The phenomenon of Mind has evaded philosophers, theologians, scientists, and artists since the dawn of civilization. Today, the concept of Mind is front and centre with advances in AI and machine learning. The promises of AI and the hope of a Singularity to lead civilization forward, into uncharted lands towards a utopian future is our latest, human all too human attempt to grasp at an idea to soothe the unsoothable.
In this article, I will elaborate an idea of Mind, at times allegorically, that encompasses evolutionary and psychological factors, with an emphasis on attachment and emotions as a precondition and condition for the human brain to evolve into consciousness and extend into what we commonly call civilization. These factors are often excluded from the purely algorithmic models of mind that currently enframe AI and machine learning theory. And if we are to lead responsible developments in AI, which as human beings is our duty towards future generations, then a good dose of humanity is needed. Finally, I hope to communicate the threats to mind and the repercussions for our civilization, because if we don’t take care of our minds, how are we going to create better artificial ones?
MIND AS RELATIONSHIP
Descartes famous Cogito Ergo Sum, I think Therefore I Am, has held a central place in the opus on mind, knowing and existence. However, I would like to propose a spin on this old dictum, by offering: In Relationship Therefore I Am.
Borrowing from developmental psychology, the first intentional word asserting existence and self-awareness surfaces around the age of 2 years old. The emergence of an “I” is dependant on a relational ecosystem structuring and facilitating the growth of sufficient neural networks culminating in a subjective experience of being separate from others and the world. And in this separation of self from others, we become aware that we exist. In the real world, we call this the terrible twos, which might suggest that self-awareness is not necessarily a pleasant experience.
Brain systems (the simple version)
Our species has survived incredible odds thanks to the evolution of our brains, and the focus of this article will be on the contribution of our mammalian-emotional brain; the part of the brain that, very simply, reads and interprets non-verbal emotional cues relating to fear and safety. This emotional brain has a much greater influence on behaviour than our neocortex does. Our reptilian brain, responsible for autonomic systems over which we have no control, but some influence, like heart rate and breathing, is directly plugged into our emotional brain. However, not to fall prey to the reductionistic mind-body split, it is understood that these brain systems are embodied and intimately linked, forming a seamless web of “knowing.” And this “knowing” begins in the body, rooted and structured in relationships, and extends outward into the world to create what we call civilization.
The prey brain
This seamless web of knowing is nice in theory, but in the real world, there are hierarchies of influence on behaviour. If I ask you to go for a run, you may answer; “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you later.” However, if I point to a bear charging towards you, assuming there is a haven nearby, chances are you are going to run as you’ve never run before. Our human brains are wired as prey brains, not predator brains. As we fell from the trees and wandered the savanna on two legs, we were breakfast, lunch, and dinner for larger predators. To survive, we needed to band together and form groups, like a moving herd that was greater than the sum of its parts, which provided both physical and psychological safety. And as we walked through this new, uncharted and dangerous landscape, to survive, we developed incredible abilities to read the verbal and non-verbal cues for danger and safety from our tribe members leading the group. This is the environment in which our current brains evolved.
Guilt and survival of the cooperative and compassionate
In such a hostile environment, separation from the tribe meant certain death, and exclusion from the tribe was a death sentence. In this context developed more complex emotional states such as guilt. It appears that for thousands of years our brains were involved in developing the complex neural pathways needed to help us negotiate the challenges of social interactions. And only once this architecture was in place did more complex abstract processes evolve.
Guilt, it is hypothesized, evolved as an adaptive emotion pushing for corrective action following a break in the interpersonal fabric of the tribe. Guilt served to repair interpersonal rifts that threatened my place in the tribe and the cohesion of the group. Which points to the substrate of guilt that is fear. Separation, exclusion, and abandonment became intrinsically linked to dread, terror and death. Hence my survival became dependant on my ability to both read emotional cues and to repair interpersonal rifts with other tribe members. And what previous thinkers coined as the herd mentality, can be seen as an adaptive necessity to a hostile environment, that we have yet to outgrow. We now call it belonging, which is a rare experience among refugees and digital nomads.
This need for belonging has both a psychological and physical component. Psychologically, we need to know where we are situated in the hearts of significant others. Our nervous system relaxes and our minds expand when we a have a clear idea of how much real estate we own in the hearts of those we love and depend on. Our fears and anxieties go through the roof when our title of ownership is threatened. Observe the behaviours of an older sibling as they adapt to the new baby. Rest assured there is a war being waged for parental love and attention. And observe the cognitive, attentional, physical, and emotional disorganization of a betrayed spouse who is fighting through conflicted emotions to reclaim their lost real estate in their unfaithful partner’s heart and body. We can observe our mammalian brain’s territoriality at work as blended families negotiate the adaptation to sharing a new home. Irrespective of IQ, education, or age, every family member is struggling, at times rather primitively, to define and negotiate their new psychological and physical spaces. The timeline for blended families to negotiate these changes ranges between 3 and five years, with 66% of families giving up and separating.
Belonging to land and country is not an abstract concept. We all know where home is, even if for the most unfortunate it is just an ancestor’s memory handed down to them. Furthermore, the yearning to return home is a deep mammalian brain desire to find safety and familiarity that is both soothing and reassuring so as to calm our uncertain nervous systems as we venture by choice or by force into unchartered lands.
Attachment theory (the simple version)
These same processes are observable with young infants and children when we view their behaviours from an attachment perspective. Simply put, attachment theory attempts to explain how relationships with primary caregivers (usually parents) in the first six years of life and beyond lay the templates for future relationships and how we relate to the world.
More specifically, attachment theory, supported by neuroscience, claims that within the first three years of life our deep brain structures become hard-wired via how our primary attachment figures attend and respond to our pre-verbal cues for safety, affection, stimulus, comfort and soothing. In other words, these primary relationships create the source code of our emerging minds.
This theory states that during these formative years children need caring, trusting, stable, predictable, emotionally available and receptive caregivers to develop into healthy adolescents and adults.
If provided with this ideal context, we develop what attachment theorists call a secure attachment style whereby we trust others and ourselves to navigate the challenges of life with cognitive flexibility, resilience and emotional intelligence.
In the absence of this ideal context, we can develop an insecure attachment style that hinders our ability to adapt and form meaningful, trusting relationships, and become unduly preoccupied with issues of trust and self-doubt, essentially constricting the mind.
In the complete absence of primary attachment relationships, as seen in some orphanages where infants are provided with only the physical necessities to survive, these infants fail to develop, and some eventually die within the first two years of life. For those who do survive, they suffer from significantly higher rates of cognitive, psychological, emotional, interpersonal, and physical deficits. And these fundamental deficiencies of mind tend to be irreversible.
Constructivist theory of mind
This brings to light the constructivist theory of mind which postulates that the brain’s inherent, hardwired architecture pushes more data down into the senses then it receives from the senses. And as the brain evolves via this bidirectional flow of data, consciousness emerges. But without primary attachment relationships, this architecture becomes brittle and collapses. Therefore we could argue that healthy attachment potentiates the brain and initiates a highly adaptive recursive self-improvement loop (i.e., conscious intelligence) which is what AI is attempting to achieve with its idea of a Singularity. Pushing this idea further, we could argue that compassion, the agent of healthy attachment, is the most potentiating known force in the universe by virtue of being the prime mover of human consciousness and intelligence. And it appears that this potentiating force inevitably mobilizes civilization, determining us on a level equal to biological evolution; because the huge global leaps in social organization and its positive effects on individuals since the enlightenment cannot be accounted for from an evolutionary perspective.
Simply put, our primary relationships to caregivers provide the earth in which our evolving brains takes root. And depending on the quality of that earth, we either thrive, fail to thrive, or die. Furthermore, as we age this root system becomes progressively decentralized as we attach to other real human beings in the ever-expanding social fabric of our relational environment. From this perspective, one could argue that a decentralized Singularity currently exists and is manifest in civilization. With civilization being this network of ever-expanding decentralized relational nodes. But the defining characteristic of this network is the emotional charge connected to the expanding network of interpersonal nodes.
Throughout adolescence, a pruning of neurons occurs in our brains. The billions of neural connections that have grown since birth, many of which are now obsolete, get trimmed away and discarded. From a developmental-attachment perspective, those neural networks that endure tend to have a relational-emotional charge attached to them, and if we are lucky, the positive emotional-relational charges outnumber the negative ones.
The evolving relational mind
The emotional charge of our neural networks is central to who we are. It is what makes us individuals. It is the emotional charge of my personal history that makes me different from you. We may have had the same parents, lived in the same house, read the same books, watched the same movies, and had the same teachers, but the emotional texture of my individual experiences of these same events is what makes me, me, and not you. There is an old saying in family systems theory that every child from the same family is from a different family.
So our evolving minds grow deeper into the root system of our emotionally charged interpersonal network of attachment figures. What allows the child to survive the dreaded and terrifying separations and abandonments are his ability to imagine those significant others and hold them in his mind and body. It is a process called introjection that occurs once the child has acquired representational thought between the ages of 18 and 24 months. The other strategy is to use transitional objects that symbolize the soothing and comforting characteristics of the absent caring parent. These introjects and objects begin to form a complex network where the child creates a hierarchy of objects with each having its own emotional valence, representation, and meaningful narrative. This network also mirrors the real people in his or her life. Therefore, one could argue that primary attachment experiences provide the necessary and sufficient structure, content, and texture for the human brain to evolve into consciousness. To use a simple TV analogy, we could say that primary attachment experiences provide the power and enhance the circuitry, the introjects provide the image, and emotions provide the colour and sound. Could nanotechnology plugged into the brain enhance the image to 3D? Without a doubt, but it is a surface layer enhancement, at least three levels removed from the source code.
The source code (primary attachment experiences) of the decentralized self is stored within the individual, is contained within the barrier of our skin, but its nodes exist out there in the world. And each one of these decentralized relational nodes carries a dynamic node-syncratic copy of us in their minds. Which helps us understand Gord Downie’s sobering lyrics: “We don’t go to hell, just the memories of us do.”
We reveal our dynamic source code primarily through our attachment style via how we relate to others and the world. In a way, our decentralized self’s repository is semi-permeable, unlike our skin, and in extreme cases like psychotic episodes becomes fully permeable. Furthermore, our source code is conditionally open-source, where the condition for access is a secure attachment relationship. However, as we will see later, brute force attacks can also alter the source code of both individuals and civilizations.
Attachment as the basis for identity, reality, meaning, and values
Reality and identity
Identity, meaning, and values, which are the cornerstones of human consciousness, evolve in the context of relationships with significant others. For children, things become real when they are acknowledged by significant others. The young child, arriving home from daycare to anxiously show her drawing is confirmed that it exists when the parent emotionally attends to both the child and the drawing. Because the drawing, for the child, is an extension of itself. How parents emotionally attend to the child’s emerging self is what gives him or her their sense of reality and identity.
The same holds true for emotional states. From birth on, if the parent is emotionally attuned to their child, they will name and reflect their child’s emotional states back to them. This process is called mirroring and appears to be a latent process wired into the human brain. Mirroring both verbal and non-verbal cues grounds the evolving identity of the child in reality and gives it meaning. The parental mirror being the portal to reality and identity. If the parental mirror is fragmented due to acute, historical or transgenerational trauma, the child’s sense of self will also become fragmented. But if the parental mirror is relatively intact, the child will be affirmed that their subjective experience of themselves exists as real, valid, good and worthy. And it is from this core sense of self that we weave meaning into our lives.
Self-esteem vs self-confidence as the basis for meaning
This process is at the core of what is commonly referred to as self-esteem, which is qualitatively different to self-confidence. Self-confidence is trust in my ability to perform a specific task, whereas self-esteem is trusting that my feelings and perceptions are true for me. I may lack self-confidence on the hockey rink, but not doubt that my poor performance is a reflection of who I am. Because the core sense of who I am is rooted in the trust that my feelings and perceptions are true and valid for me, irrespective of my performance on a specific task.
In a way, we could say that high self-esteem is centralized within the self. Whereas low self-esteem is decentralized in the eyes of others who are assessing my performance. Low self-esteem reflecting my fragmented sense of self. Metaphorically, I look to others to reassemble my fragmented mirror. And it is from our intact or fragmented mirrors, and consequently our sense of self, that we weave meaning into our lives.
We humans, for better or for worse, have been saddled with the burden of meaning. We are meaning making machines, always weaving stories, forever recasting ourselves in possible past or future outcomes as we compulsively write and re-write the narrative of our lives. And this narrative is populated by our introjects and our relationships with them. This is our inescapable human condition, which we have the option to punctuate with despair, through passive or active suicide, when the ink runs dry as our positive introjects recede.
Values, like emotions, are bodily based and grounded in what is true for each individual. We experience them as bodily sensations before we symbolize them through higher level thought processes. Metaphorically, we carry values in our body, not in our head. Values lead to action, even though our rational mind presses on the brakes. Values are embodied imprints of what is core to who we are; they are central to our narrative, absorbed through osmosis via our attachment history. They evolve through relationships with significant others, either real or imagined. Which is why an author, whose ideas move you by emotionally resonating with your emerging narrative, can become part of the fabric of your relational world. And which explains the power, for good or evil, of the word of God throughout history. The same holds for any other ideological system, which from this perspective, renders most debates on faith vs science, Christianity vs Islam vs Judaism, democrats vs republicans, capitalism vs communism, the Montreal Canadians vs the Pittsburgh Penguins, etc., moot. However, this does not exclude a dialogue on assessing the concrete repercussions or impact of every and any ideological system on our civilization. And this dialogue is a moral one and is essentially values-based, structured by the parameters of our ever-expanding relational nodes. Which explains that as our minds evolve, so do our morals.
So our minds are both rooted and structured and evolve through an ever-expanding root system of emotionally charged attachment nodes that define the parameters of our world, connecting us to civilization. And it is within this subterranean root system that identity, values, and meaning grow. And to uproot this system will inevitably damage civilization.
Uprooting: A case study of brute force attacks
Unfortunately, we have a clear example of the devastating effects that such an uprooting creates. The history of Canadian aboriginal residential schools is a revealing case study of this traumatic process. The individual, familial, collective and cultural fallout from such a systemic uprooting is well documented. Addiction, family violence, neglect, suicide, illness, alienation, victimization, dislocation, and incarceration are but a few objective, measurable indicators of the devastation from this uprooting. The individual narratives of these horrors are just starting to emerge, but the novel is far from finished. The fallout from this systemic uprooting will be handed down to future generations who will hopefully continue to write this vital narrative, and break the silence to counter the shame.
From a psychological perspective, the most toxic fallout from this uprooting is shame. Whereas guilt pushes us to repair an interpersonal rift that we created, shame in the context of abuse compels the victim to repair an abusive act that he or she did not commit. By violating the victims’ personal integrity, the perpetrators impose their guilt on their victims by their actions, words, or silence, and burdens them with the responsibility to repair. Ultimately, abusive shame saddles victims with the impossible, like Sisyphus who is sentenced to roll his rock up and down the mountain of time.
And shame tightens the body and constricts the mind. It is a dark lead straightjacket eclipsing hope and suffocating life; emotional, relational, intellectual, spiritual and creative life. And shame can only exist in the darkness of secrecy and silence; it grows in the humid, damp corners of the forgotten basement of our individual and collective lives where the unspoken pages from our past lay buried.
There are multiple examples of mass uprootings, both human and natural, occurring throughout the world today, and the causes and fallout are becoming too evident to ignore. From racism, the gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, nationalism, terrorism, state-funded terrorism (wars), religious fundamentalism, technological and scientific imperialism, mental health, human exploitation, to the doomsday clock closing in on midnight, and the list goes on and on. Taken as a whole, and observing ourselves from outer space, we could argue that as a species we are not evolving that well.
The myth of decentralized post-war promises (simple version)
If mind is understood as an embodied experience that is structured and emerges in the context of significant relationships and extends beyond our bodies into the world and circumscribed by civilization, then what is the state of our mind? I would argue that our mind is ill, ill from uprooting and desperate to reclaim its place in the world, as opposed to against the world.
The myth of the global decentralized ideological blockchain was formalized towards the end of the second world war and coded after 9–11 with the source code justifying American hegemony as a condition for survival and global stability. And the decentralized nodes and miners of this new blockchain were implemented through economic, political, and military cooperation and coercion, culminating in the Globalization blockchain.
World wars and the shattering of mirrors
We cannot deny the human horrors of both world wars. These atrocities shattered the mirrors of civilization, and humanity scrambled to reassemble these mirrors in its attempts to create meaning from such horrendous atrocities. The individual, generational, transgenerational, and collective trauma that ensued is what created the necessary conditions for the Globalization blockchain to take hold. From 1945 onward, the cables were laid across every continent, into every country, city, and household, waiting for the source code to ease the pain of these unspeakable crimes against humanity. And institutional miners were created to verify the transactions on the “public” blockchain: the UN, the Nuremberg trials, IMF, the World Bank, and NATO to name a few. And the world began to relax, trusting the miners’ and the mirror artisans’ promise of: Never Again.
However, the illusory promise of decentralizing world stability and prosperity through the Globalization blockchain proved to be a false promise because the institutional miners hold the balance of power. Selectively posting to the “public” blockchain the transactions that maintain the status quo while excluding huge blocs of transactions, and burying these orphaned blocks in dark, humid basements. Recent mirror shattering events like Paris, Isis, North Africa, Syria, etc., have but congested the blockchain and the institutional miners are playing selective catchup.
This process has led to more uprooting, via forced displacements, than WWII. Leaving in its wake fragmented mirrors and displacing millions of people far from their relational root systems. This unprecedented global uprooting is ripe to fragment identity, meaning, values, and mind on a scale never before seen in the history of humanity. And like an anxious child searching desperately for its favourite transitional object, civilization as we know it, has lost its security blanket and is grasping at synthetic and binary solutions to a very human problem. Modern medicine and pharmacology have failed to soothe us, and some would argue that all we have left is code. And my answer to them, borrowed from Pete Moon’s novel the Cover Letter, is: “You can’t code suffering!”. And if you can’t code suffering, you can’t code compassion.
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If you are as passionate as I am about human beings and technology, and the future of our civilization, and want to discuss these ideas, please leave a comment and do get in touch. I’m on Twitter @jacquesrlegault
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