Reflection 120: Mapping the Mind

June 24, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Hand motions are planned in the pre-motor areas of the brain, so in a very personal sense such motions represent activity in those areas. As such, they can be seen to map out neural activity in the brain that planned and executed them. As an example, I offer this score by Johan Sebastian Bach as a map of neural activity at the focus of his conscious attention.


On any given staff, pitch is told by the vertical placement of notes, development of tonal relationships in time by the sequence of notes along the horizontal dimension. We think of Bach as composing music, but another way of looking at him is as a mapper of his own mind in two dimensions—in sound first, then notation used to represent the original as a basis for subsequent performances. Whatever their medium, creative people give us representations of their conscious neural activity. Art in that sense is more revealing than we often suppose. Can anything be more intimate than the mental processes of a particular man or woman focused on a project of importance in personal awareness?

For another example, take this schematic diagram of a football play Coach asks his players to learn by tomorrow’s practice. Based on his personal experience, it comes straight off the top of his brain.

Football Play Diagram-72

Another diagram, another series of gestures, another map of someone’s mind. It isn’t just artists who turn themselves inside-out in performing their duties. Everyone does it. When Mom cooks dinner or bakes a cake, her brain tells her how to do it. The tasty results are as much a map of her mind as Bach’s scores are of his. Maybe she followed a recipe in cooking from scratch; maybe she opened a package of cake mix. However she did it, it was her brain that told her how to proceed. Even the historian reconstructing the battle of Marathon represents the understanding of his mind, mapping his neural workings in the process. If he gets it right, it is his brain that approves and tells him so.


When the Persians (red) moved in from the coast where they landed, Greek forces (blue) lined up in opposition. As the Persians attacked, the Greeks boxed them in on three sides, leaving escape to the rear as an option to their bold pincer formation. The Greek center fell back, but the flanking forces moved in. Crunch. The Persians lost 6,400 men, the Greeks 192. Olympic runner Pheidippides raced from Marathon to Athens with news of the Greek victory: “Rejoice, we conquer!” he gasped, then fell dead in a dramatic conclusion to the first marathon. The map above is a schematic representation of Persian and Greek minds engaging on the plain at Marathon.

Below is an intimate portrait of my own mind in charting results of a study of breeding horseshoe crabs in 2007. My hunch from earlier seasons was that water temperature exerts a strong influence on horseshoe crab mating behavior. Wanting to find out how true that was, I plotted the number of crabs that showed up (colored bars) along with shoreline water temperature (purple line) each day through the breeding season. I counted the crabs and read the thermometer for thirty-eight days in a row, so my brain was very much involved in the project.


Results showed that for the first half of the breeding season, the number of crabs correlates closely with water temperature, but after that, the temperature becomes irrelevant. By the time the correlation breaks down, nest-digging and egg-laying are effectively done for the year. After that, water temperature doesn’t make any difference as far as the crabs are concerned. When it begins to cool in September and October, they retreat to deeper water and prepare to hibernate from November through the winter. The above chart shows actual mating horseshoe crabs and water temperatures reduced to data in my mind, then plotted to reveal the pattern of relationship between them I was looking for. Greetings from my mind to your mind.

My last map is a self-portrait of my own mind contemplating itself in December 2005. The red vertical line on the left side represents the motor (muscle movement) or output pole of my mental being; the blue vertical line on the right represents the perceptual or input pole. My purpose in making the map was to show various parallel loops connecting the two poles to make a whole person. The vertical arrows (4.) on the right suggest the relationship between mental effort and mental economy on different levels of mental activity. Full consciousness at the bottom requires greater mental effort than the reflex arc near the top.

On Level 1. I act in the mysterious world and receive feedback from that world—but nowhere am I aware of goings-on in that world in or of themselves. Level 2. shows five internal connections (dashed blue arrows) between the two poles as they complete the loop of experience, but below the threshold of awareness. Level 3. illustrates various possibilities for linking perception to action via the many aspects of consciousness (yellow area), only a selection of which are apt to be in play at any one time. The Hat Switch on the right side of Level 3. represents the choice of perspectives I have available in responding to my self-placement in different situations. 


Imagine a mind that can schematically conceive and depict itself! Not in any external world familiar in being what it is but an internal world that imparts a familiar feel to the world it devises on the basis of feedback it gets when it directs gestures toward the outside mystery and interprets the signals that come back. Here is the only world that can be called real, on the inside, as perceived, made meaningful through interpretation, and then acted upon to maintain the flow through the loop of experience in a state of alertness and vigilance.

To update this 2005 map I would add another dashed line on Level 2. to represent the mirror neuron system which allows me to mimic the actions of others. I would also play up the role of feelings in affecting every aspect of experience. But as a gross simplification of one mind’s relationship to the universe, I offer this version as background to my general approach in consciously coming to grips with my own mind.

Everything we do is an outward and visible-audible-tangible sign of coordinated neural activity in the brain and other parts of the body, some accessible to consciousness, some not. We already sense that when we look deep into someone’s eyes and find them looking back into our own. But by relying overmuch on language as we do in everyday life, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that words can say it all—and so belittle everything else as an avenue of interpersonal connection. By attending to every gesture, every nonverbal utterance, every change of posture and expression, and every artifact as I am suggesting here, we can boost our looping connection with other beings by opening ourselves to more extensive feedback and engagement with worlds far different from our own.






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