Across billions of neurons, mapped not quite chaotically, but with only that structure which provides for rudimentary autonomic function and the building blocks for more. For cognition, for personhood. As we receive stimuli, we change the structure of this web of pathways. Some grow stronger, others weaken and atrophy.
Patterns develop. Stimuli arriving in near-simultaneity become linked structurally. Impressions are formed, impressions in the physical structure of the brain, affecting the strength and reach of signal passage. The brain grows in sophistication, in connectedness. Basic if not simple functions, those coded for in DNA, are used as the building blocks of yet higher connections and functions. We bend the brain’s capacity to detect visual features, like vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, into the ability to recognize a chair or a face. We feel pain, associate it with the visual and spatial attributes of the stovetop, and learn to avoid it with our fingers.
We begin with simple atomic units, and build.
Some few layers beyond, after spending years bathed in sensory data, sorting it by building stronger pathways when they’re helpful and diminishing others when not, the brain has a refined capacity for parsing impressions of the world. It develops a sensory algebra for referring to the world through the senses. We begin to see that the world includes us, that we are in the world, and refine our reference frame such that by echoing our worldview back against the world, we can see our shadow upon it. We are now self-aware.
Thereafter, we have larger units built upon all those smaller ones. We are a unit, an algebraic element, as is the seen world, the heard world, the felt world, the smelled world, the tasted world. We are now world-aware, in a local sense, as that locality follows us.
At some point, before or after, we find a curious application of these patterns: they can be encoded and transferred. We call this language, including but not limited to the grammatical spoken and written languages. With this phenomenon arrives the possibility of creating algebraic elements which are actually only references to others, and the ability to combine these references into yet larger references, systematically. What the world is is reshaped as we fold sensory data into lingual structures, as we see a dog and understand her to be a “dog” and then read Old Yeller.
In this way, electrical signals passing through neuron gaps, down myelin-sheathed neuron fibers, across networks of fibers and gaps, form higher-order structures, which in turn form yet higher-order structure, and so on, until our “instincts” (whatever those are) are joined by our cognitive machinery to create our world. Just as a brick house is made of walls, which are made of brick, which are made of compacted clay and sediment, and so on, the space which our cognition occupies evolves from more fundamental blocks.
We may–and many people do–call this process or its result “analogy.” I describe it as the inference of structure via the combination of available cognitive elements, at least for now. It forms the basis for subsequent discussion.