What Are Mental Processes?

The unified theory offers a map of human mental processes.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

How are mental processes defined? Although this is obviously an important question to the field of psychology, psychologists rarely define exactly what they mean by the term. This is a problem because it is not clear exactly what mental processes refer to in the world. 

The unified theory of psychology posits that there are distinct domains of mental processes that need to be separated and then interrelated to understand the human mind (see here for how to interrelate them). 

First, there are the basic “brain-behavior” relationship patterns that we see in animals. Consider that every morning, when I turn the light on in my fishes’ tank, they swim to the top, anticipating being fed. We can explain their activity in terms of evolution, their learning history, and the way their brains process information. Fields like animal behavioral science and computational neuroscience tell us that the brain is an information processing system that coordinates overt action based on things like risk-reward ratios. Neuro-information processing is one meaning of mental processes. Let’s call this the “neurocognitive functionalist” meaning and label it Mind1.

What most people mean when they talk about the mind or the domain of the mental is the subjective perceiving/feeling part of our essence. This is the rather magical part of our existence. It is the fact that the "water of the brain" somehow turns into the "wine of experience" of being in the world. We can call these mental processes “subjective phenomenology." Because this is a different domain of the mental, let’s call it Mind2.

Finally, there is the self-conscious narrative part of the human mind. This is the domain that Rene Descartes famously emphasized with his axiom, “I think; therefore, I am.” And it is the part that is most actively engaged as I write out this blog post. Self-conscious justification processes are quite different from either Mind1 or Mind2, so let’s call this domain Mind3.  

As this summary suggests, neurocognitive processes that regulate overt behavior, subjective phenomenology, and self-conscious narration are all "mental processes" but they are all different things in the world. As such, the stage is set for confusion and people talking past each other if we are not clear about the kind of mental processes we are referring to. 

In addition, it is crucial to be aware that these different domains of mind not only are different things in the world, but they also have very different epistemological considerations. That is, the ways we know about them require different approaches. 

Mind1 can be analyzed by a third person, “exterior” view that involves studying animal behavior and corresponding it with brain activity. As such, it is consistent with the view of natural science. Mind2 can only be directly accessed by the first person interior view. This makes studying consciousness hard given natural science's epistemological commitments (see here for an analysis of the distinction between interior and exterior). Mind3 exists across the interior and exterior views, in the intersubjective world of shared languages and meaning-making systems (see here for why this complicates scientific explanations).

The following table summarizes these three domains of mental processes and their epistemological considerations as follows:

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

The unified theory of psychology maps all of this. Consider, for example, how it maps human consciousness. The Updated Tripartite Model shows the domains of Mind2 and Mind3 and the dynamic interrelation between them.

Gregg Henriques
Domains of Human Consciousness mapped by JUST
Source: Gregg Henriques

The experiential self represents the domain of Mind2 and the private and public selves are separable domains of Mind3. This allows us to ask: Where do subjective phenomenology and self-consciousness come from? As the book Consciousness and the Brain explains, conscious awareness and access emerge from neurocognitive processes. That is, such processes are emergent from Mind1, although exactly how remains complicated and uncertain. Note that Mind1 includes both the information instantiated within and processed by the nervous system and the overt mental behaviors that animals enact. As such, we can divide that up into two domains as well. 

This allows us to clearly map the domains of human mental processes as follows:

Gregg Henriques
A clear lexicon for human mental processes.
Source: Gregg Henriques

This map allows us to see that some psychologists define mind in terms of the overt action of Mind1b (traditional behaviorists), some in terms of the information processing of Mind1a (cognitivists), some in terms of the phenomenology of Mind2 (many humanists), and some in terms of the human reason-giving of Mind3 (many philosophers). Of course, this will lead to much confusion and equivocation in terms and different people talking past each other. With its clear definitional system, the language system provided by the unified theory can help the field move from its current state of fragmented pluralism to a much more coherent body of knowledge about the nature of mental processes.