How Does The Mind Work?

How does the mind work? The wondrous capabilities of the mind pivot around its dazzling method for exchanging signals between its alert neural organs. That method enables over 100 billion neurons, assembled in these organs, to use vast inherited and acquired memories for survival. Together, those organs are able to perceive the world, understand it and carry us through life. Our conscious experiences open but a small window into their achievements.

The process begins, when a few neural organs convert sound, light, taste, smell and touch into biochemical and electrical signals. Other judicious organs categorize these signals as objects and events.  Still more respond to recognized events with the emotional signals, which control our motor systems. We have little awareness of the massive interchange of these signals. But, a few of them mysteriously provide us our conscious view of our perceptions and actions.

How Does The Mind Work?
How Did I Become Interested In The Mind?
I used to build tall buildings.  One advantage
 of the job is that you get a lot of spare time. You have to wait a whole month after pouring concrete for the third floor to cast the fourth floor.  In 1989, I used such time to explore the absorbing world of computers.  I came across the logic used by a Prolog AI program for disease recognition. It could identify one out of 8 diseases by answering yes/no questions for 32 related symptoms.

Could the same logic be applied within a Lotus spreadsheet?  Curious, I entered the "if yes, then select the disease" formula on it to try and solve that problem.  But, there was an unwitting and fortuitous error in the logic in my formula.  For each question, instead of selecting, the error caused the program to  eliminate diseases.  The logic was reversed.  When I clicked "Yes" for one particular symptom, the inverted logic in the program eliminated 7 diseases and offered the remaining one as the identified disease.  Surprisingly, the answer was right!

A flash of light from that answer fascinated me with its implications and kept me awake for three weeks.   Science did not know how a doctor could identify one out of 8000 diseases with a glance at a patient. In the split second I had taken to enter "Yes" to just one question, an ordinary spreadsheet had correctly identified a disease.  The search had ELIMINATED!  It took three weeks for clarity to emerge.

A programmer wrote the code for my "Expert System."  For 225 eye diseases, it eliminated both irrelevant diseases and their connected questions for each answer. I presented the Expert System to a panel of doctors.  "It identified Angular Conjunctivitis without asking a single stupid question." said a doctor. The program was successfully identifying the truth in patterns.

It took three weeks for a logical outline of a real life structure of the  nervous system to emerge in my mind.  That structure fitted the publicly available facts.  All the 100 billion neurons could identify combinations.  Combinatorial patterns could work instantly.  Precise combinatorial signals between the neurons could deliver meaningful messages.  The axon hillocks of the neurons could store and retrieve boundless memories.  With such a structure, the elimination logic could identify patterns in the reported 300 milliseconds.  A Nobel Prize was awarded in 2004 for the discovery that the olfactory nerve system identifies smells by recognizing particular combinations of nerve signals. Over the next 30 years I have assembled a mass of supporting evidence and published three books.  I had an insight into  the invisible capabilities and quirks of the nervous system.

  • Pattern recognition by the mind identified by science with the discovery of how the olfactory bulb recognizes odors.
  • Animal development began, when an electrically activated nervous system replaced chemical interactions in the survival processes of groups of cells.
  • Nerve cells in the Hydra recognized and responded to patterns in the environment.
  • Receptors in the body monitor a massive range of air and liquid molecules, light patterns, sound waves and critical bodily events.
  • Those sensory patterns are recognized by neural organs as internal and external events.
  • Recognition of events by the amygdala and the insula trigger a wide range of emotions.
  • Emotions control focused attitudes and behaviors.
  • Intuition is a process, which uses elimination (inhibition) to focus the incredible wisdom of the mind on a single task.
  • Among myriad neural organs, the prefrontal regions grant us a rational view of the world, and the ability to control our minds through the focus of attention.

The neural organs store millions of years of wisdom. As an example, there are unique receptors in the olfactory bulb, which signal the recognition of toxic molecules in the air. Evolution granted the neurons in the bulb an amazing memory for those combinations (Nobel Prize, 2004) of its receptor signals, which signify life threatening odors. If the bulb identifies a foul smell, similar memories in other neural organs make us respond with a disgust related response. We feel disgust and become conscious of our impulsive withdrawal from the spoiled food. Like the images on a computer monitor, a few such glimpses of complex internal signals cascade through our consciousness.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Are The Early Beginnings Of The Nervous System?

The mind senses and responds to patterns, using a neural mechanism, which originated in the early animals. Before the arrival of animals, only multicellular organisms existed in the primeval waters on earth. They moved about and swallowed, or expelled food by contracting or expanding their cells. Such expansion and contraction was achieved through chemical signals, the forerunners of hormones. But such chemical activity diffused too slowly over larger bodies of cells and could not deliver targeted messages. A new nervous system solved these problems.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Are The Capabilities Of The Neuron?

The electrically activated system had four powerful capabilities. First, receptor cells could sense the touch of food, obstacles, or danger and fire their signals. Second, electrical signals could trigger expansion, or contraction of specific groups of motor cells. Third, neurons could interpret receptor signals and dispatch focused signals to trigger contraction, or expansion of specific parts of the cell body. Fourth, such electrical signals could be sent across the longer distances of a body of cells.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Were The Earliest Neural Functions?

The primitive Hydra, a branched tubular animal was controlled by such a neural network. The network functioned between its outside and its internal digestive cavity. Depending on where it sensed touch, the net triggered contraction of an appropriate part of its tube or its tentacles. Remembered combinations enabled the neurons to fire just the right signals to make the animal move about, or push food particles into its mouth. Strong contractions expelled indigestible material through the same orifice. Even in a primitive animal, phenomenal nerve cell memories enabled this nervous system to perceive the world, interpret it and suitably control its body for survival.

How Does The Mind Work?
How Do The Receptors Work?

Compared to the elementary touch sensitivity of the Hydra, the human mind converts the multi-sensory perceptions of millions of isolated world events into nerve signals. Typically, when an odorant molecule locks on to an odor receptor, calcium channels in the membranes of the nerves open and calcium ions pour inside, generating the electrical charge of a nerve signal. Such signals are carried by peripheral nerves to the central nervous system. Chemoreceptors in the tongue report taste. Other receptors are massed together to form sense organs such as the eye and the ear. Chemicals from damaged tissue cause nociceptors to fire and report pain.

There are more receptors, which fire signals to indicate recognition of sharp pain, burning pain, cool or warm temperature, itching, muscle contraction, muscle burn because of lactic acid, joint movements, soft touch, mechanical stress, tickling, flushing, hunger and thirst! The mind constantly monitors the internal and external environment with its receptors, which are sensitive to a massive range of air and liquid molecules, light patterns, sound waves and critical bodily events.

How Does The Mind Work? 
What Is Event Recognition?

The signals which monitor the environment are routed to the primary areas of the cortex. Within milliseconds, the signals jump to the secondary areas, which integrate the signal combinations from the other half of the body. This integration handles binocular vision and stereophonic sound. The combined signals travel to a complex set of neural organs, which make sense of these signals. They identify objects and events. Since the failure of any one of these organs causes a loss of a particular ability of the mind, science has been able to identify the functions of many of these organs.

The somesthetic organ receives touch sensory signals. If this region is damaged, a patient cannot feel the hardness of steel, or the softness of velvet. The somesthetic association organ recognizes objects by touch. If this organ alone is damaged, a patient can feel an object, but will not know what it is. If blindfolded, she cannot identify a pair of scissors held in her hand. When the speech association organ is damaged, a patient knows the object, but is unable to name it. These organs are powered by massive combinatorial nerve cell memories of relationships between the senses and objects and events. Once events are identified, the mind responds with motor actions.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Does The Amygdala Do?

The earliest mechanism acted to avoid pain. Nature had identified damage to the body by generating pain signals. It also developed the amygdala, an organ, which could remember which sensory signals accompanied an experience of pain. With its intensely sensitive response to sensory signals related to pain experiences, the organ exists in fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The amygdala outputs signals, which are interpreted as either fear, or anger emotions. Emotions set off attitudes and behaviors.

The body responds to each emotion with a precisely focused pattern of thought and behavior. On sensing danger, the amygdala sends fear signals to the brainstem, triggering (typically jumpy) avoidance behaviors. Fear signals raise blood pressure and heart beats. Fear, anger, or disgust signals to the facial nerves generate appropriate expressions. The amygdala is an early warning system, which triggers your emotions faster than your conscious awareness. Beginning with a simple response to fear, nature developed a wide range of emotional signals, which generate behaviors to cope with most situations in life.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Is The Role Of The Insula?

Emotional signals set off complex patterns of coping behaviors, built up over millions of years. The amygdala triggered primitive attack, or withdraw responses for reptiles. Life moved gradually on to the more cooperative lives of herds. Groups of animals had better survival chances. Nature developed the insula, which triggers social emotions. The insula triggers the pain of guilt and shame to discourage antisocial behaviors. Eisenberger's research at UCLA reports neural pain circuits were found to be activated, when a person suffers social rejection. The insula also triggers the positive emotions of love, gratitude and compassion.

The Insula also carries mirror neurons, which can sense the signs of stress in a neighbor, including facial expressions, and can proceed to internally imitate those emotions. For the whole herd, fear spread fear and relaxation brought calm. The guilty became subdued and the compassionate assisted the weak. Emotions triggered coping patterns of behavior. By sensing and sharing the pain of their group, animals acted to protect each other as well as the weak and the young.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Is The Size Of Human Memory?

Human survival is enabled by a massive assembly of knowledge in the body and in the nervous system. Genetic codes decide the structure of a fingernail, or an eyelash. The genetic DNA codes of a human being, if tightly packed into 500 page books, will fill the Grand Canyon 50 times over with those books! A similarly unimaginable store of neural combinatorial codes control the signals of neural organs. Intuition works by instantly inhibiting whole sections of the system, when it does not recognize a received signal.

How Does The Mind Work?
How Does Intuition Process Combinatorial Memories?

Typically, combinatorial memories in the spinal cord smoothly orchestrate the movement of 60,000 muscles, inhibiting opposing actions, sometimes up to 10,000 times a second! This intuitive process enables each neural organ to be independent, while the received impulses grant them sensitivity to every other organ. With millions of dendritic inputs, each neural organ can monitor the myriad dimensions of the mind. Vision can have an impact on pain and despair, on blood pressure.

How Does The Mind Work?
How Does Intuition Work With Inhibition?

Inhibition works to eliminate alternatives for every decision of the nervous system. As someone said "When a tiger bounds towards you, what should your response be? Should you file your toenails? Do a cartwheel? Sing a song? Is this the moment to run an uncountable number of randomly generated response possibilities through the decision rule?" Animals cannot afford to freeze into immobility, unable decide between chewing grass and drinking water. Intelligent action, pivotal for survival, mandates a swift logic, which ceaselessly narrows possibilities down to a single answer. Nature's logic evaluates myriad known possibilities to choose one option for action. If the choice is to chew grass, the drive to quench thirst is instantly inhibited.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Do The Prefrontal Regions Do?
The prefrontal regions (PFR) have access to the global wisdom of the mind. The signals fired in this organ grant you a multi-dimensioned view of life. Its combinatorial memories process the unemotional judgments of the mind.  Unfortunately, the early warning systems in the amygdalae react to negative events before the prefrontal regions can truly assess a situation. While it takes around 300 milliseconds for the PFR to become aware of a disturbing event, the amygdalae react to it within 20 milliseconds!

The results cause you gut wrenching turmoil. Sadly, the knee-jerk responses of these emotion organs cause you to overreact to the world around you. Their momentary mischief in the morning can subconsciously trouble you the whole day. An awareness of the mechanism can enable you to effectively still their ill effects and recover your peace of mind.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Is The Real I?
Just like your visual experience of the sunset, the claustrum provides the current real time view of the system to all relevant regions of your brain. We call that view "consciousness." It is a subset of human perception. Just the way it recognizes a living intelligence in a barking dog, the brain recognizes an "I" as a real entity.  The "I" has a three dimensional view of the world, makes decisions and experiences life.  The brain locates this entity in an actual physical location, behind our eyes and in front of the back of our heads.

Even with eyes closed, the brain knows the positions of our arms and legs relative to such an "I." Muscles, tendons, joints, and the inner ear contain proprioceptors, (stretch receptors), that provide this information. The brain concludes that "I" is a physical entity with a mysterious perception of the world. An independent "I" in the brain is no more real than an "I" in a thermostat. Such an "I" is a confused mental construct.

How Does The Mind Work?
How Does Attention Help?

Your brain has this instant ability to switch your focus by inhibiting irrelevant neural activity. Your attention can be diverted by any region.  A pinprick on your skin can divert your attention.  An animal either drinks, or it chews grass. The system usually chooses. The choice inhibits irrelevant systems, and activates the motor systems, which then focus you.  Your PFR can also set your focus of attention.  If you decide to count up to ten, your anger will reduce. You will become more tactful towards your opponent. An awareness of the physical symptoms accompanying emotions can also instantly still activity in the amygdala. This website presents you with ways to still negative emotions. But, all these require a little practice.

How Does The Mind Work?
What Is Combinatorial Coding?

This brief description assumes that the wisdom of combinatorial coding makes the mind work. That process can explain the most powerful living intelligence on earth. Whatever may be your condition in life, nature has granted you this immense wisdom. Its pattern recognition mechanisms enable you to feel the emotions of joys, wonder and awe. They enable you to fathom and understand the complexity of the cosmos. Make that mind work for your peace and happiness.

This page was last updated on 31-Dec-2013

Jordan Peterson - Happiness
Can Artificial Intelligence Replace Humans?

JUST THINK...   What happens when you begin to talk? Your nervous system has picked an emotion. It has articulated an idea around it, chosen apt words from a vocabulary of thousands of words, arranged them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusted the pitch of your voice. Before you speak you've no consciousness of the words you will use. Who's actually in charge?  This question leads to the question "What is consciousness itself?" Is consciousness a spirit living in a human body?  Is it a mystical life form that emerges from the nervous system?  This is the hard problem of consciousness.