21 August 2009

Mind and Brain

«I used to think the brain was the most wonderful organ in the body. Then I realized who was telling me this.» --Emo Phillips

I confess I still have a bit of this brain bias. This quote is jokey, but it has a certain serious side too.

Traditional IndoTibetan Buddhist teaching (which comes from Ancient Hindu beliefs) has it that the mind is not the brain, or even co-located with it, but is a completely nonphysical continuum. Mind, the teaching goes, is separate from memory and mental abilities, and independent of what most people think of as concsciousness. What we call consciouness is really what Buddhists call self-grasping ignorance, the deluded perception of "I", which is what causes us to experience suffering. Ancient Buddhist teachers would have considered it fundamental and pervasive mental illness: a disturbance, like waves in an ocean, or even mud in water, which does not intrinsically affect the underlying purity of the water, but is merely contamination that can be removed. Pure awareness is mostly unfamiliar to us.

The mind, according to this thinking, has no physical existence, but is nonetheless "located" inside the body, in the region of the heart, according to this tradition. It is the "cognizer," that is, the awareness, which arises from previous moments of awareness and can never cease to exist.

Ancillary to all that: Computers may be smart, in the sense that they can perform calculations quickly, and integrate complex functions to yield an output, maybe even a simulacrum of human behavior. But, according to this thinking, they are merely physical systems, complex toys, completely devoid of awareness. Hence, the hope of some extreme materialists that they will be able do download their minds into a computer memory and achieve virtual immortality is a ridiculous pipe dream.

I still perceive what seems like awareness to me to be located behind my eyes, in my head (it's a cultural thing, I guess), and I have my doubts about some aspects of these abidharma teachings. But on the essential distinction between brain function and mind, I'm pretty sure the old Buddhists had it just about right.

1 comment:

  1. I have wrestled with the brain-mind connection and still haven't arrived to a completely satisfactory answer. I can't get away from the notion that the brain functions as the mind's circuit board. For example, I really couldn't make any progress with meditation and the work of changing my mind until I began taking anti-depressants. Now, it is clear to me that brain chemistry is the physical manifestation of our minds; but I can't account for the fact that to some extent works in reverse. I.e., if brain chemistry is adminstered some kind of balancing agent, then the mind can then benefit from the work of Lojong, and so forth. Particularly problematic is the scourge of something like alzheimer's or any other neurological degeneration that seems to compromise the mind. Under those conditions, is the mind leaving the body gradually? Is Karma at play in the apparent decay of the mind along with the brain? Geshe-la does say that the mind doesn't necessarily leave the body all at once, but can make a gradual exit through a number of different "doors." But this is an aspect of body-mind connection that I find a little bit sticky.
    Martin Booe


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