What is Mind

Mind machine

 A Therapists perspective?

I suppose the best place to start in explaining what the mind is, is to explain what it is not! The mind is not a real anatomical structure, and many people debate exactly where it is, e.g. is it in the brain, heart, tissues, or even in our bones or even out there in the universe? I think an answer, 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, thinks, behaves etc. So, for the purpose of this article let us assume that the seat of the mind is the brain.

My inclination at this point, is to describe the mind as the outward observable function of the brain and for all we know that may actually be all it is! Yet somehow, one can't help but pause, becasue at times it feels like the mind is totally independent of the brain; it's as if it were a metaphorical construct that allows us to 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, I believe thinking is over rated!

For the thinkers out there (Rodinist's), let me explain why. Basically we humans are feeling animals, at least in the context of what we call life, we mostly function in response to our feelings. 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 humans? They might cower and freeze but those are essentially components of the fear response, not evidence of the existence of subjective fear itself!

Why is this you may ask? It’s because the emotional and cognitive systems of the brain are separate systems but they experience danger (a fear provoking experience) simultaneously as part of the same event in real time. 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 (the major emotion centre of 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 consequential of amygdalae arousal and related regions; of which there are many.

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 globalization! What does that mean? Verbal globalization 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? Well, 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 makes 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, 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 easliy declare/explain, it is in the realm of consciousness. Implicit memory, is memory we can't declare, at least not easily. Implicit memory is in the realm  of non-consciousness. However, this does not necessarily imply that it is part of 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!

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, 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 and like most memory is a learned by experience. Basically that is why conscious thought, part of explicit memory, is largely ineffective when trying to control emotional (implicit) responses 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 creates a fear response. At the same time, subsequent thoughts of that event can create an emotional response, albeit there is likely 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, we can somehow change the behaviour in an intellectual or cognitive way. . . . although 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; 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 cannot not think of something; without thinking of it!

So, where is the mind in all of this you may ask? Well simplistically we have two minds, one which 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 the subconscious mind and subconscious neural processing. That means, that while we may have an awareness that our brain functions; we have no awareness of that happening! I sometimes hear people say that breathing is part of our subconscious mind; I disagree witth that. Whilst we can consciously control our breathing, breathing in and of itself is a function of the hindbrain. This is the most primitive part of our brain, which preceded conscjous/subconscious thought! So basically, not everything that goes on out of conscious awareness, is a function of mind!

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 drawer the conclusion that if the past blighted a client’s mind, and that ceased to be the case following therapy; that 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 neuro-chemical 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 validity after all!

One of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of being a therapist comes from helping clients make 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 mind(s) in such a profoundly non-instinctive way; the results truly can be Life Changing!


Thom Bush. © Copyright 2011 - 2-17 All rights reserved.