Monday, January 31, 2011

Human maps

Damasio’s book Self comes to mind that I mentioned in my last blog is interesting in many respects. It gives a good idea of the way the mind works and how it produces consciousness and self. Unlike neuroscientists like Swaab or Lamme, discussed here in my blogs before, he does not simply reduce the mind to the biology of the brain. Maybe we can explain by such a reduction that I write a blog and why I do, but I do not see how, saying it plainly, my hormones can explain why I write this blog with this exact content and these wordings. Even more questionable is that the biological approach might explain the phenomenon of culture, which is, indeed, a product of man, but which is an interhuman and suprahuman phenomenon that exists independent of its individual contributors.
One of the most interesting contributions in Damasio’s book to the discussion how the mind works is his idea of maps. The idea is interesting not only because it is useful for explaining consciousness and self and other creations of the brain but also because it can be related to insights of other branches of knowledge. Maps in the brain are, so Damasio, patterns of neurons formed for representing what happens in the body and in the world around us. Like geographic maps they are used to inform the brain how things look like and for planning actions. These maps are continuously adapted according to new information that reaches the brain. One could say that the brain works like a land registry office that constantly receives information from its surveyors and that delivers information to other authorities that use it in their planning.
Seen this way, the idea of maps made me think of the cognitive schema theory developed in psychology some 40 years ago by Schank, Abelson and others. This theory says that we have a scheme in our head that organizes the way we see the world and that we use for interpreting the world. It is a kind of abstract knowledge structure that helps to explain what we perceive and that guides our actions. But it made me also think of the idea of theory as developed in methodology: a structure of concepts and sentences about how a certain part of the world looks like. Isn’t it so that such a theory is a kind of abstract representation that is adapted continuously on the base of further research and that can serve as a guide for policy just like a map?
I think that this analogy between what we do on the methodological level, the theoretical level of a science of man and on the biological level of the brain is not accidental. It says something about how man is structured. It says also that actually there is not one level of analysis that basically can explain everything we do by reducing all phenomena to its basic phenomena, but that there are different levels of explanation that all treat different aspects of what man does in its own irreducible way without saying that one level has priority.

No comments: