Dra. Silvia Helena Cardoso

What is Mind?

The brain, although being the most complex body existing on Earth - perhaps in the universe - is a well defined object: it is a material entity located inside the skull, which may be visualized, touched and handled. It is composed of chemical substances, enzymes and hormones which may be measured and analyzed. Its architecture is characterized by neuronal cells, pathways and synapses. Its functioning depends on neurons, which consume oxigen, exchanging chemical substance through their membranes, and maintaining states of electrical polarization interrupted by brief periods of depolarization.

But... what about the mind?

It is amazing to verify that even after several centuries of philosophical ponderations, hard dedication to brain research and remarkable advances in the neuroscience field, the concept of mind still remains obscure, controversial and impossible to define within the limits of our language.

One strongly held view is that the mind is a entity distinct from the brain; this speculation has its historical roots: early theories termed dualistic hypotheses of the brain function and stated that the material brain can be viewed mechanistically (e.g., as a controller of muscle contraction, hormone secretion, etc) but that mind is some entity with different and undefined physical character. In such theories the mind was seen as synonimous with the soul, forming an integral part of the prevailing religious culture. For example, Descartes (1637) philosophically separated the mind and the body with his concept of dualism. His ideas permeated philosophical and scientific views right up to the present day changing the way in which mainstream research approached the problem of self. Since the mind and body were now usually viewed as isolated entities, research into these areas was inherently separate; biochemists concerned themselves with objective somatic mechanisms, psychologists wrestled with the subjective properties of the mind; philosophers and theologians carried with them the spirit and soul.

Mind is a definition, which tries to rescue the essence of man. The essence of a person arises from the existence of mental functions which permit him or her to think and to perceive, to love and to hate, to learn and to remember, to solve problems, to communicate through speech and writing, to create and to destroy civilizations. All these expressions are closely related with brain functioning. Therefore, without the brain, the mind cannot exist, without the behavioral manifestation, the mind cannot be recognized.

Spirit and soul seems to be a religious and metaphysical interpretation of the mind created by man. Neuroscience has understood the brain and the mind as a result of experimental investigation. Acceptance or rejection of the existence of the spirit and soul depends on faith and religious conviction, which cannot be proved or disproved by experimental methods. To me, beliefs are dependent on physiological activity of the brain and of our cultural environment. We cannot have religious concepts if we do not have a functioning brain (e.g., as when the brain activity is blocked by coma) and we cannot believe in things which we do not learn, hear, or experience. It is not impossible to think that some people can "learn" to believe in the existence of God, life after death and supernatural forces because the brain is provided with emotional centers in order to satisfy psychological needs. I frequently ask myself: Is there any brain region involved with mystic-religious experience? Could lesions, alterations or absence of those regions abolish religious beliefs?

Scientists are generally reluctant to combine experimental work with philosophy and usually reject consideration of possible theological implications of their studies. However, a few studies in this field have begun to appear. Saver & Rabin (1) found that clues to the neural substrates of religious experience, near-death experiences and hallucinogen ingestion may be deduced from limbic epilepsy (the limbic system is described as the emotional system of the brain). Ramachandran (2) reported that patients with temporal seizures (the temporal lobe is involved with many complex functions including emotion and memory) sometimes experience God and religious ecstasy during seizures and are intensely religious. Assal & Bindschaedier (3) reported a case of religious delusion in a 39-year-old woman who had suffered a head injury with right temporal concussion 13 years before.

In the opinion of the famous neurophysiologist José Maria Delgado (4) "it is preferable to consider the mind as a functional entity devoid of metaphysical or religious implications per se and related only to the existence of a brain and to the reception of sensory inputs".

A few neuroscientists, such as the Nobel prize sir John Eccles, asserted that the mind is distinct from the body, but most neuroscientists now believe that all aspects of mind, including consciousness are likely to be explained in a more materialistic way as the behavior of a large set of neuronal cells.

Has the brain explained the mind? If it does, how to explain mental events as being caused by the activity of large sets of neural cells? Neuroscientists, timidly, have begun to combat the idea that this question is either purely philosophical or elusive to study experimentally and have been approaching the problem scientifically. Modern cognitive sciences, which use a vast array of new techniques, are being able to study objectively many components of the most difficult problems of all, that of what is consciousness. Many components of consciousness, such as attention, awareness, visual cognition, language, mental imagery, etc., are being correlated with neural activity by means of computerized functional imaging and are now open to scientific investigation.

However, we still have much more to learn. These advances only constitute the beginning of the understanding on how the neural processes integrate themselves with mental states.

The mind is fascinating because it can generate, at the same time, and in different individuals, in one extreme the sublime experience of musical creation and in the other the perverse output of persons capable of abusing small children (as the reader will see in one of our articles).

If the physical basis of brain were better understood, substantial progress could be made in the alleviation of mental ills and in the search for an understanding of the nature of man as a cognitive individual.

Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD
Editor-in-chief and founder, Brain & Mind