The Mind-Body Connection

“Know Thyself” is an Ancient Greek aphorism that seems like very good advice. But while it sounds simple enough, we run into trouble almost right out of the gate. How can we know who we are, if we don’t even know what we are? What is the essence of you? Your mind? Good start. But what is your mind? If you’ve ever puzzled over that one, that makes two of us, and we’re not alone. Philosophers, including those cleverly disguised as scientists, have been wrestling with that question for millennia. Thankfully, all that is about to change. I am about to humbly offer you an amazingly good answer to that old conundrum. An answer that’s profound in its simplicity, and sweeping in its import. Admittedly, it’s not an answer I am particularly happy with. On its surface, it seems almost mundane, not nearly as spectacular as what I had hoped for. A few tweaks in how we think about reality, and the rest just tumbles out. Once again, it turns out that we are not so special, after all. What specialness there is, and there is specialness, lies at the very foundations of reality, where the magic happens. The rest is pretty much just magically imbued Legos. Wait, what!? Magic Legos? Maybe that’s pretty special, after all.

Join me for a delightful, if brief, tour around the mind-body connection. You’ll see old ideas made new as we torture neutral monism, enjoy countless similes and metaphors as we endeavor to wrap our heads around mind, and be entertained by some of the most outrageous, if spot on, speculations you’ll find anywhere. You don’t want to miss this mind-expanding, and just plain fun, adventure in thinking about you!

We begin gently, by noticing that we are embodied; most of us have the nearly constant experience of inhabiting a physical body. But even more immediately, we are aware that we have private, subjective experiences available to ourselves… and no one else. In other words, there is the physical thing, such as a chair, toaster, or our body, and there is our subjective experience of that thing, such as the sensory experiences of our body. “I’m hot.” “I’m hungry.” “That tickles!” We have very good reason to believe that what happens in our body/brain is closely related to what happens in our mind. It seems inevitable that we would wonder about how our brain and mind relate, that we would tangle with the enigmatic mind-body problem.

Over the ages, more than a few ideas have been put forward to explain the mind-body connection. Some of the basic types include: everything is pure mind and the apparent physical reality is simply an elaborate hallucination; everything is physical and/or mind is merely an epiphenomenon or a passive observer along for the ride; and finally, both mind and body/brain separately exist and interact in some exotic, unknown way. This last proposal leaves us with the question, “How?” How in the world could an idea of an apple change something in the physical brain, or vice versa? Each of these possibilities requires some rather fancy footwork to succeed as an explanation. Yes, they are sort of plausible, but none is particularly compelling or emotionally satisfying.

Next: The Nature of Reality