The Neuroscientific Case for the World-Brain Relation
Syed Hussain Ather argues why, for the sake of the brain, we should look at its relation to the world, not the mind.
What if we could discuss the mind-brain (or body) relation by avoiding such questions altogether? Philosopher-psychiatrist-neuroscientist Georg Northoff believes that, by focusing on the world-brain relation, instead of the mind-body one, we can develop better approaches to problems of consciousness and their corresponding neural correlates in the philosophy of mind.
The “mind-body” problem, with its role at the center stage of debates in the philosophy of mind, has given rise to a multitude of questions concerning brain states and mental states that may give rise to the mind. Framing these debates with questions of the connection between the mind and the brain, as well, with the nature of physical and mental and how they relate to each other, we can wrestle with interpretations of spanning ideas that can explain the complicated, entangling relationship between the mind and the brain. How did the billions of neurons come fire away to produce the thoughts that you experience each day? How does the nervous system communicate awareness of what goes on in the brain to the mind what goes on in the brain? Of all puzzling dilemmas raised, what if we could talk about how the mind-brain (or body) relation by avoiding such questions altogether? Philosopher-psychiatrist-neuroscientist Georg Northoff believes that, by focusing on the world-brain relation, instead of the mind-body one, we can develop better approaches to problems of consciousness and their corresponding neural correlates in the philosophy of mind.
In his book, The Spontaneous Brain: From the Mind-Body to the World-Brain Problem, Northoff seeks to create a spatiotemporal model of the brain and consciousness “with a central role for world-brain relation.”1 From perspectives of both neuroscience and philosophy, Northoff attempts to integrate and balance both the brain’s activity induced by some stimulus and when at rest. This world-brain relation may even offer a more thorough, consistent account of how the brain performs inferences of the world and correspond to mental features rather than the mind-body relation. Though it would take a “Copernican” revolution in neuroscience and philosophy, moving the current viewpoint from within the mind to beyond the brain, in treating the brain as though it were an open and world-evidencing system, rather than a closed, self-evidencing one, would overcome the limitations and issues of the mind-brain problem. We need not look at how the brain arises from its relationship to itself, but, rather, to how its affected by the world around it.
As part of Northoff’s overall goal of establishing a form of non-reductive neurophilosophy, a form of philosophy that seeks not to completely reduce philosophy to the inner workings of the brain, but to use philosophy to describe empirical data in neuroscience, the world-brain relation relies on a combination empirical research in neuroscience alongside philosophical interpretations.
The world-brain problem is all about how your brain connects to the world around it. There are three ways in which we can describe the brain as a “part” in this world: as part of a set of things in the world (just as every other thing in the world), a fractal of the world (sharing a similar statistical nature to the world), and a natural continuity of the dynamical world (as it self-organizes in a similar as other dynamical systems in the world).
Think about how bored your brain can get during Zoom calls. Sometimes it feels like you’re not thinking about anything at all! If we took a look at what was going on in our brains at rest, or what goes on when the brain isn’t exposed to any stimuli, we’d observe what’s known as spontaneous activity. Northoff argues that the brain’s structure underlying this type of activity, as it changes as time goes on, aligns itself to the world around it, forming the world-brain relation. Using the evidence he provides on the brain’s spontaneous activity,
So what does this spontaneous activity look like when the brain is at rest? Well, we first need to figure what it means for the brain to be at rest. If we’re observing activity in the brain when it’s doing nothing, then is the brain still “active” in this state? Or is it just noise? The brain doesn’t exactly “turn off” when we’re not doing anything, much like the way that, when we turn a computer off, it no longer does anything, so what does it mean for the brain to be “at rest”? Among different perspectives, we might think of “resting state” of a brain as what goes on when we have only spontaneous thoughts popping into our heads. Even when letting our minds wander or daydream, the brain’s activity could be measured as spontaneous.2
When sketching this new model of the brain, Northoff marks the difference between passive and active models, between which there has been much debate on how they can be used in understanding the brain’s activity. Whether the neural activity of the brain is driven by its own spontaneous activity (an active model of the brain) or if the brain generates its own activity (a passive model) is irrelevant, though, Northoff argues. A more appropriate model of the brain would be able to explain integrations and balances (or tradeoffs) between spontaneous activity and stimulus-induced activity.
There are two ways these two types of activity could relate to one another. Parallellism, the view that spontaneous and stimulus-induced activities are independent neural phenomena, and interactionism, in which either stimulus-induced activity depends on the spontaneous or that the two mutually depend on one another. With his framework of the world-brain relation, Northoff outlines a method of difference-based coding (or his bridge principle) as the basis of an interactionist model of the brain.
We can use the world-brain relation to think of neuropsychiatric disorders as features of neural activity that are “out of sync” with the world. For schizophrenia, for example, a chronic disorder that affects 20 million people worldwide, the brain’s fundamental changes, wired down to the level of individual neurons and the disruptions in the brain’s architecture, can lead to symptoms of hallucinations and delusions — as well as differences in how the brain perceives the world3. In contrast to the common approach of studying neuropsychiatric disorders in the ways they affect the rest of the body, we can look at schizophrenia from the angle of how its abnormalities in the brain affect how the individual perceives the world. Some symptoms of schizophrenia such as delusions and hallucinations can be interpreted as complicating the picture of the brain as an open system with world-brain relation. For individuals with schizophrenia, the resting state of the brain has a statistically based alignment to the world that can break down dramatically.
Bayesian approaches to brain function would also benefit greatly from approaches with the world-brain relation. By describing how the brain functions according to Bayes’ theorem, in describing how likely something may happen in the future based on what you know in the past, the brain can create models of the world. By processing information about the world and creating hypotheses of the future, the brain generates and updates a mental model of the environment. Think of it like having a model of the world, but in your head. Learn about the world, and update and refine your models with what you learn. Assign probabilities to hypotheses and update them with new information.
Through these different methods of modelling and updating, Bayesian inference has been applied to the study of perception, learning, memory, reasoning, language, decision-making, and many other concepts in cognitive science. This forms the basis of predictive coding, the theory that the brain is constantly generating and updating models of the environment, and Northoff has argued that predictive coding is only possible in terms of difference-based coding, the difference between statistics of spontaneous activity and that from stimuli. This way, we can study Bayesian approaches to the brain as it relates to the world, through the world-brain relation.
Northoff rounds out his view of the world-brain relation with an account of ontic structural realism, in which only the structures of the brain and the world are all there are (not only all we can be realistic about), to explain the brain’s reality. We can think of the world-brain relation, then, using time and space as features that they relate to each other, not simply observed. Whether this can replace the metaphysics of the mind-body problem would require another set of questions and answers, but it seems a fitting philosophical idea for the world-brain relation.
Could the world-brain relation get neuroscience out of our “minds” and into the world? Overturning the mind-body relation and replacing it with the world-brain one depends not only on research from both neuroscience and philosophy in coming together to justify such a movement, but whether it’s even necessary to do so. Northoff’s book provides a thorough outline for the case of how those two questions overlap and why paying attention to them can potentially lead to such a “Copernican revolution” he envisioned. For the sake of our minds, we should pay closer attention to the world-brain relation.
- Northoff G. (2018). The Spontaneous Brain: From the Mind–body to the World–brain Problem. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
- Chou, Ying-hui, et al. “Maintenance and representation of mind wandering during resting-state fMRI.” Scientific reports 7.1 (2017): 1–11.
- James, Spencer L., et al. “Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 354 diseases and injuries for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017.” The Lancet 392.10159 (2018): 1789–1858.