger, desire, love, joy, pride, sadness, aversion, loneliness, and despair
- The “ethical” emotions as a foundation of ethical “values”, often appearing as the basis of religious doctrine which is then prescribed for individuals and society: in family life, business, politics, and other areas – and the phenomena of counter-ethics.
- Emotions and values as controlling or guiding the functions or strategies of life – making life worth living or making it miserable, thus indicating what course to pursue or what to judge as acceptable or unacceptable.
The emotions, originally a simplified neural control mechanism, were greatly developed in higher animals and humans to the new phenomena of love, joy, empathy, pride, happiness – constituting the greatest gifts in human existence -- or burdens, when implying sorrow, pain, fear, loneliness, despair, commiseration, sympathy with loved ones, hopelessness – or leading to destructiveness as in seeking greatness by imperialistic warfare or in revenge. All these emotions constitute new dimensions in the progress of evolution, but they are the ones that give direction and value to our lives – or are our burden.
A curious human emotion is humor!
Some psychologists and philosophers want all emotions to be reduced to only one basic emotion, the one of feeling good or bad, happy or unhappy. This reduces all subsequent behavior to an effort to maximize personal benefit in feeling good (having fun), similar to “utility” in business theory. In this approach, such emotions as love, pride, compassion, and humor are all lumped into one emotion – also with, for example, hate, sadness, or boredom. Such compression of the consideration of emotions may be practical for some summary discussions, but it does not do justice to the diversity of existence, and it provides poor guidance in the multiplicity of situations in real life. It even becomes dangerous to confuse the need for ethical behavior, altruism, and fairness with merely seeking personal benefit in achieving happiness.
Emotions guide not only instant behavior, but also thought sequences in meditations – with possible subsequent consequences. This occurs through the “value-proportional” formation of synaptic connections between neurons, leading to preferential associative thought sequencing (see the essays on mental creativity on the website www.schwab-writings.com) as discussed later.
There is some indication that the intensity of emotions changes in the course of time – from youth to old age! Can this intensity be maintained or modified – bad emotions restrained and good ones augmented? Can we acquire a “clean heart” (see the chapter on the “Beatitudes”).
The capability for “emotions” appears with different strength among different people. Consequently, some people appear as always calm, some as “emotional” or lighthearted. Some people suffer from instantaneous and most unfortunate switches from calmness to rage when provoked (as often occurring in otherwise good marriages or between otherwise loving parents and their children), occasionally leading to severe consequences (see the large number of “violent” criminals described as generally calm and “good neighbors”, but then considered as risks to society).
Memory can exist without neural networks, as in cellular transformation (for example, getting a tan) or a predisposition for certain external stimuli, either genetically given or acquired (imprinted).
A very important step in evolution occurred with the storage of sensory perceptions in groups of neurons (through formation of “synaptic” nerve endings forming couplings between nerves of varying strength and permanence). Neural memory must be seen as the first step in the evolution of both the brain and mental capabilities.
The advantage of neural memory became apparent once the oxygen-energy cycle for organisms had occurred some 500 million years ago, whereupon organisms beyond plants had to obtain mobility in order to search for food, leading to intense competition. The remembering of prior sensory stimuli and their consequences allowed for the acquisition of experience, which led to a higher rate of success, whether in the search for suitable food or a mate or in conflict with competing or predatory organisms.
Most sensory perceptions utilize a large number of neurons for identification and for retention of essential perception elements – but the fewer the better (how many memory elements in the brain are needed for a wild animal to recognize a certain predator?). This led to an ever-increasing demand for memory in the brain. Obviously, though, this required selectivity in acquiring memory inputs. After all, we are surrounded by, and our sensors perceive, millions of impressions all the time, most of which we neglect or do not bring to awareness or memory (one possibly following from the other).
The selectivity for memory retention must be based on the significance of the perception element, itself a form of valuation. One should expect that the coincidence of a perception with a certain positive or negative valuation led to memorizing. The mechanism could have been a signal increase (increased firing rate of the neurons carrying the perception) upon strong valuation – leading to memorization. In the human brain, valuation is contributed by the amygdala nucleus and some other brain nuclei (if not by signal amplitude). Memorization is guided by the hippocampus nucleus of the brain.
This is an example of the co-activation of the analog-signaling capability of the brain (analog firing rate of nerves corresponding to valuation) with the discrete (digital) signaling in establishing specific synaptic formations (the individual memory pattern). Thereby, the brain becomes a combined analog and digital computer!
As human memory evolved, much more than mere sensory perceptions were included. This allowed a memory of emotions (as in valuation of perceptions), memory of mental “visualizations” (elements of one’s own thought) as explained later, as well as verbal concepts (including the “inner voice” as explained later), of mathematical symbols, of space, and, quite mysteriously, of time or time increments. This allowed memory to become the base for thought and consciousness (as explained below).
Memory, at least that of higher animals and humans, is symbolic, categorical, and hierarchical, as explained in the following paragraphs.
As indicated, a fully detailed description of most perceptions would require extremely large amounts of data. Because memory is limited, it must be reduced to the memorization of the essential elements of perceptions. This leads to the amazing capability of “symbolic” memory, (consequently, also to symbolic visualization and symbolic thought, as discussed later), a fundamental, and most important, breakthrough in evolution. Without this “data compression” capability, practical amounts of memory and thought could not have developed. For example, what is a lion, since all lions differ, if only slightly, from each other in appearance and possibly also in sound and smell? Yet, all lions must be readily recognized by their prey – in differentiation from other, non-dangerous animals. Symbolic presentation is somewhat related to the recognition of Aristotelian “ideals”.
Words are symbolic presentations; they become important to individuals and cultures as expressions of their inner meaning. Is all of mathematics a handling of symbolic concepts?
All types of prey, or predators, or potential mates had to be recognized as such from memory in a “categorical” manner, as individuals belonging to the same category – allowing more efficient structuring, simplifying, and handling of memory and thought. As a matter of fact, the tendency of all human thought (and, more importantly, judgment) to be categorical may be highly efficient; but, at the same time, it may also result in severe deficiencies in judgment – for example, in unfair prejudices against individuals merely for their belonging to a certain group!
The “hierarchical” structure of memory is an amazing capability, resulting in corresponding substantial efficiencies and large steps in associative sequences of thought. For example, a family pet named “Spot” may be associated with different hierarchical levels of perception – first, as a terrier, then as a dog, a mammal, an animal, a living being, and so on – yet, retained in memory only as “Spot”. What, in memory, is a family, a nation, a “democracy”? How is a letter also recognized as part of an alphabet – or as a symbol in physics to indicate a vital part of an equation, such as e = mc2?
When a new perception is very similar to an earlier, memorized perception, it becomes “recognized” by the mind. Such recognition is extremely important for the conduct of practical life, whether in the recognition of an opportunity (for food) or a danger (from a predator).
The recognition of prior sensory stimuli and, mainly, their consequences allowed for the acquisition of experience, which led to a higher rate of success, whether in the search for suitable food or a mate or in conflict with competing or predatory organisms.
The comparison of new sensory perceptions with already existing memory required neural matching of the defining elements of the new perceptions with memorized perceptions, and consequent neural activation when such matches were found. This was accomplished when new perceptions followed the same neural pathways that had established prior memory (see the extensive research recently done on “mapping” the brain). Coincidences led to recognition. “Recognition” could have occurred through simple increase in neural activity (firing rate) of the new or the matching memorized perception, thereby causing “awareness” (foreground presence in the mind). Such coupling could also lead to warning or attracting emotions (and developed valuations, such as by the amygdala nucleus in the brain) – thereby leading to suitable behavior such as feeding, mating, fleeing, or fighting.
There is more or less skillful recognition from perception by each of the senses – with each having developed its own system of recognition. Each ear has the neural structure of the cochlea for sound pitch recognition. The brain, however, can recognize one specific voice in a noisy room and the direction from which sounds arrive.
The most complex recognition occurs with the signals arriving at the brain from the large number of nerves in the retina of the eyes. This visual recognition processing takes up a significant part of the rear lower part of the brain and offers specific features for recognition of lines or edges and also of facial features – and even accomplishes three-dimensional awareness. There is indication that the large brain of some whales is similarly specialized for recognizing acoustic signals.
The concept of visualization is used in this essay to describe the appearance in the mind of images, sounds, melodies, verbal or mathematical or other symbolic concepts, tastes, fragrances, or tactile sensations independent of sensory perception. In other words, the mind can present the images of objects or any of their characteristics. For example, we can visualize a flower or the face of another person without the flower or person being present. A writer can have or search for a verbal concept in his mind. A mathematician can handle complex equations of mathematical symbols in his mind. An advertising agent – or a preacher – can handle the symbolic significance of images or words. As every composer or musician knows, a musician can have in his mind a sound, harmony, or melody without any musical instrument actually being played. Fragrances can be “visualized”.
In a neurophysiologic sense, a visualization occurs when the group of neurons required for an element of memory is activated and remains active – even beyond the duration or independently of such initial activation from outside. Such activation may occur not only through new perceptions but also through the synaptic linkage to neurons related to other memory elements as in thought sequences. Hunger can lead to the visualization of food, fear to the visualization of enemies, the mention of a town to the visualization of a person living there, et cetera. Visualizations can be not only static, like a slideshow; they also can be dynamic, like a video show in the mind.
In the case of sequences of verbal concepts, this leads to the thought phenomenon of the “inner voice”, as if thoughts were expressed in the mind by the mind’s “talking” (see the later discussion). Sequences of acoustic harmony visualizations may result in the visualization of a melody – or the music of an entire orchestra!
The most important step in the evolution of the mind – and consequent much later evolution of human civilization and culture – occurred when the brain became capable of presenting visualizations and their associative sequencing – while, most importantly, still differentiating in consciousness, between mere visualization and actual perception.
When this differentiation between visualization and actual perception is lacking, as in some forms of schizophrenia or hallucinations, thought patterns and behavior can become unrealistic. Examples are the origin of certain religions from the visualization of divine messengers taken for real – or the acceptance of some visualized divine orders – with consequences that are not always positive. Such situations are especially dangerous when the assumed divine origin of the visualization never allows for change, not even partially! This has invariably rendered the position of religious leaders or priests as especially dangerous to society (Aztecs, Baal cult, and several still-present or modern religions)!
Here is an interesting experiment: A modern person can, in a way similar to role-playing, assume religious faith in an ancient god or goddess, for example Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In a situation of intellectual uncertainty, this person can visualize Athena, then appearing in the mind, and ask for relevant advice. In a most surprising manner, the visualized Athena may in many cases present valuable advice to the petitioner! There is the reported story of a widow who once had been happily married to a valued partner. In moments of problems in life, she was able to visualize the deceased husband and obtain valuable advice from him! Some churches utilize this phenomenon by permitting their followers to mentally contact the saints of those churches.
The capability for “visualization” appears with different strength among different people. Weakness deprives a person of intuition, inventiveness, and the ability to follow the ideas of others. Excessive visualization, however, may become disruptive to the afflicted person and the surrounding society.
3. Basic Functions: Thought Sequencing, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
The phenomenon of “thought” is discussed in detail in the two essays on “Mental Creativity” in the “Brain-Mind” section of the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
“Thought” is the appearance of sequences of virtual, perception-like effects in the mind. Thought permits the formulation of mental theories, strategies, or product improvements. Thereby, the capability for thought became the most significant step in the formation of human civilizations and the evolution of practical progress.
It is typical of many neurons that they fire only for a limited period of time, as if tiring after that. As the firing of one active memory unit fades within a fraction of a second, another one, possibly the one with the strongest associative synaptic linkages to the previous one, begins firing. This establishes a sequence along the line of the strongest associations – resulting in an associative-thought sequence. This selection of the strongest associative link in thought sequencing is somewhat similar to Darwinian selectivity in the progress of the fittest.
If there are many memory elements, as in the human brain, any other memory element but the one addressed, or preferably linked, must be inhibited (kept from firing). This can be done by neural cross-connections (“bus” connections in the white matter of the brain), such as those that exist in the retina of the eye or the skin, which, respectively, improve the perception of motion or of differences such as spots or edges.
The “speed” of thought sequencing is given by neural characteristics – and may vary.
The strength of the associative link between memory elements – and, consequently, the direction of the thought sequence – is provided by several factors, principally by the emotional or biological value (as when poison, danger, or joy are experienced) of the stored memory element (provided via the amygdala and other brain nuclei). Consequently, strong negative associations are followed as readily as positive ones – possibly presenting a psychological burden – and possibly leading to copycat crimes. Willful diversion to positive associations may become necessary (to keep a “clean heart”, see the essay on the “Beatitudes”).
Many thought associations merely follow habitual usage of that link (driving home after work as if on a track). Others follow the perceived value of the consequences of the train of visualizations.
Any newly occurring signal perception with high signal strength (for example, the ringing of a telephone) can interrupt the thought sequence through the neural inhibition indicated before.
All of the above result in the mysterious capability for “thought” – to move in a virtual world, to simulate, and to project new objects, various visualizations, or alternative developments to the mind – or mathematical symbols with their implied meaning – or art.
The combination of emotions and thought (based on memory and visualization) can be seen as the appearance of the fullness of “mind” among advanced animals.
Do animals think? Dogs can be observed dreaming – indicating visualization sequences – consequently indicating the capability for thought. Predators can develop hunting strategies; consequently, they are capable of thought.
The question arises: why is there always only one foreground thought at a time (forming “awareness”)? This occurs, although there are two halves of the brain, with limited connection between the halves, thus allowing only limited inhibition of memory activation sequences between the two halves. In a mentally active state, the left (analytical) half of the brain usually prevails in awareness, whereas, in a state of rest, the right half (more image- and emotion-related) prevails – all this leading to unique inventiveness while resting. As indicated before, the cerebellum is capable of independent thought-sequencing in automated behavior, such as driving a car while talking.
Thought, in association with verbal concepts, is very common among individuals dedicated to speech or writing and appears as an “inner voice”. It may actually be a secondary phenomenon, with verbal formulation merely following the preceding perceptual thought (see some cases of mental creativity, verbal aggression and defense in debate, or some newer experiments related to the subject of “free will”).
The inner voice may actually be a nuisance, whether it appears as the tempting “voice of the devil” or in not allowing the mind to rest (although this is the key ability of poets, writers, and some founders of religions).
The great importance of speech for human mental evolution results from the fact that the evolution of speech recognition and formulation led to the evolution of more complex concepts and systems of thought. We humans especially have developed a wide hierarchy of words, much beyond the capabilities of animals, substantially contributing to cultural progress. Simple words are descriptive of single actions or objects (walk, sit, chair, table). More advanced words are summary designations of complex sequences or of groups of objects -- for example, furniture, voting, inventing, molecules, Americans). The most advanced words involve the visualization or communication of complex thought patterns or interpretations of existence (politics, research, religion, relativity theory). The use of such word concepts allows for the very much faster progression and communication of thought, a deeper understanding of existence, and less need for memory.
Given the importance of language for human thought and cultural evolution, it is interesting to note that word concepts, not having any intrinsic, invariable substance, have no unique value, varying widely from language to language and over time. Not only do words vary in sounds between different languages, they also vary in the fine nuances of coverage area of meaning, leaving some words untranslatable or turning some of them into practical new words in other languages. Since different cultures are sometimes distinguished by a different spectrum of emotions, their language becomes a distinct expression of this emotionality; consequently, it is both appreciated and guarded.
Mathematical thought, possibly no different from any other symbolic thought, became highly important as modern science discovered that nature can be understood in mathematical terms, with mathematical expressions being independent of language or cultures – as a universal “language” to communicate universally (as the “language of Creation”).
A specific aspect of thought is the fact that only certain connections of visualizations are acceptable, that there is some “recognition of truth”, some ability to follow logic. This has given rise to the mental occupation of “philosophy”.
Equally important is the ability to distinguish between actual perception and mere visualization – between reality and dream, between one’s actual surroundings and a TV show – but, at the same time, being able to widely span space and time, far beyond our own existence. Pathological failure of these capabilities is both recognized and dangerous.
The mental guidance by a given task or the nuisance of an unresolved problem is memorized in the brain – most likely by means of the hypothalamus. It is postulated that this brain center, also regulating memory fixation, provides preference to thought associations related to the given task or open problem, thereby forming a thought focus (see the essays on mental creativity on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”). The focus-related preference for a thought association and following thought sequence may be accomplished through improved firing rate for those synaptic connections.
Without such thought-sequence focusing, systematic mental work would be impossible, due to the mind’s tendency to wander in aimless thought. All efficient human life and progress in time depends upon this thought-focusing capability – as schoolteachers know very well.
The capability for “focusing” appears with different strength among different people. Lack of focusing capability leads to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which reduces the capability to learn, accomplish a given task, or follow a directed conversation. Excessive selective focusing leads to mental and behavioral obsessions (for instance, excessive cleaning or some types of collecting or hobbies) and to sectarianism or dangerous fanaticism in ideologies or religions.
Can marital love and linkage be seen as a phenomenon of natural focusing?
Creativity, the ability of the mind to arrive at new concepts of thought, strategies, practical improvements, or problem-solving, often results from pattern recognition (often as a result from well designed experiments or data collections) or, more systematically, from the combinatorial linking of memory elements or thought elements to form new, often more complex concepts (as when children play with individual building blocks and arrive at ever more complex structures). Mankind’s creativity began with the skill for fire-making (more than 1.5 million years ago) and extended to the use of tools and weapons, technical and agricultural innovation (such as irrigation), building empires, development of philosophical or religious systems of thought – or the invention of Coca-Cola and the writing of this essay.
There are various forms of creativity and different steps in the progression of creativity. A distinction shall be made between practical creativity leading to new objects or concepts and artistic creativity leading to new sensations or emotional responses. One can also distinguish various levels of creativity, from the smallest, most detailed steps to new holistic, large-scale insights or improvements – which gave rise to different levels of “intelligence” or “wisdom”.
Practical creativity can go through various steps:
- Asking the right questions (the wording of the question often predetermines the final answer)
- Initiation of the right search or the design of a suitable experiment
- Pattern recognition among multiple observations or results
- Finding or defining new concepts or structures
- Building a new or expanded system of thoughts, perceptions, or constructions
Seagulls learn to break clam shells by lifting the clams to a certain height and dropping them on rocks. Apes learn to extract insects from their hiding places by using small sticks as tools. The domination of fire may have been the most important step in early ingenuity and, specifically, in human creativity . Thus, the recognition and remembrance of successful experiences for later repetition, the building of experience, may have been the beginning of creativity.
A significant factor in human life’s success or progress is the recognition of opportunities (as they occur in most lives from time to time), the mobilization of initiative for their proper utilization, and the pursuit of the next one, leading to a culture of innovation, as in the West. Recognition of opportunities occurs when their perception reaches foreground awareness. This can be trained through examples of successful observations of this kind.
In arriving at new results or new concepts, most commonly the process of mental creativity is “combinatorial”, consisting of combining already existing memory elements or by combining systems of thought with new perceptions – reminiscent of the original evolution of all existence (see the two essays on mental creativity on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”).
Consequently, a greater volume, variety, or wider addressability of available memory elements (building blocks) – the expansion of memory and, mainly, the interconnectivity of memory elements allowing us to associate them – leads to a higher level of creativity. In teamwork, additional creativity is accomplished by the contribution of members with different educational backgrounds. Equally, new entrants to an established field or the entry of an individual into a new field of inquiry can contribute to fresh creativity. Initial usage of vaguely defined objectives or words leads to more associations and, possibly, to higher creativity!
Innovation strongly depends on an “attitude” of seeking innovation and then accepting it. Such attitude is fundamentally based on self-confidence and creative curiosity. It is of great importance to develop these characteristics of self-confidence and creative curiosity in the raising and educating of children, among the young as they find their way in life, in family coherence, and among all teams in business or politics – even when innovation may initially appear as disruptive.
Human creativity during human evolution was halting at first. But creativity became increasingly appreciated, especially in Western societies, and progressed more rapidly in our time – leading to overtaking natural evolution, as in the genetic modification of plants and, lately, in finding cures for previously incurable diseases.
Basic ethical behavior – to be defined as behavior for the benefit of other individuals, even at one’s own expense – is genetically anchored by nature as a consequence of selection for the benefit of prevailing in a harsh and competitive world – or, more importantly, among social animals, for the benefit of prevailing by means of group cohesion and efficiency in coordinated group action This evolution may have occurred through avoiding behavioral maturation of animals growing up in litters or packs and not becoming antagonistically independent individuals (e.g., wolves vs. bears). Ethical behavior is maintained by the natural reward in emotions of harmony or warm “love” (the Greek “agape”).
Natural ethical behavior – genetically anchored – can be observed in three ways:
- Caring for offspring and those close of kin, more intergenerationally forward-directed and diminishing with genetic distance – leading to wonderful family coherence and, when largely extended, to social balance and support in society – but also to problems of a “Cosa Nostra” duality of split morality between members of one’s own group and outsiders. The natural ethical response to offspring, to children, is widely used or abused in marketing and fundraising.
- Reciprocity between individuals (friendship) as occurring among social animals (as in congregating, mutual grooming, sharing of food, and assistance in fighting) – with the negative consequence in revenge for failed reciprocity or for cheating – leading to high values in friendship, to networking in business, and, ideally, to Christian love (“agape”) for other human beings – but also to problems of personal and tribal revenge behavior (including punishment). Furthermore, there are the effects of honor and vengeance when requiring “satisfaction”. Special effects are the need for “please”, “thank- you”, or demanded apologies.
- Sacrifice of own benefit, security, and even life for the benefit of the pack (as when male animals fight approaching predators to let the female animals with their young gain safety) – leading to public service engagement for the benefit of society, military service, and taxation – but also to nationalistic or religious extremes with negative consequences – as to suicide bombings.
In sum, the origin, evolution, and function of societies and the accomplishments of civilizations or cultures are largely based on healthy, balanced ethical emotions and ethical behavior among members and restraint of revenge or satisfaction needs.
These natural, ethical emotions are the foundation for the judgment of morally “good” or “bad” (often supported by religions and ideologies as they evolved and made this a center of their teaching and a convenient base of their ultimate power through the assumed right for judging or rewarding). Ethical emotions are also the foundation for the emotions of “pride” or “guilt”, as related to “conscience”, for the feeling of moral self-esteem and for communal acceptance.
There are individual variations (and variations with age) in emotional intensity. There are pathological imbalances and deviations in ethical emotions and moral judgment.
All “ethical” behavior is associated with some degree of learning – beginning with the recognition, for example, of own offspring, siblings, or parents – and decreasing with genetic distance. Most learning results from selective observation, some varying in time (see, for example, great loves and those ending in divorce).
The development of more differentiated emotions and thought led to the appearance of ethical judgment beyond the genetically given, ultimately to the complex phenomena of cultural development in societies. This occurs through inclusion of an ever wider range of individuals in the spheres of caring, reciprocity, and personal sacrifice (including charitable aid to the most remote parts of the world). It also occurs in applying ethical behavior to more complex situations – ultimately leading to ethical values for family life, social coherence (civil rights), the conduct of business, politics, international relations, and more – even to the protection of wildlife and the environment.
Moral laws of acceptable social behavior, ultimately anchored in natural human needs but mostly becoming historically anchored in religious teaching or clan culture, evolved through human history. The first written records of “moral” laws are from Urukagina, King of Lagash, in Mesopotamia, also called Uru’inimgina, approximately 2380 bc, establishing laws against abuse of the poor by the once powerful priests and presenting himself as protector of the weak, widows, and orphans. not long afterward, certain writings with “moral” teachings appeared in Egypt. Then, between 700 and 500 BC, a wave of religious and moral teachings went through mankind with the appearance of Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, and the composition of the Bible, including the emphasis on morals by Isaiah (about 750 - 700 BC). A new wave of moral teaching appeared with some Greek philosophers (Aristotle and the Stoic philosophy) and, mainly, with Jesus. Should one add from later times St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Mandela, and others?
In our time, moral laws are increasingly determined by public law based on the same general and natural human needs of all – for security, fairness, freedom, and opportunity – including punishment of violators, freeloaders, and cheaters. Punishment is an expression of natural revenge emotions (or serves a deterrent effect) or serves to isolate incurably dangerous people.
Modern public laws of behavior go far beyond the old religious moral laws – with differences in laws resulting from varying emphasis among different cultures – as for security, protection of property, equal standing of women, balancing of individual interests, protection against misleading behavior, restraint in reciprocal “vengeance”, judgment and treatment of criminals, fairness in offering opportunities, and assistance to the needy.
The evolution of ethical values goes hand in hand with the evolution of modern societies – or the deplorable lack thereof in some parts of the world.
Still, there are two directions for moral laws – either the satisfaction of emotional needs or some utilitarian considerations (such as their usefulness, their rendering of benefit). Religious laws lie somewhere in between, having originated from utility (the Ten Commandments, which do not contain any law about charity or against cheating or exploitation), but having been expanded by rather emotion-based Christian morality.
There also are two distinct attitudes concerning the acts of morality: either of each step in the behavior (process ethics) or through the justification of acts by their moral final purpose (result ethics). Great conflicts can exist between the two and damage caused – in private life and in war (as in recent large-scale bombing of cities and the abundant Muslim violence).
Finally, there is the difference between moral decision-making such that the result brings most benefit for most people (maximizing of result) versus the ethical protection of each individual (civil human rights). During wars, especially during WWII, horrible crimes were committed against large numbers of innocents in order to improve or accelerate the war’s results for all.
The preference for one or the other of the above alternative approaches to morality is mostly not a black-and-white question as in extreme cases, but one of degree in gray zones of decision-making in daily life. In other words, observation of what is going on in society leads to the conclusion that the resolution of splits in morality – emotion vs. utility, process vs. result, and benefit for the most vs. personal protection ethics – depends upon the quantitative weight and urgency of the situations. For example, each individual in our modern society is protected in his or her basic rights. Lately, however, especially after 9/11, various governments decided to authorize their air forces to possibly shoot down civilian airplanes carrying innocent people if a terrorist on board threatens to use the plane as an attack tool against a city.
An attempt is under way to allow all moral laws, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, to evolve into a “global” set of moral laws (see, for example, Hans Küng’s writings and proposals that were discussed at the United Nations). To arrive at such a global set of laws, one would need a globally accepted view of the future world, one easy to define in the coverage of basic needs but more difficult to define in terms of higher goals and ambitions (for example, must the rich support the cure of self-inflicted addictive needs of the poor? Does everybody have the right to unlimited propagation? Are local, natural resources for the benefit of local populations only? What international migration is permissible or asylum-granting mandatory? This list does not include divorce, abortion, and the human rights of various so-called “deviants” or consideration of the commonly occurring “unintended consequences”.
Ethics is also the subject of the rather verbose and involved field of moral philosophy – from Plato and Aristotle to the great teachers of various religions, thinkers of the Enlightenment (for example, regarding the question of hypothetical vs. categorical imperatives [Hume vs. Kant]), to modern thinkers – with new contradictions among them appearing all the time (for example, in the old question whether morality is, ultimately, merely selfish [Hobbes vs. Feinberg, Gauthier]). “Metaethics” attempts to provide a better definition and understanding of the terms used in the discussion of morality, and attempts to distinguish between rational and emotional aspects of moral thought. Normative ethics attempts to provide prescriptive, basic rules for moral behavior. Applied ethics is concerned with the analysis of practical, ethical behavior. Being part of the wider field of philosophy, moral philosophy attempts to use rationality (for example, in the application of the “prisoner’s dilemma” to mutual disarmament). This leads to problems when discussing the emotionality of so much of morality. While addressing some major questions, moral philosophy is not particularly suitable for deciding daily conflicts between contradictory moral demands (for example, those between family demands and those that are public or charitable and self-realization). Debates among moral philosophers are often reduced to an emotional weighing of their skillfully worded, but contradictory, intellectual arguments.
Modern thought and analysis of moral emotionality and behavior are related largely to analyzing the functioning of the human mind – consequently to the functioning of the brain and biochemistry. Therefore, there should be a new field – “neuro-moral philosophy” – with which to analyze the old questions of ethics in a new light and understanding. More realistic findings could be expected.
Differentiation between individuals of the same species is a basic tool of evolution in the subsequent prevailing of the fittest. Among humans, such individuality is significant in self-esteem and in finding purpose or direction in life. More importantly, personality influences thought, behavior, consciousness, free will, and spirituality – and practical success in life.
As was indicated before, some of the basic brain functions defining the human mind show rather wide natural variations between individuals. Some of these variations are structural (as in handedness or in serious variations as in Asperger’s syndrome, other autism, or diseases as Alzheimer’s). Some are quantitative variations, as in emotionality or the capability for visualizations or for focusing of the mind. This results in wide variations of nature-given behaviors or “personalities” between individuals.
Is the “personality” (the thoughts, values, and behavior pattern) of an individual a nature-given constant in time? Is there an evolution of personality – for individuals or for societies? One should consider the stability, variability, and also the multiplicity of expressions of individual personality (see the essay on “Personality” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” in the “Brain-Mind” section).
Personality – the behavior pattern, even the thought and value pattern of an individual – is considered stable and characteristic for a given individual. But this assumption is not comprehensively correct.
- Personality varies somewhat with age (especially during adolescence and in advanced age).
- Personality varies quickly but only temporarily in consequence of biochemical effects (drugs, alcohol, certain foods, inhaled smoke or gases)
- Personality may be changed or supported by cultural influence, but only for as long as one is immersed in or supported by that culture (such as being a member of the military, a monastery, a “congregation”, or an ideological party)
- Personality can change instantly under the influence of situations – in reaction to irritation, success, or a catastrophe
- Personality can change with one’s own thought, as in role-playing, following role models, or in consequence of one’s own determination
- Personality can change in consequence of accidents, brain tumors, and diseases
Brain physiology establishes the strength of signal projections between various midbrain nuclei and the strategy-formulating forebrain – or the lack of such signal strength, possibly in consequence of birth defect, accident (see the famous Gage case), or medical affliction.
The biochemical functioning or sensitivity of the body can be equally variable, as demonstrated by such degenerative diseases as Parkinson’s. More so, the introduction of biochemically active products into the human body can vary behavior patterns and, consequently, “personality”. For example, a cup of coffee in the morning renders a person perkier, while sedatives make one tranquil. Too much alcohol or too many addictive drugs can have a devastating impact on behavior. Medicines are available to correct some behavioral and mood problems.
Perception of the environment can result in changes of valuations of mental associations and can bring about biochemical changes in the body (for example, during phases of rage!).
Adaptation to the surrounding culture is widespread and leads to the regional or national character of populations. It also leads prescriptively to community formation, as in selective schools (in both a positive and a negative meaning), congregations, monasteries, or the military.
Learning in family settings or schools and indoctrination in religious or ideological institutions can lead to variations in the acceptability of behavior and to the stimulation or restraint of behavior. A very large amount of time and expenses is provided by families and society (and all ideologies or religions) to teach or modify personality expression!
Reaction to momentary situations demonstrates the multiplicity of potential personality expressions for each individual.
This variability indicates the possibility for induced or controlled personality change by means of setting the right circumstances for the desired personality expressions – an often overlooked but exceptionally important approach to influencing personality or personality-expression modification, whether in personal development (children), personal relations (marriage and friendship), business relations, communities, or international relations.
One’s own thought can have a substantial influence on behavior stimulation or restraint. It can lead to following role models or to role-playing – another form of the multiplicity of personality expressions.
This indicates a degree of personal responsibility for one’s own character, as given by the chosen personality expression.
Considering the large amount of resources that individuals, families, and communities expend on art – in their homes, on public spaces, on museums and theaters, in the often expensive architectural design of buildings, or in the time spent admiring art and reading fiction or poetry – one must see art as an especially important accomplishment of human evolution. For a more detailed discussion, see the essay “Aesthetics, Art, and Culture” in the section “Brain-Mind” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
There appear to be four different foundations of art as defined in our time:
- Aesthetic sensitivity
- Emotional stimulation or communication (affection)
- Attention-getting (including advocacy)
- Focusing on otherwise overlooked detail
Aesthetic sensitivity, mysterious as it may be, is sometimes related to simple physical correlations – as in musical harmonics being related to even multiples of resonating lengths – see the work of Pythagoras, who exalted his findings into religious teachings. The ideal proportions of ancient buildings offer another example. Still, the basic sensitivity for aesthetics appears to be genetically provided and a common gift of nature to mankind (and to a few animals, even some birds – mainly appearing in mate selection!). Simple decorations appear on all primitive pottery in the history of mankind. All primitive cultures developed music, both melodic and rhythmic – and, possibly, dance and rituals. The enjoyment of fragrances, tastes, tactile sensations (for example, a preference for silk over cotton) can be found in all cultures at all times.
Emotional stimulation (affection) or communication is accomplished mostly through symbolic presentation – as through the image of a great leader, the statue of a god, the picture of a hero or saint – and, in “romantic” periods, through images of beautiful scenery or of familiar settings. Stimulation can be negative – battle scenes, pictures of disasters. Music often stimulates emotions – joyful, religious, or sentimental, as well as longing – or negative, affecting by threatening noises. Fragrances can have affective effects, and not just for humans.
Use and abuse of the affective functioning of art occurs in politics, in ideological groups, in advocacy, and in commerce (marketing) through attention-getting, emotion- forming, and attention-focusing. The arousal of positive feelings of attraction by art is channeled toward the issue or product to be propagated. The most common example is the attempt to associate youthful beauty and attractiveness with the respective issue or product. On the other hand, technical aesthetics (e.g., the shape of a modern airplane), while attractive, cannot be equated with being emotionally “good” or “bad”.
Modern art increasingly uses attention-getting effects, independent of aesthetics. Such effects are too often admitted as art, even the most exotic ones, and are readily exploited in marketing or advocacy.
Focusing on detail can bring aesthetic, emotional, or intellectual responses and, thereby, become a method with which to produce “art”. This is effective, since our life is flooded with sensory inputs – far beyond what we can become “aware” of – and since modern art has opened the door to almost anything that includes any aesthetic or emotional effect – with positive or negative value. The concentration on almost any detail of, mainly, visual perception can lead to the observation of aesthetic, emotional, or attention-getting reactions. Just select a detail of observation, for example, the tiniest leaves at the end of a twig or a small patch of grass, frame them or set them on a pedestal, and the result is accepted as art – and may be interesting or even enjoyable.
4. The Abstract or “Virtual” Functions: Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
Some phenomena of the human mind appeared in evolution as “emerging” characteristics of life and thus as new dimensions in existence. On account of their virtual nature, they became concerns of philosophy – for example, consciousness and free will. Beyond that, there appeared in evolution the new phenomena of human spirituality with the consequent appearance and evolution of numerous religions, with their concept of the “soul”. In the dialogue with progressing science, the question arises whether these phenomena are real or merely “virtual” phenomena of the mind.
A meaningful discussion of this subject requires agreement on concept definitions. In this essay, consciousness shall be defined as the knowing of oneself as a person and of the surrounding world in space and time – and the resulting ability to reflect upon both within the limits of thought capability. This definition, while commonly prevalent, has not always been followed in the wide-ranging discussion of consciousness through the centuries. For many philosophers, there is often no clear distinction between momentary “awareness” – as of sensory perceptions or thought – and basic “consciousness”, as it is defined above. As in the case of so many philosophical concepts, one can easily become lost in discussions of semantics and word definitions. Science has not sharply defined the concept of consciousness either, with different scientists using different definitions.
Specifically, “awareness” is a concept different from consciousness and should be used only for the momentary foreground presence of specific mental focus – such as a worm beginning to wriggle when being poked with a stick or an animal suddenly becoming “aware” of a predator – or we becoming aware of a specific foreground phase of thought or actual perception.
The human mind can present only one focus or one thought in awareness at any one time – even though multitasking is possible by means of subconscious thought, fast awareness-switching, or use of the cerebellum part of the brain. Awareness must be analyzed in neurological terms. The neural explanation of awareness – mainly of visual perceptions – has been well presented by Christof Koch in his book The Quest for Consciousness (Roberts & Co., 2004, ISBN 0-9747077-0-8) – even though it is confusingly equated with “consciousness”.
Awareness is already given when sensory input leads to a muscular reflex, as in primitive organisms. Awareness becomes more complex when it leads to the call-up of memory and, more so, when memory elements lead to competition in consequent behavior selection or when “trains of thought” are stimulated in the human brain. At that point, awareness flows into consciousness, especially when it leads to new memory.
“Consciousness”, long discussed by philosophers and more recently by scientists , is a somewhat fuzzy concept. It is generally understood to be a holistic concept for the capability to be aware – when and if focusing on this subject – of oneself and the surrounding world in space and time. There is also the concept of the “subconscious”, the momentary or continued mental activity at low neural firing rate that does not reach awareness – as when one drives along a familiar road. When a subconscious thought reaches awareness (possibly through subconscious recognition of its importance and consequent increase in the neural firing rate), it is considered an “intuition”.
For many philosophers and for some scientists, “consciousness” is the most mysterious essence of being human. In general, and for scientists, it is very surprising that consciousness can be explained simply as a virtual effect resulting from the capability for memory recall of past sensory perceptions, visualizations, or past own thought within the concepts of time and space, thereby allowing us to gloriously transcend our individual existence. This can include all kinds of memory – visual, musical, or other.
Therefore, it is hereby posited that a certain amount of memory of past sensory perceptions, visualizations, and own thought – in their full coverage in space and time – is necessary and sufficient for a resulting amount of “consciousness”, as defined above, to occur.
As indicated earlier, memory elements in the brain are synaptically interconnected, providing for associative linkage in thought. If a primitive person saw only one chair in a hut, then the concept of “chair” would be mentally connected only to the hut, as well as possible events that occurred surrounding the chair. But when another person is a professional designer of airplane seats, then the concept of “chair” may have a much wider variety of associations, from materials used to applications and experiences with that product – thus rendering a much greater addressability of the concept chair by means of such synaptic connectivity – and rendering that person’s “consciousness” that much wider and more complex.
In sum, consciousness is as much developed as:
- the quantity and refinement of memory (also including, for example, elements of emotions, verbal concepts, and timing)
- the addressability or connectivity (complexity) of all memory
Is consciousness restricted to humans? Every dog that scratches where it itches (and stops chasing its own tail) is aware of itself. Every predator with a strategy for capturing prey is aware of its surrounding world.
A useful definition of free will should be at the beginning of any discussion of this subject but usually is lacking – because it is difficult to arrive at and agree upon. One may have to distinguish “free will” from predictability of behavior. More importantly, one may also have to ask how a person with a “free will” would decide differently from a person who lacks “free will”. Is the unrestrained expression of personal preferences equivalent to free will? Do moral and public laws establish restraints on free will? Does lack of physical or mental capability – or lack of knowledge, factual or cultural – constitute restraint on free will?
The answers come easy in extreme cases (black-and-white discussions), but are more difficult to find in “gray areas”. People do not generally jump from bridges; in this sense, they are predictable. But that does not mean they lack free will. They just do what they deem best. Addicts need drugs to satisfy their addiction. Do addictions render people totally un-free? Or do addicted individuals only do what they deem best for themselves? In general, decisions are made based on one’s natural constitution or on what one has learned, experienced, or is expected to do within one’s culture.
There can be various perspectives in the discussion of free will:
- Determinism: Neural determinism, including brain structure and signal timing effects
- Quantum mechanical effects in the brain, rendering expressions of will as phenomena of Chaos Theory
- Unpredictability occurs also on account of complex feedback phenomena in the brain
- Free will in the sense of a fully independent will, defined as being independent of the will of other individuals (for example, political or religious dominance)
- Free will as an expression of personality and selection of personal preferences. How else would a person lacking free will decide?
- Newer insight into the decision-making processes found in economic theories
Determinism, the strongest argument against free will, indicates that preconditions invariably determine outcome. Mental determinism can be seen on the physical level – on the neuro-physiological level – or on the psychological level – the learning and environmental level.
Decisions are made by brain processes. They follow synaptic connections and biochemical conditions. In sum, there is a neurological aspect of free will and determinism. The old philosophy of determinism in the physical world (for example, that by Laplace) was dissolved by the random effects of probability of quantum mechanics and by the unpredictability indicated by Chaos Theory. Study of the brain (see above) indicates a vast amount of deterministic causality of all neural effects. But the study of the brain also indicates vast areas of unpredictability, of synaptic expressions, and of signal timing – and the effect of personal preferences on neural synaptic strength formation due to personal valuations – and, consequently, on subsequent thought and decisions. This leads back to the statement that free will becomes the expression of individual personality and personal preferences – some given by nature, some acquired inadvertently, some resulting from personal deliberation.
The above consideration may render a person’s decisions predictable while also remaining the expression of a free will!
The newest experiments with decision-making in the brain indicate “subconscious” brain activity preceding conscious decisions . This is seen by some philosophers and scientists as an indication of determinism of will under the influence of neural brain functions. There may be a problem with the interpretation of this finding as determinism. After all, subconscious thought is a form of “thought” – see the two essays about mental creativity on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”. Subsequent and “aware” thought follows associative sequences in the brain, leading to verbal explanations – sometimes to “a posteriori” verbal justifications (for instance, the statements by defendants in lawsuits). It is often this subsequent verbal awareness that is remembered as the decision point; the original, subconscious thought still was the expression of that person.
Limits in decision-making result from limitations of knowledge and personality strength or weaknesses – for the latter, including the influence of culture and the environment, see the essay on personality on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”. In sum, expressions of will result from the sum of what was genetically given and what was learned. This allows for some predictability, while also leading to mitigating considerations in judging other people, specifically in criminal justice, and to approaches to the treatment of people, whether considered normal or not (“challenged”).
How would a person with a “free will” ever decide differently from a person who lacks a “free will”? Would not either person strive to express himself or herself? In other words, why should a “free” person want to be somebody different? (Many people may want to be more intelligent or more funny. Limitations of the human mind are, however, a different theme from “freedom of will”.)
Actors can play roles. Most people can assume different personality traits under different circumstances. Decisions can be changed in consequence of challenged behavior or own thought. Even “arbitrary” behavior can result from such a challenge – at least the opposite of what would have to be expected (see adolescents in opposition to their parents).
Independently free will – beyond self-expression on what one has ever learned or liked and the known constraints and expression of given personality – would require omniscience and total independence of personality factors – while still leaving, for example, the search for common benefit in a cultural setting – which, in a philosophical sense, is another restriction on “free will”.
Could preferences remain? One person may prefer one color to others, one taste to others, one fragrance to others. Does that constitute lack of free will? Would free will require absolutely no preference? That would make many decision situations irresolvable – leaving the need for action to arbitrary choice – even to requiring external decision tools such as dice when personal decisions are no longer possible.
People who cannot decide are not well suited for practical life. Nature appears to have provided for decision mechanisms in uncertainty, most likely that found in neural signal-balancing within the brain, combining sensory inputs, midbrain signals (emotions), and frontal cortex processes (thought).
It is interesting to note that even when individuals possess vast knowledge, effects that are distant in time and space are heavily discounted (for example, maintenance tasks, the need to save for a “rainy day” or for retirement, the prevention of global warming and climate change in the future).
If there is no “free will”, would we merely be like the balls in a game of pool, with no true “values”, no freedom, and, consequently, no responsibility? In sum, while “freedom of will” cannot be “proven”, and is lost in philosophical semantics, the hypothesis of “free will”, the freedom to express oneself, still provides the more viable approach to life – leaving “determinism” as an obsessive concern, if not an excuse, but also leaving the need for understanding and proper treatment for those who get into trouble and are, or feel, “guilty” – and leaving the challenge to do right in our lives.
Newer theories of decision-making in economics require differentiation in the assessment of “economic values” (utilities), often measurable, versus beliefs (as in the estimation of probabilities and risks), often given incorrect weight. Both can have emotional content.
It is an important capability of the human brain that it can arrive at decisions in the face of uncertainty – and, in most situations of practical life, does so within a relatively short time – since the resources and time for deeper analysis of situations are mostly not given.
“Soul”, defined differently by different writers, is a linguistic concept that attempts to describe some ultimate essence of a person, like a spiritual homunculus within that person (residing in the head, heart, or “gut”).
A person’s “character”, while also an expression of that person’s personality, is readily recognized to be “virtual”, merely a practical linguistic concept without any form of actual “existence”. A person’s “soul”, however, is seen as an abstract form of a person’s actual existence.
Historically, the idea of a “soul” existing independently of the body may have resulted from reflection on the status of dreaming, related to the human capability for spirituality (discussed below), religions, and beliefs in an afterlife after death. How could it be that somebody who is fully with you one moment – fully alive, but then, the next moment, dead – is seen as an immobile body, as if that person were just dreamingly absent?
Is there a “soul”? What would that be? The “essence” of a person should include that person’s personality (based largely on individual neurophysiology, biochemistry, and cultural experience), that person’s capability for perception (for example, to perceive an afterlife), and some of that person’s memory, at least enough to know who he or she is and is related to.
Why would the soul exist independent of the body or the brain? Why would the soul not be just an expression of the brain (its memory and its “personality”)? All indications point to a total interdependence within the biological body-brain “system”– as demonstrated by the effects of accidents, diseases, or aging on the brain and personality. There are no indications to ever observe the essence of a person (soul) being independent of bodily givens. In other words, the “soul” would be as variable as the conditions of the brain, changing as those do. This leaves the concept of “soul” only as a practical, linguistic expression, to describe the mental aspects of a person in a holistic way – but without any “real” content – similar to the concept of “culture”.
“Spirituality” refers to mental phenomena beyond physical perceptions or logical thought (see discussions above), expected to provide additional insight – as in visions, holistic understanding, or spiritual capabilities – as for healing. Certain spiritual experiences occur unexpectedly, others are searched for in meditation and, thereby, are personally induced.
Brain research has found that dominant, routine daily thought occurs primarily in the left side of the brain and is more detailed or quantitative. Only upon the calming of active thought does right-side activity of the brain prevail and reach awareness. This is mostly of a more geometric (visual) and holistic nature. This has led to better recognition of some situations in life and to greater creativity, even in scientific research and technical innovation (see the article on “mental creativity” on the website). But it also has led to “spiritual” experiences; see religious personalities, including Buddha and Jesus, who went to “live in the desert” to gain greater insight.
Extreme cases of meditation, sensory withdrawal, and physical imbalance through such activities as dieting can lead to “hallucinations” and virtual recognition without real content, for example, in Buddhist “enlightenment” – which has never permitted the solution of any social or practical problem.
It is known that body biochemistry influences emotions. It is equally known that emotional states can influence the body, including endocrine functions and immune responses. The correlation of meditative, “spiritual” settings with emotions can lead to the effects of medical disturbance or medical healing. “Seeing” a bad ghost can lead to loss of hair color, rashes, or digestive dysfunction; yet spiritual phenomena can also be very helpful in healing.
In most cases, moderate forms of spiritual pursuits – such as meditation and the consequent calming and regaining of a holistic view of life – can be highly beneficial.
The great importance of “spirituality” occurring in or resulting from the human mind lies in the fact that some form of “spirituality” is at the root of most or all religions – which then control human life. In the explanation of “visualization” as a mental capability in an earlier paragraph in this chapter, it was indicated how the visualizations of gods or goddesses of past religions can still lead to the impression of received communication from those visualizations.
The human mind can become captivated by “spiritual” sensations. Individuals can become captivated by ideologies or religions, closing their minds to alternatives or reality.
More dangerously, committed adherents of an ideology or religion often enter into a struggle for the expansion and supremacy of their own mental perception – similar to tribal warfare or the struggle among individuals for rank and power – some turning violent – rejecting tolerance (see the Christians in the Middle Ages, later and still now the Muslims).
The strongest foundation of ideological or religious groups lies in the forming of social groups or “congregations”.
There may be some benefit for the individual derived from belonging to a certain group. But the neurological foundation of these effects in the brain is not clear.
This may lead to the observation that the formation of religious movements and their struggle against each other corresponds to the step in natural evolution from individuals to the formation of societies and their emerging properties (see the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
In sum: The mental capability for “spirituality”, for being able to see a transcendental order beyond the practical one, may have given peace and strength to many people throughout history. On the other hand, the “spiritual” nature of such recognition – not based on practical observation, practical evaluation, and ongoing improvement – too often resulted in misguided conclusions and, therefore, to unfavorable developments for those following such guidance – not to mention the horrible consequences of religious wars and suppression.
The human mind is the greatest asset given to us by natural evolution – to improve and fulfill our lives and that of others – to pursue a more meaningful “Journey Through Time and Existence”.
History shows how specific capabilities of the human mind had different significance at different times of the evolution of human societies. Detailed observation shows how mental capabilities vary among individuals, some on account of experiences, learning, or personal effort.
This implies a degree of responsibility or challenge to develop or maintain our mental capabilities and to use them responsibly!
 This was already recognized by the earliest thinkers and is represented in various sagas, for example, the one about Prometheus bringing fire to mankind.
 This is possibly given by the hippocampus nuclei in the brain which provide for short-term (and long-term) memory and may lead, through signal enhancement and by means of cross-connections within the brain (see the white matter under the gray cortex, or the claustrum, as suggested by Francis Crick) to temporary signal suppression from other brain areas. See the essays on “mental creativity” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
 Different definitions of “consciousness” or “awareness” or the confusion between these two terms can lead to different conclusions and, sometimes, to great confusion or to rather unique philosophies. See, for example, Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, ISBN 0-395-32932-9. This confusion also rendered rather ineffective the later work by Francis Crick (co-inventor of the DNA helix, later in La Jolla, California), supported by Christof Koch, Caltech, concentrating on the investigation of “consciousness” (see Koch’s Quest for Consciousness, Roberts & Co., 2004, ISBN 0-9747077-0-8).
 The experiments by Benjamin Libet were first published in 1985, and more extensively in 1999 in the book, The Volatile Brain, PDC, ISBN 0-907845-11-8; and in 2004 in Mind Time, Harvard Univ. Press, ISBN 0-674-01846-x (presently not yet available). Libet himself does not question “free will”.
 On October 19, 2004, the German publication Gehirn und Geist published a “manifest” signed by eleven leading international scientists in the field of brain research, including Christof Koch (who had worked with Crick in California), Gerhard Roth, and Wolf Singer. They postulate the anchoring of mind and consciousness in the neural system of the body and their evolution commensurate with it.