Synthesism pt 1. Psychology: the nexus of mind & matter

It has been argued by modern philosophers that there is no seat of consciousness, that consciousness cannot be located in any one part of the brain or nervous system, and that there is no miniature of us sitting in our minds or brains pulling levers and pushing buttons to control our reactions and other behaviors. This is a helpful metaphor, the homunculus, the mini-me at a control panel, but the physical reality is more complicated. As laypeople, we use such imagery to make the problem of who we are more manageable and to exert conscious control over what we can in our bodies and minds.

Several metaphors or concepts or selves exist or are used by the conscious animal to control itself. It is called cybernetic control when we use thought to enact actual physical motions and manipulate our environment; when for example, in neuroscience labs, primates can learn to control a mechanical arm simply with brainwaves being read by electrodes on their exposed brains. What we are all doing, rather than pulling levers and pushing buttons, is using thought, the idea of moving one hand to grab an object, for example, to move our hand; in this case, we are not sending a neurological/nerve signal/impulse with our mini internal hands through our somatosensory and motor cortex and visual cortex to our hands and with a joystick or controller or remote grasping something, we are using thought to send these impulses and have a goal in mind and perhaps an image in our minds of what the motion should look like and feel like in that we are in some way identified with our body.

There is no actual mental image; when we imagine something, we create a state or series of conditions in our brains that corresponds to but is not a literal projection of the mental images onto our nerve cells. When we remember, we are reproducing neural activity that happened at the time of the remembered incident, not recalling a one-to-one perfect representation of the incident. All this is to say we are mental creatures, when we do something, we are thinking and interceding in the flow of thoughts that would otherwise naturally unfold. We work in feelings, intuition, mental representations. Many things we do start with a thought.

Synthesism is the idea that facts or dominant theories in one field of study should be translatable into the terms of and compatible with the understanding of other fields. For decades, psychologists have taken steps to study thought, emotion, and human behavior in terms that fit with medical science and even physics. Even in the 1930s, math was applied to theories of learning, for example. The idea of cybernetic control and the self/metaphor provides a stepping stone toward uniting this early work in such presumably non-scientific fields as social psychology and behaviorism with concepts in physics. Furthermore, the domains of self correspond to distinctions made in fields ranging from astrophysics to evolutionary biology, from physiology (maybe, loosely) to clinical psychology.

Synthesism started as the idea that the gap between behaviorism, which is simply concerned with the inputs and outputs of an animal, and cognitive science, concerned with the processes in between stimulus and behavior, should be bridged into a unifying model because both are parsimonious but limited explanations of psychology, the study of the relationship between thought/feeling and behavior. The behaviorist self is the one whose behavior is learned and dictated by the laws of conditioning like those outlined by Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, and Thorndike. The cognitive self, a label I’m giving to what others call the noetic self that learns by remembering facts, semantic definitions and equations and names and such, and navigates these facts like picking out books from a library, follows different rules that predict a different kind of output, not goal-oriented behavior but mental conclusions. Ebbinhaus is an example of someone who early on studied what we today call working memory, which is our onboard computer, the part of the mind that does the calculating and other short-term processes like remembering a phone number long enough to write it down, the cognitive, thought-processing self. Both explanations work in their domains.

There once was a man named K. Lewin who wrote that the goal of the psychological researcher is to predict behavior by knowledge of how a person and their environment interact, that is, what psychological processing of the environment, which can include external objects but also thoughts, leads to what behavior. He summarized this idea with what he called a field equation, B(behavior) is a function (f) of person (p) and environment (e). B = f(p, e). Comparing this equation to E=mc2, we find some conceptual similarities. Both contain essentially all of the concepts present in their respective fields; for example, m (mass) is comprised of density (d) and volume (v), v being comprised of distance units or space to the third power. The constant (c) is the speed of light, speed being comprised of distance over time (t), and is a boundary condition on physics itself, nothing can be as fast. In B = pe, the environment is the boundary condition for example, we know a person will never walk through a wall, the wall is e in this scenario and p, the person, must find some other behavior that considers the wall. B, like energy comes from splitting mass, is the output of the entity, p. What better indicator of who a person is outside of the behavior or energy they put out into the world. And p can be any of the seven metaphorical selves and the stimuli impinging on the self in the moment.

Perhaps quantum theory can be summarized some day by a formula or equation of the same format. Further, maybe gravity between people can be explained in terms of curvatures in psychological space-time caused be p and B as opposed to m and E as in general relativity. With synthesism, we can fill in one field from ideas from another as all fields are analogous in some way, some more distantly related than others.

The following series of short essays outlines what concepts comprise p in the equation B = pe as well as how these concepts may apply to other fields. In the end, this is armchair philosophizing done in the hopes of sparking the imagination of actual scientists. My wheelhouse or expertise is in social psychology, not physics. Our next installment will define psychological space-time and further discuss what concepts comprise B, p and e all in terms of seven ways to view the self.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *