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The modular theory of the mind: what it is and what it explains about the brain

The modular theory of the mind: what it is and what it explains about the brain

October 5, 2022

The theory of the mind tells us that the specialized neurons in our brain allow us to generate hypotheses about how the minds of others work. This allows us to anticipate the behaviors and intentionality of the other and, based on that, direct our behavior. For this reason, it is an important skill in the acquisition of knowledge and behavior, and has been attributed an essential value in adaptive terms.

But how is this happening? Modular theory suggests that the process of mentalization described above is possible because our mind works through different modules. We will see below what is the modular theory of the mind and how it explains our cognitive processes .


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Modular theory of the mind: the psyche as a set of processes

Among other things, the more traditional approach to the theory of the mind suggested that the mind is a multipurpose tool, capable of activating any type of task or information . Thus, regardless of whether we are presented with a logical-mathematical, linguistic, physical or social problem, our mind (as a unitary system) sets in motion mechanisms of perception and problem solving.

Faced with this conception, the modular approach maintains that the mind is not a unitary or monolithic tool. It is, rather, a set of tools, each specialized in a specific problem, task or information. Beyond being a single multipurpose tool, the mind is conceived as a set of processes and systems specialized in solving different types of problems (García García, 2008).


As such, each process would have a certain structure and competence. And for this reason, each process is conceived as a different "module". Thus, the mind would be constructed by a set of specialized modules in a certain type of process or activity.

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Development and background

In the year of 1986, the philosopher and psycholinguist Jerry Fodor He proposed that the mind is structured in "innate modules". He defined the latter as input systems (ie, perceptual systems). According to Fodor, the modules work independently and specialized in a domain. And in addition, they are automatic and fast processes.

But our mind is not only composed of different modules encapsulated and independent of each other. Contrary to this, Fodor also proposed that in the middle of the modules there is a central system, whose task is to receive the information from the input systems (that is, from the different modules). In other words, there is a central system that is responsible for integrating and recording the information processed by each module, and from this, we can generate processes and complex functions such as memory .


This is how Fodor developed the concept of "modularity". Through this he explained how the perceptive and cognitive processes work as a set of modules with specialized tasks. One of the examples where the modular theory of the mind is reflected is the theory of multiple intelligences, and another is the metaphor of the computational processor applied to the theory of the mind.

Does our mind work like a Swiss army knife?

One of the most used forms in theory of the mind to explain the modular approach is the Swiss army knife. It was proposed in 1994 by the psychologist Leda Cosmides and the anthropologist John Tooby , both specialized in evolutionary psychology.

What they suggest is that, traditionally, the theory of the mind held that the latter worked like a common knife that we can take with us to solve any problem, from opening a can to cutting a piece of bread. On the contrary, the modular theory of the mind maintains that the latter operates as a "Swiss army knife", which is also a manual tool, but it is composed of different tools with different functions.

You can have a knife, scissors, knives of different sizes, a flashlight, among others; and each one is useful to solve specific problems (and not others). In fact, its utility is precisely this: extreme specialization of each component , that allows to solve in an effective way concrete problems.

The physical bases of the mental modules

According to this theory, modular structure and organization would be the result of a complex phylogenetic process that has allowed us to develop different structures and mechanisms. At the same time, such development occurs adaptively , that is, it is a consequence of the constant modification of problems and tasks that our environment presents to us.

Thus, we generate new and different needs as we develop in a specific context, which ends up building different mental modules. The latter, translated into neurophysiological language, corresponds to brain plasticity and the connectionist model that holds that the information received is stored in neural circuits. In this way, a part of the modular theory maintains that the physiological basis of the nodules are precisely the cumulus and the neural networks; and in the same way, the psychophysical basis of modular development would be cerebral plasticity.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bacáicoa Ganuza, F. (2002). The modular mind. Journal of Psychodidactics, 13: 1-24.
  • Robbins, P. (2017). Modularity of Mind. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 3, 2018. Available at //plato.stanford.edu/entries/modularity-mind/#CaseForMassModu.
  • García García, E. (2008). Neuropsychology and education. From mirror neurons to the theory of the mind. Journal of Psychology and Education, 1 (3): 69-89.
  • Gómez Echeverry, I. (2010). Cognitive science, Theory of mind and autism. Psychological thinking, 8 (15): 113-124.

Explorations of the Modularity of the Mind (October 2022).


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