Summer 2004

Philosophy and Ideas

Rethinking Our Mental Framework

Dan Cloer

If the Human Genome Project has taught us anything, it is that we humans are, genetically, virtually identical: our DNA is more than 99.9 percent the same. Yet despite this underlying sameness, each of us is different—in appearance, in chemistry, and, most importantly, in our minds. In the same way that rows of houses built from the same basic plan can differ in details, furnishings and decorations, so human similarity must give way to individuality, to each of us having a mind of our own.

How does this occur? What is the process that makes each human a unique individual—largely the same, yet different from every other? Speculations arise from all corners, running the gamut from physics to metaphysics. Some search the commonly accepted view of our evolutionary history for an answer. Did something unusual happen to Homo sapiens between the days of hunting and gathering across the plains and the ordering of take-out meals via the office telephone?

Or does the answer lie within the equally mystifying “soul,” thought by many to be a self-existent and self-conscious essence imparted by God at man’s creation? (For a discussion of the biblical meaning of soul, see After Life.)

While the Bible doesn’t attempt to provide a scientific explanation for human individuality, it does supply a vital dimension to our understanding of the subject. The apostle Paul, writing to the first-century followers of Christ in Corinth, also used the analogy of buildings as he pointed out a key aspect of our individuality: “You are God’s building. . . . As a wise master builder I have laid the foundation. . . . But let each one take heed how he builds on it” (1 Corinthians 3:9–10, emphasis added).

Personal responsibility for building your “house” on a right foundation? The idea seems a million miles removed from the science of the mind and the brain. The two are actually much more closely related, however, than one might expect. A closer look at the science may help shed light on a key spiritual concept.

Consciously Human

There is ample reason to believe that the physical structure of the brain is important in human individuality. Although research has not yet found any cellular, molecular or physiological difference between human and animal brain structure, neurobiologists are making significant headway into the question of consciousness and human uniqueness.

Of course, science is foremost a materialist enterprise and is therefore limited to exploring the physical, observable aspects of mental function. A spiritual dimension is not within the realm of scientific hypothesis. What neuroscience is revealing, however, is that the physical brain possesses the unique capacity to integrate information in a way that generates self-awareness and individuality. Who we are, it is telling us, is more a matter of the choices we make than of whatever instincts we possess.

Professor Joseph LeDoux of New York University’s Center for Neural Sciences outlines much of our current understanding in “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are” (2002). He believes brain research is showing that the physiology of the brain itself, the synergy of synaptic connections between neurons, produces human self-awareness, the awareness of being a person.

In this LeDoux is amplifying an “astonishing hypothesis” postulated a decade ago by Nobel laureate Francis Crick and his colleague, Christof Koch; namely, that human behavior and consciousness seem to find their physiological foundation within the network of connections between brain cells. Writing in The Astonishing Hypothesis, Crick extrapolated from research concerning human visual perception to conclude that human individuality is found in the “complex, ever-changing pattern of interactions of billions of [nerve cells], connected together in ways that, in their details, are unique to each one of us.”

While acknowledging that consciousness is an unexplained property, Crick anticipated that further research would pinpoint the physiological seat of free will, possibly in neural tissue located just behind the forehead. In keeping with his materialist viewpoint—that everything stems from matter and is therefore physical—he found it astonishing that anyone would think otherwise. The idea that science would not ultimately dispel what he called “fuzzy folk notions” created by nonscientific thinking was, to him, ridiculous.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Crick would pronounce a person to be “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Wonders of Self-Awareness

While the anticipated tissue or “module” of free will remains undiscovered, a more accurate understanding of how information is integrated throughout the brain is emerging. Taking the familiar “I think, therefore I am” statement from René Descartes to its logical next step, LeDoux seeks to explore the complexities of “How do I know I think?” At the heart of this elusive quest is the concept of “self.” All animals have a self, but only some are self-aware, says LeDoux. “The existence of a self is a fundamental concomitant of being an animal,” he believes. “All animals, in other words, have a self, regardless of whether they have the capacity for self-awareness.”

Taking the familiar “I think therefore I am” statement from René Descartes to its logical next step, LeDoux seeks to explore the complexities of “How do I know I think?”

LeDoux describes this capacity for self-awareness as the integration of what he calls the implicit self, the inner, unconscious workings of the brain; and the explicit self, our conscious knowledge of self.

Through heredity and experience, every human brain becomes uniquely “wired.” This wiring allows our minds to physically function; we perceive, integrate, store and retrieve, all without realizing we are doing it. Because the actual processing of these myriad synaptic connections and the memory they store is unconscious, LeDoux calls it implicit, a hidden process. It is the “self” LeDoux believes is found in all animals.

How we consciously describe or see ourselves, on the other hand (our understanding of who we are), is our explicit self. It is our personal vision of self, created through what LeDoux labels “working memory.” It is here that sensory information is integrated and analyzed in conjunction with memory—where the implicit mind meets the world. The result is conscious awareness and the capacity to connect the present with the past, which is what defines human decision making.

The synaptic chatter that results in our conscious view of self is bewilderingly complex. Imagine the neurons of the brain as all the cell phones across the planet. Then think of each phone sending a tone to every other one at the same time and the result being not an atonal squawk but a symphony.

Research concerning the processing of sensory input in conjunction with short- and long-term memory—all linked through synaptic space—shows that all areas of the brain are engaged simultaneously. Averaging 1,400 cubic centimeters, the volume of the human brain is only about 1.4 liters (the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee). Yet the amount of synaptic traffic constantly traversing that space is enormous. Like the imagined symphony, we are truly greater than the sum of our (mental) parts.

How the explicit self actually arises from the implicit remains a mystery, but LeDoux offers his best estimate: “Life requires many brain functions, functions require systems, and systems are made of synaptically connected neurons. We all have the same brain systems, and the number of neurons in each brain system is more or less the same in each of us as well. However, the particular way those neurons are connected is distinct, and that uniqueness, in short, is what makes us who we are.”

You Are What You Think

As complex as the science is, the conclusion is rather obvious: we are the product of our thoughts. “If a thought is a pattern of neural activity in a network,” explains LeDoux, “not only can it cause another network to be active, it can also cause another network to change, to be plastic.”

As complex as the science is, the conclusion is rather obvious: we are the product of our thoughts.

This plasticity can be both a frightening and a heartening scenario. How we choose to behave and think, and what we choose to view and take into our mind, affects not only our present reality but also (implicitly) the wiring of our brain. We have the capacity to condition ourselves: our character is under our own control. “With thoughts empowered this way,” notes LeDoux, “we can begin to see how the way we think about ourselves can have powerful influences on the way we are, and who we become.” In other words, science is beginning to recognize that we are, to a greater or lesser extent, personally responsible for who we are and what we become. This is reminiscent of something Solomon said nearly 3,000 years ago: “As [a person] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

A Curse or a Blessing?

LeDoux notes that “one’s self-image is self-perpetuating.” Some, however, find danger in this self-perpetuation: when things go wrong, people often go from bad to worse. Some feel that our individuality is what has led to the strife and conflict that is evident throughout human history, and they labor under a sense of hopelessness as a result. Is the uniqueness of “self” effectively a curse? Will it serve only to create barriers between people and all other life?

Such is the opinion voiced by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard. In discussing the unique features of human consciousness, LeDoux quotes from Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.”

This is an unfortunate and mistaken conclusion, however. Even as science delves more deeply into determining what it is to be human physiologically, a greater question remains: Is there purpose in this unique human malleability that makes us so different from the animals? Although the materialist approach assures us that evolutionary processes are responsible for our mental structure, many biologists find no satisfactory Darwinian explanation for how the human mind became unique among mammals. Why did these functions evolve? This is a question that LeDoux recognizes “concerns historical facts that are not easily verified scientifically.”

Is there purpose in this unique human malleability that makes us so different from the animals? 

The answer requires rethinking Dillard’s lament. Are the differences and unique qualities that separate humankind from the rest of creation actually a curse? Or is our conflicted existence the result of something else? The truly astonishing hypothesis is that these qualities of consciousness, self-awareness and plasticity in fact make it possible for humans to form a right relationship both with the rest of creation and with the Creator.

It is heartening to understand that the human mind has the capacity to change. We are not fated to a hard-wired future or inescapably doomed to a downhill run. We experience, learn and act. We have the capacity to evaluate the consequences of our behavior. LeDoux recognizes that our physiology does not condemn us. “[It] doesn’t mean that we’re simply victims of our brains and should just give in to our urges,” he says. “It means that downward causation [the cascade from thought to action] is sometimes hard work. Doing the right thing doesn’t always flow naturally from knowing what the right thing to do is.”

While the unconscious processes underlying change may be unknown to science (and may well occur in ways that lie beyond the ability of the sciences to dissect), the inescapable conclusion is that we are not organisms that live by instinct. We are born not knowing who we are; we learn. And in learning, we begin to make choices that will establish our character and our values. Indeed, a successful future hinges on the development of sound character. But this can be done only on an individual basis.

The God-given capacity to change our character from the inside out is not divisive. It is not a curse. It is, in fact, our Creator’s greatest gift. The Bible refers to this kind of change as repentance: recognizing where we are wrong and choosing, with God’s help, to behave differently. The apostle Paul wrote that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

God long ago gave humanity a set of laws to act as a regulatory system against which to evaluate our choices. Those laws were intended to be internalized in each human mind (Deuteronomy 6:6–8), enabling us to be individually responsible for our actions. And we each will reap the results of the choices we make. As the prophet Ezekiel wrote, “The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Writers of the Bible were not neuroscientists; indeed, they had little if any physiological understanding at all. But they conveyed a powerful message regarding how the moral framework of the mind was to be established. When we, as individuals, begin using the standards of our Creator in measuring and aligning the foundation of our character, we will find a contentment that is otherwise elusive. Adherence to those standards will result in the building and maintaining of well-furnished and harmonious mental homes, each individual and unique, yet each compatible and at peace with all others.