Questioning the Mind

Spring 2010
Experience as Evidence Essays

Article 2 of 12

The great English scholar Thomas Hewitt Key once said, “What is the mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind” (Schwartz and Begley 21).  He asks what the mind is and what the brain is and comes to the conclusion that it does not matter, because both will exist whether humans know what they are or not. This quote epitomizes the debate of what actually defines the mind. Is the mind the totality of conscious and unconscious processes and activities? Or rather, is it more simply “three pounds of gelatinous pudding inside the skull” (Schwartz and Begley 21)?  Furthermore, is the mind the brain? The answer to these questions by themselves is, quite decisively, no.   However, it is important to realize that the mind is a combination of both of these definitions. The mind is a collection of neurons, or nerve cells, that continuously receive input from the outside world. These nerve cells interpret the input in order to give rise to the conscious and unconscious processes of activity experienced everyday by humans all around the planet. 

Often times in everyday life, the mind is compared to consciousness, but upon close examination the two are completely different.  Consciousness is defined as the awareness of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, and surroundings.  Although all of these aspects are vital to understanding the mind, they do not tell the entire story.  The definition of consciousness fails to explain the source of this awareness, therefore leaving out a fundamental part of the definition of the mind. However, it provides an early-stage understanding of the deeper sense of the mind, knowledge that is more sophisticated than a simple conflation of the mind and the brain.

The mind is not, to reiterate an earlier point, the brain.  The brain is an organ made from nucleated, carbon-based, mitochondria-filled cells (Schwartz and Begley 21), the same exact organic materials that go into making the kidneys, liver, stomach, and other human organs.  So, it is safe to say that the brain alone is most certainly not the mind because it does not take into account the consciousness and unconsciousness, which are key to defining the mind.  Additionally, the fact that “brain” defines the physical organ that exists in the skull is reason enough to conclude that the brain does not sufficiently define the mind.

The mind is more complex than the brain: at the most elementary level, the mind can still be compared to a computer.  In this sense the hard drive of the CPU can be seen as the neurons of the mind.  The CPU receives input on the keys, which then relay that information to the screen where words are displayed in response to typing.  The main idea being conveyed here is that the CPU gives rise to the icons, browsers, and documents just as the neurons give rise to the experiences, thoughts, and sensations in the mind.  Additionally, when someone smashes the hard drive of a computer, it will no longer work properly.  In a sense, the same holds true for the mind; defects to the neurons cause it to malfunction.  For example, someone who has temporal lobe seizures will most likely have religious experiences (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1). These religious experiences are in no way triggered by attending church or through some other religious event; they simply spontaneously occur due to processes in the mind.  A rapid overload of neurotransmitters (a seizure) causes one’s brain to malfunction creating these religious experiences.  One important difference between the mind and a computer is that a computer can not think on its own and make decisions on its own, but then again, nothing else on earth can do this quite as well as the human mind can either.  Ironically enough, it has been computers that have captured more evidence to assist in characterizing the mind.

Throughout history, philosophers, scientists and doctors alike have all been trying to figure out what makes up the mind.  Early philosophers believed in “mind-body dualism, the belief that the mind is a spiritual entity not subject to physical laws that govern the body” (Passer and Smith 6).  These so-called mind-body dualists thought the brain and the mind were two completely different entities.  Rene Descartes believed that this was untrue but failed to completely explain how the mind and brain were connected when he said that the pineal gland connected the two (Passer and Smith 6).  The pineal gland is now known to regulate hormone production.  However, Descartes was on the right track when he said that the brain and this consciousness felt by all humans were connected in some way.  Thanks to advances in technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), brain maps have been made to show parts of the brain where certain mental events occur such as thought, speech cognition, and facial recognition.  For example, Broca’s area in the brain produces speech. This is empirical evidence that indicates consciousness and the brain are codependent in delineating the definition of the mind. Without technology, past thinkers were unable to come to this conclusion but were able to steer future scientists to the current conclusion about the mind-brain debate.

The mind is the production of the conscious and unconscious by the physical neuronal connections that make up the brain.  It is not simply being conscious, as is often times said. Nor is it, quite plainly, just the brain.  Finally, technology and a bit of history have proven that the mind is no doubt the production of awareness of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, and surroundings made by the neuronal connections that exist in the brain.

Bibliography

Ramachandran, V.S., and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Schwartz, Jeffrey M., and Sharon Begley. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Passer, Michael, and Robert Smith. Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2008. Course Smart. 7 Sept. 2009 <http://www.coursesmart.com:80/0077252934>.