Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

From the Percept to the Mind

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

From the Percept to the Mind

Article excerpt

From the Percept to the Mind The Sensory Order. In The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 14 (edited by Viktor J. Vanberg). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017, 316 pages, $59.40 hardcover.

Hayeks Methodology

The Sensory Order is the best known and distinctive of Hayek's books on theoretical psychology. His book has the undisputable merit of offering a truly prescient account of the role of the nervous system in cognitive functions, notably perception. Now, more than six decades after its publication, this account remains the most plausible exposition of the principles of functional architecture of the cerebral cortex in sensory perception.

Hayek allegedly used to say, "Without a theory the facts are silent." The Sensory Order is his theory of the mind, and the facts of modern neuroscience speak eloquently for it. Yet, even incipient theories are based on facts, and around 1920, when Hayek wrote his first - unpublished - essay on perception, the established facts of the relevant brain physiology were limited; they were still limited in 1950, when that essay, together with other drafts and essays, merged into The Sensory Order. It may be for that reason that, by his own admission, this book was difficult to write, and is probably the most difficult to read of his entire literary legacy.

Nonetheless, behind the difficult prose and the peculiar neologisms of necessity, Hayek in this book laid out the groundwork for cognitive neuroscience at large, even though his focus was on sensory perception. If only few neuroscientists recognize it, it is because most of the others are beset by the very same prejudices that he began assailing as a student in Vienna.

The most pervasive and enslaving prejudice in cognitive neuroscience today is - as it was then - the faithful belief in reductionism: the search for the ultimate causes and essential elements in physical phenomena. Such phenomena, of course, include the human mind, which is by definition the prime and to us most proximate phenomenon of nature. Deterministic reductionism is the golden rule of all the physical sciences, yet it fails miserably when it comes to the mind and its substrate in the brain.

Hayek began his quest for perception by disputing Mach's radical reductionist proposition: the existence of the elementary "atom" of sensation, an irreducible pure sensation on which all other sensations and percepts of the external world would be built. He argued that there was no need for that elementary entity. Instead, he argued that all sensory percepts, however simple, were made of relations between co-occurring sensory impulses arriving in the brain in the course of life experience. The "sensory history" of percepts was not limited to individual experience but, in the case of the most elementary sensations, it extended to evolutionary experience, in other words, to the history of the species (the genetic, innate, structure of sensory systems, which I term "phyletic memory"). Inasmuch as he attributed sensory perceptions and mental phenomena to relations between simpler elements of sensation, Hayek was a precursor of modern connectionism.

For him, the system of connections resulting from the sensing of the world becomes the infrastructure of the sensory order, embodied by a corresponding order of connections in the brain. That embodied relational system becomes the neural and mental apparatus for perception, which becomes the classification of objects in the external world performed by that "knowing" cerebral apparatus. A percept is the act of interpreting an object by the sensory order pre-established in the brain and, at the same time, the act of incorporating that object into that order, whereby the latter is refined and expanded.

The connective system that represents the sensory order is isomorphic to the phenomenal order, such that changes in one correspond to similar changes in the other (similar, that is, in quality or relative magnitude). …

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