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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

The Correlation between Thinking and Consciousness

Shanti Mikkilineni

It inherent to a human being to have the ability to reason and think, but how is it exactly that we go about doing this? Is thinking merely due to input and output, but if so then how come a person can build on previous knowledge? Where is this knowledge stored? Can we "max out" our brain or is it elastic? And is intelligence past knowledge or is that something we come programmed with? We cannot hope to answer all these questions, but it is interesting to note how if these questions were to be asked to five different people, their responses would be different because of their previous knowledge. They have all learned differently, and have all learned to think differently. All these questions also bring up general ideas we have when we discuss the notion of thinking and learning. Because the human brain is so complex, it is not easy to peer inside and decide if it is the neurons firing that helps us learn or if its something else. Why is it that some people are able to pick up mathematics incredibly quickly while others struggle and some people pick up philosophy while the mathematicians struggle with that?

To first understand thinking we have to believe in the mind. Our first question would then be do we know that the mind exists. One philosopher to tackle this problem was René Descartes in the seventeenth century. He believed that the behavioral sign that indicated the presence of the mind was language. Thinking is one distinct function of the mind Descartes said, and thinking produces thoughts. Language is what expresses these thoughts and therefore we can say that language implies thinking (1). The thinking then in turn implies the mind. Descartes then faced an interesting dilemma: if communication is evidence of a mind then do animals have minds since they are able to communicate with each other? Descartes believed that animals were mere machines and therefore did not have minds. Yet this becomes harder to prove once we think of evolution. If through evolution, humans did in fact come from less complex animals, then were did the mind come from? If we wish to keep with phylogenetic continuity, then we have to say that animals also possess minds. Through gradual increase of complexity from animal to human, is it possible to just have a mind pop in somewhere or is it that animals have a lesser form of a mind and that the mind as well as the body gradually became more complex over time. I am inclined to believe that all organisms have some form of the mind. If animals do not posses a mind and do not think, how is it possible then to teach a dog how to fetch or roll over? The dog itself reveals that it too is learning.

There are generally three types of behaviorists who each see the brain in a different way. There are methodological behaviorists, radical behaviorists and mediation behaviorists. Methodological behaviorists believe that consciousness exists but believe that it is within each persons brain and that it cannot be studied by science for it is unique to each person. They believe that science demands that we only study behavior(1). The radical behaviorists, on the other hand feel that a persons conscious may cause behavior. What is going on in your head will have an output or will be directly related to your actions, for example, taking medication for your headache, or even calling a friend because you feel sad. This type of behaviorists also resist the idea of "unseen machinery". If the machinery cannot be seen by anyone then a radical behaviorist rejects it(1). A mediation behaviorist studies human learning and find that humans learn differently than animals and they try to capture this difference through mediation. Animals respond directly to stimuli where as a mediational behaviorist believes that a human learns by responding to their environment and can control their own responses(1).

The problem with discussing consciousness is that it becomes hard to distinguish at times if a person is conscious. Descartes believes that the behavioral sign that indicated the mind was language and from this came all the rest of his assertions. Yet would a person who is mute also be considered unconscious or what about a person who is deaf and therefore cannot respond to the language of others. Does sign language count as another language that can therefore indicate the presence of a mind in a deaf or mute person? I would assert that because a human who is born deaf or mute, while not being able to use the language that most humans use vocally, still shows the presence of a consciousness and the ability to learn since they are able to learn something like sign language. This ability to learn even though a mute person cannot communicate the same way that the rest of us do is evidence that if the brain is not able to communicate its thoughts through its voice then it would find another way. This also demonstrates that language may not be the sole determiner of a conscious. Body language could then also be seen as a form of communication and language as could your actions, which is why we say at times that actions speak louder than words. This is effect reveals that we also do not feel that language

The question then becomes that regardless of if the consciousness is evidenced by language or the body, how is it that thinking actually occurs in the brain. To understand this, we need to understand what the brain is made up of. The brain is "Four pounds and several thousand miles of interconnected nerve cells (about 100 billion)" that control movement, sensations, thoughts, emotions(3). The brain itself consists of trillions of neurons which are all interconnected and all transmit signals at an astonishing rate. We then have to understand how things are understood by the brain. It all begins with an image or a distal stimulus. A distal stimulus is any object that is in the world that a human being can perceive. Then that distal stimulus becomes a proximal stimulus which is the retinal image of the book. Finally, the book becomes a percept, which is where your brain recognizes the object as a book(2). The percept is what you see and in the future becomes your interpretation of the same object. Now you know what a book looks like and if you come across a similar looking object, your brain perceives that also as a book. As a child, this is how you perceive the world. Your parents hold an object in front of you, repeat its name and try to have you make the same sounds. Then they show you how it is used. It is through this form of association that a child learns what a bottle is and what they can do to get one. This is also found through conditioning, which is one theory of how people learn.

The question is first how many different types of learning are there? Is there just instrumental conditioning-Pavolovian conditioning or is there something else which is a immediate association between stimuli and movements? Instrumental conditioning-Pavolovian conditioning, which is a dichotomy in itself represent a type of associated learning. Pavolovian conditioning was thought up by a man named Ivan Petrovich Pavlov(1849-1936) who was a physiologist. It follows a law called contiguity which says that two ideas will get associated if they occur in the mind at the same time. From this Pavlov derived his hypothetical brain theory which says that "stimuli set up centers of activity in the cerebrum and that centers regularly activated together will become linked, so that when one center is activated, the other will be too(1). This theory believes that the greater number of times you come into contact with a stimuli, if you are given the same response each time, then you will learn to associate that response with that stimuli. Yet a questions arises from this theory and it is that what if the next time a person comes into contact with that stimuli, a different response is given. Can the brain then attribute both responses to the same stimuli and also be able to differentiate the two? I believe so. The human mind possess a great elasticity and it is part of growing up as a human that we discover this, for we find that sometime we are given the same response with different stimuli. Our parents tell us we can not go somewhere, while the first time we asked it was to go to the mall, and the second time we asked, it was to go to a friend's house. A great deal of learning also comes through patterning(6) which is also related to perception. We start forming classes of information where similar stimuli or similar responses start to be categorized. Through the process of conditioning, we find that the more that we are exposed to in life, and with all the myriad of responses, our categories become more complex.

Learning is not something that a human can do optimally all their lives and even at an age where a human can learn the most, there are many factors which can stunt it. Humans are known to learn more at 20 years of age than at 60(5), yet within the population of 20 year olds, not all of them learn the same. There are many incredibly smart 20 year olds and there are many who are unable to learn without spending hours poring over material. What kind of things cause this to occur? Is intelligence and learning hereditary or is, in the words of one behaviorist, "The essence of intelligence is the adequate response to a stimulus"?(4) We believe that the greater response a person has to stimuli, the greater is their intelligence. But isn't intelligence itself rather arbitrary? Perhaps it would be better to say that a person's greater response to stimuli is evidence of their ability to learn and respond to their surroundings.

As we come to a greater understanding about learning and human behavior, we realize that the two concepts are not as simple as we initially thought. What indicates that a person is learning and is it possible to measure the amount of material that a person learns everyday and does thinking indicate learning? We've been thinking about consciousness and trying to understand if how closely learning and thinking are related. Our brains are in a constant state of consciousness. We are constantly alert to what is going on around us and we are constantly observing. It would be impossible to measure the amount of information that the brain absorbs, but as we realize its elastic potential, it makes us see how great the pursuit of knowledge really is. Our brains, unlike animals, have an incredible ability to reason, think, and pursue ideas. Our thoughts can be independent of our actions and we have the ability to critically observe the world around us. It is this gift that we are given as humans and it reinforces the idea that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.


1) Harris, Richard J, Leahey, Thomas H. Learning and Cognition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

2) Galotti, Kathleen. Cognitive Psychology In and Out of the Laboratory. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.,1999.

3)Brain Source A great site to find out about learning, brain disorders, damaged brains and the effects of stress on the brain

4)What is Intelligence?

5)Brain Connection

6)Understanding about learning and the brain

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