Sat 11 Mar 2006
The mind is often thought of as a continuously operating “machine” handling all the inputs and giving all the outputs that are part of our daily experience. I have come to the conclusion that our minds are more like the SETI@home project than a Cray Supercomputer. Each of the things that must be processed, whether it is your homework, lunch, breathing, interpersonal relationships, driving a car, Mozart, walking or philosophy are processed by a part of your nervious system working in teams or semi-independently on the particular task at hand.
These different processes are coupled more or less closely by the neurological connections formed by habit. It is likely that you will solve similar problems in ways that are similar those that were sucessful before. The brain’s “wiring” is connected by experience. There is obviously a lot of “wiring” that comes from instinct, and probably from “race memory” where your ancestor’s successes in solving certain problems effected the morphology and ease of developing the same “circuits” as your grandparents’.
Some people can “compartmentalize” their thoughts, while others seem to work on everything at once. This appears to be an index of how closely the various problem solving processes are coupled to the consciousness process(es).
Digestion, often thought of as just mechanical and chemical process is anything but. The gut’s enteric nervious system has approximately 100 million neurons, about as many as a snake. The Vagus nerve that connects the central and enteric nervious systems has only a few thousand neurons, so the two systems operate pretty independently. The “gut reaction” that we getis actually the result of a sophisticated process and may be the result of an important internal calculation intended to keep us alive.
Heart regulation is another example of an largely autonomous process. Your concious mind rarely is aware of this process, however yogis can control their heart rate with great precision. This process is coupled through chemical, neurological and physical routes to other processes.
Breathing is somewhat more closely coupled to the conscious processes, although still partially autonomic. It is not necessary to decide to breathe, it “just happens”! You can consciously vary your breathing by hyperventilating before a dive into a swimming pool, or hyperventilating due to a stress reaction. The Valsalva maneuver, an attempted exhalation against a closed glottis, is an example of how one process can profoundly effect the heartbeat.
The Valsalva maneuver causes a reflex bradycardia, and increased presssure on the aorta which causes a decrease in heart output. Together, these along with the decrease in arterial pressure from the low heart output cause a substantial increase in heart rate. This demonstrates how two, normally lightly coupled processes can become coupled through mechanical and other linkages, not normally in play.
More strongly coupled processes are not so clearly evident as separate entities. I first became aware of the discrete process of driving a car on a trip from Boston to Philadelphia, when I realized that I had transited the entire state of Connecticut with no conscious input or awareness of the drive. My conscious mind had been on a technical problem I was trying to solve. I had driven this route many times, and on this occasion had negotiated many lane changes, turns, traffic, fuel checks, etc. totally autonomously.
This process, obvously is dangerous and imperfect, as it only is “wired” to accomplish the tasks that have been learned. The sudden introduction of inputs, such as black ice. for which the process has not been trained can have disastrous results.
Recently there have been stories about folks taking the sleep medication Ambien sleepwalking, sleep eating and sleep driving!
If this model of loosely connected processes is applied to other aspects of the mind such as vision, hearing, pattern recognition, data input filtering, decision making, fine motor control, memory setting, memory recall (in each of the various forms), speech, planning, conscience, consciousness, etc. it can provide an interesting insight into why the mind acts as it does.
Many of these processes overlap and are coupled more or less tightly in different individuals (conscience and decision making, for example) it is clear that different individuals will have individual reactions, some of which may be bad for society or themselves. The wiring between the processes can be changed by new learning. I suspect that this is a substantial part of the mechanism by which Cognitive Behavioual Therapy works.
The mind is composed of many semi-independent processes and each provides a discrete function. Each process is effected by other processes to greater and lesser degrees, and this sometimes makes it difficult to identify a process as being a discrete entity.
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