Mind Over Matter

The most important thing I learned in physics is that the central ingredients of the universe are undefined. My high school physics teacher always had us write out definitions of various ingredients, like space, velocity, and weight. He also included three requests for definitions of time, distance, and mass. It took me some time to catch on to this very simple and very important fact: time, distance and mass are all undefined. We can define velocity as time over distance, like 55 kilometers per hour, meaning that you can go the distance of 55 km in one hour, but this equation uses two of the three basic ingredients of the universe, which are themselves undefinable. While I have regrettably forgotten most of the things I learned in physics, both in high school and college, I have retained this important fact: some basic things are undefinable.

Think about it. You certainly understand distance, like 50 meters or two inches. And you understand time, like two hours or two seconds. It doesn’t take a physicist to know what time it is. You just look at the clock. And for measuring distance, you just get out the tape measure, or you might just use the middle joint of your index finger to approximate one inch. You understand mass as something like weight (weight though, is actually mass times gravity.) Not only do we understand time, distance, and mass, we can measure these things using clocks, tape measures and the like. My point of this discussions is this: the really important, really central ingredients of the universe may be measurable, and generally understood they are undefinable.

So what does the undefinable nature of time, mass, and distance have to do with “mind over matter,” which is the topic for today? A lot. There are also some very important basic ingredients to human psychology and experience, and just like time, distance, and mass, we know what these things are, but they defy an exact definition. We have to be cautious in this discussion: definitions are very important because they give us some concrete understanding of how the world works and how we work psychologically. We need to know what time and distance are or we won’t do very well in life, even if we can’t really make some kind of exact definition. So we don’t want to do away with definitions. Rather, we want to look at some important elements of psychological functioning that we know but can’t really define. These undefinable elements are not easily measured, but we can understand them if we work at it.

Undefinable basic psychological elements

There many real and definable elements in psychology, but also a few that are real and undefinable. In previous blogs we have talked about “feelings.” We can understand emotions, like the four basic emotions of joy, sadness, fear, and anger. We can understand the physical reaction that one has to something that causes one of these emotions. We can even write a book about one of these feelings, like sadness. But when it comes to feelings we are not really able to define this word. The undefinable nature of feelings is exactly why I have written five blogs on feelings and yet feel I have done an inadequate job of describing this most basic phenomenon of psychological functioning. But “feelings” are not the only things that may be undefinable. I think love and wisdom might also be undefinable. For the moment I am more interested in the concept of mind, which I think is real and undefinable.

There is great debate in the field psychology of psychology about the mind. Roughly, there are two schools of thought, one that we might call materialistic and the other dualistic although those terms are themselves fraught with difficulty. Many (although by no means all) neuropsychologists allege that there is no such thing as the mind. Rather, they say, there is only the brain which does all that we attribute to the mind, like thinking, and feeling. Interestingly, most psychologists, apart from neuropsychologists, talk about the mind in a rather cavalier fashion, as if everyone just knows what the mind is. Most clinical psychologists and other therapists operate as if there is a mind even if they don’t use the term. We therapists tend to use terms like, “your mind say this” or “that is just your mind talking” without thinking about the fact that we don’t have a definition of the mind…if it even exists.

If it is not already obvious, I believe that the mind exists. I also believe that the mind can’t be defined, just like other important ingredients of life. So I am left with talking about something that is so important that it can’t be defined, but we know what it is, and we can understand it even though we can’t measure it. Going further in this discussion of the mind leads us to murky grounds, however, so I will remind you that we can understand time even though we can’t define it. When I talk about the mind, I am talking about an essence that most surely exists and has a huge influence on what I think, feel, and do. I just can’t define it. So how do we get further in this discussion without a definition of mind? We look at the effects of this thing we call the mind. We infer that the mind exists because there has to be something that directs life and adjusts to life apart from a simple neuroanatomical assessment of human functioning. I have come to think of the mind and the brain as intricately related but also different. The brain is definable; the mind is not.

The brain

I will not bore you with some kind of discussion of neurological functioning. Even though I do neuropsychological evaluations every week, I admit, as most neuropsychologists would, that we understand just a bit of brain functioning. Instead I will simply say this: the brain is a wonderful machine composed of 100 billion brain cells (neurons), each reacting with a potential of 1000 other neurons. Because we have trillions of interactions going on almost every moment of the day it is no wonder we don’t know much about the brain despite 100 years of intense brain study. It is my belief and understanding that the brain does two things, safety and pleasure. Nothing more. The brain engages in activities that create safety for you (mostly for your body…but there is more), and is aware of danger to that safety. The brain also engages in pleasure, or the lack of pleasure. When the brain is aware of pleasure or safety or the lack of either, it is doing its basic job. It does nothing else.

So if the brain just does things that keeps me safe and affords pleasure, what about all the other things that the brain seems to be doing? Like, love and wisdom that we mentioned above. The brain has no idea about these things. Nor does the brain have any idea of time, which means that the brain is always in the present, not the past (with, say, regret or nostalgia) or with the future (with, say, hope or anxiety). Just the present. This fact is very important for my premise in this blog: the brain (not the mind) knows safety and pleasure, nothing else. So what about this undefinable thing we call the mind?

The mind does everything else

This is my proposition: the brain is a machine that keeps us alive and keeps us happy (at least some of the time), but this wonderful 100 billion celled organ knows only safety and pleasure. The brain does not know love, joy (different from pleasure), wisdom, relationships, hope, and a whole bunch of other things that we experience every day, usually every hour. Remember, we can’t define the mind, so what is it? We can only see what it does. This is my conception: the mind uses the brain, this wonderful machine, to do everything else. If we didn’t have a brain, we couldn’t do these other things, like love or read. We know, of course, that people with some kind of brain malformation or injury, are not able to do many things, perhaps including love. The important thing is this discussion, is that we consider that it is the mind that is the core of who we are, our self, our soul, or our spirit, however we might to define this undefinable entity. How does the mind operate?

Mind over matter

The title of this treatise is “mind over matter” as noted, but what does this mean. Simply, it means that when the mind and the brain are working well together, the mind is the operator of the machinery of the brain. We do this all the time and quite effectively. We think (mind) that we might want to go shopping, we feel (mind) some joy at the thought, and then we take action (brain) in doing that activity. Or the mind might decide to do something different than shopping. This is the mind and brain at its best: mind directing the brain. Because the mind has no matter to it, it can’t do anything without the brain, and it can’t really think or feel. It needs the brain to do these things. One stream of thinking is that the mind is a form of energy although not matter per se, but we also know that matter and energy are interchangeable. This is a discussion best left to people who understand such things better than I do.

The brain does many wonderful things without any kind of feeling or thinking. It takes care of breathing and blood flow, for instance. We don’t think about breathing very much unless we are doing yoga or if you happen to be a client of my wife, who actually does quite a bit of work with breath and breathing. And the brain does the safety feature at any moment. This is wonderful if, for instance, you hear a loud noise as you are about the cross the street because the brain understands this loud noise as dangerous and directs you to step back out of the street onto the sidewalk and let the 18 wheeler go ahead. You don’t have to think about moving, and you certainly don’t feel much besides the fear associated with the noise of the truck. The brain did its job keeping you safe.

Your brain does its two jobs of safety and pleasure and nothing else. As a result of this rather singular focus, your brain does pleasure or safety when you have more important things to think about. When you are unhappy for some reason, the brain does what it can to make you happy, like secreting happy chemicals, like serotonin. Unfortunately, the brain also finds ways to get you to do something that will secrete serotonin without regard for anything else. This pleasure-only orientation the brain has to your being unhappy can lead to a host of difficulties, like addictions and obsessions, which originate in some experience that gave you pleasure, like eating, running, or drinking beer. So when you are unhappy, the brain (not the mind) gives the mind the idea of going to one of these things to find pleasure. When this happens, the brain is in control of the mind. And when that happens, the brain is in the driver’s seat.

Not only can the brain be in the driver’s seat with seeking pleasure, it can also drive you to what it thinks is safety in ways that are not good for you. If you consider the future in some way, like what might happen tomorrow that could be dangerous, the brain receives the message of danger and does another chemical reaction: it kicks in another hormone, cortisol. Cortisol causes you to be hyperaware, or hypervigilant. This is not so bad if you are about to step in front of a truck in the present, but it is not good when you think about stepping of the curb in the future. Because the brain has no idea of time, it does not distinguish the real truck and the potentially imaginary truck. It just secretes cortisol. I trust you can see the danger here, namely of the brain creating anxiety for something that might happen because the brain doesn’t understand might. It doesn’t understand future; it only understands the present.

Stay tuned for Mind over Matter II: Getting the Mind back on Control

Further Reading

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Los Angeles: Praeger.

We discuss this mind-brain thing quite a bit.

Damasio, A.R. Descartes’ error. NY: Putnam’s Publishing

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Both Damasio and LeDoux are proponents of “brain only” thinking

Schiffer, F. (1998). Of two minds: the revolutionary science of dual-brain psychology. New York: The Free Press

Schwartz, J.M. and Begley, S. (2002). The mind and the brain: neuroplasticity and the power of mental force. New York: Harper

Siegel, D.J. (199). The developing mind: toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford