The brain and the mind are two (or one?) of my favorite topics. Isn’t it amazing that we all have a brain and a mind yet in school most of us are never taught about what they are, how they work and why they are so mind-blowingly interesting?
This article is a surface-level discussion of the brain and mind difference. My hope is that the reader will emerge on the other side of this article with a renewed appreciation of how unfathomably awesome the brain and mind are. And how they operate to steer the course of our life circumstances.
We start with the brain, then go onto the mind and I then tie both together by introducing the branch of philosophy known as “idealism.” So let’s get to it!
What Is The Brain?
The brain is the most complex physical structure we have ever encountered in the observable universe. This is, according to the brain, a fact. It is a mass of fat and water, with 75-80% of it being water.
Our brain is a hub of processing power unmatched in capabilities. The average brain is made up of around 100 billion neurons. Neurons are fascinating cells, capable of gathering and transmitting electrochemical signals between each other. Each neuron can have between 5,000 to 15,000 synaptic connections to other neurons, meaning that the brain can, as an upper limit, have around 10^14 connections. Those are way more connections than there are stars in 1,500 Milky Way Galaxies!
According to a rough calculation by Patrick Julius, author of the Human Economics blog, the human brain is capable of performing 6,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second, or 6 petaflops. In comparison, the fastest supercomputer ever built, the Chinese Tianhe-2, can perform around 34 petaflops. Sounds like we’ve built a supercomputer which surpasses the human brain? Not quite. While the Tianhe-2 requires 24 megawatts of power to operate, the human brain requires a measly 20 watts. That’s a difference of SIX orders of magnitude. This is without mentioning the difference in mass and volume. Pound for pound, the brain’s computational power leaves Tianhe-2’s in the dust. Not bad for the 2 kilogram mass of jelly jiggling around in our skulls.
The Study Of The Brain
Up until recently, the brain had been a locked and sealed black box. We didn’t have the technology to study it closely. That’s unsurprising as the brain is safely nestled in our skull, which is made up of an outer layer of bone and an inner layer of meninges which wrap and protect the brain and spinal cord. Added on to that was the fact that the brain is a delicate organ which is central to our capacity to live. Poking around the brain to study it was an activity fraught with risk for whomever was being studied.
But relatively recent innovations in imaging and electrical detection techniques and technologies have enabled our species to observe the brain as it operates in real time, without having to cut open the skull and get access to it. The measurements performed on the brain are, of course, imperfect, as it is with all measurements. But at least they have allowed us to get an idea of what the brain is doing when we think, speak, sleep, dream, make music, listen to music, eat, look at something that interests us, become distracted, and many other activities. The discoveries being made which relate the functioning of our brain to events in our daily lives are opening the door to what parts of the brain do what, when and how.
Science Is Pulling Back The Curtain
I once read a quote by a renowned neuroscientist who said something along the lines of “If everything there is to know about the brain is a 2-mile race then we are still at the first inch.” The brain is a mysterious organ which does not give up its mysteries lightly, but in its study lie the answers to questions which get at the deepest concerns which have been cherished by our race:
- Who are we?
- Why are we here?
- What happens when we die?
Our species has been grappling with these questions since we have memory. It’s sad that contemporary media does little, if anything, to spur discussion of and around these questions. But in my opinion these questions point at the greatest mysteries which have accompanied our species since we left the trees oh so many years ago.
The next part of the article gets mystical. If you’re not prepared to encounter some mystical teachings coupled with explosive scientific revelations, then I advise you to stop reading now.
The Immaterial Mind
At this point in the article it will serve us to make the following distinction. We will eventually move away from this distinction, but for now it serves the purpose of the explanation which follows.
That distinction is: if the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software.
In this distinction, the brain is the material organ; the wiring and biochemistry which allows the mind to exist. The mind is the immaterial; it is the programming, the thoughts, the perceptions, the intentions we experience. We all have a brain and we all have a mind. The two of them are intertwined, one cannot be without the other. A brain without a mind would not be able to survive in the world, we need the mind to solve our daily challenges; a mind cannot exist in our physical dimension without a brain which supports it. Thus, they are dependent on each other.
So far so good. The brain is the material, the mind is the immaterial. Does that make sense to you? If you need to, take a moment to absorb the distinction. Things will get a little wilder up ahead.
If you have grasped the distinction between the brain and the mind then what follows is going to challenge you. See, we all acknowledge that there is a material brain. No problem with that. But we also acknowledge that there is an immaterial mind.
But What IS The Immaterial Mind?
There is no doubting that we have minds. We have thoughts, we can speak, we can plan and imagine. For many people who are wholly identified with their minds, the mind is all they are! To us, our minds are as real as reality gets.
Yet the mind is immaterial. It cannot be seen nor detected using instruments. We can detect the changes which occur in the brain when the mind is active, that’s a certainty. But detecting changes in the brain, the material, is not the same as detecting changes in the immaterial mind.
We know that changes in the mind, the immaterial, can bring about changes in the brain, the immaterial. There is a bounty of evidence that shows that meditation changes the brain. For my exploration of meditation you can read this article.
When you meditate you are simply holding a conscious intention, the intention to focus your attention on a meditation object. Whenever attention drifts during meditation, you intend for your attention to return to the meditation object and begin again. This is meditating.
People Who Meditate Have Different Brains
Their frontal cortex is larger and their amygdala is smaller when compared to people who don’t meditate. The frontal cortex is where our executive functions are housed; planning, imagining, language and impulse control, to name some. The amygdala is our threat detector.
This means that the immaterial, the mind, can change the material, the brain.
This is fascinating. Some immaterial force, as of now undetectable by any instruments designed by our species, is capable of manipulating matter.
But we also know that the material brain can change the immaterial mind.
There is the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had an iron rod shoved through his skull. It changed his personality completely. He went from being reliable and hardworking to a boastful, gambling degenerate. All thanks to the damage to his brain. (Photo originally from the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus, and now in the Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard Medical School)
Then there are people who suffer strokes or lobotomies, who’s personalities (mind) and abilities are also changed by the damage suffered by the brain.
This is also fascinating. Changing the brain, a material entity, means changing the mind, and immaterial entity.
This is known as the mind-body problem and it has equally baffled philosophers of old and scientists of new.
But we’re getting answers now.
The Brain And The Mind Have Common Properties
In physics, forces can only interact with each other if they are of the same nature. For example, an electromagnetic field can interact with another electromagnetic field, but it cannot interact with a moving car and vice versa. You cannot add an electromagnetic field to mechanical movement. That makes no sense. But you can add an electromagnetic field to another.
In order for one force to change another they must have common properties.
This means that the material and immaterial can only interact if they, too, have common properties.
But how can the material brain and the immaterial mind share properties? One of them is real, we can see it, touch it and manipulate it; the other is immaterial and, by definition, we can’t even detect it.
Well, what if the material brain and the immaterial mind are actually made out of the same thing?
Look at water. If you take two different bodies of water and combine them, they become a homogeneous body of water. But, if you first freeze one of the bodies of water and then combine them, you will have an apparent distinction between the frozen water and the liquid water.
At a deeper level, the ice and the liquid are the same substance. Water.
This idea, that both the material universe and the immaterial mind are made up of the same substance is known as idealism.
And wouldn’t you know it? Scientific evidence is emerging which suggests (I would say confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt) that idealism is the way the universe works.
The Science Of Idealism
Our current scientific paradigm is that of materialism. Materialism states that matter is the fundamental substance of nature. According to materialism, everything we perceive and are, arises due to material processes. To materialism, our thoughts are the result of the jiggling of atoms within our noggins.
Having received a scientific schooling at some of the most reputable institutions in the world, I can tell you that this was exactly the view of the world I was taught. That matter is responsible for everything and there is nothing more to be said about the matter (hah).
That was what I believed for most of my adult life. Until I began learning about scientific observations which suggested that there was a deeper order to the universe which I had never been taught about.
To my knowledge, it was in the 1920s when materialist science slammed straight into the idea of idealism.
A Now Infamous Experiment Was Performed
It is called “The Double-Slit Experiment.” This video does a great job at explaining it:
Isn’t that absolutely mind-boggling? The observers changed the result of the experiment simply by observing. This is called “the observer effect.” In the experiment, immaterial conscious observation brought about a change in the material universe. This suggests that the material and the immaterial are made of the same substance.
Most scientists today (I believe) argue that the observer effect has nothing to do with our immaterial mind changing the material universe and everything to do with the interaction of the measurement devices with matter. In other words, it’s matter interacting with matter which causes the result to change. And that’s a fair argument.
Except that results which favor idealism over materialism keep cropping up! So much so that entire books have been written which present discoveries which support the idealist nature of the universe. Like “The Matter Myth” by Paul Davies and John Gribbin, as well as “The Holographic Universe” by Michael Talbot.
All this means that the science concerning the makeup of the universe is far from settled. Believing that matter is the fundamental substance of the universe is at best an untruth and at worst an outright lie. There is verifiable evidence which demonstrates that the mind is a fundamental force which shapes the universe.
As Max Planck, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics said:
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness”
If Mind Is Everything, What Is Your Everything Like?
I hope you’ve found this article thought-provoking. It is my non-expert attempt at conveying the tip of a vast and fascinating subject in a super-condensed, understandable format. I invite you to look into the subject more on your own.
I leave you with this. If the universe is mental in nature, and more and more evidence is saying it is, What does that mean for us?
What capacities lie dormant within us because of our adherence to the materialist paradigm? What aspects of the universe are we ignoring when we refuse to accept the mental reality that is?
If matter and non-matter are the same thing, does it mean our immaterial thoughts can change the material world? There is evidence which suggests it does. This is a video from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab:
What implications does that have for each of our thoughts, our feelings and our emotions?
It’s our responsibility to investigate the truth and to update our beliefs based on the best evidence we can find. Life is too short for us to be basing our decisions on flawed models of reality.
I am of the mind that each and every thought we have steers the course of our life circumstances. I haven’t always believed this, but based on much research I have done, and on personal experience, I have concluded that is the case, at least for me.
So what thoughts have you had today? What thoughts have you had throughout your week/month/year?
Are they the kind which will help you create the life you want?
If they are then I congratulate you. If they aren’t, then I invite you to change them. This website can help you do that. Because your thoughts become your reality.
To our wealth and success.