Are you out of your mind ?

A friend asked a question last night…..Are brain & mind same?

I made some points there but it triggered a chain of thought, so better I share it here with you. I think it is simple question and the typical answer is no, and in this information age typical explanation could be that brain is the hardware and mind is the software.

We can think about brain as a three pound flesh dangling between our ears often dubbed as the controller of the nervous system, connected with the rest of body via an elaborate communication network empowered by nerve cells that we call neurons.

There is evidence of study in this field since the time of sumerians and egyptians when they were settling on the floodplains of Tigris and Euphrates about six thousand years ago while setting the foundations of cradle of civilisation. Interesting enough egyptians at that time were of the view that seat of intelligence is in the heart not in the head hence they often removed the brains during mummification as if it may not be required in next life.

However the earliest recorded reference to the brain is the following hieroglyph for brain, printed many times in the ancient paper (papyrus). Egyptologists suggest that it describes the symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis of two patients, wounded with fractured skull, but I have got no idea how it does that.

I am bit intrigued by the fourth symbol used in this hieroglyph because it resembles a bug, it more look like a surgery performed to remove bugs in the brain.

Anyway leaving aside the speculation, it looks like some of us continue to believe that heart is seat of intelligence at least when it comes to certain type of intelligence e.g. emotional intelligence, I have even seen the doctors say that heart is seat of emotional intelligence. Anyway the fossil records of scientific thinking of olden time are widely available in our languages and cultures.

I know this by my heart, memorised this by heart, this thought is very close to my heart, my heart overruled my head etc etc are some of the samples of the fossilised ancient thinking. That is how deeply grounded our understanding is no matter how hard we try, we can’t simply walk away from this notion.

The records suggest that it was Hippocrates who first acknowledged that brain is involved in sensation and is the seat of intelligence, he was also the one to identify epilepsy as a brain condition.

Epilepsy is one of the fascinating conditions to explore. Despite the trauma and anxiety that it causes to those who suffer from it, its contribution to human civilisation as it stands today is barely acknowledged. Many of the great saints, sages, poets, artists, philosophers, scientists suffered from this condition and their intellect was shaped by epilepsy to a large extent. But that is a topic for another day.

Brain, its structural and functional organisation has been widely studied and there is plenty of material available out there so I won’t bore you with that. Simply put the brain can be classified in three main parts: the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. The forebrain consists of the cerebrum, thalamus, and hypothalamus. The midbrain consists of the tectum and tegmentum. The hindbrain is made of the cerebellum, pons and medulla. Often the midbrain, pons, and medulla are referred together as the brainstem as well.

Over time people have tried to dissect the brain in all sort of ways and here is another decomposition along the evolutionary line.

I have already covered bits and pieces around it in other articles like humble neurons, molecular tweets, bandwidth of consciousness etc etc.

Now you may say enough about brain, what about mind ? I don’t see mind in the diagram.

Now, wouldn’t it be a highly rewarding experience to look into the mind, mind of our own and minds of others.

Is not it mind boggling to know that we still don’t have a unified and well accepted view of what mind is. We don’t have a unified view into what it consists of, what are its parts, what is its execution architecture, what is its seat of execution or where it is precisely.

As many scholars suggest that study of mind has suffered a setback ever since the times of Rene Descartes. It is widely believed that Rene had a secret pact with pope to keep his studies confided to the body and leave the mind matters to the church. Rene happily accepted this proposition as it was the only way he could get steady supply of bodies from church for his experiments.

So church was happily minding its own business, the business of mind, business of spirits. No wonder why we still don’t know enough about mind, mind was lost in the midst of the mist of mysticism, unfortunately church is still doing it today and we find ourselves helpless to defend the position of science because we don’t have concrete answers.

Being an inquisitive explorer of biology, my take on mind is that even though it can be easily described using analogy of a compute machine, but the notion of “mind as a software and brain as hardware” is only partially correct. The reason being that mind does not just run on brain or at least the brain that we know today as a ‘three pound flesh dangling between our ears’.

We need to have an all inclusive definition to understand mind, a definition that recognises that all life forms have a mind of some sort, it may be pretty rudimentary by our standards, but mind is a mind no matter how tiny and how punitive it is.

Simply put mind is problems solving logic of biology in its execution state. When we are thinking we are solving problems, when we are perceiving the world around us we are constantly processing sensory information, discerning in into sensible chunks to make sensible decisions, decisions to solve problems. Most of these decisions are not necessarily taking place in our heads but at molecular level throughout the body, the ligand receptor networks are not only powering the communication networks of the body but also making the judgment calls along the way, making sense of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation thrown at our senses.

So mind spans our entire body and bodies of our cells, bodies of cells that not necessarily are our own but work with us to solve the problems for us, the bacteria in our gut have a mind too and when they start thinking bit differently we suffer.

When our body cells go out of their mind they cause all sort of problems, sometime they forget their role and start multiplying indiscriminately and create conditions like cancer.

So in summary, entire biology is a self replicating, problem solving script that learns from its past, the script runs the engine, the execution framework is provided by network of cells, organs and the molecular fluids that keep the engine running, keep the information flowing between cells and organs. It is more like a distributed network of tiny compute units collaborating together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome for the commune as a whole. That is what mind is.

I think it is time to dismantle this wall of china, wall of mind body dualism and embrace mind body network as one thing, a mind-body continuum, rather than as two separate units with its own compartmentalised thinking.

Btw the boundaries are there to understand and make sense of the world, there are no boundaries as such in the world where there are no senses to sense those boundaries.

Now you will say are you out of you mind ?

Well, kind off, we are at verge of entering another rabbit hole here, so lets stop for the time being. Thanks for being with me.

Originally published at on June 21, 2015.