In chapter 6, Wilson turned his attention to the brain and more specifically, the mind. According to Wilson, it is important to think about the mind because the mind is what produces understanding of everything we know. He noted that thinking about the mind is not entirely a philosophical issue as philosophy can only take ideas so far. We need to also think about the physical processes that give rise to the mind.
The brain is extraordinarily complex. Its structure is determined by 3,195 genes—far more than any other organ. The human brain evolved over a period of 3 million years to increase in volume by 4 times, especially in the area of the neocortex. The neocortex is the area of the brain responsible for higher level thought and language, which brought about human culture by allowing humans to think symbolically.
While early philosophers placed the mind in various parts of the body, scientists now know that the brain is the seat of consciousness. We know this in part because of accidents and illnesses that happened to people in the past. For instance, Phineas Gage lost a chunk of his prefrontal lobe and experienced marked personality change. Later, Karen Ann Quinlan suffered damage to her thalamus and went into what Wilson described as “mind death.” These case studies and experimental brain surgery have made great advances in mapping out the functions of various areas of the brain.
Next, Wilson laid out the physical processes that produce the mind. The three structures are the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. The brain stem is responsible for regulating life-sustaining processes as well as basic reflexes and perception. The limbic system controls emotions and some memory and the cerebral cortex is responsible for rational thought.
Wilson wondered, now that we have an understanding of the actual processes that allow the mind to exist, what exactly is the mind? Wilson admitted that science is not really sure, but he gave this definition: the mind is the “coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions,” (p. 119). Wilson is also of the opinion that there is absolutely no executive ego in charge of consciousness. There is no one place where consciousness comes together in the brain to be viewed like a movie on a screen. Consciousness is essentially nothing more than a conglomeration of neural firings.
Complementing consciousness are the reflexes and processes of the brain stem and the emotions of the limbic system. Humans need all three processes working together to be functional people. Wilson gave the example of a person being followed on a dark street. The conscious mind hears fast footsteps coming up close behind. The brain stem quickens the heart rate and breathing and sends adrenaline into the body. The limbic system floods the body with fear and the person runs to safety. Then the conscious mind thinks about the encounter.
Next, Wilson discussed the problem of subjective experience, which he divided into two sets of questions. First, we need to know how the brain responds to stimuli and how it converts the stimuli into patterns and then the patterns into words. Once we understand how those processes work, we can focus on the larger problem: how do those processes become subjective experience? While Wilson did not have an answer to these questions, he suggested that while science can explain feelings, it is art that transmits those feelings, and helps us understand the subjective experiences of others.
Finally, Wilson wondered if, now that scientists understand the physical processes that allow consciousness to emerge, we can create a true artificial mind. Wilson thought that it was a technical possibility, but that it would never happen for two reasons. The first is a functional obstacle—the brain is just too complex of an organ to recreate. The second is an evolutionary obstacle. The human brain has the advantage of having evolved over millions of years and there is really no way for scientists to replicate that kind of complex algorithm.