Anatomy of the mind

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Sufficient evidence now exists to affirm that the mind is fluid in nature (adaptation) and capable of expansion (growth). It has been shown that feelings which are generated by someone have a direct influence on their brain and body, and vice versa the body/brain state influences moods – what has been termed an upward and downward causation of brain and mind. Our higher level thoughts can change our brain and body functions, but the these functions (thoughts) are still emergent properties of the brain.

What then constitutes human consciousness? How does this differ from other animals? In Western society, we have a consensus on one necessary condition for human life and that is the capacity for conscious experience. When we consider the whole brain formulation of death where there is a permanent loss of the capacity for conscious experience, the person is no longer human and relegated to a purely vegetative (nonhuman) state. That is, a vegetative human has an equivalent moral status of a nonhuman animal. This suggests that what is essential to being a human being is living the life of a person, which derives from the capacity for conscious experience, an experience not alien to animals.

The first step up the intellectual tree from a vegetable state is what’s called a state of sentience. Any sentient animal must be able to sense and feel. There is no implication of mental perceptions or abstraction, although humans are said to be sentient, so in some cases, it can be implied. What is implicit in sentience is that the animal has a nervous system which can pick up stimuli from outside the animal’s body and relay those signals to a central ‘brain’ where it is processed. Sentience does not infer consciousness – it merely implies an ability to feel pleasure and pain. But having such an ability does not mean such an animal is inferior morally. If it were true, then using this very same argument, we could say, for example, that a human is inferior to a bat, because humans cannot echolocate, or humans are inferior to dogs because humans have such a relatively poor ability to smell. Thus, senses and feeling are all that are required to categorise an animal as sentient. And senses and feelings can be detected scientific with fairly standards methods – blood tests, EMG, EEG, etc. Scientists are more categorical in their definition of sentience than I have so far depicted. To be more specific, three criteria are said to be essential for what constitutes sentience[1]:

  • Self-awareness - a layered construct of spontaneous consciousness that integrates sensory stimuli (smell, taste, touch, etc), conceptual ideas associated with these sensations (feelings, moods, drives, motivations, etc), and social sensations (group bonding, pecking order, social status/pride, etc). Consciousness is on a holographic paradigm of internal imagery based on the external world. (An example could be; ‘I see a snake. I am aware of the snake’s presence in relation to my own presence. It is definitely a snake. It is not for example, a rope.)
  • Self-preservation - essential for the preservation and continuity of the species. This manifests individually as maximising and maintaining self-fitness (i.e. physical health), and maximising chances of reproduction (i.e use of available resources). Inherent in the conceptualising of self-preservation is the notion of self-mortality, or the capacity to die. This necessarily implies a sense of ‘Self’, the existence of an ‘I’, or ego. Self-preservation urges sometimes overridden by hierarchal needs (e.g mass suicide of lemmings, kamikaze pilots, etc). Self-preservation expresses individually as both overt and subtle fears of death. (An example could be; I see a snake. I know snakes can kill me. I must take steps to avoid being killed by the snake.)
  • Self-heurism (ability to learn) - easily replicated in computers, it defines an ability to interpret new experiences outside what is already known allows for adaptation. In animals, heurism closely allied to self-awareness and self-preservation in order to foster greater learning skills. (An example could be; I have just escaped from a snake. I must avoid all snakes in the future.)

The degrees to which animals express these levels of sentience vary amongst species and individuals. An ability to learn is greater in humans compared with rats, and we are also able to sublimate our instinctual needs (such as reproduction) and even override the instinct of self-preservation (e.g. suicide). It is a curiosity that peoples with heightened senses of not only self-preservation but also non-self preservation (i.e. their immediate family, friends, and even larger groups or society in general) are praised over others. An example of this are those who work tirelessly for the benefit of others.

Consciousness, a different kettle of fish altogether, is believed to be ‘constructed’ from five aggregate parts:

  • sensations (smell, taste, touch, sound, sight and awareness)
  • intentions (motivation, will power, imagination)
  • discriminations or ego (recognition and labelling of objects & concepts)
  • feelings (emotions)
  • attentions (concentration)

In anything that has consciousness, they have experiences of physical and mental sensations, they react to their environment through volitional intention or will, which results in positive, negative or neutral states that evoke recognition and labelling of their environment. The reality of an object and its perception is relative to the viewer. For example, the way your partner perceives you is different from how a postman, a neighbour, a creditor or even an enemy might perceive you. It is futile to argue that there is no tree if no one hears it fall in the forest. We all know it is there. What is more important is that we realise that our mental labels on things and people are not necessary the right label, and we should therefore respect all things. It is important to realise that many spiritualists, regardless of their religious background, contend that it is vitally important to not hate an enemy since they may in fact be a future friend and vice versa. As well, a stranger may be a friend we are yet to meet. To label people as either good for us, bad for us or unimportant is to imprison ourselves within a rigid ego that denies emotional clarity, restricts mental openness and limits compassionate practice.

Motivation is implicit in effectively working as a veterinarian. If we go to work merely to pay the bills, it is impossible to feel good about it. If we are bitter about helping animals and their owners, it is like adding salt to water – eventually all the water becomes salty - and everything we do at work becomes unpalatable. But if we motivate ourselves to spend a small amount of our day in helping to alleviate the suffering of animals, an emotional resonance occurs and we feel better for it not just at the time, but often for the rest of the day. It is easy to see the benefits of this in professionals who perform a small amount of pro bono work. Whether you are a vet, doctor or carpenter, this humble offering generates tremendous respect from clients and for yourself, be it just from providing the occasional discounted (or free) consultation or advice over the phone. The benefits far outweigh the perceived loss in income by stimulating client loyalty and subtly boosting word-of-mouth advertising.

An ability to alter our perception of the environment (develop an opinion) is called concentration and is the final part of being conscious. By analogy, if our intention or motivation can be compared to a horse, our attention (concentration) can be compared to the reins. Some humans can be compared to overweight ponies with large reins (mentally sluggish and rigid) while others are more like Arab stallions with no reins (flighty and unrestrained). Not only that, each of us can vary from one state to another depending on our degree of emotional agitation. One can also conclude that not just humans, but all animals, have a consciousness with varying degrees of sensual awareness, intentions, emotional states, conceptual discrimination and powers of attention. Obviously species variations in consciousness affect the depth and degree of interplay amongst these mental attributes.

All which we perceive through our senses becomes assimilated with our existing experiences. That results from this is what is known as a perceptive dualism – we see things from an object/subject point of view. Our discriminatory powers are essential for survival and as we shall see later, are also the basis for the formation of our ego. How dualism works is very simple, although its results are excruciatingly complex. Let us for example consider the concept of ‘beauty.’ When we see something before us that is beautiful, for example a rose, someone of the opposite sex or even an idea, we have an immediate reaction to it. This reaction in our mind (as represented by the lines coming out of the prism) is one of three types; attraction, repulsion or confusion. The vision of beauty reflects in our mind as something ‘out there’ which is separate from us. Being separate from us, we feel attraction, repulsion or confusion and this propels us to action. This action (in Sanskrit, karma) is self-propelled by us and is not externally motivated or driven. This action is the basis upon which all life propagates. Attraction moves us to beautiful things, and repulsion moves us away from things we perceive as ugly. Confusion leaves us undecided about something until we experience it further, until sooner or later we decide our preferences for the object and then have either an attractant or repellent reaction to it. The primary origin of all emotions then, can be surmised as being from a mental perception that everything outside of ourselves is separate from us and because of this perceived separation, the beginnings of dualism as a paradigm of thinking emerges. Dualism is where all conscious feelings, motivations, concepts, and ultimately, emotions, arise. This will be discussed in detail later on, but the diagram below may help simplify this idea.

When this action occurs as a consequence of an externally perceived object, it is not hard to see the implications of the action when the object is another person. Obviously inanimate objects do not respond to our actions, no more than a rock cares if we hit it or not. When the object of our affections is a person, a similar action is elicited in them. They respond with either attraction, repulsion or confusion. Within a very short time, a fission-like reaction occurs across the planet. People fall in love, go to war or remained confused about the whole affair. It has been calculated that of the three basic responses shown in the diagram, approximately 84,000 emotions are possible, so it isn’t surprising why relationships become so complex, and how our emotions become so intertwined with other’s. It seems naïve to post blame to one person in a relationship when nothing is more complex than the anatomy of emotions. As they say, it takes two to tangle. But as in any equation, there is always an equal sign. The opposite way of thinking things dualistically is seeing things as they are, as being ‘perfect’ or not needing to have this perfection as a part of ourselves. This is what is called nondual thinking. The search for individual union (whether we call it a partner, soulmate, etc) is a search for that part of ourselves we believe exists outside our mind. However, union assumes things are first separate and then meet and meld, whereas nondual perception implies no inherent separation to begin with. Seeing things in a nondual way does not mean to give up a spouse or give up the search for a soulmate, because none of us are capable of being perfectly nondual in outlook. It is only an idealised scenario, and the explanation is given to exemplify where it is we sometimes go wrong with our perception of what reality is and isn’t[2].

Subject/Object causes of emotions. Ego01.jpg

Gary Zukav, a renowned philosopher and author of the classic physics book The Dancing Wu Li Masters, considers that the mind’s perception of reality is not what exactly what it apprehends, yet it also is[3].

Reality is what we take to be true, what we take to be true is what we believe, what we believe is based upon our perceptions, what we perceive depends upon what we look for, what we look for depends upon what we think, what we think depends upon what we perceive, what we perceive determines what we believe, what we believe determines what we take to be true, what we take to be true is our reality.’

This is a roundabout way of saying that reality is what we want it to be. When scientists of old were stumped by how something worked, they began by dissecting its inner working. In order to understand any subject, firstly it has to categorised, classified, systematised. To do this, formalin jars were opened, boning knives wetted, gloves donned and microscopes warmed. And a whole series of dramas would unfold as theatrical as ER. The mind, however, isn’t embodied by flesh. It can’t be dissected. It is like trying to understand a film by dissecting a cinema screen. The mind can only be comprehended by the responses it produces; actions. Thus, psychoanalysis’ greatest achievement in the twentieth century was to begin the arduous task of sketching the mind’s inner workings – how it ‘appears’ to work. Thus emerged the concepts of mind, ego, neuroses and complexes, which tell us what we are, and why and how, but not necessarily what we can do about it. Assimilating what was known from 2,500 years of eastern psychological study, modern psychoanalysis and recent advances in neurophysiology has given us a small handle on how the human mind operates. Lets us begin first with that small word ‘ego’ which Sigmund Freud coined long ago.


  1. Zukov, G. (1975) The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Random House, New York
  2. Clemente, A. (1996) Ed: Dzogchen: The self-perfected state, by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.Snow Lion Publications, New York
  3. Gyatso, GK (1993) Understanding the mind: The nature and power of the mind. Tharpa Publications, England