The mind is often equated with the brain, which science has only recently begun to understand, and consciousness, which is still inexplicable. The mind/brain employs neurochemicals and electrical impulses to process thoughts, perceptions, emotions and memories. It is also the centre of personality and intelligence. The brain/mind (psyche) has considerable influence over the body (soma) which produces psychosomatic responses. Inversely, suffering in the body can overwhelm the brain/mind.
The brain/mind does not experience the world outside the body directly. Information is fed to the brain via sense captors: eyes, ears, nose, tastes buds, and nerve endings. The process is far more complex and indirect that our ancestors could ever have imagined. Seeing in our mind’s eye begins when photons hit the retina of our physical eye, where they are converted into electric signals sent to the brain, but not to one single place in the brain. There is no ‘screening room’ of the mind where our intelligent ‘self’ analyzes high-definition, full colour movies of the exterior world. Different parts of the brain process specific elements of the external world: colour, texture, shape, movement. Similar deconstruction of sense information occurs for sounds, smells, tastes and touch. Then the brain attempts to interpret these fragments of information, at times with remarkable accuracy, in other situations with comical failure.
Mooney images are human faces simplified to almost abstract blotches of black on white. From this minimal data source, even small children are able to extract a wealth of information about the gender, age and even mood of the faces. Our brains are excellent judges of character, able to distinguish trustworthy and untrustworthy people in seconds by detecting subtle indicators in their facial expressions and body language. Our brains are less reliable when processing routine data that has no direct incidence on our survival.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted research on selective attention by having three assistants dressed in white and three dressed in black pass basketballs back and forth while weaving and dodging within a tight circle. Observers were asked to watch a short (60 second) film and count the number of times players wearing white shirts passed the ball. Meanwhile, an actor dressed in a gorilla suit strutted among the six whirling figures. The gorilla was invisible to most observers busy counting passes. Hard to believe perhaps, but our brains are only conscious of a fraction of the data transmitted by photons to our sensory captors. Our best interpretations of the information-rich reality around us can never be more than a good approximation. That does not count the many moments when we are daydreaming, cruising through life on autopilot, and semi-oblivious to external reality.
Physical damage to the brain can profoundly affect the mind and personality. One of the most frequently cited cases is the story of Phineas Gage, a railway construction foreman whose life changed when an explosion shot a steel bar through his skull. Gage survived the traumatic injury and went on to live a superficially normal life but a foreign personality inhabited his damaged brain.
Another frequently quoted case of brain damage affecting behaviour is Charles Whitman who murdered his mother and his wife before climbing to the 28th floor observation deck of the central tower at the University of Texas in Austin where he fired at passing students, killing 11 and injuring 31. Whitman left a suicide note that provided clues to his murderous rampage. “I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.” An autopsy discovered a large tumour in Whitman’s brain pressing against his amygdala. His changed behavior, like Gage’s, was caused by a physical change in his body. It was not a free choice. Many conditions that affect behaviour–from epileptic seizures and schizophrenia to bipolar disorder, depression, and paranoia–are caused by physical, chemical and electrical malfunctions in the brain.
The brain’s activity has been compared to a manic monkey, scurrying about madly in all directions, distracted by this and that, unable to focus or complete a thought or task. One method of controlling the manic monkey mind is through meditation. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which the meditator focuses on being intensely aware of what she’s sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Focussing the brain/mind requires energy and effort.
The mind is also associated with the soul. Many religions believe the soul was created by God and that it will return to its creator after death, sometimes resurrected in a physical body. Other belief systems do not think there is a God but believe in a non-physical soul that is reincarnated many times on its journey toward a transcendental realm beyond suffering and desire. Materialists deny that a non-material ‘soul’ can exist outside the body. What would a non-physical soul look like? How would it work in relation to the neurons of the brain, the sense organs and the nervous system? We know how a computer works. There is no soul in a computer; it is simply hardware running software.
We also know how wireless communication works. Signals are attached to electromagnetic waves across a range of frequencies and transmitted to remote receivers. While in transit, information exists in a non-physical form that would have been pure magic 200 years ago. Could the information of human memories be carried on frequencies we are not currently capable of detecting? A priori, this is certainly possible. Many electromagnetic frequencies are undetectable by human sense organs, yet we can know they exist, and we make use of them with everyday technology such as cell phones.
The brain dies with the body. Whether the mind/soul also dies has been neither proved nor disproved. A considerable literature of scientific research suggests that memories can be transmitted from a deceased person to a newborn baby, partially confirming belief in reincarnation.