Thursday, October 18, 2018

Notes on the mind as neural weather: Augustine’s Confessions, psychoanalytic thought

While I was working on my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (Basic 2001) my friend Tim Perper put me on to the work of Walter Freeman, a neuroscientist who has pioneered the use of complex dynamics as a vehicle for modeling and understanding the nervous system. In consequence I adopted neurodynamics as my basic framework and settled on the weather as a metaphor for the mind: The mind is neural weather.

I have recently uploaded to short working papers that exploit this metaphor in somewhat different ways. I’ve placed links and abstracts immediately below. After that I have the passage from Beethoven’s Anvil where I introduce the weather metaphor.

Two New Working Papers, really just notes

AUGUSTINE’S PATH: A note on virtual reading & an example of the hermeneutics of screwing around, Working Paper, Working Paper, October 18, 2018, 7 pp.,
Abstract: Andrew Piper analyzed the large-scale narrative structure of Augustine’s Confessions using a vector space semantic model. The 13 books fell into two distinct cluster, one having 3 books, the other having 10. By treating his analysis as specifying a macro-scale (low resolution) path through that space, one can see that it consists of three loops of increasing size: 1-6, 6-10, 10-13. The last is by far the largest, and ‘points’ back toward the beginning point. I argue that we may interpret this as a path in the mind, where the mind is conceived as the high-dimensional state space of the brain.
NEURAL WEATHER, An Informal Defense of Psychoanalytic Ideas, Working Paper, August 25, 2013, 6 pp.,
Abstract: Psychoanalytic theory is a theory about the mind. I suggest we think of the mind as the brain’s neural state space where the brain is conceived as a complex dynamical system. The large scale dynamics of the mind are governed by a modal system, as defined by Warren McCulloch. Psychoanalysis is the best conceptual tool we have for charting the motions of these large-scale dynamics in films and literary texts.

Neural Weather: The Musical Mind

The following paragraphs are from my Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books 2001), pp. 71-74.

Thus far we have considered the states of the brain, intentionality, coupling and timing, all while examining the nervous system as a physical system. We can no longer avoid the mind/body problem. I want to approach to this problem in the manner of Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind. Rather than wonder how the mysterious and ineffable mind can connect with the mysterious but concrete brain, I propose a definition:
Mind: The dynamics of the entire brain, perhaps even the entire nervous system, including the peripheral nervous system, constitutes the mind.
The thrust of this definition is to locate mind, not in any particular neural structure or set of structures, but in the joint product of all current neural activity. As such the mind is, as Ryle argued, a bodily process; in the words of Stephen Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig, “the mind is what the brain does.” Whether a neuron is firing at its maximum rate or idling along and generating only an occasional spike, it is participating in the mind. In asserting this I do not mean, of course, to imply that there is no localization of function in the brain. There surely is. But the mind and the brain are not the same thing, though they certainly are intimately related, as are the dancer and the dance. The fact that the dancer is segmented into head, neck, trunk, and limbs does not mean that the dance can be segmented in the same way. Similarly, we should not think of the functional specialization of brain regions as implying a similar specialization of the mind. It is not at all clear that the mind has “parts” in any meaningful sense.

If the functional proclivities of a patch of neural tissue are not relevant for a current activity, those neurons will not be firing very often, but they will still generate some output. The only neuron that does not generate any output is a dead one. Neurons that are firing at low intensity one moment may well be recruited to more intense activity the next. As Freeman has said, a low level of activity is still a means of participating in the evolving mental state.
The mind, in this view, is thus like the weather. The same environment can have very different kinds of weather. And while we find it natural to talk of weather systems as configurations of geography, temperature, humidity, air pressure etc., no overall mechanism regulates the weather. The weather is the result of many processes operating on different temporal and spatial scales.

At the global level and on a scale of millennia we have the long-term patterns governing the ebb and flow of glaciers which, in one commonly accepted theory, is a function of wobble and tilt in the earth’s spin axis and the shape of the earth’s orbit. At the global level and operating annually we have the succession of seasons, which is caused by the orientation of the earth with respect to the sun as it moves through the year. We can continue on, considering smaller and smaller scales until we are considering the wind whipping between the twin towers of the World Trade Center or the breeze coming in through your open window and blowing the papers off your desk.

Weather is regular enough that one can predict general patterns at scales of hours, days, and months, but not so regular that making such predictions is easy and routinely reliable. Above all, there is no central mechanism governing the weather. It just happens.

The flow of information on the internet is much the same. Individual computer users can choose to send messages, send or download files, “surf” the web, and so forth. These decisions send packets of bits flowing through the internet. The specific paths taken by these packets, however, are determined by routers and gateways that are widely distributed. There is no command center regulating overall message traffic on the internet. The global state of internet traffic at any given time is the net effect of independent decisions by many thousands of human and electronic agents.

So it is with the brain. The overall state is not explicitly controlled, at least not at a high degree of precision. Rather, that overall state reflects activities at various levels within the whole system. At the smallest level we have the individual neurons. Neurons are living cells and, as such, act to maintain their existence. Individual neurons, in turn, are grouped into functional units at several levels, with many neurons connected to others at distances ranging from fractions of a millimeter to several centimeters or more. Many of these functional units are coupled together into systems that explicitly control something else—whether it be another system within the nervous system, or something external to it, either elsewhere in the body (the muscles or the viscera) or in the external world. But there is no component of the brain that regulates all of this activity in detail. The overall activity just happens. That overall activity is what I am calling the mind.

Some of the activity may be conscious, some unconscious. Some activity may, in principle, always be outside the reach of consciousness. And the “contents” of consciousness certainly vary from moment to moment. No matter, it all contributes to the global state of the nervous system, to the mind. Nor should we think of this division between conscious and unconscious activity as two “parts” of the mind. It simply denotes two different kinds of activity. Just where these are located in the brain is likely to shift from moment to moment.

As a practical matter, many microscopically different states of mind are macroscopically the same. This is true of weather as well. The weather near my apartment while I type this varies from one fraction of a second to the next. The positions, velocities, and directions of air molecules are constantly changing. Each individual change, no matter how small, constitutes a change in the microscopic state of the system. However, for almost all practical purposes, the macroscopic state of the weather is the same from minute to minute, if not hour to hour. Thus the current temperature is about 52 degrees Fahrenheit, it is sunny, there are no clouds in the sky and the wind is calm. The number of microscopic states that fit that macroscopic description is quite large, but we can consider them the same.

So it is with states of mind. For some purposes ordinary wakefulness and dream sleep are perfectly good characterizations of states of mind. Later on we will examine work by J. Allen Hobson aimed at explaining such states. Bette Midler’s heartfelt song and Leonard Bernstein’s ego loss are also macroscopic states of mind. Each is like a macroscopic state of weather, cool and sunny, hot with thunderstorms, etc. Each of these macroscopic states encompasses untold different microscopic ones. The range of things flitting through one’s mind in ordinary wakefulness is, well, mind-boggling. But no less so than what can happen during dreams. Similarly Bernstein can be as lost in a Mozart symphony as in a Stravinsky ballet. Macroscopically the states are the same; microscopically they are not.

But whereas macroscopic states of wakefulness and dreaming recur regularly through the day and seem to be largely under the influence of a particular set of brain mechanisms deep in the core of the brain (concentrated in the reticular formation), we have no reason to believe that Bernstein’s ego loss or Midler’s song is under the strong influence of any particular neural mechanism. It just happens.


  1. Dear Mr. Benzon,
    Sometimes the weather behaves out of context, like pushing a bottle containing a note onto shore. I have found such a bottle containing your 1975 essay, "Touchstones", in the Dec. 1975 edition of Paunch.

    What an enjoyable read! Your journey through undergrad and grad studies, winding your way from philosophy, literature, linguistics (recursion! PS--The linguist Tom Roeper engages kids in contemplation of recursion as evidence of their own individual greatness of mind; very cool indeed) and Lenneberg to bailing for music, back to the academy, but with a loosened grip "on the masterwork fantasy". Huge!! And ending the piece with your commitment to the solitary search for a proper understanding of "how the brain creates the persona ... and how it uses that creation" with no guidelines and no colleagues. And I see from your Amazon page that you have honored your commitment and found good company along the way. Well done! Congratulations! It's a pleasure to meet you!

    I enjoyed your Touchstones essay on several levels. I too studied literature and linguistics in the 70's and 80's and struggled to understand my intellectual purposes. But how did I happen to have a physical copy (I have two, in fact. Do you still have a copy?) of the 1975 double issue of Paunch? Why I opened that lovely red volume (with the menacing floral sketch on the cover) for the first time this past week and enjoyed a long afternoon of cover-to-cover reading is just the whim of weather. The volumes came into my possession over the summer when I drove (with my two little dogs) out to Colorado (from Florida) to connect with old friends from the 70's and 80's who might share their remembrances with me of Paul Dilsaver, the poet, (pp. 40, 41, 42 of this edition of Paunch). Paul committed suicide in 2002. His last girlfriend, Jackie Roybal, generously gave me a big black bin full of his collected chapbooks and a battered white Samsonite suitcase full of his notes, published volumes, and more chapbooks. I hope to write something to commemorate Paul's life and legacy as poet and an (often difficult) friend, and picking up that beautiful red chapbook was one way of getting started. Thanks for adding so much to the great read of that day!

    So there you have the journey of your Touchstones essay landing on shore in Sarasota, FL and this lengthy comment on your blog as a response to your message, set to sea, in 1975 under the editorship of Arthur Efron. All for now.

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Rebecca Burns,

    Talk of a message in a bottle! What a delightful surprise. I saw Art a couple of years ago when he visited New York City with his wife. As far as I know he's still kicking. I'll send him a link to this note when I'm done this reply.

    That essay was important to me in two ways. First, of course, simply as a vehicle for self-expression and understanding. But also as a mode of writing. It was quite different from the academic writing I had to do in my courses. The fact that I could do it was thus an act of discovery. Since then I have cultivated a variety of voices and styles.

    And, yes, I still have that lovely red volume, though it is currently in storage with the rest of my library. I two updated that piece with interstitial notes. You can find the most recent version on the web under a somewhat longer title: Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life.

    I must say that the internet has given me an intellectual life that I could not have otherwise had. While I did get a faculty position, that only lasted 7 years, at which point I failed to get tenue and was unable to get another academic post. But I've continued to do my work in various ways and, with the advent of the web, I can get my ideas out without worrying about the system of journals.

    Good hearing from you.

    Bill B

    1. Thanks for your quick response, Bill. Yes, these interwebs do facilitate connections that heretofore were unthinkable.

      Thank you for sending a link to Art Efron; I will be eager to hear any of his remembrances of Paul.