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Are the mind and brain the same thing? Science and philosophy seem to be pointing more and more to the idea that they're not. While the materialist view has always held that consciousness is only a byproduct of our physical firing neurons, there is far too much that is unexplainable under this paradigm. Things like near death experiences, out of body experiences, mystical experiences and psychedelic experiences, for example, simply cannot be explained if we think of our consciousness as nothing more than the result of our physical brain matter.

Is there a better model than the materialist one we're always told is true? What if the mind is non-physical and the brain an apparatus downstream in the line from consciousness to matter?

Join us on this episode of Objective:Health as we explore the question: Is your mind confined to your brain?

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Running Time: 00:32:26

Download: MP3 — 29.7 MB

Here's the transcript:

Erica: Hello and welcome to the Objective:Health show. I am your host today, Erica and joining me in the studio are Elliot, Doug and Damian.


Erica: So today we're going to talk a little bit about the brain and the mind and is your mind confined to your brain? Should be interesting, you know. It is health and wellness related. We are all walking around trying to use our mind in productive ways (chuckles), but what stimulated this discussion behind the scenes was actually an article that came out in 2016 called 'Scientists Say Your "Mind" Is Not Confined to Your Brain, or Even Your Body" and this was in the online news source The Conversation. It is asking, is your mind part of your body or does it extend beyond that and scientists have been wrestling with this, particularly neuroscientists. But the question is asked, 'what is the mind?' and the statement was the mind is the seat of consciousness, the essence of your being. Without a mind you cannot be considered meaningfully alive, so what exactly and where precisely is it? Isn't that a great question?

It goes on to say that our mind cannot be confined to what is inside our skull or even in our body. A definition was created by a man named Dan Siegel and he is a Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and he wrote a book called 'Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human'. In his definition he made the comment that our mind extends beyond our physical selves and that it's impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our inner reactions. So, what do you all think? You think this definition clearly stated or created more ambiguity? We all have people that are very materialistic minded, more that are subjective. Is it confined to your brain? Is it just something that sits in your head, we're automatons, or is there this extended theory of mind?

Doug: Well, I've never really bought the whole materialistic view of the whole thing, that your brain is just a big microprocessor and that consciousness is a by-product of this machine, more or less. That never really rang true to me and I think there are a lot of things that that kind of model can't answer for. One thing in particular actually, there was an article from the Scientific American blog. It was called 'Misreporting in Confirmation Bias in Psychedelic Research' and it was a really interesting article. The author is talking about how the studies that have been done on psychedelic research have found that, despite the fact of people having these very expansive sorts of experiences, even seemingly having access to knowledge that they wouldn't necessarily have in a sober state, despite this fact the brain is actually less active in that state than it is in the normal waking state.

What they expected to find was something similar to dreams where the brain is actually still quite active during the dream state. But they didn't find that. So, it's like when people are having these kinds of experiences, where is that actually taking place if the brain is actually less active in that state?

They found very similar things for near death experiences or even actual death experiences where people die and then come back. People have been brain dead and they come back reporting all kinds of different experiences that they had; out of body experiences. There is cortical deactivation through the use of magnetic fields. In mystical experiences as well, like meditation and things like that, they are finding that in many of these states, that people actually have less activity going on in their brain than what you would expect. You would expect that if you are having a mind blowing experience that you would see a LOT of brain activity, MORE than what you would normally see. But it is actually the opposite.

So that kind of says to me that what seems to be hinted at there is that you are in a state where you are more connected to your mind than you are to your brain in those states. Now obviously a lot more research has to be done on that and we can speculate a lot but what we can say is that this is not what you would expect if that mechanistic model were true.

Erica: Siegel was saying that the mind meets the mathematical definition of a complex system, in that:
  • it's open so you can influence things left outside itself;
  • chaos capable, which simply means it's roughly randomly distributed; and
  • non-lineair, which means that small input leads to large and it's difficult to predict the results.
So, with these complex systems self organizing, the idea is the foundation of mental health. So I found that really interesting because he said, again borrowing from the mathematics, optimal self organization is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable. This means that without optimal self organization you arrive at either chaos or rigidity. He believes that that fits the range of symptoms of mental health disorders. So this idea of self organizing as opposed to complete and utter chaos ...

Doug: or rigidity. If it wasn't a self-organizing complex system then we literally would be robots. I'd like to think that we're a little bit more than that. If you talk to the materialists, they would argue that no, we're not, we're just very complex machines. I would argue against that. I don't think that that is actually the case.

Erica: Yeah, I hope not (chuckles). We're working on integrating and becoming adaptive and flexible and energized and stable. Unfortunately, we live in such a chaotic state of the world that that can influence us and it can take a toll on mental health, for sure. One last thing is, Siegel was saying that he actually wrote this book because he sees so much misery in society and essentially, people need to integrate more. They need to not isolate, not pull themselves away but actually learn through lessons with other people of being more cohesive, if I'm making sense. Maybe my mind is not 100% (chuckles), but I can kind of see where he was going, like he felt that this was something that needed to be shared with the wider public, that the mental health of people can be very much affected by what is happening in society, in your community, in your groups, and how to attribute happiness to a sense of belonging, to a sense of sharing. I don't know, what do you guys think?

Doug: Yeah. It's interesting, when you think about the history of thought, the way we've thought about things in the past, it was always kind of intuited that there was a dualism going on, essentially, that there was the body but there was also the mind, soul, that sort of thing, that there were these two separate things. But it seems like more modern thought has got away from that with the whole reductionist, 'let's boil everything down to its individual parts to learn about it.' Things became much more mechanistic and that idea was brushed aside as being just superstitious, that we had figured out all these different things, and we're nothing really except a bunch of neurochemicals and firing neurons and that's it. That's all that there's to it.

It's kind of interesting that we got away from that when it seemed like that was what people intuited anyway. It's like without having dissected any brains or anything like that or have any microscopes to look through, it seems pretty obvious that there is this kind of animating force to life, that we're not just powered machines and when we die the power died, like the batteries died and then that's it. We had this intuitive sense that there was more to it than that. That there was, like I said, an animating force, or something else there and that the mind was not the same as the body or the brain, those sorts of things.

So I find it interesting that we seemed to have intuited this a long time ago and then lost it through our intense reductionistic approach to everything.

Erica: Most definitely. If you look at Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, not to go off on a tangent, but just to put some perspective on it, our ideas about our separate selves as physical bodies are kind of misrepresentations. You think of something like the power of prayer, or the idea of distant healing that I could think positive thoughts for my co-hosts, and that that could actually happen for you. We did do a show in the past about the power of prayer, but the fact that your mind could be so strong and have the ability to affect you folks as my co-hosts, you know? Whether it's sending good thoughts, and we all have experiences of thinking of someone and then they call you or they write you a letter.

So I really think that it is so fascinating that we are NOT confined just to our mind and that there is so much potential, kind of in the -- I hate to say it -- in the New Age Movement, maybe you folks have heard, that where the thoughts go the energy flows kind of thing and if you're constantly ruminating on negative thoughts that you can actually make yourself physically ill. All of these things are now being backed up by research and science and it is actually coming to be the point that there are studies that show distant prayer, healing prayer works, things like that. It's really fascinating stuff. A little mind blowing sometimes too (chuckles), to consider the implications of it.

Elliot: Yeah, well, like you guys have said, this stuff is very much taken for granted I think in the past or it was a known thing, it was a considered thing. This idea that humans are merely physical machines is a relatively new one, right? The way that they are described in some of these articles is reductive physicalists, I think that's the word. Essentially reductionism, which grew very much out of scientific thought, but ultimately the aims of many of the original scientists or pioneers in science were to unite science and religion. Science was a path towards understanding the Divine and also trying to discover the things which human beings intuitively felt to be true but had no physical evidence for.

But somewhere along the way it changed and it became corrupted. This idea, with the discovery of DNA and all of these other steps in science, that humans are merely physical machines, that we are essentially automatons, took a foothold. So any scientists who seek to question this or ask the questions that go unanswered, are in very many cases ostracised.

If you look for instance at Rupert Sheldrake, he did a lot of work on the fundamental problems with scientific reductionism, essentially, and who came up with several theories. One of those was based on this idea, I can't remember what he called it {morphogenetic fields}, essentially, this concept of this information field and how human beings in some respects, are connected to this, have some kind of connection and how this guides and affects our experience. This information field concept is one of the ways, one of the things, that could help explain psi phenomena, potentially.

If you look at the evidence, this reductionist idea that human beings are merely a collection of brain cells and that our experience or our perception is merely generated action potentials, so the flow of electrons and protons through our nervous system and this kind of generates a visual image and this is our experience? It is not really fully aligned with the evidence, right? There is evidence for instance, there was a case of this 44 year old Frenchman in France, who went to the hospital complaining of mild weakness in his left leg. He had a scan and it was discovered that his skull was filled largely by fluid, leaving just a thin perimeter of actual brain tissue. And yet the man was a married father of two and a civil servant with an IQ of 75, slightly below average in his intelligence but he was not menatlly disabled.

So this kind of flies in the face of the idea, that human beings are fundamentally a collection or our brain activity or our mind, what we experience as our mind, is merely the result of the chemical reactions that are going on in our brain. It seems that this individual basically had no brain, yet his experience was very similar to the rest of people. That should make us question is, if this individual could get by quite happily in his life, yet he had no brain, then what is the role of the brain? We can look at all the neuroscience and neurochemistry and things, but ultimately to ascribe human experience to brain chemical reactions is inconsistent with this guy's experience right?

Doug: Yeah that whole thing was fascinating. It's funny too, because the author of that article which was on quartz.com, goes into a physicalist interpretation of what was going on there. He says "Oh yeah, if parts are missing from the brain other parts of the brain can kind of make up for that", but it's really stretching the limits there. The guy had a thin layer of brain tissue essentially, instead of having an entire brain and for all intents and purposes wasn't really affected that negatively. He wasn't the smartest guy in the world, a 75 IQ is not particularly high, but he was totally functional in society. He was a civil servant. He wasn't mentally disabled, I guess is the point. That really stretches the limit of how good is the brain at making up for missing parts? Obviously there is much more going on here. But anyway, it's a really fascinating case.

Erica: Mind blowing. (chuckles)

Doug: We just keep on using that term. (chuckles)

Erica: All those different terms (chuckles). Well another thing that kind of plays into all this too, is the role of the vagus nerve. There was an article that we looked at from The Conversation back in 2017, called 'From Decapitation to Positive Psychology: how one nerve connects body, brain and mind'. They were talking about that dualist assumption. You guys were talking about that physicalism and then there is a contrasting position of dualism. The dualist assumption, that the physical and the mental are fundamentally different substrates and then the role that the vagus nerve plays in that.

So just a little bit of background for those that may not know; the vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and connects to all the internal organs and whatnot. But what's really interesting about the vagus nerve is that it regulates vagal tone. If you have a low vagal tone, you tend to be not as interactive. Basically, higher vagal tone-more connectedness, more ability to regulate your emotions, your social engagement and your cognitive function.

I always like to think solution oriented; so how can we wrestle with this discussion of the mind and the brain and it seems like there has been so much work in the importance of stimulating the vagus nerve. Some of the things that do that are breathing exercises, like the Eiriu Eolas (EE) program, yoga, meditation. I would even say martial arts, exercise, all of these things, with your breathing, regulate vagal tone and essentially help regulating emotions, encourages social engagement and actually stimulates cognitive function. They've shown studies that practising vagal stimulation affects the grey matter in your brain, it can improve memory. So there is so much there. I think this is actually a solution for a lot of people who may be struggling with issues of depression or social isolation, is to find how this role of the vagus nerve plays such an important role in brain cognition as a whole.

Doug: Well it's interesting because lately philosophers have been going towards the idea, that the mind is not only not confined to the brain but is also not even just confined to our bodies. There are arguments for the mind being a whole body system. We've got nerve cells all over our body, particularly in the gut. Actually there is this idea, that the mind is not just confined to you, like yourself, your individual unit, but that the mind is actually how you are relating to the environment around you as well.

So that definitely includes social engagement. When we're in a discussion or sharing in some way, that is the mind. Your mind cannot be separated from the conversation that you're engaged in. It's an expansive thing where you're relating to whatever you happen to be relating to. I don't know if that makes any sense. I thought I had a grasp of this before I started talking about it (chuckles), but it is kind of confusing. I find this to be a really fascinating idea, the same kind of idea that if you're reading a book, essentially, your mind is not confined to just what is going on in your brain as you're reading that book, but you are interacting with those thoughts that are coming from the book, in the sense you are interacting with that author in a certain way. But the mind encompasses that whole thing.

Erica: I agree, I think awareness has a lot to do with it, too. Like you're saying you're interacting with someone and you're actually giving attention to the exchange going on and so you're aware of the environment around you, you're reading non-social cues and I think, especially in our modern age our awareness, can be very tamped down, dumbed down. I think technology can have a really negative effect, especially since people's attention spans are getting shorter and shorter by the day. A while ago I read this great book called 'The Heart of the Mind' by Russel Targ. He worked on a lot of psi research. He's kind of famous for the whole remote viewing thing, but he had a very interesting quote that I wanted to read, because it really summed up a lot of what we were talking about today. He's saying, that:
'We are not simply a physical body. Our awareness is not local, it's able to expand and move through space and time. Who we are really is non-local awareness, residing for a time in a physical body. Mystics have said this since the beginning of metaphysical writings. We have a body but our essence is non-local'.
I thought that was pretty interesting, because as a yoga teacher I work with teaching people how to breathe, how to practise postures, how to do meditation and so much of the preparation for that is people actually getting out of their physical bodies, not being so attached and being open to expanding their awareness; breath awareness, conscious awareness, body awareness. But it's a process and it's a struggle, for sure. It's definitely not easy. Anybody who ever attempted to meditate knows the endless chatter of the monkey mind can be very distracting.

As you were saying Doug, mystics have shared this knowledge. It's out there, but it can be taken as not serious, but I think there is something very serious about it. I think it's one of many things to build on.

Doug: It's interesting that you mention remote viewing too, because some of those experiments right there are good evidence that the mind is not confined to the brain. When you look into that kind of stuff, the experiments that are done and the amazing results that they are getting with some of this stuff, is really, well, mind blowing to use that term again (chuckles). If these people can do that, then there is obviously more going on then just neurons firing.

Erica: Exactly. What do you think, Elliot?

Elliot: (chuckles) I agree. It's mind blowing stuff.

Erica: Well I do have another quote. So for our listeners, I have a quote from Patanjali, he actually wrote yoga sutras many thousands of years ago. It was a basis of this idea of gaining control of your awareness and actually being able to have some sort of control on focusing. He taught that:
'With a diligent practise of meditation or stabilization of one's focused attention comes expanded awareness. A cultivated mind can know the past and the future, understand the sounds made by all creatures, read what others are thinking, perceive the small, distant and concealed, understand the interior of the body, achieve perfection of the body and a variety of other astounding abilities'.
I am not saying I am a supporter of all those theories but I think they are possible, for sure, kind of like what you were saying Doug about remote viewing. Sso if you can start to practise whatever it is, a meditation, that you can kind of quiet that internal chatter, that you can sit in silence, that you may be open to that information field and actually -- I hate to say "receive messages" because then it sounds like you're hearing voices -- but that you can quiet that constant chatter, that ego generated stuff and be open to a lot more information, Divine insight, visions, things like that. What do you guys think, am I totally out there? (chuckles)

Doug: Well, I'd like to believe that that's true. I never had any experience of it myself, so it's always hard to say. But you do hear from people who do have those kinds of experiences. I'd like to think that it was possible.

Erica: Well, one thing Russel Targ was saying, back to what you were talking about remote viewing, was that when they teach people how to do it, it's actually not this big, active process of all these steps you follow. It's actually learning how to quiet the mind and just be open to images or thoughts or possibilities that arise. Instead of saying 'I want to see what that guy is doing in the other room', you are able to quiet your mind enough to have flashes of inspiration, whatever it is. And I think that is contemplation, those moments before you get out of bed in the morning, before you go to bed at night, where you are laying down, you are actually quiet, you don't have all the visual and audio stimulation, hopefully. You've turned off all your devices and you have those flashes of insight or creative ideas. Or you think about people and they call you the next day, again those kinds of things, just being open like that to the possibilities, that you are not just confined to this physical, what Tiffany would call the 'body bag', the 'sack' (all chuckle), the 'meat sack'.

Yeah, I know this is kind of straying into those more philosophical realms, but I do think it's important for all of our mental health in this time that we live in, to really start considering these things, to consider how affected we are by our environment around us and how we are in control, in a sense, of limiting stimuli that may not be for the best of our mental well-being or health, you know? I do feel like the mind is boggled (all chuckle).

But if you all don't have anything else to share, we just wanted to put that out there today, you are more than just your brain cells firing. You have limitless potential and find a way to stimulate your vagus nerve to start to tap into some of those positive effects, of getting past rigidity and being able to deal with the chaos, whether it's in your life, in your community, in your country, in the world. Have a strategy where you don't become so confined to just your mental state and that endless chatter, sometimes not for the best. That's what we're hoping to get across, at least for myself.

Doug: Well put.

Erica: So thank you all for joining us, we hope you like and subscribe to our show and we'll be back next week with another interesting and stimulating topic. Thanks guys!

Good byes