The Chemistry of Thought  (Part One)


by T. F. Collura, Ph.D., P.E.


This essay outlines some general issues and introduces some specific considerations relevant to the scientific understanding of the mind and brain. It is intended to elevate critical issues with regard to the current state of this understanding, and to define some simple concepts that may help to move this understanding forward. This work is based on a synthesis of ideas derived from neuroscience and psychophysiology, combined with a novel approach to the understanding of the electroencephalogram (EEG). These ideas are presented in a very basic form, and should lead to specific approaches to the measurement and analysis of brain processes as revealed by the EEG. It should also lead to the development and improvement of methods for the diagnosis and treatment of mental conditions using EEG and neurofeedback, in conjunction with various forms of sensory stimulation.

What is needed is a scientific development that accomplishes for the mind what chemistry has done for the physical world. That is, a science that includes simple, terse models for the underpinnings of thought, and that can be used to derive the experiences of thought, both behavioral and introspective. The field that we call Psychology barely approaches this goal. It has a moderate ability to connect with our understanding of the physical brain, but it lacks rigorous and complete models that are based on neurophysiological principles. While we have the beginnings of some of this science, we do not have anything near what has been achieved in the physical sciences. There is little agreement on anything approaching a cohesive model of the substrates of conscious thought. The clinical effectiveness of conventional methods in psychology and psychiatry border on chance, further indicating that this field is still in the stage of being alchemy rather than science. In particular, our ability to apply EEG recordings and methods to the study and development of the mind is in its infancy.

Nonetheless, recent progress using neurofeedback to treat conditions such as ADD, depression, autism, and other disorders, indicates that there is significant promise in this area. We have demonstrated the fundamental possibility of affecting the structure and function of the brain using biofeedback techniques, and even simple methods may be as effective as medication in treating a wide range of conditions. This underscores the remarkable plasticity of the brain, and its ability to learn. We may anticipate further conceptual breakthroughs in the near future that could revolutionize both our understanding and our ability to address the issues of the mind and brain in a constructive manner. It is hoped that this will help to sweep away much of the imprecision, bias, and parochialism that currently dominate theoretical and clinical approaches to the mind.

Whereas we are very good at describing the world around us, we are very poor at describing the world of our thoughts. Tibetan Buddhists are perhaps the masters of this. Nonetheless, we should look to create a vocabulary and set of paradigms that penetrates the layers beneath what we commonly think of as thought. To extend the analogy with the physical world, we have had our “biology of thought” defined. Freud, Jung, James, and others have been our Lamarke, Darwin, Linneaus, and Mendel. What we need now are the Pauling, the Watson and Crick, and the Krebs to take us the next level down. We know what the “organisms” of thought are. They are the ideas, thoughts, impressions, perceptions, opinions, moods and other major entities that are the realm of psychology. What we know of them we know from behavioral studies, and a first level of introspection. What they are comprised of, we do not know. That is what we are looking for. What are the “organs” and “molecules” of thought? How does the brain produce them? What is their “molecular biology”? From the work of Damasio, Calvin, Crick, Freeman, Edelman, and others, we have some rudimentary, basic concepts about brain dynamics relative to thought. We know that the brain contains neural subsystems that receive trains of stimulation, and that reverberate in a complex way, in accordance with the laws of nonlinear chaos, to achieve states and state transitions that lead to recognition, memory, and other primitive processes.

What we would like to do is to find a connection with the EEG signal in a way that explains what we know about EEG dynamics in connection with moods, states of mind, and behavior. This connection should also have bearing on the observed effects of light and sound stimulation, which can cause a variety of affective states, depending on the frequency and structure of the stimulation. Our basic model is this: The response of a given cortical sub-circuit to an incoming burst of stimulation (whether from the outside world or from a lower brain center) produces what we will call (for now) a “process burst”. This burst is a short (250-300 millisecond) pattern of reverberation that is determined by the resonant properties of the sub-circuit. Although we only see a simple burst of EEG activity, we know that there is a complex pattern of information processing underlying the burst. It is the underlying processing that we wish to understand.

It is as if we have a scale, a thermometer, a barometer, and we wish to begin to develop the science of chemistry. Instead, we have an EEG instrument, some lights, sounds, and the introspective and behavioral reports from our subject.




Copyright: T. F. Collura, Ph.D., P.E., Author and AVS Journal, Michael Landgraf, Publisher (2006) CA.   All rights reserved.