Look After Your Mind – How does the mind work?

The Brain is Wider than the Sky.

This title comes from a poem called ‘The Brain’ by the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). 

‘The brain is wider than the sky. 

For, put them side by side, 

 The one the other will include 

 With ease, and you beside.’ 

The idea is a paradox, because literally speaking the brain as a physical thing is clearly tiny compared to the sky.

    Having said that, many scientists assert that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. In an adult it is about the size of a double fist and weighs about three pounds. It contains around one hundred thousand million nerve cells or neurons and up to fifty-fold more glial cells that support and protect neurons in various ways. Most neurons have a number of branching structures called dendrites. These connect with the dendrites of other neurons via electrochemical impulses across gaps called synapses. Each neuron fires between five and fifty ‘messages’ every second. This means that the brain as a whole processes around one thousand trillion bits of information per second.

    Dickinson’s paradox is that the astonishing brain ‘takes in’ the universe through our ability to imagine, wonder and explore. Perhaps the idea would have been clearer if the poet had used the word ‘mind’ instead of brain. And herein lies another paradox. Neuroscientists can observe and measure brain function in great detail. However despite this no one has any idea of how the physical workings of the brain give rise to the phenomena of mind and consciousness. Though there are some theories out there. In philosophy this is called ‘the Hard Problem’.

Conciousness – The Hard problem

    Some scientists argue that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain. This is similar to the way that water ‘emerges’ from hydrogen and oxygen. Emergent properties can’t be predicted by looking at their constituent parts. To say that the mind arises from the physical workings of the brain is for now an act of faith. This might always be the case.

    Another philosophical difficulty is whether the human mind can ever understand itself. After all we can’t as it were ‘stand outside ourselves’ and look back at it. All of this is summed up in the idea that if I look at something that’s red, a scanner can pick up which parts of my brain are active at that moment. But despite this no instrument can translate that activity into my experience of redness.

    So for the moment we have to say that the mind is what it is – but what is it?

Steve Bowkett.