“Brain” or “Mind”? Wouldn’t just one do the trick? Isn’t this redundant? We know the Brain exists, but what the hell is your ‘mind’? Where is my mind? Oh yes, I know, “I’ve lost it,” But certainly that doesn’t mean, I’ve lost my brain. All the time, we talk of both Brain and Mind, but why?
We say, “Make up your mind”, but never “Make up your brain.” Do we ever say, “My mind has a disease?” Well, we do think of Mental Illnesses and even believe that Talking to someone may help it. What kind of real disease is cured by talking? But we do not say, “I have a mind ache; I need some aspirin.”
So what is the point of these two words and how do we use them? Are they ‘pointing’ to some ‘deeper’ issue? Is it a philosophical problem, right before our eyes? Could it really be ‘deep’?
Mind-talk goes back a lot further than brain-talk, though this post will not become a history lesson. An early and prominent belief by the Egyptians and Greeks was that The Heart was the site where thinking occurred. That is the ancient source of our phrase “to know (something) by heart.” For Aristotle, the brain was for cooling the blood, and because humans had bigger brains, they were not as “hot blooded” and thus more in control of their behavior than other animals. “Mind” for the Greek philosophers was close to what they called “Logos”, which was something like a transcendent logic or order or pattern that the ordinary things and events in our world aspired to emulate.
The Brain started to be understood as controlling behavior when early ‘doctors’ observed battlefield injuries to the head that resulted in aberrant movements in other parts of the body. The first anatomists, like Galen during the Roman Empire, discovered nerves running from the brain to muscles and organs throughout the body of animals. They thought of these as tubes or pipes carrying fluid (hydraulics) or air (pneumatics) to expand and contract the muscles, causing movement.
One of the early and most influential thinkers in this area was the French mathematician, philosopher and scientist Rene Descartes. He connected the Greek view with that of the anatomists. Mind existed and so did the working brain and they were connected through the Pineal Gland in the brain. The immaterial and transcendent realm —which took up no space or time — was in this way connected to our material and earthly realm. For a long time anatomists did not know what this gland did; Descartes hypothesized it did this extra-ordinary job!
Why did Rene go to these great lengths? Well, he liked the idea of the body as a hydraulic machine, but he didn’t see how the push and pull of fluid (or air) pressure could Explain logical thinking in mathematics or his own self-awareness. After all, he did invent coordinate geometry and during a war with Russia, as a young, cold and lonely soldier (so the story goes), he curled up inside an abandoned stove to stay warm and thought that the only sure proof of his existence was his self-awareness at any moment. Thus, his famous argument based on self-awareness: “I think, therefore I am.”
So let’s get to today, and to the point. Descartes is right in thinking that something like hydraulic-caused motions in the brain could not be An Explanation of the character and logic of mathematical thinking. The two are just too different. “You cannot get blood out of a turnip”, it is said. And that position remains true today even when we now know that Neurons are firing due to electrical charge. The things — neurons, electrical charges, and thoughts — are too different to have one thoroughly account for the other. We understand “causation” and “an explanation” most clearly when the cause and the the effect are very close to the same kind of thing, like one billiard ball colliding with another explains the latter’s movement. That is a Clear case of explanation. Neural firing ‘explaining’ geometric theorems, is not! The one may accompany the other, but logical mathematical thought is Really its Own Kind of ‘Thing’.
Let us expand this line of thought. It is not only “thought” and “self-awareness” that seem hard to explain mechanically, how about the simple experience of seeing “Red”? We are told that “Red is an electromagnetic wave frequency of 650 nm.” But is it really? Seeing red is associated with that frequency but ‘redness’, in itself, is not ‘electromagnetic-ness’ —so to speak; it is a color. It has A Unique Quality that is more effectively contrasted to other Colors, like green and blue, and we have talked, used and experienced “color” in this basic way long before we knew of electromagnetism. When my little grand daughter says, “pink is my favorite color”, she does not mean some wave frequency!
This is what Mind is, as opposed to the Brain. The “Mind” adds something new to ‘The Physical’. The Mind is how the physical is “taken by us”. Electro-m frequency 650 nm is Experienced As “red” or “rouge” or “rojo”. This then adds to the ‘realm of mind’, Language and it’s societal variations and “meaningfulness” is a product of Mind, not of Brain. The Mind is The Having of a Particular Point of View — French, Spanish, Medieval Western, Ancient Egyptian, Modern Western, Islamic ways of living. It is ‘a take on things’, as seeing ‘red’ is Our Representation of the electro-m frequency of 650. The Mind makes “Representations Of” the occurrences in life. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the Occurrences of Life do Not ‘strike us’ all in the same way. Different Cultures and different Times have different “takes”. And interestingly, we all kind of know this, but are unclear of its implications. And the implication is, “Mind” is real and important; it is different than “brain”.
The Brain, it adds nothing new. The brain’s activity is one more additional set of physical events — though admittedly an increasingly complex set — that is hooked into a long line of causes that, really, can be said to originate with The Big Bang. It is a rather vulgar simplification, but still essentially true: this chain of causes is like a long line of billiard balls, one hitting another, hitting three more, and so on, and so on, and so on, to today, to us. For this Point of View, things are a collection of billiard balls (atoms) that have electrical charges, that are forms of electromagnetism that electrically stimulate visual receptors that electrically stimulate neurons…that send an electric signal to the muscles of the vocal cords, tongue, mouth and lungs and ‘sound’ is emitted. In this context, if we then say, “It is red” or “C’est rouge” and think of the experience of red as color, we are making a mistake. We are Not being consistent! What comes out of our mouths, in the physical terms we have been using, is not words that have meaning, but sound waves with varying frequency, volumes and speeds; in other words, more physical stuff! Only what we have traditionally called “The Mind” ‘takes’ the physical and hears and sees and understands it as ‘words’ with ‘meanings’ and an ‘experience’ that they are ‘about’. “I see red”, we say and we mean it!
So, we need both these concepts, Brain and Mind, because we have two widely different sets of objects and experiences that we have traditionally classified in these two different ways. And the stakes are large because on the Mind side of this spectrum lies our supposed ability to be Free and Responsible. But, I have not really been very clear about what ‘The Mind’ might be. If it is not The Brain, then what the heck could it be? I do Not want to make it too mysterious. I don’t believe it is God, or even Immaterial. So?
I think it best to stop here for now. I believe we have opened up A Philosophical Issue that is In Plain Sight and Significant. In the following PLAIN TALK post, we will discuss “Mind” as understood historically and what I believe is our best shot at understanding it sensibly now.