Friday, August 17, 2012

Losing My Mind

William Blake's painting of "mind-forged manacles"
Where did I put it?

I'll first look for it where I last left the glasses I eventually found.  Or maybe, like Mullah Nasruddin, I'll just search for it under the street light where it is easier to see rather than in the darker places it might more likely be.

The mind is a terrible thing to lose.   At least I had the presence of mind to go looking for it as soon as I became suspicious that it was missing.  Great minds, Nasruddin and I, think alike.  I usually make up my mind quite quickly, and invariably speak my mind about the state my mind is in, which often takes a load off my mind.  As we all know, sn idle mind (or is it a dirty mind?), is the devil's playground.  It sometimes crosses my mind, however, that "out of sight, out of mind" troubles the mind less than the constat preoccupation of expressing my mind, and in the end, a quiet (yet open) mind is more likely to bring peace of mind.

And so it goes.  I've spent the last week researching the mind (and all its clichés) for a meeting of the BuddhistPsychos yesterday.  We met in a lounge adjacent to a bookstore and a McCafé, and a dozen of us expats in Bangkok debated definitions of, and perspectives on, the mind, comparing and contrasting western psychology with Buddhist teaching on the subject.  The topic attracted no women participants, perhaps because the fairer sex knows better than to quibble over how many minds can dance on the head of a pin.

How can something like the mind, so central to our experience of existence, be so difficult to pin down?  And yet any discussion of the mind leads straight into a minefield of paradoxes.  The disciplines of psychology and cognitive science lay claims to objectivity, and yet the mind is as slippery as an eel.  I know I have one, but I'm not so sure about yours.  This thought leads some theorists, and science fiction writers, to suppose that only one mind exists and other minds are illusions produced by that one.  An alternate hypothesis is that no minds exist: What we think we experience in the imaginary chambers of our consciousness is only the epiphenomenon of neuronal activity in the brain, steam rising after the rain.

Buddhism seems to be very sensible about the mind, calling it a sixth sense.  Like the sensory input processed by the other senses, the mind manipulates thoughts.  Just as the nose detects smells, the brain controls and coordinates thought.  In this, the brain comes close to being synonymous with the mind as many believe.  Thinkers like John Locke argued that without sensory input from the five senses, the brain could not produce any thoughts at all.  Prior to the gathering of sensory experience, the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate.  This evolutionary proposal is rejected by others who see the brain as hardwired to develop certain proclivities, like language.  Could the mind be a black box we're born with, ready by design to interact with the waiting world?

While the brain is an amazing piece of meat, the mind we speak of is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and, in general, invisible.  The activity of my own mind may be a blooming, buzzing confusion, but all I know of another's mind are inferences made from observing behavior which lead me to postulates about an unobservable will with a multitude of intentions.  Your thoughts are a mystery unless you talk about them, and then you could be lying.  What can a scientist, or a husband, know about what's going on in the mind of another persion?  Mental processes have been compared to actions of particles at the sub-atomic level; with the proper formulas and data, predictions can be made about macro behavior.  But I have my doubts.  Just as our dreams are made coherent by the stories we tell about them upon awakening, I suspect the mystery of our inner life can only be grasped, even by the participant, through the creativity (and hence un-truth) of a story.

One of my research discoveries this week was the location of the mind (when it isn't lost).  For me, an educated westerner, the mind clearly resides in the vicinity of the head with access to the eyes, our primary tool of interaction with the world.  But to an Asian, the mind is in the heart.  In Thai, both the mind and the heart are referred to by the same word, jai.  And this goes for Korean, Japanese and Chinese as well.  In English, the heart is the metaphorical site of emotions and feelings while thinking is   the province of the head, a rigid separation.  Tibetan, my friend the former monk tells me, has no word for emotions.

The key problem for the mind is its relationship to the brain.  Descartes declared "I think, therefore I am," and distinguished thought from the body, a dualism established long ago by Plato.  All religious thinkers, who posit any sort of life after death, are dualists.  Metaphysical entities that transcend the lifeless body are beyond the realms of objectivity and science; their acceptance relies of the truths of faith, propounded by pundits and prophets but beyond the ken of us mere mortals.  Non-dualists have developed the idea of embodied cognition, a mind that inheres throughout the body.  In this view, even the little toe is a thinking thing (holistically, of course).  But when the body dies, this mind disappears.

It's difficult to escape a discussion of consciousness when contemplating the mind and its mysteries.  At its most basic level, consciousness is awareness.  I experience it, and, if you're alive and awake, I assume you do too.  Freud gave us a multi-level structure of consciousness to point out the obvious that some of our memories are lost in the basement, and even out perceptual awareness of what is presented to us is often flawed.  We see so little and miss so much of our surroundings, and what we do perceive is conditioned by previous experience and ideological expectations.  In addition to consciousness, the mind occasionally stands in for: intellect, intelligence, wit, reason and, of course, brain.  Besides being itself a metaphor, the mind is also a metaphor for a multitude of labels for agency and intention, what we call a self.

Today we typically understand mind by using the metaphors of a computer or a container.  It's the software for the hardware of the body, and computer viruses could be the virulent memes that lead people to work against their own obvious interests (smokers with cancer, Social Security recipients who join the Tea Party).  The mind is most often described as a room that is open or closed where the contents are corrupted or pure.  Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation not to fill it up but to clean it out.  Awareness among practitioners is often conceptualized not as awareness of anything but of an empty readiness to appreciate everything on its own terms rather than from some prior perspective, ruled by ignorance, anger and greed.  Just how the mind can be both computer software and a room without furniture will require a story greater than any I can tell.

Whenever I seem too serious and preoccupied, my wife will observe: "You think too much."  This is a common opinion Thais have of westerners in their midst.  Thought is sometimes viewed as the enemy of sanuk, the ethic of enjoyment that Thais value highly.  For me, however, the intellectual chase is highly pleasurable.  I lose myself in the search for the variety of facts and opinions that the internet makes readily available (the library in Alexandria could never have offered such a delightful smorgasbord).  While I no longer see my discoveries as the equivalent to creations of art and music, I do strive to embody my fragile insights, treasures from the common wisdom, within the everydayness of a life lived: mine.  One typical metaphor for mind is the pilgrim on a journey.  From this perspective, all humans are tasked with making sense out of their experience.  I'm fascinated with how others do it.  This is my way.


Rob said...

I'm envious that you can have such conversations in Bangkok, but not envious that you have a McCafé.

It came as a revelation to me when I learned that not all cultures perceive the brain as being the centre of consciousness. When I stopped thinking about it, I realised that when I am most conscious, it seems to radiate from somewhere in the region of my heart.

Ian H said...

Observe the body language of the guy on the extreme left (not politically, I'll warrant!)

Who is that handsome guy he is gesturing to? Reminds me of someone I see every day.

Remind me to tell you about the potential outbreak of WW3 and subsequent sulking(?) of Australia.