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What is Mind

Mind machine

 A Therapist's perspective?

In a so-called normal world, it would seem somewhat irrational to actually talk about something that doesn't actually exist, as if it did. Yet, when it comes to the mind that is exactly what we are doing! So, why do we refer to something that doesn't exist, at least not in the sense of it being a real anatomical structure, the way we do? In fact, to compound this dilemma, people actually debate exactly where it is? For example, is it in the brain, heart, tissues, or even in our bones or, maybe, it's out there in the universe? Quips to one side, I think an explanation, at least to some extent, can be found in people who suffer some form of brain injury or damage, e.g. head injury, stroke, tumour, nutritional deficiency, even stress! When something of this nature occurs, it is very often accompanied by a pronounced change in the way the person functions, talks, walks, thinks or behaves etc. Sometimes these changes are temporary and others, permanent!. In this context, one of the most studied people, relating to changing one's personality, is a railroad worker, named, Phineas Gage. Phineas was involved in a tragic accident where an iron rod ploughed through his skull and took a small but significant part of his brain with it on exit! Read more about him here - So, for the purpose of this article (and please humour me in my challenge to this anomalous world view), the mind is both within and a function of the brain. And purely from a therapeutic perspective, I take the view, that the mind is mythical structure and thus, a useful way to describe what is going on consciously, as in, a function of our awareness and subconsciously, where we can also have an awareness that something is happening but we have no idea; what exactly. All we usually have is an awareness of the outcome of that subconscious processing! Whether we like the outcome, or not, of that processing, goes on to determine the quality or difficulty of our life!

However, in an attempt to make some sense of how and why we become affected by the apparent quality and quantity of this subconscious processing, I will expand on what led to me take a different viewpoint on the mind! Over the past 11 or so years I have spent a lot of time researching the vast array of components within the human brain and the way each part, in its own unique way, contributes to the function of the whole, This research created a paradigm shift, so to speak in the way I view the brain/mind paradox! The philosophical/hypothetical construct we call the mind, I now see merely as the nomenclature that adequately explains, to us, the way the brain communicates with itself and consequently, with us. Essentially what we call “the mind” is our way of describing the neurochemical language of the brain! If we go back far enough in history, it becomes apparent that some of earlier forms of communication were not linguistic, cave drawings being one example? The fact that there are so many languages somewhat confirms that language evolved in different places, at different times. Nowadays we use our native language to communicate with each other and also with ourselves (self-talk), it helps us to make sense (sometimes, non-sense or nonsense) of the world we live in. It's how we explain to ourselves what we are thinking and feeling and helps us to navigate our way through life. Language is also one of the main reasons why we maladapt or become dysfunctional. From a human perspective, it is the outward, conscious, observable function of the brain because everything we say, do or think first occurs in the brain! And because we can articulate, through language, our awareness of this non-conscious processing, it kind of shows how our spoken language becomes the interface between the world we live in and the world that lives within us!

There is no question that the brain communicates with and across itself and language is the word we use that describes methods of communication, be it verbal, non-verbal, sign language, morse code, drums, flags or even smoke signals. What we term the subconscious mind, is merely another form of language, one that occurs outside of conscious awareness, which, for me, makes the concept of the mind even more hypothetical and I only think of its actual presence metaphorically these days! That said, it does make explaining the things we communicate, relative to the way we think and/or behave, a lot simpler, if only by convention. But, everything I know about the brain, makes it clear to me, that what we call the subconscious mind is in fact, brain activity that occurs outside of our conscious awareness. This non-conscious processing, inter alia, drives autonomic functions, like breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, thirst, sleep, feeding, digestion, temperature etc. as well as playing some role in goal-directed behaviours, e.g. mating, procreation as well as activities like sports, music, dancing and socialising. and, of course, fighting The way in which our brain encodes experience, through memory creation and recall, goes on to dictate the way in which those activities add to or detract from the quality and achievements of our life!

In that sense, the brain's language, the mind, actually works by using different methods of electrochemical transmission to communicate. This occurs via a vast array of neurotransmitters, enzymes, peptides and hormones, as well as low-frequency electric impulses. Yet somehow, one can't help but pause briefly, because at times it feels like the mind is totally independent of the brain. It's as if this nebulous thing we call the mind is somehow separate from the 'I' or 'me,' that we think of as the driver of the process, as opposed to it being mostly, just the observer of it! So, to clarify my point, the mind is merely a hypothetical/philosophical construct that explains, somewhat, how we communicate with ourselves and the outside world!. The uniqueness of being human is a virtue of our ability to think and talk. However, psychologically speaking, thinking is as much our nemesis as it is our uniqueness! Quite frankly, it is generally believed that thinking is overrated or maybe, it's just that we aren't that good at it?

For the thinkers out there (Rodinians), let me explain why. Basically, humans are feeling animals, at least in the context of what we call life because we mostly function in response to our feelings and the most pervasive emotional feeling affecting modern society, is the feeling we know as fear. In other primates and mammals, there is apparently no convincing evidence that when they respond with their fear system (fight or flight) that they actually experience subjective fear the way we do; that seems to be fairly unique to us? They might cower and freeze but those are merely essential components of the fear response, not evidence of the existence of subjective fear itself. New research, by Joseph LeDoux, evidentially, suggests that the part of the brain that detects and responds to threats, is an innate defensive mechanism and the feeling, we know of as fear, arises out of the conscious awareness of the stimulation of the defence system. Through maladapted stimulus conditioning, the feelings of fear can arise in the absence of a real threat, we know this feeling as anxiety, in that it is, the anticipation of danger, not necessarily the presence of it?

Why is this you may ask? It is because the emotional and cognitive systems of the brain are separate systems but, they experience danger (a fear-provoking experience) almost simultaneously as part of the same event in real-time (with emotion having a slight edge). The perceived danger enters the brain via the sensory thalamus and then splits in two. Part 1 goes to the sensory cortex and onward to the cingulate cortex and part 2 goes to the hypothalamus and then splits again. Here is where it gets a little complicated because a portion of the hypothalamic sensory experience goes to the amygdala, an important centre of emotion in the brain, which is a shorter and, therefore, a quicker route than the one to the sensory cortex. Which basically means, we feel and act before we think! Part 2 of this hypothalamic circuit feeds back to the cingulate cortex, via the anterior thalamus, thus completing the loop (Joseph Le Doux – The Synaptic self 2003). Simplistically this means that we have a cognitive awareness of the emotional content, but this cognitive awareness lacks real emotion! The emotion that we feel in the context of bodily responses comes as a consequence of arousal of the amygdalae and related regions; of which there are many. Essentially we have a predilection to make sense of everything and once we are aware of the feelings of fear, we find a reason, or perhaps an excuse, to explain or attempt to justify these feelings. The major issue with this is that the descriptor comes after the fact and all we are really attempting to do, is to make a conscious sense of non-conscious processing. Because of this, we have a tendency to believe our conscious/cognitive rationale, whereas, in reality, we often have no real proof that we are right. To expand on this a little, let's say I was stuck in a lift with three other people, they are relatively fine but I am freaking out. It would be easy to assume the lift is the seat of the problem but if that were a fact, then we should all be freaking out, should we not? Assuming the others are OK because they know that help is on the way and that in all probability it is merely an electrical or mechanical malfunction. So, in the context that there is not a real danger, what I am doing, is responding to my perception of real danger, not an actual danger. So, there has to be another, more valid, reason behind my response; thus adding weight to my argument that our conscious assessment of the non-conscious response, is likely to a false reality experienced as anxiety?

So, what does this mean for us? Well, quite a lot actually. Just because we can feel, does not necessarily mean our articulation of those feelings is correct; sometimes the articulation is simply a consequence of verbal globalisation! What does that mean? Verbal globalisation means that we use global words that have no real definitive meaning. For example, many clients say “I feel anxious,” but what does this actually tell us about what they are feeling? In reality, nothing. The only way you can make sense of what they are feeling is to ask them, or self-reference. Self-reference can make us think their anxiety is like ours! But in many instances, those of us who self-reference, often don’t fully articulate what we are feeling either and this could leave us in an emotional limbo! The reason for this may be better explained by what is known as explicit - declarative memory and implicit - non-declarative memory. Explicit memory is that which we can easily declare/explain, it is in the realm of consciousness. Implicit memory is a memory we cannot so easily declare. Implicit memory is in the realm of non-consciousness and many emotional memories are formed within implicit memory systems! However, this does not necessarily imply that it is part of what we refer to as the subconscious mind. For example, driving a car is part of implicit memory, as is playing a musical instrument. In fact, it may be better explained as a function of memory; than mind! Albeit that memory is a part of the brain's ability to communicate but whether it is a form of communication or merely the place where the information is stored is not totally understood!

Digressing for a moment. and using dementia for illustrative purposes, at the onset of dementia, it starts by affecting explicit memory, people have difficulty in remembering recent events. It impairs the ability to form new memories and to varying degrees, impairs short-term and working memory, a memory that still relies on the hippocampus for retrieval and storage. Dementia is a gradual and progressive disease. While similar memory lapses occur in retrograde and anterograde amnesia, the patient usually makes a full recovery from amnesia. In contrast to that, things that are learned via the implicit memory system, e.g. playing an instrument, driving a car or a sport are seldom affected until much later in the disease. Fear, as an emotion, is more closely aligned to implicit memory than declarative memory. Some emotional responses to threat are innate while others are learned by experience via observational and instructive learning. Basically, that is why conscious thought, part of explicit memory, is largely ineffective when trying to control innate and learned emotional (implicit) responses by using rational thinking, analysis and or logical processes!

It is not uncommon of a client to say, I don’t know why I do this (ritual, habit, behaviour), I’m intelligent, I should be able to control my emotions, why do I keep on doing it? and on and on it goes! In a sense, they know what the should do; they just don't or can't do it! That said, it would be incorrect to claim the cognitive system to be totally neutral, because thoughts can (via the feedback loop explained above), stimulate emotions. Having a frightening experience potentially creates a fear response (fight or flight). At the same time, subsequent thoughts and self-reporting of that event can cognitively create an emotional response, albeit it is likely for there to have been some external or internal stimuli involved. Because emotions and thoughts are separate aspects of the same fear-provoking experience, it can lure us into believing that if we can explain and rationally analyze it, perhaps, we can somehow change the behaviour in an intellectual or cognitive way. . . . and while there may be some truth to that, basically this is wrong thinking! Through conditioning, the thoughts alone are capable of arousing the emotion and in time the thoughts can become part of the conditioned fear response; in the same way, a bell can make you salivate!. Thoughts can arise as a consequence of the emotional reasoning attached to language; in that, we can literally talk ourselves into fear! There is a famous saying, "whatever you do, do not think of a pink elephant". What comes to mind, of course, is a pink elephant! The rationale being, you can't, not think of something; without thinking of it!

So, where is the mind in all of this you may ask? Well, assuming my description of the mind is correct we have one mind, on two levels. One level we call the conscious and the other the subconscious or unconscious. Conscious thought is facilitated by working memory, a function of the frontal lobes of the brain, in conjunction with the cingulate gyrus, hippocampus and several other cortical and sub-cortical regions. Subconscious thought refers to aspects of everything else, memories, emotions, feelings; essentially it is thought but without awareness! That said, there is a vast difference between what we term the subconscious mind and subconscious neural processing, although, anatomically, they are one and the same thing?. That means, that while we may have an awareness that our brain functions; we have no awareness of that actually happening! I sometimes hear people say that breathing is part of our subconscious mind and in the context of the way we think of the mind, I disagree with that. Whilst we can consciously control our breathing, breathing in and of itself is mostly a function of the hindbrain. This is the most primitive part of our brain, which preceded conscious/subconscious thought! So basically, not everything that goes on out of conscious awareness is a function of a mind in the way we humans usually infer! 

One of the things I have learned over my many years as a therapist is, that I assist my clients in gaining a better and more effective way of neural communication. Put simply I helped them to think in a way that better serves their emotional life experience. The evidence to support this is the many testimonials received from clients saying how I helped change their life; although, realistically; it is they who did the work at the end of the day!

It is therefore noteworthy, as being evidential, to draw the conclusion that if the past blighted a client’s mind, and that ceased to be the case following therapy; the process of therapy was instrumental in bringing about that change? Since I cannot medicate or operate and I certainly can’t change the past, I ask; what is it that promotes change? I believe this to be a consequence of helping the client better utilise their whole brain/mind system. From a neurological perspective, we appear to be the outward manifestation of our inner (neuro)chemical experience at any given point in time. And that which we refer to as our mood or state of mind is consequential to the neurochemical soup and neural-networks that pervade. In a sense, it seems as if neither part of this brain/mind system can function fully, at least from a human perspective, without the other, and so, the whole mind approach appears to have some validity after all!

One of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of being a therapist comes from helping clients make the changes they want in their life and the only way I can do this is by working with these seemingly (in a physical sense) non-existent structures called the mind(s). The mind may be a function of the brain, it might just as much be a description of the way we function? In either event, I believe it to be a system by which I can help you implement and direct the way you choose to live your life. Once you learn to use and work with your whole brain/mind(s) in such a profoundly non-instinctive way; the results truly can be Life-Changing!

 Thom Bush. © Copyright 2019, all rights reserved.