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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


The Eternal Debate: Are Our Lives Predetermined or Not? (Computational Mind Theory)

Paul Kiritsis - Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Observed parallels between what humans circumscribe as natural and artificial categories, or the biological and mechanistic, have been in vogue since the time of Aristotle. Without meaning to sound like a typical pessimist, there is a crude avarice in comparing our flawed and inadequate creations with the majesty of Nature. All the same by sweeping all sentiments and judgments concerning our collective egoism aside it becomes apparent that this unconscious tendency might be warranted. In actual fact, the properties of certain artificial products so closely mimic and match those of their corresponding natural exemplars that direct comparisons seem not only permissible but logical and necessary, especially when conceptual difficulties caused by a deficient knowledge base in one could, in theory, be described and elucidated by more comprehensive schemas belonging to the other.

    Enter the revolutionary network science of the 1990s and its self-professed proficiency in analyzing complex relational data. Under the auspices of this generalist “computational” model, phenomena of the natural worldeverything from proteins, metabolites, meiotic cells to neurons, intracerebral structures, and social organizationsexist as individual spatial-scale degrees of association, or “small-world” network structures, within multi-modular hierarchical structures. The networks themselves encompass agents existing in particular states and any interactions occurring between these agents along the spatial and temporal scale may incite reciprocal change, that is, a transfer of state from one agent to the next. Grasped from an all-embracing perspective, a small-world network structure could be anything from a coterie of suburban drug-users discussing novel ways of injecting methadone and buprenorphine into their veins, to the neural pathway for audition which involves structures like the cochlear nerve, the medial geniculate nucleus, and the primary auditory cortex. The functional purpose of each network is correlated to the type of system that it is; a higher-order sociocultural system like the former, for instance, would propagate valuable information to collaborating individuals for the sake of improving their life quality and strengthening their cohesion while a physiological pathway like the latter would be adapted to the swift and parsimonious reporting of perceptual information.  


    Descending to the neural level, a group of specialized cells which receive information from peripheral sources through their dendrites and then convey this information along their axons to other neuronal groups are called attractor networks. Subpopulations of neurons comprising the same attractor network, feed back into their own dendritic connections through excitatory collaterals, a phenomenon known as positive feedback looping. As this transpires, inhibitory interneurons are deployed to suppress activities in neighboring neural networks, a complementary phenomenon called negative feedback looping. N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors mediate this dyadic excitatory-inhibitory function, allowing neurons within an attractor network to persist firing at high frequencies long after the application of an external stimulus has been terminated. Under such circumstances input from dendrites may select neuron subpopulations into stimulus-specific “preferential states,” otherwise known as “attractor states.”

    The instantiation of a particular “attractor network,” or a potpourri of stimulus-specific attractor states, translates to perceptual awareness of specific sensory information, cogitations, emotions, and memories on the phenomenological level. The probability that a particular attractor network will be activated, reinforced, and enter the perceptual system of an individual as a stable feature depends upon the respective individual’s history and the environmental context. Contingencies of the social environment may permit the emergence of an attractor statesay an evocative memory connected with your beloved grandmother’s deathand then reinforce it under recurring conditions, say each time you ponder existential issues such as the meaning of life, so that it becomes a permanent feature of subjective mental experience. Because the emotional valence of an event, meaning-making and value systems, and the encoding of explicit memory are all deeply connected, it stands to reason that attractor states imbued with higher emotionality are more likely to intrude into conscious awareness than those that aren’t. The renowned child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls these reinforced patterns of activation “states of mind.”

    A phenomenal example of a “state of mind” could be the remembrance of a shame-filled and excruciating experience in primary school, such as the only time you urinated in your pants. Inaugural aspects of the activation pattern may be underpropped by overpowering visual and somatic information; you may remember the concerned expression on the teacher’s face as she led you out of the classroom or the unusual sensation of proliferating warmth between your legs. As you ponder and probe the memory, other neuronal clusters encoding related olfactory and auditory elementsthe whiff of urine and the laughter of children as you were escorted out of the roommay amalgamate with the existing activation pattern and further augment your dynamic inner experience. Before you know it, the executive and emotional appraisal centers of the brain have delimited you to a related cluster of heterogeneous inner stimuli from an inestimable range of possible neural firings.

    “Neurons that fire together, survive together, and wire together,” creating an engrained configuration of cohesive mind states, a bundle of psychobiological impulses tentatively bound together by habit. The more you brood on and entertain any state of mind, the more deeply engrained a phenomenological pathway it becomes; the more you allow these hitherto engrained states to dominate your conscious awareness, the more predictable your functional interactions with the social environment become. If you persistently deliberate upon precautionary measures you could have taken that may have saved the life of your favorite pet, you will frequently run aground on reefs of despair, hopelessness, and futility and even become unwilling to participate in life. Similarly, if you continue to combine cyan and magenta you will always get blue, pardon the pun.

    Specific attractor states will evoke specific emotional and behavioral consequences. While predictability and rigidity are good because they allow for a relatively stable life and the preservation of illusory notions of an immutable autobiographical “self” within a space-time continuum, it also diminishes our adaptive sensitivity to an ever-fluctuating world and our creative capacity for random action. The vital lesson here is that one’s level of identification with their prevailing attractor states is explicitly correlated with the degree to which their life course may be predetermined. An over-identification with prevailing attractor states may breed more immutable trajectories in life whereas healthy distance or dis-identification from them may facilitate more mutable trajectories through the mechanism of proactive choice. As a general rule of thumb, states of mind or attractor states bear a striking resemblance to entertainment programs on radio and televisionmore perceptual air time generally means more profound and extensive influence on nascent interactions. 

    Determinism can be scientifically conceptualized through the theory of attractor states. Say at some stage in your life you suffered betrayal at the hands of a long-term partner whom you adored, cherished, and valued. Your love for this individual was such that you could not possibly imagine navigating the valleys and ridges of life without them. Save for the deep emotional pain and wounding that accompanies perceived betrayal, the memory of where you were at, what you were doing, and who you were with at the time would become deeply engrained in your dynamical system. Chances are that you’d re-experience this profile of neural activations many times over in an effort to appraise, rationalize, and comprehend it. In truth the re-experience may be so persistent that it becomes a near-permanent fixture in your conscious awareness. Being inherently negative, the emotional texture will inspire vast feelings of desolation and hopelessness and initiate a downward spiral into persistent stress, anxiety, and depression. In due course, other phenomenal elements like imagined scenarios of your partner cheating on you or horrendous memories of the time they nearly strangled you might also integrate with the assembling and reassembling neuronal pattern. It would keep growing like a cancerous tumor and may even overwhelm the self-organizational, cohesive assets of your mind-brain-body system by reinforcing mental rigidity and somatic disarray. Without deliberate action on the part of your executive functions to break free of the deleterious cycle, your system would disintegrate into biochemical chaos and apoptosis.

    In retrospect, ceding total power and authority to external contingencies and sitting back for the ride, in a way could be perceived as invoking one’s fate.

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