Paper 6: How ideas exist

Graham Little
© December 2003

This paper summarises the discrete phenomena of how ideas exist, their primary role of shaping human circumstances, and how the human brain creates and uses ideas. The paper then relates the factors considered to issues of human spirituality and essence, stressing how humans as a species share a common underlying structure, this underlying causal psyche the driving force of the expression of our existence in the world in which we live.


Phenomenology underlying an idea
The diagram below summarises how ideas are created in the brain1 . The main points arising are outlined in the notes below.

  1. In the broad and typically complex neural activations of the brain and central nervous system.
  2. Within the meaning structures of the person, as a whole, invoking possible action and reaction, moving the person, offering options and choices of conduct, enabling creativity; the central living core of freewill.

Imagination and emergence of creativity
The neural system coupled with the model of psychology enables consciousness as a ‘scratch pad’ upon which ideas can be created, manipulated, tested and assessed prior to the individuals committing themselves to action.

In effect, what happens when events visualised or imagined the person invokes the appropriate sensory/intellectual responses without the actual event occurring. This can be viewed as the person synthesising Step 1 of the diagram above. The person is now using their neurological systems as imagination to create a simulation of a fart, as best we are able. This is much less than the real thing, but gets close enough for us to view and consider the idea and its implications.

As an aside, as a young man I had front teeth damaged, and they had to be removed. It was in the age of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), this had such an affect on me they had great difficulty in bringing me out to the induced unconscious state. Then, for many years after, upon thinking of the incident I could still distinctly smell the mask about my face with associated strong feelings of fear, and anxiety. This an example of the system being able to even reproduce smells under sufficiently extreme circumstances.

It is hard to imagine the circumstances of the first humans, the first homo-sapiens-sapiens. It does not seem logical that they had the same language or comprehension, as do we today. They did not have the thousands of years of shared understanding of the events of their environment. Evidence of the emergence of understanding can be seen in, say the emergence of perspective in art, or in the categorising of events explored by Alexander Marshank8 (largely recording seasonal changes and moon phases from tens of thousands of years ago). Whether or not the interpretation of the markings by Marshank is right, within the theory developed here there has to be evidence in the archaeological record of the very first steps of humans recording and categorising events important to their survival. Marshank suggests his work is such evidence, but if not, then there has to be others, for classification of events is the only way ideas come to be, and long term memory while effective is helped enormously by permanent records. This has to have had a beginning, and if not Marshank, then there will be some other somewhere.

With the individual able create, store, remember and use ideas, and with the first steps at socially sharing and recording of ideas, then in a few short generations humankind is bound only by culture binding thought, and not by the constraints of any environment which humans quickly learn to overcome.

Once ideas begun, then sub-categories could and would emerge. So a horse has a head and tail. It then follows that a whole category is created of just heads or tails. So there are horses head, reindeer head, human head, head of enemy, and so on. Once categories and sub-categories created, then these able to be combined, so a human head is put onto a horse to create a mythical beast, imagined but never seen or sensed, human imagination reaching beyond perception, but still rooted in the elements of perception.

I propose here that the initial steps in this process did involve clear sub-categories being ‘re-located’ to create imaginative new structures and creatures. Evidence of progression in painting styles and technique abound, and from this simple beginning we see emerging the complexity of imagination we have today, with humans overall far beyond merely ‘re-locating’ sub-categories or categories, but defining and developing and seeing objects and structures for which there is no physical counterpart, nor there ever will be.

The human spirit and the search for a soul
My theory of the person (based upon the understanding of cause and the tools of science that follow), and solution to the mind/body problem presented above enable full explanation of all that is human, no other factors are required.

Specifically the theory does not include a soul. At an early stage of theory development I pointed out the issue of soul was implicated, but by systematically applying the tools to the system under study, then a soul would emerge as a necessary component or it would not, there was no prejudice in either direction. What eventuated was a theory offering full causal insight and understanding that did not contain any element not already known and understood, and it did not contain a soul. This does not mean necessarily it does not exist, but it is definitely not needed to understand ourselves as a species (in fact I go further, and suggest that the theory provides understanding of sentience beyond merely human sentience, since it contains as its base the understanding of ideas and how they arise and used in managing any and all environments).

The fact of a soul not arising in the analysis, nor needed for understanding of people does leave several important issues to be explained.

  1. We know and can plainly see we are different even superior to animals. Why, how and what does this mean?
  2. We sense and feel a special place in the scheme of things. What does this mean? How does it come to be? Can another sentient species share such a feeling?
  3. We sense our existence, our being as more than the sum of our parts, we have freewill, and choice; we are not merely a set of molecules and atoms and biology, and our freedom cannot be reduced to such things as quantum probability, nor any other form of physical events. But what does that mean?

While recovering from my heart attack some years ago in an Auckland Hospital (Greenlane), I was interviewed by two young medical interns. They were researching and interviewing people who should have died and did not. They had been conducting interviews for several years. After completing the interview, I asked what had they discovered? With some embarrassment, they stated that they had not got beyond the fact that some people had a greater will to live, not very scientific they added. Maybe not, I replied, but very human.

4. We have a spirit of great fighting quality, yet with others, not. Why and how?

These are the elements that make us human, the true central issues shaping a person. These things are not physical, nor biological, though they have profound biological consequences, at times determining who lives and who dies. When the will to live dies, so the body dies, and we die irrevocably, and irreversibly.

My theory of the person states categorically we are much, much more than the sum of our parts. The extension beyond our physiology is in our understanding, beliefs and feelings. Our spirit exists, but determined by most what we embrace, not by what we are born with. Within my understanding of people, their spirit is their core, but one created that we can nurture or we can ignore, at our peril. And when due or ready, we can also let it go, at which time life itself may go, certainly, any fullness of life is readily lost, if not life itself.

Spirituality as a quality of being 9
I would describe a spiritual person as one who has achieved the following.

These qualities are more than being at peace. More than the simplicity of meditation or any other tool and in the living elegance of such people all the elements in the model transcends themselves, the whole being immeasurably beyond the sum of its parts.

Such people are not always gentle, nor always kind. They may be passionate, sensual, and sexual. They can and do choose to protest, being willing to destroy false images to protect what they see as essential. But never is it done casually.
Living every moment precious seems to so fill their life that at the moment of death they can be content. And when they feel their destiny fulfilled, they are at peace with death and when it is due, do not unduly resist. But when believing their life to have purpose yet unfulfilled, they resist death with all their spirit and will.

Some years ago, the mother of my first wife, Mary was her name, died. I had grown up with Mary known her and been close to her for forty years; even after I divorced her daughter I was always welcome. I loved Mary. She was a person of boundless energy, committed to supporting and nurturing her family. Mary had been alone for decades; her husband had died peacefully in his sleep. The day before she died was a summer picnic with the whole extended family at a wonderful beach near Nelson. Mary was busy all day, full of life and lovingly embracing and being embraced by her two daughters, grand children, brothers, nieces, nephews and children. Mary died peacefully that night. My son, then early twenties, asked me why she died, it was a shock to him. I tried to explain she was full, her life virtually complete. Now perhaps it was coincidence, but then perhaps not. I do not think she would choose to die, but when it came, I do not think she would fight.

Just a year before, my own mother died, also called Mary. She had been very sick for several years, but had fought hard to keep to life. She was emaciated, and only a shadow of the woman she had been. I was out of town when she was admitted to the local hospital. Upon visiting, I walked past the woman dozing in the chair, not recognizing mum, she had deteriorated so far, so fast. We talked, I told her I loved here, and said, “This is it mum, it’s time”, we cried and held each other; she asked me to bring in my children next day, which was a Sunday. I did, she perked up for them. Then early Monday morning I received the phone call I knew would come, Mum was dead. Were Mum to return right now, I have no more to say, it is all at peace.

My first real experience of death came with my father, who died many years before. He had a stroke bought about by a rare brain disease itself due alcohol abuse. I visited him this day, relations with dad had always been slightly strained, I loved him, but we were not especially close. Dad felt life had let him down, he was bordering bitter, and I knew not seeing a lot of point to it. Sitting beside his hospital bed, I sensed he had something he wanted to say, but it would not, did not come. He told me to go, to leave him he needed to sleep he said. I arrived home, and as I walked up the step and through the front door, I could hear the telephone. My wife was holding the phone out to me as I rounded into the hall with her expression telling me all I needed to know. Dad died as I drove home. Looking back, I became angry with myself, I saw it, death lurking, he knew. I would recognise it again and did with mum. Moment’s precious slipped by, and I have tried not to let that happen to me again, although not always successfully. Were dad here, I have things I would want to say even though I have made my peace with the moment passed.

These examples carry strong overtones of reality or choice therapy of William Glasser, Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, and the existential therapy of Irvin Yalom and Rollo May10. In each, in there own way, a key to understanding people is to understand their life place or space, and the meaning of that for them. Issues of goals, purpose, meaning, sense of destiny and relevance are all key aspects to understanding and otherwise making sense of what people do and the psychic forces in them that sustain or erode their experience and sustenance of their ongoing existence spiritually, emotional, and physically.

My theory integrates these approaches to therapy, retaining the therapeutic process and techniques, but offering a vastly improved theoretical rationale for the application of the technique.

In February 2003 I attended the World Federation of Mental Health Conference in Melbourne. There seemed to me two main themes, first focus on mental well being11, and second, focus on the abusive and degrading nature of much current mental health practice in most parts of the world. An underlying issue pervading the conference and forging much of the debate on both of these issues was the underlying medical nature of existing rationales and theories of psychiatry (note, not psychology, which was not given any great regard at this particular event). Cognitions can and do result in firing of sensitised neurons, these in turn can raise adrenalin levels, alter heart rate and have affects on other metabolic factors. This alone establishes a clear mechanistic pathway whereby cognitions impact physical well being. The over-developed psychiatric medical model of human cognition is in need of overhaul, with the theory summarised here being a vastly improved model.

One particular presenter, discussing stress and aging, presented some research information on the relationship of religious beliefs to stress in life. It showed that those of extreme religious belief, zealots, were most prone to stress, as were those of no religious belief, while those with sincere, but sensibly held religious beliefs were most buffered from the impact and affects of stress. No rationale was offered, and the discussion struggled to make sense of this information from any physical medical point of view. My model offers a ready explanation: zealots become stressed when they cannot force upon the world their point view, and those with no religious belief are more prone to existential disenfranchisement from their own existence, compounding any specific stress situations. Those with sincere, but ‘normal’ levels of religious belief are buffered from such existential disenfranchisement with the simply answer to ‘why am I here?’ as “God’s will’: If they believe that, then many existentialism issues will not impact them, or not so to the same degree. Cognitions and life experience, all closely tied to issues normally referred to as ‘faith’ and ‘hope’, but with real, explicable affects on health and mental well being. I am not religious, but regard it as crucial to have a faith and belief system greater than oneself, one that gives point and purpose to one’s life, and this being one way in which we nurture our spirit, the driving force of our will to be and expression our existence.

In yet another example, I have known Pete for twenty-eight years, a long-standing good friend, one on whom I could depend. In February 2003 we lunched, Pete myself, and our partners. Started the New Year, after not seeing each other over the holidays. Then, in April there was a car smash, Pete crossed the centre line and collided head on, his wife was killed and he suffered badly damaged legs, and a severe blow to the head. For the first month or so in hospital, he was recovering and grieving quite badly, as would be expected. During this phase he would say,” I killed her”, and would cry uncontrollably for long periods. I would often sit and hold his hand while he recovered himself, which he always seemed to do when I was there, but from what I was told, not so when others present. Then after about two months, the nature of his psychic state changed, he would talk as if his wife was still alive, that he had talked with her just recently. He would also talk as if he had been to work for the day. Upon being challenged, he would say, “Oh yea”, and cry. Then in just a minute or two, he invited me to come to his home and have dinner with him and his wife later in the week. His grief would disappear entirely. He was tested, and it was found that his memory had suffered and there were signs of neural deterioration some prior to the crash. Within two months, the person he had been was gone, in its place a person I did not understand, or know. To him, she was not dead, and all efforts to challenge this view had been given up. He was slow, depressed in movement, speech, attitude and appearance: His spirit broken, no purpose, no future, only an imagined present, in which he works each day (despite the fact he is in a home), and him and his partner having marriage problems so she is not here today. The official cause is elderly dementia, medical model. On the last visit, six months after the accident, he was quite fluent, he cried much, when asked if he wanted to talk about it, he said he did not know, and did not think he could cope. We left distressed for Pete, but feeling helpless, powerless. Somewhere, somehow, I feel, he must find in him the resources to fight his grief and his guilt. It seems to me that there is unquestioned neural damage, this compounding and being compounded by the cognitions and existential trauma. Medical models for human existence are simply, painfully inadequate, and too often allow psychiatrists too much latitude in one direction, medical dominance, an overbearing attitude of we know best; and enable them to do far, far too little in the directions that could and would help people, bringing back to them some life, albeit restricted by medical circumstances (in this regard, neural deterioration is similar in my model to say, being quadriplegic, an enormous difficult life problem, but not impossible).

Closing remarks
We are more than our cells and biochemistry, more than our genes and our upbringing. Beyond either of these are our choices, rooted in ideas and the evolved ability of us, as a species to see in our minds beyond our environment, to see good and evil, right and wrong, and with effort to chose for ourselves and stay with our choice, should we have the strength and courage.

With these papers is set the new path, soundly and deeply grounded in the understanding of the environment, its differentiation the very source of our thought, of our ideas with these the very core of our spirit making us different from all known species. In the understanding of ideas, lies the essential insight into cause and the tools for effective creation of meaningful theory and models in social science that take us far beyond statistics and mere conjunctions built on math.

It is our cognition that makes us what or who we are, not our neurochemistry. And in the models offered lie better integration of the necessary nature of our cognitions and their causal impact on us, and in this understanding comes the insight into how to help those in need and how to build and enhance the life and existence of all.

Most of all, in these new models lays the potential for us, all of us to see the common structures that make us all the same. The essence of spirit lies in everyone, and the driving forces of this spirit are the same in us all. Differences of race, creed, and politics merely shallow variations on the true underlying structures that gave meaning to these common threads, that meaning being minor variations on the themes across cultures giving rise to a mere appearance of differences. In the models may we find the true understanding that we are all the same, we merely express it differently.


  1. The summary of the neural assumptions underlying the model of psychology is in the paper outlining the model of psychology itself, Little, G.R., Paper 5: Why we do what we do – the outline of a general theory of psychology, in Why We Do What We Do: A paradigm for social science, Social Sciences Press: Division of Self Help Guides Limited, Auckland, NZ, 2003
  2. I suggest this is properly phenomenology, that is the analysis of the nature of internal states leading to observable events of behaviour. Modern phenomenology is often seriously in error in pursuing ‘deeper’ or ‘further’ understanding of such internal events. At issue is the question of variables as distinct from values of those variables. I argue that values are different from variables; further, I ask if we had a complete and thorough general theory of all internal events what would be its nature? In fact, it can be no more than a system of variables that describe the system. Then, when we add the values of the variables, we gain the precise description of some particular person in some particular state at some particular time. Such descriptions are not science, and never can be, there are situational to a degree that removes them from science. The precise values of the variables constitute the domain of those interested in the question: what is it like to be…? The question of what it is like to be is the subject of novels, poetry and song, also the circumstance of the orator, and politician, none of which claims to science, and from all of which a scientist must refrain else demean their intellectual impartiality and objectivity.
  3. In previous discussions I have considered the nature and influence of perceptual fields. First, they are not necessarily related to or influenced by any observer. They are aspects of the environment able to interact with some aspect of the observer’s physiology such that the observers perceives. The perceptual fields itself, such as a field of photons, depends solely on the causal events that pre-exist the field itself, so a perceptual field is a causally determined phenomena, and any observer only influences some perceptual field if and only if they are or some actions their part are a factor in the causal circumstances of the field.
  4. It is important to understand the existence of differentiation is implicit in the work of Cohen and my work is merely the emphasising of Cohen, and the analysis of the consequences, namely the nature and types of differentiation. Cohen concluded: “It may be conjectured that the perceptual mechanism has evolved to cope with a differentiated field, and, in the absence of differentiation, there is a temporary breakdown of the mechanism". Cohen, W. Spatial and Textural Characteristics of the Ganzfeld. Am.J.Psych., 70, 403-410, 1957.
  5. Ashby, W. Ross, Design for a Brain, London: Chapman Hall 1960, and Introduction to Cybernetics: New York: John Wiley, 1956.
  6. Hebb, D.O. The Organisation of Behaviour. A neurophysiological theory. New York: Wiley Science Editions, 1949.
  7. Popper, Karl. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1972.
  8. Marshack, Alexander, The Roots of Civilisation, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972.
  9. This section is reproduced from Little, G.R., Paper 5: Why we do what we do – the outline of a general theory of psychology, in Why We Do What We Do: A paradigm for social science, Social Sciences Press: Division of Self Help Guides Limited, Auckland, NZ, 2003.
  10. Discussion on these approaches to therapy can be found in Richard Nelson-Jones, Theory and Practice of Counselling and Therapy, Continuum, London and New York, Third Edition, 2001.
  11. The great problem confounding any serious discussion on mental well being at the conference was the complete lack of any serious understanding of what it is. The current predominant medical model can only express it in the form of lack of mental illness, which certainly says little for happiness, contentment, and satisfaction, never mind hope and faith, and seeking and building a spirit at peace. The only theory I know that offers an actual definition of mental health unique and distinct from mental illness is my own, see Little, G. R., Papers in mental health strategy and social policy as arising from the process theory of psychology, Social Sciences Press, division of Self Help guides Limited, Auckland NZ, 2003.