Richard V Sansbury, PhD ·
psychologist (ret)
psychologist (ret)

Mind and the Nature of Reality

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The Mind: How Biology Dreams

This is the story of your mind, what it is, where it comes from, and how it connects with your brain. As used here, the term "mind" means anything considered to be a mental phenomenon. It includes all your conscious experiences, thinking, perceiving, dreaming, reasoning, feeling, and much more. On the surface, mind and brain seem like rather different sorts of things: a brain is solid, we can hold it in our hand, feel its weight, and notice its location; a mind, on the other hand, is weightless and who knows where it is, exactly? About as substantial as a dream, the mind has been called a ghost in the machine. How could two things be more different? Yet, despite their differences, we have compelling evidence that mind and brain interact. How do they do that? How does something as obviously physical as the brain connect with our ghost-like mind? How do we resolve what is known as the mind-body problem? Or the closely related "hard problem of consciousness" which asks why consciousness exists at all.

The Nature of Reality

Despite our understandably lofty opinion of ourselves, let's imagine, just for a moment, that there is nothing special, unique, or extraordinary about our mind and its connection with the brain. It all fits together, once we understand the nature of reality.

The basic notion we'll be exploring couldn't be simpler: there is only one kind of stuff in the universe, but that stuff has many aspects. You know what an aspect is: a coin, for example, has two aspects, or faces; a standard die has six. In our model, everything in reality has all of reality's aspects. The aspect we encounter depends upon how we interact with the universe. Of particular interest to us, everything has both material and immaterial aspects. If we zoom in to some of the smallest bits in the natural world — protons, neutrons, and electrons — even at this level we find these tiny bits have both material and immaterial aspects. Their material aspect is characterized by having mass and being local. The proton, for example, is located in the atomic nucleus, and has a mass of 1.67262 × 10 -27 kg. The immaterial aspect is characterized by being non-local and massless. An electromagnetic field, for instance, extends well beyond its anchoring atom, and is weightless.

Different aspects are fundamentally distinct, either/or, faces of reality. While they invariably accompany each other, neither really "causes" nor "makes" the other. That means that the immaterial cannot, in principle, be made from the material, or vice versa. Imagine, for example, that we have 100 coins, face-up on a table. Is there any way we can, without flipping them over, arrange these face-up coins to create a tails-up coin? Of course not, their aspects are exclusively either/or. We can't make tails by arranging heads. But being features of a unified reality, different aspects are connected; wherever you find a heads, tails will be lurking about, just on the other side. Hold that thought, we'll come back to it shortly.

The Unseen Force

If mind and brain are going to interact, they need some way to push each other around. They need a force. And it would be nice and tidy if they both used the same force to do the pushing. There are four known fundamental forces, but only one of them behaves in a way consistent with what is known of mind-brain interaction: the electromagnetic force.

Magnets provide us with a nice, straightforward example of the connection between material and immaterial aspects. Imagine holding a permanent magnet in your hand. What you see and feel, from a simplified perspective, is the material aspect of the magnet; it has mass and is local. To our senses, it seems as though the magnet is nothing more than a metal bar. Now imagine that you attempt to move the north poles of two such magnets together. You can't see, hear, or taste it, but you feel something there, mysteriously pushing back. Forces from the two magnets are reaching out and acting on each other; you are experiencing the very real immaterial aspect of magnets, an aspect that cannot be seen, has no weight, and cannot be put in a wheelbarrow, yet surely exists and has consequences that are felt in the material magnets. If you think about it, you'll notice you are witnessing how the material and immaterial aspects of magnets are connected, they can push each other around.

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Connections: Where the Magic Happens

Consider a common iron nail with its obvious material aspect. We know what will happen if we bring a powerful permanent magnet close to such a nail: the nail will move to the magnet. They don't seem to be touching, what makes that happen? The immaterial aspect of the magnet connects with the immaterial aspect of the nail, drawing the two together. How? The magnetic field of the magnet applies a force on the magnetic fields of the individual atoms in the nail, causing them to align with the magnet's field and creating an over-all magnetic field in the nail. The two magnetic fields exert attractive forces on each other. Because the material and immaterial aspects are connected in reality, the magnetic field forces are felt by the material aspects of the magnet and nail, resulting in an observable position change. In our model, this immaterial-material connection is basically the same mechanism through which the immaterial mind causes changes in the material brain, and vice versa. The electromagnetic field coursing through, and around, the brain is by far our best, if not our only, candidate for the measurable aspect of mind. It is created by a multitude of smaller fields within and around neurons, and, in turn, exerts forces on those smaller electromagnetic fields; a potential two-way connection between mind and brain. Am I claiming that mind is related to an electromagnetic field? Yes. Exactly.

Just like a magnetic field, mind is a manifestation of the immaterial aspect of reality: it is massless and non-local. The physical brain is a manifestation of the material aspect. Once we accept that mind and brain are but different aspects of a single, already-unified reality, the standard mind-body problem formulation evaporates. The brain's material aspect does not make or cause the immaterial mind; our mind is created within the brain's immaterial aspect. Because they are different aspects of a single underlying reality, a change in the material brain may be accompanied by a change in its associated immaterial aspect, the mind, and vice versa.

A Song Your Brain Sings

Your immaterial mind has both objective and subjective aspects. The complex electromagnetic field around and within your brain is part of the measurable, objective aspect. Your experience associated with that electromagnetic field is part of the subjective, private aspect. The field spun up by your active brain is anything but static; it varies across both time and space with different regions of your brain contributing different amounts, and those amounts varying over time. It's rather like The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: choir members, standing in different locations, each contribute a fluctuating harmony to the over-all song. In a similar way, your brain sings an electromagnetic song, and your mind is the private experience of what it is like to be that song.

What about the hard problem of consciousness? Why does consciousness exist at all? In our model, every time-varying electromagnetic field has the quality of consciousness. Since electromagnetic fields are essentially everywhere, consciousness is everywhere. But our specific flavor of consciousness may not be. The smallest bits of consciousness are at least as small as electrons. We are all familiar with the idea that very small atomic "bits" are put together in an astonishing variety to create every material thing we see around us. In similar ways, small "bits" of consciousness are put together to create an equally astonishing variety of consciousness structures. Human consciousness is only one of them. In a sense, all this begs the question, which now becomes "why do consciousness bits exist at all?". The answer? Because they do. Ultimately, there is a class of primitives we cannot explain. For instance, why does mass or force exist at all? Or why do material and immaterial aspects exist? Consciousness is one such primitive. It isn't made from anything else, it is a feature of our multi-aspect reality.

Wrap-up

If we know anything, we know that we have a mind, we experience it everyday. And our experience consistently tells us of a material world we live in. The challenge has always been to understand how the two connect. We have outlined how a many-aspect reality easily connects mind and brain because the two are simply different aspects of one and the same thing. In this world, because we can't make mind from anything that doesn't already have mind-like qualities, mind-like stuff must be present at the most fundamental layers of reality, with emergence being the process that ultimately yields large, complex electromagnetic fields, the measurable footprint of our complex mind.

Our story has characterized mind as having both objective and subjective aspects. Objectively, mind appears as an electromagnetic song your brain sings. Subjectively, mind is the experience of being such a song. If the objective footprint of mind is left by an ever-changing electromagnetic field, it seems reasonable to expect that different mental events would leave different footprints, that is, they will have different electromagnetic field configurations or signatures. Thus, for example, since vision is a different experience than audition, the visual system's electromagnetic field signature must be different than the auditory system's. (hint: it has a different shape.)

It turns out that researchers are already nibbling at the borders of this vast, uncharted country. Among other things, the EEG (electroencephalogram) is used as a tool by researchers attempting to get an objective handle on subjective mental phenomena. To create an EEG, numerous electrodes attached to the scalp act like small antennae as they collect broadcasts seeping out from the local electromagnetic field just inside the cranium. That means that an EEG is most immediately derived from a sampling of the brain's electromagnetic field; providing a rough idea of the spatial and temporal features of its shape. Knowingly, or not, researchers are assuming (hoping?) that electromagnetic field shape reflects, or connects with, mental experience. And as a new, honorary member of the illuminati, you are privy to secret knowledge: they are right. The good news is that EEG research may gradually provide us with a better understanding of how electromagnetic field shape maps into experience.