Letters and messages, neurons and thoughts

Peter MolemanArticles, Parts and the wholeLeave a Comment

Translated by Rumia Bose

I have difficulty in finding the words to explain what a cynic is. Oscar Wilde did not. ” What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”1. A complex concept explained in a few words, just one short sentence. It is astonishing what you can do with language. How does this work?

The basis of language: the alphabet

The basic elements of language are the letters of the alphabet, a to z in the Roman alphabet. Written language is nothing more than letters in a certain order, with here and there a punctuation mark or a space in between. But randomly arranged letters have no meaning and do not convey any message. For this, it is essential to have a certain sequence of letters, spaces and punctuation marks. What are the rules of this arrangement? This can only be understood if we go step-by-step from letters, spaces and punctuation marks to the conveying of a message. For a start, the language sets constraints on the possible sequences of letters. An a can be followed by any letter, but a q must be followed by a u. But that does not get us to the formulation of a message. A word will get us a bit further. Price and value tell us something. Forming a word gives more opportunities to convey a message. But you pay a price for this. Because a c can always follow an a. But if you form words, then that is not always possible. Vacuous is a word, but vacue is not. So replacing the l in value with a c is not possible, although the sequence acu is not unfeasible.

Language as a complex system

This is an example of the relation between levels of complexity. Words in language are one level of complexity higher than letters. This opens possibilities, because you can express more with them. But it also sets limits on the use of letters at the level below. The next level higher up consists of sentences. And the same applies here: you can express more with a sentence than with a word, but it does lay constraints. You can’t place words randomly after each other if you want to convey a message: “value price a everything who the man of and knows the nothing of.”
I have used a single quote as an example, but to communicate yet more complex messages you need paragraphs, whole chapters, or whole books. Progressively higher levels of complexity which enable the conveying of progressively more complicated information. And each step up subjects the lower levels to certain constraints. The following sentence in a paragraph has to be a logical continuation of the previous one. The next paragraph does not have to be a logical extension of the last sentence, but it does from the previous paragraph.
In this way you can convey very complicated messages using language, which you couldn’t do if you only knew how to combine letters, spaces and punctuation marks, or how to form words. Each progressively higher level has its own rules which do not derive from the rules of the level below.

Language as a metaphor for the brain

Language is a complex system. just as is the brain. In language, the letters are the basic elements, and for brain functions these are the neurons or brain cells2. For language, the sentence is the minimum required level to form a complex message. As are networks of neurons in the brain in forming a complex thought. These higher levels are somewhat more complicated than in the case of language. Neurons form networks, but are also concentrated in brain nuclei that for a part have specific functions in the formation of thoughts. Additionally, neurons and their networks are continually active and not static like Oscar Wilde’s sentence as quoted earlier. That sentence is still standing the same way as I wrote it earlier, and hopefully just the same way as he wrote it himself. The brain also has more functions than enabling thoughts, such as directing motor functions, processing incoming signals, creating self-awareness, and much more. But the same holds true for all these higher levels as for language: each higher level opens up possibilities , but also lays constraints on the level below and changes its rules. The message at the higher level can not be constituted from the lower levels and their rules. I will not go further in explaining how this works in the brain, because it is too complicated to explain, and perhaps because I do not understand it completely. That is why I have used language as a metaphor for the complex system of the brain3. One conclusion is however unavoidable: if you knew exactly how all the neurons in the brain and even their networks functioned, then you still would have no idea about how a thought evolves, let alone what its content is.

The brain speaks several languages

I have one more surprise up my sleeve. ” Wat is een cynicus? Iemand die overal de prijs en nergens de waarde van kent.”. This is the Dutch translation of “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. The Dutch and English texts convey exactly the same message, but with different letters and words. And there are different rules governing letter sequences and words in Dutch as compared to English. These rules are therefore required to create a sentence with Wilde’s message, but the message is not dependent on English grammar rules as explained above. Which is why you cannot reduce a message to a particular sequence of letters or words.
The same holds true for the brain: exactly the same thought can be formed by different neurons or neuronal networks. The working of neurons and neuronal networks is subject to certain rules, and these are necessary to form thoughts. But you cannot reduce a thought to a particular pattern of neuronal activity. Thus the highest level – thoughts – and the basic level – neurons – are inextricably connected to each other, but inspecting the one will not lead you to the other, and vice versa.

Are we our brain?

I have been talking about thoughts, but Alicia Juarrero and Walter Freeman think that the same is true for the highest form of consciousness: the experiencing of a self, of who you are. That is then an even higher, perhaps even the highest, level of our brain’s functioning. This would mean that Descartes was wrong in thinking that an immaterial mind controls the brain. But this also means that people who think that the highest form of consciousness is simply the sum of the activity of all neurons are wrong. So are we our brain? No. Is there a self separate from the physical brain? Again, no.


Brette R (2019): Is coding a relevant metaphor for the brain? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 42, e215:1–58. doi:10.1017/S0140525X19000049

Juarrero A (2015): What does the closure of context-sensitive constraints mean for determinism, autonomy, self-determination, and agency? Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 119:510–521

Wagner A (2014): Arrival of the fittest: Solving evolution’s greatest puzzle. NY, Penguin Group. ISBN 978-1-101-62816-4, Ch. 6

Juarrero A (2002): Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge, Mass. London, England, A Bradford Book. ISBN 978-0-262-60047-7, Ch. 9

Freeman WJ (2000): How Brains Make up their Minds. New York, Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-12008-1, Ch. 3

  1. Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892, Act III, cited at http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/23639.html
  2. This may be disputed, because cells are made of molecules, and that is one level lower. In addition, the brain is also made up of other cells besides neurons. But this does not matter for my argument.
  3. After Alicia Juarrero, 2002 and Andreas Wagner, see references

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