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Brain and Mind

by William Harris

A discussion of some of the modes of the thought processes


     This essay on mind is not being written as a contribution to the burgeoning professional literature on the subject, but from an somewhat different viewpoint. I am not versed in the materials of the psychological and neuro-biological studies which have been accruing for decades so cumulatively, that sorting and reviewing the whole area would become a complex study in itself. A review study of that sort is an entirely different academic project.

     On the other hand, I am much concerned with certain aspects of Mind, specifically in the work I am pursuing in music composition. With that point of departure, I am going to follow a largely intuitive track in working out my perception of a special quality if Mind which I often see surfacing in certain kinds of musical structures. Working from the inside of the composition process by interpretation of the unrolling of my observations, rather than from the "outside" as a critic in the traditional academic style, I hope to make to make some matters clearer at least to me in my own thinking.

     Aristotle made the first mis-apprehension when he stated that the heart was the seat of the emotions and a part of human cerebration, an error probably derived from awareness of the complex of nerves and muscles centering around the upper middle body. This is odd because the Egyptians much earlier had understood brain-function as controlling various body movement by palpating the brain after major traumatic injury, but the Greeks started their anatomical studies anew with no aid from Egyptian research (unlike the case of Egyptian mathematics which were in part transmitted). We still speak of the heart in popular parlance as seat of emotional, mental activity , although by now it is clear that the brain is the central organ of cerebration. On the other hand the brain does not function as an independent organ, it is intimately connected with the vascular system, its neural connections both going in and out to relate it to every part of the body, while the hormonal triggers which it operates also connect back with it reflexively. Autonomous functions such as signals for heart-beat, temperature regulation, growth and repair of cells and structures are brain-regulated, so the brain cannot be properly considered the organ responsible for Mind as its sole function.

     The question might well arise whether Mind as we understand it is a proprietary and "in house" function of Brain, as has often been assumed in the past, or a separate function which operates independently, using the electro-chemical pathways of the brain's as an operational network, and as a storage-system for independently operating processes. This second assumption is one which I am going to follow for the moment, since it provides greater flexibility as system- operation, in that it is not organ-associated but process-based, which puts a very different aspect on its possible functions. It seems not unreasonable to posit a new hypothesis regarding Mind for consideration, and then consider how well it matches the known "facts" which we have at hand.

     The brain certainly defines the range of our neural possibilities, it has more actual potential than the human animal can possibly utilize, at the same time there are specific features in its organization which are responsible for our human configuration. Most obvious are the areas which provide for speech and speech decoding, as well as the frontal regions with their loosely associated "human" characteristics. Through this mass of brain material many low-voltage electrical currents range, some may have been random connections in the fetus and at birth, others are signals to and from other parts of the body. At rest, that is in a state in which no other activities are engaged other than the autonomous support signals, there are still continuous streams of electrical messages which an electro-encephalograph can detect and record. In short, the brain is continually being nourished, repaired, and utilized for routine operations unconsciously, while it is working to connect distant parts of the organism at the same time, for activation, information and repair. None of this seems to be inexorably connected with the process which we call "thinking", which can be carried on as a continuous process simultaneous with the brain's operations as it performs its various different functions.

     One of the hard problems is this: Trying to understand Mind by using Mind as a tool, requires us to use a tool to define a tool, or a process to define a process. A car traveling on a highway utilizes the highway as part of its function, it defines its "transit" in terms of the road, and the car is intimately associated with the roadway as part of a process called "travel". If the car can be considered like a voltage making a connection in time/space, and the road likened to the substructure which that process relies on, then the process which we call "transit" may be likened to the non-physical operation which we call Mind. Taking away the car and also removing the highway, we are left with a transcendental factor called "transit" or recorded passage of something from somewhere in space/time to somewhere else. It has no physical body or mass, but it has a very clear identity as something done, recorded and rememberable. It can be used as history or as data, and can even be used in constructing new data. All these functions can clearly be posited for what we call Mind.

     This analogy suggests that it is possible to extract non-substantial data from processes involving substantial entities, and record, link and archive them as information. I suggest that Mind be considered as data-phenomenon residing in just such a matrix. It is the result of electro-chemical processes which have passed through areas of the physical brain-material, and are now archived in that same brain-material as records of those processes. It would thus seem that the brain has a multiple set of functions, in that it carries and transmits signal voltages among its multiple differentiated sectors, and at the same time it memorizes the history of those events and records those with some degree of permanency, under the general heading of Memory.

     Brain may have much internal electro-chemical activity, but it is essentially a physical body, and as such it is static. Internal pathways of communication are constantly remapping themselves, but this is always within the confines of the physical organ and its immediate neural sub-centers. On the other hand Mind is completely dynamic, it has no physical identity beyond the tracery of its history as recorded in the brain's memory department. When we speak of mind, we have to establish a very different set of descriptive terms from those which we use for the brain, since the stored memory patternings of thought is a data-record, and not the same thing as the original set of function-connections.

     Let me speak briefly about some of the attributes of Mind that I am able to grasp at this moment, fleetingly:

  1. There are many highly directed functions which we employ in our daily life, without these we do not function properly as human animals, and those persons whose directedness becomes impaired are, in the human sense of the term, dysfunctional. For most of us this kind of directed-thinking is the only kind of Mind which we are aware of. In this class are the functions of talking, using motor control to operate a car or a piano, checking out series of numbers as an accountant, devising a series of concatenated processes like those in a computer program, or considering the solution of a "problem" by considering the sequence of its logical parts. In this area most of our daily thinking is done, which is thinking by segments in series, often with only a hazy sense of the architectonic structure of the whole process.
         Aristotle already had his eye on a possible architectonic structure of thought in the first passage of the Nichomachean Ethics, where he maintains that each human thought, investigation, effort or endeavor falls under the compass of a more generalized classification, and this yet under another, until we arrive at the highest level which is the master level of pure thought, which is incidentally always to be preferred. One notices, in computer and machinery instruction manuals, the infinite detail afforded to the lowest, most singular levels of operation, while often complete inattention is paid to the overview, the architectonic sense and purpose of the device. A horse is more than something to ride, a computer more than a word-processing or number crunching machine, but most people would find it hard to make a detailed description, especially starting from the bottom and going upwards. There is somehow a faith among us that if we build up enough blocks we will make a building, if we analyze the parts carefully, the sense of the whole will automatically fall into place. But it doesn't work that way!
  2. There are many important un-directed functions of Mind to which we pay less attention, since they are less clearly defined in terms of our social organization. Between the times of the Greeks, who maintained elaborate records and interpretations of the dream world, and Freud who began to take dreams seriously after their virtual exorcism in the period of Christian dominance, the dream-function of the mind was considered either as meaningless or evil. We may not yet be sure exactly what dreams are, but we know they are an important part of Mind, if only because when dreams are regularly aborted, the individual becomes clinically sick. We use the word "day-dreaming" lightly, often meaning that we are thinking of nothing in particular, of things of no importance. Imagination is recognized as the talent of creating something which did not exist before, and we respect it because it leads to the US Patent Office and royalties, but when it stays within the mind as a mere activity, it is often considered useless child's play. But without imagination there is no worthwhile art, no music, no hopeful leading from the present into a glorious future, no love and no rainbows.

     The suddenly increasing use of hallucinogenic drugs since the middle of the twentieth century has us all on warning that something in our world has gone radically wrong. We have to admit that many of the drugs used increase susceptibility to surprising, novel modes of thinking and imagination, in terms of colors, shapes and associations. The reasons for drug use may well be deeper than we have assumed, it may be a desperate reaction against the ubiquitous force-feeding of highly directed thought in our modern society. In a world where each part of a complex machine performs a single function iteratively, where most employees function, whether they realize it or not, in a similar, iterative fashion, the need for un-directed mind-processes becomes a personal imperative for mental survival. And drugs do afford some un-directed functioning, along with dangerous reactions throughout the whole physical system. There must be reasons for our society's sudden addiction, and I suspect it will be found in the society's misunderstanding of how a mind works and what Mind really involves.

     Let me go back to these two classes of mental operation, the directed and un-directed, considering now a different set of criteria. The highly directed thought processes which I mentioned before, operate on discrete data chunks at a slow, often over-cautious rate of speed. Carpenters always say "Measure twice, cut once" which is fine for the cabinetmaker but a pedestrian way of life for an painter or a pianist. Double checking each segment of your argument is in fact a way of ensuring accuracy, the man who edits his essay eight times will probably not be much blamed for wrong wording. But the rate of operation is out of synchronization with the operating speed of a human mind, just as the rate of my typing this sentence on my computer is out of phase with the 233 mhz mind-clock of my computer. It is forever waiting on me, which does no harm to it, nor can I really type much faster. But I can think much faster, in fact I am thinking much faster than I am typing, since I am forming this sentence a dozen words ahead, and shaping up the next sentence, and reviewing what I have written, and thinking of Mr. Z. who may be reading this next week, while trying to line up terms precise enough for the imprecise thoughts which are flashing across my mental screen and falling into place ... and all this concurrently as I type.

     So I am considering two separate kinds of mental action in reference to speed. When I am working on a typical operation on a job or at my desk, I am working in SlowMode, which is partly a requirement of the job, for accuracy and attentive detailing. But when I sit back and take a look long (mental) squint at what I am writing, and let my mind go where it will go (as the song said...), I immediately feel relaxed, but at the same moment my mind goes into FastMode. Looking out the window into the cedar forest, over the lake to the blue skies, I have no time to stop before the solution to an old problem grabs my attention. The French mathematician Poincare' found the solution to a long unsolved problem while dreamily thinking of objects flowing down a river carried by the current. I was recently watching a TV program on the brown bear, when I suddenly focused on a Bach Prelude which I hadn't heard in years, and sensed the "Mind of the Bear" and analogically the mind of the composer in that piece. Years ago a visiting dignitary came to a major University Research Center asking to speak with the famous Prof. X, who was not in his office. The Director asked everywhere, finally told the surprised and incredulous visitor: "Good, we just located him. He is in the country club pool ... so I know he is working on that problem!"

     Working in SlowMode is here to stay. But there occasionally appears a person who cannot tie his shoelaces, yet crunches numbers in FastMode beyond our belief. Eight digits multiplied by another eight digits ... tallied instantly and without error! This is indeed true FastMode but it has an incapacitating price, and we have learned to do this best with a computer by now. But FastMode has a proper place in all of us, it gives us access to things we are often not aware of, those intuitive guesses, the forward-looking intimations of paintings not yet painted, books not written, computers not imagined, a world not yet formed. But it also gives the individual something else, a perception into the world inside himself, as well as the world outside as cognate to him, rather than unapproachable and distant.

     There is a remarkable case in the account of the 17 c. thinker Tycho Brahe, who recorded that one day he was playing with a prism, which was then popular as an intriguing novelty capable of splitting undifferentiated light into color bands. He said that all of a sudden he looked down at the grass and for the first time "understood" each leaf of grass, its being and its function, and the whole world around him became clear and accessible. If you tell this to a practiced Hindu yogi, he will smile and say that is exactly the way it is. There are moments of awakening, understanding, enlightenment which come unexpected and unaccountably. If you mention this to someone in our modern world, he will suggest a gastric or vascular disturbance, or perhaps interaction of two incompatible medications. My father at age somewhat over eighty was looking over a lake when he experienced a singular delight in shapes and shimmering hues, something many a poet since Wordsworth has seen without apology. My son was with me, saw it as a marijuana-like vision, later I traced it to action of a sedative with another medication. But I and many others have seen such things regularly, without any aid, so we have here, in capsule form, a snapshot of the wide range of "inner mind vision" in the West.

     A few more considerations about FastMode. We know the brain can process data at a rate of about 600 discrete impulses a second before synapse-jam. This is slow beside computer speed of 48Khz used to digitize the analog sound of music, but very fast beside the 28 frames a second which will fool our eye into thinking the flashing sequence of a cinema projection is standing still. What portion of such a speed we need or actually use in "thinking" is unclear, but the potential for very fast Mind processing is clearly there, and since we have no way to calibrate speed of thought yet, we should assume that thought can operate in the mid-range of some such speed, which means that thinking should be by its nature capable of very high speed operation.

     Words are of course nothing more than tags for things, for all kinds of things, physical and incorporeal as well. Since they are sound-based, they are basically slow in the world of physics, mainly because the generation of words takes time before they exit the mouth, transmission through the air is about a quarter of a mile a second (fast in our tortoise-crawling time sense), while reception and decoding takes another part of a second. Society often values the written word as more secure than spoken speech, graphemics tends to expel phonetics, and many a hearer at a poetry reading will ask to see the text later in order to understand it better. Printed words are tags applied to sounded words, which are in turn tags for "objects" in the real world. Words have slowed thinking down immeasurably, without our noticing it at all. Most of us, especially the well educated, live in a sea of words, we float on word-based notions, and consider everything reducible to a word or a group of words chosen from a data-base of some 20,000 to 50,000 items.

     Concerting reality together with words is a very convenient notion, it has given us communication, society and civilization. But it has removed from our consciousness the FastMode thinking in which we can work far more speedily and adroitly than in our normal state. I can think of two examples which make this a little clearer:

     I visit a painter in his studio, he has been painting since early morning and now at mid-morning he seems absorbed in something. He nods to me as I come in, but pays no attention to my presence, he is going back again and again to something in the background which absorbs him, although I cannot see much change in half an hour watching. There is something he is minding in that area, I sense the presence of something in the room which I cannot define, but I respect that aura and am silent. I sit on a chair unobserved. Later that day we are talking over a glass of beer, and I ask him what was going on in his mind that morning. He looks at me in puzzlement, asks what I was thinking of. I suggest there was something on his mind, some inner process he was involved with. The answer: "Oh no, I'm always that way when I am painting, you see, you don' t paint..."

     Another example: A friend is working at his computer desk, I ask him some question about what he is doing. He knows my question is serious and I am not completely illiterate, so he says a few words, but his fingers move on the KB faster than he can talk, and the screen windows keep changing and switching, so he gives up talking and forgets that I am there. I ask him if he can slow it up so I can get the process in my mind, he smiles and goes back to work at full tilt. This is no unusual experience for people who work around computer-folk, and there is a reason which is aligned with the nature of their work. They are working habitually in FastMode, which has removed the need, the use and even the possibility of words. We have entered a new world in which the computer follows a time-clock of ultra fast speed, the operator has moved into his own biologically limited FastMode, and we now can see how pedestrian our usual word-based SlowMode actually is. However we are going to live with SlowMode for most of our lives, because we are biologically evolved in tune with it, and it is comfortable for us in our accepted social usages. But it must not preclude us from dipping into FastMode as another very different way of thinking, one which has different properties and one which extends the range of Mind far beyond our accustomed space.

     Music would be another area where FastMode is indicated. You learn the play an instrument note by note off the score, finger by finger on the instrument, tempo slowed down to an infant's crawl, and only gradually after several years do you get enough "practice" to get a piece up to tempo and perhaps relax enough to let it flow out with feeling, what the teacher cryptically calls "putting some expression into it". We have always taught music in a very slow mode in the West, and when most of us hear music we pick out the Melody, accept the rest as accompaniment, and turn off the active fast-function of Mind which is not needed for such leisurely hearing.

     But then you try to hear four voices leading independently in Baroque polyphonic music, and all you can manage to hear is the top-line. It will take great effort to learn to hear the other voices too, all at the same time, all heard through the same auditory meatus but split somehow at the cochleal level into discrete ranges. The eye points at detail with the foveal pit, it is a single point organ aided by memory-fill-in, but the ear works on a multi-range level, hence it takes a lot of Mind to encompass it, what an engineer would call "a lot of intellectual band-width". Just as the digital recorder is taking 44,000 readings of the sound of a note in each passing second, so you are going to have to take a lot of mental readings automatically to hear the pitches, rhythmics, dynamics of each measure, and this as well as the harmonics which identify the cello, the horn and the flute. Grasping all this, you are working hard, you are now in FastMode, which your Mind is well suited for as an operating function of the biological Brain.

     Consider another example of the use of FastMode thinking in the arts, where word-based thinking is not the norm. Take the case of Jackson Pollock' paintings, constructed by selectively dripping liquid paint over a large canvas laid flat on the floor, the artist adroitly distributing his pigments in a flow, running alongside the painting in a fast, if not frantic trot. The process joins body-movement, hand/arm coordination connected to gallon-pails of paint, judgments as to where to flow paint, how to flow it, when to change color, and an overall mental image of what has been laid down, what was being poured out at the moment, as well as what the final display should be like. When the finished work is on display, and an art critic tries to "analyze", it quickly becomes clear that it is impossible to comment analytically on the intricate and involved relationships of the colors, the traces of paint which overlay and cross-cross each other to create a vast network of planar but slightly three-dimensional design. What is there is simply there, it is very complex as a completed product, and it is that way, because it was constructed by a very complex physical process under the control of a very complex set of conditions. Pollock did something very unusual, very personal, and the result says something non-verbally which goes back to a quality resident in the artist's mind. In a sense you can only look at a Pollock painting, just as you can look at a pyramid in wonder. You can see it, and seeing is believing. That is all!

     The case of what has been wrongly called "abstract art" is unusual, part of its value lies in the fact that it is stripped of most of the word-connected associations which furnish our intellectual vocabulary. It has a quietness and clean-ness which those of us who understand it have learned to relish. But consider for a moment the complexity of a more traditional art, for example a short but complex cadence in a Bach cantata. The section which the professor is going to analyze in a music theory class is only a dozen measures long, takes less than twenty seconds to play, and now the professor proceeds with his analysis, which is based on two and a half centuries of study of the theory which underlies classical music composition. Relationships between notes in sequence are examined as voice leading, on top of this lies the web of harmonic assonance, the whole embedded in a matrix of rhythmic pulse ... the class hour is long past, the analysis hardly complete, and instrumentation has not yet been touched. So the question naturally arises: How can something, which is played as sound in the air in twenty seconds, possibly take sixty minutes to (partially) describe?

     Most people would reply that it is the infinite genius of the composer which furnishes such rich materials for detailed analysis. But it seems more reasonable to assume that composer and analyst are running on different tracks, that the composer who had been contemplating music-mind for decades as preparation, was able to proceed in FastMode and write that passage in five minutes, to be performed as music in a fraction of that time. The analyst was not really in the wrong, his analysis was in fact correct, it was microscopically exact down to the last molecular detail. But it proceeded from a different cast of mind, that of an cademician, a scholar, a scientist, perhaps even an accountant, and that meant traveling sure but slow. In the other hand an artist working at full tilt can get the spirit and even overall design out of a single hearing of a piece of music. When Mozart first heard a piece of Palestrina, he grasped it in toto, went home singing it and wrote it down, able to do this feat because he was working mentally in recognition, at the same speed at which he was hearing. You don't have to be a genius or a Mozart to do this, and not all of us can do it as effectively as he did. But if you have no faith in high-speed comprehension you will never understand how to grasp music as it flies. In the same vein, if you have no faith in high-speed communication, you will never understand how the Internet is disintegrating and simultaneously re-integrating our world.

     Scholars always wonder how Shakespeare wrote to many wonderful plays in such a short span of years, material for libraries of libraries in our amazed world, and then disappeared without much of a trace of his personal history or his "psychological state" in later life. But there is really no mystery, he lived out what his Mind was doing, and that provided the multifaceted materials for all his plays. The plays are his mirror in which he somehow devised a way of reflecting himself, his every turn of thinking. As this takes possession of a man, he cannot stop any more than my painter friend could put down his palette and ask if I wanted to go out for coffee. Obsessive, high-speed Mind travels miles where worms only crawl, but when it loses it impetus, it is suddenly all gone. Is that a loss of aim, of purpose, or a shift in the chemistry of the brain which loses contact with the former connections?

     The problem is that we have been taught to crawl with our minds, when we could have learned to fly. Crawling is great, but when the ostrich and penguin forgot how to fly, they had to be sure that they would be successful in developing new abilities to run and to swim.

     How do we regain possession of the FastMode, and those highly imaginative, creatively dreaming and imagining functions which the human brain has afforded us through the long eons of the evolutionary train?

     It would seem that just as there are some of us who come into the world tone-deaf, and there are some who lack a full range of color vision, there are some who have exacerbated faculties in both these areas, people like William Blake as an example of an artist who could function as an artist if not completely as an independent human being. For those like Blake there are high costs, but for many of us there is no more block to higher use of Mind than suspicion, ignorance or a lack of incentive. Are there ways in which we can suspend the useful SlowMode thinking specified by our highly organized Western society, without taking complete leave of our society or of the useful normalcy of our daily patterns of behavior?

     There are formalized ways of approaching the problem of re-orienting ourselves. For years various forms of Meditation have provided a means for dismissing ambient thoughts and learning to first empty the mind of all associative thinking, then concentrate on a single central "point" of no consequence. Howsoever the process works in terms of brain operation, it works very well as a system for clarifying the mind, and it has unusual physical side-effects as well. This may seem a trivial example, but I recall a friend who helped me on a project putting a deep slice into his forefinger. Refusing a bandaid, he went into a quiet room and meditated for half an hour. Two hours later he showed me the finger which was so well healed that I had to look carefully for the wound. Here is an important point, that the mind does not work without reference to the body, something we all know glibly under "psycho-somatic theory", but hardly think of when meditating.

     F.A. Mesmer (1734-1815) apparently confused the area which we now call auto-hypnotism with a notion involving magnets and "animal magnetism", which is the effect of actual magnets on living organisms. He did produce remarkable effects on "patients", or rather the patients produced remarkable effects on themselves under his guidance, but his work ended in a veil of mysticism and eventually charlatanism. But we now understand hypnotism and auto-hypnotic states as reality-based phenomena in our scientific vocabulary of practices, and many have felt that yogic Meditation has much in common with auto-hypnotic states, as a substrate on top of which reside cultural and philosophical layers which are not readily understood or evaluated. Meditation in the West would seem to be at the root level only, but even without a cultural and religious overlay it seems to be a worthwhile process for many Western people.

     In the early Church the idea of 'kenosis" (from Gr. kenos "empty") became an important device for cleansing the mind in religious spirituality, is it even stated in formal Christian theology that Jesus' "humbling of himself by taking on the form of man " was an act of kenosis. In Zen practice the priest goes to the mountain to contemplate and conclude his life there, or on a more conventional level the Japanese scrolls often show the fisherman lying peacefully in his boat as it floats on the surface of a lake in complete tranquillity. Odysseus' father Laertes spends his last days tending his garden, as does the Don of the Mafia in the "Godfather". One can meditate with earth and plants and symbolically nurture flora in peace and quiet. In all these cases there are specially devised states oif Mind.

     For years until well into my thirties I had a deep fear of the dental chair. Even when loaded with Novocain and free from pain, I shook and sweated hot and cold, to the despair of my dentist who finally suggested I take a few shots of whisky before coming to his office and bring one along for him. One day that fear disappeared and never returned, replaced by what I tell my current dentist is a state of "mesmerism". In fact I fall into a state much like sleep, yet able to follow conversation and music in the office. When the work is finished I find myself pleased, tranquil but not ready to drive my car until I have walked around the block a few times. I was clearly not asleep, but I was not in the normal state of wakefulness, so I classify my dental experience as one of those interstages of consciousness which we call "meditative" or auto-hypnotic. Was it done just as a device against unrealistic fear? Or did it happen by itself at a useful juncture in my life? Perhaps I should be asking myself why I relegated such a valuable and important experience to the hour under the dentist's drill, while others enter a similar state to confer with the inner self, or with Deity?

     A well known Japanese physicist working in an American University Physics Department was once asked by a colleague why, with his traditional Japanese background, he didn't practice meditation. His answer: "Thinking about physics is my meditation.". There is a clarity about this response and the directness it points to, which I want to emphasize.

     When we involve ourselves in a stance or a program or a treatment, in order to develop a better way of communicating with our inner self, we have a dual problem. First is the matter of establishing communication, like tuning our radio receiver to get the right wave-length for the messages we want to hear, the contact we want to establish. When we are in communication, we can use the messages in many ways, that is really up to us on a voluntative basis.

     But the second part of the situation is one which we often forget. If our purpose was both establishing inner awareness, and also cleaning out the cobwebs, sweeping out the mind, shucking off the load, we should be aware of the actual process we have used for enlightenment, which is now part of our responsibility. Do we have to get into quiet room every night before dinner, sit on a rug cross-legged to get to that special place? Do we have to ring up the psychiatrist and make an appointment to re-affirm our state of connection between the inner and the outer man?

     After we have heard the voice telling us what we want to know, we have one more thing to do. We have to get rid of the radio.