“Put your feet in the air and your head on the ground, try this trick and spin it, yeah? Your head will collapse… there’s nothing in it and you ask yourself ‘where is my mind?’” – The Pixies.
Or even what is it for starters? The word we use stems from the old english gemynd meaning thought or memory. Today, however, the word has perhaps taken on more responsibility. In the Oxford dictionary mind is described as “The element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.” To me the subtle but key part is that of the minds ability ‘to think, and to feel’.
To most of us a mind is just something that does the thinking while the body goes about the necessities of staying alive so the mind can carry on thinking. We have a calm mind if it is relatively free from mental chatter, Our mind is all over the place if we can’t focus because it is full of thought.
Despite the large body of modern research that suggests otherwise, cultural beliefs are difficult to change and largely (in a typical western cultural tradition) we hold to René Descartes’ concept of a separated divine mind and earthly body. Where this separation actually is, however, is pretty tricky to pin down. Classically the brain is viewed as the seat of the mind, the control centre that directs and organises the body. Thought is seen as the firing of neurons and synapses in the brain and the whole thing is a largely ‘neck up’ affair.
A big part of Descartes’ argument was the famous “I think therefore I am” meaning the only thing he could be truly certain existed were his own mental processes. Our true selves are kept locked up between our ears, tight necks and shoulders forever on watch to make sure no ‘thought’ trickles out. Largely these thoughts are conceived of as linguistic processes, that is the internal monologue (or dialogue, or parliamentary debate depending on the level of activity) that probably everyone reading this article is familiar with. This is interesting because it’s possible that if you couldn’t read this article then you would not have such an internal linguistic experience. There is an argument that our mental chatter is a product of internalising language, particularly through the skill of silent reading (David Abrams makes a brilliant discussion of this and other impacts of language on our experience in his book The Spell of the Sensuous).
So what runs through the mind of a human who cannot read, or who never even learnt to speak or understand a language? There are plenty of examples of ‘feral’ children and such that could offer an insight into that, though I don’t think we need to look that far. Have a think for a moment, what else other than language flows through your mind?
Perhaps the next most common thing is pictures, images. We remember events as visual information, and we give form to our fantasies and ruminations in our minds eye. On top of that you can probably recall the way a particular emotion or a physical object felt, or the smell of cut grass. The taste of this mornings breakfast or the anticipation of dinner can run through our mind as readily as language (though perhaps in modern humans not as often). Even our internal monologue is a reflection, a mental representation of auditory information, our own spoken language. Our experience of our mind is constructed from our external sensory experience, experience that is necessarily embodied. For example, without the intricate structure of the eye we could not see, and could not mentally represent things visually. It has even been shown that people who become blind can lose this ability and even their dreams become less visual (though clinical research is characteristically contradictory).
Perhaps then, Descartes would have been more accurate claiming that “I feel, therefore I am”, and feeling, is embodied. You need eyes to see, ears to hear, a tongue to taste, a nose to smell, and sensitive flesh to touch. Even though our most recognisable sense organs are still (usually) on our head, mind is not a neck up phenomenon. The enteric nervous system around the stomach, often called the second brain, is now widely known and lends credibility to those ‘gut’ feelings. There are also around 40,000 neurons in your heart that interpret and relay feeling information to the brain. The scientific model of the self is changing, but our lived cultural experience is yet to catch up.
Our mind permeates our whole self, from toe to tip. It is what enables you to be aware of the world and your experiences. A disembodied mind cannot experience the buoyant swell of the ocean or the ever present pull that brings us back to earth. Your fingertips could be as full of mind as your amygdala, all we need to do is open up our necks and let gravity do the rest.