Meaning for the Brain and Meaning for the Person

Lead Research Organisation: University of London
Department Name: Inst of Philosophy


Humans make many things that carry meaning: an encyclopaedia entry on Ghandi, a toy model of the battle of Waterloo. Both are about things in the world. They represent Ghandi and Waterloo. Their meaning comes from us, their users, from what we take them to mean. It derives from human thought and understanding.

Our thoughts also have meaning. They are mental representations, representations that are about things in the outside world. How do they get their meaning? We can't say it comes from how people interpret them, because that just pushes back the question - how do those interpretations get their meaning? Thoughts must have underived meaning. Understanding how that can be so is one of the deepest questions about the mind.

This project will use case studies emerging from science to uncover the nature of meaning in the brain. Psychology tells us that mental representations are the result of a series of stages of internal information processing. Powerful new methods in cognitive neuroscience reveal information processing in the brain in unprecedented detail. They show how the brain performs complicated calculations on neural representations, which are states with meaning. That gives us a powerful insight into how those meanings arise.

But philosophers see a big problem here. There is an important distinction between representations at the "personal level" and representations at "subpersonal levels". The science mostly tells us about subpersonal representations, like the intricate calculations of light and shadow performed by the visual system on the way to recognising a three dimensional object. You couldn't tell me about those representations. They are not representations for you, the person. In contrast, personal level representations are meaningful for the person: conscious thoughts, beliefs, desires, conscious decisions. The deep problem of meaning is to understand the nature of personal level representations.

The philosophical problem with starting with the subpersonal is that theories of meaning based on the best case studies from neuroscience don't seem to be applicable to personal level mental representations. So the theories are rejected. This project takes a new tack. Maybe we need different theories for different cases: different theories for different kinds of subpersonal meaning and, crucially, a different theory of the meaning of personal level states like our conscious thoughts.

Once we take that tack the obvious question is: what is going on differently at the personal level? But then we run into trouble with the psychologists, because many think that nothing important is going on at the personal level - that it has little to do, because so much behaviour is driven subpersonally and automatically, and that what it does, it does badly, blundering through with a host of approximations, heuristics and biases. The science presents a kind of paradox: why is the personal level so error prone when subpersonal processes can perform highly intricate calculations optimally?

A growing body of data suggest that this is a serious oversimplification, because the personal level has a different job to do, which is difficult and important. Personal level representations undergo different kinds of computations - computations tailored to their special functions. We will analyse that body of results to understand what is being done differently at the personal level. But we are looking at the data through a new lens - with a focus on understanding how meaning arises, and arises differently from the subpersonal case.

This will be the first systematic investigation of how information is processed differently at the personal level in a way that makes a difference to how meaning is constituted. Drawing the contrast with meaning for the brain, we will lay the foundations for understanding meaning for the person.

Planned Impact

The project's topic is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to the public how important the humanities are if we are to understand the deluge of often confusing scientific findings about the mind. The public imagination has seized on ideas like 'nudge', neuroeconomics and Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast and Slow'. Philosophy contextualises those results and shows how they are relevant to decision-making as we ordinarily understand it.

The project's findings will provide philosophy and related disciplines with a clearer understanding of the role of conscious beliefs, desires and intentions in decision and action. In turn, psychology and cognitive neuroscience translate these advances into clinical and practical applications. An important clinical application is in treating addiction, compulsions and behavioural disorders. The project will build on a variety of activities at King's involving clinicians in this area, in which philosophers have played a central role. Practical applications include public policy (e.g. 'nudging' behaviour) and commercial applications in designing marketing and monitoring its effectiveness, both areas where academics in the psychology and neuroscience of decision making are actively involved in translational impacts.

The project is designed to maximise these impacts through a rich programme of interaction with researchers in psychology, cognitive neuroscience and wider cognitive science. The PI will engage in lab visits, theme-focused discussions, presentations at lab meetings and conferences, and the project conference. The interdisciplinary grouping at the Institute of Philosophy will be a focus, as will be the Department of Psychology at King's, currently growing to deliver the new undergraduate degree programme (from 2015), to which Philosophy will contribute.

To maximise our wider public impact, we will create the format for an interactive public event that both demonstrates some of the psychological effects and encourages a live audience to discuss their significance with researchers from philosophy and the sciences. Experiencing some of the key experimental paradigms for oneself brings them alive and makes the issues pressing. We will design a package that will be delivered at a high profile event at King's and will be adapted and used at other fora, for example at festivals or the ICA Thursday lunchtime talk.

These events will offer a powerful form of advocacy for the relevance of the humanities, reconnecting scientific findings with our everyday knowledge about the human mind, and showing (rather than saying) that philosophy has a key role to play in the process of knowledge discovery.

The event format will be highly suited to a new public engagement space being developed at King's, Science Gallery London, which is due to open on the Guy's campus opposite the Shard in 2016. The director Dr Daniel Glaser has agreed to act as a consultant to the project to develop its multimedia event format, which will be considered for inclusion in one of Science Gallery London's themed temporary exhibitions. It is potentially highly suited to the 'Addictive' theme with which the gallery will open.

The project will also make use of the PI's interdisciplinary network of researchers, consolidated and expanded by the project. The project conference is aimed at setting an academic research agenda, and we will also capitalise on it to raise public awareness of our research. We will work with the speakers coming in for the conference to record a series of six podcasts on the conference theme. The podcasts will be professionally produced by David Edmonds, a BBC radio producer and co-creator of the much-loved Philosophy Bites website. They will be hosted on the project website and promoted as Mind Bites, taking advantage of Philosophy Bites' very strong existing presence on the web (21 million downloads to date). We will use this experience as the basis to pitch for further media coverage.




10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/M005933/1 12/01/2015 31/08/2016 £165,815
AH/M005933/2 Transfer AH/M005933/1 01/09/2016 28/08/2017 £44,713