What is the Mind?

What is the reason for the remarkable complexity, speed, activity, and evolution of the brain? It is the mind.

By “mind,” I mean the flows of information within the brain; a synonymous term is “mental activity.” Much as the function of the heart is to move blood around, the function of the brain is to move information around.

The standard view among psychologists and neurologists is that most – if not all – subjective, immaterial states of mind have a one-to-one correspondence with underlying objective, material states of brain. (The distinction between “most” and “all” refers to the possibility of transcendental factors outside the realm of conventional scientific models of the universe.)

Within this standard framework, the mind is what the brain does.

In effect, the mind consists of the representations of the brain about the state of the world, the state of the organism’s body, and the state of the organism’s mind (which would be representations of representations).

Just like the menu is not the meal, and the map is not the land itself, those representations are not reality itself. They may be pretty good approximations, but they are not ever complete and entirely true. For example, consider going for a walk with a dog: the dog hears ultrasonic noises and smells things that you do not, but you see in color (presumably) while the dog does not. Physical reality is the same for both of you, but your perception and thus your experience of it will be somewhat different.

This point may seem merely intellectual or even confusing at first, but it is important to absorb its cautionary and humbling implications. The brain constructs views about the world, and about the state of your body and your mind, but those views are also one of the four objects of attachment noted by the Buddha as sources of suffering.

Even with the healthiest brain in the world, we need to hold those views lightly, as provisional, best-guess, probably-at-least-partly-wrong, and always incomplete formulations about reality. And for someone with a wounded brain, this caution is especially important. Head injuries, strokes, ADHD, depression, and so on all tend to predispose people to be particularly selective or distortive in what they notice about reality. In such cases, it is really beneficial to be aware of these tendencies, put in correction factors (like double-checking), and rely on trustworthy others for reality checks.

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What are your thoughts about the mind? Please share your comments below.

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