Are We Out of Our Minds, or Are They Out of Us?by Susan Sutch, MLIS | October 1, 2010
Neuroscience is an exciting and constantly expanding discipline. It is amazing to know that the collective knowledge about the human brain and how it operates has doubled in the last twenty years. Yet, in spite of this glut of new research and overwhelming preponderance of new information, little is understood about the location of the ‘mind’. Is the mind a place in the head? Some thinkers in cognitive science are moving away from the idea that all we are in our heads is an isolated bunch of neurons.
Rick Hanson postulates in his book, Budda’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, that the mind as a flow of information through a nervous system, a process more than a thing. Dr. Alva Noe, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, agrees that the mind is not a place in the head, but should be thought of in more holistic terms, more as a complex of activities that we as social beings perform within an environment we can’t be separated out of. Rather than postulate that we are strangers in a strange land, we are more of a social network and group consciousness. Noe adds that you are not going to surgically understand the mind in the brain in the same way you can’t find the meaning of a dollar bill by looking at it under a microscope.
Hanson believes that the outer world sculpts the brain as much as anything else sculpts the brain. Our brains are shaped by the uses we put on them. A study using city cab drivers showed that their hippocampus brain section actually grew larger through determining routes by interacting with the landmarks in the city… and cabbies in the study did not function as well when they were removed.
In a world of nuclear weapons, evolutionary inheritances in our minds need to be maintained and understood with a greater sense of urgency. Hanson postulates that we can make this world a better place and our lives better through managing the cognitive aspects of our minds. One of the best ways to sculpt your own brain is to treat each other well, setting up a circular pattern of them treating you kindly as well. The flow of feelings changes brain structure. Since humans tend to retain negative emotions longer than positive, Hanson believes that it is beneficial for us to purposely seek out positive experiences and train the brain for better happiness and life adjustment. Other beneficial environments for healing the brain are found in positive personal and nature interactions.
We don’t have a better idea today of how the physical brain gives rise to mind consciousness any better than Descartes did when he thought the soul gave rise to consciousness one hundred years ago. The mind is not singularly explained in terms of the brain. But John Dunn could have had it right in stating that no man is an island because our brain/mind connections have a plasticity shaped by experiences, feelings, and the environment.
Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications. ISBN: 1572246952
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