Finite or Infinite Mind?: A Proposal for an Integrative Mental Mapping Project

-Darryl R.J. Macer, Ph.D.
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Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 203-6.


The human mental mapping project

One of the most interesting questions before a thinking being is whether we can comprehend the ideas and thoughts of other beings, and conversely whether they can also read our mind. In terms of evolution there could be survival benefit by the capacity to be able to fully understand the thinking of others, both for direct competitive benefit and also for the spirit of altruistic cooperation. Although the human mind appears to be infinitely complex and the diversity of human kind and culture has been considered vast, I would like to repeat my 1994 hypothesis that the number of ideas that human beings have is finite, and now I call for a project to map the ideas of the human mind.

While we approach the end of the human genome project, we continue to investigate human genetic diversity through various means and by looking at the different sets of markers, for example the Haplotype Mapping Project (1). The human brain mapping project is still a decade away from making a map of the neuronal connections (2). Once we achieve a human brain map we will still be left with the above question, how do we think? While these projects are of great scientific value in understanding who we are, I would argue that we have already the means to embark upon a human mental map with the goal of describing the diversity of ideas a human being makes in any given situation or dilemma (3). I call this the behaviorome or human mental map. Such a map is not of a physical structure but a map of ideas.

Uses of a human mental map

There are several uses of such a project to make a human mental map. These include:

1) To understand ourselves, and whether the number of ideas is really finite.

2) To compare mental maps and idea diversity between persons and species.

3) To aid in policy making to make policy that respects the diversity of people in a culture, and globally. This would help develop bioethics for the people by the people (4).

4) If we can make individual mental maps, this would offer persons assistance when making moral decisions. This would give them a chance to consider all their ideas, and to make a more considered moral choices. This would also be useful in the testing and implementation of better bioethics education.

What is an idea?

Even more fundamental than how do we think is the question what is thinking? What is an idea? There are various definitions. Ideas do include thinking that is linguistically expressible. They also appear to include concepts that may not be linguistically expressible, for example memory. Memory of bad events can serve a protective function for the future. There are also memories that appear to go beyond mere protection. For example, elephants have been observed to visit the bones and tusks at sites where their relatives died, picking up the relics and passing them between each other. This behaviour can be repeated over many years, and reminds us of the memorials humans make to their deceased relatives. Incidentally, the elephant bone passing reminds us of Japanese culture, where the only objects that can be passed between two people by chopsticks are the bones of cremated relatives. Both these practices stem from ideas.

Ideas are linked to rationality, but ideas may be considered as something pre-rational. Rationality emerges after the processing of ideas, in what we call thinking. Do only humans think? If we consider thinking to be the processing of motor images or sensory images it clearly emerged much earlier in evolution. In ethical theory usually animals that can plan and dream of the future are considered as being of higher rationality, and therefore need to be given greater protection. While there has been much enthusiasm with the discovery of a single gene that is very important in human speech, FOXP2 (5), as it may have enabled the social emergence of modern human communities, we do not understand yet the extent to which the diversity of ideas is extended by linguistic dialogue (whether vocalized or not).

An idea mapping project has to start with a working definition of what would be counted as an idea. We could define an idea as the mental conceptualization of something, including physical objects, an action or behaviour that was made or could be made in the future, or a past, present or future sensory experience. Figure 1 is an example of the interplay between the multiple ideas and the situation that is behind a single response to a dilemma. The mental mapping project would want to map all the ideas related to each possible choice of a possible response as well as the actual responses that were made in different cases.

Figure 1 (Internet version): An example of the interplay between the multiple ideas and choices behind a single response to a dilemma

Situation à Dilemma à Choices A,B, etc. à Decision à Response

Ideas 1,2,3,45, etc. input into the choices. Other factors like memory, time, experience also affect the choices. The situation also influences the choices and some ideas. There is feedback as well.

Can we count ideas?

Are the number of ideas finite, uncountable or infinite? While ideas, actions, and subsequent responses vary between different situations, I believe the number of ideas and choices of response (Figure 1) are not infinite. Which approach is most useful for mapping ideas? The source of ideas include personal history, genetics, culture, family, and upbringing. These influences lead to the creation of the individual human mind. While the fact that there are numerous influences upon a person's ideas might suggest that the mind is infinite, when we examine these carefully, we can also see the similarity of some influences, both internal, like the common life plans, and external, like global media or religious traditions.

If a human being is faced with a given dilemma and situation, for example, "do we want to kill a cow to eat a steak? ", we could see a finite number of possible options. If the question is put so bluntly, we could imagine one set of responses that would say that in order to survive we have to eat the steak. Many in modern society allocate the task of killing animals to specific groups of people, thus avoiding the unpleasant task of killing the cow. In fact we have seen this trend in recent centuries so that it even led to classifications inside some societies of persons who did this, like the burakumin of Japan. Another set of responses to killing the cow would consider what the future interests of the person in using the resources are, e.g. killing a cow provides a meal. If the cow is killed today there will be one less cow to kill tomorrow. This way of thinking could develop different ideas which are culture specific, for example, a community wide response to have a feast, or the development of butcher shops, supermarkets, larger home freezers, salted or pickled beef. Another set of responses could say that we do not kill the cow but we will eat carrots instead. The responses are formed after considering a variety of ideas, so one way that has been used to study mental processing is link all the ideas behind a response.

The above example is a rather simple example of a moral choice, but similar methods may be applied when we face other moral dilemmas. The normal way of understanding ideas of other beings is through mental processing of our brain. We can imagine evolutionary advantages for a being to be able to understand what another being wanted to do. This ability for communication of ideas has been a field of study, in animal behaviour. We are still left with the question however of measuring the range of the actual ideas themselves, not just the way they are expressed and the communication between individuals.

If we define an idea as above, namely the mental conceptualization of something, including physical objects, an action or sensory experience, then the number of objects in the universe of a living being is finite. Both the number of possible choices for action and the sensory states of animals are finite. In that sense we can expect to be able to count ideas. The initial methodology would be to separate classes of ideas, which I suggest could be separated as follows:

1) conceptualization of physical objects;

2) psychological meanings of images associated with objects (like colours, intensity);

3) memories;

4) plans for both short and long term future (there could be division of plans between those intended in the current waking period and those intended for a future waking period);

5) intention to modify behaviour of self;

6) intention to modify behaviour of surrounding beings and the environment;

7) processing of sensory states (like pain, pleasure, libido);

8) inhibition of a response based on immediate evolutionary benefit (like cultural and religious inhibitions to what has been called selfish genes, e.g. memes (ref. 6));

9) interactive conceptualization of ideas in a community based response.

Some ideas may not fit neatly into one of these groups, so either multiple listing in one of these groups or subdivision of these groups would be needed. It is also somewhat unlcear how group 7, senses, relate to ideas. This list could be extended, but serves to illustrate how we can attempt to categorize the types of ideas that one would have to measure if we attempted to count ideas.

Multidisciplinary integrative project

The scientific literature to date that is relevant to the question of the extent of human mental diversity, comes from a variety of fields including psychology, sociology, ethics, and related behavioral subjects. The methodology used in disciplines of genetics, psychology, animal behaviour, sociology, history, public understanding of science, religious studies, to mention just a few, needs to be harvested to design an integrative approach to understand the extent of human ideas. While researchers in each field could make their own attempts to map ideas, an integrated approach would be useful, and I invite readers to join a global mental mapping project. The first task would be to reach consensus on how to group ideas and what methodologies would be useful.

The perceived complexity of the problem has been a barrier to a dedicated effort to understand the extent of human ideas. Studies on the genetic influence upon human behavior are still to reach the same degree of vigour that has been achieved for studies of complex physical disorders such as cancer, because of a neglect of scientific studies of human psychological disorders in the past century. As we have seen in the growing recognition of the importance in developing reliable scientific methods for study of common complex diseases, we can hope for the improvement of methodology to scientifically study the human mind. While we can learn many things from human behavior in pathological conditions, equal attention needs to be paid to the study of how the human mind normally works when faced with every day moral dilemmas.

There are already useful models based on the work in the public understanding of science and technology choices that may be a catalyst for entering the whole field of human idea mapping. Discourse analysis methods have been developed for analyzing oral and written discourse (7). Studies have included surveys and interviews with both fixed and open questions, with many being conducted on attitudes to science (8). These studies led to separation of individuals based on their ideas as technophiles (loving technology), technophobes (fearful of technology) and doubters (not sure). This diversity of individual human response is found in all countries, even though the governments of countries may have opposing policies. At this societal level a government must decide a working policy to deal with issues that are controversial. Even within small regional distances, for example the European Union, human embryo research is illegal in Germany however it is legal in Belgium, and encouraged in the UK. In international society, scientists who have developed research on embryos to help us understand human development and to provide better services for assisted reproduction, are applauded with the prizes.

Some cross cultural studies suggest idea diversity is above boundaries of culture, religion, age or other demographic factors. In the 1993 International Bioethics survey with 6000 persons in 10 countries in the Asia Pacific area, the survey results revealed that when faced with a diverse range of bioethics dilemmas, the ideas that respondents in different countries like New Zealand, India, Thailand and Japan gave were similar and finite in number (4). For most dilemmas the number of ideas was about 30 for a given dilemma. The majority of persons chose between a group of 5 to 10 ideas, and most were independent of culture, religion, age, gender, or education.

A mental mapping project would endeavor to analyze the ideas human beings have, and the factors behind these different ideas.One way to understand the ideas and mental processing is to ask a person about the moral dilemmas they remember that they used in practice in the past. In this way we can map the ideas that led to a particular action as a response to a situation. A second is to ask hypothetical questions about cases and explore how persons think. A third is to observe the actions and words of the persons. Practice and theory can differ widely, and ideas might vary even in the same situation based on past experience. Would a project to make a human mental map be better to focus on descriptions of people's memories when describing the actions that already happened , or would it be better to discuss the reasoning for hypothetical situations that could be standardized between people and communities? These may be necessary complementary approaches.

The individual human mind is a societal creation, formed through a series of interactions with other persons (9). After an initial response to a dilemma, real or hypothetical, our mind generates an idea.That idea is subject to genetic, environmental and cultural factors as discussed above. Then the process of idea development occurs, subject to the cultural restraints and lessons of the past to that person. The action is taken, but this is not the end of the idea for a normal human mind. The consequences are considered, there may be guilt or self-gratification, through the interplay of the conscience and ego.

The call for a mental mapping project can be pitched at both individual and social levels. Sociology has considered societies, and psychology has considered individuals, or influences upon individuals. We should develop a mental mapping project to explore similarities between cultures and communities not just at individual human level, but as members responding inside biological communities. Cross-cultural studies can inform this process also. However in the same way that the unit of evolution may be the individual, the unit of study of the human mind should describe individual diversity. No individual is an island separated by a vast ocean of distance to their neighbor, and relationships with other beings would be one of the key issues in describing the human mind, however, we may have more success as a scientific study to focus on the ideas of individual humans, and their relations.

In modern society the media plays a significant role in formulating people's ideas, so media studies have traced the way that people's thinking in different countries is converging. When it comes to new controversies like the use of modern biotechnology, over the past decade the proportion of people who ascribed their attitudes to television has significantly increased to become the major source, ahead of newspapers, personal experience, and discussions with others (10). There have also been interesting media accounts of the initial announcement of this project, for example calling it "Del genoma al 'ideoma'" (11).

Finite ideas with infinite possibility?

There will be many implications of a mental mapping project. The idea that "I think therefore I am" from Descartes has led to the belief that the human mind is infinitely complex. It is reassuring for humans who claim to be on top of the process of evolution, whether through God's will or by chance. However, the time has come for us to scientifically measure if we really are finite or infinite. Even if a new idea can be generated by the human mind, most of the thinking of people appears to fall into the range of the finite.

There will also be ample opportunities for studies involving other animals as well. The chimpanzee genome project should allow genetic understanding of the closest related species. One can imagine numerous experiments with transgenesis, though the ethical implications of what we already know about other great apes besides Homo sapiens suggests we should not harm these species in such research. Animal rights concerns make such research deserve even more stricter protection as we may well acknowledge implicitly the rationality of other animals. Our evolutionary identity will be clarified.

There are implications for cultural identity also. How should a culture that tries to maintain its cultural uniqueness by claiming everyone thinks the same, face up to the reality that in every culture the full range of idea diversity is found. This diversity is found in almost all groups, excluding those particularly finite groups that are formed to promote particular political aims, such as those who fight for or against abortion, or euthanasia.

The question of how universal the human idea map is, is of importance for the development of global society, when we're faced with dilemmas like should we have common guidelines to regulate the use of new biotechnology or assisted reproductive technology using cloning, for example. It is time to start thinking scientifically about it, whether or not science is finite or infinite. That is another question.

As discussed above, a mental map could be used to aid decision making that people have to make when faced with a moral dilemma.Although some may say that ignorance is bliss, human beings spend a lot of time in guilt, thinking that they could have made a better decision. These memories are important for helping us face moral dilemmas in the future.I would envisage a general 3 or 4 dimensional model for ideas (Mental map) is constructed as a total, and then onto this framework we then can map our own ideas, and rank them.This might help us make more reasoned moral choices. It is unknown how much people would follow this, but it may provide a useful addition to bioethics. Perhaps people will just follow the principle of love of life (12), but then this is an idea of high priority.

I invite others to join in this mapping, and the next challenge of human endeavour - a project to map the human mind. Then we can answer the question whether the number of human ideas is really finite (13). This project will be discussed at a forthcoming meeting, the Eighth Tsukuba International Bioethics Roundtable (15-17 February, 2003). Participants are welcome, no matter your ideas!


Note: This is a revised version of the pre-circulated paper of 1 November, with thanks to those who gave comments.

1) The Haplotype Map Project (launched 29 October, 2002),

2. The Human Brain Project

3) Macer, DRJ. The next challenge is to map the human mind. Nature 420, 121, 2002.

4) Macer, D. R. J. Bioethics for the People by the People. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute 1994.

5) Enard, W. et al. (2002). Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 418, 869-72.

6) Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976.

7) Potter, J. and Wetherell,M. Discourse and Social Psychology. London: Sage, 1987.

8) Biotechnology and the European Public Concerted Action Group. Europe ambivalent on biotechnology. Nature 387, 845-7, 1997.

9) Maekawa, F. and Macer, D. Interactive bioethics in a focus group on life and biotechnology in Japan, Law and the Human Genome Review 15, 173-201, 2001.

10) Macer, D. & Chen Ng, M. Changing attitudes to biotechnology in Japan. Nature Biotechnology 18, 945-7, 2000.

11)Jauregui, P. Del genoma al 'ideoma'. El Mundo (14 Nov. 2002), 30.

12) Macer, D. R. J. Bioethics is Love of Life. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute 1998. 13) Macer, D.R.J. "Response-quantification of ethics", pp. 176 in Ref. 4., Macer, D. R. J. Bioethics for the People by the People. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute 1994.

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