Is The Mind Modular?

Inside The Brain
3 min readMar 24, 2022

Mind — n. the human consciousness that originates in the brain and is manifested especially in thought, perception, emotion, will, memory, and imagination.

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No robot can solve a crossword, or engage in a conversation, with anything like the facility the average human being can.

Somehow or other we humans are capable of performing complex cognitive tasks with minimal effort.

Trying to understand how this could be is the central explanatory problem of the discipline known as cognitive psychology.

There is an old but ongoing debate among cognitive psychologists concerning the architecture of the human mind.

The ‘general-purpose problem-solver’ mind

According to one view the human mind is a’ general-purpose problem-solver’. This means that the mind contains a general set of problem-solving skills or ‘general intelligence’ which it applies to an infinitely large number of different tasks. So the same set of cognitive capacities is employed, whether you are trying to count marbles, deciding what movie to see, or learning a foreign language — these tasks represent different applications of the human’s general intelligence.

The modular mind

A rival view argues that the human mind contains a number of subsystems or modules — each of which is designed to perform a very limited number of tasks and cannot do anything else.

This is known as the modularity of mind hypothesis. So for example it is widely believed that there is special module for learning a language — a view deriving from the linguist Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky insisted that a child does not learn to speak by overhearing adult conversation and then using ‘general intelligence’ to figure out the rules of the language being spoken; rather there is a distinct neuronal circuit — a module — which specialises in language acquisition in every human child which operates automatically and whose sole function is to enable that child to learn a language, given appropriate prompting. The fact that even those with very low ‘general intelligence’ can often learn to speak perfectly well strengthens this view.

Clues from the broken brain

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Inside The Brain

Professor Billy O'Connor. Neuroscientist. Medical Educator. University of Limerick Graduate Medical School