The Brain, Mind, and Mindset


M. Bakri Musa
5th April 2016

A discussion on the “free mind” begins with clarifying three related terms: brain, mind, and mindset.

The brain is the jelly-like structure in our skull, part of our central nervous system. To use the language of computers, the brain is the central processing unit of our nervous system. It is, however, much more; the brain is the core of our consciousness.

Like any other organ, the brain has its own blood supply, support structures, and nutritional requirements. Like the heart, any developmental or other abnormalities of the brain will adversely affect its many functions. Unlike the heart however, which is fully developed and functional at birth (a baby’s heart functions in the same manner as an adult’s), the brain continues its development for many years after birth. Indeed, significant development of the brain occurs after birth, especially in the first few critical years of early childhood.

There is another major difference between the brain and other organs. While the internal parts of the heart for example, do communicate with each other, they do so only so they can function in a coordinated and rhythmic way to make the organ mechanically efficient. In the brain however, the communications of its various internal parts define the function of the whole brain. The significant point is that this development of communication pathways is as much dependent on what had been programmed in that individual through his genetic make-up as much as on the environment, internal and external, physical as well as non-physical.

The definition of the mind that is relevant here refers to the intellect and consciousness, our thoughts, perceptions, memory, emotions, will and imagination, among others. The mind is also our thinking process, the rational aspects of our behavior. Thus behaving in an aberrant fashion is referred to as being out of one’s mind. Dispensing with the philosophical and theological, and stating it differently and briefly while albeit simplistically, the mind is the brain at work. If the brain does not work, as for example by the clamping of the blood supply and thus depriving it of life-giving oxygen, the brain would be dead, and with that, the mind and the person.

I am aware of the many accounts of near-death experiences that would seem to challenge this assertion. As a junior physician I was part of a team that successfully resuscitated a journalist who had a heart attack. Later he was able to recall the drama minute by minute. It was as if, as he related, he had had an out-of-body experience and was watching the whole event from the ceiling, detached. Others have described similar experiences. The overall theme, heavy with religious connotations, is that the mind or soul is separate from and independent of the anatomical brain. I will leave it at that and not get into that line of inquiry, which is heavy on philosophy and theology.

Mindset on the other hand refers to our outlook in or philosophy of life. It is the set of ideas, attitudes and assumptions that we as individuals or members of a group share of reality, or what we perceive to be it. Neurologically speaking, mindset is the preexisting neural pattern in our brain; conceptually, it is our mental hypothesis of reality.

While the brain is something physical and can be touched, mind and mindset are but concepts. All three are interrelated but the nature and level of the relationships are not well understood. Increasingly but not exclusively they point towards the molecular (specifically neurotransmitter) level, or what neuroscientists refer to as the “neurotransmitter correlates of consciousness.”

Two relevant and related insights of modern neuroscience are the brain’s ability to change with new experiences or in response to injury, an attribute termed neuroplasticity, and the other, the concept of “use it or lose it.”

At the cellular level, neuroplasticity means the ability of the brain to form new pathways based on fresh stimuli (experiences). This is best demonstrated in the almost miraculous ability of the adult brain to readjust following injuries. Initially this plasticity was thought to be the exclusive property of the young brain, but now it is recognized to be a lifelong capacity, although obviously most pronounced in the young.

As for “use it or lose it,” a baby’s brain has almost limitless ability to learn and form new neural networks. However, over time if these pathways are not used, meaning, if a particular mental faculty associated with that network is not utilized, then it will atrophy, a process termed “synaptic pruning.”

The classic example is the lazy eye syndrome in childhood; untreated it will lead to blindness of that eye. When the muscles of one eye are not well coordinated or weak, that eye sends a different image from that of the good eye. This confuses the brain, and it adapts by “ignoring” the image from the bad eye. Over time through synaptic pruning, the neural wiring from that bad eye to the brain will atrophy and you will get the condition of “cortical blindness” where between the brain and that eye has atrophied from disuse.

Conversely, those mental faculties (and thus neural networks) that are used often will be strengthened. In this regard the brain is like the muscle, the more we use it the stronger it becomes; the less, the faster it atrophies.

The environment, especially social and emotional, plays a major role in both neuroplasticity and synaptic pruning; hence the importance of a nurturing and stimulating environment especially in early childhood.

Lifelong neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new networks in response to new experiences or injuries, and “synaptic pruning,” letting those rarely-used pathways atrophy, are the essence of the brain, not its size, proportion, capacity, or whatever innate ability.

There are exceptions, of course, specifically the outliers at either end of the spectrum. At one end are the unfortunate few with mental developmental deficits. At the other, unfortunately equally few, are the exceptionally gifted and talented. While we know more about the first group, to the extent of being able to prevent or ameliorate specific maladies as with phenylketonuria (PKU – mental retardation due to the inability to utilize the essential amino acid phenylalanine), we are woefully ignorant of those with exceptional talents.

Again cognizant of the complexity, the brain’s plasticity is the good news, but not all the time. There is no guarantee that when those new networks are formed as a consequence of new experiences that they would always be beneficial. They could well be maladaptive and confer no benefits and may indeed make things worse. An example would be the phantom pain syndrome amputees suffer. Here the nerve to the amputated leg has been severed but the brain forms new pathways to compensate for that loss. Consequently the patient still suffers from the old pain he had before the amputation. This new phantom “pain” can just be disabling.

Simplistically put, the mind is the brain with the composite of all these neural networks together with its established patterns and archives of memories. To use the computer analogy, the brain is the combination of both hardware and software, while the mind is the computer, which in addition to its hardware and software would also include all applications and files, downloaded materials that had been stored, and the set default positions.

In so far as those from the same family, tribe, race, culture and profession would share commonality of experiences and learning, then we could have the Malay mind, the legal mind, or the mind of an economist.

As cultures differ, and with that our experiences, norms and values, it is not a surprise that there should be differences between a Malay and English mind for example, just as we would expect differences between a legal mind and the mind of an economist. A policeman used to encountering the criminal elements of society would greet a stranger in a very different way than a priest. The former would be more circumspect and suspicious while the latter, spontaneous and warmly welcoming.

These are the predictable and understandable differences. Physicians are specifically trained to be sensitive to these nuances in our patients, to be alert and able to read, as it were, their patient’s mind. To a stoic farmer, “It hurts just a wee bit!” has an entirely different meaning from, “It hurts all over!” lament of a hysterical actress.

It is less important whether we have a Malay or an English mind, or whether we approach a problem with a legal mind or the mind of an economist, more important that we have a free mind unencumbered by or at least aware of the baggage of our preconceptions and past experiences. Our past experiences should be a guide or compass, not a trap or a baggage.

To summarize, the brain with all its existing neural networks and stored memories is the mind. That is an oversimplification but operationally it is sufficient for the purpose of this book. A free mind is not a brain that denies or pretends that all these networks and stored memories do not exist, rather one that still maintains its plasticity, meaning the ability to form new networks and store new memories. In short, a free mind is a brain that remains as fresh as that of a newborn, ever eager to learn from new experiences and more than ready to give up its old, no longer valid pathways and assumptions.

Excerpts from the author’s last book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

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