Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Mind/Brain Conundrum...

“Think of your brain as a holographic movie projector, Walter. It gathers up everything available to it, screens out the irrelevant stuff, and projects ‘you’ inside your head. It makes you believe you are looking out of your eyes by projecting some of what the eyes take in. It makes you believe you are hearing sound through your ears by projecting some of what your ears pick up. It makes you believe there is a little ‘you’ in there- like a tiny little alien in a command and control station- so that you ‘think’ you are a special entity and have thoughts and feelings of your own and can therefore give direction to your life and the world around you.

The brain is tricky because it lies to you just to create you. It doesn’t show you what your eyes really see or your ears really hear. It ‘fixes’ both the sound and the image so that you can better make use of them out in the world. In the same way, it fixes your memories and thoughts to make them more useful to you. Your brain tricks you, Walter. It makes up your mind for you. You assume that all of you is you but your brain hides much from you. Most of what you feel it actually suppresses so that when you need to feel- like when a tick is walking on your skin- you’ll pay attention to it. If you felt everything and saw everything and heard everything, you’d go crazy in no time.

The brain is a fascinating piece of equipment, Walter. You’re lucky to still have most of yours still functioning.”

I like my doctor. He’s truly interested in me and who I am and- unlike almost everybody else in the world- he wants to know ‘what I think’.

I don’t know why I lie to him but I sometimes do.

“My brain lies to me?” I ask him.

“All the time. Mostly it just filters information like a censor, so you could say it lies to you by omission. It doesn’t give you the whole truth at any given time, just a small glimpse of the world, enough for you to handle.”

“Does that make my life a lie? All of what I can remember? Is that all a lie?”

“Well memory is tricky, Walter. As smart as the brain is, it can’t tell the difference between a real memory and an imagined one, or one you dreamed or pieced together watching television or reading books. It needs the mind to do that. The mind can separate those out. But the mind relies on the brain to exist and to store that information- it actually needs the brain to create the mind so the mind can tell the brain what is real and what is not real. So you can see where it all gets very confusing.”

My doctor pulls off his glasses and begins to clean them, giving both of us time for thought.

“Who’s the boss, then?” I ask him. “The brain or the mind?”

“My word! Walter. I think you may have just asked me one of those questions much too mysterious for the mind to answer!”

“What if they’re one and the same? What if you didn’t separate the two? What if you said the mind was just part of the brain the way the movie is made of film which is part of the projector? The brain plays out its holographic movie in the theatre of your skull- which the brain occupies- and in that movie you get to become you and do all the acting?”

My doctor chuckles. “But in that movie, Walter, the mind writes the script- at least part of it- and acts without the permission of the brain. That’s what ‘free will’ is- the mind making up its own mind, so to speak.”

“If the brain will let it!”

“If the brain will let it, is so very true, indeed!”

“Because if the brain isn’t functioning properly, you can’t make up your own mind can you?”

My doctor laughs out loud.

“That’s true too, Walter! Only it would depend on what part of the brain isn’t functioning properly. You seem to have all of your cognitive skills, so even with a missing chunk of brain, you might just make up your mind just fine. Since the brain feeds information to the mind from all parts of itself, it’s hard to know just what is gone and what is still functioning normally as in a case like yours. That‘s why we do those tests. They tell us just what is missing and what is intact.”


My doctor laughs. “The human mind is one of this planet’s most amazing occupants, Walter. A biological mystery that only has itself to solve its own mysteries. The mind solving the mystery of the mind… It’s a bit like the snake eating its own tail, don’t you think?”

“Why can’t the brain solve the mystery of the mind? Or a computer?”

“Because the brain doesn’t ‘think’, Walter. That’s the job of the mind. The brain creates the mind and the mind solves the problem of the mind…or… er… will eventually solve it. But we may need bigger brains to have any chance of doing that!” My doctor laughs inside the roof of his mouth. I think he knows he’s getting into nonsensical territory. My poor brain can’t keep up with his mind and I’ve fallen off the conversation. I let my head sink deeper into my pillow.

“I think I need to rest again. I’m tired and all this thinking is making my head hurt.”

“Alright, Walter. I’ll leave you to your rest. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation we’ve just had. You’re mind is still a good one even with all the damage it sustained.”

“Thanks,” I say. I close my eyes and try to imagine where the division of the brain and the mind is, the place where one hands off control to the other, but the sounds of the hospital rise up and take over my head space.

I can hear my doctor’s footfalls as he leaves the room. I can hear my breathe flowing in and out of my nostrils. But how my mind has come to be is as dark as everything I’m able to see with my eyes closed. It remains a mystery I’ll need a bigger brain than I have to ever solve.

The lights go out.


Jeannie said...

It really is a mystery.

Jonas said...

Charlie Rose has been doing an extended series on The Brain - one exploration per month for a year. It's ALL incredibly fascinating stuff. You can watch the individual episodes on Charlie Rose's website.

Shrinky said...

Poor old Walter, life is no bowl of cherries for him, is it? Glad to see you are still in creative mode (smile)