Your Mental Radar

Your Mental Radar

A rationale for studying and taking exams should present some explanation of how the so-called “mind” works. If you have a reasonably clear picture of mental operations, you can develop a philosophy of self-education to suit your own needs.

Very little is known about the precise way our minds function. There is even considerable objection to the use of the word “mind” because it implies something existing at a higher level than the sum of its parts. In its common-language usage, however, the term gives us a convenient handle, but we must not imagine that a mind is a thing.

A convenient way to instruct about what happens in mental activities is to employ an analogy. Assuming that the mind contains some sort of complex radar is obviously risky, yet there must be a mechanism slightly comparable to radar (plus a lot of other things).

To start at a simple level, we need to know something about the anatomy of the nervous system, although details would take us far beyond the scope of this book. Usually, mental activities are associated with the brain, spinal cord, and the neurons entering and leaving these two conspicuous organs. The neurons in hundreds of tight bundles (like telephone cables) are called nerves. Most people overlook the relationship of the nervous system to other organs of the body — not in the mechanical connections, but in the influence of secretions, fatigue, disease, and general tone. In other words, the nervous system does not exist alone; this is why sleep, for example, influences one’s mental performance. Other things which make a difference in the functioning of the nervous system are emotions, attitudes coming from the secretions of the male and female hormones, the food supply, the removal of wastes, the supply of oxygen, and the presence of foreign materials such as medicines and alcohol. Again, we are bordering upon areas not appropriate to this book, but the complexities of mental functioning can probably be guessed from the foregoing references, sketchy though they are.

In the brain alone, there are billions of neurons; each neuron consists of an extremely long and thin, wire-like, complex strand, and a bulky cell body near one end which has the function of maintaining the long fiber and, if necessary, in the case of neurons outside the brain, organizing a replacement (regeneration) if the distant part of the fiber dies, due to accident.

The neurons are not piled or jammed into the brain and spinal cord helter-skelter. They are highly organized into layers and bands of varying kinds and functions. In the growth of a human embryo, the basic neural cells arrange themselves in the foundations later to become brain and spinal cord. As the foetus grows larger, the cells send out the processes or fibers which ultimately run to specific areas of the body. For some time, the cells are too underdeveloped to carry messages. But long before birth many of them are mature enough. When only an inch long, the foetus will respond to tickling with a hairy bristle. As time goes on, more and more neurons mature. Eventually, the neurons are fully developed and carry on their complicated functions of adjusting the child to its surroundings in a way that insures personal survival. Most of the elemental acts of life are built into the infant, requiring no learning: the motions of muscles of the intestine, reflexes for breathing, and other motions of the parts of the body essential to survival. How far instincts or built-in behavior extend into later life is not clear. We will omit reference to instincts in humans.

But most of the neurons are not fixed in their connections. A huge number, in fact, make connections with several others through brush-like hairs. There is not a full contact, actually, but the hair-like processes of two neurons come together in a tiny area-of-nearness – is these areas-of-nearness that are so important in the control of one’s behavior and in learning. It is here that something happens to permit a message to jump over, or deny it permission to pass. That “something” we can more or less “train.” In some way, the threshold which would prevent the continuation of the impulse across the synapse has to be lowered if the message is to go through.

As an example, let us visualize a simple neural reaction in which a volley of messages (impulses) is sent along a neuron to a muscle, which then contracts. When the volleys stop, the muscle relaxes. Whether a volley of impulses should be sent or should not be sent is not controlled early in life. This explains the rather aimless motions of infants, waving their hands, kicking their feet in a disorganized way, and twisting with no apparent purpose.

As time goes on, the aimless motions become gradually narrowed down by higher controls until the muscles work more and more in harmony and on call. How this happens is not understood. It would seem as if a voluntary decision were made not to move muscles aimlessly. But there is growing evidence to lead us to think the decisions themselves are not made voluntarily but rather as a result of other impulses coming into the picture, either from outside the body by way of the sense organs that relate us to the outside world, or from within. These other impulses check a message coming in, apparently by preset conditions, and allow it to continue (or stop it) according to previous experience plus the particular situation of the moment. In other words, the system as a whole is neither entirely automatic (as it appears to be in insects, where instincts are all-powerful, with built-in reflexes, and the neurons are inflexibly joined in more-or-less predetermined patterns), nor entirely subject to free choice. This flexibility of some choice found in man and other higher animals permits a certain modification of behavior.

This freedom of some choice is the basis of our tremendous capacity to learn. We could, by changing the conditions in the millions of areas-of-nearness, redirect the impulses that come in to go to any one of dozens of millions of alternate pathways, depending upon the situation of the moment.

Learning can thus be defined, in its simplest sense, as the directing of impulses into pathways that accomplish muscle motions (or secretions) leading to (1) survival of the person. (2) cooperative activities with others, and (3) higher mental activities called thought and reflection. In thought and reflection, the muscle motions seem to be sub-threshold motions of the tongue muscles, not quite expressed as motion.

Now, to return to the analogy of radar, we can visualize a scanning device that sweeps the surface of our conscious mind, picking up “objects” that are standing up above the surface. Once an object is perceived by the senses (it comes in as sense data which are interpreted), it is placed on the “template” of the radar, and the radar scans the field, so to speak, searching for a picture which matches the template that has just come in through the senses. If the scanning reveals such an object — let us pretend that it is a flag with a certain pattern — and the flag and perception match, a trigger at the base of the flag is touched, and messages begin to fan out from the flag into the various parts of the brain following associations that were formed with that flag in the past. However, the brain has regulators which prevent chaos; they select those pathways which have, in the past, proved to be most profitable or rewarding in (1) personal survival, (2) cooperative activities, and (3) higher mental activities. Thus a familiar object seen or heard brings back associations which previously were made with that object — seeing a flame brings back association of pain and seeing a word on a page starts a train of thought which was previously laid down when that word was seen before.

By this means, over a long period of time, the individual reacts to what goes on around and inside him, step by step, lesson by lesson, growing, changing, profiting by past experience and making more and more refined or selective motions accordingly. The decision as to what is or is not rewarding is made on the basis of past reinforcements that gave pleasure and avoided pain.

If one wishes to control the learning process, he presets the little flags beforehand, and that is part of studying. In a simple case, we might preset a flag with the symbol for water, H2O, and connect it with certain pathways leading to the name “water” and then to the properties of water — its wetness, density, and any number of things, including how it reacts with other compounds. The preset flag now awaits the scanning of the radar with its template of that symbol.

Presently, in an exam, the symbol H2O is picked up by the visual sense. It comes in, is perceived, and placed on the radar template. The radar begins to scan, and when it comes around to the flag bearing H2O, it trips the trigger, and the preset pathways to the properties, etc., are automatically followed out. This is a great over-simplification of the many checks and counter-checks which actually exist, but it will serve to assist in interpreting the do’s and don’ts of studying.

Let us take another example: By observation, you note that the gas gauge on your car reads “nearly empty.” You preset a flag bearing a resemblance to a service station. You push this to the back of your mind, and continue driving, conversing and paying no further attention to the gasoline situation. After a few miles, a gas station appears in the distance. The picture of the station, as with all views appearing on the ever-changing radar templates of pictures continuously pouring in, with its pumps and brand signs, is perceived, placed on the radar template, and the radar then sweeps over the surface of your mind. Upon matching up with the flag you preset, the trigger is tripped, and a message goes along the wires (neurons) until it arrives at the memo to get the tank filled.
In studying, the practice of presetting the flags and connecting them up with material to be called forth is the primary activity. (Higher functions will be spoken of later.) In the exam, with your mind filled with preset flags, the symbols (words) move into your central nervous system via the senses, are perceived, set on the template and swung around the circuit of innumerable flags, matching if possible; and if matching, then starting a series of connections that lead to definitely filed information.

To recall means to cause to return to one’s attention the name of something or the many things connected with the name of something. To recognize means to perceive the identity of something previously known, when confronted with it. In essay exams, recall is demanded almost all the way. In objective exams of the simpler types, recognition is asked for. In other words, in an essay exam, you are given a few words or sentences and invited to call forth in an organized way what you know of these things. In a simple objective exam, you are asked to check the identity (or lack of identity) of some word or other symbol. In a complex objective exam, you must rearrange what you know, from clues, to be able to recognize the right answer. This rearrangement process is thinking.

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