Complex Mind Theory

Mind – an integrated system expressing emotion, cognitive and behavioral activities (“Mind” in Wikipedia). Emotions, moods, perception, intelligence, learning and memory, attention, control of the body and interaction with the environment, reasoning and thinking, decision making, imagination, adaptation, understanding, anticipation, perspective taking, awareness and control of its own functions (metacognition), the sense of self, consciousness—these are deeds that a complex, human-level mind often exhibits. Many of them are expressed in all animals, maybe even in simple life forms such as bacteria, fungi and plants.

Complex Mind Theory is a very general theory concerning the emergence of mind in nature, its progression in time, its distinctive features mentioned above, such as attention, perception, learning and adaptation.

In neuroscience ongoing research endeavors heavily base their methods, paradigms, vocabulary and formulate their goals and research questions on complex systems science, dynamical systems science and network science (Chialvo, 2010; Bassett and Gazzaniga, 2011; Papo et al., 2014; Tognoli and Kelso, 2014a; Tognoli and Kelso, 2014b).

Complex Mind Theory will eventually be able to elegantly describe and explain how mental phenomena such as attention, reasoning, imagination, dreaming, understanding, perspective taking arise in the mind and (thus constituting it) interact with each other giving rise to the vastness of experiences that we are submerged in our daily lives. It will also be able to make connections between different levels of complexity, specifically relating to the study of mind and cognition:

  • neuroscience – concerned mostly with the study of brain anatomy and function,
  • cognitive science – focused on fundamental capacities of the mind, such as memory, language and attention,
  • psychology – interested in high-level mental phenomena and patterns like personality, motivation, higher feelings (e.g. sadness, love), interpersonal relations,
  • culture – phenomena lasting decades or even hundreds of years, such as philosophy, science, artistic trends, ideologies, religions, systems of law,
  • and nature and technology in general – questions about the nature of intelligence itself: what systems are cognitive or intelligent?, where can we look for intelligent behaviors in nature?

Mind as a self-organizing, dynamical structure

Complex systems

A complex system is a system of strongly connected, interacting elements, that through self-organization, give rise to novel, emergent phenomena—qualities or behaviors that no smaller element produces or is capable of doing (see Complex systems on Wikipedia).

Complex systems (see Complex systems on Wikipedia) are aggregates of interacting elements, in which high level structures and behaviors emerge. For example, ant colony is a system of individual ants that, through interactions among each other, exhibit complex, higher order behaviors such as building bridges from ants for other ants to cross, or task allocation, that is deciding how many ants should forage for food, how many should guard the nest, and so on. Critical to characterization of complex systems are the properties of self-organization (see Self-organization on Wikipedia) and emergence (see Emergence on Wikipedia). Systems self-organize, that is the global behavior and structure arises out of mostly local interaction between the elements of the system, none of which controls the whole system. In this way, the system is built from bottom up. In the case of an ant colony, the is no single ant that dispatches messages or commands for all other ants to follow. The global behavior (paths to food, number of ants actively clearing the surroundings of the nest, etc.) or pattern arises out of communication between individual ants. The global pattern, dynamics or behavior is said to be emergent, because none of the smaller elements can on its own produce it and it is not the result of mere adding up of effects of individual elements (e.g. ants) of the system (in the example: ant colony). The global organization of the system then constrains the elements effectively acting as a cause for their behavior. This is called downward causation (see George Ellis’ talk On the Nature of Causality in Complex Systems).

Dynamical systems

A dynamical system is a system, that continuously functions, progresses (see Dynamical systems theory on Wikipedia), and – it the case of biological systems – may be perturbed by external events, changing the system’s trajectory, that is the direction in which it evolves.

Dynamical system (see Dynamical systems theory on Wikipedia) is a system of components, that as a whole exhibits sophisticated patterns of behavior – dynamics. Natural systems of this kind are continuously active (see Lotka–Volterra equation on Wikipedia). External influences are not simple inputs, but perturbations (see Perturbation theory on Scholarpedia) to the system, that change the dynamics of the system, so that the system adapts. Examples of such systems include: climate, predator-pray model (see Predator-prey model on Scholarpedia).

Complex dynamical system

Thus, a complex dynamical system is a collection of interacting elements, that through self-organization exhibits emergent phenomena and dynamical behavior. A complex dynamical system is a physical collection of parts that interact with each other, which leads to various patterns of global behavior of the whole system or its components. Such a system is virtually constantly in “motion”, it is undergoing changes, it is evolving or developing in time.

Mind as a complex dynamical system

Research endeavors are under way to understand mind and brain not as a collection of encapsulated computing modules, but as a system of elements, which interactions with each other give rise to complex phenomena that we can observe in ourselves and other animals (see Systems neuroscience on Wikipedia; Hotton, Yoshimi, 2011; Mcdonough, Nashiro, 2014; Papo et al., 2014; Tognoli, Kelso, 2014; Bassett et al., 2014). Mind is thus a continuously active system, which is perturbed by external events that change its dynamics (Spivey, 2007).

Brain, according to Complex Mind Theory, is a complex system, that is a system composed of many tightly coupled elements, neurons, spread across connected neuronal networks (Sporns, 2010). Self-organization of neuronal networks takes precedence over rigid routes of information processing modules. Neurons and neuronal ensembles interact with each other leading to the emergence of novel behaviors, patterns and forms of dynamics that are very different from those that we observe in single neurons. In the brain many parallel dynamics take place at any given time. These dynamic patterns are patterns of neuronal activity of connected ensembles of neurons (Spivey, 2007). Mind is a system that acts in the way just described.


Scientific papers and books

Bassett, D. S., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (2011). Understanding complexity in the human brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(5), 200–209. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2011.03.006.

Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 22(4).

Barsalou, L., Santos, A., Simmons, W., and Wilson, C. (2008). Language and simulation in conceptual processing. In De Vega, M., Glenberg, A. M., and Graesser, A. C., editors, Symbols, embodiment, and meaning, pages 245–283. Oxford University Press.

Hotton, S. and Yoshimi, J. (2011), Extending Dynamical Systems Theory to Model Embodied Cognition. Cognitive Science, 35: 444–479. doi: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01151.x

Mcdonough, Ian M and Nashiro, Kaoru. (2014), Network complexity as a measure of information processing across resting-state networks: Evidence from the Human Connectome Project. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8:409. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00409.

Papo, D., Buldú, J. M., Boccaletti, S., & Bullmore, E. T. (2014). Complex network theory and the brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1653), 20130520. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0520.

Sporns, O. (2010). Networks of the Brain. MIT Press.

Spivey, M. (2007). The continuity of mind. Oxford University Press, USA.

Tognoli, E., & Kelso J. A. (2014). Enlarging the scope: grasping brain complexity. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 8:122. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00122.

Tognoli, E., & Kelso, J. A. (2014). The metastable brain. Neuron, 81(1), 35-48.

Encyclopedia articles

Complex systems. (2014, September 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:15, September 8, 2014, from

Dynamical systems theory. (2014, July 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:15, September 8, 2014, from

Mind. (2014, September 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:18, September 8, 2014, from

Systems neuroscience. (2013, February 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:30, September 8, 2014, from

Videos of talks

Ellis, George F.R. (2012). On the Nature of Causality in Complex Systems.

Popular articles

Clancy, K. (2014). Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos. Nautilus.

Ouellette, J. (2014). A Fundamental Theory to Model the Mind. Quanta Magazine.


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