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The question of where the mind ends and the brain begins has preoccupied philosophers for centuries. Now that blurry line is coming into focus, thanks to steady advances in neuroscience.
Researchers have made progress exploring the power and complexity of the human brain, such as different aspects of attention, sleep and dreaming. Through experiments with advanced technology, they can observe different levels of brain activity.
The mind is another matter.
To Dr. Susan Greenfield, the mind just reflects the personalization of the physical brain through unique experiences.
Sense of self
Greenfield is a neuroscientist and author at the University of Oxford. She studies how we generate consciousness and awareness of our own identity, and argues that personal experiences leave a distinct pattern of connections in brain cells that make you the unique individual that you are.
“If you think of traditional pursuits of wine, women and song, or the modern equivalent, which is drugs and sex and rock and roll, interestingly enough they all involve an abdication of the sense of self. You blow your mind, you’re out of your mind. You let yourself go,” she says.
When we enjoy a dance party, the thrill of downhill skiing or downing an alcoholic drink or two, those experiences temporarily impair the connections in the brain and how well they work.
‘It doesn’t look like there is anything in the physical brain, which is kind of like a little house, in which lives the thing that does the feeling and the thinking and the perceiving.’
– Dr. Patricia Churchland
“And then, do we not say we’re having a sensational time? You never say, ‘I’m going to go out and have a cognitive time,'” says Greenfield, who is also a member of the British House of Lords.
Loss of consciousness
People tend to think of certain things as being mental even though we’re not conscious of them, says Dr. Patricia Churchland, a retired neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego.
“For example, I might have all kinds of stored memories of my life as a child in the Okanagan. And because I don’t have those consciously in front of me right now, we think of them as being nonconscious but still mental.”
Scientists investigate other ways that we lose consciousness to try to understand what’s happening in the brain at various levels.