What is a mental process?

What is a “mental” process? The stuff we’re conscious of or a limbo between real, wet, neural processes and observable behavior?

A well known analogy is the computer. The hardware stuff you can kick is analogous to the brain; the stuff you see on the screen is, I suppose, the phenomenology; then the software, all of which correlates with processes you could detect in the hardware if you looked hard enough, some but not all of which affects the screen, is cognition.

Forget for a moment about minds and consider the engineering perspective; then the point of the levels is clear. When you want, say, to check your email, you probably don’t want to fiddle around directly with the chips in your PC. It’s much less painful to rely on years of abstraction and just click or tap on the appropriate icon. You intervene at the level of software, and care very little about what the hardware is doing being the scenes.

What is the point of the levels for understanding a system? Psychologists want to explain, tell an empirically grounded story about, people-level phenomena, like remembering things, reasoning about things, understanding language, feeling and expressing emotions. Layers of abstraction are necessary to isolate the important points of this story. The effect of phonological similarity on remembering or pragmatic language effects when reasoning would be lost if expressed in terms of (say) gene expression.

I don’t understand when the neural becomes the cognitive or the mental. There are many levels of neural, not all of which you can poke. At the top level I’m thinking here about the sorts of things you can do with EEG where the story is tremendously abstract (for instance event-related potentials or the frequency of oscillations) though dependent on stuff going on in the brain. “Real neuroscientists” sometimes get a bit sniffy about that level: it’s not brain science unless you are able to talk about actual bits of brain like synapses and vesicles. But what are actual bits of brain?

Maybe a clue comes from how you intervene on the system. You can intervene with TMS, you can intervene with drugs, or you can intervene with verbal instructions. How do you intervene cognitively or mentally?  Is this the correct way to think about it?

On the inseparability of intellect and emotion (from 1933)

“[…] Imagine that we are engaged in a friendly serious discussion with some one, and that we decide to enquire into the meanings of words. For this special experiment, it is not necessary to be very exacting, as this would enormously and unnecessarily complicate the experiment. It is useful to have a piece of paper and a pencil to keep a record of the progress.

“We begin by asking the ‘meaning’ of every word uttered, being satisfied for this purpose with the roughest definitions; then we ask the ‘meaning’ of the words used in the definitions, and this process is continued usually for no more than ten to fifteen minutes, until the victim begins to speak in circles—as, for instance, defining ‘space’ by ‘length’ and ‘length’ by ‘space’. When this stage is reached, we have come usually to the undefined terms of a given individual. If we still press, no matter how gently, for definitions, a most interesting fact occurs. Sooner or later, signs of affective disturbances appear. Often the face reddens; there is bodily restlessness; sweat appears—symptoms quite similar to those seen in a schoolboy who has forgotton his lesson, which he ‘knows but cannot tell’. […] Here we have reached the bottom and the foundation of all non-elementalistic meanings—the meanings of undefined terms, which we ‘know’ somehow, but cannot tell. In fact, we have reached the un-speakable level. This ‘knowledge’ is supplied by the lower nerve centres; it represents affective first order effects, and is interwoven and interlocked with other affective states, such as those called ‘wishes’, ‘intentions’, ‘intuitions’, ‘evalution’, and many others. […]

“The above explanation, as well as the neurological attitude towards ‘meaning’, as expressed by Head, is non-elementalistic. We have not illegitimately split organismal processes into ‘intellect’ and ’emotions’.”


Korzybski, A. (1933).  Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics Institute of General Semantics.

Žižek, on Malabou, on the brain sciences

Any Hegel scholars around? Žižek (2006, pp. 208–209):

“Where, then,do we find traces of Hegelian themes in the new brain sciences? The three approaches to human intelligence—digital, computer-modeled; the neurobiological study of brain; the evolutionary approach—seem to form a kind of Hegelian triad: in the model of the human mind as a computing (data-processing) machine we get a purely formal symbolic machine; the biological brain studies proper focus on the “piece of meat,” the immediate material support of human intelligence, the organ in which “thought resides”; finally, the evolutionary approach analyzes the rise of human intelligence as part of a complex socio-biological process of interaction between humans and their environment within a shared life-world. Surprisingly, the most “reductionist” approach, that of the brain sciences, is the most dialectical, emphasizing the infinite plasticity of the brain.”

This is the beginning of an interesting (or at least confusing) section on relationships between society, brain, mind, free-will (and so on, and so forth). A reading group would be tremendously helpful. (Page 13 discusses fisting, if that acts as a motivator.)


Slavoj Žižek (2006). The Parallax View. The MIT Press.