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What is the Modular Theory of the Mind?

Updated on January 4, 2021
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Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.


Determining how the brain operates is challenging in the best of situations. Traditionally, scientists would look at pieces of the brain’s operations and build up in complexity from it. But now brain networks composed of modular regions are the main approach, and two major routes to developing a theory on it seems to exist. One would be to examine the “structural connectivity” which shows the physical nature yet lacks the depth of applications. The other method would explore the functional connectivity by exploring how the activity is done. To perform either of these though requires us to filter out the signals we desire from the hubbub of activity that the brain displays. This is best resolved by a modular approach to the brain and correlating the inner neuron activity to the outer neuron activity, therefore refining the signal we desire (Bertolero 28-9).

Mapping It Out

Work by Max Bertolero and Danielle S. Bassett has employed graph theory to help determine the language of the brain. This meant taking the nodes and edges of the math and interpreting them instead as neurons and connections between them. As many expected, fixed areas of the brain perform certain set tasks, but when the mapping was done it was found that the brain has about 100 billion neurons and at a minimum 100 trillion synapses! But with graph theory we can reduce this picture down to 300 nodes, opening potential doors into brain networks. This was accomplished after running 10,000 fMRI experiments of people doing 83 different tasks, highlighting the different modules the brain implements. Results show the modules are single lobed assigned and that module activity doesn’t imply more modules are used. The modules also operate rather independently but still share information in the collective effort to operate efficiently. These areas where the modules meet up are known as hubs, and some hubs are larger than others. In fact, while we all have modules and hubs, we also “show slight variations in the way our neural circuitry is wired (Ibid).”

These findings stem from the Human Connectome Project, whose goal is to develop a working map of our neural circuitry via modules and hubs. Phase 1 involved 1200 young people who will be tracked for life to develop a cumulative model. Their brain activity is monitored by fMRIs that reveal structural and functional components via many tests that were done to identify 280 “behavioral and cognitive tasks,” along with people’s own experiential report. Researchers found that the overall structure of the brain does impact what make you and yet the overall activity of the brain was consistent regardless of modular activity, likely as a result of fixed pathways in the brain. But changes can occur because of neuroplasticity, and how this play into modular theory remains to be seen. But it would seem as though structural changes take years to implement while functional changes can occur over seconds (29, 32).

Some of the complexity in mapping out the networks across the brain.
Some of the complexity in mapping out the networks across the brain. | Source

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology can offer some further insights into the modular mind, especially with how those changes can occur. How these pieces play together impacts how we make choices, and it adapts over time much like an evolutionary trait. This is just one benefit of this approach to the brain but not the only one. Evolutionary psychology also postulates that hard choices we face are different modules conflicting with each other, and modular mind is Buddhist in approaching focusing techniques. But modular mind isn’t universally accepted as a theory, and Robert Wright attempts to resolve this by correcting common mistakes of opponents. For one, the modules are not meant as a physical representation with certain regions tying to certain behavior. That would be a theory of mind allocation. Modular mind instead wants you to think of different regions working at different levels with different connections to produce the results we see. You therefore cannot pick a module at whim and get a set reaction. They all interact with one another. Modular mind is much like evolutionary competition, a natural selection of pieces of thought where dominance is key (Wright 86-8).

How should we look at the modules?
How should we look at the modules? | Source

Breaking It Down

Kaj Sotala would likely agree with the evolutionary picture as painted above. As he puts it so perfectly, “There’s a strong reason to believe that human brains are composed of a large number of modules, for specialization yields efficiency.” Simple organism can only do simple things despite the complex cellular nature to them. We on the other hand are capable of doing more because our brain has broken down tasks into smaller pieces, built up redundancy, and allowed for cross-communication between the modules. Evolution is all about efficient species surviving on and with modules, higher life forms do (Sotala)

Sotala does point out that a criticism of modularity is how certain systems have a general approach to problems rather than a parsing out to different subsections. But that is more about the utilization of the system while modules refer to the actual processes themselves. Another point of confusion Sotala talks about is the relationship between modules, for some do and do not talk to one another. That goes back to Wright’s point about avoiding specific assignments for modules and instead looking at group behaviors. This can be why we make some puzzling choices, because of a lack of module interaction preventing information disclosure (Ibid).

Works Cited

Bertolero, Max and Danielle S. Bassett. “How Matter Becomes Mind.” Scientific American Jul. 2019. Print. 28-9, 32.

Sotala, Kaj. “Modularity and Buzzy.” Less Wrong, 04 Aug. 2011. Web. 23 Sept. 2020.

Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2017. Print. 86-8.

© 2021 Leonard Kelley


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