Your Mind & Your Brain

Your Mind & Your Brain

The Brain is Complicated!
The Brain is Complicated!

Your Mind & Your Brain. We think of our mind as a separate thing from our brain. And, in the same way, we think of our brain as different from our body. It seems that everybody (in the Western world) thinks this way. But really, the truth is, it’s not really true. It’s just the way we’ve all agreed to think, without knowing that we agreed. These are shared rules of thinking that are so common we don’t even think about it. In fact, all of the Western world thinks this way. It came down through history from a famous French philosopher named René Descartes. Descartes lived a long time ago, from 1596 to 1650, when Galileo, and Bach, and Blackbeard the Pirate were alive.

Back in the Bad Old Days When the Roman Catholic Church was Powerful

Before you start throwing rocks at us, the guy in charge is a Catholic. Well, sort of. So he gets to criticize The Church in history. The whole soul-mind-body situation started way back when, in the dark ages, the Roman Catholic church was all-powerful in the Western world. The belief back then, in Descartes’ time, was that the soul, the mind, and the body were all one. They were tied together and could not be separated. And this whole unit, a person, was highly sacred. We need to add that this “all one thing” idea was enforced by The Church.

The Medieval Catholic Church as The Western World Enforcer

When we say enforced by The Church, we mean harshly enforced. Step out of line and not believe what you were told to believe and it was called “heresy”. The sentence passed on you for heresy was death. It was strongly enforced by resulting in, not just death, but an ugly death. You see, in the not-so-humble view of The Church, the body was the “Temple of the Holy Spirit”, and one does not foul the Temple in any way.

René Descartes’ Big Problem

So the body and the soul were one thing and it could not be touched. Even after a person died. But Descartes was interested in medicine, in the body, in what it was and how it worked. So, after someone died, he wanted to study the body like the detective doctors on TV do now. He wanted to do what we now call an autopsy. But The Church condemned anyone who would do what we now call an autopsy. So that he could do his medical studies, Descartes did his best to argue that the body and soul were separate, at least after death. He said that after death, after the soul left the body (to go to heaven or hell), the body with no soul was no longer this special “Temple of the Holy Spirit”.

Descartes Only Sort Of Won the Argument

Descartes won the argument, but not in time to help his own work. He did learn what he could from the autopsies, but not with The Church’s permission. He had to work in secret. Of course, now doctors worldwide do autopsies. But even though autopsies are commonly done, the Western world continues to argue whether that should be permitted. This separate-or-not mind-body question has been going on since Plato, 2500 years ago. Descartes was asking the question when the Western world was coming out of the Dark Ages and starting into The Renaissance. And ever since Descartes, various interested people have argued one way or another on the topic. But in the meantime all the rest of us have almost automatically begun to believe that the mind and the body, or at least the soul and the body, are separate.

The Problem Part: Saying It With Soul

It becomes problematic when one discusses this area and brings the topic of the soul into the conversation. This question is where, in religious circles, the mixture might become highly problematic. It’s pretty easy to win the argument with anyone that the body and the soul are separate. But then, are the body and the mind the same or separate? Where do you draw the line between the mind and the soul? This is the part that makes some people very upset, that is, whether the mind is separate from the soul.

Watching Our Brains in Action – Your Mind & Your Brain

With the miracles of medical science we can now watch our brains in action. A huge amount of scientific research has been published during the past 20 years. One can make images of the brain working, the brain in action. It’s possible to actually see the brain think. We’re able to see our living brains in action, to make images and even “movies” of our brains while they are working, that is, while they are thinking thoughts and feeling emotions.

Seeing Thoughts and Feelings

We can even see our human thoughts and feelings. Really, it’s true. And here’s what has been discovered. Every time you think a thought, every time you feel an emotion, your brain is working. To be more correct, a specific part of your brain is working. The brain’s nerve cells are active, using energy, doing things. We now have been able to record these moving images of brain activity.

Heart and Soul, I Fell in Love With You…

“Heart and soul, I fell in love with you…” is a line form a song, and we offer due apology to Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, who wrote the song in 1938. This part of this topic is the area that can stir some individuals to object. People understandably are sensitive about their immortal soul. Don’t mess with the part of me that’s going to heaven (or not). And the difference between the mind and the soul feels pretty vague, pretty abstract, to many people. They feel that, “I know what’s in my heart and it’s not the same as what’s in my brain.”

This Is Not Science vs. Religion

When these topics come up many people run for safety, saying, “You’re arguing science vs. religion!” Not so. All this medical science is NOT an argument against religion. We at the Neuroscience Research and Development Consultancy value our immortal souls as much as you do. Science has no way to study or talk about souls or religious beliefs. It’s likely, or at least quite possible, that this whole other spiritual world exists, heaven, immortal soul, hell, and so on. (It is interesting, however, that everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.)

But the Scans See What They See – Your Mind & Your Brain

Brain scanning machines are simply recording devices. The fact that God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world does not change what scientists around the world have discovered and seen. That is, every time you think a thought, every time you feel an emotion, some part of your brain is working, and working in a way that we can see. The active areas of your brain light up on a scanner. It’s there. It’s real.

But the Scans Don’t and Can’t “Read Your Mind”

Are you telling me that doctors can read my mind with a brain scanner? Nope! Happily, it’s not possible to read anyone’s mind. The scanner can tell what part of your brain lights up when you think a thought or feel an emotion, but the scanner cannot tell WHAT you’re thinking or WHAT you’re feeling. Thank God that part is very private (no pun intended).

But, Maybe Medical Science Can Read Your Mind a Bit?

That said, medical science might have a window into the brain more than we thought possible. In 2016, the National Geographic Channel carried a documentary with actor Morgan Freemen as host, entitled The Story of God. In Season 1, Episode 4 Morgan Freeman met with a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Andrew B. Newberg, MD.  Dr. Newberg has created a field of study called neurotheology, the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences.

Neurotheology Just Sounds Spooky, Stupid, or Scary

There’s a type of brain scan machine called single-photon emission computed tomography, or SPECT for short. With a SPECT brain scan Dr. Andrew Newberg measures blood flow in brain areas during mental activities. In his scans, when believers in God (e.g., Franciscan nuns in prayer, or Tibetan Buddhist monks while meditating) were scanned, the brain’s frontal lobes became more active during their spiritual mediations. But, when an atheist who was a long-term, experienced meditator was scanned there was no similar increase in frontal lobe activity. The individual who did not believe in God was not able to activate the structures usually involved in meditation on God, even when he was focusing on the concept of God.

Helpful Links:

National Center for Biotechnology Information on Neuroimaging in Anxiety Disorders

PubMed Central, National Library of Medicine on Neuroimaging the Effects of Psychotherapy

Mass General Hospital Psychiatry Research on Mindfulness and Brain Grey Matter

UCLA Newsroom on Feelings into Words Effects on the Brain

Progress in Neurobiology on Neuroimaging of Emotional Self-Regulation

University of Colorado, Boulder on Thoughts as Things

American Psychological Association on Scanning the Brain

Andrew B. Newberg, MD on the Nature of Theology

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