Introducing the Mind

The mind creates our reality by performing multiple functions.

Posted Oct 03, 2020

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will explore the properties and mechanisms of the mind. We begin by considering what the mind does. When we do this, we end up with a long list of functions and descriptions. Consider, for example, the following sentences, which contain the word “mind.” 

1.         He was able to call to mind how the accident happened. 

           The mind as involved in memory

2.         If you put your mind to it, I’m sure you can solve the math problem. 

            The mind as problem-solver

3.         I haven’t made up my mind yet or I’m of two minds about that. 

            The mind as decision-maker. 

4.         Seeing the sunset filled my mind with awe.

            The mind as perceiver and involved in creating emotions.

5.         I know you well enough to read your mind or You read my mind. 

            The mind as involved in social interactions

6.         He is of sound mind and body or He is out of his mind. 

            The mind as involved in mental health. 

7.         A mind is a terrible thing to waste. 

           The mind as valuable. 

8.         He has a beautiful mind. 

            Some people’s minds are especially creative or exemplary.

John Hahn from Pixabay
Source: John Hahn from Pixabay

Statements 1 to 5, which highlight the mind’s role in memory, problem-solving, decision-making, perception, emotion, and interacting with other people, are related to the following definition of the mind: 

The mind creates and controls functions such as perception, attention, memory, emotions, language, deciding, thinking, and reasoning, as well as taking physical actions to achieve our goals

Statements 6 to 8 emphasize the importance and amazing abilities of the mind. The mind is something related to our health, it is valuable, and we consider some people’s minds extraordinary. 

We can appreciate the mind for the wide reach of its functions. But not only does the mind do a lot, but just about everything the mind achieves turns out to be more complicated than it first appears. Take, for example, opening your eyes and seeing a scene before you. You might think seeing the scene can’t be that complicated, because, after all, a picture of the scene is created on the retina that lines the back of your eye, information from that picture is sent to the brain, and we see. 

But this simplistic explanation of seeing runs into trouble when we realize that the scene on the retina is ambiguous. For example, when the three-dimensional scene “out there” is represented by a picture on the flat surface of the retina, objects that are at different depths in the scene can appear right next to each other in the picture. 

To demonstrate this, close one eye, hold up one of your fingers, and place it next to a far-away object in the scene. When this scene-with-superimposed-finger becomes a picture on the retina, the finger and object are adjacent to each other, even though they are far apart in the scene. The mind solves this “adjacency problem,” plus many others, without our awareness, so we just open our eyes, and a complex mechanism, which we will describe in later posts, creates our experience of seeing.

Another example of something we achieve in the face of great complexity is understanding language. The stimulus for language, like the stimulus for perception, can be ambiguous, with the same word having different meanings, depending on the contents and structure of the sentence in which it appears. Consider the following two sentences: 

1. Time flies like an arrow. 

2. Fruit flies like a banana. 

Many things are going on in these sentences, including different meanings for “flies” (1: flies = moves; 2: flies = a type of bug) and “like” (1: could replace “like” with “similar to”; 2: could replace “like” with “appreciate”). Even simple, apparently straightforward sentences are more complicated than they appear. 

When we read “a car flew off the bridge,” we are pretty certain that the car doesn’t have wings and isn’t a special kind of flying machine. In fact, we would probably be right to guess that the car was involved in an accident, that it may have been submerged in water or smashed on the ground, that the bridge possibly sustained some damage, and that the driver was in danger of being injured or worse. All these conclusions from a simple six-word sentence. 

Speaking of six-word sentences, consider the famous sentence, “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used,” an example of “flash fiction," which has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway (although not everyone agrees). This sentence, with the help of the mind’s creativity, implies a story far longer than six words.

As we describe how the mind tames the complexities of perception, language, and many other abilities in future posts, we will begin to appreciate that the mind is not simply an “identification machine” that catalogs objects and meanings but is a sophisticated problem-solver that involves mechanisms we are largely unconscious of, even as these mechanisms may use the knowledge that we have accumulated about the world, as in our two six-word sentences above. 

In the next blog posts, we will consider one of the mind’s crowning achievements, consciousness, which brings with it many puzzles, including whether we can appreciate the essence of another person’s conscious experience, and whether it is possible to determine how consciousness is created by the brain.