The Emergence of the Mind: Hayek’s Account of Mental Phenomena as a Product of Spontaneous Physical and Social Orders

Extracts from Gloria’s chapter:

Friedrich Hayek’s social theory is well known for his articulation of the paradigm of spontaneous orders that challenges the traditional distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. The problem that Hayek saw is that language and other social objects do not fall under either heading completely. Language is, for example, seen as natural since it was not designed by man. At the same time, man has imposed rules of grammar on natural languages as these became formalized and documented. From this perspective, language falls under the category of artificial too. This distinction thus fails in its application not only to language but also to any other object that is, as Hayek puts it, the result of human action, but not of human design. The paradigm of spontaneous orders, which applies to all social objects, has thus become the hallmark of Hayek’s social theory.

However, what is lesser known is that Hayek also presents a similar paradigm of spontaneous orders in his theory of the mind. In The Sensory Order (TSO), Hayek defines the mind as a particular order arising from the cumulative sets of events taking place in the brain in response to stimuli. Although stimuli are also constituted by sets of events, Hayek observes that the relation between these two sets of events is at best one of imperfect correspondence, since stimuli do not always result in sense experiences.

What this means is that the mind does not emerge as a process of mapping of events external to the mind or, shall we say, reality; rather, the mind emerges, in part, from the interconnections that ensue between the electrical and chemical responses to stimuli. Central to this understanding of the mind is the role of memory in facilitating the conversion of these responses into sensations. According to Hayek, we do not first have sensations which are then preserved by memory, but it is as a result physiological memory that the physiological impulses are converted into sensations. The connexions between the physiological elements are thus the primary phenomenon which creates the mental phenomena. (TSO 2:50)

Memory, then, serves as an a priori mechanism that makes the emergence of the mind possible in the sense that it translates physical events of the brain into sense experiences that are unified. In a note for this passage, Hayek explains that this understanding of memory is already present in the Preface to his Beitrage zur Theorie der Entwicklung des Bewusstseins (the Beitrage). What this means is that this apriorism was present in Hayek’s theory of the mind by 1920 and that after he returned to this work in 1952, after more than three decades spent developing his social theory, Hayek did not change his mind in this regard. In TSO, Hayek develops more details to be added to the earlier view. Memory is not localized or passive, as it is understood in modular paradigms of memory, that is, stored in one discrete region until specifically recalled. Instead, it is distributed and dynamic, giving rise to neuronal activity that searches, with each new stimulus, for related networks of connections. This seems consistent with a description of spontaneous orders. A single neuron, for example, can participate in any number of networks, not just the one it is already in or one that engages only in its existing immediate surroundings. These interconnections between physiological events representing stimuli are what Hayek calls linkages. The view that memory is cortically distributed had already been set forth by the time TSO appeared, but it is not clear that Hayek was specifically aware of these findings. Hayek observes that, ‘‘It is difficult to see what other meaning ‘memory’ can have but the retention of connexions or relations.’’ However, an important consideration is that the interconnections between events can be as transient as the events themselves. The question thus arises, how does memory endure? One way to answer this within Hayek’s framework is that not only the structural basis but also the relational code that emerges from it is a continuant. Accordingly, memories endure even if any element of its structural basis is somewhat altered by entering into new interconnections. ‘‘In fact,’’ Hayek adds, ‘‘far from being diminished, the a priori element will tend to increase as in the course of this process the various objects are increasingly defined by explicit relations existing between them’’ (TSO 8.17). In other words, as memory increases, so does the mind. In this way, the mind emerges and continues to develop as a result of the role of memory in converting physical responses of the brain to external stimuli into an enduring and increasingly more sophisticated order of linkages supporting sensations that give us a finer grained picture of any new experiences.

The expression ‘‘we-mode intentions’’ is part of the growing scholarship on collective intentionality. The term ‘‘collective intentionality’’ has been made famous by John Searle and it first appeared in his 1995 book The Construction of Social Reality. But the investigations of this phenomenon are of much older lineage.18 Collective intentionality refers to the social phenomenon in which a number of individuals target the same intentional object in a coordinated way that is not necessarily deliberate. A bunch of people in a city theater watching a film, for example, all have the same intentional object, but they do not exemplify collective intentionality because they do not have a shared context in directing their attention to the film. For some, the film is a means for entertainment, for others an excuse to be near a particular person, and for yet others, it may just be an airconditioned escape from a hot summer’s day. However, a bunch of students in a classroom watching a film may exemplify collective intentionality since they have a shared context for their action. The students do not have to have a deliberate plan to arrive at a shared goal as perhaps the members of a string quartet would have in aiming at a flawless performance as their intentional target. Such collective intentions that we find in both the classroom and the string quartet examples Searle calls we-mode intentions.

According to one study, the discovery of mirror neurons may now provide evidence of a neurological basis for such we-mode intentions. Neurons identified as mirror neurons not only fire when an individual acts but also when an individual observes another individual performing the same action. Although mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys, scientists report that neuropsychological studies have shown that they exist also in the human brain. It must be clear that we-intentions can be understood at best as one aspect of the phenomenon of intersubjectivity but not as identical to it since the latter is not merely the experience of sharing intentional targets. Rather, it is the sharing an experience stream, which involves having a first-person experience of what another is experiencing, and this is not achieved by aiming at the same intentional target as the other person but, instead, by aiming at the experience of the other person. So, the we-mode intention interpretation of mirror neurons does not provide the missing explanation.

However, according to another interpretation of mirror neurons, they may constitute the neural substratum of a mechanism that enables us to resonate with others of our own kind, which would undoubtedly favor survival. This is more in line with the phenomenon of intersubjectivity as it offers an explanation for the realm of shared experiences so common in  human experience. Moreover, empirical data shows that mirror neurons match representations not only of actions but also of pains and emotions. In one experiment, the mirror phenomenon occurred in a pain-related neuron that responded to the patient’s pinprick in the same way as an observed pinprick on the examiner’s hand. In another experiment, mirror neurons responded to facial expression and sounds of disgust in the same way as if the experience of disgust had been a first-person experience.

What these studies show is that ‘‘mirror phenomena are not to be seen as limited to a particular group of motor neurons in the ventral cortex, but as a modality of functioning which is widespread in the brain’’ (Becchio & Bertone, 2004, p. 131). Or, as Hayek explains in TSO, ‘‘mental functions need not be localized in any particular part of the cortex’’ (TSO?). The applications AU :12 of these discoveries of modern neuroscience with regard to these linkages (to use Hayek’s term) not only offer evidence of the phenomenon of intersubjectivity and its mechanics in brain functions but are also potentially fruitful for studies that concern the phenomenon of empathy. Moreover, our understanding of mirror neurons can help to fuel interdisciplinary research on values, which is perhaps the next frontier in human social phenomena.