Mind and body

Soul, body, mind, & spirit: What are they and where do they come from?

  1. What is the mind?

  2. The power of thought.

  3. Soul and spirit.
What is the mind?
  • People sometimes think of the mind and the body as two separate entities, and assume that the brain has relatively little influence on what goes on elsewhere.

  • We have a strong innate tendency to think of the mind as being somehow set apart from the rest of our physical being.

  • People naturally tend to believe that sensations felt by various body parts (a touch on the arm, a poke in the back) are independent of the processes that take place in our brains.

  • Many of us subconsciously feel as though sensations that originate from other parts of the body are more 'real' than those experienced in the mind.
This could not be further from the truth.

The categorical division between mind and body is but a subjective construct.

Although we subjectively perceive our mind as being distinct from the rest of our body, the fact is that our brain is very much part of our body, and is in constant communication with the other parts, through chemical and electrical signals.

Every one of our bodily sensations is constructed within our brains. First, events that take place in our surroundings must be detected by our sense organs.

Our sense organs transform external energy (stimuli such as sound, light, mechanical vibrations, and chemical molecules), from the external environment, and send them to the brain, where they are converted into internal perceptions, some of which then penetrate our consciousness.

As our mental machinery starts spinning, it generates impulses that are sent back to the rest of the body. It guides the movements of our limbs and lets us achieve goals such as, ‘get some food and consume it,’ or ‘go towards that attractive person and start talking.’

We construct an imaginary boundary between the mind (which we associate closely with the brain), and the rest of our bodies, because it feels natural to do so. We’re trained to believe that our perceptions are reliable representations of reality, because we encounter so few occasions in which the opposite is true.

We often believe that physical sensations must always have external causes, and cannot possibly be generated solely within our mind. This way of perceiving the world is so instinctive that it persists even among biologists and neuroscientists.

This belief is not always valid. Take our dreams as a simple example.

We experience a vividly colourful range of sensations during our dreams, and get so deeply immersed in the mental world created by our brain, that within the dream, we typically believe that our fantastical surroundings constitute reality.

(For more on how the brain works in tandem with our bodies and generates our perceptions of reality, refer to the section on Blind Faith.)

Teasing the mind apart

So far, I have been referring to 'the mind' as if it is a single, indivisible entity- as if, in order for something to be called 'a mind,' it must fulfil a set of essential criteria, and the meeting of those criteria is sufficient.

This is an oversimplification. In reality, what we think of as 'the mind' is made up of numerous, separable components. These components are combined to form a complex system. Some individuals have components that are largely absent in others, or have undergone a different amount of maturation and development.

We each have a unique set of components, which change constantly over a lifetime. There is no absolute definition, no minimum set of criteria, that confers the status of 'mind' upon the brain of a given individual. It simply happens that our brains are built to perceive these disparate components as belonging to a single individual, so that, under normal circumstances, our thoughts, experiences, and abilities are bound together into a perceptually coherent whole.

Take colour blindness as an example. Lots of people fail to differentiate between wavelengths of light that other people perceive as being clearly different. For such individuals, the machinery responsible for making these discriminations are simply absent or non-functional. Addition of the 'missing' component would allow such people to distinguish red from green much more easily.

Some people possess four types of photopigment genes, whereas most others have just three. Those of us who have an 'extra' type of photopigment in our retinas benefit from an enhancement in colour discrimination abilities. This is analogous to having an upgrade or plugin to one's mental circuitry.

Such analogies apply to every aspect of cognition. Both genetics and the environment in which we are immersed play dominant roles in shaping our minds. They determine whether we possess a particular mental ability or not, and the degree to which this ability is exercised.

This process is especially striking and readily observable in young children, who are acquiring skills and installing new 'mental components' by the day. Suddenly, they are able to construct sentences with a greater level of complexity, gain insights into human behaviour and interpersonal interactions at a deeper level, and grasp concepts about the world around them, which they were previously incapable of doing.

Does a child who is unable to speak fluently or perform sophisticated mathematical calculations any less a person than a mature adult? Most of us would probably say no. After all, the child has the potential to develop further and eventually reach the levels possessed by most adults.

Some of us are able to engage with complex, sophisticated abstract concepts, while others throw down the gauntlet. Does an adult with a highly developed set of skills have 'more of a mind' than an adult who doesn't? Again, the word 'mind' fails us in this comparison, because it refers to such a diversity of abilities and processes, that while we may be willing to admit that someone has superior capabilities than somebody else in a specific department, we shy away from extrapolating that enhancement in ability to the rest of the vast collection of things that constitute 'the mind.'

This applies across the species on our planet, not just to human beings. Many other apes have an understanding of basic concepts in physics- gravity, force, motion. The average chimpanzee, however, lacks an understanding of certain concepts that the average human grasps with ease. Does that mean that human beings are somehow more advanced as a species?

Let's think about it. Most of us are able to count up to ten, if not beyond. A few of us are able to hash out theories on relativity and quantum physics. Are those in the latter group 'more human' than the rest? Are they 'super-human'? Arguably not, though ultimately it depends on your definition of humanness.

Extend that to the mental capabilities of other primate species, and one realises that the range of mental capabilities extends across a spectrum. There is no clear-cut boundary line, no all-purpose definition that makes an individual mind necessarily more human than another.

(For a more detailed discussion on the niche that human beings occupy in the greater scheme of things, refer to the section on Hierarchy of Species.)
The power of thought.
Our thoughts influence not only what our bodies do, but also how and where they do it. A well-cited example of ‘mind over matter’ is the placebo effect- sometimes, the higher we perceive our chances of success, the more successful we end up, all other things being equal.

When we decide to eat well, exercise often, and learn interesting new things, our bodies are ready for action, our muscles are toned, and we gravitate towards stimulating environments to gain meaningful experiences.

Think about the times you empathised strongly with a character onscreen or onstage. Have you ever winced in pain, while watching someone undergo a dental procedure or an amputation? These feelings of empathy affect our thoughts greatly, it is clear, but they also make themselves felt through our bodies.

Refer to the following sections, for more on how the power of the mind affects us when we:
Soul and spirit.
We've taken a look at the components that constitute the mind. How about the 'soul'? And the 'spirit'- is there a difference between the two? Why are these concepts so hazy and difficult to pin down, anyway?

The short answer is that both these terms refer to a collection of relatively abstract, complex, mental concepts. Their scope and applicability depend on the context in which they appear, as with our usage of the term 'mind.'

People often use 'soul' or 'spirit' as the general, catch-all term for everything that dwells in our consciousness. This encompasses feelings, thoughts, desires, memories, plans for the future, and all that the imagination is capable of producing.

When used in the context of religion to denote a non-physically-embodied presence that persists after death and possibly existed prior to conception, these terms refer to an entity that is entirely fictitious. Such a thing simply does not exist.

Over the course of human history, this imaginary entity has been entrenched in our literature, our fables and myths, and the tales many of us continue to tell each other. We've fleshed out its form within our imaginations, written endless volumes on the subject, and spent countless discussions debating its meaning. None of this effort and energy makes it any realer.

This is a good example of the way the power of the mind asserts itself, and captures our collective imagination with persistence and ease.

When we get into the habit of believing in something, when we brainstorm on the implications of our beliefs, construct elaborate rituals, implement systems that encourage the spread of our beliefs, and discourage those that do not, there is almost no limit to the extents we would go, in the name of our beliefs.

After all, we're constrained only by the fertility of our imaginations.
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