Thinking about thought

Modules of the brain

Cognitive neuroscientists have taken the point of view that concepts, memories, words, and so on are represented in the brain by physical systems: perhaps they are individual neurons, or systems of structures, or even waves of discharges. In my previous writing I have referred to these as modules, and I will do that here. Each module is connected to many other modules that encode various properties of the concept, thoughts and memories that occur when you think of that concept (in other words stimulate the module), and so on.

How these modules implement the way we think and perceive the world is not well understood and forms a major research task of cognitive neuroscience. The fact that they are implemented in physical systems in the brain gives us a new way of thinking about thought and perception.


The grandmother module

There is a module in your brain representing the concept of grandmother. It is likely to be connected to other modules representing your actual grandmothers if you have any memory of them. These modules are connected to many others — memories (if you knew them), other relatives related to them, incidents in their lives that you were told about, and so on. Even if you don’t have any memory of them, you have a module representing the fact that you don’t have any memory of them, and maybe modules explaining why you don’t.

Each different aspect related to “grandmother” belongs to a separate module somehow connected to the grandmother module. That may be hard to believe, but the human brain has over eighty billion neurons.

A particular module connected with math

There is a module in your brain connected with the number $42$. That module has many connections to things you know about it, such as its factorization, the fact that it is an integer, and so on. The module may also have connections to a module concerning the attitude that $42$ is the Answer. If it does, that module may have a connection with the module representing Douglas Adams. He was physically outside your body, but is the number $42$ outside your body?

That has a decidedly complicated answer. The number $42$ exists in a network of brains which communicate with each other and share some ideas about properties of $42$. So it exists socially. This social existence occasionally changes your knowledge of the properties of $42$ and in particular may make you realize that you were wrong about some of its aspects. (Perhaps you once thought it was $7\times 8$.)

This example suggests how I have been using the module idea to explain how we think about math.

A new metaphor for understanding thinking

I am proposing to use the idea of module as a metaphor for thinking about thinking. I believe that it clarifies a lot of the confusion people have about the relation between thinking and the real world. In particular it clarifies why we think of mathematical objects as if they were real-world objects (see Modules and math below.)

I am explicitly proposing this metaphor as a successor to previous metaphors drawn from science to explain things. For example when machines became useful in the 18th century many naturalists used metaphors such as the Universe is a Machine or the Body is a Machine as a way of understanding the world. In the 20th century we fell heavily for the metaphor that the Mind Is A Computer (or Program). Both the 18th century and the 20th century metaphors (in my opinion) improved our understanding of things, even though they both fell short in many ways.

In no way am I claiming that the ways of thinking I am pushing have anything but a rough resemblance to current neuroscientists’ thinking. Even so, further discoveries in neuroscience may give us even more insight into thinking that they do now. Unless at some point something goes awry and we have to, ahem, think differently again.

For thousands of years, new scientific theories have been giving us new metaphors for thinking about life, the universe and everything. I am saying here is a new apple on the tree of knowledge; let’s eat it.

The rest of this post elaborates my proposed metaphor. Like any metaphor, it gets some things right and some wrong, and my explanations of how it works are no doubt full of errors and dubious ideas. Nevertheless, I think it is worth thinking about thought using these ideas with the usual correction process that happens in society with new metaphors.

Our theory of the world

We don’t have any direct perception of the “real world”; we have only the sensations we get from those parts of our body which sense things in the world. These sensations are organized by our brain into a theory of the world.

  • The theory of the world says that the world is “out there” and that our sensory units give us information about it. We are directly aware of our experiences because they are a function of our brain. That the experiences (many of them) originate from outside our body is a very plausible theory generated by our brain on the bases of these experience.
  • The theory is generated by our brain in a way that we cannot observe and is out of our control (mostly). We see a table and we know we can see in in daytime but not when it is dark and we can bump into it, which causes experiences to occur via our touch and sound facilities. But the concept of “table” and the fact that we decide something is or is not a table takes place in our brain, not “out there”.
  • We do make some conscious amendments to the theory. For example, we “know” the sky is not a blue shell around our world, although it looks like it. That we think of the apparent blue surface as an artifact of our vision processing comes about through conscious reasoning. But most of how we understand the world comes about subconsciously.
  • Our brain (and the rest of our body) does an enormous amount of processing to create the view of the world that we have. Visual perception requires a huge amount of processing in our brain and the other sensory methods we use also undergo a lot of processing, but not as much as vision.
  • The theory of the world organizes a lot of what we experience as interaction with physical objects. We perceive physical objects as having properties such as persistence, changing with time, and so on. Our brains create the concept of physical object and the properties of persistence, changing, and particular properties an individual object might have.
  • We think of the Mississippi River as an object that is many years old even though none of its current molecules are the same as were in the river a decade ago. How is it one thing when its substance is constantly changing? This is a famous and ancient conundrum which becomes a non-problem if you realize that the “object” is created inside your brain and imposed by your thinking on your understanding of the world.
  • The notion that semantics is a connection between our brain and the outside world has also become a philosophical conundrum that vanishes if we understand that the connection with the outside world exists entirely inside our theory, which is entirely within our brain.


Our brain also has a theory of society We are immersed in a world of people, that we have close connections with some of them and more distant connections with many other via speech, stories, reading and various kinds of long-distance communications.

  • We associate with individual people, in our family and with our friend. The communication is not just through speech: it involves vision heavily (seeing what The Other is thinking) and probably through pheromones, among other channels. For one perspective on vision, see The vision revolution, by Mark Changizi. (Review)
  • We consciously and unconsciously absorb ideas and attitudes (cultural and otherwise) from the people around us, especially including the adults and children we grow up with. In this way we are heavily embedded in the social world, which creates our point of view and attitudes by our observation and experience and presumably via memes. An example is the widespread recent changes in attitudes in the USA concerning gay marriage.
  • The theory of society seems to me to be a mechanism in our brain that is separate from our theory of the physical world, but which interacts with it. But it may be that it is better to regard the two theories as modules in one big theory.

Modules and math

The module associated with a math object is connected to many other modules, some of which have nothing to do with math.

  • For example, they may have have connections to our sensory organs. We may get a physical feeling that the parabola $y=x^2$ is going “up” as $x$ “moves to the right”. The mirror neurons in our brain that “feel” this are connected to our “parabola $y=x^2$” module. (See Constructivism and Platonism and the posts it links to.)
  • I tend to think of math objects as “things”. Every time I investigate the number $111$, it turns out to be $3\times37$. Every time I investigate the alternating group on $6$ letters it is simple. If I prove a new theorem it feels as if I have discovered the theorem. So math objects are out there and persistent.
  • If some math calculation does not give the same answer the second time I frequently find that I made a mistake. So math facts are consistent.
  • There is presumably a module that recognizes that something is “out there” when I have repeatable and consistent experiences with it. The feeling originates in a brain arranged to detect consistent behavior. The feeling is not evidence that math objects exist in some ideal space. In this way, my proposed new way of thinking about thought abolishes all the problems with Platonism.
  • If I think of two groups that are isomorphic (for example the cyclic group of order $3$ and the alternating group of rank $3$), I picture them as in two different places with a connection between the two isomorphic ones. This phenomenon is presumably connected with modules that respond to seeing physical objects and carrying with them a sense of where they are (two different places). This is a strategy my brain uses to think about objects without having to name them, using the mechanism already built in to think about two things in different places.


Many of the ideas in this post come from my previous writing, listed in the references. This post was also inspired by ideas from Chomsky, Jackendoff (particularly Chapter 9), the Scientific American article Brain cells for Grandmother by Quian Quiroga, Fried and Koch, and the papers by Ernest and Hersh.


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