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In computer programming we have a debugger that we can use to execute a program step by step. In that mode, the program can be suspended and we can analyze the state of the hardware, modify the state and control the flow of the program to experiment.

Now, the question: Does the brain have something similar? Like a "debugger mode" in which it can reflect about or analyze its internal structures? I think this is the mode that therapists use to analyze behavior, isn't it?

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    $\begingroup$ What would you consider as evidence (physiological, psychological or otherwise) that this "mode" exists? $\endgroup$ – Seanny123 Jan 2 '16 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ Any answer's aptness will depend on how far you are willing to stretch that metaphor. I'd say the most reasonable answer is, no, the brain doesn't have anything remotely like a debugger. $\endgroup$ – Chelonian Jan 2 '16 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ The closest thing I to a brain debugger that I found is the quality of one's dreams. Not content, but the overall meta quality. For example dreams that feature bright daylight, coherent train of thoughts, use of logic and memory, including memory of waking world events are dramatically different from groggy recall of dim fragments of nonsense. One can gain insight into the function of one's brain by observing the quality of one's dreams like the ones described above. Once a pattern of dreaming changes, you know that something has changed in the brain. $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Feb 18 '16 at 17:08
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Short answer: Not a debugger, but possibly a control flow override.

Long answer:

This is a common fallacy known as the introspection illusion:

The introspection illusion is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states. ... In certain situations, this illusion leads people to make confident but false explanations of their own behavior (called "causal theories"1) or inaccurate predictions of their future mental states.

It was long thought that self-focus, meditation, concentration, hypnosis, self-reflection, psychoactive chemicals, and similar techniques can help improve one's insight into their brain's functioning, mental state, decision-making process, cause of emotions, buried memories, and other such private information. However, research has repeatedly demonstrated that this is not the case - it is at best an illusion, where people fill in gaps with confabulated self-knowledge that they do not actually have access to.

There are too many examples of this to list here, but check out choice blindness (people give explanations for decisions that they did not make), misattribution of arousal (people misattribute the causes of their emotions), and memory confabulation (people confidently recollect incorrect memories) for some well-known cases.

More in-depth literature on the subject can be found in a review by Silva & Gendolla (2001) of over 30 years of research into an informal theory called the "perceptual accuracy hypothesis" that claims (but no evidence supports this) that self-focus increases accuracy of self-knowledge in a wide variety of aspects of the self. Another review by Wilson & Dunn (2003), notes the lack of evidence for any potential for improvement of self-knowledge using introspection. A more modern review by Bollich, Johannet, and Vazire1 (2011) comes to essentially the same conclusion:

... we conclude that the road to self-knowledge likely cannot be traveled alone but must be traveled with close others who can help shed light on our blind spots.

For some decades now, computer scientists have been attempting to reproduce the function of the brain using artificial neural networks, with some success. An interesting aspect of neural networks is that they, like the brain, also do not have a debugger - at least not a useful one. Ask a programmer to explain why their neural network misclassified a training input, and they will respond with a statistical analysis and abstract mathematical model that describes the overall system, not a coherent reason like “it thought this R was an A, so assumed the word was gain instead of grin…” The only way to get such an explanation is to look at the result, and then guess.

The kind of "talk therapy" psychotherapy (such as CBT) that you ask about has been demonstrated to be more effective than placebo, so we know that something about it works, but what about it works is not well understood. Perhaps even the illusion of insight has some therapeutic effect, or perhaps there is a cognitive override mechanism at work.

Dual process theory is a well established idea that suggests that we have such a mechanism of control override that allows us (like some debuggers) to change the progression of mental processes mid-way. This is typically the role believed to be played by our "conscious" mind.

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Some types of meditation (when successful) can bring about states that can certainly be used for debugging purposes. One of the key factors is the ability to relax enough while maintaining sufficient focus to be able (a) to see why you are thinking or reacting in a certain way and (b) to stop immediately in your thinking tracks and choose a different path. While this approach may not be so low-level as desired, it can still serve meta-debugging purposes. Essentially you want to slow down enough to see individual thoughts while not being controlled entirely by them. I would imagine that certain drugs can also bring about debug-friendly states (when used correctly, of course). Psycho-feedback technologies could probably help as well, such as by making it easier to see when you are reacting emotionally to a thought or other stimulus.

Split-brain patients sometimes give hints that perhaps different regions of the brain can possess consciousness (awareness) independently from other parts. In theory, it may be necessary to have one brain region debug another if low-level monitoring is needed. How to make this happen, on the other hand, is a big question of its own.

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There are three ways that you can get to know yourself better:

  1. Self Inquiry
  2. Alpha State
  3. Default Mode Network

Default Processing happens when we blink, among other times. Oftentimes when someone falls in to an Alpha State, they stop blinking, so they lose awareness of themselves as separate agents. So these are two complementary possibilities. I often have to remind myself to blink while driving and listening to music, because I get in to an alpha state easily in doing that.

Default Processing is when the brain refocuses on internal states and awareness, and does "housekeeping" tasks like integrating short-term memory. You could think of this as serving some features of an "operating system" where the brain tracks its own state.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't know how much evidence there is for suggesting the role of the so-called 'default mode network' in this, but i get the sense that as with other answers / comments, when your mind is at rest, drifting, & daydreaming, that you are in a sense possibly doing some (subconscious) mental debugging, just as you may well be in certain sleep / dream states too. In general though any kind of 'metacognition' - thinking about thinking - could be thought of in the same way. I don't have any credible scientific evidence to back this up, but from general reading over time these may be relevant. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Jan 2 '16 at 16:34

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