The Theory of the Organism-Environment System

October 1998

In any functional sense, organism and environment are inseparable and form only one unitary system. The organism cannot exist without the environment, and the environment has descriptive properties only if it is connected to the organism. Separation of organism and environment cannot be the basis of any scientific explanation of human behavior. The theory leads to a reinterpretation of basic problems in many fields of inquiry and makes possible the definition of mental phenomena without their reduction either to neural or biological activity or to separate mental functions. According to the theory, mental activity is activity of the whole organism-environment system, and the traditional psychological concepts describe only different aspects of organization of this system.



Description of the Theory


The theory of the organism-environment system starts with the proposition that, in any functional sense, organism and environment are inseparable and form only one unitary system. The organism cannot exist without the environment, and the environment has descriptive properties only if it is connected to the organism. Although for practical purposes we do separate organism and environment, this common-sense starting point leads in psychological theory to problems which cannot be solved. Therefore, separation of organism and environment cannot be the basis of any scientific explanation of human behavior. The theory leads to a reinterpretation of basic problems in many fields of inquiry and makes possible the definition of mental phenomena without their reduction either to neural or biological activity or to separate mental functions. According to the theory, mental activity is activity of the whole organism-environment system, and the traditional psychological concepts describe only different aspects of organization of this system. Therefore, mental activity cannot be separated from the nervous system, but the nervous system is only one part of the organism-environment system. This problem will be dealt with in detail in the second part of the article.

Man and Environment: Two Systems or One?

The conception of humanity in relationship to the environment has probably always been problematic and controversial. In spite of the fact that people essentially change their environment with their activities, the basic characteristic of human beings has usually been considered to be their inner life, their mental activity and consciousness. This is connected with the idea that man and nature stand against each other: man as a thinking subject, inhabitant of culture and user of knowledge, and nature as something rudimentary and vulgar—if some beautifully colored sunsets or quietly whispering mountain streams are not taken into account.

Moreover, the development of psychological theories has, from ancient times, been based on the idea that humanity and environment form two different and evenly opposed systems. Common-sense psychology—as well as many scientific theories about human behavior—starts from the assumption that the inner world of man, his thoughts, feelings, hopes, and needs, form the basis for his outer behavior which, however, is something trivial and eventually aims back at inner satisfaction, fulfillment of hopes, and feelings of happiness. The achievements of the human spirit may be seen, of course, in outer behavior or changes in the structure of the environment: as palaces, musical notes on paper, or colors on canvas. However, it is thought that what is essential is not behavior or these products as such, but the ability of the human spirit to reproduce and enjoy the ideas of science or the beauty of art in our own inner world. The environment may mediate such possibilities, but it is seen only as a passive set of elements in contrast to the active inner life of man. Such elements may, however, be filtered, processed, and refined by the human spirit. The importance of the environment cannot be neglected, but it forms only some sort of necessary and trivial background for the achievements of the human spirit.

Nowadays it is especially stressed that man should understand himself in order that his future continuity be assured. The President of the United States declared the 1990s to be the decade of the brain, probably in the hope that the answers to the problem of human behavior will be eventually found inside man, in his brain. This decade is almost over and no new answers are in the offing; not even the direction in which brain research may be heading can be detected. This may be due to the fact that when concentrating on himself, man has forgotten the most essential factor in his life—his environment. In studies of human behavior the latter has always been taken as self-evident and unproblematic; the main problems were seen within man himself, in the processing capacity of his brain or in his cognitive abilities. It is, however, not at all easy to say what really is the environment of man, what it consists of, what its relation to the past and future is, how it should be described, and how useful it is to abstract man from his environment in any study of human behavior.

Mental Activity and the Linear Processing of Environmental Stimuli

The separation of man and environment can be seen in modem psychological theories as the notion according to which mental activity is based on linear processing of information from the environment. In cognitive psychology—the mainstream of psychology during recent decades—sensations, perceptions, and mental activity in general, are regarded as “something” related to the inner processing of environmental information by the senses and by the brain. The senses receive the stimuli which then run along the nerve paths to the centers, analyzing the incoming information and creating interpretations of the events occurring outside the brain and body.

Originally, at the end of the nineteenth century, such processing was described as a reflex or stimulus-response connection, through which responses automatically ensue from the stimuli. During the last decades this connection has been conceived in so-called constructivism (see, e.g., Steffe and Gale, 1995) as an active event, the responses and mental activity being mediated by active interpretative processes in the organism. Knowledge, for example, is not now thought to be a direct copy of the environmental order, but is conceived of as a result of active construction processes. Although currently being presented as new, such ideas have existed in Western philosophy for centuries.

According to the constructivists, the information processed in the organism is based on stimuli located outside the borders of the organism. When dealing with the reading process, for example, the stimuli may be anything from geometric points, lines, or edges to letters, from sentences to pages or pictures or even to another human being reading a book. The processing may be described by models which are often quite complicated, involving some sort of feature detection system, semantic analyzers, stored lexical units, memory stores, and so on. The ontological status of such components is usually not specified, although it is implicitly assumed that eventually these components are realized by some parts of the brain and may be “objectively” studied at the neuronal level. In any case, along this line of thought, man is no longer seen as a passively responding being, but instead as actively processing the input, choosing carefully in each contact with the outer world the necessary behaviors on the basis of his sensations, perceptions, and thoughts. Man is not conceived of as a mechanical transducer of environmental stimuli or a computer, although much of human activity may be described by cybernetic concepts in terms of information processing or by computer modeling.

As an example we may look at how such a seemingly simple act as pressing a button in a reaction time experiment is described using modem psychological concepts. A short tone is presented, and the subject quickly presses the response button. What is actually happening in this situation?

According to present and widely accepted theory, the situation may be described as a linear sequence of events starting with the tone (see, e.g., Naatanen, 1990). The tone is located in the outer world and may be exactly defined by such physical terms as sound pressure level and frequency, for example. The modulation in the sound pressure is produced, for example, by the vibrating membrane of the loudspeaker, transmitted through the air to the tympanic membrane of the ear of the subject, mediated as mechanical changes in the ear by the basilar membrane in the cochlea, where hair cells transform the signal into electrochemical changes manifested in trains of impulses ascending towards the critical place, the temporal cortex of the subject. Here the nerve impulses are analyzed, relevant information is sorted out and compared with models or representations stored earlier, and the connections to the motor side are established. Finally, this leads to neural activations in the motor cortex and motoneurons innervating the muscles needed in the button press. The muscles contract, the finger moves, and the experimenter is satisfied.

Thus, the whole sequence of events may be described as successive sets of activity started by the stimulus, being as such a passive part of the environment, and ending with the reaction (being the active influence on the environment). Somewhere between these two events the transformation should then change passive to active or physical features of the environment into active perceptions of these features. Mental activity is constructed somewhere between the stimulus and the reaction, but where?

As a matter of fact, as mentioned above, this way of thinking is not at all new, but such reaction time experiments dominated the beginnings of scientific psychology in the last century when psychology started to separate from philosophy to become an independent experimental branch of science. It is understandable that concrete research started from the easiest area, from the study of the reaction and from the events immediately preceding the reaction. Thus, already from the common sense point of view, we may realize that when a man or an animal is acting, the activity is usually preceded by changes in the environment which seem to have a causal relation to the studied activity. When the subject presses a button in the reaction time experiment, the activity is preceded by an event in the environment, defined earlier by the experimenter as an auditory stimulus—the tone. If the tone is made quieter the reaction time gets longer, and if the sound is weak enough no reaction is obtained. It seems thus self-evident that the stimulus is the real cause of the reaction, the behavioral act of the experimental subject.

However, in the research into the behavior of man and other animals in the last century, establishment of stimulus-response relationships was not the real aim of the study. The basic problems were rather related to the understanding of the adaptivity and flexibility of human and animal behavior (see, e.g., Jennings, 1906). How is it possible that different living beings are so adaptive and purposeful in their actions, how do they direct their activity in the search for food, and how do they avoid negative effects? How is their behavior modified so flexibly under varying circumstances? Biological research opened up surprising views about the development of animals and forms of adaptation and the goal-directness of their behavior in different environments.

The research was, however, complicated by the fact that it was difficult to observe more complicated forms of animal behavior, especially that of human beings. In the case of simpler animals it seemed to be relatively easy to follow the formation of behavior from certain environmental stimuli to their reactions. If, for example, the animal was presented with a threatening stimulus it simply tried to avoid this. However, even here there were some problems: if a frog was presented with a sudden tone it jumped away, but if it was swimming the response was to dive. The study of human behavior was particularly connected with special problems. Human behavior seemed not to follow so unequivocally from certain stimuli as that of other animals, but instead always included a large number of alternatives. The behavior of a hungry human subject was not as predictable as that of a hungry dog; the ways of human behavior seemed to be essentially more complicated than those of other animals. In addition, humans had consciousness: they could experience and report their thoughts and feelings—facts which seemed to escape all objective or scientific analysis.

Under these circumstances it was understandable that the research situation was so simplified that at least some changes in the environment and characteristics of human behavior could be measured and controlled. The accessible environment was limited to an exactly defined stimulus, and the behavior of the subject was predetermined; only a simple movement, a pressure of the reaction button, was allowed. In this way the experimental stimulus was created: an environmental change under the exact control of the experimenter which stimulated a certain sense organ and to which the subject had to react in a predetermined way. Sometimes also reports of subjective feelings were allowed; in fact, introspection was originally one of the basic methods of experimental psychology. It was, however, not at all easy to relate such subjective data to the observed reactions and, therefore, such recordings slowly disappeared from the repertoire of experimental methods. This kind of approach was strengthened as it produced results: reproducible regularities between the stimulus and the action of the experimental subject could be found. When the stimulus intensity was increased the reaction time got shorter, and if the stimulus was decreased to the perceptual threshold there was no reaction. Thus, the first steps in the scientific explanation of human behavior and its prediction had been taken.

In fact, the dependence of the reaction time on the intensity of the stimulus was in the last century one of the first findings of the laws of human behavior. The correlation between the changes of the behavior of the subject and the changes of the stimulus characteristics supported the conception that the stimulus was the immediate cause of the reaction. It was then only natural to start to search for intervening mechanisms leading from the stimulus to the response. This became the task of the newly developing neurophysiological research.

On this historical basis it is understandable that stimulus and reaction have had—and continue to have—a central role in the experimental study of human behavior. Underlying this way of thinking is the idea that the organism is a mechanism which is separated from the environment and the study of which is, in principle, possible in the same way as that as of any other device, say of a car or a thermostat. Such a device may be examined by separating the parts and looking at their functioning and at their dependence on discrete features of the environment without taking into account the machine and its environment as a whole. The basis for this kind of scientific analysis was laid several centuries ago by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, who conceived living beings as no more than complicated machines. It was Descartes who pointed out that the study of living beings is possible by using as a unit of analysis a linear connection between the stimulus and reaction, the reflex.

Nowadays many kinds of events between the stimulus and response, or input and output, may be proposed, such as analysis of the stimulus features in the neural networks, integration of incoming signals with stored models, or the choosing of motor programs, but the type of the analysis is always sequential and linear: the events proceed from the stimulus to the reaction, and the reaction is explained on the basis of the stimulus plus inner operations upon this preceding event. In addition, the stimulus produces mental activity like perception, but in fact this activity has no functional role in the analysis, or at least its ontological position is unclear. It may be identified with circumscribed neural activity or it can be thought of as some sort of epiphenomenon following from the neural activity. However, in neither case has it any significance for the behavior of the organism. Consciousness or personal experience may be excluded from such an analysis.

During the present century new methods of research for the activity of the nervous system (recording of the activity of single neurons and the activity of the brain) have to a large extent increased our knowledge about the possible mechanisms—physical, neural, chemical, and even genetic—between the stimulus and the reaction. Thus we have a better understanding of the propagation of the different forms of energy, mechanical and neural changes in the receptors, generation of nerve impulses, interaction between the neurons, selection of stimuli, influences on the activity of sense organs, processing in the central nervous system of neural models of stimuli, and so on. Psychological theoretizing has supported this development by describing mental activity as information processing, as the construction of inner models, or as the formation of cognitive maps and schemata of the environment.

However, this huge amount of research and vast number of results reported in the contemporary journals has not much helped us to understand the regulation of human behavior, its purposefulness, adaptivity, or even the generation of the most simple perception. As a matter of fact, this type of scientific study of human behavior seems effectively to destroy all the coloring, features, and nuances essential for human behavior, which we experience all the time in the everyday world and of which we may learn more through reading good novels and poetry than textbooks on psychology. Psychological or neurophysiological research has, in fact, produced no well-grounded theory about the connection between the stimuli and responses and associated subjective experiences, to say nothing about the possibility of understanding on this basis more complicated human activities, like the role of emotions in behavior or the development of culture. Why do we have such an awkward situation despite vast investments in research? Why is the understanding of human behavior so difficult?

This situation is certainly not due to the low quality of the research carried out by experimental psychologists or neurophysiologists. On the contrary, methods have been developed and experiments planned to analyze very carefully all possible events in the organism associated with the presentation of the stimuli or selection of the reactions. In addition, tremendous efforts and huge sums of money have been invested in the development of methods for the exact physical measurement of all possible characteristics of the stimuli and the recording of all possible changes in the experimental subject.

No, the problem is certainly not here. It may be that there is a much more profound problem. Experimental work and theoretical development have consistently been based on the idea that organism and environment form two separate systems and that mental activity is located in the organism, that it is an inner and private activity of the organism. It is this basic starting point which seems to lead up a blind alley. Could it be that this basic assumption is simply not correct?

How far is the explanation of behavior possible with the two-system assumption? Most of the dramatic changes in the history of science have appeared with changes in the basic assumptions of people about the characteristics of the world. The assumption that the Earth is the center of the universe was based on common-sense experience. From this assumption it follows that the planets must circulate around the Earth. Their orbits, however, look somewhat strange with the Earth-centered assumption, because the planets seem to move backwards every now and then (epicycles). Thus it was necessary for the Greek astronomers to assume two kinds of physics: mechanics on the Earth and mechanics in the heavens. This complicated physics was simplified when it was realized that the basic assumption had only a limited use and was based on our earthly point of view. It was shown by men like Copernicus and Kepler that no separate heavenly physics is needed if we assume that the Earth is moving with the planets and the sun is fixed. When we start with this assumption we may coherently explain many more experiential facts than when using the earlier assumption. This, however, does not change our experience of sunrises and sunsets.

Just as with the earlier astronomical models, the starting point of most explanations for human behavior is based on our everyday experience. This may be summarized as follows: there is a human being which we may see and an environment in which this being is acting. Thus we have basically two different and separate objects: man and environment. This separation seems to be so self-evident that we usually do not see any reasons to doubt it; actually it would be strange to maintain anything else. There is the physical environment, the world surrounding any organism, and there is the organism with its private inner world (which we may of course doubt in the case of animals, sometimes even of other human beings). The border between the two worlds or systems seems to be clear; it may be located somewhere close to the skin. The two systems are, of course, not separate in the sense that they are in continuous interaction. The organism acts on the outside objects, and these objects exert influences on the organism which reacts through its inner processes.

All this seems to be simple, and it is not surprising, therefore, that not only cognitive psychology, but most of modem psychology, and especially neurophysiology, is based on this general scheme. In this model, however, there are some fundamental difficulties which are related to the problem of definition of the border between the organism and the environment and to the scope of application of psychological concepts. These difficulties are probably also the basis of the situation that psychology finds itself in in that even nowadays it is thought to be methodologically problematic and in general a disorganized science.

Why should it be so important to be able to define the border between the organism and the environment? Maybe this was not so important during the time when psychology and neuroscience were living relatively far from each other, when the recording methods of brain activity were crude and the neural basis of mental processes could only be hypothesized. Nowadays we are, however, in a new situation, because the new recording methods may give us a relatively good picture of the processes going on in the brain during behavior. The crucial problem in the future will then be: are the mental processes to be found in the brain or not? Thus, the problem of localization of mental activity has become an important question for neuroscience because the answer to this question will direct the search for the neural basis of mental activity, and especially of human consciousness, which has recently aroused much interest in neuroscience (see, e.g., Churchland, 1986; Dennett, 1991; , 1992).

Furthermore, in all psychological and neurophysiological research it is essential to understand the kinds of systems with which we are dealing when we try to explain human behavior. If we start with the notion that the organism and the environment are two separate systems, it is quite reasonable to suppose that mental activity is the characteristic of the organism system, and the formation of knowledge, for example, is based on transmission of information or knowledge from the environment to the organism, and on the construction of models of the environment in the organism. In order to be able to move and control its activity in appropriate ways, the organism must know parts of its environment. Such knowledge may be formed through some kinds of mental pictures or representations of the environment within the organism system.

What are, however, these inner pictures or representations, and where are they located in the organism? Are they, in fact, identical to neural activity, or are they somehow separate from this, belonging to some other reality like a mental or social world? If they are located in the brain, are they in the neurons or in systems of neurons or in some interneuronal spaces? Do they actually exist at all; are they only some sort of metaphor or epiphenomenon? Such questions have been asked for centuries, and the answers have varied depending on the basic philosophical attitude of the researchers. These questions logically follow from the separation of man and environment. This, however, presupposes that we may unequivocally determine where the border between the organism and environment is located. Otherwise we could not say what is inside and what outside the organism.

Thus, if we want to study the supposed two systems, man and environment, we should be able to define unequivocally those elements of which the systems consist. It is important to know with which system we are dealing when we study any element and its significance in the explanation of human action. This is essential when we try to define even such basic concepts as the behavior of the organism.

For illustrative purposes we define man—or any other multicellular animal—as an organized and integrated living system consisting of cells and tissues. The environment we may define as another system located outside the former system. The environment may consist of living and inanimate parts. Thus, we may speak of social parts (other humans), of biological parts (other living systems), or of physical parts of the environment (inanimate parts).

How do we define behavior in the two-systems theory? All behavior of the organism presupposes some kind of movement; thus, behavior could be simply defined as a change of the relation between the two systems. What does this mean? Apparently it is not necessary to have both systems in complete motion in relation to each other as behavior could be realized also as a movement between a few elements of the systems, e.g., when I move my hand towards a pencil to grasp it. However, this clearly presupposes that we are able to define unequivocally the elements of the two systems. Otherwise we would not know whether we are dealing only with intrasystemic changes when some movements occur. Upon this depends whether we can define what we mean by behavior and from this, furthermore, whether we at all know what we are trying to explain when we are explaining behavior. Thus, an unequivocal definition of behavior presupposes the possibility of exact determination of the elements of the organism and environment systems, and this is possible only if we know where the border between the two systems is located.

Is it possible to establish the border between the systems? Is it possible, however, to define separately the elements of the organism and environment systems and the border between the two systems? Let us try to define the border between the two systems when looking at such behavior as drinking coffee from a cup, for example. This is certainly behavior which has physical, physiological, and mental aspects. Is it possible to separate these aspects in the description of the behavior and to determine to which system each of them belongs?

The events in this piece of behavior may be described according to the modem psychological conception. Let us start with the cup on the table. The cup of coffee is a physical part of the environment and clearly outside the organism system. It may be thus defined as an element of the environment or as a stimulus. The human being is sitting at the table and has the need to drink coffee. This could be described as a physiological process within the organism, but there is also its mental aspect, which could correspond to some state of the brain, for example. The environmental stimulus (reflection of light from the cup) sets off a process in the organism eventually leading to the movement of the hand, one element of the organism, towards the cup. This is clearly overt behavior because there is a change in the relation of the two elements, one belonging to the environment and the other to the organism. So far, so good.

Now our subject grasps the cup; the hand holds it. Thus the hand is immobile in relation to the cup, but both the hand and cup (which contains coffee) move in relation to the environment (and mouth). Is the cup now part of the organism system or environment? Probably we should include it in the organism system because the critical functional relation exists between the cup and coffee; it is just the environmental coffee that the subject is bringing to the mouth when “drinking coffee.”

However, the cup was earlier on the table and it was then clearly part of the environment. Now it has changed into a part of the organism. This would mean that elements of the environment could change to become elements of the organism system and vice versa. Thus, we could not unequivocally decide whether an element belongs to one of these systems simply by looking at the properties of these elements.

But can we somehow define at any instant a clear border between the two systems? The coffee in the cup is clearly part of the environment, and when the subject is drinking it it becomes a part of the organism system—or does it? Is it possible to say when the coffee is in the organism? When it is in the mouth? Or in the intestines? Or when the chemical parts of the coffee are in the blood? In fact, it is impossible to define any exact border which should be exceeded so that we could on this basis unequivocally determine whether the coffee has moved from the environment into the organism. The same is true in general of metabolism and, especially, of breathing. When is the breathed air outside and when inside? Or what about spectacles? On the table they are certainly part of the environment; on my nose they are part of the organism just in the same sense as is the lens of the eye. At what point in the air is the "border" between the two systems exceeded when I move them from the table to my nose?

It is just as difficult to define the movement of one part of the environment to a part of the organism as it is to carry out the task in the reverse direction. For example, from the point of view of the visual system, certain parts of the body are “outside” just in the same sense as the coffee cup on the table. My hand is, of course, part of me, but it is not within me or inside me; from the point of view of the eye it is certainly outside. If from the point of view of perceptual activity it is outside, where is the border between the inside and the outside?

But even if we cannot define any exact border between the organism and the environment, we should be able to define unequivocally the organism itself, shouldn’t we? The body consists of cells and tissues; aren’t these clearly separable from the environment?

Unfortunately not. Take, for example, tissue. It is a structure consisting of cells and interstitial spaces, the environment of the cells. But where is the end of this inner environment, and where does the outer environment start? Does sweating, for example, occur inside or outside? If we consider it to be outside, then we simultaneously extend the inner environment to outside the body. In this connection we may also ask what it actually means to have an “inner” environment. Whom or what is this environment environing? Or what about the sense organs? Are the receptors inside or outside? For a visual receptor, for example, part of its environment consists of electromagnetic radiation from outside and part of the connective tissues and fluids of the body. Is there any possibility of defining the border between these two?

In conclusion, these considerations show that any attempt to develop an explanation of human behavior on the basis of an assumption of two systems meets considerable difficulties right at the beginning. In contrast to our common-sense impression, critical scrutiny shows that we cannot define unequivocally any of our basic concepts on this basis. We cannot simply define whether any object which we study is part of the organism or part of the environment. This follows from the fact that we are not able to show any absolute border between the organism and the environment. Consequently, we cannot define behavior as a change of the relation between the organism and environment systems and, therefore, we do not know what we are looking at when we want to explain behavior.

How can we then maintain that, for example, information is moving from one system to the other or that it is processed within the organism? Or, how can we say that some of the events which we have described before, like mental activity, representations, maps, or models are in the organism and not in the environment? Or maybe somewhere between these two?

The Assumption of Only One System:
The Theory of the Organism-Environment System

If the definition of a separate organism system and an environment system is so difficult, if not impossible, why do we insist on the idea that there are two systems instead of only one? Is the basis for our conception of the organism and the environment as separate systems only and exclusively in our everyday experience and our common-sense thinking, exactly in the same way as it seems correct to think that the sun is revolving around the Earth?

What would happen to the conceptual difficulties described above if we decided to reject the idea of the two systems and, against our common-sense thinking, assume that the organism and environment form from the beginning only one system, an organism-environment system? This idea in itself is not a new one. In fact, several lines of thinking in philosophy, psychology, biology, and even physiology have started with the idea of unity of the organism and environment.

The General Outline of the Theory

The theory of the organism-environment system (Järvilehto, 1994, 1995) starts with the proposition that in any functional sense organism and environment are inseparable and form only one unitary system. The organism cannot exist without the environment and the environment has descriptive properties only if it is connected to the organism. Although for practical purposes we may separate organism and environment, this common-sense idea leads to problems which cannot be solved and therefore cannot be the basis of any scientific explanation of human behavior. Therefore, in the theory of the organism-environment system we define living organisms as systems consisting of integrated cells and tissues and of specified parts of the environment, with which they form a system.

Thus, behavior is realized in the organism-environment system. Behavior does not mean movement or interaction of two systems, but action of only one system, reorganization of this system, or change of the relations between its elements. All organismic processes include processes both inside and outside the body, in the nervous system and in other necessary parts and in the environment. An organism exists as an organism only together with its environment, and both are bound together in behavior.

The key concept in the analysis of the organism-environment system is the result of behavior. To continue its life process every organism must achieve positive results. Thus, the general architecture of any organism-environment system corresponds to the result, and its systems dynamics may be understood only by taking a historical perspective and looking at the development of the necessary conditions for the achievement of the certain result. The structure of the organism-environment system can only be understood in terms of the result of behavior. The result is therefore the factor to which all the organization of the system is related. The result may be defined as such a reorganization of the system that makes a new act and development of the system possible. The result is reflected in concrete products like paintings or books, but the result as such means only transition from one act to another, and these concrete products are only indicators of the result. In the result, in this transition from one act to another, culminates the preceding organization of the system and it also contains the elements for future behavior and future results.

From the one-system point of view there is no asymmetry between the organism and environment. In relation to the achievement of the result all parts of the system are active. Therefore, environment is not something passively surrounding the organism, but an active part of the system leading to the results of behavior. Subject and object are also inseparable and represent only points of view into the organization of the organism-environment system.

From this follows a radical new conception of mental activity: as all parts of the system are active in relation to the result, mental activity is not something located in the organism but extends into the environment. All concepts referring to mental activity—like perception, emotion, memory, et cetera—describe only different aspects of the organization and dynamics of the whole organism-environment system. Therefore, mental activity cannot be localized in any part of the organism; it is not an activity of the brain, for example, although it may not exist without the brain. Neither is it possible to divide mental activity into separate mental functions because all such “functions” are only aspects of the same process of organization and reorganization of the organism-environment system.

Re-interpretation of the Reaction Time Experiment

Now we may return to the explanation of our earlier example, the reaction time experiment. How would the description of events look if we examined the situation in terms of the theory of the organism-environment system? It is important to note that we should be able to explain all earlier findings based on two-system abstraction, to show that the conception of the unity of the organism and the environment is a genuinely new and broader concept than the traditional one. This means that we should be able to reinterpret the ordinary stimulus-response situation as well as explain why the concept of the separation of organism and environment is so self-evident and strong from the common-sense point of view.

From the present point of view the whole way of explaining events in the stimulus-response paradigm is awkward. When we are interested in understanding the behavior of the organism we should start with those events that are most important for them. The essential question for any organism in its life process is not whether stimuli or responses exist, but whether its responses lead to such results as make its survival possible. From the point of view of the organism the different forms of behavior have meaning only in relation to the obtained results; for the experimenter any aspect of the behavior may be significant as an object of study (therefore s/he separates stimulus and response, for example). The stimulus is a separate part of the situation only for the experimenter, because s/he has created it and s/he is studying events in the experiment in relation to only this factor. From the point of view of the subject the disturbance in the environment (“stimulus”) allowing the response is an integral part of the behavior leading to the result.

What then is the real significance of the stimulus in explaining the behavior of the subject in the reaction time experiment? When the subject presses the button in a reaction time experiment, the button press is a result of behavior organized already long before the appearance of the stimulus. The subject must have undergone a certain phylo- and ontogenetic development. S/he must have acquired ears, fingers, and finger muscles. S/he must have come to the experiment. S/he must sit during the experiment in a certain way, listen and remember the instructions of the experimenter, and so on. In other words, even before the appearance of the stimulus there are a tremendous number of elements which must be organized such that the result, the pressure of the button, is realized. Only the coordinated and integrated organization of all these elements makes the required result possible. Thus, when the stimulus finally appears it is only one and perhaps a quite trivial factor in this complex process of organization of the organism-environment system. The stimulus is not causally related to the button press, but is only one of the elements necessary in the achievement of the result.

What, therefore, is the explanatory role of the “stimulus” in the reaction time situation? As a matter of fact, the situation is quite the opposite of what it is thought to be in a superficial stimulus-response way of thinking. The reaction of the subject does not appear because a stimulus is presented, but the stimulus itself is a result of the action of the subject, and it is possible only therefore that the subject is organized to act in a certain way. The stimulus exists as a stimulus because a pre-organized system defining some environmental change as a stimulus is present before this change appears. When the stimulus is finally presented it does not cause any “processing” because this “processing” has been carried out before its appearance, in the sense that the organism must have a system into which this environmental change defined by the experimenter fits. The subject is not “reacting” to the stimulus, but the behavior of the subject defines the changes in the environment which may act as “stimuli” and are needed as a part of the organization necessary for the achievement of the desired results.

From these considerations follows a principle which is of utmost importance for all psychophysiological and neurophysiological research. The events appearing after the stimulus in the brain (or in behavior) are the result of organization preceding the behavior; they do not reflect any processing of the stimulus, nor do they indicate any processes started by the stimulus per se. Every stimulus in a way closes a system, the whole activity of which leads to the result of behavior. In addition, the perception of the stimulus is a result of the preceding organization. Thus, the perceptual process is not produced by the stimulus, but is going on before its presentation. A stimulus means the possibility of acting; there is no causal relationship between the stimulus and perception because the stimulus is only one element in the system realizing perceptual results. Every perceived change in the environment means a change of behavior, and new possibilities of realizing the results of behavior.

The formation of the result of behavior and the role of the “stimulus” in this process could be exemplified by the process of constructing the picture in a jigsaw puzzle. One must search for the pieces of the picture and put them together in a specific order to construct the picture. When only one piece is left we have in the picture a hole into which only this last piece may be fitted. After placing this last piece we have our picture. Can we now say that our picture is in a causal relationship to the last piece of the puzzle, and that it was just the last piece which produced the picture? In the stimulus-response approach this is exactly what is maintained. Moreover, the approach implies that we may find out precisely why and how this picture was generated by studying the relationship between the last piece and the produced picture.

It should be now clear that the last piece of the puzzle fits in its place only because all other pieces of the puzzle have been placed in a particular way. It is just this joining of the other pieces, their coordinated organization, which leaves a certain kind of hole into which this last piece can be fitted. Thus it is just this organization of the other pieces which defines a possible last piece with which we may finish the puzzle. In exactly the same way a stimulus is present only if there is an organization into which this stimulus may be fitted.

In conclusion, in the reaction time experiment the subject is in fact not “reacting” at all, and traditional psychological and neurophysiological research based on the two-system theory is in fact studying only trivial aspects of this situation. If there is no direct causal relationship between the stimulus, the neural processes occurring during the “reaction time,” and the button press, then all research attempting to show the mechanism leading from the stimulus to the reaction has simply an impossible task. Instead of concentrating on the assumed linear sequence of events the research should be directed towards the conditions necessary for producing the result. Furthermore, if the mental activity is not just an epiphenomenon correlating with a sequence of neural processes or identical with them, but refers instead to some aspects of the organization of the whole organism-environment system, then psychological research should be directed toward the study of whole organisms in their behavior instead of the examination of some mystical inner processes occurring in the experimental situation with the manipulations of the experimenter. Although the change from the two-systems view to the one-system theory may in the beginning seem to be only a matter of taste, it has far-reaching consequences for both the interpretation of the tasks of experimental work and the practical understanding of human and animal mental processes.


Many textbooks on psychology start with the statement that man is a psychophysical whole whose behavior is essentially socially determined. Thereafter this whole is usually divided in different chapters of the book into the nervous system, perception, memory, consciousness, emotions, and social behavior, all of which are such aspects or “functions” of the human being which seem to operate as separate entities. The reader may go through the book with the hope that at the end it is shown how all these separate parts make up the promised whole, but usually the book ends before the promise is fulfilled. The considerations above indicate that the difficulty of describing man as an integrative whole in traditional psychology is due to the fact that, right at the beginning, man is separated from the environment and from the results of his behavior.

The theory of the organism-environment system opens up quite new views in several fields of study. It has far-reaching consequences in all fields dealing with human behavior. In philosophy the theory indicates new solutions for many basic philosophical problems. Here we may only mention the ancient contradiction between materialism and idealism. Materialism is based on the stressing of the environment, and idealism the organism. From the point of view of the organism-environment system theory this kind of contradiction is dissolved. If we want, we can say that both ways of thinking are in their own way correct. In addition, the ancient dispute between rationalism and empiricism can, on the basis of the theory, be put in a new light, because all epistemological philosophical problems become changed in character if there is no transmission of knowledge from the environment to the organism, but knowledge is instead formed in the organization of the organism-environment system. Related ideas in this field have earlier been presented, for example, by Dewey (1922) and Whitehead (1925).

In biological studies the theory makes it explicit why no organism can be thought of without an environment. The organism as a skin bag is no system at all; it may be a system only together with the environment. We cannot define even a single cell as a system when separated from the environment, because the basic character of the cell is metabolism, and the elements of metabolism necessarily include metabolites both in the cell and in its environment. Metabolism is a continuous cycle which may not be limited only to inside the organism. Furthermore, in biology such ideas are not new and were represented much earlier by Haldane (1917) and v. Uexküll (1932), for example, and nowadays by Maturana and Varela (1992).

For neurophysiology the above considerations mean that the nervous system as such is not a “system,” but it exists as such only when bound up with the environment. Neurons do not react to environmental stimuli, neither do they process any stimulus information, but they are organized so that the activity of the organism may produce useful results. Mental activity is not located in the nervous system; what is located there are the neurons which must take care of their metabolism. Such ideas were developed during this century by Bethe (1931) and Anokhin (1978), for example, and nowadays by Edelman (1987) and Freeman (1995).

In psychology the theory of the organism-environment system makes possible the definition of mental phenomena without their reduction either to neural or biological activity or to separate mental functions. Mental activity cannot be separated from the nervous system, but the nervous system is only one part of the organism-environment system. Mental activity extends to the environment and its different forms refer to different aspects of the organization of the organism-environment system. Here we may also avoid all kinds of soul or homunculus assumptions which necessarily follow different kinds of representation, picture, or map models of mental activity. In psychology such ideas are still in the minority, although they have been developed during the last century by many researchers (e.g., Brentano, 1874; Dewey, 1896; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Gibson, 1979; Michaels and Carello, 1981; Reed, 1982; Still and Costall, 1991).


Significance of Nervous Activity in the Organism-Environment System


The relation between mental processes and brain activity is studied from the point of view of the theory of the organism-environment system. It is argued that the systemic point of view leads to a new kind of definition of the primary tasks of neurophysiology and to a new understanding of the traditional neurophysiological concepts. Neurophysiology is restored to its place as a part of biology: its task is the study of neurons as living units, not as computer chips. Neurons are living units which are organized as metabolic systems in connection with other neurons; they are not units which would carry out some psychological functions or maintain states which are typical only of the whole organism-environment system. Psychological processes, on the other hand, are processes always comprising the whole organism-environment system.


In contrast to many present psychophysiologists and brain researchers, the first person to present a comprehensive theory about the mind and brain, the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, did not think that mind is located in the brain. According to Descartes, mind consisted of another substance than brain, a substance which was immaterial and nonextensive and was especially characterized by thinking and consciousness. However, there was a connection between the mind and brain through the pineal gland, the vibrations of which transmitted information from the outside world with the help of the nerve tubes and brain cavities. The mind could also cause movements of the body by vibrating the pineal gland and thus causing the pumping of vital spirits into the muscles (Descartes, 1637).

Although Descartes would never have agreed with the idea that mental functions are located in different parts of the brain, his dualistic thinking laid the basis for the idea of localization of mental functions in the brain. When the mysterious substance of the mind was abolished from the growing discipline of neuroscience in the last century, it was only consequent to assume that mind is actually distributed in the brain in such a way that its different functions have different sites in the brain matter. Many neuroscientists of the present still adhere to this way of thinking. It is thought that the brain consists of centers or modules of mental functions: memory has its place in the hippocampus, emotions are buried in the limbic system, the visual cortex draws pictures of the outside world, et cetera (see e.g., Näätänen, 1990). From the point of view of mental activity the brain is considered to be the most important part of the human body.

The Problem of Localization of the Function

But is mental activity not located in the brain? Isn’t the brain precisely that organ which carries out all those functions which make it possible for man to perceive his environment and to be conscious of himself and of other fellow humans? If we destroy a certain part of the brain and get distortions of thinking, personality, or learned actions, does this not show that these functions were really located in the distorted places?

However, what do we mean exactly when we say that a certain function has a location in space?

Let’s look at the action of an artist when he is preparing a piece of art. Where is “painting” located when the fine movements of the hand and fingers create a picture on the canvas—in the brain, in the hands, in the paintbrush, or on the canvas? If we destroy some of these elements it becomes more difficult to create this piece of art. Some of these elements may be more easily substituted than some other, but in the act of painting they all are necessary. Can we say that the process of painting is located in the part which seems to be most active or important?

No, of course not, because painting is a process which is realized as a whole organization of elements which are located in different parts of the world. This organization is realized as a totality in the painting. If some element, even a very tiny one, was missing the painting would not be the same or it would not be ready at all. Therefore, all elements are active in relation to the result of action; none of them is passively participating in the result.

If we kick a ball only one leg seems to be active, because we see its movement. However, the other one, the supportive leg, is also an active part in relation to the result of action, which we will see at once if we remove this leg. Similarly, it is one of the most common mistakes to regard as active in the study of the brain only those parts in which we may find responses or other kinds of changes with our recording methods. From the point of view of the result of action all other parts (in which seemingly nothing happens) are also active if they are prerequisites for the behavioral result. From the point of view of the whole system this is also true of all environmental parts joining in the result. Thus, if all elements together form the result, how could we say that the result is located in only one element of the system?

From this it does not follow that mental activity does not exist at all in reality. This would be similar to maintaining that the “steering” of the car does not really exist, because we cannot locate this action in any single part of the car (or road). Although we cannot locate “painting” in any part of the painting process and cannot determine it in any other way than through an inspection of elements participating in the organization of the action, the concrete result of this process may be seen in the ready-made painting on the canvas. “Painting” is not something “fictional” or an epiphenomenon, but real behavior which is realized in the cooperation of many concrete elements. Therefore, painting cannot be something related only to the brain or body, because all behavior is a process in which parts of the body and environment intertwine. The basic mistake in any locating of mental functions to the parts of the brain is very simple: some part of the complicated system is equated with the whole result of the system.

If it is thought that mental functions are located in parts of the brain, this does not make brain research easier, but more difficult, because such a theory, in fact, mystifies both neural and mental activity. If a thought or consciousness is located in the brain, what does it exactly mean? Is it located in the cells or between them? Or is it simply activity of the neurons? Moreover, if it is a property of the activity of neurons, do all neurons have such a property? If not, how then do the neurons which have “conscious” properties differ from other neurons? Do only certain kinds of neurons have mental activity? Such questions are practically impossible to solve with any experimental method.

Mental Activity as Activity of the Organism-Environment System

According to the theory of the organism-environment system (Järvilehto, 1994, 1998), mental activity is a form of action of a living system, developed during evolution. The nervous system has an important role in the appearance of this form of action, but it is only one part of all those structures which make the joining of the organism and environment possible in one unitary system. The role of the nervous system is based on the possibility of the neuron influencing other neurons and parts of the body, especially senses and muscles. The appearance of this highly specialized cell, the neuron, laid the basis for new forms of action and a new kind of dynamic organism-environment system.

From the systemic point of view the neurons or parts of the brain are not specialized in relation to certain mental functions, but in relation to the ways of producing action results. To be able to survive, a living being must develop different forms of behavior and produce different types of results which make its life process possible. The neurons are specialized in producing useful results for the organism when the environment offers the possibility for such an organization. The most important feature of the nervous system (which as such is no system at all) is its ability to organize, together with all other parts of the body and environment, systems producing useful behavioral results.

Therefore, the behavior of man (or other animals) is not based on the selection of separate psychological functions, but on such forms of behavior which make possible the continuation of the cooperation between man and environment. Such forms of behavior are possible through the joining of action of specialized neurons into systems involving parts of the body and the necessary parts of the environment which render useful results of behavior possible. It is just the result of behavior which is important from the point of view of neurons, because this makes the continuation of their metabolic processes possible. The neurons are not “interested” in perceptions, thoughts, or features of the environment, but in their metabolism. If their metabolism does not work properly they are destroyed. This is, in fact, true of a tremendous number of neurons all the time, of neurons which cannot join the appropriate systems to maintain their conditions for survival. The neurons do not analyze features of the environment, carry out mental operations, or build models or representations, but they make possible the dynamic joining of the organism and environment into one system, and through this they also secure their own metabolism. The development of the nervous system is not the development of mental functions, but selection of such systems which are able to produce behavioral results. Edelman (1987) states that evolution is not the selection of organisms, but of forms of behavior. We may express the same in different words by maintaining that, in evolution, organism-environment systems are selected, not any single structures or mental functions.

Common Mistakes in Thinking

When presenting the results of brain research the impression is often given that the discovery of the location of an event would somehow also give an explanation of this event. In fact, the majority of brain research consists in the effort to find out the locations of activity connected with certain kinds of behavior or mental acts. However, if the researcher is able to state that with attention some parts of the temporal cortex are activated, what has actually been explained by this finding? As we already stated, the fact that we find activity somewhere does not render other parts of the brain inactive. Such an explanation would have some significance only if we could show that the mental action studied is located only in this one part of the brain and nowhere else.

Let’s take another look at our example on painting. The typical situation in the localization experiments (with EEG or micro-electrode techniques, for example) is that some electrodes are placed in a certain part of the brain and the subject carries out a specific task. Then, if—for example, after an auditory stimulus which the subject may hear—the cells close to the electrode are activated, it is stated that the site of hearing has been found. This would be the same as to say that the process of painting is located at the tip of the painting brush, because it is just here where we may see the most conspicuous changes during painting. The basic mistake here is that an element (the activity of which we may most clearly observe) is substituted for the whole system producing the result of action.

There also seem to be many simple linguistic mistakes in relation to the considerations of brain and mental activity. “I have a thought in my head” is an expression which is unproblematic in daily use and has the same form as “I have money in my pocket.” However, in the former sentence the expression of place is not similar to that in the latter sentence. When I go into another room, the money is also moving into this room. However, the same is not true of thought. When you tell a dear one in a far-off country that “my thoughts are with you,” you do not mean that the thoughts have traveled a distance to be with your loved one, but that s/he is now the object of your thoughts. We may also turn around the whole spatial relations by saying that, “I am now in my thoughts.” Where are the thoughts then? It seems simply that many brain researchers base their considerations and interpretations of experimental findings on the wrong use of the meanings of the words.

It is, of course, clear that the basic idea behind any localization of mental functions may be traced back to the misunderstood Descartes, and to the idea that there is some sort of homunculus in the brain that observes, thinks, and has mental functions. The same way of thinking may be seen in many common explanations in which mental functions are explained with neural functions couched in the semantics of the original question. For example, if we ask how perception of a word is possible and answer that there is a “word detector” in the central nervous system, we have not answered anything, but only moved the original question from psychology into neurophysiology. For a neurophysiologist, however, there exist no such concepts as “word” or “perception,” because he is interested only in constellations of neurons, their cooperation and metabolism. Therefore, there is nobody then to answer the original question; it has been simply abolished or left open. The situation is similar if a physicist tries to explain why a table is a table by explaining that actually the molecules are like small tables. The basic mistake is the same as above: the properties of the whole system are equated with the properties of its elements.

Neurons are, of course, important from the point of view of mental activity, but not in the sense of localization or their assumed mental abilities. Mental activity cannot be explained by looking at the properties of neurons. Mental activity may exist, because neurons have physiological properties which make it possible for them to form dynamic systems producing behavioral results. However, the behavior cannot, of course, be found in the neurons, but in the whole organism-environment system.

The Dynamics of the Nervous System

If mental activity is not located in the nervous system, why in that case are neurons so important from the point of view of this activity? Why is mental activity not possible before the development of the nervous system? What kinds of new features can we see in the organization of the organism-environment system with the appearance of the neuron?

Every organism-environment system has been formed during evolution so that it may achieve useful results. This is the basis of the development of any system, and in this sense every system is perfect or optimal. The action of any organism-environment system is continuous. However, in this process every new result means a point from which the action is reorganized and gets new direction. With primitive organisms such points are rare. Perhaps we may say that for many primitive organisms there is only one result of action: reproduction and the disappearance of the original system. The life process of such organisms is a continuous metabolic process, one act, the end of which means the appearance of a new system.

The development and the differentiation of the structure of the organism-environment system meant also development of the structure of the behavior. The more complicated the structure of the system, the more possible forms of organization and action alternatives there will be. This corresponds to the development of phases of action and action results. The potentialities of action are in a way stored in the structure of the system. The less the structure may be reorganized, the fewer different action possibilities there are, and the more dependent the living system is on fixed parts of the environment. If the environment undergoes drastic changes no new organization is possible and the living system disappears.

With the development of the neurons and the nervous system, quite new possibilities appeared for action in a constantly changing environment. Before the existence of the nervous system, the relations between the cells of the organism were relatively fixed and static. Therefore, plants, for example, cannot vary their actions much when the environment is markedly changed. Only neurons made possible the development of dynamic systems joining parts of the environment and the organism. With these cells (which could influence directly other neurons and other cells of the body) it was possible to form systems which dynamically changed their organization in accordance with varying life conditions in different parts of the world.

Information Processing and the Nervous System

According to the theory of the organism-environment system, the basic principle of nervous functioning is not that of information processing, but creation of such constellations of neurons which—joined to the other parts of the body and environment—may achieve behavioral results which are useful for the metabolism of neurons and through this for the whole organism. The neurons are in many ways the most sensitive cells in the body and their large-scale destruction leads necessarily to the restriction of the action possibilities of the whole organism.

From this point of view it is clear that neurons do not create maps of the environment, inner models, or representations which would somehow correspond to homuncular perceptions. Such reproduction of the properties of the environment in the nervous system is simply not important from the point of view of appropriate behavior, and must be assumed only if the starting point of the theory of nervous functioning is based on the absolute separation of the organism and the environment.

The necessary condition for forming systems leading to useful results is not from the systemic point of view that nervous organization should reproduce the organization of the environment as some sort of representation or model. The only essential is that a system may be formed in which elements belonging both to the body and to the environment are fitted together. The structure of the body, of course, “reflects” the structure of the environment in the sense that by inspection of the bodily structure we may also conclude something about the possible structure of the environment. When looking at the body of an organism we may speculate on what kind of environment would be appropriate. The study of the organism is simultaneously the study of the environment.

Let’s make our point clear with one further example. The system for cutting wood consists of a saw and a tree. In order to have a well-functioning system the properties of the saw and those of the tree should not be the same, but rather different in the way which makes a result possible. In a system consisting of two sets of elements one set need not to reproduce the properties of the other in order to create, as a whole, a functioning system. On the contrary, to have a good system for cutting the saw must be hard and the tree soft, otherwise the system will not function properly. The structure of the saw reflects in some sense the structure of the wood, but only from the point of view of the result (cutting).

If we think that the nervous system must somehow reproduce or represent the organization of the environment, this would mean that the representations in the nervous system would always lag behind the events in the environment. However, if we think that the essential feature in nervous functioning is its fit with the environment, this means that the environment and the nervous system have the same time. Perception, for example, is simultaneous with the object of perception in the environment. This means also that a stimulus does not precede perception, but perception is a process in which the fit of neural elements with the environmental events defines the stimulus. Therefore, reaction time is not the time for the processing of the stimulus, but the time for organizing the result.

The theory of the organism-environment system maintains that mental activity is realized in a system consisting of neural and environmental parts. As to the concepts of learning and knowledge, this means that they are not based on transmission of information from the environment into the organism. There is only one system. Thus, all increase of knowledge means only the reorganization or widening of this system. Knowledge may be defined as the form of existence, because it is impossible to have any living system without knowledge. This means also that knowledge must be created; it cannot be transmitted or moved from one head to another.

Concluding Remarks

The theory of the organism-environment system involves quite different basic principles of neural functioning than those in traditional neurophysiology and psychophysiology. The concept of the nervous system is a similar abstraction to the concept of the atom: it is used as an explanatory concept in trying to understand the results of action of human beings. However, with an atom we cannot explain why a table is a table. To be able to do this, we must also take into account many features of human social activity. Similarly, with neuronal data only, we will never be able to explain consciousness or any other human action. Such acts are not carried out by neurons, but by a system which consists of the neurons, of many body parts, and parts of the environment, including other human beings.

Furthermore, a neuron is an abstraction, the existence of which is completely dependent on the theory we have about the brain. A neuron is magnified by the microscope into our scale of observation so that we may describe its anatomical structure with such everyday concepts as fibers, walls, particles, et cetera. In reality a neuron is something which we cannot directly observe with any such properties. We see neurons as we see them, because we have a cell theory, a theory according to which the cell is the basic architectonic unit of any organism. If our theory was that of chemical fields, for example, we would see in the microscope only those fields and no cells at all.

The registrations from the brain may be compared with the registrations of traces of elementary particles in the cloud chamber of the accelerator. Such traces alone could not help us to understand why a table is a table. We think that an EEG recording, for example, reflects changes in the activity of neurons. Such changes do not, however, reflect any processing of the environmental stimuli or even less perception or changes in some inner models, but simply some changes in metabolic relations of the neural elements. If perception is conceived as an organization of the organism-environment system, it is clear that no simple measurement (amplitude of the potential, for example) may reflect perception in the sense of the whole organization of the system. Therefore, there are no “cognitive” components in the event-related potentials, “mismatch” potentials, or anything similar. Such conceptions represent very crude mistakes in thinking in which the properties of the whole system are confused with the properties of its individual elements.

When measuring changes in the nervous system we may get some kind of impression of how the brain is organized as one part of the organism-environment system in the behavior. In such research, however, the essentials are not stimuli or their physical measurement, but the control of action of the subject as a whole. The most crucial point is that we should be able to determine what the subject is really doing, how his action is divided into phases and behavioral results. This gives us the possibility of describing the human organism-environment system as a whole and only then may we relate some individual measurements to this whole organization. It is, however, unfortunate that in most neuroscience it is just this part of the control which is missing. Therefore, most results of—even ingenious—EEG investigations are such that they do not much help us to understand the determinants of human behavior.

The theory of the organism-environment system makes it possible to combine a neurophysiological point of view with psychological theories which stress the active character of mental activity. This means that we may formulate a real psychophysiology without reducing psychology to physiology or giving psychological phenomena some independent existence at the side of physiological processes. In fact, those researchers who have held it impossible to combine neural data with psychological theories have been right, not because this would be really impossible, but because the combination of linear information processing or stimulus-response principles with the active character of human behavior is impossible—not only at the psychological, but also at the neural level.

The theory of the organism-environment system leads to a new kind of definition of the primary tasks of neurophysiology and to a new understanding of the traditional neurophysiological concepts. Neurophysiology is assigned its place as a part of biology: its task is the study of neurons as living units, not as computer chips. Thus, the “transmitters,” for example, are not information transmitters, as commonly thought, but chemicals which may distort the metabolism of other neurons (in the excitatory synapses) or supply them with useful metabolites (in the inhibitory synapses). Neurons are living units which are organized as metabolic systems in connection with other neurons; they are not units which carry out some psychological functions or maintain states which are typical only of the whole organism-environment system.

From this point of view we may also understand why there is spatial order (topography) in the nervous system—the fact which has especially led to the idea of localization of function. It is clear that some cortical neurons are more related to the eye and some to the ear, for example. Such organization of cells is, however, not due to the need to form pictures or representations of tones in the brain. If the cells are specialized so that they use the same body parts in the achievement of their metabolic results, it is probably useful for them to be closely spaced, because organized thus they may give the best mutual support to each other.

When looking at the principles of brain function it is usually forgotten that neurons are living entities which try to maintain their metabolism in a similar way to that of all cells. In this process they have, however, several advantages in relation to other cells of the body: they may influence other cells, they may move around in the brain, they may grow their dendrites and axons to get useful connections, et cetera. If, however, they fail in the maintenance of their metabolism they will be destroyed.

The comparison of the brain with the telephone network or computer is a metaphor which has led thinking up a wrong trail: to the ideas of nerves as communication cables or neurons as electronic relays determining the information flow. Neurons would really be very badly suited for information transmission, and it would actually be surprising if such a system had really evolved for this purpose during evolution. With all its slow synapses, tremendous number of contacts, and slowly conducting fibers, the nervous system would be a miserable information transmitter if compared to the simplest telephone network or computer, for example.

The technical metaphors, so common in neurophysiology, may at the first glance make it easier to understand complicated nervous functioning, but simultaneously they lead to many misunderstandings and simplifications which restrict fruitful thinking. The application of cybernetics and especially information theory to the study of human behavior and nervous functioning always means restriction of the rich characteristics of the human being and an interpretation of the living organisms as automatic systems.


Role of Efferent Influences on Receptors in the Formation of Knowledge


The present article is an attempt to give—in the frame of the theory of the organism-environment system (Järvilehto, 1998)—a new interpretation to the role of efferent influences on receptor activity and to the functions of senses in the formation of knowledge. It is argued, on the basis of experimental evidence and theoretical considerations, that the senses are not transmitters of environmental information, but create a direct connection between the organism and the environment, which makes the development of a dynamic living system, the organism-environment system, possible. In this connection process, the efferent influences on receptor activity are of particular significance because, with their help, the receptors may be adjusted in relation to the parts of the environment that are most important in achieving behavioral results. Perception is the process of joining of new parts of the environment to the organism-environment system; thus, the formation of knowledge by perception is based on reorganization (widening and differentiation) of the organism-environment system, and not on transmission of information from the environment. With the help of the efferent influences on receptors, each organism creates its own peculiar world that is simultaneously subjective and objective. The present considerations have far-reaching influences as well on experimental work in neurophysiology and psychology of perception as on philosophical considerations of knowledge formation.


During the present century, several scientists have stressed the mutual dependence of the organism and its environment. Koffka (1935), for example, described an organism as a system that consists of both the body of the organism and its behavioral environment. Especially during the last decade, there have been several attempts to treat organisms as complex dynamic systems that have a very intimate connection with the environment (Freeman, 1995; Thelen, 1995; Tani and Nolfi, 1997) or that even include parts of the environment (Gibson, 1979; Maturana and Varela, 1987; Järvilehto, 1998).

One of the basic problems in understanding the characteristics of such systems has been the question of formation of knowledge. From ancient times, the senses have been thought to have the role of channels through which knowledge arrives from the environment into the organism. The conception of the senses as “windows of knowledge” was so strong and irrefutable that usually attempts to treat organism and environment as one system broke down just here and the system had to be divided into two sub-systems. When dealing with perception, Koffka (1935) divided the animal-environment system into two systems, the environmental stimuli being represented in the animal in the form of isomorphic fields, and Gibson (1979) used the metaphor of resonance implying that the animal and environment were resonating as two separate sub-systems.

The arguments of sensory physiologists seem indisputable: the eye responds to light and transmits a picture from the environment. Let the philosophers speculate otherwise—in any case, the light stimulus is outside and perception inside! Although in the history of philosophy and psychology there has always been some dispute on whether human knowledge is based directly on the functioning of the senses or whether it is, in some sense, constructed by thinking (empirism contra rationalism), there has been no question about the role of the senses as transmitters of at least some kinds of raw data or simple sensations from the environment.

The Role of Movement in Perception

The theory of the organism-environment system (Järvilehto, 1994, 1998) starts with the proposition that, in any functional sense, organism and environment are inseparable and form only one unitary system that is organized for useful behavioral results. Thus, the formation of knowledge cannot be based on any transfer process from the environment into the organism, because there are no two systems between which this transfer could occur. According to the theory, mental activity is activity of the whole organism-environment system, and the traditional psychological concepts (like perception) describe only different aspects of organization of this system as a whole. Knowledge is the form of existence of the organism-environment system, and new knowledge is created by perception when new parts of environment join to the system while changing the structure of the system. An increase in knowledge would mean a widening and differentiation of the system, which would make new kinds of behavioral acts and new results of behavior possible. From this, it would follow that knowledge is not, as such, based on any direct action of the senses.

Such a conclusion may seem to be simply contrary to the facts. However, there are some earlier considerations that go in the same direction, namely those ideas in which the role of movement has been stressed in perceptual activity. Already in 1855, Alexander Bain proposed that sensory and motor action together constitute conscious perception. He stressed the role of eye movements and thought that they determine, to a large extent, what we see. If the eyes move in a circle, we see a circle and the perception of a straight line is based on linear movement of the eyes. He maintained that the content of perception was directly related to the character of the motor activity.

In addition, the founder of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, saw the importance of motor activity when trying to explain visual illusions, for example. The horizontal-vertical illusion was, in his opinion, a typical example: here we have an illusory lengthening of the vertical line because the eyes must move upwards along the line and oppose gravity, and thus the energy needed for the eye movement is higher than with the horizontal movement of the eyes. Wundt (1897) writes:

The phenomena of seeing teach us that the idea of distance between two points depends on the motor energy of the eye used when the eye moves this distance (...) The motor energy becomes a component of the idea by combining with the sensation which we may perceive. (Wundt, 1897).

Wundt thus regarded sensation and motor energy as separate components of an idea. This would mean that, besides the sensory stimulation, movements have an essential significance for perception. Thus, perception would not be simple copying of the environmental stimuli.

Several researchers have recently developed “motor” theories of perception associated with these early ideas (for a review, see Coren, 1986), according to which perception is always a result of cooperation between the sensory organs and muscles. However, these theories usually preserve the traditional conception of the role of senses as transmitters of environmental information. The movements are thought only to modify the process of formation of knowledge; they are not considered as authentic parts of this process.

The Dynamic Character of Nervous Activity

The traditional conception of the senses as transmitters of knowledge is explicitly based on the idea of two systems (organism and environment) between which the transfer of knowledge occurs. This process has been formulated during the last decades with the help of the information theory. According to this theory, developed originally for the description of automata (Shannon, 1948), formation of knowledge is based on information transmission carried out by signals (stimuli), in which the information is stored with the help of a code. When applied to the description of the action of the senses, this means that the stimuli are transformed in the receptors into nervous activity according to a well-defined rule, the neural code, which may be later used by the central nervous system in the process of decoding, or reading the information from the neural signal (Somjen, 1972).

There have been several candidates for the neural codes: firing frequency in the neuron, intervals between the discharges, patterns of intervals, number of fibers or cells activated, location of the neurons, et cetera. Regardless of what the code is, the information processing approach presupposes that there must be a decoder in the organism system—a group of cells, some brain area, or homunculus—that can read the information from the signals. Such a decoding process is possible only if this decoder knows the code used in the modification of the signal in the periphery, and if this code stays constant or does not change suddenly without advance warning. Basically, the decoding process is possible only if the relations between the cells in the periphery and in the central nervous system stay constant under different action situations. However, the experimental findings during the last decade have questioned precisely this basic assumption.

Many neurophysiological studies have recently shown that neural responses do not simply follow the given stimuli, but often have a dynamic character, showing no simple dependence on the stimulus parameters. For example, if the same stimulus is repeated or presented under different conditions the responses may vary considerably. This is true of both specific cells in the central nervous system and of receptor cells in the periphery (Freeman, 1995).

Until recently, it has been an undisputed fact that the peripheral nervous system acts as a kind of passive transducer coding the environmental stimuli for use in the central nervous system. However, receptor cells do not have connections to the central nervous system only through afferent fibers. There are also efferent fibers from the central nervous system that may influence the activity of the sensory neurons. During the last years, research has indicated that such connections may be shown at least for audition, vision, the sense of balance and skin senses (Biondi and Grandori, 1976; Liberman et al., 1990; Highstein, 1991; Mikkelsen, 1992; Alexandrov and Järvilehto, 1993).

Two Experiments: Efferent Influences on Touch and Vision

Recent experimental results show that the efferent connections may influence the sensory organs’ dependence on the behavioral situation and goals of behavior of the experimental subject (animal/man). In our research, we found such results when investigating responses of cutaneous peripheral neural units in experimental situations while the subject performed a variety of tasks (Astrand et al., 1986).

In the first situation, the subject attended to tactile pulses of varying intensity that were applied to the receptive field of a mechanoreceptive unit, and reported numerically the intensity of the touch sensations elicited. In the other situation, the identical pulses were applied to the receptive field of the same unit, but the subject’s task was to count deviant tones in a rapidly presented series of standard tones. Thus, this task had nothing to do with the presented tactile stimuli. In both situations, peripheral responses of the single mechanoreceptive units were recorded by microelectodes from the radial nerve at the wrist level (for the recording technique, see Järvilehto, 1976).

The results showed that the thresholds and response characteristics of the recorded mechanoreceptive units changed with the task the subject was given. When the subject attended to the touch stimuli the thresholds of the units were lower, more impulses were elicited with identical stimuli, and the latencies of the responses were shorter than during the counting task. From the point of view of the “coding,” this would mean that the nervous system could not identify the identical stimuli from one situation to another. Therefore, the central nervous system would not receive unequivocal information from identical events in the environment during the two tasks.

However, such results could also be interpreted as showing only that the dynamic changes in the receptors are not related to the tactile stimuli as such, but would rather indicate a general sensitization of the receptors while attending to certain kinds of stimuli. It could be furthermore assumed that this state is somehow indicated to the central decoder that would then correspondingly correct the incoming signals. But, even with such an interpretation, we should admit that unequivocal neural coding in the peripheral nervous system is questionable, and that the peripheral neural system is not an automatic or mechanical transducer of the physical parameters of environmental stimuli.

However, in our research with freely moving rabbits (Alexandrov et al., 1986) we obtained results that indicate that the attention of the subject does not have a decisive role in this process. The results showed that the dynamic changes at the receptor level are not simply due to attention or to the use of a certain receptor field that would be sensitized in a certain task. Such changes are, rather, related to the whole behavioral situation.

In our experiments, we had a freely moving rabbit that acquired food in a cage by pressing a pedal and we recorded unit activity directly from the optic nerve at a point before the nerve enters into the lateral geniculate body. When the rabbit was performing the food-acquisition task, we could observe activations of the units in the optic nerve that had a constant relation to certain phases of the rabbit’s behavior. The units were always activated, for example, when the rabbit was approaching the pedal or when it was moving to the automatic feeder. Apparently, such activations could be interpreted as responses of the optic nerve units to the visual stimulation by the pedal or the feeder.

Before starting the recordings, we had taught the rabbit to also perform the task when its eyes were covered with non-transparent cups, preventing the use of any visual information. When, during the experimental session, we closed the eyes of the rabbit so that no visual stimulus could influence the retina, we found that the optic nerve unit which we recorded continued to show activations as the rabbit approached the pedal, for example. Thus, such activation could not be related to any direct visual effects from the environment, and, for many units, the activation seemed to be independent of visual stimulation. Consequently, such activations could not be due to the effects of stimuli, but had to be mediated over the efferent influences upon the retina. On the basis of their latencies to direct visual stimulation, we could also show that the unit discharges were not from efferent fibers, but reflected activations of the ganglion cells.

Such results question the attention hypothesis, because when the eyes of the rabbit are closed, there is nothing to be attended to in the visual modality. Thus, there should be no reason to either modulate the peripheral activity or to sensitize the receptors. The results should, rather, be interpreted as showing that, at all levels of the nervous system, unequivocal coding of environmental information is difficult if not impossible.

The finding that there is no simple coding of environmental stimulus information by the receptors has far-reaching consequences. First, we must conclude that the application of the information theory is problematic in the description of the functioning of the senses. Second, this finding means that knowledge about environmental features and events is not simply based on the assumed transduction in the sensory systems.

Thought Experiment: Knowledge Formation without Senses

Could we even imagine that knowledge formation to be possible without the help of receptors? Let’s make a thought experiment: Let us assume there exists an imaginary organism having no receptors, but only motor organs. Such an organism is, of course, impossible, because a receptor is simply a cell that is connected both to the organism and to the environment. As no organism may develop without an environment, it necessarily would have such cells and could not live without them. But let us imagine such an organism only for the purposes of our thought experiment.

Could such an organism have knowledge from its environment, from the structures outside its surface boundary, or would it be closed into its inner life only? Now, we must understand the concept of knowledge broadly, as the possibility of acting in the environment appropriately. Could such an organism learn something about the environment to which it would have no direct access through the senses?

Let us put our organism into an environment consisting of a cube with smooth walls. The cube is filled with a homogeneous energy field (like water) and the organism is able to swim in the field by using two pairs of fins which move the organism in two dimensions: forwards-backwards or right-left. The pairs of fins are connected by a sensitive and dynamic set of interneurons which join the pairs of fins so that only one pair may be used at once. The muscles of the fins and the intemeurons feed off some mysterious inner energy that the organism may obtain from the energy field in the form of induction when its body is moving in relation to the field. If the movement of the organism stops, the amount of inner energy for one pair of fins goes down and is finally exhausted. The other fins still have, however, their own energy storage that they may use when the first pair is no longer working, and therefore the movement of the organism is restored in some other direction. These fins then work as long as the movement continues and, simultaneously, the energy potential of the other fins is restored. If the movement of the organism stops completely, it cannot restore the inner energy and it dies.

Now the organism moves in one direction inside the cube by moving one pair of fins. This movement inhibits through interneurons the movements of the other pair. During the movement, the organism may induce more inner energy from the homogenous energy field and thus it would move indefinitely if the walls did not exist. When it hits the wall preventing its movement forward, the original pair of fins still move, until their energy store is depleted. When they stop, the inhibition on the other pair disappears, and they start to move, giving the organism movement in some other direction. This movement continues again until the organism hits another wall, stops and the other fins again start to move.

Let us now further suppose that the connections of the interneurons between the pairs of fins are such that they may be dynamically changed. The continuous movement of the organism within the cube in different directions therefore starts to change these connections so that the use of energy by the fins and the induction of energy from the energy field becomes optimal. Therefore, the organism starts to turn already before it hits the wall, and develops continuous movement even with the walled space.

Thus, it seems that the organism learns the structure of its environment in the sense that it may anticipate the walls and the instant of hitting them. The walls and the organism start to form one system, the result of which is the continuous movement of the organism. The walls of the cube are elements of this system in the sense that their existence partly explains the action of the organism (turning). Essential in the functioning of such system is the number of interneurons, their dynamics, and the constancy of the environment. In a randomly changing environment, constant connections between the interneuron could not be formed.

Probably, it would not be too difficult to build a computer simulation demonstrating the actions of this kind of organism (Tanji and Nolfi, 1997). In any case, the result of the thought experiment so far seems to show that an organism may be connected to its environment in a reasonable, functional way even in the absence of any receptors: even in the absence of senses it may learn to know its environment. Then what do we need receptors for?

The thought experiment is untenable since there are no organisms without some kind of receptor. Even the idea of induction of energy from the energy field means the assumption of some sort of general receptor. However, all organisms have cells that may use environmental energy (such as photoreceptors) or whose function may be distorted by energy gradients (such as mechanoreceptors).

The significance of receptors may be seen when the conditions of our thought experiment are changed by adding one hole (a receptor) to the surface of the organism through which it may directly use certain kinds of energy foci (concentrated spots) in the field. The environment of the organism is, thus, no longer homogenous, but consists of energy gradients. Here, the walls no longer exist. The receptor hole has a certain size, making possible the direct use of only certain spots. Let us further suppose that the main energy for the movement must come from such spots; the induction from the energy field is no longer a sufficient energy source. Therefore, the organism must, every now and then, hit such energy spots with the receptor to have enough energy for its life process. Let us further assume that the spots stay in certain places and are restored at once when they are used; so far the environment is constant. We may also assume that there are now many pairs of fins making the movements of the organism possible in any direction. However, these fins also have reciprocal innervation so that movement in one direction inhibits the fins working in the opposite direction.

Now the organism moves in this heterogeneous environment. If it does not hit any energy spots, it dies. Eventually, one of the organisms (we may also assume that there are now many of them) encounters a spot that gives it energy to move further in this direction. Slowly, the energy for this direction is depleted and some other fins start working, turning the organism in another direction. Again, one spot is found and then, later, the direction of movement is changed again. If there are enough dynamic interneurons connecting the fins, the organism starts to move from one energy spot to another, optimizing its energy consumption in the same way as the organism within four walls. Such an organism would then live forever. The life process of the organism is, however, very sensitive to any change in the structure of the environment.

We then go to the last part of our thought experiment and assume a heterogeneous environment that is continuously changing. The place and size of the energy spot is continuously changing. Furthermore, we add efferent fibers to the receptors that may regulate the size and the quality of the receptor hole. The organism may now use different kinds of energy spots of varying sizes. What happens now?

First of all, most organisms with fixed receptors disappear and the new organisms with efferent control of receptors start to show behavior that differs in principle from the behavior of the earlier organisms. When the organism does not get an energy supply with one size or quality of receptor, it changes the receptor hole so that it may also fit the energy spots of other sizes and qualities. Thus, the organism starts to search, to investigate its environment. There is no longer random movement that brings the organism to a fixed energy spot by chance, but the organism may locate spots of different sizes and qualities. It may also search for other spots if the original ones disappear. Through this fitting process, the organism starts to be a functional whole with its environment to which it may join in many qualitatively different places. The organism starts to “perceive” its environment.

Concluding Discussion

On the basis of the results of our thought experiment, we may better see why receptors exist even if they are not transmitters of information, and why efferent influences are important for all receptors. The receptors give the possibility of direct contact to the parts of the environment necessary for successful behavior, and the efferent influences help in the search for new useful aspects of the environment. The properties of the receptors are continuously modified, and such receptor patterns are created, which fit to useful energy configurations of the environment, making new results of behavior possible (Freeman, 1997). Perception is the process in which certain parts of the environment that are defined by dynamically changing receptors are joined into the structure of the organism-environment system. Perception is a process involving the whole organism-environment system.

The earlier researchers presenting motor theories of perception were right insofar as they saw the significance of both movement and sensory processes as the basis of perception. From the point of view of the theory of the organism-environment system, these theories were, however, incomplete in the sense that they were still based on the idea of information transmission from the environment; the movement was seen only as a component modifying the sensation coming through the senses. However, if perception is a process involving the whole organism-environment system, there is no causal relation between the movement and perception. The movements of the organism are an expression of the reorganization of the system; they are as much parts of the perceptual process as the events in the receptors or in the environment.

Perception is not a linear process proceeding from the stimulus to the percept, but, rather, a circle involving both the sensory and motor organs as well as the events in the environment. A perceptual process does not start with the stimulus, rather the stimulus is an end of this process. The stimulus is like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The last piece of the puzzle fits in its place only because all other pieces of the puzzle have been placed in a particular way. It is just this joining of the other pieces, their coordinated organization, which leaves a certain kind of hole into which this last piece can be fitted. Thus, it is just the organization of the other pieces that defines a possible last piece with which we may finish the puzzle. Exactly in the same way, a stimulus is present only if there is an organization into which this stimulus may be fitted. Thus, the stimulus is as little in a causal relation to the percept as the last piece of the puzzle to the constructed picture. The stimulus is a part of the process of reorganization of the structure of the organism-environment system, which forms the basis of new knowledge.

It is, however, necessary to consider briefly what kind of knowledge was created in our thought experiment. Most thinking mistakes associated with “knowing” are connected to the idea that “knowledge” is only that which may be reported, told to another person, or to oneself. Such a way of thinking neglects all knowledge that is not shared with other people. However, every living organism must necessarily know something insofar as it can act in its world. It is precisely the structure of the organism-environment system that makes the behavior and behavioral results possible, and it is just this structure that is knowledge in a broad sense. Therefore, knowledge is the form of existence of the organism-environment system.

Consequently, we should not think that the organism in our experiment knows something about its environment in the usual sense of the word, that it has knowledge of its own existence or that it knows that it is confined to a space of certain form. This sort of knowledge presupposes the existence of consciousness that is based on cooperation of many organism-environment systems (Järvilehto, 1994). Consciousness means the appearance of a social environment, shared activity, and the possibility for the description of the own action and its objects. Consciousness is not a property of the brain or even an individual, but always presupposes the existence of several individuals joining their action for common result. Such a system is created by communication; thus language, for example, is not a means of information transmission, but a way to produce common organization and common results. The knowledge that may be communicated is only part of all knowledge that exists in the social system. The organism in our thought experiment therefore “knows” the cube or parts of its environment only in the sense that it may join specific parts of the environment to its structure, in order to obtain useful behavioral results; but it is not conscious of its world.

As the character of the efferent influences on the receptor activity is determined by the behavioral situation and the structure of the organism-environment system, an organism has its specific environment even if it has similar receptors as another organism of the same species. This “behavioral environment” (Koffka, 1935) or “Umwelt” (v. Uexküll and Kriszat, 1932) is subjective, because those forms of energy used by one organism cannot be simultaneously used by another. It is, however, at the same time, also objective in the sense that it consists of real parts of the environment—not of subjective interpretations or representations of the surrounding world.

It is precisely the development of sensitivity of the receptor to different types of energy and its efferent control that makes the widening and differentiation of the behavioral environment possible. If the sensitivity of the receptor increases, there is a corresponding increase in the behavioral environment and if it decreases, this will lead to the disappearance of the parts of the environment that earlier belonged to the system. Mead (1934) already pointed this out beautifully in the 1930s, probably without knowing anything about the possibility of efferent influences:

We have seen that the individual organism determines in some sense its own environment by its sensitivity. The only environment to which the organism can react is one that its sensitivity reveals. The sort of environment that can exist for the organism, then, is one that the organism in some sense determines. If in the development of the form there is an increase in the diversity of sensitivity, there will be an increase in the responses of the organism to its environment—that is, the organism will have a correspondingly larger environment. (...) In this sense it selects and picks out what constitutes its environment. It selects that to which it responds and makes use of it for its own purposes, purposes involved in its life-processes. It utilizes the earth on which it treads and through which it burrows, and the trees that it climbs; but only when it is sensitive to them. (Mead, 1934)

Consequently, the senses do not act as “windows of knowledge,” but they make the formation of knowledge possible by acting as “holes” which are filled by specific parts of the environment (Freeman, 1997). Knowledge is not “out there” in the form of stimuli to be transferred into or constructed inside the organism. The stimulus exists as a stimulus because there is a pre-organized system defining some environmental change as a stimulus. Every organism “assumes” something about its environment in the sense that it has a structure into which only certain parts of the environment may be fitted. This idea was expressed already several hundred years ago by Spinoza (1677/1985), who stated that perception is a truer reflection of the structure of our body than any outer object as such.

The present considerations have profound consequences for the experimental work in the sensory physiology and the psychology of perception, as for the foundations of philosophy as well. As to the experimental work, one example may be mentioned: the event appearing after the stimulus (response) in the brain or in behavior is the result of organization preceding the behavior; it does not reflect processing of the stimulus, nor does it indicate processes started by the stimulus per se. Thus, “lawful” relations between the stimulus and the response are seriously flawed and their spurious constancy is mostly due to the fixed experimental situations.

In philosophy, the present conception of the formation of knowledge unites the empiricist and rationalist concepts. Knowledge is created empirically through experience, in the sense that formation of knowledge presupposes the reorganization of the organism-environment system and the joining of new elements into the system. Knowledge is not, however, based on the functioning of the senses, but on the structure of the organism-environment system and on its modifications in the process of differentiation and widening of the system with new results of behavior (Popper, 1962). Therefore, we may as well say that knowledge is formed rationally.

The separation of ontology and epistemology is based on the separation of man and environment. If the environment exists with all its properties without a human being, it is quite reasonable to ask separate questions about the existence of man and matter, and about knowing the world. If man is born into a ready environment, it is, of course, completely logical to ask how he may get knowledge from the surrounding environment, what the ultimate parts of this environment really are, and how we may be sure that we have correct knowledge about these properties. All such problems disappear if we see that man and environment belong to the same system. Then the question “what exists?” is identical with the question “what can we know?”


The Problem on Mental Activity and Consciousness


The present article is an attempt to bring together the development of mental activity and consciousness in the framework of the organism-environment theory (Järvilehto, 1998, 1999); the main question is how the development of mental activity and consciousness can be formulated if the starting point is not the separation of man and environment as in traditional cognitive psychology, but a unitary organism-environment system. According to the present formulation, mental activity is conceived as activity of the whole organism-environment system and connected to the general development of life as a specific form of an organism-environment system comprising neurons. The advent of consciousness is regarded as a result of cooperation of such organism-environment systems. Consciousness is based on cooperation for the achievement of common results, and shared by the cooperating individuals (general consciousness), although each individual also makes it concrete from the perspective of his/her own body in the act of participation in common results (personal consciousness). Language is the means of formation of the cooperative system in the achievement of common results, and it is suggested that the use of language is related more to the type of cooperative system and intended common results than to any symbolic representation of the world. It is claimed that on this basis it is possible to develop psychology which takes seriously the concepts of mental activity and consciousness in the description of human action, but does not reduce these concepts either to biological or social factors. The present formulation should be regarded more as a conceptual outline than as a full-blown theory.


The theory of the organism-environment system (Järvilehto, 1998, 1999) starts with the postulate that many unsolvable problems in sensory physiology, psychophysics and psychophysiology (and perhaps in psychology, in general) are due to a very simple mistake in the basic assumptions about the character of the objects under study. The mistake is the conception of the organism and the environment as two separate systems (“two systems theory”). In most explanations of human behavior this common sense view is uncritically taken as a starting point. Hence, behavior and psychological processes are conceived as processes belonging to the organism, and the environment is seen as something that either triggers or modulates these processes. This leads psychological and psychophysiological research to search for the structure of the psychological processes (mental activity and consciousness) in the organism and their neural correlates in the brain, which eventually ends with identification of psychological processes with some characteristics of neural activity.

At the present, considerable research resources are devoted in psychology and cognitive science to the determination of the places in the brain in which different psychological “functions” (perception, attention, emotion, et cetera) are supposed to be performed. The possibilities for such work have been dramatically increased in a few decades as a result of the development of sophisticated recording techniques. Thus, it is a common belief that it will take only a few years until we know how some basic psychological processes, at least, are carried out by the brain, and there even seems to be a general consensus that consciousness will eventually be found in the brain, either as a general characteristic of the brain or as the property of specific neural connections (Dennett, 1991; Clark, 1997).

In contrast, it follows from the basic postulate of the theory of the organism-environment system that mental activity or consciousness will not be found in the brain, but in a system of relations including both the organism and environment, and the traditional psychological “functions” (such as sensation, perception, memory, et cetera) describe only different aspects of the organization of the whole organism-environment system. This view questions the mainstream of cognitive science and neurophilosophy. The brain is not the only place (and not even the most important one) to look if we want to understand what it means to be conscious, and it is a serious conceptual confusion if we think that consciousness will be eventually “found” in the brain. The brain is an organ like the other organs of the body; there is no more “psyche” in the brain than in the heart, for example. The brain—which can be neatly localized within the cranium only in anatomy books—consists of a huge number of specialized living cells which are organized together over the whole body and carry out physiological, but not psychological processes.

Thus, it seems that many neuroscientists together with their supporting philosophers are simply looking for things in the place where they can never be found, and only because there happens to be such nice equipment for carrying out the measurements. Furthermore, there also seems to be a theoretical confusion in the thinking that in the near future we will be able to solve “the easy problem” (Chalmers, 1996), and describe all the events in the brain which constitute a simple perception. That day will never come if only the brain is studied, because perception is a process which cannot be limited to the brain (Gibson, 1979; Järvilehto, 1999).

In fact, neuroscientific theory is loaded with tautologies, and the value of experimental evidence for the location of consciousness in the brain is questionable. If we define the brain as a site where the elements for the system of consciousness may be found, then it is clear that we will find these elements only in the brain. Nothing else is regarded as worth studying. However, if we take into account all possible factors that may contribute to our conscious existence then it may turn out that the processes in the brain have very little or no explanatory value, at least in respect to the content of our experience.

With this controversial theoretical situation in mind, the present article sketches an outline of development of mental activity and consciousness in nature. This consideration should not be regarded as a theory of life, mental activity, and consciousness, but rather as a conceptual outline that tries to show how mental activity and consciousness can be conceived when taking as a starting point the postulate of a unitary organism-environment system. The basic question is what the conceptual structure of psychology would look like on the basis of the organism-environment theory. Can the principle of unity of the organism and environment be maintained, or is it necessary at some point to partition the organism and the environment? Why is it a commonly accepted fact that organism and environment are two separate systems?

It should be stressed that the theory of the organism-environment system is not a theory about how environmental factors should be taken account in the explanation of the behavior of the organisms, or how different contextual factors contribute to mental phenomena. The organism-environment system is not a system consisting of the organism and the environment that could be treated as subsystems of the whole system, but the organism-environment system is rather a methodological principle. This methodological principle entails that—instead of looking at simple linear causal relations (e.g., the events from the stimulus to the response) when explaining behavior or subjective experience—the research should start from the determination of the results of behavior, and lead to the necessary constituents of the living system determining the achievement of these results (see Järvilehto, 1998). The key concept of the theory is the concept of result which does not mean a simple effect or consequence of behavior, but a possibility of a new act, a transition from one act to another (see below). Thus, in the frame of the organism-environment theory, the starting point of all analysis of behavior is a historical and a developmental one. The organism-environment theory is essentially a theory of development, and its methodology is based on the analysis of different forms of the organism-environment system in their formation during phylogeny and ontogeny.

There are several important theoretical developments that bear direct relevance to many parts of the present consideration under such labels as “functional systems theory” (Anohin, 1974, Shvyrkov, 1990), “ecological psychology” (Gibson, 1979), “dynamic system theory” (Ford and Lerner, 1992; Port and Gelder, 1995; Thelen and Smith, 1994; Clark, 1997; Hurley, 1998), “theory of complex systems” (Kauffman, 1993), and “autopoiesis” (Maturana and Varela, 1980; Varela et al., 1991). However, their perspective is somewhat different from that in the present formulation, and there are also differences among them; it is the task of the future to relate all these theoretical developments together. There are also several “-isms” which seem to deal at least partly with the same problems and in a related way, such as emergentism, holism, general semantics, or postmodernism. For the present purposes I will only incidentally cite these approaches at points which in my opinion come closest to the present formulation.

Development of Life and Mental Activity

The organism-environment theory attempts to grasp conceptual problems in psychology by anchoring them in the evolution and development of the organism-environment systems. Thus, the first task is to consider how mental activity and consciousness may have appeared in the evolution. This should be done without reducing these concepts to some more “elementary” descriptions (physical, chemical, or biological), but also without separating them from the general development of nature. Such a task cannot be carried out in detail without concrete research, and in this context it is possible only to indicate the general line of the reasoning. Thus, in the following I will sketch how mental activity and consciousness should have evolved to be consistent with the theory. It is another task to show if this really happened in the history of evolution.

Living Systems

The present article starts with the proposition that mental activity is typical of living systems. What is peculiar to them, and how may living systems be related to inanimate ones? This is a question that has yet to be solved, and it is questionable whether it can be solved at all. For our purposes, however, there are certain differences in the organization of living and inanimate systems which are of importance when we try to figure out how mental activity and consciousness may have evolved.

At this point it is necessary to introduce a working definition of “system.” A system will be defined as follows: a whole consisting of elements, the interaction of which makes possible its existence or action.

It is often thought that the basic difference between living and inanimate systems is activity: livings systems are active agents, whereas inanimate systems show no activity, but respond passively. As pointed out already by Spinoza (1677), this is a very limited view, because, in fact, every system is active: we always need some outer force to break the system. Thus, in this respect, inanimate and living systems do not differ. However, it seems that the characteristics and structure of action are different in living and inanimate systems. The inanimate system keeps together because of static forces between the elements, whereas the living system seems to exist only through continuous dynamic change. (It may be, however, that this difference turns out to be spurious when we look at very basic physical changes in inanimate things which may prove to be much more dynamic than usually thought. See e.g., Stapp [1971]).

For example, a watch is an inanimate system that can be used for showing time (the action). This system consists of elements (metal cover, screws, wheels, springs, et cetera) that realize the action of the system in their interactions. The elements of the system have a certain spatio-temporal stability, but the relations between them change within limits during the action of the system. The surface of the watch is a border to the environment (e.g. air). According to the definition of the system, the environment outside the surface does not belong to the system because it does not participate in the action of the system. Therefore, we may speak about the parts of the system being “inside,” and the environment of the system being “outside.” If the outside factors have influence, they mainly disturb the action of the system: if the ambient air, for example, gets too hot, the watch is destroyed. The fact that the air or some other environmental factors do not belong to the system may be seen in that the watch is best preserved in a void, and separated as far as possible from all environmental influences.

The first living system that appeared on the Earth, the primordial cell, seems at first glance to form a similar system as the watch. It has a limiting border to the environment, the cell membrane, inside of which there are many inner elements maintaining and making the actions of the cell possible. However, a cell as a system differs in a basic way from the watch, because the relation of the cell to certain parts of the environment is not a neutral one. Instead, these parts are essential for the life process of the cell. The environment of the cell is not functionally homogenous, but it consists of substances the significance of which varies from the point of view of the life process (some may be harmful, others useful, et cetera). In order to exist as a living formation, the cell must continuously use its environment by identifying some substances, and transporting them through the cell membrane. Therefore, according to the definition of the system, such environmental parts must be regarded as constitutive parts of the cell system.

It is precisely here that we come to the basic difference between the inanimate and living systems: a cell as a system is not limited to its membrane, the border between the cell and environment, but it extends as a functional unit into the environment. The membrane of the living system is not a line of separation, but rather connects the inner parts of the cell with selected parts of the environment. The membrane is an organ of connection, not just a cover as in the case of the surface of the watch. The cell is, in fact, bound to its environment, to its indefinite and changing parts, in such a complex way that we may no more see these connections, and the cell therefore seems to be independent, separated from the environment. However, the cell is continuously growing into the environment and connects to constantly new environmental parts.

Thus, the real “environment” of the cell (in the same sense as that for the watch) lies outside its “functional environment” (the parts of the environment belonging to the cell) and the border between the “inner” and “outer” is located somewhere outside the cell membrane. As for any living system, this border is constantly changing. Thus, the exact definition of the elements of the living system is difficult if not impossible.

The difficulty in the study and understanding of life is probably related to the fact that the elements of a living system are continuously changing. The elements outside the cell membrane are assimilated by the cell, processed, and joined to the structural parts inside the membrane, destroyed, and rebuilt or expelled. The cell is maintained as long as this process goes on; if it stops then the cell is no longer a living system.

The view according to which the cell is a system limited by the membrane and only interacting with the environment outside the cell is based on inconsistent application of the definition of the system. This inconsistency is probably due to the idea that the basic building block of all living systems is a separated cell (“cell theory”). However, if we look at the cell in this way we define the living and the inanimate systems as similar: the cell membrane is seen as a similar border as the surface of the watch. However, if the parts of the environment belonging to the metabolism of the cell are not counted as elements of the cell system, and a cell as a living system is thought to consist only of the parts within its membrane, it is impossible to understand the functioning of the cell. With this line of consideration it is then logical to postulate some special life forces acting within the cell that would explain the difference between the living and inanimate systems.

With the advent of life, a new kind of system appeared on the Earth in comparison to the inanimate systems. This system is composed of parts that may be described separately as inanimate systems, but it has new characteristics of organization which are not encountered in its parts. The dialectics of life consist of the principle that the living cell is separated from the environment by its protective membrane, making possible development of complicated structures within the cell. However, this membrane is simultaneously an organ joining the cell selectively to an abundant number of environmental factors rendering a functioning living system possible.

It should be pointed out that these environmental factors are not “physical,” but living in the same sense as the originally inorganic parts of the cell are no more inanimate. This means that the cell as an organism-environment system is not a physical system. Physical description is possible only in the case of inanimate parts of the world; if a living system is described as a physical system, then it is reduced to only one of its aspects. Physical description of a living system can never be a complete description, not only because physics has nothing to say about life as such, but also because the parts of the system are not selected according to the physical laws, but on the basis of the living structure. A cell identifies and takes up from the environment those substances that fit into its inner structure. There is no possibility of defining these substances exactly a priori. A cell defines its own environment itself in its characteristic way in dependence on the total structure of the cell-environment system; the functional environment of the cell consists of only those parts which may be fitted together with the other parts of the system. In fact, the basic problem in the study of the living system is that the elements of the system define each other and cannot be studied separately. When we “separate” such an element we destroy its organic connections, and it stops being an element of the living system studied. Life is a process: when we stop it for scientific study we lose some of its essential characteristics (cf. Whitehead, 1925). Therefore, life can never be explained by physical concepts. The same applies as well to the study of mental activity and consciousness.

There is, of course, hardly any biologist who would not think that a cell interacts with its environment, but usually the essential environmental factors are left outside the cell system and the cell itself is described as an “open” system. However, without the environment the cell is not a system at all. No functioning system may be open, because “functioning” or action means cooperation of all the elements of the system (see the definition of the system). Thus, every acting system must be closed inasmuch as all its elements are bound together and contribute to the result of action. This means that the “agent” of the action is not a cell limited by its membrane, but the whole cell-environment system.

Hence, the cell and its functional environment form together the unit of life, a basic organism-environment system. This unit represents in the first form the basic systems architecture of life that is also preserved in more complicated organisms, although the basic elements and their functional significance vary. In the beginning of life the parts of the system “isolated” by the cell membrane from the environment could be maintained only for a short moment, until the inner structures grew too large and with their growth the cell exploded. With evolution, more stable coordinated forms of the cell structure appeared, which eventually led—instead of disruption—to division of the cell under the inner pressure. Two or more cells were formed, which took with them some elements of the original cell.

In the beginning, life was a continuous process of reproduction and destruction of primordial cells. As the environment of the cells was not homogenous, cells in some regions could develop new forms, and some of them could reproduce and divide more efficiently. The abundant increase of certain types of cells changed the structure of the environment in a certain direction and made the existence of the earlier forms more difficult, but offered new conditions for new formations. A continuous change of the environment and structure of the cell-environment systems resulted in variation in the types of systems. Life, which was in the beginning very similar over all regions on the Earth, started to acquire differentiated, more complicated forms. The living systems became specialized, their structures and the possibilities for achieving results became more specific.

Single systems were not acting alone. In addition to the established and new environmental factors, they were also interacting with each other: hitting, touching, and changing the living conditions. At a certain phase of development, most probably a larger system “transported” a smaller one through its membrane, which led to a new formation: a cell system within which another cell merged into the structure of the mother cell and started to influence the growth of its structures (see Oparin, 1961). In this way the development of the nucleus of the cell possibly started, the specialized part of the cell system which was going to have an essential role in the development of the organisms and in the transfer of structural heritage from one generation to another. It was just this part of the cell in which complicated regulatory structures appeared. These mediated the structure of the mother cell to its followers—that is to say, the genetic system based on DNA-macromolecules.

The chances of survival of a single cell-environment system with sudden changes in the environment were relatively small, especially when the cells became specialized and their life process presupposed the existence of quite specific environmental parts. At some phase of the development this problem was solved in a new way: the single cell-environment systems started to collect together and produce formations in which cell systems secured the survival of each other under changing circumstances by sharing some parts of the environment. Perhaps the specialized cells first approached the cells whose metabolic products they could use in their own metabolism, and finally developed more permanent connections to such cells. Multicellular organism-environment systems started to develop.

Appearance of First Forms of Mental Activity

The joining of the cell-environment systems together in multicellular organisms resulted in a more complex and differentiated structure of the organism-environment systems. These new formations were associated with more differentiated environmental parts: when the specialized single cell systems adhered to each other they also brought with them their constitutional environmental factors, the environmental parts for which they were specialized. Thus, the environment constituting a multicellular organism-environment system was no more homogenous in the same sense as that of the single cell system, but it consisted of highly differentiated parts from the point of view of the whole system. The environmental parts belonging to the organism-environment system started to acquire new order and differentiated properties.

Some cell-environment systems were using in their metabolism sources of energy that were based on direct contact with substances, while some others were specialized for energy forms influencing at a distance, such as radiation. The continuous metabolic flow of the cell system presupposed continuous reorganization and identification of substances. This was possible with motion, and already unicellular organisms had some sort of efferent vehicles, such as celia or other fin-like devices for motion.

When the multicellular organism could not directly assimilate the substances necessary for its metabolism, the most sensitive cells started to be destroyed. These were typically the most recently formed and specialized cells, which needed very specific environmental conditions for their life process. If no energy-rich substances were to be found in the vicinity of the cell, the maintenance of the life process favored those cells which could also use energy forms, such as electromagnetic radiation, at a distance. These cells then gave the direction of motion to the multicellular organisms, this being typically movement towards the light.

In this way perhaps the action of the first organism-environment systems became directed towards certain regions in the environment. From the point of view of the cell formation this could be seen as movement; from the point of view of the whole organism-environment system, this action was a process of reorganization of the whole system. In any case, the movement of the organism was no more a relatively random search process for metabolites in the region close to the cell membrane, but the organism started to move around in the environment, to search. This new kind of behavior was possible for a multicellular organism with the development of motor organs and with cells—the receptors—using the more distant forms of energy. However, some early forms of directed movements can be seen already in the behavior of unicellular animals, which may be based on the specialization of different parts of the membrane to different energy forms in the environment.

The specialization of cells of multicellular organisms and the associated differentiation of the environment led finally to the broadening of the functional environment of the organisms from the hydrosphere to the other main environments of the Earth, to the lithosphere and atmosphere. The organisms started to crawl over the Earth and fly in the air. Multicellular organisms started to become specialized, and complicated inner structures joined the cells of the organism together and made possible coordinated action and a rich merging with the environment. From the point of view of appearance of mental activity, an especially decisive phase of development was the appearance of the neuron, the neural cellular element of the organism.

A nerve cell or neuron is a highly specialized cell that differs from all other cells of the organism in its ability to influence directly the activity and metabolic conditions of the other cells. The neuron may exert its influence by special substances, “transmitters,” to the other cells of the organism. The transmitters may feed the associated neuron across the synaptic gap or distort its action. In the former case we have an inhibitory synapse (the second-order neuron gets inhibited) and in the latter one an excitatory one (the second-order neuron fires action potentials; see Järvilehto, 1998).

Through their influences on other cells of the organism, the metabolism of nerve cells and their mutual organization became decisive in the appearance of coordinated actions of the organism. The nerve cells connected together the motor and sensory cells, creating a functional circle through the environment. Thus, from the beginning, the receptors and motor organs acted together with the environmental elements in one process. The nervous system was organized in elements that formed together with specified parts of the environment action systems, systems making the achievement of specific results possible. After the appearance of the nervous elements, the organisms no more used only single environmental substances, but complicated energy constellations. In the organism-environment system a new form of action appeared: mental activity.

Mental activity represented a change in the structure of action, such that the action now included complicated integrated parts of the environment and the process of action was divided into action results, transitions from one act to another. The environmental elements could be included in the organism-environment system by motor and sensory elements in their coordinated action. The sensory elements consisted of cells that were sensitive to useful forms of energy, but also could detect harmful substances and environmental effects. In addition to the motor elements, elements also developed which could tune the sensory elements to correspond to the specific structural situation of the organism-environment system (efferent influences on sensory cells; see Järvilehto, 1998).

The appearance of mental activity was the advent of a new kind of action of the organism-environment system. Mental activity was a new form of action of the highly developed system that was capable of using its history of experience in achieving results of action and forming systems directed towards the future. With its neural nets, receptors, and motor organs, and associated heterogeneous environment, the organism-environment system could extract from the environment things which it could use in its action, or avoid if they were harmful. A new scale of action appeared (cf. Keijzer, 1998). The action of the system was no more an undifferentiated process, but could be divided into action results in relation to the extracted parts of the environment. This possibility gave the organism-environment system a new evolutionary advantage.

It is the role of the result of action that gives the clue to understanding the difference between the life process in general and mental activity. Mental activity appeared when the result of action contained the whole organization of the system and aided the development of the entire system. Thus, mental activity is not some mystical “emergent property” of the organization of neural elements (the brain) only, but a form of action necessarily following from the complicated development of the organism-environment system. This consequence was associated with the appearance of neurons, although some plants may show here intermediate forms. Sometimes their actions maybe also show phases of action that could be regarded as results (e.g. some carnivorous plants). However, the appearance of the neural elements decisively increased the action possibilities of the organism-environment systems. Mental activity made possible the differentiation of the environment in things and of the action in results, having stability from the point of view of the whole organism-environment system.

Mental Activity as Activity of the Whole Organism-Environment System

Thus, mental activity is activity (reorganization) of the whole organism-environment system. It is not realized in the brain or in some other separate parts of the system (e.g., body as a whole), but by the organism-environment system as a whole. This means, however, that mental activity may exist only if there are neural elements, although it cannot be reduced to their activity. In accordance with early behaviorists (e.g., Watson) one could equate mental activity with behavior, but then the concept of behavior should be extended to include any reorganizational processes in the organism-environment system. Behavior, from this point of view, would not be that which can be observed when organisms act, but the observable changes would be only indicators of the real organizational processes directed towards the result of action. As Koffka (1935) quite correctly stated, all mental activity is dynamic organization and reorganization; however, not only of the brain or the organism as Koffka thought, but of the whole organism-environment system.

If we apply the traditional terminology, then we could say that those reorganizational processes of the organism-environment system that we may see as movements are called behavior, and those processes which are not readily detected, mental activity. Such a use of these concepts is, however, misleading, because in both cases the question is of the reorganization of the whole system. Behavior is included in mental activity if the latter is conceived as activity of the whole organism-environment system. Consequently, there is no causal relation between mental activity and behavior; thought does not cause movements or fear escape. A causal relation may exist only between reorganizational processes comprising the whole system, not between the whole system and one of its parts, because the part is already included in the whole system. The part cannot be in a causal relation to itself.

From the conception of mental activity as related to the whole organism-environment system, it follows that all traditional psychological concepts, such as perception, memory, or emotion, for example, are not separate “functions,” but aspects of one and the same organism-environment system. Thus, in the frame of the organism-environment theory we may tentatively formulate new definitions for some traditional psychological concepts e.g. in the following way:

  • “Perception” is the process of reorganization and inclusion of significant environmental parts into systemic organization in the achievement of results of behavior. A percept of an event or thing is a result of preceding organization, not a response to a stimulus.
  • “Memory” is the structure of the whole system; memory is the basic requisite for any action and result. Without memory no action is possible, because the structure and action go always together.
  • “Learning” is the process of widening and differentiation of the system.
  • “Emotions” denote special organizational aspects related to the achievement of results: negative emotions refer to disorganization related to failure in this achievement of the result, and positive emotions to the integration of action after successful achievement of the result. As the reorganization of the system is a continuous process, emotions are always present and there is no action without emotions.

At the beginning of the development of mental activity we may observe all such basic forms of reorganization, typical also of more developed organisms. We may observe them in a rudimentary form in any, even in the most simple organism-environment system, although without neurons the possibilities of realizing these forms of organization are very limited. The main point here, however, is that mental activity does not consist of some “simple” functions like sensations which then developed into more complicated functions, which would then combine to “higher” functions, such as perceptions. Thus, not even in its simplest forms does mental activity consist of simple reactions to stimuli (“sensibility;” cf. Leontjev, 1975) or “automatic” responses to environmental “stimuli.”

Mental activity appeared with the appearance of life or, to be more exact, some pre-mental forms appeared with the first single cell and multicellular organisms. However, the appearance of mental activity as structured action and action results was possible only with the advent of neurons. This also explains why it is so seductive to regard the brain as the locus of mental activity (see Introduction).

The Advent of Consciousness

Up to now we have sketched a very general definition of mental activity, which could also be expressed as the ability of a complex living system to divide its world into parts (things and events) which are significant or meaningful in the process of result achievement. This kind of definition applies to organisms supplied with a nervous system. Among these organisms, however, the characteristics of mental activity may considerably differ, which may be seen in the dynamics of their behavior, in the results of action, and in the action structure, leading to differences in their abilities to cope with varying life conditions. During evolution more complicated forms of mental activity appeared, eventually resulting in the possibility of investigating one’s own mental activity, and reporting to the members of the same species one’s own perceptions, memories, and feelings. This possibility—which is reflected, for example, in the fact that I am writing this article—was created by the advent of consciousness.

Although consciousness—being able to experience, describe, and report one’s own actions (perceptions, emotions, movements, et cetera)—is certainly one of the central problems of psychology, traditional cognitive psychology has not shown much interest in this problem. It is also clear why: although critical towards classical behaviorism, cognitive psychology shares with it the idea that human information processing may be studied without using this concept. This is understandable, because from the point of view of linear information processing all psychological or neural processes go on in the same domain, although sometimes the question appears of why some processes seem to be connected with reportable experiences and some do not. Anyway, the processing starts with the stimulus and ends with the response; whether something between the stimulus and response becomes conscious has no special role in the explanation of the response. Even if some parts of the processing may be “conscious,” such experiences have only an epiphenomenal character. Conscious and unconscious are not usually defined and separated on the theoretical level.

At the present the situation has changed, and both cognitive science and neuroscience have started to take the problem of consciousness seriously (Chalmers, 1996; Hurley, 1998). In a few years, this has resulted in a large amount of literature trying to answer questions like "What is consciousness?", "How can consciousness be explained?", et cetera, but in the present article I am not trying to answer such questions. In fact, these questions may be wrongly formulated, having no answer. If we suppose that consciousness underlies somehow the use of language, then it is not possible to describe consciousness with words. This would presuppose that we could go beyond consciousness and be in some other way conscious.

Usually, consciousness is conceived as an individual, private, subjective, personal faculty hiding somewhere in the abyss of the soul or brain. This follows logically from the separation of the organism and environment: when considering human action we deal with two separate systems: one is man with his body and inner life, and the other the environment with all its stimuli and other people acting on the former system. Thus, man (or a body) must be the carrier of mental activity and consciousness, and it is this system which is in interaction with the (physical) environment system located outside. Such a conception is usually also connected with the idea that the activity of some parts of the brain may become conscious, or that it is just this activity which makes us conscious. From this follows the question of how the activity of these parts differs from the activity in those parts that do not have this characteristic. If the contents of consciousness are determined by the brain or some parts of it, we should be able to show some specific neurophysiological characteristics in those parts. However, neurophysiology deals only with physiological characteristics of neurons. It does not deal at all with the concept of consciousness, and so at once we have here a problem that cannot be solved.

Thus, I will not proceed by trying to answer such questions as “What is consciousness?”, or “What parts of the brain make us conscious?” Instead, I shall try to formulate the conditions in evolution that made the appearance of consciousness necessary. The main idea is that consciousness is something that developed in evolution on the basis of the possibility of mental activity and, once it had appeared, gave advantage to the life process of conscious organisms.

An Outline of the Development of Consciousness

If—in the frame of the organism-environment theory—mental activity is activity of the whole organism-environment system, what would consciousness be then? Is consciousness also only an aspect of action of the organism-environment system? Does consciousness develop within such a system?

What are the essential features or criteria for the existence of consciousness? The first one is certainly its apparent subjectivity: I can know my own feelings, but I can always doubt if other humans have such feelings. Thus, consciousness is something private. The second feature seems to be opposite to the former one, that is to say, the commonality of the conscious experience: I can report my feelings and think that others can share them and understand what I say. In fact, even the term consciousness is related to common knowledge (Latin com-scire: “to know together”). Thus, consciousness is something in common. Can this contradiction be solved in the organism-environment theory?

Consciousness is often connected only with human beings, and with the appearance of social activity (Leontjev, 1975). Without doubt, social activity is a prerequisite for the appearance of consciousness, if it is related to “knowing together,” but some sort of social activity may be seen among all kinds of living creatures. In fact, hardly any animal lives alone, and all basic forms of behavior of animals—feeding or sexual behavior—are somehow connected with their fellow animals, they have a social character, or they have at least social consequences.

The development of organisms led to the appearance of different groups and species of organisms. The organization of such groups was loose and cooperation between individuals rigid. Each individual had a fixed role, fulfilled its role in the organization, and was destroyed when no more needed. The action of the whole system was not based on cooperation in the usual sense of the word, but the question was rather of fitting together of pre-specialized units in the physiological sense, in a similar way as specialized cells join to form the human body (cf. Mead, 1934). Such examples can be also seen among very primitive organisms (e.g. fungi) which seem partly to live separately, but under certain circumstances start to create formations in which an individual gets a fixed role and which helps the group to overcome difficult life conditions (see Clark, 1997). In a more developed form this sort of cooperation is typical of social insects, such as ants. It is questionable if such organisms have consciousness; at least they cannot share it with humans.

Hence, social activity alone seems not to be a sufficient criterion for consciousness, although any cooperation may already reflect some rudimentary form of consciousness. In humans the appearance of consciousness is usually connected with language and tool making, but these seem to be activities which already presuppose the existence of consciousness (at least in the sense of planning and report). Thus something critical happened in social activity before the appearance of such skills.

It is suggested here that this critical feature was the development of such social activity that produced something genuinely new as a result, i.e., a common result, which was useful for the participants and for the development of the social system as a whole. The specific feature of this result was that any individual alone could not achieve it, and it could be varied under different life conditions.

The conditions for the achievement of common results in human social action are extremely complicated. For example, lifting a stone together presupposes many coordinated and integrated actions whose temporal and spatial dynamics must be exact. If lifting is asynchronous then the individual efforts do not join as a common force; the same is true of the spatial organization. In order to create a common organization the participants must be able to influence each other, indicate their intentions, and the purpose of the common action. The common result could be achieved when every participating individual plastically changed his organization such that it fitted the common organization necessary for the result. Such a process of fitting was possible through the simultaneous influence of one participant on another and on himself, through a gesture or sound which both participants could follow (cf. Mead, 1934). One individual had to be able somehow to indicate to the other his place in the cooperation and the instant of action so that the individual forces could be joined in a simultaneous effort, lifting and moving a big stone to protect the camp, for example. Such influencing was the beginning of communication that later developed into the use of language.

The development of communication offered the possibility of directing one’s own and another’s actions towards a common result by giving orders to oneself as well as to the other (cf. Mead, 1934). Therefore, communication developed as a tool for creating cooperative organization in which the indication given to the other also acts as an indication to change one’s own actions. In this process it is possible to see through the other participants what the relation is of one’s own action to the common result as well as to the efforts of the other participants. This was the beginning of human consciousness.

Hence, consciousness—in a very general sense—means appearance of an organism-environment system in which every single organism-environment system acts as an element of the system as a whole which is directed towards common results that are useful for the whole cooperative system. In such a system it is possible to change dynamically single organism-environment systems so that they may fit each other in the process of achievement of results. In this larger system the body of the individual gets the character of a tool; it is in a similar position to any other part of the environment in as far as it can be used in the achievement of a common result. I can look at my hand in quite a similar way as I look at the hammer in the hand; I can use both for certain purposes. However, the body of the individual is not only “outside,” it is also “inside,” because the body sets the point of reference for all actions of the individual. The body sets the perspective to the world, the individual point of view to the common result.

According to the present formulation consciousness is the characteristic of the structure of the social system; therefore it is not possible to regard consciousness as some sort of “inner” property of the individual. However, consciousness is not only something general, but every individual also has his personal consciousness. This personal consciousness is not something residing “inside,” but means the personal participation of the individual in the results of common action. Every participating individual realizes some aspect of the general consciousness through his own action. The different individual aspects culminate in the common result and participation in the common results widens the action possibilities and the personal consciousness of the individual. The development of the personal consciousness is therefore in direct relation to the possibility of using the common results in one’s own action.

Consciousness did not appear at once, but its beginnings may be seen in the whole animal kingdom in the social activity of different animal species. The advent of consciousness was a necessary consequence of the interaction of living systems, and its development has evolutionary significance in the form of common results. These results always represent something more than that an individual is capable of. Thus, a conscious individual could purposively use the power of the whole organization for his life process.

The evolutionary significance of consciousness may perhaps be seen most clearly in the structure of the human environment and culture, and in the way humans have changed the structure of the Earth: in buildings, factories, roads, and even wars—all results of intensive and well-organized cooperation, and possible only for the human species as a whole, not for any individual alone. The evolutionary value of consciousness is also indicated by the fact that humans seem to be alone among other animals with their highly developed consciousness. It may be precisely this highly developed consciousness which gave mankind the power to destroy all animal species which were too close and also capable of developing a similar kind of consciousness. Therefore, human beings are not alone among the other animals because of some kind of miracle of sudden creation, but because they have systematically destroyed all their closest species.

Consciousness, Individual, and Language

The former considerations indicate that we may discern in the use of the concept of consciousness at least three somewhat different meanings. First, we may consider consciousness as related to the whole social organization, as an organizational aspect of the cooperating system. We may call this “general consciousness” in the sense of common knowledge. Second, with the help of communication it was possible to extract the role of the individual in the organization, in relation to other individuals and to the common result. This possibility created the basis of “personal consciousness” which means general consciousness as realized from the perspective of a certain body. Although consciousness does not exist in the brain or in the body, the body is important from the point of view of consciousness, because it creates the unique aspect and spatial position through which general consciousness works. Third, we may speak of consciousness as subjective experience.

One of the central factors in the mystification of consciousness has certainly been the manner in which it has been understood only in the sense of the last aspect, as subjective experience, which led to its localization in the brain, body, or individual, in general. However, according to the present formulation, consciousness means the possibility of a certain kind of cooperation and the production of common results which are beneficial for all participants; therefore, consciousness cannot exist in the individual, but presupposes a whole consisting of several individuals.

If consciousness really exists in the individual, then it should also exist without “you.” This, however, is not possible, as always when “I” exists there must also be a “you;” “I” may be defined only in relation to somebody else. Thus, an “I” may exist only if several individuals exist, making a common organization possible. An individual is nothing without the cooperative organization, because he gets his properties only through other individuals; we could even say that an individual is the cooperative organization, but only from a limited perspective. And this perspective is set by the characteristics of his body defined in relation to the other individuals (cf. Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

The appearance of consciousness means the appearance of an individual who can reflect his own action results, because they are not only his own, who can look at his body from “outside,” because his “I” is not located in the body, and separate objects from his body. The advent of consciousness means that the individual (or now rather his body!) becomes an object of his own action through other individuals. The agent of this action is not the body, but an “I,” a set of relations in the organization. In the system consisting of several individuals each “I” means only a systemic point of view of the cooperation and of the environment created in this cooperation through the common results. This aspect or point of view is not directed from the body into the “outer” world as if an “I” was looking outside through the bodily windows, but this aspect means that all action and its results are related through other individuals to one’s own body. From the point of view of consciousness one’s own body is as much “outside” as the other parts of the consciously perceived world.

Consequently, consciousness cannot be located in any parts of the individual, in his head or hemispheres of the brain. The localization of conscious experience in the head is based on the mistaken conception of the subject of the conscious action (mixing of personal and subpersonal, see Hurley, 1998). The subject of consciousness is not the body, brain, or a neuron, but an “I:” a person that may not be defined on the basis of the structure of his brain, but rather as a point of intersection in a net of social relations. The “I” is not an entity in the same sense as a body, but a systemic relation. The thinking and conscious subject is not a piece of flesh, but a set of relations and processes in the social system. Such relations create a person who is distinct from all other personalities precisely through those specific relations. Thus, a person may be defined as a point of intersection of all social relations, the body being the spatial location of the point of intersection; the concept of person contains all those parts of the world and relations which are important for the life process of the individual. These parts are the basis of the identity of the individual, his self. Nobody may have an identical personality or self to somebody else, because it is not possible to have the same social relations as somebody else. It is this fact that gives to every individual his uniqueness. For the self, the body is an object like other parts of the environment, but with one important difference: the body is the point of reference for the self in relation to the common results; the body creates the personal aspect of social organization.

It is just consciousness that made possible the starting point of the two systems theory (see Introduction), because consciousness means the possibility of looking simultaneously at one’s own body and at the objects in relation to it. However, here we are not looking at the subject and the object, but at two objects. In fact, when we think a little more about the concept of the subject we will see that it is not possible to describe the subject of an action. If such a description were possible the subject would no more be a subject, but an object.

The conception that we can describe the subject is based on a very simple linguistic misunderstanding. When I say, “Phil paints the house,” Phil is a subject and the house an object, but only in a grammatical sense. From my point of view both Phil and the house are objects and I describe only the relation between these two objects. If I say, “I am painting the house,” this “I” is no more any perceptible object, although we usually try make it such by using the body as a point of reference. However, it would be strange to say “My body is painting the house!” In many languages it is not even necessary to use “I;” it is enough to say the verb and the object.

As language was needed primarily for forming the organization directed towards common results, it (and also personal consciousness mediated by the language) started to develop in relation to the common results. Thus, a word is not a symbol representing something, but a proposal for common action. It is precisely the common result which is stored in language, and therefore language reflects the history of mankind and its culture; language is the historical collection of the results of human cooperation.

The criterion for consciousness is the possibility of communicating and indicating common results; with words we can never describe an action, but only common results. If I want to tell what happens when I take a pencil from the table, I must divide my action into smaller results of action: my hand is now here, I move it, at the next moment it is there, I take a grip on the pencil, etc. If I am further asked what I mean with “move” or “take,” I must again go to the results and say, for example, that moving means the hand is now here, but at the next moment there. We have no words for the action itself, and we cannot even have such, in principle, if consciousness is related only to the results of action. In fact, each verb is an abbreviation of a sequence of results. A human being cannot describe or understand movement, because he is himself all the time in the process of moving.

Although words are for cooperation and for the achievement of common results, the common results are something that may never be exhaustively described by words. Speech and language mean only possibilities of creating an organization leading to the common results of action. A word is an “interpretation” in the sense that it refers to an indicator of result. For example, the word “ship” denotes a piece of reality (thing) which is an indicator of the result (e.g., the possibility to go overseas). The word is a human interpretation of a piece of reality. For an ant that part of the world would not be a ship, but something else (of which we will never have exact knowledge, because we cannot share it with the ant). The identification of the indicator of result with the result itself means the stopping of development, limiting oneself to what is visible.

It is important to stress that the starting point of any description of the environment is the distinguishing of man and the environment, not because such a separation really exists, but because in the use of language we must be able to distinguish an object. However, all concepts bring, in fact, the subject and object together. If I say “forest,” for example, we may have the impression that I am speaking of something which is absolutely separated from the human being and exists without him. Thus, the concept of “forest” would not contain anything referring to the body, only to something outside the body. However, “forest” can be understood as forest only in relation to the human being; for an ant running in the forest there exists no forest in the sense we think.

The development of consciousness means the development of conception of the separation of man and the environment. This is a necessary condition for planned cooperation and for contemplation of action alternatives. A newborn baby has no such separation, and for her/him everything that happens, happens to her/him. With the development of personal consciousness the child starts to make distinctions between her/his body and the other world. This is necessary, because otherwise there would be too many unpredictable factors having a direct influence on her/his action possibilities.

With the development of consciousness s/he starts to have her own joy or pain that, however, is a result of learning and cooperation with the closest people. This leads then to the idea that something that happens to other people is not happening to “me.” With the further development of consciousness it is possible that people start to realize that this connection was, however, never really cut: everything that happens to other people happens also to me, at least in the form of development of my action possibilities and experience of the world.

Language also means a possibility of a theory of action, for the explanation and understanding of one’s own behavior. Language makes possible the existence of the past and the future in the present, because language gives the possibility of reflecting on what happened and what will be happening. This is the basis for our impression that consciousness is continuous and that we can use language for the description of the process of action.

Development of Consciousness and the Forms of Cooperation

If consciousness is related to the organization of organism-environment systems in the process of achievement of common results, then the development of consciousness could be examined by considering different forms of cooperation. As indicated above, the forms of cooperation are probably different at different phases of phylogeny. From the point of view of the development of the personal consciousness the most important phases could be the following:

  1. Totalitarian” organization based on fixed specialization. This is the earliest organization in the evolutionary sense. In this organization, cooperation is not directed towards any specific result, but the common result appears if the individuals rigidly fit together in the formation of the common result; this organization is what Mead (1934) calls physiological cooperation. Consciousness exists here only in its general form; no personal consciousness exists.
  2. Corporate” organization, based on relative specialization of participants and communication, but the common result is pre-set by goals or laws formed earlier. The main type of communication consists of orders. Personal consciousness is present, but the organization does not allow its optimal development, because the formation of the common result involves resistance from the participants, and the participants do not authentically share the common results.
  3. Communicative” organization, based on unspecialized individuals who may flexibly take the roles of others. The common result is not predetermined, but achieved through communication in the process of fitting together the organizations of the individuals in an optimal way. The result is new and even surprising: something in which the visions of all individuals join together. The main type of communication is dialogue. This organization is the basis for the development of consciousness because, through common results, participants learn new aspects of the world. In this organization the personal consciousness may develop, grow larger and approach the general consciousness.

This order of forms of cooperation may reflect a true developmental order, although this does not mean that the earlier forms disappeared with the advent of the newer ones. If we look at human societies we may probably also find these forms at the present; as the labels indicate, the first one would refer to a totalitarian society, the second one to an ordinary corporation, and the third one to a new type of team work.

As indicated earlier, communication is the vehicle for creating cooperative organization and, as can be clearly seen, its role is different in different forms of cooperation. One could roughly say that the importance of communication increases from one to three. Thus, the development of consciousness and the forms of cooperation could be analyzed by studying the linguistic forms typical in the community.

Because cooperation presupposes dynamic changes in the common organization, it is possible only within individuals who are structurally relatively similar. We cannot spin a web together with a spider, because our structural scales and significant parts of the world are completely different (cf. Keijzer, 1998). A spider can never live in a human world and vice versa. The individuals of different species differ from each other especially in how they create their world and divide it into significant parts in their life process. Therefore, it is difficult to know which parts of the environment should be shared when two individuals of different species try to cooperate. Possible common results would also have completely different meanings for the individuals. Therefore, the possibilities of cooperation between species are very limited. There are of course some exceptions, such as dogs or chimpanzees when they live with humans.

Consciousness as Evaluation of Action Results

The result of action can be defined as a possibility of a new act and as a point of comprehensive reorganization of the organism-environment system. A conscious result means that this point in action joins with the actions of the other people. Therefore, this point is also the point of estimation, values, and norms. Common results are the cornerstone in the origin and development of culture. Thus, culture is not a process originating in the heads of individuals in the form of “memes” (see Dawkins, 1976), for example; culture is rather based on the common knowledge expressed in the structure of the cooperating organization.

Every conscious result means a point from which behavior may acquire a new direction. Therefore consciousness “disturbs” fluent action. Every conscious result means the stopping of the ongoing action, and a point of evaluation of the achieved result. In practicing a skill, for example, conscious moments are abundant, but with the development of the skill they become more and more infrequent, so that the action goes fluently from one conscious result to another even with long intervals between them. Such “automatization” does not mean that the action becomes more and more automatic (in the sense of mechanical repetition), but it is formed in context-dependence without any conscious interference. If some part of the “automated” action becomes conscious then the fluent action is disturbed. If a pianist, for example, starts to think of the movement of a certain finger when playing, his action may stop or become clumsy.

The common result is the culmination of the goals of all individuals participating in the action, and the result is an integration of organizations of all participating individuals. Therefore, the common result is also to some extent unpredictable, and cannot correspond to any goal of a single individual. Hence, social action always produces something new and may even lead to unexpected results. In fact, the same is also true for the individual: if an individual sets goals, the result achieved is never exactly that which was set at the beginning, because the result is something realized in the future, with factors which were not present when the goal was set. From this an interesting paradox follows: the more one wants to achieve a goal, the less the obtained result corresponds to the planned goal. This results because an intense following of the preset goal restricts, in fact, the action possibilities of the individual.

Subjectivity and Privacy

The “mystery” of consciousness is, as a matter of fact, based on a very simple thinking mistake: to be conscious means to be able to look at one’s own action, and because this action is seen as bodily movements, it is natural to think that there is somebody inside the body making these actions. However, we could also locate the cause of these movements in any other part of the world, and we could well think of a culture in which it is the tools people use which think and make decisions through people. It is only a cultural convention that we are used to set the point of reference of consciousness in the head, which leads to the mystical idea that consciousness is inside the brain. This makes consciousness into something very subjective and private.

However, according to the present formulation, the starting point of these subjective and private experiences is our cooperation with other people, our common experience, and coordination for the achievement of the common result. If we agree that the basis of “I” is the set of relations within a system of communication, then “my” subjective experience is not really private, but also includes other people. To have an “I,” to be a conscious agent, means that the individual is the whole of humanity, but only from a restricted point of view.

The question of subjectivity of consciousness is the question of the contents of consciousness. What determines the content—the qualia—of the conscious experience? It is nowadays usual in cognitive science to answer this question by referring to a certain area of the brain: a visual sensation differs qualitatively from a tactile one, because the former is processed in the visual cortex and the latter in the somatosensory one. Such an answer, however, is only a repetition of Muller’s law of specific nerve energies from the nineteenth century in a modem form. Muller thought that each nerve contains its own specific energy which makes it understandable why, for example, any stimulation of a visual nerve produces a visual sensation. According to Muller, the nerve contains a “specific energy” related to the evoked sensation. Nowadays nobody believes in such energies, but in fact this concept has been replaced by the concept of the locus of activation. Visual sensation appears because neurons in the visual cortex are activated.

However, the neurons in the different parts of the brain function in a similar way even if there are some anatomical differences in their constitution. There is nothing “visual” in the visual cortex, or nothing “tactile” in the tactile cortex, and there is no reason to think that the quality of the sensation would be determined by the locus of activation per se. Thus, Muller’s original problem has still not been adequately answered in cognitive science.

According to the present consideration the problem is wrongly formulated. If I ask “What determines the content of my consciousness?”, the answer cannot deal only with the brain, but must include much more. What makes me feel like a human being does? The first condition for this possibility is precisely that I am a human being, that I belong to the human species. I am a human being only if the contents of my consciousness are typically human; if they are something totally different then I am no more a human being. According to the present formulation this is self-evident, because the content of consciousness is determined by the common results, by the possibility of cooperation with other human beings. Thus, the content of consciousness is shared with other human beings; otherwise cooperation would not be possible.

The basic problem in cognitive science is the fact that it treats conscious and unconscious mental “functions” in a similar way by locating them in the individual’s brain. However, when consciousness appears, the mental processes change: not even in their unconscious form were they located in the brain, but in the whole organism-environment system. In their conscious form they have still less location: every conscious image, memory, and thought is not something individual only, but belongs to the whole cooperating system in which it gets its significance as a shared image, memory, or thought. These forms of the reorganization of the organism-environment system simply lose their content if man is separated from his fellow humans and from his culture.


Human action is the process of the intertwining of the body and environment in cooperation with other people, and the results of human action are an inseparable part of this process. The human being belongs together with the other human beings and may only in this context have his own existence. Individuality is possible only in a social system. However, all conscious things are common; therefore the whole human world, as it may be described, is a social world. All conscious experiences are common experiences. What relates to one human being relates to all of them. The separation of man from his environment means also the separation of man from the results of his action, and thus denial of the developmental possibilities of the human being, as all development goes through positive results.

All science must start with certain assumptions. It is maintained here that in psychology the critical basic assumption concerns the character of the systems with which we are dealing when we speak about man and his environment. This means that the organism-environment system should not be regarded as a system which concretely exists, but rather as a conceptual tool and a monistic methodological principle. The organism-environment system is something that can never be observed directly, just as with atoms or molecules. There are, however, possibilities of developing empirical research on this basis. For example, the organism-environment theory opens possibilities for a new interpretation of the role of electrical recordings from the brain in explanation of mental activity. When recording an EEG we may get an impression of how the brain is organized as a part of the organism-environment system in behavior. What is of special importance here is the determination of what the subject is really doing, how his action is divided into phases and behavioral results. Provided with these data we may relate some individual measurements to the whole process of reorganization of the organism-environment system.

From the point of view of the dynamics of mental activity the organism-environment system is the smallest unit of analysis. As mental activity is a process always comprising the whole organism-environment system, it is not possible that a part of the system alone contains intentionality, meanings et cetera. If we take only the organism/brain, or if we take only the environment, we destroy the object of our study. In a practical investigation, however, we may study processes of the brain in behavior and locate there some components which seem to be necessary for a certain kind of behavior. This type of conceptualization means that we artificially render the system stationary and look for the necessary conditions (components) for a certain result of behavior. Such analysis will never provide an explanation of intention or mental activity, because for this end we need a complete description of the whole system, but it may provide us with some aspects necessary for understanding the functioning of the system.

The theory of the organism-environment system attempts to save objective science from the mysticism which is necessarily entailed by different forms of idealism or physicalism; it tries to preserve the rationality in science in the sense that it is possible to understand the world within those limits which are possible for humans. This may sound odd, because it is precisely physicalism that is maintained to have this task. However, there is a strange contradiction: although people who speak for objectivism maintain that the world consists of physical things, there is no physical way to describe any of these things as a whole. We may measure their dimensions, record reflectance, et cetera, but these recordings are not the thing. Only an observer may connect all the properties that make a thing, and here we are already outside the bounds of physics. For the physicist there does not exist an environment in the sense it exists for any organism.

Idealism and physicalism are similar in the sense that both of them locate the human being at the center of the universe. This also explains why they are defended so vigorously. Although the human being lost his position as the center of the universe with sun-centered astronomy, something was still left: man as a dictator of the “objective” characteristics of the environment. The universe is still “governed” by humans, in idealism in the form of inner constructions and in physicalism as projections of these constructions into the environment. Idealism, of course, goes here even so far as to deny the reality of the world altogether, which is really an extreme case of omnipotence. In any case, both start with an absolute separation of man and environment, and have as a criterion of reality those properties of the environment that may be experienced or measured (which is the same thing). To say that the world would objectively exist with those properties which we know, even if we did not exist, is only a reverse way of saying that the world is our construction. It sounds, of course, very objective, but it is in fact only an extremely subjective point of view. It is so subjective that it may freely assert that the only objective point of view is the observer’s own.

Conscious perception means the possibility of describing the world around us and determining its properties from the point of view of the human being. It is also the possibility of monitoring our own existence, our feelings, pains, et cetera. The “two system theories” of perception regard perceptual activity as something which reveals to us, first, the basic features of the world which exists “out there,” independent of human beings, and which is then reproduced in the human brain as some sort of representation. The properties of the “objective” world are outside, and they are constructed in the head of the observer by computations in the neural nets.

If the world is a dynamic and ever-changing system there cannot be any permanent properties of the organism or of the environment. William James pointed out that things change when they enter into new relations; thus, there is no fixed “essence” of things. Earlier it was thought that the essence of a thing might be seen when we look at what stays constant when the thing is set into new relations, and it seems that a chair is a chair whether it is in front of the table or on the table. But what is forgotten in such thinking is that with these new relations there is one relation that does not change and which preserves the “essence,” and this is the relation of the human observer to the thing described. If you imagine (we may only imagine) that this relation would also change and a spider, for example, would give the description, then there would no more be any chair. This shows that the “essence” or “nature” of a thing is the same as the human “essence” or human nature. Such things were not realized before the advent of relativity theory, although Spinoza (1677) already pointed at them: the nature of the thing is more determined by the structure of the human body than by the “external” thing itself.

The organism is born, not into a physical or ready-made environment, but into a world of possibilities, and the environment changes continuously with the actions of the organism. Heavy turns to be light when the muscles grow, difficult turns to be easy with enough training, and the bad turns out to be good when more knowledge is gathered. Something light is for someone else heavy, something good for somebody may hurt somebody else. The evil or goodness does not inhabit human beings, but they are created in human relations. The bad or good is as well in the inspector as in the object of inspection. Beauty is in the eye of the observed and there is really no sense in disputing about matters of taste!

The changing of properties with changing relations is nothing fictional or “interpretative,” but real. Things change into other things when the purpose of their use changes. The fact that the “physical” features of things seem to be the same independent of their use seems to show only that physical measurements are pretty trivial in relation to the descriptions of the real use of the environment and in description of its significant parts. However, changes also occur in such properties when we move fast enough: things shrink, their mass increases, and time slows down, as shown by the special theory of relativity. When we move from one set of coordinates to another, our possibilities of measuring things—and with that also the results of measurement, i.e. properties—change.

Any organism may be defined only in the frame of the system to which it belongs. If the organism was absolutely alone it would have no properties, because there would be no relations defining it. When we are perceiving different organisms, we are joining them into the human living system, which means that these organisms acquire properties which have significance only from the human point of view. Therefore, we will never be able to understand thoroughly how the worlds of other organisms would look, or what such organisms would be from the point of view of their species. Some possibilities we have, however: by investigating the behavior of different organisms we may see which parts of our world seem to be important to them also, and through such observations we may, to some extent, understand their behavior.

It is precisely the main problem when studying the living system that its environment can be determined only by the system itself, not by the observer. The environmental parts of the organism-environment system are not physical, because we may use physical description only for those parts of the world that we include in a physical experiment. Thus, “physical” is subordinate to consciousness, and consciousness cannot be reduced into biology or physics.

In cognitive science the environment is not seen as a problem, and therefore the environment used in research is the environment of the researcher, and has a strictly defined significance in the experimental form for him alone. The basic mistake then is that the experimenter gives to his own environment a generally valid existence. However, such generally valid environments do not exist; the environment is always somebody’s environment, it belongs to a certain organism-environment system. The objectivity of the environment is not possible in any absolute sense. For humans the objective environment exists, because the human environment is a shared environment; it is independent of the existence of a certain spectator. It is, however, not independent of the existence of the human species. The description of the environment may be objective only in the sense that this description is based on consciousness and on common knowledge about the environment. In such description the “scientific” analysis of the environmental features does not give the basic materials for perception, but presents the most derived and abstracted features, the analysis of which already presupposes the existence of conscious perception. It is therefore questionable whether such an analysis may give any basis to the psychology of perception or to sensory physiology.

When we perceive the world, stimuli do not jump into our brains from the outside to cause perceptions, but in conscious perception we are joined to certain parts of the universe in order to act together with other people. Hence what we concretely and consciously perceive is always related to the possibility of cooperation, to potential common results, and hence to language. This does not mean that perception is some kind of social “construction” realized by a single brain, or that it is only “subjective.” Each percept is the realization of an aspect of the real world. In each conscious perception the world turns one of its sides toward us, a side which can be used in joint action with our fellow humans in our culture.

The problem of consciousness has probably always been difficult precisely because consciousness has been sought in a person artificially abstracted from the environment and other people. From this point of view also, social activity means at best only some sort of “interaction” between separate individuals, and therefore it is necessary to postulate a consciousness or “sociality” within each individual separately. If, however, consciousness means something in common, e.g., common knowledge, it is impossible to see how this sharing could develop separately within each individual.

Thus, modern brain research, for example, is faced with an impossible task when trying to find in the brain special areas for consciousness. This attempt is something similar to the effort of trying to find “steering” by looking only at the steering wheel of the car. This doesn’t mean denial of the importance of the brain or the nervous system when consciousness is studied. However, locating consciousness in the brain leads to questions which cannot be answered, because for consciousness to exist we need much more than the brain alone. Of course, if we remove the brain one loses consciousness, but the same also happens if all other parts of the body, or of the total environment (with other people) are removed. On the other hand, even large parts (e.g., one hemisphere) of the brain may be dissected without any permanent loss of consciousness. The development of the nervous system was most probably important from the point of view of the advent of consciousness in the phylogeny, but this does not mean that consciousness is located in the neurons. Consciousness is something that cannot be explained by more “basic” concepts, although we may trace its possible development in the evolution of nature.


I thank my wife, Mrs. Anna Järvilehto, M.A., for many fruitful discussions and cooperation in the preparation of the article, and Dr. William Johnston, Mr. Jukka Heikkiliä, MEd, Prof. Susan Hurley, Dr. Seppo Laukka, PhD, and Ms. Suzy McAnsh, M.A., for helpful reading of the manuscript.


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Timo Järvilehto

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