Mind &/or Brain

IN FOCUS, 15 Nov 2021

Michael Brenner - TRANSCEND Media Service

X-ray of the head and human brain in concept of neural connections and electrical pulses. Sparkles inside the brain. Powerful mind.
Uploaded by ktsimage, Apr 27, 2019

I – Ambiguous Intelligence 

8 Nov 2021 – The question of what constitutes ‘thinking’ overlaps the issues of MIND/BRAIN. Defining, delineating and explicating self-awareness, rationality, and logic has been a perplexing challenge since time immemorial. ‘’Discovery’ of the subconscious has enormously complicated these tasks. Advances in neurology add a new dimension to the discourse. A finitude of time and competence precludes diving into that thicket. There is, though, something of a commonsensical nature that can be said about one common, if overlooked, feature of human behavior: the intelligence regression phenomenon.

Let’s begin with the elementary observation that the largest part of human behavior is habitual – when not purely instinctive. We don’t really think consciously about what we are doing or why. We just do it – whether the initial impulse arises from our reptilian brain, from socialization, or early training via a combination of inducement and coercion, i.e. manipulation of the pleasure-pain instinct. Beyond prosaic habit formation, many adults find themselves in vocations wherein their behavior is scripted. Think of the 800-callers from India, an even wider range of sales personnel making a pitch, even a candidate on the hustings delivering a stump speech. Or a priestly personage bestowing blessings. Those ritualized behaviors we accept as a natural given the calling and function and setting. The ultimate script non-thinker, of course, is the actor. S/he literally memorizes volumes of dialogues and body movements as laid down in detail by the writer and the director. Indeed, too much thinking by the actors can mess things up.

What Interests Us Here Is That Scripted Behavior Seems to Be Growing More Common

Or, more accurately, quasi-scripted behavior in roles and places where it is counter-productive.  That phenomenon, I contend, can lead us to say and do stupid things – things that are either inherently illogical/self-contradictory or run counter to the goals sought. A striking example is the prosecutorial show put on by Secretary of State William Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at their meetings with senior Chinese officials at Anchorage and Geneva a while ago.  Let’s leave aside the outright lies and misrepresentations that have become standard fare and/or the fact that the actors have a domestic political audience in mind as much as they do their opposite numbers.

First, an across-the-board denunciation of the regime your counterparts represent conveys the clear message that you view it as illegitimate, innately untrustworthy, not an interlocutor valuable with whom you can do business. Since you have a long agenda of very serious items to talk about, what is the point of creating circumstances where it is near impossible to negotiate them? That is stupid.

Second, you instruct them that they must sign onto the Western (i.e. American) American designed “rule-based” system of institutions and practices as a precondition of establishing a non-hostile relationship. Yet, it is the United States that is the world’s leader – by objective measures – in the of breaking formal rules: from the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to the infringement on Syria’s sovereignty, to the arbitrary imposition of sanctions in violation of international treaties, to the abrogation of arms control accords. In effect Washington is demanding that the PRC submit to our interpretations of their behavior while insisting on the prerogative of America to do whatever it pleases. Since it is self-evident that China never would accede to such dicta, what is the point of playing Athens in a modern-day Melian dialogue when the other side is the powerful PRC and not feeble Melos? That’s stupid.

Third, the Chinese are ultra-sensitive about their national status, past humiliations at the hands of the Western powers, about ‘face.’ These feelings are deeply entrenched for well-known civilizational and historical reasons.  So, the repeated insistence that China must accept tutelage from the West as to what is acceptable behavior domestically as well as externally in order to qualify for membership in the various international clubs run by the U.S., will immediately get their hackles up. That is stupid.

Fourth, the Biden government is considering deploying American military forces armed with tactical nuclear weapons to Taiwan. The aim would be to install what amounts to a tripwire designed to deter the PRC from an assault against the island. Ethnically and historically, Taiwan has been part of China for 1,500 years, excepting the brief interlude of Japanese occupation of ‘Formosa’ from 1896 to 1945. The founder of the present government on Taiwan, Chiang Kai-Shek, always insisted that the island he ruled was an integral territory of a sovereign Chinese state. That principal was formally accepted by those two notorious ‘pinko’ doves, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, in 1972 – and then legally confirmed by the United Nations Security Council. If deterrence were to fail, and war to break out over Taiwan, the probable result would be a nuclear conflagration killing untold millions  and crippling the United States’ existence as an organized society. Such a deployment decision by Washington would be very stupid.

Finally, a set of policies seemingly designed to place the U.S. in the role of marriage broker between Moscow and Beijing surely will be inscribed in the history books as strategic stupidity par excellence. Serial futile tries at the same objective over several months – without the slightest modulation of script – goes beyond simple stupidity; it is an ingrained pathology.

This pattern of anti-diplomacy by the most senior America officials has multiple causes. They include: ignorance, marination in the all-pervasive consensual thinking of the country’s foreign policy establishment, dogmatic faith in a cartoon version of American ‘exceptionalism,’ and political pressures back home. Question: are Blinken, Sullivan and their cohort all just ‘stupid?’  The results of an IQ test surely would indicate the answer is ‘NO.’  Indeed, I strongly suspect that were they given an exam in which their choices were presented in abstract, hypothetical terms, their responses might very well diverge from their real-world conduct. The answer likely lies elsewhere.

(Admittedly, an IQ exam taken in mid-life may well register a lower score than the one taken when 19.  A plausible guess would be up to 10 points lower. That is due mainly to the mental clutter and debris accumulated over the years that impedes clear thinking. Secondarily, distractions of various sorts could result is less concentrated attention to the exercises. Imagine sitting for the exam just a few hours after watching a ‘debate’ among 16 would-be Presidential candidates struggling to close their neuronal junctions!)

 We Should View Them as Actors in a Scripted Drama

When the script was composed – over a period of 4 administrations – they themselves might very well have made some contribution to it.  Whatever modicum of thinking was done, it happened at that stage. At this time, at this place, however, they are essentially actors whose words and moves have been laid down in advance. As to the interventions of their Chinese counterparts, they are anticipated and contingency plans made – and pains taken to ensure that any divergences from script as are necessary involve the smallest of verbal adjustments. Like the Indian guy on the 800 number call who interposes a few unscripted words in reaction to some unexpected verbal ejaculation into his performance by the party at the other end of the line. What is exceptional about these on-stage/off-stage roles is that the actors play the part in their ‘real’ lives as well. They easily become the character on-stage because they previously already were, in effect, following a script, albeit with somewhat greater flexibility and latitude for improvisation for years – in other government posts, at think tanks, on the air.

Like an actor in the Stanislavsky tradition, the script-bound official ‘lives’ the character. Blinken and Sullivan in this case surely don’t see themselves as playing a role. They implicitly assume that they have made an array of judgments and analyses that have led them to say and do what they are saying and doing. Perhaps reality is a blend of the two. That should not be encouraging.

The consequences of scripted behavior could be profound. However, its frequent occurrence should not surprise us. Its great attraction is that one is absolved from the effort and responsibility of thinking – in an age where thinking is out of fashion. The phenomenon is noticeable not just among politicos and their appointees. Think of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of University Presidents, corporate CEOs, economic ‘experts,’ baseball managers, New York Times columnists, etc, etc. *

The one exceptional group I can think of is composed of world-class classical musical artists. Most interviews invariability produce intelligent, original and rational conversation. Anybody have any ideas about this? If so, I’ll gladly pass them along.

 Conclusion: Scripting Obviates the Need for Thinking

An actor doesn’t think about his next words or movements; they’ve been memorized. If Ronald Reagan had accepted the offer to play Rick in Casablanca, he couldn’t have decided to alter those memorable lines to Ingrid Bergman: ‘We’ll never have Paris again. Time to find closure on La Gare de Lyon, erase it from your memory. Your future is Stockholm!”  A far-fetched analogy? Not really. Reflect on the behavior of American Ambassadors to the United Nations. Whether it be John Bolton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power or Nikki Haley – the same high-octane verbiage was thrown at Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, Assad and whomever else got in our way. We are hard-pressed to tell them apart on the transcripts alone. Today, our ambassador is career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield who harbors no known political ambitions. Yet, her first forays into the Security Council ring match those of her Mixed Martial Arts predecessors.

II – Thinking 

Watson:  “I am inclined to think….. 
Holmes:  ‘By all means do!” 

Back in the days when the New York Review of Books took seriously its reputation as the stellar journal of English-reading intellectuals, the editors upon occasion published long, prolix essays on the recondite topic of the Mind-Brain relationship.  I recall John Searle of Berkeley as one of the protagonists. Through dint of supreme effort and disciplined concentration, one could just about stagger to its end – by which point one had forgotten everything read before the penultimate paragraph. It all bore an uncanny resemblance to the great theologian dispute on whether the Son was OF the Father or IN the Father. So, why did one bother to read the stuff? Because it was there – like climbing K-2. The test of one’s claim to being a truly omnivorous ‘intellectual.’  Hence, were a colleague to ask: ‘Have you read….?, you honestly could answer ‘Yes.’ “What did you thing of it?” ‘Highly instructive and heuristic….’ 

That all came back to mind recently in the course of an animated exchange with a psychiatrist friend over whether the most appropriate term to be used in describing the Trumpites in Congress was “Mindless” or “Brainless.” He made a powerful case for the latter. My preference was for “Mindless.” Being persons of good will, we eventually found “common ground” in agreeing on the compromise of ‘Witless.”  Barack Obama would have been proud of us. Anyway, that exchange set me pondering whether in fact there is any reason to separate conceptually mind from brain. Neither neurologist nor psychiatrist, I began with pretty much a blank slate. Here is what I came up with.

For me the interesting question is very simple; can the Brain alone do the things we humans do? The obvious answer is ‘NO’ – as one can illustrate. Therefore, there is something else – however we conceptualize it. Beyond that, it’s always struck me as a game of words chasing words. At heart, I am averse to scholasticism – to the point of being at the edge of anti-scholasticism.  Somebody has said: “ I believe we need the construct or concept of “mind” to converse meaningfully about what we do, hope, feel. ”  Frankly, I am not particularly interested in conversing meaningfully about those things. Rather, I’m interested in what we do in the way of hope, feeling and behavior. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that any resemblance between the two is purely coincidental. 

My first, impromptu thought was that Mind is not a mere extension of the Brain, although it depends on the brain. The human race could not survive and thrive relying on the instinctive behavior programmed in the brain alone.  If one goes into shock from experiencing an event that evokes an earlier experienced trauma, the ensuing sensations do depend on the Brain’s neurological activity but that activity is neutral as to the conscious experience.

The Mind’s dependency on the brain – as receptor of data from the external environment, as storage manager, and as activator of engagement with the external world – is undeniable. It does not follow that the Brain is the initiator of action physical or mental. Consider the body’s response to an extremity of heat or cold. The Brain signals that information to the Mind by registering the physical effects in unmistakable ways. But its remedial responses are restricted to a set of ‘pre-programmed’ automatic activities, e.g. the body sweats. The Brain cannot on its own conceive of, or initiate meliorative actions beyond perhaps moving the body into the cooler shade – much less conceiving of and directing the hands to construct a permanent shelter. That is the prerogative of the Mind.

This is not to say that the Brain is a completely passive participant in mental activity. Think of information and memory. The Brain inventories it as well as stores it. The Brain is librarian as well as hard drive. As studies have shown, it does at times link discrete bits of data in nodes and clusters. (Synaptic clusters and memory engrams are the scientific terms in common usage. Here they are lumped together into the shorthand ‘clusters’).  The latter encompass several nodes that interact with each other. They thus are made available in semi-organized form to be accessed by the Mind. The decision as to what to look for is that of the Mind. Those initiatives/searches are remembered by the Brain much as a website (Amazon, Google, Facebook) remembers your previous activities on that site. In response, it automatically searches for related clusters and creates meta-clusters that can form quite complex matrixes. Moreover, this Brain activity includes bringing forward at the interface of the unconscious and conscious the clusters thereby created so that the Mind becomes aware of them and can make use of them. Intelligence of the IQ type perhaps can be measured in terms of the formation speed, number, accuracy and refinement of those clusters.

A fascinating insight into the Brain-Mind symbiosis is provided by physical archeologists and paleoanthropologists. They now have identified 6 hominoids whose brain capacity was equal to, or greater than that of homo sapiens. One other was proportionally on a par. Yet, we won the evolutionary competition despite our being physically inferior on some counts (e.g. Neanderthals. Denisovans, Harbin/’DragonMan’, Jebel Irhoud man). The key factor seems to have been the larger development of that section of the brain, (the right lateral posterior cerebellum) associated with higher level language functions and communication. The homo sapiens skull case, distinctive for being more rounded than elongated as is that of the other hominoids, evolved to accommodate that section of the brain. That is to say, those others may have had equivalent capacity to calculate, to process sensory data and to conceptualize – but were limited in their ability to verbalize it. That would have been a major disability in regard to the refinement of ideas, their transference within groups and trans-generationally and – therefore – above all the capacity to sustain reasonably complex societies and the cooperation that they institutionalize.

Clinical neurology offers some confirmation of this hypothesis. There are deep strokes that leave the individual able to read, to comprehend speech, to think. However, they have lost the ability to express anything but a few repeated sounds either verbally or in writing. They are bereft of critical neurological connectors. (The latter activity is precluded anyway by a loss of manual dexterity). Conceivably, that approximates the condition of our hominoid rivals. Perhaps, they’d be a whiz at figuring out those MENSA-type abstract line configurations we see in magazines. They only would be able to indicate with a few stacatto sounds at the right choice, though, without exclaiming “A piece of cake! Next stop MIT!” – and convey to his seatmate a strategy to get there.

Another order of ‘thinking’ problem is created by mental “pop-ups.” Either random eruptions emerging from the inventory shelves, or crude substitutions for more valuable (to the Mind’s task) clusters or ‘conditioned’ pop-ups stimulated by certain thoughts/feelings that recur. This last can result in “stupidification” – persons becoming stupider over time by the density and frequency of mental slogans and trite, ambiguous phrasing. Think of a public figure like Ted Cruz (Harvard Law) or Mike Pompeo (No. 1 in his class at West Point). However they might score today on an IQ test (albeit probably somewhat lower than the score they registered at the age of 19, as noted), their thought and behavior in purely logical terms has seriously declined.   As soon as the Brain registers phrases such as: “We have a rock-solid commitment to the protection of a democratic Taiwan;” “Russia continues to show its aggressiveness in moving its territory ever closer to NATO bases;” “the best guarantor of world stability and predictability is the rule-based international order;” ‘The U.S. is Number One, & it’s going to stay Number One – you better believe it:” “Fuck the EU…” the Brain immediately reaches for the cluster of jejune, trite phases which is ready at hand.  This can be a degenerative process – leading over time to what has been labelled Acquired Stupidity Syndrome by some nonconformist psychiatrists.

 Over Time, the Mind of This Person Lodges Itself in the Neurological Neighborhood Populated by Those Low-Grade Clusters

Some neglected items – potentially valuable – unconnected to the Mind’s conscious or even subconscious activity, gather dust in distant cells. In other words, they are relegated by the Brain to the equivalent of the satellite storage sites in the boondocks where university libraries exile unreferenced holdings. They are not shredded and incinerated. In theory, they are accessible upon request. In practice, they are inert, mute and unattended – accessible only with the greatest conscious effort. (Consequently, when Obama sets himself to meeting his contractual obligation to present a memoir, he calls on his old Chicago pal Bill Ayres to pay an extended visit and make sure to bring along his clusters).

This phenomenon is accentuated when small group dynamics come into play. Dense interaction with others whose thought processes are slow and superficial, whose behavior lacks logic and coherence, will militate toward more rapid and deeper deterioration in an individual’s functional intelligence. In the terms that we used above, clusters weaken or dissolve, new nodules and clusters are less likely to form, and the clusters that assemble simplistic (cliched) bits of information/ideas will move toward the fore of the subconscious. Moreover, this devolutionary shift will occur in response both to the individual’s own consciousness and stimuli received from others. That is to say, the ethic reinforces the emic.*  This role of groups in lowering the practical intelligence of members is not at all rare – it is observable in various settings quite frequently.  How many times have we heard the exclamation: “ I can’t understand how so many bright (IQ) people such a disjointed/confused/ misleading report/strategy/policy!”

Social Media, of Course, Contribute Significantly to This Entire Process – Accelerating and Accentuating It

[MB1] That holds for the politically literate class as well as for the general public. Zuckerberg and his accomplices were aware of this phenomenon – instinctively and based on a primitive understanding, and exploited it in order to ensnare their prey.

Currently, heavy pressure is being generated by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to direct resources and research in the field of psychiatry on brain neurology. Notable progress in mapping brain functions and their relation to mental activity, especially abnormal mental states, has generated a movement to downplay traditional approaches to understanding behavior and mental illness. However, there are crucial issues to be resolved about the significance of observed correlations between a neurological/chemical state in the brain and a psychological state in the mind; how important is the attempt to make a crisp distinction between the two?

When we focus on one or the other, aren’t we prone to make the mistake of confusing the locus of analytical attention with the point of causal primacy? That is fundamental – even elementary. Changes in either will register in the other. For causal primacy cannot be determined on the basis of a priori assumptions. The ability to trace shifts in mood/emotion through close examination of neurological activity or chemical balances cannot tell us that observable changes in body and mind are due to occurrences in one place or the other. The more exact the correlation, the more likely that this error will be committed. As for treatment, couldn’t one start at either place? or, based on the patient’s history make a reasonable estimate as to where causal primacy lay and place the main effort at amelioration there – at least at first? 

*In the instance cited above, the analogy with scripted theatre gains verisimilitude from the appearance and mannerisms of the principal actors. Blinken and Sullivan look to have been assigned their roles by central casting. Blinken is Hollywood’s notion of what a Secretary of State looks like – a real-life incarnation of Matt Damon or Brad Pitt. Sullivan is the perfect pairing: the hard-driving, rapacious hawk with the lean and hungry look who knows how to keep his scruples in check – for the greater good of the nation’s security. These days, no film director could imagine portraying either a Secretary of State or National Security Director as an elderly man wearing a 3-piece suit to mask his bulging mid-section. We only see that in English films noirs from 1949 on You Tube. Then there is Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin as a facsimile of Admiral James Greer – James Earl Jones – in The Hunt for Red October. 

NOTE: 

* EMIC/ETIC-

The Brain is EMIC but in a partial symbiotic relationship with the Mind.

The Mind is EMIT:

  1. In its relationship with the Brain; and
  2. In its relationship with the external world. It also has EMIC (or introspective) dispositions.

________________________________________________

Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. mbren@pitt.eduMore


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Nov 2021.

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