Uncovering

The Complexity

And The Simplicity!

What Is Mind

Mark Twain said, “the two most important days of your life, are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”  I believe there is a third; the day you decide to make that the difference in your life! The aim of this article is to give you some semblance of what you can do to bring that about. So, to begin, what is it that directs the way we function, how we feel, think and behave? One could be tempted to say, the brain, the mind or both. But if you think about it for a moment, the primordial brain and mind use built-in systems that allow us to survive. Every heartbeat, each breath, the desire and motivation to eat, to defecate and micturate, all happen automatically. Obviously, the last two are a consequence of digestion and in those processes are the stimulants of life itself.
 
So, in that sense, at its simplest, life is a primordial event predicated on natural and innate processes. However, if that is all we did, life would be pretty boring. So, we have to do things and mostly, in the beginning, it starts with observation, trial and error. This is how babies begin to shape their inner world and develop a primitive brain into the most amazing thing in the whole universe, or at least to the extent that we know?
 
Through trial and error, we gain experience but that experience is useless if we cannot retain it and that is where memory comes into the picture. Everything we do is stored in the brain through the compilation of various types of memory, i.e. explicit/declarative memory (autobiographical, semantic, episodic) and implicit/non-declarative (procedural, emotional, defensive). Your name, where you live, what you do etc., is explicit memory. Things you can do, e.g. ride a bike, play the piano, brush your teeth is implicit memory. Of course, there are natural connections between explicit and implicit systems, for example, you couldn’t brush your teeth if you couldn’t remember where you kept your toothbrush. So, from its primordial beginnings, the brain begins to store information and develop as a consequence of observation and experience, locked away in an intricate mix of innate and learned systems that activate through sensory inputs, integration and activation. Essentially we exist in response to the interplay from the world around us and how that gets interpreted by the world within us!
 
Enter the Mind:
In a so-called normalised world, it would seem somewhat irrational to talk about something that doesn't physically exist as if it actually did. Surely this is the stuff of Harry Potterdom! Yet, when it comes to the concept of the human mind, that is exactly what we appear to do! So, why do we refer to something that doesn't actually anatomically exist, at least in the sense of it being a physical structure, the way we so prolifically do?

It is obvious to us that we have an awareness of who we are, where we are and what we or others are doing. As such we need to explain this and that requires this phenomenon to be given a name. However, the word 'mind' has been around in various forms, in many countries and cultures, for hundreds if not thousands of years. In its modern text, it seems to derive from Germanic origins and in Old English was known as gemynd and was seen mostly as a function of memory. So, in its early beginnings, it had little to do with the way we think of it today. This may mean we have fabricated a modern meaning of an archaic word and somewhat intellectualised it to meet our beliefs of what it is. Nevertheless, the modern-day usage of the word mind precedes the vast amount of neuroscientific research that so factually gives us more information about the way the brain functions. So, in that context, much of our modern-day parlance on the mind is woefully out of date!

Consequently, the views on the mind give a distorted view and, at best, only offer a glimpse into the way our brain/mind combo works. In addition to this, it may explain why there is no common agreement on what the mind is. And because the topic of the mind is so complex and misunderstood, it may explain why we cannot agree on things like religion, politics and many other things too? One, of many, theories I find interesting, is that of the quantum mind and, in part, it refers to quantum processes within the brain. One research explores the involvement of microtubules within the nucleus of cells and tryptophan (an amino acid) as perhaps being causal of the strange phenomenon called 'the mind!' But what would happen if there was a severe deprivation of tryptophan, what would be the consequence for the mind?  If we were to start from at least a level of certainty and consensus of the mind question, what is known, is that when the brain dies, so, also does the mind. Agreed, that may only be because current methods cannot explain the mind after brain death. Scientists have recorded some activity (mostly around 10 seconds, with a short burst around 50-80 seconds) after death, then following a short burst, all EEG activity stops. To complicate or maybe confuse the matter further, there are some very credible reports of near or after death experiences, which appear to be iterations of an unattached mind or consciousness. That said, I have not read anything that proved or attempted to establish if brain death had occurred in any of those cases? So, the debate, which is often referred to as the "hard problem of the mind,” continues! Is the brain, the brain, the mind, the mind and is consciousness, nothing other than consciousness? Or is the brain the nexus from which real or illusory perceptions arise, akin to a cine projector that contains the whole of the story, which it then projects onto a screen called life?
 
When it comes to the brain-mind debate from a therapeutic perspective, specifically relating to how it is posited in hypnosis therapy, I have an evolving narrative that is seemingly at odds with much of the mainstream hypnotherapy community. That is, that hypnotherapists tap into the sub/unconscious mind and make changes. I am, of course, not saying that changes cannot happen, they obviously do, merely that it does not happen in the way the hypnotherapy community say or believe it does! My personal and empirically informed perspective is, the professional and individual view taken by many hypnotherapists, is too shallow, too old and mostly a regurgitation of a seemingly unfounded narrative learned during training. In addition to that, I believe that very few of those who espouse this mantra actually know much about the mind or the brain come to that! I believe the significance of this 'subconscious mind' mantra, is that it preceded the vast amount of neuroscientific findings that have emerged in the last few decades.
 
As my practice evolved, I developed a fascination for the brain, and consequently, have a reasonable understanding of its many parts, as well as some of the intracellular/extracellular processes. So it may be because of this that I find the quantum theory of mind interesting? But that does not yet amount to an acceptance of the theory, merely that I find it interesting. The most challenging issue with theories of the mind is, as stated above, there has yet to emerge one unifying opinion that collectively and definitively states what it is. That position is further complicated when you add consciousness into the debate. My personal view on this, from the point of view of error prediction, is in seeing both mind and consciousness as two separate things as opposed to them being one emerging quasi phenomena arising out of two intangible, inexplicable and variable inter and intrapersonal experiences. But even that gets complicated by matters such as reincarnation and the apparent manifestation of religious beliefs, i.e. after death, we go to some form of afterlife, Heaven or the Elysium. If such pre and post-life phenomena are true, then there has to be a part of us that preexists our current mortal existence and another infinite part that traverses through and beyond us? So, perhaps, consciousness is that part? A manifestation of a quantum of two brains, in the spiritual form of a man and a woman, that translates into an ovum from within one part and is fertilised by the other, for the purpose of giving a specific blueprint of existence within this, our current lifetime? So, consciousness, perhaps, is part of a universal continuum and the brain, the mechanism that holds the database of life and mind, the descriptor of the processes that acts as an interface between the quantum fields of existence?
 
Nevertheless, the argument cannot rest there, simply because there is too much disagreement. Much of my own theory, examines the seemingly irreducible quality of the mind, that concurs with the idea that they are two separate but conjoined things, i.e. that one cannot exist without the other. To test this dualistic brain/mind theory, we can look to people who suffer some form of brain injury or inexplicable anomaly. For example, anyone who has had a head injury, stroke, tumour, neurological disease or viral/bacterial infection, nutritional deficiency, stress or has been cursed or possessed. In these cases, there are some profound changes in the functionality of these people. When something like this happens, it often leads to pronounced changes in the person's functionality, e.g. how they talk, walk, think or behave! What has been established, to a certain level of agreement, is that such occurrences can change the way a person feels (emotion), thinks (cognition) or behaves (motor function). Sometimes these changes are temporary and other times they are permanent but in those where it is temporary, there is often a total reversal of the abnormal emotion, cognition or behavioural differences. 
 
Quantum theory has a nice spin on this aspect, i.e. the brain stores information and the mind reads this information. Somewhat like a CD stores music and a CD player reads and amplifies this information. If the CD is damaged the player cannot play the music, properly or at all. The problem I find with this narrative, despite it being logical, is that the brain is significantly more complex than a CD or its player. Life from an intrapersonal perspective is judged by the way it feels and knowing exactly what the mind or consciousness is, makes little difference unless of course, it makes our life feel better. The other side of this argument is, that there is a relatively coherent level of agreement, that the brain stores information and, what we refer to or defer to as the mind, is merely how we explain or describe something that influences how we feel, think and behave.
 
Taking a more detailed look at the effect of a damaged brain, perhaps one of the most studied people, relating to changes to one's personality, as a result of brain damage, was railroad worker, Phineas Gage (read about him here). Phineas was involved in a tragic accident where an iron rod ploughed through his skull and took a relatively small but significant part of his brain with it on exit, “Gage was no longer Gage”, a friend said, after the accident! So, when an argument is presented, that the mind is a separate phenomenon from the brain, I struggle in my attempts to understand, let alone explain, how such an accident as Gage's can alter so much of who he was before his accident. Of course, if there was a counterargument that the mind, despite being a separate entity from the brain, experienced a correlative change, be it meta-neurological or meta-physical, that could alter my view. In the absence of the awareness of such evidence, my belief is that consciousness is a far more interesting and far more complex phenomenon than that of the mind. Nevertheless, for the moment I am convinced that the brain and mind are two parts of an emerging trilogy - Brain - Mind - Consciousness. You cannot alter one without there being some type of alteration in one or another. I put the brain ahead of mind and that ahead of consciousness as this appears to be the order in which they evolve from birth.
 
However, despite the disparity in theories and beliefs, from a therapeutic perspective, the ubiquitous and theoretical structure of the mind creates a useful way to explain what we believe is going on inside our heads. Consciousness, thus being a function of our awareness that we exist and are having an experience in which we, knowingly or not, are playing a part. The awareness of our subconscious comes from a conscious level of thought that something is happening, from within, of which we have no idea what it is or how it influences our experience of life; other than the fact that it does! Where we usually find ourselves, is having a conscious knowledge of the outcome of our brain/mind's internal processing. The point at which we have a conscious sense of having had a subconscious experience! Something that collectively, whether we like the outcome of that processing or not, goes on to determine the perceptive quality or difficulty of our life!
However, I need to explain and, hopefully, make some sense of how and why we become affected by the apparent quality and quantity of our subconscious processing. So I will start by expanding on what led me to take this radically different point of view regarding the brain-mind conundrum! Over the past two decades, I spent a lot of time researching the vast number of regions of the brain. From there, I began to observe the way various parts, in their own unique way, contribute to the function of the whole. This research created a paradigm shift, so to speak, in the ways in which I view the functionality of this brain/mind paradox! The philosophical/hypothetical construct we call mind is merely the nomenclature that adequately explains the way the brain communicates within itself and consequently, with our conscious self, albeit there is the possibility that they are one and the same thing? Essentially what we call “the mind” is our way of describing the neurochemical language of the brain and how that mysteriously creates what we call awareness or consciousness! If we go back far enough in history, it becomes apparent that some 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 and probably as some form of tribal code? Nowadays we use our native language to communicate with others and 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 ourselves to ourselves and others, also what we are experiencing, thinking and feeling and from there, helps us to navigate our way through life. Whether we like the outcome of that journey is somewhat irrelevant, in general terms, but nevertheless, it can be relevant to ourselves! Language is also one of the main reasons why we maladapt or become dysfunctional because we so often use it in extremely vague and ambiguous ways. From a human perspective, it is the outward, conscious, observable function of the brain because everything we say, do or think first occurs within the brain! And it is somewhat further complicated because we can articulate, be it correctly or incorrectly through language, our awareness of this non-conscious processing! It kind of demonstrates how our spoken language becomes the interface between the world we live in, and, the world that lives within us! This is demonstrated by the intellectual iterations of the spider phobic who knows intellectually, that the spider that terrifies him won't actually harm him!
 
There is no question that the brain communicates with and across itself. 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. Each of these nonlinguistic forms of communication is then translated into a native language to extract meaning. What we term the subconscious mind, is merely another form of language, one that occurs, electrochemically, within the brain but outside of conscious awareness. For me, this makes the concept of the mind all the more hypothetical and, consequently, these days, I think of its actual presence more metaphorically! That said, it is useful in explaining the things we communicate, relative to the way we think and behave. It just makes the explanation of our life, good or bad, a lot simpler, if only by convention. Everything I know about the brain demonstrates, that what we call the subconscious mind, is at some level, a consequence of brain activity that occurs before we can have conscious awareness. The brain is influenced by sensory stimuli, which is most often stored as algorithms (engrams/traces) in memory. These memories facilitate lightning-fast responses. Be they a form of an emotional fight or flight response or a cognitive discourse between two people speaking at a rate of over 100 words per minute! This non-conscious processing, inter alia, also drives autonomic functions, like breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, thirst, sleep, feeding, digestion, temperature etc. It also plays a role in motivational or goal-directed behaviours, e.g. eating, sex/procreation, as well as sports, music, dancing, socialising and, of course, fighting. How our brain encodes experience, through sensory stimulation, memory creation and recall, then dictates the way 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 ubiquitous thing we call the mind is somehow a separate entity from our-self? In some sense, we see that, which we call the self, as the driver of the process, as opposed to it mostly being an 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 by virtue of our ability to think and talk. However, psychologically speaking, thinking is as much our nemesis as it is our uniqueness! Generally speaking, it is believed that thinking is overrated or maybe, it's just that we're not that good at it?
 
For the thinkers out there, 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. Contextually, the most pervasive emotional feeling affecting modern society is the feeling we know as fear. In other primates and mammals, there is no apparent convincing evidence that they respond to fear (fight or flight), subjectively, the way we do! This, subjective response to fear, actually 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. Subsequently, the feeling, we know of as fear, arises out of the conscious awareness of the stimulation of that defence system. Through maladapted stimulus conditioning, feelings of fear can arise in the absence of a real threat. We have come to know and express this feeling as anxiety. Anxiety, although an expression of the fear response, is different, 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 within the brain. However, they experience danger (a fear-provoking experience) almost simultaneously as part of the same event in real-time (with emotion having a slight advantage). 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 amygdala, an important centre of emotion in the brain, is a shorter and, therefore, quicker route than that to the sensory cortex. This 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 feelings of emotion, in the context of bodily responses, are a consequence of arousal of the amygdalae and related regions; of which there are many! Humans have a natural predilection that dictates we make sense of everything we experience. So once we become aware of the feelings of fear, we must find the reason, any excuse will also do, to explain or justify these feelings. The major issue here is that the descriptor comes after the fact and what we're attempting to do, is make 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 fine but I am freaking out. It would be easy to assume the lift is the problem but if that were true, then we'd all be freaking out, wouldn't we? Let's assume the others are OK because they know help is on the way and in all probability it's merely an electrical or mechanical malfunction. So, in that context, there isn't a real danger! However, 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? This adds weight to my argument that our conscious assessment of this non-conscious response, is likely to be a real experience of 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 understanding of 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. Experientially, self-referencing appears to be what most people do, we assume we know what the other person means. Consequently, self-referencing can make us think their anxiety is like ours! But in many instances, those who self-reference, often don’t fully articulate what they are feeling either. This can leave us in a certain or uncertain state of mental confusion or emotional limbo! The reason for this may be better explained by what is known as explicit memory (declarative) and implicit memory (non-declarative). 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 implicit memory is part of what we refer to as the subconscious mind. For example, a large part of driving a car is an instrumental aspect of implicit memory, as is playing a musical instrument. In fact, driving or playing an instrument may be better explained as a function of memory; than the mind?  And there is no doubt that higher cognitive ability plays a role in our ability to uniquely expand our musical prowess! Therefore, memory is a unique aspect of the brain's ability to communicate. But whether what we call memory is a form of communication or merely the place where the information is stored is not totally understood! However, it is well understood, that memories are an intrinsic part of brain function and how those memories are encoded and stored, inevitably leads to the outcome! In relating this to the mind, I believe this better illustrates that the mind, is the means by which memory, stored mostly at synapses, is transmitted into conscious awareness? In this context, conscious awareness is any action or behaviour, e.g. a word, a movement, a thought etc. While we are aware that things are also happening subconsciously, that only becomes a topic when we become aware of the subconscious processing!
 
Digressing for a moment and let's use dementia for illustrative purposes. At the onset of dementia, it starts by affecting explicit memory, people have difficulty in remembering recent events. It affects our ability to form new memories and, to varying degrees, impairs short-term, working memory, memory systems that rely on the hippocampus for retrieval and storage. Cognitive impairment mostly starts in the entorhinal cortex of the hippocampal region. That is why memory lapses are amongst the first major indicators of there being a problem! Dementia, as a general descriptor of cognitive disease, is a gradual and progressive condition. While similar memory lapses occur in retrograde and anterograde amnesia, the patient usually makes a full recovery from amnesia. In contrast to that, things learned via implicit memory systems, e.g. playing an instrument, driving or sport are seldom affected until much later in the disease. In creating an emotional/mental link, fear, as an emotion, is more closely aligned to implicit memory than declarative memory. Some emotional responses to threats are innate while others are learned by experience via observational and instructive learning. This is why conscious thought (mostly explicit memory), is rarely effective in controlling innate/learned emotional responses (implicit memory) using rational thinking, analysis or logical processes!
 
To continue. It's quite common for clients 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 behaving or responding this way? In a logical rational sense, they know what they 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 or ineffective! This is because thoughts can (via the feedback loop explained above), stimulate emotions. Having a frightening experience can potentially create an instinctive non-conscious fear response (fight or flight). At the same time, subsequent thoughts and self-reporting of that event can cognitively create a consciously framed emotional response. Albeit it is likely for there to have been some form of external or internal stimuli involved. Because emotions and thoughts are separate aspects of the same fear-provoking experience, this can lure us into believing that we can rationally and logically analyze them? Maybe we somehow believe we can 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, thoughts alone are capable of arousing the emotion and, in time, thoughts can become part of the conditioned fear response. This is the method Ivan Pavlov developed, using a bell to make his dogs salivate, known as, classical conditioning! 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 is, you just can't actually, not, think of something; without thinking about it!
 
So, where is the mind in all of this you may ask? Well, assuming my description is correct we have one mind, on two levels. On 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, 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 without the awareness of it! 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 is functioning; we have no awareness of that actually happening! I've heard people say breathing is part of our subconscious mind. However, in the context of the way we think of the mind, I disagree with that. Whilst we can consciously control our breathing, in and of itself, breathing is mostly a function of the hindbrain. This is the most primitive part of our brain, which, as far as can be established, 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!  
 
Over my many years as a therapist, I have developed ways to assist my clients to gain 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 I am mindful, that realistically, at the end of the day, it is they who did the work!
 
One of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of being a therapist comes from helping clients make the changes they want in their life. At one level it appears this is achieved by working with these seemingly non-existent structures called the mind(s). But in reality, it is a consequence of changes made at the level of individual cells and networks of them too within the brain! The philosophical mind is as much a function of the brain, as it is a description of the way we function? In either event, I believe it to be a symbolic system by which I 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 system, in such a profoundly non-instinctive way; the results can be truly Life-Changing! 
 
So, on reflecting on the efficacy of therapy it's worth noting, because it's somewhat evidential, that therapy offers us an excellent opportunity to put the past behind us. If the past blighted a client’s mind and that was not the case following therapy; then therapy was likely 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 it is 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? Therefore, the whole brain/mind approach appears to have some validity after all!
 
 Thom Bush. © Copyright 2021, all rights reserved.
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