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The Quantized Mind: part 1

February 23, 2009

brain-artHey guys. I’m going to start a multi-part series to introduce some key concepts in neuro theory. I’ll be building toward some important ideas that inform the discussion of love and warm glow. I’m going to attempt at keeping this concise and meaningful—if it starts to feel a little bit dense, try to hang with me (or just throw a shoe at me). Much of the text for this particular post is taken from my personal website, where you can see the ideas nested into larger concepts of interest to me. To kick things off, let’s use part one of this series to synchronize our understanding about some current streams of neuroscientific thought.


In late twentieth century neuroscience, the brain and mind came to be described as a unified entity. The internal experience of “mind,” it was formulated, is generated by the mechanical working of the physical brain. This concept of mind-brain “monism” overturned the idea known as “dualism,” in which mind and brain were considered distinct. The 17th-century philosopher René Descartes was the most famous proponent of “dualism:” Descartes postulated the mind to be a non-material, ethereal, conscious substance that communicated with the physical brain through the pineal gland. While Descartes made many brilliant contributions to a variety of fields, the rejection of Cartesian dualism and the acceptance of neural monism was necessary for an era of accelerated progress in understanding both brain and mind. No longer are epileptic fits signs of demonic possession; no more do we drill holes into the heads of schizophrenics to release evil spirits trapped therein.


Quantum theory has a multitude of facets with deep, extensive implications for neuroscience. One of the basic principles of quantum theory, however, is that our physical universe is composed of energy and matter that are discrete. Or in other words, at their smallest level, energy and matter come in units. Taking monism to its logical extension, the entirety of cognitive and subjective experiences are created by physical matter and energy. Because physical matter and energy are themselves quantized, it follows that cognition, too, must ultimately be a process that is discrete. This is absolutely counterintuitive. Let me repeat it: because physical matter and energy are themselves quantized, neural monism dictates that cognition must ultimately be a discrete process, as well. Under the current parameters of neuroscientific thought, the future perspective of fully discrete consciousness is a logical inevitability. Frankly, if this doesn’t blow your mind, please think about it more slowly. The implications stretch beyond the physical sciences, and are destined to eventually revise our perspectives of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the humanities generally. The next posts in The Quantized Mind series will elaborate on these implications and explore some of the possibilities that extend from this paradigm shift.


To some, monism seems like a cold or a threatening paradigm. I believe this sense of coldness and suspicion is largely created by a particular mistake that is prone to be made; namely, it may be inadvertently assumed that our realization that we can describe the mind and brain physically is the same as saying that we have already described all we need to know about them in our material models. If this pretentious imitation of monism feels like it robs us of our humanity, it is precisely because it does rob us! At the very least, it conceptually robs our humanities by grossly neglecting the rich matrix of dynamics and untapped layers of nuance that compose the remarkable phenomena of life. Humility is warranted to recognize that we are orders of magnitude away from fully describing the physical mechanisms that make the brain and mind work. At the same time, boldness is appropriate in anticipating the directions that our self-knowledge may lead. There is much to learn, discover, and theorize in this journey toward understanding the brain, and it is arguably our ultimate communal endeavor thus far in the inescapably human search for self-understanding and meaning.


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