Unpacking Human Consciousness: An Exploration Into the Brain-Mind Dilemma

By: Mike Morse 1/25/2021

Author’s Note 6/10/2021: At the time of writing this piece, I wanted to give an overview into the abstract complexities that have contributed to the modern Western field of psychology. Although I discuss the biological nervous systems that make up human bodies and brains, I want to emphasize that our behaviors are not a direct result of our biology; socioenvironmental and cultural factors play a larger role in shaping human behavior, such as imperialism, racial capitalism, and settler colonialism. We know now that the idea that our mental well-being can be simplified to a chemical imbalance is a myth. However, understanding our biological processes can be helpful to learn about the parts that build us up, and so I have still taken the time to break them down.

People’s fascination with the seemingly infinite conscious mind has been growing for thousands of years. In fact, definitions of consciousness have changed multiple times, as understandings of higher level thinking and biological neural processes have been reshaped and rediscovered. At its most basic level, consciousness can be thought of as awareness; it surpasses the physical concept of simply existing and expands into the thoughtful understandings of life and all its connectedness. Consciousness has also been related to spirituality, with roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism, often as a way to experience physical sensations, intellectual awakenings, and spiritual connections to the greater universe and higher purposes. In many Western philosophical practices, consciousness has become a more internalized, self-reflective state, with the goal of opening self-awareness and understanding of the self, rather than one’s place in the larger world (this aligns with many individualistic Western ideologies). Because of the abstract nature of consciousness, it has been tackled by a variety of scholarly fields, including religion, spirituality, psychology, philosophy, and astronomy, to name a few. Due to my background, I am most familiar with the history of the mind/brain dualism that has shifted throughout the past few millennia.

Around 350 BCE, philosopher Aristotle believed in the existence of a human ‘mind’ that produced higher intellectual functioning, however the understanding of the biological connection between the immaterial mind and physical brain was unknown. Aristotle believed that the complexity of one’s soul depended on the types of organisms, recognizing the existence of souls in all life forms (plants, animals, and humans). He theorized the possibility of partial soul death, when the body souls die and the mind soul becomes immortal. These beliefs are known in the psychological world as mentalism, which led the way to the field of cognitive sciences- eventually resulting in the rise of American behaviorism (the methodological study of human behavior), which assisted in the rise of German Nazism. Around the same period, Hippocrates was focused on possible aspects of genetic heredity, well before the term was used. Specifically, he thought traits from all body parts were passed from parent to child. Hippocrates was quite focused on all the individual pieces making up the whole body, which contrasted Aristotle’s ideas that the body and mind worked together as one whole (note to psych people: resemblant of Gestalt psychology). Aristotle’s focus on the interconnectedness of the body led to some of the first recognitions of traits passed from grandparents to grandchildren, skipping a generation. Because of Hippocrates’ connection to the physical body, he led the school of thought of monism: that the abstracted conscious ‘mind’ can merely be defined as a physical process, i.e. electrochemical transmissions in neuron cells, rather than an intangible psychic experience.

Sagittal slice of brain with arrow pointing to “pineal gland’ in the center of the brain.

Modern philosophies now explain that there’s more of a mind-brain dualism that occurs: an abstract, conscious mind exists because of physical properties in the brain and body. The desire to know and understand the specific connections between the intangible mind and the complex brain have led much of modern Western science and research for the last 400 years. René Decartes first discussed his theories of the pineal gland being the bridge between the body and the soul in the mid 17th century. In the late 19th century, Madame Blavatsky theorized connections between the pineal gland and the Hindu concept of the third eye. Medically, the pineal gland is known for being physically central in the brain, and it’s primary function is to produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates our circadian (sleep) cycle.

Today, having an understanding of consciousness is essential due to modern society’s fascination with free will, and how it is implicated in our legal and moral systems. A theme throughout crime media is the plight of the ‘criminally insane’, which suggests the possibility that in certain circumstances, people’s behaviors are entirely out of their conscious control. Angela Davis discusses in her book Are Prisons Obsolete how legal experts often argue over whether women who killed their husbands, in cases of domestic abuse, did so in reactive self-defense or out of free will. Davis argues that this debate belittles the idea that these women were mentally capable of making their own decisions, and furthermore that victims of abuse are capable of choosing the fate of their perpetrator. We see this question arise in different situations every day: in cases of self-defense of victims of abuse, in determining the need for assisted living care, in creating life-altering prison sentences. With modern brain imaging technology, brain scans have been discussed as a possible way of determining whether or not a person was mentally capable enough to engage in such deviant behaviors. This system for justice completely disregards the possibility of an immaterial mind that arises from the biological brain.

One of the largest theories used in this discussion of free will is the dual process theory, which suggests thoughts come about in one of two ways: implicitly or explicitly. This theory has been used with regards to discussions of implicit bias and also with the suggestion that building habits takes rehearsal, repetition, and time, rather than just willpower. One of the earliest psychologers to use this theory was American William James, who believed in two types of thinking: associative (implicit) and true reasoning (explicit). The first he reasoned was directly related to evolutionary reproductive advantages, while the latter could be used in extenuating circumstances to overcome extreme obstacles. He even theorized that free will itself is a two part system: a combination of choice and chance. This second concept, chance, is harder to accept, as it suggests that part of our fate is out of our own hands. James also had a theory that humans have four parts to their being: their pure ego (or their truest self-conscious form), and unconscious material self, social self, and spiritual self.

Iceburg shows three layers (from top to bottom): Conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. The Superego spans all three layers. The Ego is in the conscious and preconscious. The Id is in the unconscious.
Iceburg shows three layers (from top to bottom): Conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. The Superego spans all three layers. The Ego is in the conscious and preconscious. The Id is in the unconscious.

Around the same time, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was developing another theory of self-consciousness, which involved three components of the psyche: the id, ego, and super-ego. Freud also believed there were three levels of consciousness- the unconscious, which was unreachable by the conscious mind, the preconscious, and the conscious. The super-ego component was Freud’s representation of morality, and it existed in all three levels of consciousness. The id was entirely unconscious, known as “childlike”, and was thought of as the pleasure component, seeking immediate gratification and running impulsively. Freud’s ego component was practical and sought to balance the ‘hedonistic’ id with the ‘impractical’ moral super-ego, existing as a bridge in the preconscious and conscious levels.

Modern neuroscientists have continued to seek more specific neural coordinates for consciousness, whether through specific atom movement, nerve cells, or regions of the brain. I personally think it’s essential to look at the larger picture of the nervous systems in humans, if we are taking a neurobiological approach to ‘free will’. Typical nervous system breakdown uses two major systems: the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of our brain and spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system (PNS), which includes nerve systems that communicate sensory inputs to the CNS. Within the peripheral nervous system, we have sensory neurons, which conduct information from it’s sensory origin to the CNS, and motor neurons, which relay information to the appropriate body location to respond to the stimulus, usually a muscle cell. Finally, within the motor cells, we have autonomic cells, that automatically skip communication to the CNS and stay entirely within the PNS (known as reflexes), and somatic cells, that first relay information to the CNS (i.e. our brain) before sending information to our muscles in response. Here is an image for this complex process:

Chart explaining breakdown of nervous systems from Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System, to Sensory and Motor divisions of the Peripheral Nervous System, to the Autonomic Nervous System and Somatic Nervous System, which has a sympathetic and parasympathetic division.
Chart explaining breakdown of nervous systems from Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System, to Sensory and Motor divisions of the Peripheral Nervous System, to the Autonomic Nervous System and Somatic Nervous System, which has a sympathetic and parasympathetic division.

I argue that in human bodies, we have two differentiated nervous systems: cerebellar (reflexive) and cerebral (mediated). What I mean by this, is that we have some neural connections that are directly routed within our body and cerebellum, or the part of our brain that controls our bodily functions, while others are mediated in our cerebrum, or the brain areas associated with higher thought and functioning, which other animals have not evolutionarily developed as complexly. These two unique systems allow for two types of ‘learning’ (in psychology this term often refers to the habituation of behaviors through repetition), one that occurs in the conscious mind, and one in the subconscious brain. This supports the theory that the brain can simultaneously process conscious thought of the cerebral mind separately from reflexive brain-body movements and reactions, i.e. free will exists, but so does unconscious learning.

By abstractly and critically thinking about the mind, we begin to approach the psychological concept known as Theory of Mind (TOM): the ability people have to empathize with other people’s emotions, beliefs, interests, desires, and knowledge. I want to reiterate the word empathize here; we’re referring to the specific ability to truly understand other people’s emotions, not just the recognition of other people’s feelings (aka sympathy). When psychologists consider someone to have ‘theory of mind’, they mean that that individual is able to put themselves in another’s place and understand that all people process, experience, and behave differently. A lot of leading neuroscience research of neurodivergent (a term reclaimed by many individuals who experience mental illness) individuals has been directed towards learning brain differences in theory of mind and functioning. For example, an fMRI scan might be taken measuring the activity in the brain of someone who is autistic and someone who is neurotypical (a person who functions typically within modern society’s social systems) performing the same task, and then the brain scans would be compared. Difference in neural activation, i.e. how many neurons are firing in a certain area of the brain at a certain time (which is measured through blood-oxygen saturation in fMRIs), is compared in the images, and conclusions are drawn regarding the neurodivergent individual solely from what is a vague scan of oxygen levels. This is problematic as it disregards the individual psychological and social differences between the people as well, and assumes that only their specific brain difference is what is causing the difference in their task performance. People who practice theory of mind will realize that using brain imaging alone as a way of explaining human behavior is not enough because every person has their own circumstances that will result in unique behavior.

Understanding theory of mind is a step towards engaging in metacognition, or rather ‘thinking about thinking’. The human brain’s ability to engage in metacognition is an ability that, to our knowledge, few other species are capable of. By using metacognition, we find ourselves able to think about the causes of our thoughts, emotions, and feelings, and also to use our knowledge of others to understand their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This skill develops throughout our lives, both as we age and our brain develops naturally and as we are socialized to empathize and think of others and the world around us, in addition to ourselves. Metacognition is arguably the base of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapeutic technique focused on recognizing and challenging disruptive thoughts as they arise, and ultimately changing one’s behaviors. Other therapeutic strategies also use metacognition, including unconditional positive regard, a concept in humanistic (a branch of counseling) psychology that believes in the necessity of acceptance of all people, regardless of their circumstances, first in order to work on the other structures causing harm in the lives of all people. I argue that everyone should practice unconditional positive regard, as in this modern world it’s important to understand that while people do consciously make decisions that have (whether positive or negative) material consequences, due to the social systems put in place in our global, capitalist economy, many people’s circumstances are largely out of their personal control.

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