Books >> The Mind
Richard M. Restak, MD
The objective of The Mind is to provide the reader with a unique overview of the thinking of many varied authorities on the nature of mind. Obviously, no one book could deal with everything pertaining to the mind, a subject that has preoccupied human beings since the beginning of recorded history. Mind is an encompassing subject, so selectivity, emphasis, and "point of view" were needed from the start. I have tried whenever possible to include the thinking and contributions of many disciplines: the neurosciences, philosophy, linguistics, and history among them. There are innumerable questions about the origins, nature, and workings of mind. We know much more about mind today than we did even a century ago; yet we still have more questions than we have answers, and perhaps always will. But what we have learned is illuminating and often exciting, and the direction of further exploration promises increasing insight into this often mysterious aspect of the self.
This series, concentrates on nine aspects of mind. There are others that might have been chosen in their stead, given the range and complexity of the overall subject; but taken together, these aspects offer a broad-ranging view of what we know, do not know, and think we may eventually know about the human mind.
Search Self-understanding is one of humankind's most ancient pursuits. Who am I? What is my relationship to the world around me? These questions marked the beginnings of philosophy. They also inaugurated the search for mind, for, at least in this one respect, we are unique among all creatures. Only we are curious about our origins, the meaning of our existence, and the nature of the inner world that we experience whenever we reflect, remember, daydream, or dream.
At various times in the past, the mind has been equated with the soul or the spirit. But such terms are religious or spiritual, rather than philosophical or scientific; and self- understanding is difficult enough without our presuming to be capable of understanding the nature of the divine. At other times, mind has been denied altogether, and behavior considered the only reality. Yet only a moment's reflection reveals a rich inner world that exists independently of any outward behavior. What is this mind that we experience so vividly, yet which eludes our best efforts when we try to describe it? Recently, specialists in a host of disciplines have set their sights on understanding the human mind. This chapter provides an overview of their ideas.
Development Within two weeks after conception, the process of brain formation is underway in the embryo. From the brain emerges the mind, present in primitive form even before birth, and developing throughout infancy and childhood in ways that are generally predictable, yet unique in each individual and always astonishing. Nothing is more vulnerable, however, than the brain of the fetus in the ensuing sixteen weeks after it first begins to form. Deviations from normal development can bring about profound alterations in mind. Alcohol and ionizing radiation can induce those alterations, leaving the baby that is born several months later deprived of the full and normal life he or she might otherwise have lived.
Aging Many of our ideas about aging are based on erroneous stereotypes. The mind is not preordained to suffer an eclipse in function as we age. Indeed, it can continue to operate at its best well into the eighth and ninth decades. Moreover, challenge and stimulation can exert a powerful influence on this optimal functioning. Neuroscientists now believe that throughout our lives, new information can actually be incorporated into the structure of the brain, through the creation of new synapses and the facilitation of existing nerve pathways.
Addiction Within the human brain are specific receptors on certain neurons to which addicting drugs bind. There are pleasure centers and nerve pathways that, once stimulated, exert a compelling influence on the individual to repeat this stimulation again and again. The mind can literally be enslaved by the pernicious and illegal substances that are readily available on the streets of cities of the United States and all over the world. Can scientists come up with chemical antidotes that will counteract the effects of these addicting agents? This is not only unlikely; a purely chemical approach to addiction ignores the larger aspects of the drug problem. Why are addicting drugs exerting so powerful an influence in our society? What does this tell us about ourselves?
Pain and Healing Not everyone reacts in the same way to an injury, an illness, or the death of a loved one. This is because the mind can influence our responses to stresses and unpleasant experiences. We now know that our mental attitude can alter physical processes within our body. Further, it can influence the effectiveness with which we fight off disease, the success with which we cope with stress, the way in which we respond to pain-producing illnesses such as cancer--and even, perhaps, how long we live.
Depression and Mood What is the difference between normal fluctuations in mood and clinical depression? Over the past two decades, neuroscientists have gathered convincing evidence that depression is biological as well as psychological. Early detection and treatment for specific forms of depression can now be expedited by the analysis of body tissues and fluids such as blood, urine, skin cells, or spinal fluid. Based on these analyses, appropriate drugs can be selected for the treatment of depression, and when joined to psychotherapy, promise better control of this most widespread of mental illnesses.
Thinking Thinking is as natural and inevitable as breathing, but when we try to pin down what it is that we actually do when we think, we run into difficulties. In part, this is because many aspects of our thinking are not accessible to our awareness. We cannot summon up everything that we believe, for example; yet the beliefs that we fail to articulate may be as or more important than what we speak about. This paradox has much to tell us about the nature of mind.
Language All animals communicate, but only humans are capable of language. Indeed, it is safe to say that if there were not language, the mind would not have developed to its present stage. Language makes it possible for us to form representations of the world, and to communicate these representations to others. How much influence does our language have in determining how we perceive the world about us? Or our inner world? Does language create the mind, or does the process work the other way around, our language providing us with a critical aspect of mind: a highly personal representation of the world?
Violence Electrical discharges deep within the brain can produce violent outbursts that can result in murder. In such instances, is the violent person responsible for his actions~ And what about the violence associated with some forms of mental illness, such as schizophrenia or uncontrolled mania If a person afflicted with one of these disorders kills another person, should he be considered "not guilty by reason of insanity"? Do new discoveries about the brain and its role in rage and violence cast doubt on one of our most cherished beliefs about ourselves - our free will.
These are the broad topics that we will cover in this book. The beginning is the story of the search for mind itself.