River rafters confront rapids.

Taking Stock

With the topics I’ve introduced so far, I have tried to show how biological, psychological and social approaches support each other in accounting for our experiences. I would like to be clear about what is excluded in using these paths to understanding. There are pseudoscientific and parascientific approaches that I would like to avoid, though they appeal to many people. For example, we might mistakenly try to explain the successes of mental effort as the outcome of morphic resonance or attempt to make sense of eye movements with neuro-linguistic programming or explain our street-talk symptoms of brain fog as adrenal fatigue.

It’s time to take stock and make sure that the cognitive barns erected by psychologists to hold the collections of behaviors I’ve been discussing are not too fantastic. It’s easy to show that confusion and fatigue are not mere metaphors, but where do those experiences, along with pain and mental effort,  extend beyond measurement into fantasy?

The temptation to resolve questions with mental shortcuts is common for all who think they confront a VUCA world, which in fact has been around for generations.

One dangerous shortcut in explaining behavioral puzzles is to treat the patterns we observe as invented reality. For example, an addiction schema links drug-taking patterns of behavior. We convince ourselves that the patterns are real processes rather than just interpretations, and addiction becomes a “thing” in the brain that we use to explain the drug-taking behavior!

I will reify, or make things out of, mental processes throughout the blog. It’s important to remember the reality: a distributed parallel-processing mind that we can’t begin to visualize. The “thing” is a psychological construct. It’s just our notion about how an observed pattern works.

Useful constructs, such as motivational “drive”, are validated to make sure they aren’t fantasies. But sometimes we tend to see connections that sometimes aren’t really there, because of two cognitive quirks called apophenia and pareidolia. Such connections have led people to propose less successful constructs like nervous breakdowns, hysteria, neurasthenia. We need to be cautious about using constructs to fill in for missing facts, as when we use “instinct” and “emergence” to explain ultimate and proximate causes of behavior.

In fact, the way we posit a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world to explain our stress illustrates the problem we face. There is not really a VUCA world; rather, “VUCA” is a subjective response to our uncertainties and unpreparedness, which we have labeled as if it were an objective reality. There’s also a danger in looking at our confusion, fatigue, boredom, pain and mental effort as purely situational, too, because it’s hard to measure them.

But the step that will lead to rejecting mental states as worth any of our time is to base them on psychic energy (orgone, libido, thanatos, qi) that can’t be measured. To avoid that dangerous step for the psychological states I have discussed so far, it’s worth giving that idea a second look.

A psychic consults a crystal ball.

BIO: Signaling among neurons and routine maintenance in the brain do require energy, and neurons rely on glia to stay active, particularly astrocytes. The immediate sources of energy, ATP molecules, are maintained by the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, which supplies all the sugar the brain needs for energy and the nutrients for health. We can ignore advertisements for candy and brain food.

When it comes to an exchange of energy between the brain and the mind, we are on shakier ground. Mental effort is a physical resource in the sense that it consumes energy, but only about 12 watts and it’s a complex relationship.

The brain does use energy. We sort of think we can get a measure of brain energy with imaging techniques like fMRI, but measures of mental energy tend to be questionnaires asking people how they feel, what their goals are, or how productive they are. If we suppose we must have minds because of how we feel, then mental energy is a record of how the mind changes over time. But I haven’t seen anything like a mental joule. Could we ever prioritize mental tasks by their energy consumption like we prioritize brain energy? Or do you think we could find the proportion of brain energy accounted for by the mental energy expended in emotion?

PSYCHO:  Alas, there is no peculiarly mental form of energy that can influence neurons or organize behavior. When Sigmund Freud or Wilhelm Reich referred to mental energy, they were apparently using the term as a metaphor without ever providing operational definitions. When any of us detects “good vibes” or “bad vibes” we may be attributing our emotions to sensations that escape conscious detection.

We could explain unexpected events as the results of random chance, but unexpected events are of course uncertain and uneven in their consequences. Luck always tilts the field, probably more than we find comfortable, which leads to a lot of rituals that probably represent resilience. The stress that never leaves us is uncertainty, and superstition always makes us feel safer. Apparently we evolved this way. “Nature makes chance, humans make luck.”

Most of us are cognitive misers, as Keith Stanovich put it, and unwilling to expend effort to solve a problem well when an easier but uncertain solution is at hand. You can test this tendency in yourself here and find the hard(er) and correcter solutions there and yonder.

As well as being random, much of what happens to us is ambiguous. We hate uncertainty, and all bottom-up sensation is ambiguous, without meaning, so sometimes it generates anxiety.

In everyday life, our dislike of uncertainty drives us to make up our own explanations for why things happen and how they work, based on little evidence. We just ignore the details, along with other everyday mysteries.

SOCIAL: Participation in groups adds another trap for the unwary to the problems of attributing our inner states to an ambiguous and uncertain environment. Social patterns may be seen as causes of individual behavior when they are, in fact, generated by those individual decisions. This is emergence.

This is understood best on the biological level. Bruce Lipton has been elaborating on the “community of cells” idea for decades, arguing that our individuality in fact emerges from the collective behavior of the cells that compose our bodies.

From untold trillions of interactions, new phenomena emerge that could not have been predicted from elementary cells. There has been some effort to identify its origin as self-organized criticality, which is still a malleable concept.

Emergence can get tricky. (Listen at 22-23 min. and mainly from 46 min.) Now imagine an emergence controlled by genes across dozens or thousands of organisms in social networks: stigmergy. It creates patterns that the constituents are not aware of. Will our neurons work like termite mounds? (The notion has its skeptics.)

It has become popular to say that mind emerges from brain activity. This sometimes says nothing more than that when enough neurons are in touch with each other, consciousness occurs. What is  omitted is any notion of causation or mechanism. The biopsychosocial model collapses to just a hierarchy of complexity that critics have dismissed as “the invocation of magic”.

There are attempts to explain emergence more clearly, in terms of top-down control and constructs that put boundaries on emergent processes or models that confront the curious scaling problems of emergence. (The success of mechanisms like strange loops and quantum entanglement may emerge strongly only in a mind thoroughly familiar with physics.) Nevertheless, emergence as a cause of behavior reflects an outcome of interaction among the group’s members, so despite claims to the contrary I would not regard crowdsourcing as an example of emergence.

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