folder Filed in Mind
Joseph C Lawrence

People talk about ‘minds’ all the time. “It was on my mind”, “I changed my mind”, “mind-reading”, “the mind’s eye” – and it is incredibly important if you want to do good design, to understand what a (human) mind is and how it operates, but how well do we really understand this?

The Great Oracle of Wikipedia’s opening sentence on the page on ‘Mind’ says this:

A mind is the set of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, and memory—a characteristic of humans, but which also may apply to other life forms.

Let’s break some of those words down a bit to get a more thorough definition.

  • Cognitive’ really just applies to what we might think of mental processes that occur in the brain.
  • Consciousness’ is a whole can of worms, but it basically refers to that (likely illusory) intuition that most humans have that there is some part of them inside themselves that is witnessing the experience of their lives. We feel like it is like something to be ourselves.
  • Perception’ is a less emotion-ridden arena, and refers basically to the ways in which we gain information about the external world through our senses, and the ways in which that information is processed by our sense organs, brains and nervous systems. Light rays bounce of objects in the world, get manipulated by our irises, hit light sensitive cells in the backs of our eyes, and these cells send electromagnetic signals through nerves into our visual cortex, where various cognitive processes analyse and try to make sense of what is seen.
  • Thinking’….well here’s another difficult one. If we just stick to the most common meaning, it is our internal dialogue with ourselves, which usually takes place with language or pictures (‘in our heads’).
  • Judgement’ could be a number of things. It could refer to our ability to attach semantic values to things in the world – ‘I judge that to be a red ball’, ‘I judge that Henry is angry with me and planning to tell my friends about what I did’ etc. Or it could refer to our habit of reasoning morally – judging the actions of other people to be morally good or bad.. And finally,
  • Memory’ is pretty obvious, and I will leave you with your assumptions for now. We can assume as well for now that memory can be roughly split into long term memory (like hard drives), and short term, or ‘working’ memory (like RAM). Like all other areas of the mind it is not as simple as that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A good start. Bear in mind that great philosophical debate has raged for centuries, and still does rage, on the nature of the mind (especially the human mind of course). I’m not going to be providing some kind of concrete answer here, but there are some big general points that most modern day philosophers, psychologists and scientists of various kinds (mostly cognitive and neuroscientists) agree on.

We can think of minds as a bit like software. I’m going to take a stance right away and say that these days the vast majority of respected people on the subject agree generally with the claims of physicalism/materialism – that there is no magical substance outside of what is defined by physical science that could count as a ‘soul’ or a ‘mind’. Whether or not you believe in souls, if you want to be a better designer by understanding the human mind, you are best off learning as much as you can about how the mind is based in physical matter and physical processes (mostly in the brain). So the brain and nervous system – and I believe also various tools that we use – form the hardware, just like a computer. The mind then is akin to the operating systems and software we run on computers. If you look inside a computer you will not see any software. There is no extra ‘software substance’ that is physical, it just arises from clever and complicated ways of using the available hardware.

The software analogy is useful for making the point that we can conceive of our experience of our own minds as feeling somehow non-physical, whilst still understanding that the mind is entirely physical. It is not, however, a completely accurate metaphor. One reason for this that I think pertains especially to design, is the theory of Embodied Cognition – that our bodies and the way we use them affect our minds and cognition, not just the other way around. You can read more about this in a brief introduction I wrote.

This does mean however (and this is important for design), that changes in the hardware can affect how the software operates. Different people have different brains, and their minds are thus different, often in predictable ways. Also if we augment the hardware of the brain with special hardware that we design and create, we too can purposefully change and modify people’s minds.

This of course also leads us into another area of doubt – whether something artificial – a computer, or a robot, for example – can have a mind? If we can describe and explain the human mind purely in reference to physical things (the brain, neural networks etc.), and if we can recreate this with computer hardware and software, then a computer too, should be able to have a mind. I tend to think this is certainly the case, regardless of whether it would be able to be ‘exactly’ like a human mind or not.

Anything we can ever design, regardless of whether it is a physical product, or a software interface, must interact well with human minds if it is to succeed and work well. I might have ended up giving you more questions than answers, and in fact I hope so. The point is not to be able to define exactly what a mind is, but to try and understand us much as possible about them. I’d love you to join me in my quest to do so – just keep reading this blog, and sign up for my newsletter if you like by opening the menu, top right (I’ll send out an email newsletter every week or two, with new posts as well as lot’s of interesting links I find around the web).