Is the mind different than the brain? And what does that mean for dreams, imagination, and immortality?

While we often use the words “mind” and “brain” interchangeably, on digging deeper we find that they represent two components of the same system. Yet, mind is deemed part of the mental world, while the brain and its electrochemical nerve signals are of the physical or material world.

It is a widely held view among scientists and philosophers that, unlike music which can be reduced to sound waves, mind cannot be reduced to a physical basis; at least, not yet. Scientific optimists believe it eventually will be.

In my first article in this series, I explored the various theories of mind, concentrating on the view put forward by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in his 2018 book entitled The Consciousness Instinct. His view, which he shares with others, is that the mind and the brain are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked together. Yet, that is a metaphor, and not an explanation of how such an arrangement would work in practice. In the current article, I will explore one possible way in which this may be achieved, and the consequences if so.

Computer hardware and software, like the brain and the mind, are two components of the same system. But it is a stretch to say that they are analogous to the brain and mind. The analogy breaks down, because, for one, unlike the brain and mind, we humans created computers and software, fully understand them, and know how they work together. Secondly, neither a computer nor its software is conscious; at least not yet.

A number of Silicon Valley technologists believe that mind and consciousness would just miraculously “emerge” in a computer once we could build one of sufficient complexity approaching that of the human brain. This is a claim rather than an explanation of how it would work in practice. Emergent phenomena arise when the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For example, an animal is more than the sum of its individual cells. In such case, a new, higher order entity emerges with its own agenda.

Returning to the brain and the mind, controversy arises when we discuss free will. We all firmly believe that we are capable of making decisions within our minds and imposing those decisions on the physical world. Yet, how can a mental thought cause a physical effect? The laws of physics require a physical cause for any physical effect.

Materialists hold the view that there is only a physical world; and that mind and consciousness are illusions. The brain, the sensory system and the body are perfectly capable of running the show on their own; the mind comes along for the ride. How then do we explain our personal convictions that our minds and consciousness are actively involved in everything we perceive, think and do?

A variation on the above viewpoint is that the brain runs the show but projects internally, in real time, a moving “image” of what is happening and what it is doing. The analogy would be eyes seeing a movie projected onto a screen. This produces the sensation in the audience of involvement, awareness of what is going on, and identification with one or more of the characters.

The brain’s “projector” would work by sending electrochemical signals internally to the “mind’s eye”. In parallel, the brain proceeds with what it is doing in the physical world. So, the chain of cause and effect in the physical world is preserved as required by the laws of physics, though split into two.

The “mind’s eye” is the instrument of our consciousness, but what exactly would be its physical form? It is arguably that element of the brain which monitors the electrochemical signals that contribute to the sensation of consciousness. It may be localized, or more likely distributed throughout much of the brain.

The existence of such a faculty is not too much of a stretch, based on observations of primitive creatures like worms and jellyfish, which are aware of their position in relation to their environment, in order to ensure survival. As life evolved into more complex species, this self-awareness became much more sophisticated, culminating in the consciousness of humans in all its magnificence.

Supporting evidence for the idea that the brain alone runs the show comes from experiments where a subject is required to make a split-second moral choice.

This could be contrived, for example, by having the subject flick a switch that will save two babies in the path of a runaway train by diverting it to a spur line, thus hitting an old man crossing there at the time. In such case, the conscious moral justification to save the babies (as noted by the subject) lags behind the initiation by the brain (as measured by an electroencephalograph) to flick the switch. This implies that the brain is perfectly capable of making a split-second decision on its own, without involving the consciousness, based on a set of moral rules programmed into its memory, or even instinctively.

Given enough time, the brain would be able to weigh up the options and signal a better solution, for example calling to awaken the driver asleep at the controls so he can slam on the brakes in time. All the subject’s brain activity would take place through electrochemical signals in the physical world of cause and effect via the brain’s neurons and synapses; the consciousness (mind’s eye) would be kept in the loop as an observer, but nonetheless would feel involved, even empowered.

What about when a decision seems to be initiated by the conscious mind? For example, a general in the field of battle may decide to change his army’s line of attack on learning that the enemy has exposed its flank.

In such case, the physical cause of his decision is the receipt of new intelligence from the field about the enemy’s movements, along with the latest information on the disposition of his own troops. His brain is perfectly capable of making this decision and implementing it through actions in the physical world. At the same time, it sends an electrochemical message to the mind’s eye revealing what is happening. The consciousness thus feels involved but plays no part in the physical chain of cause and effect.

If this is really the case, then it raises the question as to what evolutionary advantage it bestows on us humans to have any consciousness at all. Why not let the brain run the show without it?

One possible reason for consciousness is that it was good for our psychological health, and therefore for survival, to have a clear conscious understanding of what was happening in our lives. Over the aeons, those early humans who did not have this faculty may have become disoriented and unable to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their deficient genes.

What can be said about free will in such an arrangement? If consciousness is not actively involved in decision-making, how can we have free will?

In the train example above, the split-second decision would not involve free will, but be determined by programmed or hardwired moral rules in our brains. However, if there were more time to make a decision, then the physical brain would have free will of sorts. Multiple options would be weighed-up and compared. As such, this involves a decision based on probability, and is thus not predestined. It can go either way, depending on chance and uncertainty.

What about imagination? We are able to conjure up, within our minds, imaginary lives for ourselves and others.

Our early ancestors evolved this ability to help them predict the future behaviour of prey, predators and hostile tribes, and so to enhance survival.

Where is the physical chain of cause and effect when we use our imaginations? The temptation is to see the cause in our conscious minds. But in fact, the cause would arise in the physical world; our imaginations will be triggered by something we have seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted, ingested, dreamed or read. Our brain will take it from there in a physical chain of cause-and-effect within its internal circuits, and at the same time project an image of what is happening onto its mind’s eye.

Dreams are somewhat different. The physical cause of dreams is not usually from the external world in real time, but from spontaneous electrochemical activity within the physical circuits of our brains. Random firing of neurons creates static which our brains try to weave into a narrative, so to create order out of the chaos.

This random firing is sourced in part from our memories — but the memories are reproduced in garbled form, along with new content which the brain seems to have just imagined. Sometimes there are people, places and stories in the dreams that we recognize, and sometimes not. They may create either positive of negative emotions; and sometimes they open new ways of looking at old problems. Our brain circuits go a little haywire, and the results are fed to the mind’s eye, which seems to function even when we are asleep.

Religious experiences, such as visions or voices, which happen to some people of faith, are similar to imagination and dreams in that a narrative unfolds within the brain, seemingly spontaneously.

The cause could be something the subject has seen, heard, smelled, tasted, ingested, felt, dreamed or read from the physical world in the present or even some time in the past, perhaps heightened by emotion. Alternatively, the faithful would argue that the presence of God was the cause. The essential point is that, if the mind and brain work as argued above, these experiences would correspond neurologically to electrochemical activity within the brain, projected onto the mind’s eye.

If the mind and consciousness are projections by the physical brain onto its mind’s eye, then what happens when the brain dies? Is there any way for the consciousness to survive? Two ways have been put forward.

The first, theoretically possible in the future, but practically unlikely, would be if humanity were able to rebuild your brain and all its content virtually with software on a supercomputer. In such case your mind and consciousness may be resurrected. The second, open to people of faith, is if God were to achieve the same ends.

If this model of the brain and mind is valid, then mind can be reduced to a physical basis: the electrochemical signals which project what is happening onto your mind’s eye.

That the brain is capable of forming an image from electrochemical signals is demonstrated by the way the eye works: light from an object in the environment hits the retina of the eye, which sends electrochemical signals along the optic nerve that the brain processes into a visual image. The difference is that your consciousness image comprises much more than the visual; it includes everything that is happening in relation to you, along with your thoughts and actions. The brain is, in effect, observing itself.

In the operation of the brain, the laws of physics would be obeyed, as a physical chain of cause-and-effect leads into your body, through the circuits of the brain, and out  again. At the same time, a side branch of the chain keeps your consciousness in the loop.

The Editors' Bookshelf

Rhea Suresh

Welcome to The Editors' Bookshelf where you get weekly book recommendations straight from our editors! This week, we have Rhea suggesting Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya.

Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh changed the way I look at everything. I’ll admit that I was pretty sceptical about reading it at first, having not been much of a Shah Rukh fan, but when I did start, I loved it.

Bhattacharya analyses the lives of single women in India, and how they find their own bits of freedom and happiness, despite carrying the burdens of propriety and sanskaar that society places on them. There are women from all walks of life - accountants, small town girls, runaway girls, big-city girls - but a common thread connecting them is Shah Rukh Khan. It is through him that these women find self expression, through him that women adopt high expectations of men. Bhattacharya weaves these stories alongside a background narrative of Shah Rukh’s career, and brings together economics and pop culture to give us a look at the world that single women in India occupy.

This book left me with many, many thought on my own privileges, the different ways in which feminism and resistance manifests itself, and an overwhelming urge to watch every Shah Rukh movie there is. Truly unforgettable.

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