In our first blog on Mind Over Matter we discussed the theory of “mind over matter,” namely the idea of getting full use of both mind and brain. We discussed several things that distinguish the operations of the mind and the brain:
What is the brain?
- The brain is a machine, a wonderful machine at that, but a machine nevertheless.
- The brain knows only two things: safety (or the lack thereof) and pleasure (or the lack thereof). The brain’s priority is safety over pleasure…if it has to make a choice. You have to live before you can be happy.
- There are times, however, when the brain actually chooses pleasure over safety when it concludes that the absence of pleasure is unsafe.
- The brain only knows the present. The mind cannot conceive of the past and the future, but the brain cannot.
The brain does a myriad of things that the mind does not control, like blood flow and breathing. The mind doesn’t need to be conscious of these activities
What is the mind?
- “Mind” is undefined although it exists, as we discussed in Mind over Matter I. We noted that time, space, and mass, the basic ingredients of the universe are also undefined but we understand these facets of the universe. We also noted that several elements of human existence and relationships are undefined but we know what they are, like love, wisdom, and feelings.
- The mind knows all of these undefined elements like feelings, love, wisdom, and lots more. Simply put, the mind thinks and feels.
- “Mind over matter” means using the mind to make full use of the brain’s wonderful mechanism (100 billion brain cells) to do the work of feeling, thinking, and doing. The mind couldn’t do any of these things without the brain.
We also learned that there are occasional dangers in the mind-brain interaction that has to do with the brain’s orientation towards safety and pleasure
- The mind needs the brain to do anything and everything. It cannot operate on its own. It needs the machinery of the brain to think, feel, and do things.
- If the mind thinks of distress in the past or the future, the brain immediately translates these things into the present.
- When the mind conceives of something in the past that was distressful, the brain conceives of this distress as occurring in the present.
- When distress about the past is on the mind, the brain “concludes” that the person is currently
- When the brain receives these messages of distress of the past, it attempts to reduce this distress by secreting certain chemicals. These chemicals have the effect of increasing energy and preparing the body to fight. The result of this increase in energy is anger.
- When the distress about the past is overwhelming, the brain secretes chemicals that have the effect of reducing energy in the body causing fatigue and reduced energy. The result of this reduction in energy is depression.
- When the brain receives messages of distress in the future, it attempts to reduce this distress by secreting different chemicals:
- When the distress about the future is on the mind, the brain concludes that the person is currently in danger.
- These chemicals (cortisol) increase awareness and alertness. This often leads to what we call “hypervigilance.”
- The result of hypervigilance is anxiety.
- In summary, when anger, anxiety, and depression have occurred in a person, there has been a harmful cycle between the mind and the brain:
- The mind remembers something bad that happened: the brain churns up anger.
- The mind is remembers a series of bad things that happened in the past; the brain churns up depression.
- The mind thinks of something bad that might happen; the brain churns up anxiety.
The brain is doing its job: maximizing safety and pleasure
The first thing we need to keep in mind is that the brain isn’t doing something wrong. The brain is always, and only, working to provide safety and pleasure as we previously discussed. When the brain creates depression, anger, and anxiety, it is doing what it is designed to do: create safety and maximize pleasure. It is easy to see how the brain creates safety with anxiety and anger, but it is a challenge to see how creating these things “maximizes pleasure” with depression.
Recall how we discussed that “anhedonia,” commonly thought of as lack of energy or interest, is the primary symptom of depression. The brain (not the mind) actually creates anhedonia, i.e. it decreased one’s energy, so that the person can do as little as possible. Why would the brain do that? The brain creates anhedonia because the mind has so many feelings, and so many thoughts that the brain isn’t able to get these thoughts and feelings resolved. Quite literally, because the mind is thinking and feeling so many things, the brain is overloaded with information and is not readily able to think through and feel through all this stuff. The brain does what it knows to do: it shuts down the person’s interest in doing anything so it can focus on this overload of thoughts and feelings. The brain does what it can do to create safety and pleasure: shut down activity by decreasing energy.
The brain protects us by creating anhedonia and other symptoms of depression, like sleep disturbance and appetite disturbance. Additionally, the brain operates on a “flight or fight” mode creating fear or anger as means of dealing with real or possible threats. The brain creates anger when the mind has experienced some harm or hurt, and creates anxiety when the mind experiences some worry about possible loss in the future. Simply put, anger is about hurt in the past and anxiety is about hurt in the future. But the brain, remember, doesn’t know future or past, but only the present. So the brain creates anger and anxiety in order to deal with perceived danger in the present.
We will never be successful in overriding the brain’s natural functioning. We can’t just push through depression with some kind of will power. On the other hand, we don’t want to simply yield to it. So, what can we do to use the brain’s power more effectively without violating the brain’s interest in our safety and pleasure? We have to find ways to use our minds to effectively use our brains. We have to find ways to overcome depression, anger and anxiety by using the brain, not challenging it. What can we do about this harmful mind-brain cycle that creates depression, anger, and anxiety? Simply stated, we need to get the mind in control of the brain. Stay tuned for Mind over Matter III: Mind over Brain
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness: the cure for anger, anxiety, and depression. Praeger Press.
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Mind over Matter I: Theory” blog
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Feelings I-V” blogs