I think a lot about the mind and the brain and what the relationship is between these two. Minds have been trying to understand minds for thousands of years, though it is only in recent history that scientists have had the tools to study the brain. Efforts to correlate the mind’s experiences to brain regions have been in high gear. Regions associated with perception, sensation, emotion, cognition, bodily regulation and more have been identified. Most of the neuroscience community makes the assumption, based on these correlations, that mind is a function of the brain — that our mind, our consciousness, is just the subjective experience of our brain function.
Our mind is our subjective experience, and when we experience we objectify that experience. Language allows us to label “objects” and make associations with them that we can then communicate. We generally experience objects as “real” solid things. A brain is one such object that is made up of other labeled objects such as lobes, neurons, neurotransmitters, cells, atoms, etc. Language has associated all of these objects into a cohesive narrative.
The central question is which came first? Does mind create the brain, or does brain create the mind? This is a classic chicken and egg-type problem. With most problems, it is helpful to look at the assumptions we are making. For example, are objects real? Are they solid things? Keeping in mind that some “objects” are intangible, such as our thoughts and feelings, most of the others “feel” real. Realness, however, is only subjectively experienced, like every object within our mind. This is a tricky concept to get our minds around because our minds are, in function, reality generators. It is also tricky because others often communicate, through language their experience of these objects. How do we know there is a “real” world out there? While this is not a new debate, it is not a settled debate.
Culturally and experientially it may seem that the debate is settled, and the world of matter and real objects have won the day. Neuroscience is focused now on trying to understand how the brain generates our consciousness (not the other way around). The predominant assumption is that the brain and matter are primary and mind or consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. While we do know that physical or chemical changes to the brain impact and are correlated with subjective experience, must we conclude that mind is an emergent property of the brain? We also know that when we drop our television on the floor that our audio-visual experience of the television might change. Is the television generating the audio-visual experience? Is mind nothing more than the workings of the brain?
John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.