Q. Who's in charge, my brain or my mind; and what's the difference between them anyway?
A. Good questions. Let's start with your second question: What's the difference between the brain and the mind? In our culture, the words “brain” and “mind” are often used interchangeably even though they really do refer to separate, although often overlapping, concepts. The brain and the mind are likely not the same thing but how to describe the difference clearly and easily continues to be a puzzle. Definitions usually end up getting mired in semantics.
More is known about the brain than ever before in the history of this planet and yet researchers have probably just scratched the surface. Despite all the studies, the brain remains the most complex and mysterious human organ.
Historical accounts suggest he ancient Egyptians didn't think much of the brain. Their perception was that thinking was done in the heart. In some sense they were correct in that upwards of 40,000 neurons have been found in the average heart. So people do "think in teh heart" at a subconscious level. Sometimes that information can be brought to conscious awareness.
Some have tried to differentiate brain from mind by saying that the brain subserves the function of the mind much in the same way as the feet subserve the body and enable a person to walk, run, and jump. In his book The Birth of the Mind, author Gary Marcus quoted Steven Pinker of MIT as saying: “The mind is what the brain does.”
Others have said that the brain is the organ of the mind much in the same way as the stomach is an organ of the digestive system. When the stomach malfunctions the person can get indigestion. When the brain malfunctions the person can get incognition (my word, smile).
Just be glad you have both—a brain and a mind, and take good care of them!
Now to your first question. Emerging research suggest that the mind may be in charge, at lest if one defines the mind as encompassing the nervous system throughout the brain and body, sometimes referred to as the psychosomatic network. Think of the mind as all parts of yourself, brain plus body. This includes:
- Your conscious mind, what you are paying attention to
- Your subconscious mind, what you are not paying attention
Consciousness creates your individual reality. So when you speak of someone being "unconscious," that can mean that the individual is literally out of it (e.g., has received a general anesthetic prior to undergoing surgery, has experienced injury/trauma/disease to the brain). It can also mean that the person is awake and functioning but consciously unaware of some event, situation, or fact (e.g., Alzheimer's disease, senile dementia). It could also mean that the individual is temporarily incapacitated in terms of clear logical/rational thinking due to the influence of some substance (e.g., medications, drugs including alcohol) or addictive behavior that has altered his/her neurochemistry.
According to Candace Pert, PhD, what is observed in the body may simply be the outward manifestation of the mind because the body is the person's subconscious mind. She states, "Both the brain and the body are part of the subconscious, faithfully recording and reporting chemical processes that enter our conscious awareness only as we recognize them as emotions." Interesting concept. It puts a whole different twist on Psychoneuroimmunology (or PNI for short), the study of the connection between the brain and the body, between the psychosomatic network and the immune system.
Think of the brain and body as a continually changing flow of molecular information, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Virtually all the exchange of molecular information occurs subconsciously, outside of your conscious awareness. Only about 5% of what occurs in the subconscious ever comes to your conscious awareness. Conceivably, an increase in conscious awareness could positively impact your life and pay huge dividends to your health and well being. That is, what you bring to conscious awareness, you can choose to manage. One can perhaps only deal rationally and effectively with what he/she can identify and label. This shines the spotlight on behaviors that can diminish one's conscious awareness such as avoidance, denial, pretending, repression, and lying.
Now here's the kicker. Perhaps less than 5% of what goes on in the subconscious mind ever reaches the conscious mind. This means that whether or not people are consciously aware of it, everything they do, think, or say is a health-relevant behavior and impacts their brain/body communication toward health or toward the opposite state.
You may find it interesting to note that several specific behaviors or strategies have been shown to alter the psychosomatic network and positively impact the brain/body communication. These behaviors include:
- Meditation (prayer is a form of meditation)
- Affirmation (short, positive, present tense, empowering statements)
- Visualization (internal mental picturing)