Our Modular Minds

I believe that ultimately human consciousness can be described by a program. Now this doesn’t mean we’re all in the Matrix, simply that our mind is a giant seething logical machine with values that are manipulated by rules. There is no strange new science in the sense of new specialties that must be discovered in order for the mind to be understood, but a progression in a new kind of science as Wolfram dubbed it – the study of how complexity arises.

A List of Rules

When I first heard that you could program a computer as a child I was amazed. A strange wonder that I could only spend a few shared minutes with at school, something that could draw, add, and write far faster than I could ever dream of – and I could tell it what to do? I wasn’t quite sure how to inform it to bend to my every wish, so I started with Turtle (actually called LOGO I later found) upon my teacher’s recommendation. I fed Turtle long lists of instructions – move forward, draw a line, turn left, repeated in all and any ways I could think of. He would draw glowing green shapes across my screen, and never tired.

The Need for Modularity

The only problem was that while the Turtle seemed infallible, I certainly could not say the same. I was making the classic beginner’s mistake – I would write one giant chunk of code that was supposed to cause my turtle to dance in precisely the way I wanted. Any little mistake would send it widely off course and I would end up with a mess that barely looked like the original design at the best of times. I later learned that using a programming concept called “modules” could help me isolate these errors and make code more efficient and reusable. Just like a company could have a manufacturing and engineering division which could communicate with standardized blueprints, a program could have different modules that would exchange data in a standardized manner. A modular program is more stable since mistakes are typically limited in influence to the module they’re contained in, and each module can be modified by separate influences with only the understanding that they are supposed to behave and communicate in a certain manner.

Damage as Evidence

So is our mind modular? Well, if it wasn’t, we could assume that a brain injury affecting a certain part of the brain would have a consistent and general impact across all of our consciousness. The only problem is that we generally only see a nonspecific mental decline like this from a nonspecific trauma, say impact blows to the head over a long period of time. Injuries in specific areas seem to be correlated with deficits in certain mental abilities – while leaving others totally intact.

A stroke can basically be thought of as an incident where blood flow is drastically affected in a certain specific area of the brain. This subregion of the brain is unable to function due to lack of blood flow, and very strange things can occur.

Howard Engel is a Canadian novelist who had a stroke. Upon waking one morning, he found that the morning paper seemed to be written in some strange script, an alphabet he could not understand. Everything else appeared normal, except his visual cortex had been damaged in a specific area which prevented him from visually parsing letters and words. As a writer, he despaired – it seems that his livelihood had been lost. Soon he realized a critical distinction which gave him hope – he may be unable to read visually, but could he write? Howard sat down and traced these strange looking symbols, his pen gliding over the bizarre shapes over and over. And eventually, the concepts came back to him. In a strange sense, he could now read again. Years and years of writing had associated certain movements of his hand with letters and concepts. Instead of words in his head put to paper by hand movements and a pen, he had to move concepts in the opposite direction – moving his hand over shapes written previously by others, the concepts echoed back up his motor cortex.

And it worked. There was irreparable damage to his visual cortex, a critical module malfunctioning. So he hacked his brain, redistributing resources from his motor cortex which had been trained to recognized these same symbols and concepts necessary for reading by his constant writing. Howard now traces the shapes he sees on the inside of his front teeth with his tongue. His speed has steadily increased, and he says he can now read about half of the subtitles in a foreign film before they flash off the screen.

It doesn’t seem too strange to suggest that there are different localized modules in the brain for motor control, visual interpretation, and other concepts easily identifiable with different aspects of the physical world. But are there modules with finer distinctions, working on different parts of our mental experience rather than different parts of the physical world?

The Wason Selection Task

The Wason selection task is a very interesting experiment in the field of psychological reasoning. Before I spoil it for you by talking too much, let’s just do it right now. Look at the following cards.

Assume the cards have a number on one side, and a color on the other. What cards need to be flipped over to make sure that all even numbers have red backs? Make sure you’ve picked a card or cards.

Got it? Now a bit of unsettling but ego-salvaging news. When this experiment is done with undergraduates, only 10 to 20 percent get it right. The correct answer is to flip over two cards: the number 4 to make sure it has a red back, and the blue card to make sure that it doesn’t have an even number on the other side. Most people suggest flipping over the 4 and the red card – this is wrong, as it doesn’t matter if the red card has an odd number on the other side.

Now let’s mix it up a bit. Instead of numbers and colors, let’s try people and social activities. Assume the cards have a drink on one side, and a person of a certain age on the other. What cards need to be flipped over to make sure everyone drinking beer is old enough to do so?

Now the answer flows quickly and easily, and almost everyone gets it correct. We need to flip over the beer card to make sure that the person on the other side is old enough, and we need to flip over the card showing the underage drinker to make sure they’re playing by the rules.

The weird thing is that both examples are logically equivalent. Instead of numbers and colors, we’ve just used people and drinks. But something very important has occurred, and it happens time and time again as these tests are administered. It seems that people are fast and accurate at solving this task only if it is described as a test of social obligations. They both can be described identically with logic – but that doesn’t appear to matter to our mind. We appear to have a module dedicated to social reasoning and conflict, and can only solve these problems quickly if it involves determining if someone is cheating or breaking social conventions. This ancient module would hold significant survival value – a general logic verification module not quite so much.

Modules Upon Modules

There appears to be significant evidence for a modular mind, not just in terms of divisions between senses such as sight or hearing and other actions like movement but also more abstract modules that deal with concepts such as social rules. Stroke victims can literally rewire their brains, passing concepts upward into their consciousness through paths never intended to be used in such a strange manner, duplicating the work of other modules lost to injury. These modules live in a strange world of physical interaction and abstract mental space, a huge interconnected mass with no clear outline behind it. The big question now becomes: is a sufficiently complex system able to understand itself, and are we that system?

4 thoughts on “Our Modular Minds

  1. This article is a breath of fresh air to the portion of my brain that has been affected by years of drinking. Hopefully I can hack my brain to figure out what happened on Saturday night.

  2. i spent years reading and writing on cognitive architecture and cognitve evolutionary conjecture,pouring over module and spandrel arguments and expositions….and here you have encapsulated the essence of all of that in a lovely, clear, accessible post. it is like a brain-drive compression to have this version of some of those concepts.


  3. Hi, greatly interesting article! One thing that I have a problem with your conclusion about the Wason task, is the fact that though the logical problem is the same, the framing is different. If, in the example with the numbers and colours, you would frame the problem as “make sure to check that no even number has a blue background”, the solution would come to many more people.
    The first test is framed as “search for all affirmative evidence”, while the second is more to search for contrary evidence (make sure you catch any violators of the rule”. Do you think this has anything to do with that as well?

    This reminds me of the conclusions the psychologists draw about the decision people make when faced with the “save 200 and let 400 die, or choose to save 600 with 1/3 chance” dilemma (like ), where most people prefer to avoid the negative (loss) condition). I wonder if their conculsion is too hasty – I for one would choose the same answer, but for different reasons, nemely, because if I would be in a position to make such a decision, it means I would be in a position of power, and that would mean I would tend to avoid a position where someone could reproach me with “not trying my best to save as many lives as possible” πŸ™‚

  4. hi,

    it seems I messed up the layout of my previous comment (and made some grammatical errors while retyping some sentences), please correct it if you can/are willing, and delete this one. Thanks πŸ™‚ Great blog btw!

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