The Modular Theory of Mind: How Does the Human Brain Work?

The modular theory of mind proposes a reconceptualization of the way its functioning is understood. Each component contributes to the purpose, but separately.
The Modular Theory of Mind: How Does the Human Brain Work?

Last update: 12 May, 2022

The understanding of how the human brain works has never been uniform. Different theories have emerged and one of them is the modular theory of mind.

According to this theory, the brain works on the basis of modules, each of which has its own specialty. Thus, there would be modules for the different activities we perform on a daily basis: for memory, for speech, and for social relationships.

In other words, we’re talking about highly specialized structures. In this way, we achieve efficiency and optimization in the functioning of the brain.

How is this theory explained?

To understand what it’s about, it’s worth understanding that a module would be linked to an organ, albeit at a mental level. Just as there’s an organ that specializes in digestion, so there would be a module that would deal with certain mental processes.

Efficiency would be guaranteed because the total mind wouldn’t be involved in all operations, but only in those that are required according to each individual activity. In other words, modules are activated or deactivated on demand.

This type of theory stresses that modular organization is very advantageous, as in the event of a failure or adjustment, each module can be corrected or turned back on itself. If this weren’t the case, an error would impact the entire system. If this weren’t the case, changes would have a cascading effect on the remaining components.

However, modules shouldn’t be confused with the idea of anatomical structures. The point is to think in terms of functions. On the other hand, it’s true that modular organization is the result of phylogenetic evolution, that is, of years of the brain’s evolution and refinement.

The brain as a puzzle.
The brain wouldn’t have these modules as anatomical parts, but as functional units.

Origins of the modular theory of mind

Around the 1980s, psycholinguist Jerry Fodor postulated that the mind functions on the basis of functional modules, innate in nature, and dedicated to a special activity. This idea was applied to the study of language.

According to this idea, there are innate structures or predispositions that facilitate language acquisition or learning, through a specific and specialized module for that purpose. Thus, there would be a disposition to pay attention or collaborate in the understanding of linguistic signals or stimuli.

Now, to exemplify its counterpoint with the proposal of other theories, let us continue with language. If language and its acquisition didn’t form part of a specific module, but were part of a single system, then if there were a compromise, this would also affect language.

However, we know that this doesn’t happen. How? Because there are children who may show cognitive delays or deficits, but don’t have difficulties in the acquisition or use of language.

Other different theories to the modular theory of mind

The modular theory of mind is opposed to the classical theories, according to which the mind is conceived as a unitary system. These were strongly influenced by some of their advocates, among whom we find the behaviorists and Piaget.

According to García García (2008), this modular vision has its counterpoint with behaviorist or associationist theories that conceive the mind as a system with a general purpose. In this case, it would be multipurpose.

Everything could be solved through this system operating as a whole. In other words, the total system would be involved in the resolution of a slogan or problem. In this sense, the metaphor used is that of the brain as an assembly line.

However, from this theory’s point of view, each component contributes to the purpose, but in a modular or separate way. That is, processing can occur simultaneously, according to each module in use.

A woman with a brain on her hand.
These processes studied from the theories are unconscious and we don’t notice them as they develop.

You may be interested in: What Is the Quantum Mind?

Polar ideas

For a long time, and even in certain current debates, polar ideas predominate. These are nature versus culture, body versus mind, and rational versus emotional.

However, progress shows us that these aren’t dogmatic discussions, but simply a crossover between different positions. Among the points of union and discussion between them, learning appears. The modular theory was a revolution in the way of conceiving the functioning of the mind.

It isn’t a matter of fanaticizing with ideas or positions, but of enriching oneself and being open to the potential offered by the new and a revision of the old ideas.



    • García García, E. (2008). Neuropsicología y educación. De las neuronas espejo a la teoría de la mente. Revista de Psicología y Educación, 1(3): 69-89.
    • Bacáicoa Ganuza, Fernando (2002). La mente modular. Revista de Psicodidáctica, (13), .[fecha de Consulta 31 de Marzo de 2022]. ISSN: 1136-1034. Disponible en: https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=17501302