Mind – the final frontier
It is a simple question but not an easy one to answer. What is mind? Think about it – you’re using your mind to read this. Some would argue that they’re using their brain. Okay – I dare you to switch off the mind. Some argue that it is the brain that thinks. To avoid a never-ending circular polarised debate, those whose brains know there is no mind, kindly depart right now. The rest who agree that there is a thing conceptualised as ‘mind’, have the freedom of choice to stay.
I have no way of ‘knowing’ exactly how the thoughts on this page arise, why they arise. I may infer that thoughts are generated in some part of my brain but even doing so does not tell me how the thoughts arise. How do my words get generated in this strange ‘space’, and how does the will arising in my mind generate impulses that travel down my bio-electrical circuitry (nervous system), so that my fingers tap on the keyboard? I do not know how thoughts generate those impulses. I touch type. I can infer that some where in the CPU of my brain – the thalamic areas – something is happening. That’s connected to my language centres and at the same time to my frontal lobes. Thoughts arise, then I will the words to output. Messages travel from my language centres over to by cerebellum which co-ordinates automatically my fingers finding the right keys on the keyboard (most times). But all of that is theory. I cannot know exactly how the systems works. I cannot pin-point electrons in neurons and track how those are orchestrated. And how would I know what’s controlling the flow of electrons in my brain down to my finger muscles. I truly cannot know.
The concept of mind stands in contrast to brain because the following are usually considered to be true:
- the brain is a physical thing occupying space and has mass; not necessarily weight because human brains can travel into the weightlessness of outer space.
- the mind does not occupy a fixed physical space and has no mass.
Unusually, although the mind does not occupy a defined space, it has location i.e. it is usually considered to be residing somewhere in the head of a person. However, how much space it occupies in there cannot be measured. I said ‘usually considered’. The reality is that nobody knows if the mind extends beyond the confines of a brain. Does the mind occupy one cubic centimetre? Is it confined to the volume of the head? How can a thing have location yet occupy no physical space? This is not surprising because the concept of a ‘point’ in mathematics is just that. A point has location but occupies no space. When I use words like physical space, I am thinking that the mind may have boundaries in physical space. I can assume that my mind travels with physical me, at all times. How? I am sure that my mind has never gone on a jaunt leaving my body hundreds of miles away. Hang on – I’m not talking about day-dreaming or any other sort of dreaming.
The presence of a mind in an audience (at a meeting or lecture), can extend into the physical space of the audience. But wait – that need not be a physical room. It could be a virtual room, as with Zoom or MS Teams. Alternatively people in the audience may think that they are observing the mind of the speaker in a point-space that is hundreds of miles away. My mind is observable to me – only in its functions I am allowed to observe i.e. I know my own thoughts and experiences in a strange mental point-space. However, my mind becomes observable to many in an audience.
What about human minds sharing a conversation over a coffee? I think that we can infer that their minds extend into each other’s sense of personal space. And what about humans engaged in very intimate moments (don’t let your imagination run too far). Minds can be quite disconnected or very connected in sexually intimate acts – it depends on the nature of the relationship. The mind of a prostitute in the act could be light-years away, while appearing to be in the moment. But the two-minds in an act of genuine love can be expected to be quite connected both physically and in some non-physical way – as they experience it.
I know that my self-awareness of my thoughts has something to do with mind. I know that physical sense organs feed information to my brain. But then there is a ‘wall’ – I cannot know how that information from the physical world becomes an experience in my mind. Neurologists will tell me, for example, that my eyes pick up light, which is translated into electrical impulses that gets fed to many parts of my brain. Still they cannot tell me how those destinations in my brain, leads to my experience of light. I can understand how taste-buds work at a physical level. I cannot understand how taste becomes experience. So mind is a thing that experiences things generated by other organs. My own thoughts and feelings may generate experiences.
Mind is an experience. We experience various aspects of our own minds e.g. Thinking, feeling, intentions, emotions and so on. That’s primarily a very private experiential space.
By contrast – and I do not wish to get all mystical and paranormal here – but I have also on rare occasions experienced something that might be called telepathy. This is when on those rare occasions me and another were thinking or feeling the same thing, and it seems so real. It has happened both when physically near to the other person, or very far – hundreds of miles away. This sort of thing is selective and has happened with the same person many many times, so I can’t just say it’s coincidence. Can minds therefore connect experientially or ethereally across distances? I am not sure science has caught up with this as yet. From my own experience, I’d have to say ‘yes – on occasions they can’.
Mechanism or functions?
In the rest of this post I go more in the academic side of things.
How do we define things – concepts? If we’re looking at a table, it’s easy; one just describes various physical features that most other observers would appreciate. But the mind is not a static thing in a well-defined space. So that leaves us to describe the functions of mind. These are things like: beliefs, emotions, thoughts, activating the body to do something, experiencing sensations generated by physical sense organs (no full list today). So this is like describing the shape, dimension, colour and texture of a table. But the descriptive elements of functioning hides a handicap – that the underlying mechanism is truly unknown. Even if the mechanisms involved were perfectly understood, that then leaves me with another problem; how is my mind able to ‘understand’? What would be this feeling of ‘understanding’?
Definition and description
The ultimate problem is defining what ‘mind’ means. Everybody likes a definition that covers all variables or one that works for them – innit? Well, sorry – there is no perfect definition of ‘the mind’. So, much of this is description.
The mind refers to the collection of mental processes, functions, and states that together constitute our subjective experience and cognitive abilities. It is an abstract, multifaceted concept that encompasses consciousness, cognition, emotions, self-awareness, volition, language, social cognition, mental health, and unconscious processes, among others.
The mind is generally associated with higher-order cognitive functions, such as reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making, and self-reflection.
The concept of the mind is not limited to humans; it can also be used to describe the cognitive abilities and mental states of animals and, potentially, artificial intelligence. While the mind is not directly observable, it can be studied through various scientific methods, including neuroscience, psychology, and computational modelling.
‘Mind’ is complex and multifaceted, with different disciplines offering varying perspectives. While it’s difficult to provide a comprehensive account of all the key concepts, here are some important aspects that are often discussed in relation to the mind – and this is not exhaustive:
- Consciousness: This refers to the state of being aware of oneself, one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It is the subjective experience of what it’s like to have a mind.
- Cognition: This encompasses the mental processes involved in acquiring, storing, processing, and using information. Key cognitive functions include perception, attention, memory, learning, problem-solving, reasoning, and decision-making.
- Emotions: These are complex psychological states that involve feelings, physiological responses, and behavioural expressions. Emotions are central to the human experience and play a critical role in motivation, social interactions, and well-being.
- Self-awareness: This is the ability to reflect on one’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, as well as recognizing oneself as a distinct entity separate from others. Self-awareness is a critical component of introspection, personal identity, and mental health.
- Volition: Also known as will or agency, volition refers to the capacity for making choices and initiating actions based on one’s desires, beliefs, and intentions.
- Language and communication: The capacity to use symbols, gestures, or sounds to convey thoughts, emotions, and experiences to oneself or others is a key aspect of the mind. Language allows for the sharing of knowledge, culture, and social connections.
- Social cognition: This involves the mental processes used to understand and navigate social situations, including the ability to infer others’ mental states, beliefs, and intentions (also known as theory of mind), as well as empathy and moral reasoning.
- Mental health: This refers to the overall psychological well-being of an individual, encompassing emotional, cognitive, and social functioning. Mental health is influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics, environment, and experiences.
- Unconscious processes: These are mental processes that occur outside of conscious awareness, often influencing behaviour, thoughts, and feelings without the individual realizing it. Unconscious processes can include habits, implicit biases, and emotional reactions.
Sentience refers to the capacity of an organism or system to have subjective experiences or feelings, often described as “consciousness” or “awareness.” It is the most basic form of consciousness and is characterized by the ability to experience sensations, emotions, or perceptions. Sentience is a more fundamental concept than the mind and does not necessarily require higher-order cognitive functions. It primarily involves the capacity to feel pleasure, pain, or other basic emotions and sensations.
Sentience is not exclusive to humans; many animals are also considered sentient due to their capacity to experience sensations and emotions. The presence of sentience in artificial intelligence is still a subject of debate and research. Sentience is challenging to study scientifically, as it involves subjective experiences that cannot be directly measured or observed. Researchers rely on behavioural, neurological, and physiological indicators to infer the presence of sentience.
So – it would appear that ‘mind’ rests on top or alongside ‘sentience’. Previous to now, I had assumed that ‘sentience’ was a higher order concept. But the research into these areas impresses me that ‘mind’ is the higher order.
What does this mean? For me, it means that one day Artificial Intelligence (AI) may achieve sentience first, on the way to becoming a ‘mind’. It seems to me that mind is a higher order of ‘life’ itself. It is a tremendous effort of nature to structure what was inanimate matter into a complex form that then takes hold of its own existence in an autonomous way, via sentience. I’m not talking about amoebae.
There is something that’s frightening about all this. The integrity of my own mind depends inextricably on the physical integrity of my brain. ‘Brain decay’ – aka dementia – is therefore worrying for people like me who are so attached to the grand spectacle that I’ve been afforded to witness. Death of the brain essentially means death of the mind as conceptualised above. There is no evidence that minds survive physical death. This means that every second or microsecond of life is precious. Time-wasters be warned; you shall be shoved aside. My time is precious. End of!
These sources should provide a solid foundation for understanding the topic:
- DeGrazia, D. (1996). Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge University Press. This book offers a comprehensive analysis of the mental lives of animals and the ethical implications of recognizing their sentience.
- Griffin, D. R. (2001). Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness. University of Chicago Press. This book provides an extensive review of animal cognition, consciousness, and sentience, making a case for the existence of these mental capacities in non-human animals.
- Broom, D. M. (2014). Sentience and Animal Welfare. CABI. This book reviews the scientific evidence for sentience in animals and discusses its importance for animal welfare and ethics.
- Godfrey-Smith, P. (2016). Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This book explores the evolution of consciousness and sentience in cephalopods, particularly octopuses, providing a fascinating perspective on non-human minds.
- Seth, A. K. (2018). The real problem. Aeon. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-is-a-distraction-from-the-real-one This article provides an accessible overview of the current scientific understanding of consciousness and sentience and discusses the challenges researchers face in studying these phenomena.
- Low, P., Panksepp, J., Reiss, D., Edelman, D., Van Swinderen, B., & Koch, C. (2012). The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Retrieved from http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf This declaration, made by a group of prominent scientists, affirms the existence of consciousness and sentience in non-human animals and lays out the scientific evidence supporting this view.
While some of these sources are not strictly review articles, they are written by experts in the field and provide valuable insights into the study of sentience. Reading these sources should give you a solid understanding of the topic and the current state of research in this area.
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