All In The Mind

Another recent New Yorker article got many of my neurons firing – it was all about how scientists are discovering ways to tune into thought patterns, and how they understand the brain a little better as a result. It is all worth reading, but this bit caught my attention especially:

‘On one of my last visits to Princeton, (Ken) Norman (chair of the psychology department at Princeton University) and I had lunch at a Japanese restaurant called Ajiten. We sat at a counter and went through the familiar script. The menus arrived; we looked them over. Norman noticed a dish he hadn’t seen before—“a new point in ramen space,” he said. Any minute now, a waiter was going to interrupt politely to ask if we were ready to order.

“You have to carve the world at its joints, and figure out: what are the situations that exist, and how do these situations work?” Norman said, while jazz played in the background. “And that’s a very complicated problem. It’s not like you’re instructed that the world has fifteen different ways of being, and here they are!” He laughed. “When you’re out in the world, you have to try to infer what situation you’re in.” We were in the lunch-at-a-Japanese-restaurant situation. I had never been to this particular restaurant, but nothing about it surprised me. This, it turns out, might be one of the highest accomplishments in nature.

Norman told me that a former student of his, Sam Gershman, likes using the terms “lumping” and “splitting” to describe how the mind’s meaning space evolves. When you encounter a new stimulus, do you lump it with a concept that’s familiar, or do you split off a new concept? When navigating a new airport, we lump its metal detector with those we’ve seen before, even if this one is a different model, color, and size. By contrast, the first time we raised our hands inside a millimetre-wave scanner—the device that has replaced the walk-through metal detector—we split off a new category.

Norman turned to how thought decoding fit into the larger story of the study of the mind. “I think we’re at a point in cognitive neuroscience where we understand a lot of the pieces of the puzzle,” he said. The cerebral cortex—a crumply sheet laid atop the rest of the brain—warps and compresses experience, emphasizing what’s important. It’s in constant communication with other brain areas, including the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure in the inner part of the temporal lobe. For years, the hippocampus was known only as the seat of memory; patients who’d had theirs removed lived in a perpetual present. Now we were seeing that the hippocampus stores summaries provided to it by the cortex: the sauce after it’s been reduced. We cope with reality by building a vast library of experience—but experience that has been distilled along the dimensions that matter. Norman’s research group has used fMRI technology to find voxel patterns (areas of activation that are roughly a cubic millimetre in size) in the cortex that are reflected in the hippocampus. Perhaps the brain is like a hiker comparing the map with the territory.”

As I have often pointed to before, I love when science can put its finger on something that has been posited by Buddhist understanding for centuries. To whit:

“The Buddha taught that consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water. Consciousness has four layers. The four layers of consciousness are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas.

Mind consciousness is the first kind of consciousness. It uses up most of our energy. Mind consciousness is our “working” consciousness that makes judgments and plans; it is the part of our consciousness that worries and analyzes… The brain is only 2 percent of the body’s weight, but it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. So using mind consciousness is very expensive. Thinking, worrying, and planning take a lot of energy…

The second level of consciousness is sense consciousness, the consciousness that comes from our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. We sometimes call these senses “gates,” or “doors,” because all objects of perception enter consciousness through our sensory contact with them. Sense consciousness always involves three elements: first, the sense organ (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or body); second, the sense object itself (the object we’re smelling or the sound we’re hearing); and finally, our experience of what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.

The third layer of consciousness, store consciousness, is the deepest. There are many names for this kind of consciousness. Mahayana tradition calls this store consciousness, or alaya, in Sanskrit. The Theravada tradition uses the Pali word bhavanga to describe this consciousness. Bhavanga means constantly flowing, like a river. Store consciousness is also sometimes called root consciousness (mulavijñana in Sanskrit) or sarvabijaka, which means “the totality of the seeds.” In Vietnamese, we call store consciousness tang. Tang means to keep and preserve.

Store consciousness is like a museum. A museum can only be called a museum when there are things in it. When there is nothing in it, you can call it a building, but not a museum. The conservator is the one who is responsible for the museum. Her function is to keep the various objects preserved and not allow them to be stolen. But there must be things to be stored, things to be kept. Store consciousness refers to the storing and also to what is stored—that is, all the information from the past, from our ancestors, and all the information received from the other consciousnesses. In Buddhist tradition, this information is stored as bija, seeds.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from Lion’s Roar.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)


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