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Mind-Reading

The Oxford Companion to the Mind

edited by Richard L. Gregory, with the assistance of O.L. Zangwill
Oxford University Press, 856 pp., $49.95

We are now beginning to understand the physical basis of normal and abnormal mental activity largely because of recent advances in the neurosciences. Among the concerns of The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard L. Gregory and the late Oliver L. Zangwill, both well-known British psychologists, is to describe these advances. The book includes many entries on important writers in the history of philosophy and psychology. It has several well-informed and skeptical entries on telepathy, clairvoyance, and paranormal phenomena. It takes account of modern developments in linguistics and learning theory. But the heart of the book is its numerous entries on the neurosciences; the longest, “Nervous System,” by the English neurologist Peter Nathan, gives a twenty-page account of current knowledge of the brain, and it is supplemented by such articles as “Brain Development,” “Brain Function and Awareness,” “Neurotransmitters,” and “Neuronal Connectivity and Brain Function.” Articles on Parkinsonism, schizophrenia, depression, and dementia discuss the breakdown of normal function.

Some of these articles describe current knowledge of the mechanisms by which nerve cells interact, for example, the ways in which the fifty or more chemical transmitters communicate information from one nerve cell to another, and, for another, the possible relation of these transmitters to some forms of brain disease. As exciting as these discoveries are, many central questions remain unanswered, such as what are the purposes of these mechanisms in the overall functioning of the brain. The discovery, for example, in the 1970s of the “natural opiates,” the endorphins, led to the suggestion that their release within the brain may be responsible for the “high” experienced by joggers; and an endorphin malfunction may explain why some people suffer from claustrophobia and therefore develop severe anxiety in elevators and other enclosed spaces, but the precise connections between the chemicals and such feelings remain to be established. (The entry on endorphins itself is fairly brief and the physiological and psychological effects of chemical transmitters in general are discussed in the entry “Neurotransmitters.”)

It has been suggested that neurotransmitters may provide the key to our understanding of the biochemical basis of normal and abnormal psychology. In the entry “Parkinsonism” K.A. Flowers of the University of Hull writes, for example, of the various possible functions of the neurotransmitter dopamine:

Of particular interest is the finding that while a deficiency of dopamine is associated with Parkinsonism, over-activity in the dopamine system produces schizophrenia-like behavioural effects. This opens up the possibility that it is the biochemical status of the nervous system that underlies psychological and psychiatric changes in Parkinsonian patients and schizophrenics. It also holds out hope for the continued development of effective treatment, but as with studies of the biochemical basis of schizophrenia, the exact relation of the mechanisms of the nervous system to the characteristics of the mind remains elusive. Progress in this problem may well depend as much on advances in our understanding of the latter as of the former.

As this entry makes clear, research on neurotransmitters is still far from explaining how specific information is created, recognized, stored, and retrieved by the brain. The entries in The Companion generally agree that brain function can best be understood by analogy with the computer. The article “Neurotransmitters and Neuromodulators,” for example, notes:

The soft warm living substance of the brain and nervous system stands in stark contrast to the rigid metal and plastic hardware of a modern day computer, but at the fundamental level there are clear similarities between these two apparently disparate organizational systems…. Not only are the nerve cell units (neurones) self-repairing and self-wiring under the grand design built into our genes, but they can also promote, amplify, block, inhibit, or attenuate the micro-electric signals which are passed on to them…and this provides the physical substrate of mind.

While many neuroscientists would agree with this view, it is hardly universal, and some leading neuroscientists have questioned the idea that brain function can be explained by analogy to computers that are carefully programmed to recognize, store, and retrieve specific information. That such skeptics are scarcely mentioned in The Oxford Companion is regrettable since the inclusion of their opposing views would have provided a better basis for understanding the philosophical and scientific questions currently at issue in the argument over the workings of brain and mind.

Still, The Companion presents diverse and often contradictory philosophical arguments about the mind in its articles on Western philosophers from the PreSocratics, Plato, and Aristotle to Russell and Wittgenstein. Japanese, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and numerous Arab thinkers are also included. The reader becomes aware that there are deep controversies about such matters as language and learning, but these disputes are not coherently related, as they should be, to what we know in the neurosciences; and the reader would hardly know that neuroscientists themselves fiercely disagree with each other about the neurophysiological basis of memory, learning, and ultimately language.

The Companion is particularly useful in displaying deep disagreements among philosophers and linguists about the nature of language. Margaret Donaldson in her entry “Language: Learning Word Meanings,” a short essay of about two thousand words, gives evidence that when children learn a language, they do not first learn words and then learn how to organize sentences: they first learn sentences and later come to understand that these are composed of words. “If a child understands an utterance,” Margaret Donaldson writes,

it may seem obvious that the words which compose it are “known” and that, in the process of making sense of the utterance, each of these words is given “its meaning.” But this is to suppose that a child interprets the language in isolation from its immediate context, which is not what typically happens…. Thus a child can begin to learn the meaning of “Do you want some milk?” because when someone picks up a jug and holds it over a cup the intention to offer milk is understood. On this view it is to be expected that for a long time the interpretation of language should remain, for the child, embedded in, and powerfully dependent on, the context of occurrence.

In the entry “Symbols” the American philosopher W. V. Quine makes a point about language that seems related to Donaldson’s observations. “Meaning,” he writes, “accrues primarily to whole sentences, and only derivatively to separate words.” “We give the meaning of a sentence by explaining the sentence, and the meaning of a word by explaining how it works in sentences.”

Arthur Cooper’s “Chinese Evidence on the Evolution of Language” adds a fascinating and unusual historical argument to these claims. According to Cooper there was, in prehistory, an “original, natural (poetic) language” that was purely metaphorical. People used a limited number of often similar terms to express different needs and desires. Understanding what was being said therefore depended on the circumstances in which an utterance was made. More complex symbolic language, “the newer, artificial (logical) language,” developed later. Cooper finds evidence for this development of language in the evolution of the written forms of Chinese. The earlier metaphorical form “is well illustrated,” Cooper writes,

by a Chinese character with meanings now like “to retire to rest,” but in ancient texts also “to go busily to and fro.” The character 栖[mù XI], which was “tree” plus “bird’s nest” [“tree” 木 plus “west” 西 in modern usage], illustrated the metaphor lying behind both. Birds “nest” (go to roost) at sunset [from whence the modern usage of “west”] and “nest” (build, go to and from their nests) in spring. [See illustration on opposite page.] Contexts would make it perfectly clear which sense was meant before the notion grew of “words” possessing meanings in themselves.

Thus Cooper’s account of the metaphorical nature of early forms of language seems similar to Margaret Donaldson’s evidence that children first learn utterances and later specific words. This suggests that the rules of grammar may be acquired as utterances become more precise through the use of words with stable meanings, and that they are therefore derived from the examples of a language the child hears.

Other entries on language in the Companion, however, show sharp disagreements with such views, and present a very different conception of language and mind. Take, for example, Noam Chomsky’s entry on his own theory of language, a view that seems exactly contrary to that of W. V. Quine. Quine argues that a child initially learns sentences such as “It’s raining” and “This is red” by conditioning, unaided by auxiliary sentences, and then achieves higher levels of linguistic competence by analogies (“from the apparent role of a word in one sentence he guesses its role in another”) and by noting how sentences are related to each other (“he discovers that people assent to a sentence of some one form only contingently upon assenting to a corresponding sentence of some related form”).

Chomsky, for his part, argues that we are born with genetically determined “mental organs,” among them one specialized in language that contains specific “rule systems” that “cannot be derived from the data of experience by ‘induction,’ ‘abstraction,’ ‘analogy,’ or ‘generalization,’ in any reasonable sense of these terms, any more than the basic structure of the mammalian visual system is inductively derived from experience.”

The brain, in Chomsky’s view, could not use the samples of language a child hears to derive the rules necessary to produce grammatical sentences. The rules must, in some sense, be innate, for the samples are too impoverished for generalization to be possible. The continuity of mental structures such as language—the ways in which past experience with language is related to present and future experience—is established through largely innate mental structures or rules, which are similar for all human beings and which form the basis of a grammar that can generate an infinite number of sentences.

In sharp contrast, again, are the arguments of the behaviorists, who, as David Cohen notes in his entry “Behaviourism,” claimed that “by controlling the rewards and punishments [that] the environment offers in response to particular behaviours, you can shape behaviour.” More recently Gerald Edelman has proposed a theory suggesting that the brain consists of structures that are both constrained by the actions of genes and respond selectively to experience. In this view the brain is capable of making powerful generalizations—such as extracting a grammar from limited samples of sentences—and can correlate past and present events, ideas, needs, and desires. Generalization in this sense could be the result of acquiring a set of procedures. We can write, or draw, with our right hand, our left hand, our foot, or even a pencil clenched between our teeth. In each case we use different sets of muscles, but the procedures we follow are related.1

Ultimately, whether or not there are mental organs containing innate rules in the brain is a biological question. And if there are innate rules for language there must be innate rules for other mental functions as well.

  1. 1

    I have discussed this work in an article, “Neural Darwinism,” The New York Review (October 9, 1986), and in my The Invention of Memory (Basic Books, 1988).

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