Mind and/or Brain - II
by Michael Brenner on 09 Sep 2023 0 Comment



Watson: “I am inclined to think….

Holmes: “By all means do!”


Back in the days when the New York Review of Books took seriously its reputation as the stellar journal of English-reading intellectuals, the editors upon occasion published long, prolix essays on the recondite topic of the Mind-Brain relationship. I recall John Searle of Berkeley as one of the protagonists. Through dint of supreme effort and disciplined concentration, one could just about stagger to its end – by which point one had forgotten everything read before the penultimate paragraph. It all bore an uncanny resemblance to the great theological dispute on whether the Son was OF the Father or IN the Father. So, why did one bother to read the stuff? Because it was there – like climbing K-2. The test of one’s claim to being a truly omnivorous ‘intellectual.’ Hence, were a colleague to ask: ‘Have you read…?’, you honestly could answer ‘Yes.” “What did you think of it?” ‘Highly instructive and heuristic….’


That all came back to mind recently in the course of an animated exchange with a psychiatrist friend over whether the most appropriate term to be used in describing the Trumpites in Congress was “Mindless” or “Brainless.” He made a powerful case for the latter. My preference was for “Mindless.” Being persons of good will, we eventually found “common ground” in agreeing on the compromise of ‘Witless.” Barack Obama would have been proud of us. Anyway, that exchange set me pondering whether in fact there is any reason to separate conceptually mind from brain. Neither neurologist nor psychiatrist, I began with pretty much a blank slate. Here is what I came up with.


For me the interesting question is very simple; can the Brain alone do the things we humans do? The obvious answer is ‘NO’ - as one can illustrate. Therefore, there is something else – however we conceptualize it. Beyond that, it’s always struck me as a game of words chasing words. At heart, I personally am averse to scholasticism. Somebody has said: “I believe we need the construct or concept of “mind” to converse meaningfully about what we do, hope, feel. Frankly, why should we be particularly interested in conversing meaningfully about those things? Rather, shouldn’t the focus be on what we do in the way of hope, feeling and behaviour? Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that any resemblance between the two is purely coincidental.


My first, impromptu thought was that Mind is not a mere extension of the Brain, although it depends on the brain. The human race could not survive and thrive relying on the instinctive behaviour programmed in the brain alone. If one goes into shock from experiencing an event that evokes an earlier experienced trauma, the ensuing sensations do depend on the Brain’s neurological activity but that activity is neutral as to the conscious experience.


The Mind’s dependency on the brain – as receptor of data from the external environment, as storage manager, and as activator of engagement with the external world – is undeniable. It does not follow that the Brain is the initiator of action physical or mental. Consider the body’s response to an extremity of heat or cold. The Brain signals that information to the Mind by registering the physical effects in unmistakable ways. But its remedial responses are restricted to a set of ‘pre-programed’ automatic activities, e.g., the body sweats. The Brain cannot on its own conceive of, or initiate meliorative actions beyond perhaps moving the body into the cooler shade – much less conceiving of and directing the hands to construct a permanent shelter. That is the prerogative of the Mind.


This is not to say that the Brain is a completely passive participant in mental activity. Think of information and memory. The Brain inventories it as well as stores it. The Brain is librarian as well as hard drive. As studies have shown, it does at times link discrete bits of data in nodes and clusters. (Synaptic clusters and memory engrams are the scientific terms generally used. Here they are lumped together into the shorthand ‘clusters’). The latter encompass several nodes that interact with each other. They thus are made available in semi-organized form to be accessed by the Mind.


The decision as to what to look for is that of the Mind. Those initiatives / searches are remembered by the Brain much as a website (Amazon, Google, Facebook) remembers your previous activities on that site. In response, it automatically searches for related clusters and creates meta-clusters that can form quite complex matrixes. Moreover, this Brain activity includes bringing forward at the interface of the unconscious and conscious the clusters thereby created so that the Mind becomes aware of them and can make use of them. Intelligence of the IQ type perhaps can be measured in terms of the formation speed, number, accuracy and refinement of those clusters.


A fascinating insight into the Brain-Mind symbiosis is provided by physical archaeologists and paleoanthropologists. They now have identified 6-8 hominin whose brain capacity was equal to, or greater than that of homo sapiens. One other was proportionally on a par. Yet, we won the evolutionary competition despite our being physically inferior on some counts (e.g., Neanderthals. Denisovans, Harbin / ‘DragonMan’, Jebel Irhoud man, Flores man, Dali man).


The key factor seems to have been the larger development of that section of the brain (right lateral posterior cerebellum) associated with higher level language functions and communication. The homo sapiens’ skull case, distinctive for being more rounded than elongated as is that of the other hominins, evolved to accommodate that section of the brain. That is to say, those others may have had equivalent capacity to calculate, to process sensory data and to conceptualize – but were limited in their ability to verbalize it. That would have been a major disability in regard to the refinement of ideas, their transference within groups and trans-generationally and – therefore – above all the capacity to sustain reasonably complex societies and the cooperation that they institutionalize.


Clinical neurology offers some confirmation of this hypothesis. There are deep strokes that leave the individual able to read, to comprehend speech, to think. However, they have lost the ability to express anything but a few repeated sounds either verbally or in writing. They are bereft of critical neurological connectors. (The latter activity is precluded anyway by a loss of manual dexterity). Conceivably, that approximates the condition of our hominin rivals. Perhaps, they’d be a whiz at figuring out those MENSA-type abstract line configurations we see in magazines. They only would be able to indicate with a few staccato sounds the right choice, though, without exclaiming “A piece of cake! Next stop MIT!” - and convey to his seatmate a strategy to get there.


Another order of ‘thinking’ problem is created by mental “pop-ups.” Either random eruptions emerging from the inventory shelves, or crude substitutions for more valuable (to the Mind’s task) clusters or ‘conditioned’ pop-ups stimulated by certain thoughts / feelings that recur. This last can result in “stupidification” – persons becoming stupider over time by the density and frequency of mental slogans and trite, ambiguous phrasing. Think of a public figure like Ted Cruz (Harvard Law) or Mike Pompeo (No. 1 in his class at West Point). However, they might score today on an IQ test (albeit probably somewhat lower than the score they registered at the age of 19, as noted), their thought and behaviour in purely logical terms has seriously declined.  


As soon as the Brain registers phrases such as: “We have a rock-solid commitment to the protection of a democratic Taiwan;” “Russia continues to show its aggressiveness in moving its territory ever closer to NATO bases;” “the best guarantor of world stability and predictability is the rule-based international order;” “we cannot give guarantees to Iran that we will adhere to provisions of a revised nuclear agreement for the duration of the Biden presidency because they are untrustworthy;” “The U.S. is Number One, & it’s going to stay Number One – you better believe it:” “Fuck the EU…” the Brain immediately reaches for the cluster of jejune, trite phases which is ready at hand. This can be a degenerative process – leading over time to what has been labelled Acquired Stupidity Syndrome by some non-conformist psychiatrists.


Over time, the Mind of this person lodges itself in the neurological neighbourhood populated by those low-grade clusters. Some neglected items – potentially valuable – unconnected to the Mind’s conscious or even subconscious activity, gather dust in distant cells. In other words, they are relegated by the Brain to the equivalent of the satellite storage sites in the boondocks where university libraries exile unreferenced holdings. They are not shredded and incinerated. In theory, they are accessible upon request. In practice, they are inert, mute and unattended – accessible only with the greatest conscious effort.


This phenomenon is accentuated when small group dynamics come into play. Dense interaction with others whose thought processes are slow and superficial, whose behaviour lacks logic and coherence, will militate toward more rapid and deeper deterioration in an individual’s functional intelligence. In the terms that we used above, clusters weaken or dissolve, new nodules and clusters are less likely to form, and the clusters that assemble simplistic (cliched) bits of information / ideas will move toward the fore of the subconscious.


Moreover, this devolutionary shift will occur in response both to the individual’s own consciousness and stimuli received from others. That is to say, the ETIC reinforces the EMIC.** 


This role of groups in lowering the practical intelligence of members is not at all rare – it is observable in various settings quite frequently. How many times have we heard the exclamation: “I can’t understand how so many bright (IQ) people can produce such a disjointed / confused / misleading report / strategy/policy!”


Social media, of course, contribute significantly to this entire process – accelerating and accentuating it. That holds for the politically literate class as well as for the general public. Zuckerberg and his accomplices were aware of this phenomenon – instinctively and based on a primitive understanding, and they exploited it in order to ensnare their prey.


Currently, heavy pressure is being generated by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to direct resources and research in the field of psychiatry on brain neurology. Notable progress in mapping brain functions and their relation to mental activity, especially abnormal mental states, has generated a movement to downplay traditional approaches to understanding behaviour and mental illness. However, there are crucial issues to be resolved about the significance of observed correlations between a neurological / chemical state in the brain and a psychological state in the mind; how important is the attempt to make a crisp distinction between the two? When we focus on one or the other, aren’t we prone to make the cardinal mistake of confusing the locus of analytical attention with the point of causal primacy? That is fundamental – even elementary. Changes in either will register in the other.


For causal primacy cannot be determined on the basis of a priori assumptions. The ability to trace shifts in mood / emotion through close examination of neurological activity or chemical balances cannot tell us that observable changes in body and mind are due to occurrences in one place or the other. The more exact the correlation, the more likely that this error will be committed. As for treatment, couldn’t one start at either place, or, based on the patient’s history, make a reasonable estimate as to where causal primacy lay and place the main effort at amelioration there – at least at first?




The Brain is EMIC but in a partial symbiotic relationship with the Mind.

The Mind is ETIC (a) in its relationship with the Brain; and (b) in its relationship with the external world. It also has EMIC (or introspective) dispositions.



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