Perhaps the most interesting aspect of working with brain-computer interface technologies during the past several years has been researching the various theories of mind which inform contemporary neuroscience and cybernetics and how these theories relate to practical applications in information technology and clinical psychology.
There is a great impetus today, to see mental processes as being entirely physiological. That is, the mind is explained as being somehow produced or generated by the brain. In many ways, this has become the dominant paradigm. This is a reductionist approach, which can demonstrate that phenomena of mind have physical correlates. It supports the existing materialist bias, which informs chemical explanations and pharmaceutical approaches to psychological processes.
Often overlooked, of course, is the logical problem of attributing causation to correlation. In other words, the fact that neural correlates of conscious states can be demonstrated to exist does not prove that consciousness is generated by the status of neurons. It proves only that there is a correlation between these two observed phenomena.
This kind of problem almost completely informs the current thinking on artificial intelligence. It is commonly stated that human intelligence is something that can be reproduced by machines, given sufficient advances in hardware and software. The corollary of this idea is the notion that this can be accomplished by the creation of artificial neurons, since consciousness and therefore intelligence is a function of neurons. This analogy breaks down if the correlations are coincidental and not necessarily causative.
More interesting, I think, are other, less reductionist notions of consciousness, called “externalist” by some and “enactive” by others. The externalist position is exemplified by Andy Clark, Washington University, and David J. Chalmers, of University of Arizona, in their paper The Extended Mind. This refers to the idea that our consciousness is distributed among aspects our perceptual environment, and that it is more properly understood in ecological terms.
The enactive approach is delineated by Alva Noë, of Berkeley, in Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. In this significant work, Noë demonstrates that fundamental aspects of our consciousness exist in our action in the world and active perception, as much as they exist within our heads.
These notions of networked intelligence will ultimately, I believe, prove more viable than the simplistic and reductionist materialism that now dominates the fields of psychology, pharmacology, neuro-biology, and the cognitive sciences. More inclusive and comprehensive descriptions of consciousness indicate emergent properties, as well as observations that mind is a relational process, not localized in this or that particular structure.
In my work with EEG neurofeedback technology, I do experience the very clearly demonstrated fact that our instruments record data generated by the mind outside of the head! That is, our instruments are held in place, close to – but not within the head. And these instruments pick up the classic neural correlates of states of mind, such as waking consciousness, attention, and relaxation by receiving brain wave signals as they are transmitted outside of the brain. This very simple experimental evidence does indeed demonstrate that significant aspects of human consciousness – those that can be measured and by which specific states of mind can be deduced – exist in the environment at large and not simply or solely inside the brain.
The era of brain-computer interaction is here, today, in the laboratory and now in clinical and consumer technology. Each day brings us closer to the technological singularity, predicted by our most prescient philosophers and scientists. The essential insight is already in evidence in the evolution of contemporary technological innovation – intelligence is not device dependent. It is networked.
We are a living part of the network – and so is the rest of the world and the universe at large. Our machines work because they are and have always been a part of this vast interconnected network. Nothing functions on its own. The mind is…everywhere.
Image: Tullio DeSantis testing the MindReflector C-1 neurofeedback application, 2012