Depression: Thinking Too Much and Doing Too Little

Why do dogs never appear to be depressed? Why do they always seem to be happy, no matter what it is they are doing? Well, the answer might be very simple: because they are always doing.

Dogs are always involved in one activity or another. They always got their little heads occupied with all kinds of biologically induced juices – whether they (consciously) know it or not. And it is because they’re always ‘busy’, doing whatever seemingly irrelevant activity it is they’re doing, that they are happy. It’s because they’re always busy, that they feel the effects of that constant stream of dopamine, rewarding them for their evolutionary beneficial action: the act of acting itself.

Not acting frees the mind from the duty to allocate resources to the execution of actions. However, the mind cannot simply do nothing. In fact, doing nothing – as in thinking about nothing – might be one of the hardest things to do for the brain. And that’s what you expect, right? After all, not thinking about anything can hardly be beneficial to our – and therefore our brain’s – survival. While we’ve got our brain, it’s better to use it, than to let it be idle, like an empty fridge waiting to be filled with postponed protein-intakes. That’s why the brain will do anything in order to try to be busy, even if there are no actions it has to be focused at. It is at those moments that the brain ‘thinks’ it is good idea to use this ‘break’ to think about your worries, your goals in life, your purpose and other fundamental questions. And it is at these moments that your mind explores the deepest purposeless of life, and triggers the feelings of depression that haunt us.

So – in case we want to get rid of the seemingly unproductive (and surely depressing) reflections on life – we must keep the mind, and therefore the brain, busy. We have to make sure that there’s no time – or no capacity – for it to become filled with soul-searching thoughts. Because although a little soul-searching might be good, and might point us to what it is that we should do with our lives, too much of it inevitably results in feelings of purposeless and depression. Hence it is only by being busy, by avoiding boredom and by don’t risking to become drowned in the most existential questions of our being, that we can live a  ‘happy’ life. It is only then that we can unleash the dopamine flows triggering those feelings of happiness we’re longing for. Or, to return to the fridge, it’s only by filling the fridge to the maximum, that we feel it is a worthwhile investment.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published at Rod Peek’s “Finding Personal Peace“.

Free Will and Why Determinism Would Not Change a Thing

I want to take a look at what – at first sight – might seem to be a dichotomy between free will and determinism. I’ve written a couple of articles dealing with the question whether there actually is something that can reasonably be called ‘free will’, and – if so – what this might consist of. These are important questions, for if it turns out that there is no fee will – or that there’s nothing ‘free’ about our free will – then we are left with determinism, a position many people are uncomfortable with. I want to look at what the implications might be of assuming determinism to be true, and in particular at what this assumption would imply for our experience of free will.

When we think of free will, we usually think of a certain autonomous power, residing within our minds, that is capable of initiating (our) actions. Whether it is picking up a teacup or stroking a dog, if we want to perform an action, we seem to be able to decide (consciously or unconsciously ) to execute this action. Now, let’s ask ourselves: how would this picture change if it turned out that we are not fully autonomous in deciding to pick up the teacup or stroking the dog? What if it turned out that our brains are just responding ‘automatically’ (that is, by triggering evolutionary developed neural networks) to the stimuli received from our environments? What if – in case of you picking up the teacup – the stimuli of (1) you being in the living room and (2) it being cold, trigger your neurons into making you believe you want to pick up the teacup and making you in fact pick up the teacup? Note the ‘what if’ in the former sentence, because theoretically it is possible that this is how we come to ‘decide’ on what actions to perform; just by means of nerve cells responding to external stimuli.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know – and we might never know – whether this is the way our actions come about. It might indeed be that our actions – and thus our decisions – are fully deterministic in nature. However, it wouldn’t make a difference if this would be the case: not as long as we keep on having the perception of having a free will. Even though we might come deterministically to the actions we perform, we still experience the sense of free will. And this experience will not change, not even if we’d come to know that our actions come about fully deterministically.

Because think about it: what if it would turn out that you – who considers him- or herself to be a creative person – depend fully upon the aforementioned neural networks and stimuli for coming to your ‘creative’ ideas? Although you believe you came up with the ideas ‘all by yourself’, fully autonomous and purely free, it turns out that your ideas are a logical result of the environment you’re in and the configuration of your neural networks.

At first you might feel a little hurt in your ego, but when you start thinking about it, you quickly come to realize that this observation doesn’t change a thing. After all, your experience of having a free will is exactly the same as it was before – when you truly believed to have free will. You can still do anything you want to; you’ve merely come to know where this “want to” finds its origin. You have come to know that you don’t have a free will; but you still experience having a free will. And since experience is all we have, nothing has practically changed.

But what do you think?

Where do our Minds Go to When We’re Asleep?

Where does your mind turn to when you fall asleep? It must be still there, right? Somewhere, lurking between your unfilled wishes and animalistic desires? Maybe your mind is sleeping too…but then, who’s in control of you, the “thing” I’m talking to right now? Something must be in charge, right? After all, you wake up every morning, thinking to yourself: “damn, it’s early”. That seems to be the point where your (conscious) mind takes over control again, right? But taking over control of whom? And why is that we are so powerless when we try to get some sleep? What is going on here?

You might have seen the film Inception. It’s about the possibility of having a dream in a dream in another dream etc. But while Leonardo DiCaprio seems pretty much in charge of his dream-worlds, and the moment he decides to enter them, we seem to have much more difficulties doing just that. Because while it’s pretty clear that our brains are doing all sorts of things while we are sleeping – sorting out memories, paving neural pathways and throwing away awkward experiences the brain does not consider to be awkward enough – our mind, the entity that is “you”, is nowhere around. But where did he go? He probably handed over the key of our control station to our unconsciousness, the evil brother of our minds, the one still firmly rooted in our evolutionary longings, and the one totally uncontrollable. But it is still weird though how – and when – this “handing over the key” takes place exactly, right? It’s only when the unconsciousness wants to that “we” lose control. This shows again how powerless we are when confronted with Mother Nature and its compelling powers.

Still though, it’s interesting to ask “where” in our minds our dreams take place. Surely, we can point out in MRI-scans what parts of our brains are busy sorting our thoughts etc. while we’re asleep, but that doesn’t explain which parts of the mind are busy when sorting out our thoughts and producing our dreams? And does the mind even consist of “parts”? Parts like the “conscious” and the “unconscious” mind? Or is the unconscious mind not really part of the mind, but merely a biological tool helping us to function in life? Just like our arms and legs?

Let’s assume – for the sake of this article – that there is an unconscious mind and that it takes “control of us” while we’re asleep. But then, when our unconscious mind takes over control, “what” then becomes in control of what our memories will come to look like? Given that this would be our unconscious mind, and that our unconscious mind doesn’t want us to remember a particular thought, can it then just prevent our brains from laying down the corresponding neural networks? But wouldn’t that imply that our unconscious mind would be fully in charge of who we are/become? We are after all little more than walking bundles of memories. Our memories shape us into who we are. So being in charge of our memories, implies being in charge of us, doesn’t it?

What do you think?

The Mind: What Are You?

What are you? Are you the body I am talking to? The collection of cells sitting in front of your computer, clustering for long enough in order for it to be given its own identity? Or are you something else? Are you the something that lies within your body? A something that is far less tangible or even intangible? Is the real you some kind of spirit? We feel like we are more than just a collection of cells, right? But can there actually be something like a spirit inside our bodies? I mean: how would this intangible spirit ever be able to control our bodily – and thus physical – motions? How can something intangible make something tangible move? Let’s take a look at that.

It’s a quest that is underway for hundreds of years now: the quest to find the true nature of the mind, the key to who we are. And by the mind I am not (only) referring to human intelligence, since the search for explaining intelligence is for the biggest part about totally different questions. These are questions like: what is intelligence? Does our intelligence lie – as a group of people called “the cognitivists” proclaim – in our ability to observe distinct symbols, transform these symbols into symbolic structures and extract meaning from these symbolic structures? Or resides our intelligence – as “the connectionists” claim – within the connections between the neurons in our brains, which makes intelligence a inherently distributed property?

These are interesting questions but none of them touch upon the most important issue: what exactly is the mind? Because it is in this mind of ours that the answer to who we are might be found. Our minds do not merely contain our ability to be intelligent. After all, computers might be considered to be intelligent as well; intelligent in the sense of being capable of detecting and manipulating symbolic structures. The mind seems to go further than this. The mind is about what, assuming that there is something like that, makes us different from inanimate objects. It questions the very nature of our existence. It questions what it is that makes you you and me me. It is about what makes you different from a tree or a mobile telephone. Besides the fact that we believe that we are different from a tree or a mobile telephone of course.

However, isn’t it just this ability of ours to reflect upon who we are and what we do that is what we consider to be our mind? The mind as some kind of power to reflect upon our animalistic urges and being capable of intervening if considered to be necessary? Maybe, but this still doesn’t seem to be much of an answer to the question of what our mind actually is. It merely describes in what manner our minds might differ from our animalistic urges.

Maybe we should take a look at how the mind might have come into existence. Let’s see what would happen if we would follow the biological route: it might be that, at some point in time while a fetus is in the womb of its mother, some kind of complexity threshold in the fetus’ brain is reached that triggers an ever recurring neural signal; some kind of signal that can – at least partially – be directed by an “autonomous” entity: the mind. But this observation immediately raises many new questions. Let’s say, for example, that we would indeed be able to control in some sense the neural activities within our brain; that we would be able to steer our neurons, and thereby our bodies that are connected to the neurons by strings of nerves. Then the question that comes to mind is: where does this autonomy of our minds lie? It must be somewhere inside of the neural activities, right? But then: where did these neural activities come from, given that they are “different” from the non-autonomous or non-mind like brain activities? And if these special neural activities driving our “free will”, or that part of our human brains that is responsible for our seemingly autonomous actions, need to be present in order for the brain to be able to send out its “free will” signals, then what is pushing these signals? New neurons again?

I haven’t found a satisfying answer yet. Therefore I ask you: what do you think? Do you think that there is some kind of spirit inside of us that is fundamentally separated from our human bodies, in the dualistic sense that Descartes proclaimed? Or do you think that the human mind is nothing more than a byproduct of our neural activities, because of which it is fully intertwined with our physical existence? And if the latter would be the case, how come that we seem to be able to control this physical existence of ours, without having some kind of autonomous spirit responsible for this? And if the first would be the case, how would it be possible for an intangible spirit to make a connection with the tangible life we, because of our bodies, are living? How is the connection made between these two seemingly incompatible worlds? That is philosophy, and that is interesting.

Note: if you have found this article interesting, you might also enjoy this one.

What Makes Someone Intelligent?

Who is more intelligent: (1) a construction worker voting for a progressive, responsible and tolerant party or (2) a mathematical whizkid working at a bank and voting for a party whose main goal it is to get rid of minorities? In other words: what is it that makes someone intelligent? Is it how good he is in calculating the inverse matrix of a particular order? Or is it how thoughtful he is about our community and whether or not he contributes to how we as a society might become a more loving/productive institution?

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who I believe belongs far more to category (2) than (1). He spoke to me about his discontent with pretty much every Moroccan around; including the ones he had never actually met. He considered it to be a good idea to send each and every Moroccan back to his country of origin.

In the same week I had a discussion with my uncle. My uncle is a very nice man – just like my friend by the way – and belongs far more to category (1) than (2). And although my uncle admitted to be rather slow in absorbing/processing information – reading, calculating etc. – he also told me the following: ‘Rob, you are free to do everything in life that you want to do. Truly. But please, promise me one thing: never ever vote for those discriminating parties. Ever. Will you?’

I ask you again: who is more intelligent?

Before we might be able to answer this question, we first have to explicate the notion of intelligence. I believe that someone’s intelligence ultimately comes down to his actions. Someone’s actions are, after all, the only objective criterium we have for judging what goes on in his mind. The fact that a friend of you might say, ‘I could have easily passed that English test if I hadn’t just started studying last night’ shows to me that – apparently – this person is not very intelligent. A truly intelligent person would have known better, right? And it is for the same reason that someone who is good in mathematics or physics, or any other discipline we usually associate with intelligence, is not necessarily intelligent. Look at the banking sector, I would say. Have those mathematical ‘geniuses‘ been acting very intelligently lately?

You could of course argue that I am mistaken the concept of intelligence for the concept of wisdom, where intelligence might be about the ‘processing power’ of one’s brain while wisdom might be about the reasonableness of one’s decisions. I would reply by saying that even the processing power of one’s brain can in the end only be judged by the manner in which the person acts. That is the only objective criterium we have for making any claims about that person’s intelligence. No matter how many areas of one’s brain turn yellow/green/red in a f-MRI scan, we are still unable to know the true processing power of the person’s brain. Maybe the person’s brain is just very inefficient, using a lot of brainpower for very little output. That is why the only true test of intelligence consists not of what one’s brain does, but what one does with his brain.

But what do you think?