Brain and Mind
We use the words brain and mind a lot here. It has not always
been clear how the two are related. Here are some clues.
The brain is like a computer (with a bazillion differences, of course.) A
computer’s hardware has built-in limits and capabilities—it
has a certain amount of available memory, can do x number of processes
at once, and may be specialized for graphics or spreadsheets.
The same with our brains. Human brains have certain capabilities
and limits—we are tightly integrated survival machines—good
at finding food and shelter, dealing with others, seeing and acting,
communicating, and avoiding lions, things no computer can match. We
are good at big-picture thinking, and quick and dirty processing, and
bad at remembering strings of thousands of numbers. Computers,
which we designed expressly to fill in for our deficits, tend to be quite
There is another huge difference between brains and current computers:
brains learn and develop. That means the hardware itself changes
with experience, extravagantly when we are children, but also even in
adulthood. Not so with computers, unless we do some surgery and
insert prosthetic memory or cards.
Our stored experiences and cultural learning are vaguely like software
or perhaps datasets in a computer, but the similarity breaks down a lot
So if brains containing stored experiences and learning are our mental
software and hardware-- what is the mind?
We will start with computers--Does a computer have a mind?
The closest we could come to something like a mind on current computers
might be if millions of supercomputers were soldered together, some specialized
for different types of input, some controlling certain processes of other
computers, repeatedly acting on the results, selectively remembering
and discarding data, and reporting to a hyper-super-generalist computer
a summary of what really matters. This last might be like our experience
of ME, in here, thinking these things.
In humans, the mind is the process, the sum of brain activity happening
when all this is in action. Even in sleep or a coma, it does not
shut down completely. The generalist “Me” sector might
slumber, but the parts handling breathing or dreaming or monitoring of
alarming sounds all have to stay in action. And at times, certain
parts have to take a break so the clean-up crew can go through—but
heartbeats and hormone secretion controls still have to keep working
through it all. Until the final moment when all the hardware shuts
The other thing to remember is that a mind is also almost always brain
activity in context.
With even short periods of sensory deprivation, our minds start to go
If we do not have proper sensory-motor interactions with the environment
as we develop, our minds go funny.
If we are lacking family and love and comfort and culture and language,
our minds go funny.
And if we try to keep everything in mind at once, our brains get jammed
and we go funny.
So we use the environment as our external hard drives—and so much
Scientists refer to the “007 Principle,” The “need-to-know” principle. We
not only interact with and refer to the environment as we live and work
and think and act—we are, to use the computer analogy again, networked
with the environment.
And heavily populating most of our networks are the brain-nodes of other
So we return to this: when we talk about mind, we generally mean the
activity carried out by all of our extremely varied and complicated brain
parts operating in context. There’s nothing supernatural
or mystical about it—in
this sense—if we really study it carefully, we can see, in general,
how the parts work together and the processes take place.
On the other hand, it is an exquisite mystery, that this tightly interactive
mental process with long loops into the environment actually works, that
this particular node functions on a substrate of bone and jelly, fueled
the most complicated
effective hardware in this sector of the universe. If we do say
Eric R, (1991) Principles of Neural Science, 3rd ed, New York, Elsevier
Kaplan and R. Kaplan (Eds.) (1978) Humanscape: Environments for people.
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S. Kaplan and R. Kaplan. (1982) Cognition and environment: Functioning in an
uncertain world. New York: Praeger. (Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrich's,