Dr. James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA, has written that the human brain is “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in the universe.” Indeed, with its 100 billion cells, the human brain is a universe within a skull. This isn’t an original insight: The importance of the brain was understood for thousands of years before scientists were able to analyze and explain its electrical and chemical complexities. The contemporary mapping of the brain only reinforces an understanding that goes back into the distant reaches of history.
The more we learn about the brain’s structure, about the firing of neurons and the functioning of specific areas, the more our sense of wonder increases. But neuroscience and chemistry cannot fully encompass the miracle of the brain—or, more importantly, the mind. Only the fixated materialist believes that the mind is nothing more than the sum of the brain’s electrochemical actions.
The extreme of materialism is revealed in the words of Dr. Marvin Minsky of MIT who said that the brain is just “hundreds of machines . . . connected to each other by bundles of nerve fibers, but not everything is connected to everything else. There is not any ‘you’” (Newsweek, April 20, 1992). Does that explain Plato, Saint Paul, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Einstein? This kind of crude mechanistic approach to human personality, character, and insight is grossly inadequate as a vision of human existence.
The brain centers distinguish colors, left from right, regular from irregular verbs; estimate height and weight; and make amazing calculations. But the sum of all the parts calls into being the most extraordinary realms of discovery, self-awareness, and selflessness. Among countless other things, the human mind contemplates the role of the brain and its spheres and functions, analyzing and critiquing these functions. Indeed, the mind may determine that the brain is sick and requires analysis, treatment, or spiritual reformation. The mind considers, reconsiders, reviews, and reassesses the individual personality and character in terms of its relationship to other minds, other personalities, other creatures, and all the social structures of human life, as well as the philosophical, religious, and ideological structures of society. The mind questions its own processes and systems of understanding, its involvement with courses of action, creeds, and beliefs. It weighs the effects of its food intake, chemical imbalances, physiological states, sexual desires, and obligations. It seeks to understand its place in the wider universe, including the universe of the stars. It is never at rest except for brief spells of sleep—and even those times may be full of mental activity and creativity at a certain level. Finally, the human mind inquires as to what fate awaits it after death.
How can this be? How, in a vast universe of nonconscious existence and lifeless objects, can a mind, arising out of the fatty matter contained inside the skull and dependent on glucose, possess the extraordinary quality of consciousness that reaches within and without to comprehend everything perceived or imagined? How could the mind have evolved from the very simple brain structures of other living things?
The mind is not an abstraction, of course. It is an entity of knowledge and searching in a human body, a living force with a complex personal history. In short, it manifests an individual’s gifts and capabilities. And we have to examine the thought and behavior of individuals to take in the full dimensions of the mind.
Socrates, one of the greatest minds of all time, said that the only life worth living is the examined life. Examining the mind may be part of that task. One interesting area of examination is the life of the mind as a human being ages. Certainly, the capacity of the mind is revealed only through the working of time on the flesh and blood of a man moving out of childhood into adulthood. Its development is an unfolding process in time. Some minds rise to their heights early in adulthood, while others clearly are at their peak at a much later period. There is a widely held belief that minds run down as old age approaches, but that isn’t always the case—perhaps not even in a majority of people. A good case can be made that the mind widens its vision with advancing years. Enoch Powell, the British classicist, wrote that “one of the occupations of advancing age is self-observation” (New Society, May 6, 1989).
As a man grows old, he may have what my friend Charles Gusewelle refers to as “leaps of insight and intuition.” T.S. Eliot may have had this in mind when he wrote that old men should be explorers. If there isn’t any mind—only a brain with its interactions between neurons—then the phenomenon of special insights in old age makes no sense. Why didn’t such insights occur when the blood vessels in the brain were in their peak condition?
Dr. John C. Marshall, director of the neuropsychiatry unit at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, noted in the New York Times Book Review (February 1994) that “Spiritual systems address many important issues about the meaning of our lives and our status as (potentially) moral beings; they tell us nothing about the structure of the brain.” And this is true the other way around: The structures of our brain do not tell us anything about our insights into spiritual matters.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the mind is its ability to discover new intellectual pathways toward the mysteries of life. We explore the relationship of anatomical details, such as channels in the brain that provide a strong supply of blood, to the evolutionary process whereby many species came into existence to push forward the frontiers of life on this planet. Even as we search out the history of the stars, we strive to unlock the history of life forms on earth.
As scientists apply computer analysis and other technical tools to the study of the structures and processes of the brain, we must consider the characteristics of the human mind that transcend mechanistic functions. Dr. Howard Gardner, author of The Mind’s New Science, cites the need for an “extended rumination on the nature of knowledge . . . ” This, he notes, is what Socrates asked in Meno. Ruminations on the universe within may provide us with new insights—clues as to the sources of the mind, as distinct from the brain; a notion of the character of the mind; and, perhaps, the shortcomings of the mind.
René Descartes, writing in 1641, observed, “I find myself an infinity of ideas,” (Meditations on First Philosophy). In other words, the search for understanding of the human mind will endure as long as our species endures. The range of questions—out of Descartes’ infinity of ideas—is unending: How is knowledge accessed? How can the mind, which is ostensibly devoted to its survival, embrace the idea of sacrificial death on behalf of an idea or another human being?
Perhaps the only inadequacy of the human mind is its limited ability to discern the state of health of the body, of which the brain is so important a part. Man has only an incomplete sense of his own health and well-being. He may feel sick, and, concerning this, pain may provide a crude signal. But many bodily ills—from diabetes to cancer—may make inroads without throwing off the signals of pain. A disease may be far advanced before it is detected.
Attempting to make up the difference, modern man has developed tools—magnetic-resonance imaging, for example—that reveal something of the state of one’s health. But these tools, the products of reason and imagination, are not something basic to human nature.
We think we know a great deal about the mind. Reason has been studied intensively since the age of the classical thinkers who pondered man and the way he came to possess beliefs. And today, science is expanding our horizons in this regard through the study of DNA. We now know that there are 100,000 genes in the body that shape our brains. We have new perspectives on the old question of the comparative importance of nature and nurture. We have a better idea of the ways in which language both reflects and influences our thoughts and beliefs. We may, someday, be able to pinpoint the ancestral minds that molded us. If we gain that knowledge, however, we shall only return to the table with more questions: Who molded the minds of these ancestors? Who was our original progenitor, and whence came his frame of mind? These questions were, in fact, addressed 2,500 years ago by Plato and Aristotle. Are our minds determined in large measure by archetypical ideas? Again, whence came the archetypes, if they truly exist? The answers to these questions surely cannot be found among the neurological maps of our brains.
Will science ever be able to determine why two minds respond to each other and interact? The sources of anger and hate may not be such a mystery, for life involves challenge and struggle—often struggle for existence in competitive situations. The affinity between minds, however, is much harder to understand. And affinity often becomes affection and profound, selfless love, a rhapsodic communion between human minds in long-lasting, intense marriage relationships—a meeting of minds in the fullest sense. Again, why are such bonds between minds necessary and often inevitable? Why doesn’t the human mind opt for a cooler relationship, for less than total bonding, which ends in death and therefore involves heartbreak?
To understand the mysteries of the human mind more fully, we need to explore the realm of human affection. The reality is not as obvious as we might think. Why, for instance, has one person—one mind—a liking for a particular physical type? Is this the result of cultural conditioning? Is he searching for a type that brings to mind echoes of his family heritage? And what does he see when he looks into the eyes of a person of the opposite sex and draws conclusions about her nature? The ancient saying is that the eyes are the windows of the soul, and so they may be—but how is that so? How does the mind reach profound, far-reaching conclusions based on the optical nerve endings that relay information to the brain? The sex drive, the fundamental necessity of striving for survival and human continuity, surely colors many—sometimes all—of the actions of the mind. But this drive often takes obscure paths and leads to involvements with other minds, involvements that are anything but obvious or based on necessity.
We develop a web of relationships and store a great range of experiences, all of which bind our past to our future. That is not to say that we fully appreciate the past and the power it exerts on our minds and our actions in life. Andrew Lytle, in A Wake for the Living (1975), reminds us that “We dismiss the past as dead and not as a country of the living which our eyes are unable to see, as we cannot see a foreign country.”
There surely is, in our minds, a legacy from the myriad layers of the past. The size and character of the legacy varies from individual to individual. In some, the legacy is so compelling that they become estranged denizens of the modern world, unable to come to terms with contemporary realities. In others, it is an enormously productive force, furnishing the mind with right insights. Different observers have markedly different views of the forces shaping the mind. For example, Lawrence Durrell, the novelist and poet, wrote in The Spirit of Place that “Human beings are expressions of their landscape.” And this may have considerable truth in it, if one thinks of people long settled in a distinctive ancient landscape, such as the Greek islands, about which Durrell wrote. This perception, however, seems not at all applicable to modern man in an urban setting, in which he is alienated from the past and the civilization that preceded him. Here, the layers of earlier human experience are submerged and inoperative.
The brain undoubtedly contains thousands, if not millions, of pieces of information—fragments of perception that rarely, if ever, come to the surface. One of the mysteries of the mind is why certain pieces come to the surface and remain at the forefront of consciousness while so many others are locked away beyond retrieval. What are the keys to retrieval? Why is it so hard to unlock something one knows to be there but cannot reach?
Perhaps neuroscience will uncover some of the clues to the process of retrieval. Retrieval would seem to be one of the major secrets of both the brain and the mind. Science has made some progress toward understanding how we recognize different faces in a crowd. But when, if ever, will humans discover how the mind differentiates between the character of individuals, separating the good from the bad and the wise from the foolish? Again, the mysteries are endless. Philosophers and physicists have propounded theories about many of the giant mysteries of the universe. British physicist Stephen M. Hawking has asked, “Why does the universe go to all the trouble of existing?” (Kansas City Star, April 15, 1990). We might also ask, why is the universe within driven by the desire for knowledge? And why is it interested in forming relationships and communicating feeling to other minds?
One of the characteristics of the mind is its low flash point. One may be a witness to a terrible tragedy—an automobile accident, for instance—and not be troubled by it but for a brief time. But the introduction of an idea—an abstraction—can trigger an explosion of concentration and energy, of intense feeling. Ideas, in other words, have an incendiary effect on the mind—and for reasons we cannot comprehend. This was illustrated in the dialogue between two characters in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum. One asks: “Have you any idea what thunder in the mind abstractions provoke?” The second replies: “Those gray cells—they go crazy, spinning around like infinitesimal ping-pong balls trying to find tiny tunnels to explode through, drawn by their own inherent compulsions.” This description of “thunder in the mind” is surely as good as any that a neuroscientist could use to explain the explosive effects of ideas. Ideas truly have the most tremendous consequences in the mind. It is puzzling that the evolution of the brain should produce such a nonpacific feature of mental activity, for it has no obvious utility for survival. On the contrary, this effect throws human beings into counterproductive conflict.
This aspect of the mind reveals one of the contradictory forces at work in the brain. The often incendiary response to ideas is at variance with other tendencies. Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., and David Sobel, M.D., in their book The Healing Brain, make the point, buttressed by considerable evidence, that “basic to the evolution of the brain is our early attachment and dependence on other people.” Yet it can also be argued that features of the brain make it combat-ready and that the overall mind develops or responds to ideas that are conflict-oriented, as human experience proves. Why the mind should have dual tendencies is inscrutable, but we can see both tendencies in operation in human behavior.
That the reason for these contradictory mental characteristics is not apparent does not mean that neuroscience should stop searching for answers. But the answers, if they are eventually found, are more likely to come from philosophy. Heretical as it may seem to many moderns, there are limits to what can be reached by scientific methods. The mind, despite what many scientists believe (as opposed to what they can prove), is not just a better-than-average computer. Important as the electronic and plumbing systems of the brain are, the mind cannot be understood simply in these terms. The computer analogy would only make sense if the mind were strictly a physical phenomenon. No computer, no matter what its capabilities, could ever contemplate itself or have an inner voice to which it listens, which is what the human mind possesses. In any case, the materialists surely face an impossible task in endeavoring to explain away the subjective state of being, the feeling of individual identity. For those who recognize the endless mysteries of the human mind, the last word may be that of philosopher John Searle: “I think it is madness to suppose that everything is understandable by us.” In other words, when we consider the wonders of the universe within, the last word is humility.
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