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

Mind and the Nature of Reality


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. At first glance, the material brain and immaterial mind seem to be rather different sorts of things: a brain is more or less solid, we can hold it in our hand, feel its weight and notice its well-defined 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 even been called a ghost in the machine. How could two things be more different? Yet, despite their differences, we have compelling evidence that the mind and brain connect. How do they pull that off? 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?

The Nature of Reality

Perhaps the most straightforward way to account for the mind-body connection is to make the not-so-radical assumption that they come that way from the factory. The basic idea is an old one: there is only one kind of stuff in the universe, but that stuff has many aspects. A coin, for instance, has two aspects, or faces; a standard die has six. Our discussion will focus mainly on two of reality's, aspects, the material and immaterial, with brief mention of a third, temporal aspect. Everything in reality has all of reality's aspects. In particular, 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, in the usual sense of that word. The proton, for example, is located in the atomic nucleus, and weighs a specific amount. 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 "causes" or "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 make/display 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 single reality, different aspects are connected; wherever you find a heads, tails will be lurking about, just on the other side.

A quick example may help. 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 force 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.

Like a magnetic field, mind is a manifestation of the immaterial aspect of reality: it is massless and non-local. The physical brain represents 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. We can finally stop trying to explain how what doesn't happen, happens. The body's material aspect does not make or cause the immaterial mind. But because they are different aspects of a single underlying reality, a change in the material brain may be accompanied by a change in its immaterial aspect, the mind, and vice versa. The rest of this discussion attempts to explore how this might work.



Consider a common iron nail with its obvious material aspect. We know what will happen if we bring a powerful 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. This could well be the sort of interaction through which the immaterial mind causes changes in the material body/brain.

Why do I keep referring to magnets and (electro)magnetic fields? Of the four known fundamental forces (or fields) only the electromagnetic force behaves in a way consistent with what is known of mind: the two internuclear forces are too short-range; the gravitational force would not depend on the brain being active. There are other immaterial things, but we will save those for a later discussion. For now, the complex electromagnetic field coursing through, and surrounding, the brain is our best candidate for the measurable footprint of mind. This field exerts forces on the electromagnetic fields within neurons (those associated with their atoms and molecules), which in turn alter activity within those neurons; a connection between mind and body. Am I claiming that mind may well be related to some sort of electromagnetic field? Exactly.

A Song Your Brain Sings

We have just characterized a complex electromagnetic field as the footprint of mind, and that's almost correct. Actually, it's more accurate to say that what we might call the footprint of mind is a dynamic pattern expressed within the electromagnetic field created in the brain. In short, your mind is a song your brain sings. The "notes" in that song-that-is-you are pointed to by the dynamic values of an electromagnetic field, spread across space and time. An analogy might be The Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a model of the cortical columns in your brain, with each member singing its part, contributing to the whole. The varying electromagnetic field throughout your brain is the measurable footprint of your mind. That footprint is an observable event related to the immaterial mind. As an objective event, it is a view from the outside. For example, the objective aspect of a house is the view from outside the house. Your experience is a subjective event, the view from inside the house. Your mind, then, may well be the experience of what it's like to be an electromagnetic song your brain sings.

What's Next?

If we know anything, we know that we have an immaterial mind, we experience it everyday. And our experience convincingly tells us of the material world we live in. The challenge has always been to understand how the two connect. We have outlined here 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 immaterial from material, mind-like stuff such as electromagnetic fields 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 mind.

Our story has presented mind as viewable from inside or outside. From the outside, mind appears as an electromagnetic song your brain sings. From the inside, it is the experience of being such a song. If the footprint of mind is left by an ever-changing electromagnetic field, it seems reasonable to expect that different mental events will leave different footprints, that is, they will have different electromagnetic field configurations or signatures. In the next chapter of our story, we will consider similarities and differences of electromagnetic fields that may correspond to the conscious and unconscious mind. Until then, perhaps you can take some comfort in knowing that you haven't actually lost your mind, it's just really hard to tell where it is, exactly.