Hayek, Hebb, and Heisenberg: Toward an Approach to Brain Functioning

Here’s the second of the extracts from a bona fide neuroscientist (and friend of Fuster). Gerald Edelman of course is also someone who recognized Hayek’s genius in this area.

. . . the mind must remain forever in a realm of its own which we can now only directly experience it, but which we shall never be able fully to explain or to ‘reduce’ to something else (Hayek, 1952, 8. 98).

F. A. Hayek’s The Sensory Order must rate as one of the most creative books written on general philosophy of neuroscience. Though Hayek was a Noble-prize winner in economics, and was not educated as a neuroscientist his book opens up a new window on neuroscience, and this window certainly offers great possibilities to neuroscientists working on unifying aspects of neuroscience. Guided by the fundamental view of Fuster (1995) I have tried to suggestively interpret Hayek’s concepts firstly as a work on memory and brain dynamics (Başar, 2004), and more recently, as a more general work on the brain-body-mind relationship (Başar, 2010). Though a detailed description and interpretation of Hayek’s philosophical psychology is not possible because of space constraints, I will try to explain three concepts that are embedded in the work of Hayek: 1) D. O. Hebb’s learning theory (1949) 2) The S- Matrix concept of quantum dynamics developed by W. Heisenberg (1943), and 3) The Feynman Diagrams as a consequence of the S-Matrix theory.

In the first half of the twentieth century two important books introduced outstanding holistic and dynamic approaches to brain functioning. The first, Donald Hebb’s book (1949) related to the organization of behavior, inspired several neuroscientists in search of the “Hebb neuron.” According to Hebb, the functioning of the brain after learning is a “different” brain compared with the same brain before the learning process. Though Hayek developed his theory almost twenty years prior to the publication of Hebb’s book, The Sensory Order was published three years after Hebb’s book. The chain of ideas developed in this theory is highly pertinent to the dynamic nature of the living brain. Hayek states: We shall see that the mental and the physical word are in the sense two different orders in which the same element can be arranged; though ultimately we shall recognize the mental order as part of the physical order (Hayek, 1952, section). Hayek argues that it is the whole history of the organism that will determine its action with new factors contributing to this determination on later occasions that were not present on the first.

In The Sensory Order asked the question “what is mind?” and discussed the relationship between mind and body or between mental and physical events (Hayek, 1952, 1.49). Hayek classifies “emotion” as a special type of disposition for a type of actions which, in the first instance, are not necessitated by a primary change in the state of the organism, but which are complexes of responses appropriate to a variety of environmental conditions. “Fear,” “anger,” “sorrow” and “joy” are attitudes toward the environment, and particularly towards fellow members of the same species. This means that a great variety of external events, and also some condition of the organism itself, may evoke one of several patterns of attitudes or dispositions, which will affect the perception of, and the responses to, any external event. “Emotions” may thus be described as affective qualities similar to the sensory qualities and forming part of the same comprehensive order of mental qualities. Hayek further proposes that we must distinguish between two different kinds of physiological “memory” or traces left behind by the action of any stimulus. One is the semi-permanent change in the structure of connections or paths and which determines the courses through which any change of impulses can run (similar to Hebb’s principle). The other is the pattern of active impulses proceeding at any moment as results of a stimuli received in the present and past and perceived also as merely part of continuous flow of impulses of central origin, which never altogether ceases, even when no external stimuli are received.

The theory of brain functioning or the “new psychology” as described by Hayek in The Sensory Order still merits important attention as a general framework in stimulating brain-storming approaches to brain-body-mind integration. This essay has described some possibilities to bridge Hebb’s Theory and the quantum brain approach with the insights of Hayek.