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

Mind and the Nature of Reality

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

This is the story of your mind: what it is, where it comes from, and how it connects with your brain. "Mind," as we will use it, includes anything and everything considered to be a mental phenomenon. It includes all your conscious experiences, thinking, perceiving, dreaming, reasoning, emoting, and much more. On the surface, mind and brain seem like rather different sorts of things: a brain is nice and solid, we can hold it in our hand, feel its weight, and notice its location as we toss it around like a ball; 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? But appearances can be deceiving. 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? In other words, 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. Which aspect we notice depends upon how we interact with that chunk of reality. 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 rest 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 faces of reality. While they invariably accompany each other, they do not "cause" nor "make" each 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.

May The Force Be With You

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 demonstration 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, in fact, connected: they can push each other around.

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Connections: Where the Magic Happens

It's not only permanent magnets. 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. Thus it is that magnetic phenomena provide us with clear demonstrations of the connection between two divergent aspects of reality: the material and immaterial.

It might be useful, at this point, to recall that what we call the brain includes both a material aspect, the physical stuff, and an immaterial aspect, the electromagnetic fields anchored by that physical stuff. The brain's over-all field is created by a multitude of smaller fields within and around neurons, and, in turn, exerts forces on those smaller electromagnetic fields. In other words, the brain's over-all electromagnetic field both arises from, and feeds back on (modifies), the physical brain. This is a classic feed-back loop. In our search for the mind-body connection, the fact that neurons specialize in manipulating the electromagnetic field should have been a clue. It is not an accident. Our model asserts that the brain's over-all electromagnetic field is closely related to our mind, and the electromagnetic forces within that field serve as a two-way connection between mind and body... resolving the mind-body problem.

A Song Your Brain Sings

The field spun up by your active brain is anything but static; it churns 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. Your mind is the private experience of what it is like to be that song.

The complex electromagnetic field within and around your brain has at least two, easily-noticeable, aspects: an objective, publicly-observable aspect and a subjective, experiential aspect, the mind. The objective aspect, commonly recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG), is publicly observable. The subjective aspect is private and can only be observed by the mind living it. It seems that the electromagnetic field provides us with a particularly useful window into our many-aspect reality. It embodies both the material-immaterial as well as the objective-subjective connections. Who knew?

What about the hard problem of consciousness? Why does consciousness, or experience, exist at all? In our model, every time-varying electromagnetic field has the quality of consciousness, or experience. Since electromagnetic fields are essentially everywhere, consciousness is everywhere. But our specific flavor of consciousness may not be. We are all familiar with the idea that very small atomic "bits" are put together in astonishing variety to create every material thing we see around us. But every atom has an electromagnetic field; as we build with material atoms, we also build with small "bits" of consciousness, putting them together in an equally astonishing variety of consciousness structures. Our human consciousness is only one possible structure within an infinite sea of possibilities. That's all very nice, of course, but it begs the question, which now becomes "why do consciousness "bits" exist at all?" or "why is consciousness what it is like to be an electromagnetic field?".

The best answer I can offer is another question: why does anything exist at all? Consciousness, or subjective experience, is an expression of a fundamental aspect of reality, the subjective aspect. We aren't ready to answer the question of why reality takes the form it does, only that it does. One day, we may be able to answer that question, but there is no guarantee of that. It may well be beyond our understanding, like calculus is for an ant.

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, different sides of the same coin. In this world, because we can't make one aspect from another, we can't make a complex 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 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.)

So, the secret is out; now you know what your mind is (it's the subjective aspect of the electromagnetic field associated with your brain), where it comes from (it's a fundamental aspect of reality), and how it connects with your brain (it connects via the material-immaterial connection so nicely illustrated by magnets). In closing I would like to mention that, like everything else in reality, you have the potential to display all of reality's aspects. But the real you, the part that is experiencing these words, dwells in the immaterial aspect. The dreams that you dream are just as real as any other aspect of our many-aspected reality. And they have just as real consequences. Keep on dreaming!