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Sophie F's picture

Input, Output, just output: what does it mean?

Are not "random" and "without reason" terms we, mere mortals, ascribe to that which we cannot understand? If the brain, in some fashion, receives input, processes it goes through some processes and then outputs, there is some form of categorization or drawing of connections that occurs, sight unseen. If an input is received that does not fall within the realm of that which has been previously learned or experienced then the brain either associates with its closest match, creates a new connection (or perhaps reinforces an old) or rationalizes that it is "random" or "without reason." These are perhaps the "patterns" to which Emily Alspector and Anne Kauth refer above. And, indeed, much of the “work” done in the nervous system is without discernible inputs and thus behavior may it times appear to be “random.”

Some of the discussion, thus far, has called into question the brain as a “system” given that we behave sometimes unpredictably, in ways that seem to defy that which we ascribe to “systems,” such as machines, computers, and even the brain. To my thinking, I tend to agree with eambash, that the fact that we (humans, crickets, etc.) behave unpredictably need not undermine or negate the premise of the brain as a system. After all, a system is a way to organize, synthesize and act upon information. In the case of the brain, as other systems, there are often competing or simultaneous inputs and myriad potential responses. Were it not for the brain’s capacity to perceive, reason, respond, albeit a limited and imperfect capacity, it might not qualify as a system. On the other hand, “system” semantically somehow demystifies the human experience and causes doubt about whether or not our decisions “belong” to us if the brain is at the fore (in all ways). Indeed, the synapses in the brain have the remarkable capacity to form new connections as learning takes place, or to sever connections that are not used or are replaced by others. This means we are all shaped by our experiences, our histories, our cultures, etc. and we are works in progress, as are our brains. We may have different starting materials (gene variation), different exposures (culture, family, etc.), but we have similar potential to learn and modify our behavior as we modify our brains.

Even if the input is not discernible or cannot be pinpointed, what triggers behavioral outputs? Learning? Neurotransmitters? Is nothing we do random or is everything we do random, such that an input cannot be identified? Even if the mind and brain are one, is there necessarily some dualism to account for the many dichotomies of existence? Or is it as John Dewey suggests, ..."we shall not regard the difference as other than one of degree and emphasis…” ?

I found the following to be very interesting, of which I am posting a somewhat lengthy excerpt: a talk given by John Dewey, entitled “Preoccupation with the Disconnected,” given to the New York Academy of Medicine in 1928. It can be found in its entirety here:


“The very problem of mind and body suggests division; I do not know of anything so disastrously affected by the habit of division as this particular theme. In its discussion are reflected the splitting off from each other of religion, morals and science; the divorce of philosophy from science and of both from the arts of conduct… The division in question is so deep-seated that it has affected even our language. We have no word by which to name mind-body in a unified wholeness of operation. For if we said ‘human life’ few would recognize that it is precisely the unity of mind and body in action to which we were referring. Consequently, when we endeavor to establish this unity in human conduct, we still speak of body and mind and thus unconsciously perpetuate the very division we are striving to deny. I have used, in passing, the phrases "wholeness of operation’, ‘unity in action.’ What is implied in them gives the key to the discussion. In just the degree in which action, behavior is made central, the traditional barriers between mind and body break down and dissolve. When we take the standpoint of action we may still treat some functions as primarily physical and others as primarily mental. Thus we think of, say, digestion, reproduction and locomotion as conspicuously physical, while thinking, desiring, hoping, loving, fearing are distinctively mental. Yet if we are wise we shall not regard the difference as other than one of degree and emphasis…”


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