Interrogative Imperative Institute

Exploring: mind, brain, consciousness, behavior, emotion, motivation, intelligence, development, and beyond


Exploring Psychological Horizons consists of thirteen essays which venture into various facets of psychology - ranging from: Freud and Sullivan, to: Piaget, Sheldrake, and beyond. Among the topics explored are: anxiety, dissociation, abuse, charisma, theories of psychological development, the 'God gene', formative causation, memory, and holographic theories of mind. While no particular theory of psychology is espoused during the pages of this book, a variety of theoretical and empirical issues are explored and critically reflected upon in considerable detail during the course of this book. In a sense, the direction in which the essays of this book point is toward epistemological horizons where what is known (possibly) merges with what is not known ... and perhaps not even imagined. The essay to the right is an excerpt from Exploring Psychological Horizons

Emergent Properties

In the worlds of medicine and psychology, neurobiology is enjoying tremendous popularity and success by virtue of the many discoveries concerning the roles of, among other things, various classes of neurotransmitters, as well as of neuromodulators such as endorphins, enkephalins and neurohormones (neuropeptides) in brain functioning. Some scientists are claiming that the promised land of a complete mapping of the brain with all its intricate electrical and chemical pathways may be near at hand.

As a result, age-old secrets underlying consciousness, intelligence, language, creativity, personality, sexuality, and identity supposedly are being revealed almost on a daily basis. For example, one popular theory of brain functioning suggests there is an increasing amount of evidence which appears to indicate that all of the complex, higher functions which traditionally have been considered to distinguish human beings from most, if not all, of other forms of life on Earth, can be conceived as no more than emergent properties arising out of the trillions of interactions taking place in the billions of synaptic junctions of the nervous system - transactions which, ultimately, are rooted in, or based on, the activity of a fairly small number of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators, together with some relatively simple electrical circuitry.

Roughly speaking, an emergent property is a quality exhibited by a given system which could not be predicted on the basis of just looking at the basic components and processes which tend to characterize that system. On this view, the sheer number of interactions entailed by the activity of a small set of neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, along with a few different modes of electrical rhythms, is as important, if not more so, than the biological components and kinds of process which are interacting with one another.

Concepts such as self-organizing systems, reiteration, dissipative structures, non-linear dynamics, chaos theory, parallel processing, feedback, and so on are the watch-words of the theory of emergent properties. In effect, amazing new, unforeseeable, qualitatively different functions are said to be capable of arising out of the complexity of interactions of a relatively small and simple set of underlying components and processes when these properties and processes come together in the right set of conditions which are governed by the principles inherent in a confluence of, for example, non-linear dynamics, dissipative structures, cybernetic feedback systems, phase transitions, and so on.

A number of years ago Karl Popper developed an approach to the philosophy of science which came to be known as "falsificationsim". Essentially, Popper was concerned with the issue of how to demarcate or distinguish defensible science from metaphysical systems and/or pseudo-science.

Briefly stated, and in somewhat oversimplified terms, the criterion which Popper settled on to establish such a line of demarcation was the way he believed the enterprise of science was rooted in processes of empirical observation from which one could deduce certain ideas, theories, and possibilities that could, in turn, be tested and, therefore verified - or not - when considered against the backdrop of available evidence. More specifically, he believed no number of positive results from this sort of open-ended set of empirical probes could prove a given theory, law, or principle was true, but just one contra-indication was enough to bring into question the validity or truth of such a theory, principle, or law.

Thus, Popper maintained the essence of science resided in its tendency to focus in on the challenge of falsification. In other words, the test of a science - as opposed to metaphysical speculation or pseudo-science - was the willingness of a given instance of exploration to expose itself to empirical, deductive judgements when measured against available evidence by means of experiments and tests which yielded data that could be shown to be either consistent with that evidence or falsified by it.

If a system of thought could not be falsified, then, according to Popper, this was a strong indication the conceptual framework in question was more likely to be an instance of metaphysical thinking or some sort of pseudo-science than it was an exemplar of authentic scientific activity. Similarly, if a given hypothesis, idea, theory or law was shown to be falsified by experiment in the context of available empirical evidence, then, on this basis one had good reason either to reject such a hypothesis in its entirety or to require its proponent(s) to return to the drawing board and re-work the hypothesis and/or theory in a way that eliminated the aspect which had been falsified through empirical demonstration.

As with most things in the philosophy of science, there were both important insights contained in Popper's idea of falsification, as well as problems. In effect, when Popper's philosophical framework was itself subjected to a rigorous round of falsification by other philosophers of science, his system exhibited a variety of lacunae and problems in the context of available evidence concerning activities which were considered to be part of "science" - both historically as well as in some of its modern forms.

For present purposes, the ultimate validity of Popper's system of thought is unimportant. What is important is that he provides an idea - namely, falsification, which can be used to help critically reflect on the aforementioned theory of emergent properties when the latter is applied to the field of neurobiology.

For instance, what is one to make of the idea of emergent properties when considered in relation to the findings of Dr. John Lorber? Lorber is a British clinician who, a number of years ago, generated some interesting data which raises a lot of questions for many facets of neurobiology - especially the theory of emergent properties.

Dr. Lorber was working with people who were hydrocephalic. These are individuals who have a problem with the flow of cerebral-spinal fluid in their nervous systems. Normally, cerebral-spinal fluid flows in a continuos loop which links the spinal column and the brain. Among other things, this flow runs through a series of four ventricles or cavities within the brain.

Sometimes - whether due to congenital defects or post-birth trauma or a combination of the two - a blockage arises at some point in the flow of the cerebral-spinal fluid which causes the fluid to accumulate in one or more of the aforementioned ventricles. As more cerebral spinal fluid is produced and accumulates in this ventricle system, it begins to exert a pressure on the brain.

Since the brain is surrounded by the skull and, therefore, has no place to go, so to speak, the pressure being exerted by the cerebral-spinal fluid which is accumulating in the brain's ventricle system begins to compress the brain against the skull's interior surface. Given enough time and/or if - where possible - a shunt is not put in place to relieve this pressure, the brain is slowly squeezed into a volume consisting of just a few millimeters spread around the inner surface of the skull.

If the increasing pressure of accumulating cerebral-spinal fluid is not relieved within a certain critical time period through the use of a shunt or other medical procedures, the damage appears to be largely irreversible. In fact, usually, the untreated effect of this process of hydroencephaly is severe retardation.

I said "usually" above because Dr. Lorber discovered some rather amazing exceptions to the general rule. Some of the individuals who suffered from hydroencephaly were quite normal in their functioning, and there even were some college graduates among this subset of exceptions.

For instance, one of the individuals in Lorber's study had earned a honors degree in mathematics at Cambridge University. Yet, when a scan was done of this individual's head, the scan indicated that almost the entire brain had been squeezed out of existence. All that remained was an extremely thin strip of neural matter running around the interior of the skull casing. Lorber wrote up an overview of his studies and submitted them for publication in some reputable journals of science. His work survived the peer review process and found their way into print with titles such as "Do You Need A Brain To Think?"

In the 19th century, the unfortunate Phineus Gage made clinical history when he survived an accident which resulted in an iron rod penetrating his brain, only later to show marked changes in personality, temperament and mental functioning. These clinical findings were part of a vast array of empirical data which accumulated during the next century which indicated there seemed to be a very strong relationship between the location of certain kinds of brain trauma and the nature of dysfunctioning in language skills, mental abilities, personality, and so on which subsequently manifested themselves in these individuals.

As outlined previously, Popper believed there was no number of positive findings which could prove that a given hypothesis or theory was true, but one finding could falsify a theory or hypothesis. Thus, in the present context, despite the fact there is an extremely imposing array of data which ties brain functioning to localization of brain activity, one has to ask what is the significance of Lorber's clinical findings with respect to hydroencephaly which appear to provide some contra-indications to the idea that thinking, logic, consciousness, understanding, and language are necessarily "caused" by neurobiolgical activity?

Is there, somehow, sufficient brain matter left intact in some of Lorber's hydrocephalic individuals that they are capable of normal, if not above normal, functioning? If so, why are the vast majority of people who suffer from hydroencephaly severely retarded? If so, what is the critical mass of neural material which is necessary such that below this amount, retardation occurs, and above it, normal functioning ensues?

Is the difference between whether retardation or normal functioning occurs a function of the sequence of brain degradation in the sense that one sequence of degradation leads to retardation, while another sequence permits normal functioning? Or, alternatively, since there is some evidence indicating that sudden degradation of neurobiological integrity leads to greater and longer-lasting dysfunctioning than does the same (or sometimes a greater) amount of degradation occurring over a longer period of time, is the end result of any given case of hydroencephaly a matter of the amount of time which elapses before the degradation process reaches its final state?

If, as Lorber's findings suggest, we don't necessarily need a whole lot of neural matter to function normally, then, why do we have a three-pound universe residing above our neck consisting of billions of cells and trillions of interconnections? If, as Lorber's findings suggest, brain functioning is only "correlated" with higher mental functioning, what are the "causes" of such functioning?

Whatever the answer to the foregoing questions may be, one idea would seem to be in need of some re-working. More specifically, some of the individuals in Lorber's studies - the ones without most of their brains, and, yet, still able to function normally (or better) - seem to indicate that whatever causally underlies our higher mental faculties, the hypothesis of emergent properties would seem to have been falsified in, at least, a few cases.

Presumably, in a brain which has been reduced from roughly 1300-1700 cubic centimeters down to a volume consisting of only a few millimeters dispersed over the interior surface of the skull casing, a substantial alteration has taken place in the level of complexity of the system. In such cases, one no longer necessarily has the same vast number of intact cells and synaptic interactions taking place within a few millimeters which had been present in a full-volume brain.

If this is so, then, whatever the cause of our higher cognitive functions may be, there appear to be some instances of these abilities which do not seem to be a function of so-called emergent properties which arise out of the sheer number of neural transactions which characterize a normal brain. This does not mean emergent phenomena of some sort do not occur in these contexts, but, only that, one is going to have re-conceptualize what is meant when one claims that higher cognitive functions are an example of emergent properties in action.

More specifically, one must come up with a fairly specific explanatory framework of just how non-linear dynamics, dissipative structures, phase transitions, chaotic systems, reiterative processes, and so on are capable of generating consciousness, logical thought, understanding, language, and/or creativity through just neurobiological activity. Right now, the notion of emergent properties is little more than a weak, metaphysical way of confessing that we really have no idea how - or even if - any of our higher cognitive abilities arise out of the interaction of neurotransmitters, neruomodulators, and neuronal electrical circuitry.

Yes, as is attested to by a great deal of medical and scientific evidence, there is a definite correlation between such neurobiological activity and cognitive functioning. But, correlation is not necessarily indicative of causality, and when one has empirical data such as has been provided by John Lorber which appears to falsify certain aspects of the theory of emergent properties in neurobiology, then one has a fairly clear warrant for re-thinking this whole conceptual framework.