By Gunnel Minett

Traditionally our understanding of the human mind and psyche has been influenced by philosophers such as Plato, Descartes and Kant but recent findings in neuroscience have provided a better understanding in this field. 

Traditional Philosophy

René Descartes, the father of modern (mainstream) philosophy, has been a leading voice in western philosophy. He introduced Substance Dualism, where mind and body are considered to have distinct essences, one being characterised by thought, the other by spatial extension. With thisDescartes created two separate realms: the mental and the physical. The mental we can be sure of; the physical needs to, somehow, be linked to it. Rationality is highest. Emotions of no real consequence. 

Modern Neuro/Evolutionary psychology

With the development of Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology our understanding of mind and consciousness has changed to also include the development of the human brain. Our worldview, or life philosophy, experienced through the mind and consciousness, is created by and is relative to the environment we are born into. Childrearing is focused around our parents introducing (or even indoctrinating us) into a certain worldview or philosophy.

Triune Brain

The brain is the centre for communication between the environment outside us and our inner environment. We need this interaction to safeguard the best possible environment (and in the end survival) for ourselves. The development of an adult brain takes place during the first 20 years of our lives. 

The different parts of the brain are formed before birth. The foetus goes through all the steps of human evolution in its development from cell/sperm to the human brain. In the early phases you can’t see the difference between a human foetus and a fish for instance (for a period we even have’ gills’ that later are transform into parts of the jaw and ear). Because the evolution process is based on ‘improvements of a previous version’ for all species, we can’t throw out the old and build new from scratch. So the brain consists of ‘add-ons’ to earlier version. The oldest part we have in common with all primitive species, (reptiles being the most advanced species, hence the name). When we became mammals and started to form social group living we needed more brain capacity to handle this. This is how the mammalian brain was formed. It forms a layer around the reptilian brain. (it is probably good to look at images of the brain to see how it is formed in different parts). The mammalian brain is the centre for the limbic system (the name limbic referring to the wrapping around the older part). This area deals with motivation, emotion, learning, and memory, all important functions for group living. 

Development of mind/brain according to Maclean

According to Paul Maclean’s, Triune Brain theory, the brain develops into three major parts reflecting the evolutionary process:

1) Reptilian brain (oldest part – shared with animals up to reptiles) 

2) Mammalian brain (later development – shared with all other mammals) 

3) Neo-mammalian brain (latest development unique for higher primates)

Certain features essential for survival, such as instinctual needs and emotions are hardwired (in genes) in our brains at birth.

These instinctual needs – often referred to as ‘goals’ in neuroscience – include a need for:

Nourishment, Physical and emotional care, A safe environment and Reproduction. The hardwired goals are based on the assumption that our instinctual needs can be met by the environment. If/when hardwired goals are not met, it may lead to psychological problems and/or distorted perception of reality.

Development of mind/brain in the infant

The way the brain builds itself is by forming neural pathways. It does this by registering what happens to us on a daily basis. It looks for sequence of events ‘if so then so’ (if the baby cries it will cause a positive reaction by the carer i.e. crying leads to feeding, nappy change etc). Not too different from a computer algorithm. This sequence leads to activation of different brain functions and turns in to neural pathways to link up the areas of the brain involved. The idea is to learn to process what happens better and faster to improve and facilitate our response in similar future situations. 

A foetus is born with a full set of neurones but few neural pathways.The process of forming neural pathways starts in the foetus. A newborn baby has just enough neural pathways to survive outside the womb, such as for gripping, sucking and breathing etc.

 The first year is taken up by learning basic functions such as eating solid food, sitting, walking etc. The first 6 months (or so) the baby focuses on learning to use the eyes, judging distances, hand-eye coordination etc. To facilitate this process the baby can only digest breast milk (or substitute) which is distributed by a person with a familiar face at a fixed distance. This is useful when it comes to ‘calibrate’ vision and learn to switch from close-up to long distance vision etc. The basic neural pathways for handling relationships are created during the first three months after birth.

 This process is similar to learning to drive a car. Once you have got the basic procedures repeated enough times, these functions will be transferred over to other parts of the brain, and become ’automated’. As we know most of us who have had a driving licence for a while, we ‘just know’ how to drive and probably will have to think about it, to explain what exactly we do when we change gear etc. So when the baby is learning new functions it is using all parts of the brain, reptilian, mammalian and neocortex but when the function is ‘automated’ it is taken over by the reptilian part that handles all our essential body functions that we do not need to be aware of all the time (breathing, balance, coordination of body movements etc). 

Mirror neurones

One way of ‘learning’ that remains unchanged throughout life is mirror neurones that are able to ‘read’ the activation of neurones in other people’s brains and activate the corresponding activation of neurones in our own brain. 

When scientists started to use brain scans they found that our brains ‘communicate directly’ by activating neural pathways in each others brains. When I eat an apple it will trigger certain activities in my brain. If I see you eating an apple (i.e.only observing your activity, not eating myself) your brain activity will trigger similar neural pathways in my brain (perhaps even stronger if I am hungry). This ability to mirror brain activity in other brains is an important part of learning, in particular during the first years of a baby’s life. One reason being that the baby only has limited neural pathways to start with and needs to learn from others to ‘build more brain power’. That means that the baby lacks the brain power it takes to be discerning about impressions from the outer world. To use computer language the baby ‘downloads’ information like we download data between computers. It takes in everything without analysing. 

Because children are ‘learning machines’ they will ‘download’ not just what their parents do but also what they think. This is one reason why even the most thoughtful and discerning adult is ‘willing to accept’ (religious) myths that we as adults have no rational explanation for. This plays a role later in life by because it forms what we will refer to as ’the world out there’. Because the brain is not sufficiently developed to give us a sense of self (it takes about two year for a child to develop a sense of self ) we do not later make the connection that we learnt about ’the world out there’ from our immediate environment. Still this will form the basis for how we perceive the world we live in. If a child has a positive environment to start with, it will have a more positive outlook on life later on. A child that starts with anxiety, fear or some other negative environment will later experience the world as more hostile and be quicker to react negatively to what happens in life.

In particular the first couple of years play an important role since we are not able as adults to ‘remember’ this period. The brain is not sufficiently developed to form what is called explicit memories (such as what I had for lunch yesterday, of my children’s birthdays etc). The first (implicit) memories are more ‘body memories’ in so far as they influence our way of thinking about the world and our emotions without us knowing exactly how and why we react in a certain way (i.e. which impressions were first to form a neural reaction in our brain). These implicit memories are often linked with our parents worldview, in particular regarding religion or other strong beliefs about the world. 

The Pruning Process

A newborn baby has increased ability for learning. It can be compared with ‘scanning and copying’ the content of the infant’s closest carer’s brain. Our learning ability decreases later in childhood in a pruning process. This means less ability to learn in detail and more focus on socialisation (interpreting body language, emotions, to integrate with our ‘tribe’). 

The learning sequence in the brain is genetically ‘pre-programmed’ to take place at certain periods in the child’s life. If the child for some reason is not exposed to the ‘right environment’ to learn from, it may ‘prune back’ this function in the brain and allow those parts of the brain to function in different ways. To learn to speak, for instance, a child needs to be spoken to at some point during the first ten (or so) years, If not, the child will lose the ability to learn to speak and even with the best language teacher later on, the child will struggle. Another example of brain plasticity connected with pruning is brain damage. If for some reason a part of the brain is damaged it will try to re-organise itself to compensate for the missing functions. 

© Gunnel Minett 2020

Keywords; mind, consciousness, brain development

For more on this topic see also; Brain Development and the Origins of our Worldview  and The role of Emotions in Mind and Consciousness

Gunnel Minett is a psychologist and author of books such as Exhale, an Overview of Breathwork and How to Grow a Healthy Mind