Mind & Brain

Posted on January 17, 2014

Welcome to my first post as an employee of Coldspring Center for Social and Health Innovation!  For more information on Coldspring Center, check out the previous post.  To celebrate this occasion, I want to build on our conversation about resiliency, and focus on the role of the mind.  As with any good conversation, let’s start with a controversy: Does the human mind even exist and if so what is it?
There are two schools of thought on this subject.  While the arguments might sound like a mix of science, metaphysics and philosophy, the answer is critical to our practical work in helping traumatized clients.  I will present both sides here and the consequences of both.
On one side there is materialism.  Those in this camp believe that the mind either does not exist, or is only a function of the physical brain.  In materialism, the brain and nervous system are just the sum of their parts.  A combination of genetics and experience account for who we are and can be used to explain our actions and personality. 
When I consider materialism, I can’t help but think of an old Twilight Zone where a mad scientist was attempting to find the physical location of the soul in the human body.  Materialism can seem like this same black and white mentality, “If we can’t locate it physically then it does not exist.” As with the soul, the mind does not show up in brain scans or biopsies. 
While I’m all for the scientific approach I do think materialism falls short on several accounts.  First, we have not found a physical location for many brain functions.  While brain scans show activation in different areas when we are happy, depressed, struggling with ethical decisions and so on, we have yet to find one isolated physical location for happiness or ethical thinking.  The brain is not a localized organ, meaning that most every function of the brain involves millions or billions of synaptic connections.  Most, if not all, parts of the brain must work together with other parts of the brain to function.
Second, I struggle to understand how, if the brain is the sum of its parts, it can be so fickle!  It is constantly changing itself.  The brain is more than genetics and experiences, it also has a voice.  My computer does what I tell it to do.  It does not consider if my instructions are ethical or whether it should or should not execute the command.  A computer is materialistic; it is the sum of its structure (circuitry) and experience (commands).  I’m not sure about you, but I seem to have a voice in my head that struggles with ethics, philosophy, religion…all of which are injected into my decision making. 
Third, how can we explain the scientific data around mindfulness, meditation, motivational interviewing, biofeedback and other activities that utilize something beyond genetics and experience to change brain structure?  I see the possibility that the brain could change its own structure through experience, but where does our volition or free will come from in this limited closed system?  The big accomplishments in my life are much less about my past experiences or genetics and more about my will and desire. 
Finally, materialism does not match my experience in the helping professions. When I’ve seen clients make shifts in thinking and behavior it was more than just genetics and experience.  There was a great deal of will or volition to change their lives.  They were able to override their brain’s wiring and chart their own course. Where does this volition come from if not the mind?
The other side of the argument is termed dualism.  Below is a slide that many of you have seen in my presentations from the research of Daniel Siegel a hero of the dualistic perspective. 

Siegel states “The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”  The mind regulates energy and information through the brain and nervous system as well as through the energy and information exchanged between people.  In the dualist view the mind is greater than the sum of the brain’s parts.  While the mind is highly influenced by experience and brain structure, it cannot be understood only in terms of these factors. 

The dualist argument opens space for free will and volition, which is difficult for me to find in the materialistic view.  A mind helps explain why we don’t act solely out of our own self-interest.  It explains how we can break habits and make meaningful changes in our lives.  Most important to our work, dualism allows the mind to be a tool that can strategically change the brain.
I can’t help but think of one of my favorite movies when discussing the materialism verse dualism argument.  In the Matrix (by now you all know me for the nerd I am!) Morpheus gives the lead character Neo the choice.  “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

This leads me to my final argument for dualistic thinking.  It challenges the very foundations of psychology, criminal justice and how we perceive change and human potential.  The more we learn about the brain and human condition the less logic can be found in many of our society’s systems and structures seem.  To me, dualism, or the power of the mind, gives us a path to transform these systems and structures to maximize the health and well-being of our communities and the individuals that make them up. Over the next weeks we will discuss the impact of taking the red pill and what the mind can teach us about our work with clients, our society and ourselves. ourselves. 


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