Neural Mechanisms in Behavior

“Among the systems and points of view which comprise our efforts to formulate a science of psychology, the proposition upon which there seems to be most nearly a general agreement is that the final explanation of behavior or of mental processes is to be sought in the physiological activity of the body and, in particular, in the properties of the nervous system. The tendency to seek all causal relations of behavior in brain processes is characteristic of the recent development of psychology in America. Most of our text-books begin with an exposition of the structure of the brain and imply that this lays a foundation for a later understanding of behavior. It is rare that a discussion of any psychological problem avoids some reference to the neural substratum, and the development of elaborate neurological theories to “explain” the phenomena in every field of psychology is becoming increasingly fashionable.

In reading this literature I have been impressed chiefly by its futility. The chapter on the nervous system seems to provide an excuse for pictures in an otherwise dry and monotonous text. That it has any other function is not clear; there may be cursory references to it in later chapters on instinct and habit, but where the problems of psychology become complex and interesting, the nervous system is dispensed with. In more technical treatises the neurological explanations are made up mostly of assumptions concerning the properties of the nerve cell which have no counterpart in physiological experiment. (…)

This is a typical case of the neurological explanations to be found in our psychological literature. With such conditions prevailing, it seems time to examine critically the relations between psychology and neurology and to attempt an evaluation of current notions concerning the mechanisms of the brain.


Psychology is today a more fundamental science than neurophysiology. By this I mean that the latter offers few principles from which we may predict or define the normal organization of behavior, whereas the study of psychological processes furnishes a mass of factual material to which the laws of nervous action in behavior must conform.”

Lashley, 1930


Caapi’s touch

No fireworks this time to see,

Few voices from the beyond to talk to,

Perhaps sometimes an extra pitch, that’s it.

Her music bothers me,

His annoying claps won’t cease.

No effect, my resistance, a small cup, perhaps?

Whose fault? No second shot to boost it now.

It is me who can’t dwell inside me.

Stand up, go outside, see the moon and the flag.

It is fresh, it is blur, but that’s all.

Back inside serious action going on.

Singing doesn’t stop, banging beats us strong,

Sound and chemistry as fellow workers.

Ongoing goodnight songs to remain awake,

Barely heard before by the asleep baby in bed.

In a continuous stream of presence,

Softly struggling to at least stay near the edge,

The delivery of the message came at last:

“It is not in the eye nor in the ear tonight”,

It is rolling down my body, in my flesh: it is Touch.

We see the moon, we know it out of reach,

We know our own, too close for us to see,

But how come can we hardly really touch,

Our hands and arms teeming with Dasein.

And it comes and goes — don’t let it go, don’t let it come.

With irony, as non-mental as it gets,

Touch inside is touching me;

how familiarly strange — how forgetful of myself!

Bringing gravity to the space-time feast

Embodied contact offers to the world,

Making length and duration energy’s concern,

Undoing in the child what culture tamed,

With the wonders of the substance,

The newborn joy of being-there, in the World’s Body.

Wearing on and off a blanket made of bulky light,

Practicing the dressing and undressing that’s at reach,

Am I living nearly all my seconds out of me? Could it be?

What a shame from up there — what a joy from down here.

The muscle-bone alliance has one thought:

They whisper “the body’s stability for real work”.

Thoughts come and go despite your holding still.

Align the weathervane; a distraction makes it spin,

You try again — again its direction you’ll find changed.

But the body, ah, the body…

Indifferent to the willingly impotent effort

That tenses distracting ignorance’s pity bow,

Its warmth remains untouched.

No difference here the tide of ideas and feelings can make.

Less than expected, indeed,

Yet more than what could have ever been conceived,

A subtle shooting star is the remembrance of our body,

No firework or great speech, just true dim light inside.


“We designate this tendency [towards seeing] by the term curiosity, which characteristically is not confined to seeing, but expresses the tendency towards a peculiar way of letting the world be encountered by us in perception. (…) When curiosity has become free, however, it concerns itself with seeing not in order to understand what is seen (that is, to come into a Being towards it) but just in order to see. It seeks novelty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty. (…) curiosity is concerned with the constant possibility of distraction. Curiosity has nothing to do with observing entities and marvelling at them. To be amazed to the point of not understanding is something in which it has no interest. Rather it concerns itself with a kind of knowing, but just in order to have known. (…) the character of never dwelling anywhere. Curiosity is everywhere and nowhere. This mode of Being-in-the-world reveals a new kind of Being of everyday Dasein –a kind in which Dasein is constantly uprooting itself.”

Martin Heidegger

Intuition and analysis

“It follows from this that an absolute could only be given in an intuition whilst everything else falls within the province of analysis. By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible. Analysis, on the contrary, is the operation which reduces the object to elements already known, that is, to elements common both to it and other objects. To analyze, therefore, is to express a thing as a function of something other than itself.”

Henri Bergson

State Descriptions and Process Descriptions

“A circle is the locus of all points equidistant from a given point.” “To construct a circle, rotate a compass with one arm fixed until the other arm has returned to its starting point.” It is implicit in Euclid that if you carry out the process specified in the second sentence, you will produce an object that satisfies the definition of the first. The first sentence is a state description of a circle, the second a process description.

These two modes of apprehending structures are the warp and weft of our experience. Pictures, blueprints, most diagrams, and chemical structural formulas are state descriptions. Recipes, differential equations, and equations for chemical reactions are process descriptions. The former characterize the world as sensed; they provide the criteria for identifying objects, often by modeling the objects themselves. The latter characterize the world as acted upon; they provide the means for producing or generating objects having the desired characteristics.

The distinction between the world as sensed and the world as acted upon defines the basic condition for the survival of adaptive organisms. The organism must develop correlations between goals in the sensed world and actions in the world of process. When they are made conscious and verbalized, these correlations correspond to what we usually call means-end analysis. Given a desired state of affairs and an existing state of affairs, the task of an adaptive organism is to find the difference between these two states and then to find the correlating process that will erase the difference.

Thus, problem solving requires continual translation between the state and process descriptions of the same complex reality. Plato, in the Meno, argued that all learning is remembering. He could not otherwise explain how we can discover or recognize the answer to a problem unless we already know the answer. Our dual relation to the world is the source and solution of the paradox. We pose a problem by giving the state description of the solution. The task is to discover a sequence of processes that will produce the goal state from an initial state. Translation from the process description to the state description enables us to recognize when we have succeeded. The solution is genuinely new to us—and we do not need Plato’s theory of remembering to explain how we recognize it.

There is now a growing body of evidence that the activity called human problem solving is basically a form of means-end analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal. The general paradigm is: given a blueprint, to find the corresponding recipe. Much of the activity of science is an application of that paradigm: given the description of some natural phenomena, to find the differential equations for processes that will produce the phenomena.

H. A. Simon

El Origen de la Obra de Arte

“Pero ¿qué valor puede tener un sentimiento, por seguro que sea, a la hora de determinar la esencia de la cosa, cuando el único que tiene derecho a la palabra es el pensar? Pero, con todo, tal vez lo que en éste y otros casos parecidos llamamos sentimiento o estado de ánimo sea más razonable, esto es, más receptivo y sensible, por el hecho de estar más abierto al ser que cualquier tipo de razón, ya que ésta se ha convertido mientras tanto en ratio y por lo tanto ha sido malinterpretada como racional. Así las cosas, la mirada de reojo hacia lo ir-racional, en tanto que engendro de lo racional impensado, ha prestado curiosos servicios. Es cierto que el concepto habitual de cosa sirve en todo momento para cada cosa, pero a pesar de todo no es capaz de captar la cosa en su esencia, sino que por el contrario la atropella.”

Martin Heidegger