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Is there any difference between the mind and the brain?
Theo Clark

Scientific knowledge suggests that the world is inanimate, purposeless, made up of material
things which operate on a cause and effect basis; yet the mental world seems to involve
consciousness, planning, desire etc.1 It would seem paradoxical that one world is the product
of another. Yet this is the conclusion we are faced with if we are to make any sense of the
evidence at hand and resolve one of the major questions of all time. “Do the electronic
processes of the brain 'create' or 'give rise to' the mind; or is it that the electronic processes
are the mind?” The ratiocination of this question is essentially philosophical, but by necessity,
it is grounded in the world of empirical science.

The brain is the organ of soft nervous tissue which fills the cranium of humans and other
vertebrates. The mind, on the other hand, is the element of a person that enables them to be
aware of the world and their experiences in it; it is the faculty of consciousness and thought.2
With these typical definitions for the brain and mind, how can the brain be the mind at all? I
will argue that the mind is an ‘emergent property’ of the brain. Moreover, the mind comes after
the brain – mental events are the subjective experiences of the physical events which occur in
our brains. As a consequence, the mind is nothing more than the feeling of ‘being me now’. 3

There are two vantages from which one can study the mind.4 The first-person account ("I see
red") and the third-person ("He says he sees red when certain pathways in his brain encounter
a wavelength of six hundred nanometres").5 This can be broadly labelled as 'Introspectionism'
and 'Behaviourism' respectively.6 As one cannot directly see into another's head,
methodological problems arise using Introspectionist techniques, a result of which can be seen
in the foibles of much introspective psychology (such as Freudianism). Behaviourism holds that
any mental events are outside the realm of empirical science;7 ergo, it is now the brain which
is the focus, as opposed to the mind.8

As pointed out by Ramachandran and Blakeslee, if in the scheme of empirical science the first
person account is disregarded, the implication is that consciousness doesn't exist.9 (It is a
figment of our imagination, if you will – though of course none of us have an imagination!).
Even if mental events are not among the data of science, this doesn't mean they can't be
studied. Black holes are not among the data (in that we can’t observe them directly), but we
do have good scientific theories for them.10

As Daniel Dennett explains, human consciousness is an experience of phenomena. There are
various items of conscious experience that have to be explained. For this he uses the term

phenomenology. Phenom, our experience of phenomena, can be classified as three distinct
types: [1] experiences of the 'external' world – sights, sound, smells, positions of our limbs,
textures etc; [2] experiences of the internal world – fantasy images, daydreaming, recollections,
bright ideas; and [3] experiences of emotion or 'affect' – bodily pain, hunger, thirst, anger, joy,
lust, pride, fear etc.11 It is the job of any materialistic 'theory of mind' to be able to do these
phenom justice.12

Historically, we can see this problem began with Descartes, who considered the body and soul
to be ontologically separate yet interacting through the pineal gland at the base of the brain.13
The body (in our case the brain) is physical and the soul (the mind) is non-physical. There are
various philosophical problems associated with this. For example, how do immaterial
substances affect material substances? Dualists, those who hold such a belief, have various
answers to these problems which are generally found lacking; but the biggest problem would
seem to be an empirical one. Looking at one particular part of the brain to see its effect on the
mind, it becomes evident that we don't really need an immaterial mind when we can explain it
as a material one quite well.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped area of the brain that is responsible for the sense of fear.14
When an individual is frightened, the neurones in their amygdala are highly active. If the
amygdala is lesioned, the individual loses their sense of fear. For example, monkeys with
damage to the amygdala have a dramatic drop in fearfulness and rats with targeted amygdala
damage lose their fear of cats.15 Here we can see that tampering with the brain, inadvertently
or not, most certainly affects the mind. Adding the further hypothesis of the immaterial mind
is without any sound scientific point. As William of Ockham said, "It is vain to do with more
what can be done with fewer."16 Of course, a material mind has its own associated problems.

The Problem of Phenomenology

Cast your mind back to the last brilliant sunset you saw. Imagine the delicate pink, orange,
yellow and red hues of the clouds. This is a personal item of your own phenomenology. How
can science explain this? "Nothing could be less like an electron, or a molecule, or a neuron,
than the way the sunset seems to me now – or so it seems... How could anything composed of
material particles be the fun I'm having now?"17 As mentioned earlier, a good theory of mind
should be able to explain this. Consider another example.

The version of a classic thought experiment I will now consider involves the colour-blind 'super-
scientist' (call him Dr. Grey) and the normal colour perceiving subject (call him Mr. Pigment) of
the scientist's investigation.18 Dr. Grey is a 'super-scientist' as he has complete access to, and
an understanding of, Mr. Pigment's brain. Dr. Grey's brain is of normal function, it is his eyes –
which are missing cones – that are the cause of his colour-blindness. Mr. Pigment can see a

blue sky, red and green apples, yellow bananas etc. To Dr. Grey, they are all just shades of grey,
so he wants to find out what Mr. Pigment means by these terms.

Dr. Grey points a spectrometer at the surface of a red apple. The wavelength of the reflected
light is six hundred nanometres. Because he can't experience it himself, he still has no idea what
colour this might correspond to. He then studies the workings of Mr. Pigment's eyes and brain,
until he has a complete description of the laws of wavelength processing. His theory is now
able to outline the process of the light reflecting from the apple into Mr. Pigment's eyes, turning
into the information that goes into Mr. Pigment's brain, where he is able to monitor the neural
activity antecedent to Mr. Pigment saying 'red' when asked to describe the colour of the apple.
Thus Dr. Grey completely understands the 'laws' of colour vision. He is able to tell, in advance,
what word Mr. Pigment will use to describe the colour of an object, without actually being able
to 'see' the colour himself. Dr. Grey can represent the whole process with a diagram, but is that

"This is you seeing red," says Dr. Grey, showing Mr. Pigment the diagram.
"Sure that's what is going on in my brain, but I also see red. Where is red in your
diagram?" protests Mr. Pigment.
Dr. Grey, somewhat confused, responds, "What are you talking about, what do
you mean?"
"Red is the part that is the actual, ineffable experience of seeing colour, which is
impossible for me to convey to you, because you are colour-blind."

The conclusion we can draw from this reasonably probable conversation, is that the data, no-
matter how good it gets, cannot even in theory describe our own phenom to another person.
I.e., we can say when we feel fear, to use a previous example, "I'm experiencing high activity in
the neurones in my amygdala." But this is inadequate, as it doesn't convey the essential
qualitative features of our first-person perspective. We aren't aware of the physical fact that
we are undergoing high activity in our amygdala. We are aware of our experience of fear. The
only way to convey this accurately to another individual would be to give them the same
experience. Or, in the case of Dr. Grey, replace his deficient eyes with new working ones.19

This is why the mind is an important concept. Perhaps, in the end, this is just a matter of
semantics, but it is semantically important. In fact, if we accept that the electronic processes
are the mind, then the term 'mind' becomes redundant. Only a modest amount of philosophical
or linguistic acumen is needed to see the unfavourable result of such a move - as distinct
concepts, mind and brain allow us to think clearly about the physical processes which are the
causes of mental events. If we use the term mind to mean phenomenological experiences,
'being me now', for this reason alone 'mind' is a useful term.

Being Me Now

As an elucidation, not as a conclusive 'proof', the structure and operation of a computer is an
apt metaphor for the argument that the brain gives rise to the mind. Brains are the hardware,
the patterns of neural activity in the brain are the software, and the mind is the 'virtual
machine', or the output on the monitor, of the human computer. The hardware and the
software that make up a computer, combine to produce the image on the computer screen. By
analogy, the brain and its associated activity, combine to produce the experience of the mind.
The mind cannot do anything, just as the image on a computer screen cannot do anything. The
mind is, as Susan Blackmore puts it, "What it is like to be me now", 20 just as the image on the
screen of a computer is a representation of what the computer is doing now.21

It is important to understand what I am not saying about the mind. The mind comes after the
brain, not before. If the mind is something that is given rise to by the brain, as I believe it is, it
does not follow that we have 'a mind of our own'. The mind is our experience, or, the way in
which we perceive the three different kinds of phenom – inputs from the external world, inputs
from the internal world and experiences of emotion or 'affect'. But as the brain is a physical
object, it follows that it obeys the laws of physics. Laws of physics (except for quantum
processes, perhaps) are based on cause and effect. If we sufficiently understand these laws,
and have the required data (specifically the data of the causes) we can then work out the effect
before it occurs. A particular lottery result isn't a chance event, in that if we had all the required
data concerning the conditions of all the forces and matter involved just before the draw, we
would be able to ascertain the winning numbers by plugging the data into a powerful enough
computer. The reason we don't know the result until it happens is because we lack perfect
information and the required computing power, not because lottery balls disobey physical laws
of cause and effect. The same applies to our brains. They obey physical laws of cause and effect.
In this sense our brains are merely responding to stimuli - the three kinds of phenom.

'You' are not in charge. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, it is the conclusion we are left
with if we follow the above reasoning to its logical conclusion. Not only this, but considerable
empirical evidence is congruous to this conclusion.22 Thoughts, ideas, feelings, attitudes and
other phenom, are produced by the unconscious processes of the brain. It is only later that we
become aware of them, when they become outputs and enter our consciousness – our minds.
Consciousness appears too late to affect the outcome of mental processes, or rather, the
physical processes that cause (or at least are directly correlated to) our mental experiences.23
Conscious awareness comes, but after the unconscious decision has been made. Before we
'feel' pain, we remove the hand from the flame.24

Micro and Macro Levels of Explanation

John Searle has advanced, what seems to me, the clearest and simplest solution to this
philosophical conundrum. He begins with a more than acceptable materialistic premise:

Mental phenomena, all mental phenomena whether conscious or unconscious,
visual or auditory, pains, tickles, itches, thoughts, indeed, all of our mental life, are
caused by processes going on in the brain... mental phenomena are just features
of the brain...25

Searle goes on to explain that a common distinction made in physics is that of micro and macro-
properties of systems. Water, he uses as an example, is composed of micro-particles. It has
features at many different levels: molecular, atomic and sub-atomic. It also has the macro-
property of liquidity, which is an emergent property of the physical system. 26 Many such
emergent properties can be explained by the behaviour of their constituent parts at the micro-
level. The liquidity of the water is explained by the interactions between the H 2O molecules.
Here we have a macro-feature which is causally explained at the micro-level. This reasoning
directly applies to the mind-brain problem. The micro-level interactions (activity of neurones
etc.) cause, or in other words, give rise to the mind. There is a cause and effect relationship,
but the emergent property (the mind) is just a higher level feature of the system whose
behaviour at the mirco-level (the constituent parts of the brain) causes those features.27


Philosophical discourse is about meaning and justification, “What are you saying?” and “How
do you know that?”28 Adhering to this approach, my argument has been that the electronic
processes of the brain give rise to the mind – the experience of ‘being me’ (or ‘being you’) at
this point in time. We know this, as there most certainly is a first person experience of
existence, even if it can only be ascertained by Descartes famous maxim – cogito ergo sum. But
we also know that Descartes was wrong with respects to his ontology of mind and brain. Unlike
Descartes, we aren't being mystical about it, we can say that physical processes in the brain
give rise to the subjective experiences we call our mind. But the answer cannot be that the
electronic processes in the brain are the mind; because if we accept Dennett's criteria for what
makes a good 'theory of mind' – that it should be able to explain our various phenom (which
seems to be a valid criteria) – then this answer (as previously argued) is evidently lacking.

Consciousness is either generated by brain activity, or, is brain activity. In this sense
experimental evidence doesn't favour one hypothesis over the other. But at the very least it
does favour the conclusion that the brain comes before the mind. In other words, the processes
of the brain give rise to the mind, such that the brain 'acts' and the mind 'observes'. If we
consider the anecdotal evidence (and certainly there is a lot of it), that every single conscious
human being ever asked has some sort of mental awareness, then we are forced to conclude

that the mind is simply the macro-level of explanation – it is an emergent property. For these
reasons, as a concept, it has a definite value; but of more importance is the fact that as an
experience, it is undeniable.


Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Chambers, J. (1983) The Achievement of Education. University Press of America: Lanham

Dennett, D. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Penguin: New York

Halligan, P. & Oakley, D. (2000) "Greatest Myth of All" in New Scientist. 18 November, pp 34-
39. Reed Business Information: London

Popkin, R. & Stroll, A. (1993) Philosophy. Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd:

Ramachandran, V. & Blakeslee, S. (1998) Phantoms in the Brain. Forth Estate Ltd: London

Russell, B. (1946) History of Western Philosophy. (2000 edition) Allen & Unwin: London

Searle, J. (1984) Minds, Brains and Science. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Society for Neuroscience. (1998) "Fear and the Amygdala" in Brain Briefings. On the Society
for Neuroscience web site -

Wilson, E. (1998) Consilience – The Unity of Knowledge. Abacus: London

References and Notes (Clarifications and Other Points)
Popkin & Stroll, 1993: 123.

These definitions are based on the New Oxford English Dictionary

In order to sidestep the unnecessary confusion that is brought about with the discussion of other
species, I have assumed that ‘the mind' is the subjective experience of consciousness that only
developed humans (for the sake of argument, say older than 3 or 4) have.

It is important to note that these descriptions of Introspectionism and Behaviourism are not
archetypes of particular scientific paradigms, but rather, distinct classifications of the two ways of
thinking about this question. In this sense it could be argued that they are ‘straw-men’ (as very few
scientists and psychologists would strictly adhere to one particular view only), but for the sake of this
discussion these classifications have been granted.

Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998: 229.

Dennett, 1991: 70.


Extreme views of this kind are often advanced as unwarranted ideological principles: mental events
don't exist at all ('barefoot behaviourism'); mental event exist but have no effects, so science cannot
study them; and mental events exist and have effects, but those effects can't be studied by science.
(This is a pseudo dualism, as apparently the mind is not the brain - but exists - and we can only study
the latter.)
ibid: 71.

Satire is often the best way of revealing the absurdity of a belief, and in such a vein Ramachandran
and Blakeslee go on to say, "... the behaviourist who, just having made passionate love, looks to his lover
and says, 'Obviously that was good for you, dear, but was it good for me?'"
Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998: 229.

Dennett, 1991: 71.

Of course these three types of phenom are highly integrated, and one is unlikely to be completely
separate from another, but this taxonomy is helpful nevertheless.
ibid: 45-46.

ibid: 65.

Popkin & Stroll, 1993: 124-125.

The brain also stores epigenetic rules (innate biological predispositions/prepared learning) associated
with fear, such as a fear of snakes.
Wilson, 1998: 86.

Society for Neuroscience, 1998: web site.

Cited in Russell, 1946: 462.

Dennett, 1991: 65, italics in original.

This thought experiment was based on Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998: 229-230.

Of course the problem may not actually be resolved with this solution, for how do we know that what
Dr. Grey is now able to see as red, is phenomenologically the same as Mr. Pigment’s experience of red?
How do we know they are both experiencing the same ‘qualia’ – the quality – that is associated with the
phenom of red? Our brains may process the visual information of 600nm so we both say 'red' when we
see it (which is testable), but what looks red to me, might in fact look blue (or any other colour) to you.
While there is no real reason to believe this is the case (and using Ockham's razor I assume that it isn't),
there is no way we can be epistemically sure one way or the other.

Blackmore, 1999: 238.

Halligan and Oakley (2000: 36-39) argue that our subconscious (level 2 in their terminology) processes
all the available sensory input (our three kinds of phenom). Within the level 2 processing is a 'central
executive structure' (not a Cartesian Theatre) which is some kind of 'decision-making' device which
selects the most important subconscious information for level 1, to produce our experience of
consciousness. Using the computer metaphor, there are countless programs and computations running
continuously in the background (or level 2) of a computer anytime it is on. But the output on the screen
(level 1) is that which is pertinent for the user at that particular point in time. Just as there are countless
subconscious processes going on in a brain continuously, but the conscious experience is generally that
which is pertinent to the person at that particular point in time.

One example of such evidence is the following: hold out your arm in front of you, flex your wrist of
your own free will. Do it a few times as spontaneously and consciously as you can. The question to now
ask yourself is, "What began the process that lead to that particular action, was if you?" This formed the
basis of experiments where the subjects had electrodes on their wrists and scalps to measure electrical
activity. Three things were timed, the start of the action, the moment of the decision to act and the
start of the readiness potential (a particular brain wave pattern seen just before any complex action is
undertaken – it is associated with the brain 'planning' the sequence of elaborate movements to be
carried out). Which comes first, the decision to act or the readiness potential? Based on the prior
reasoning, it is no surprise that the readiness potential is first. The 'decision' to act comes after the
readiness potential.
Blackmore, 1999: 227

Halligan & Oakley, 2000: 36

Blackmore, 1999: 227.

Searle, 1984: 18

Searle uses the terms 'surface feature' or 'global feature' which I prefer less and as such have avoided.

Searle, 1984: 20-22. In regards to the micro/macro distinction, Searle goes on to point out: “… though
we can say of a system of particles that it is 10 degrees C or it is a solid or it is a liquid, we cannot say of
any given particle that this particle is solid, this particle is liquid, this particle is 10 degrees C… In exactly

the same way… though we can say of a particular brain:… ‘This brain is experiencing thirst or pain’, we
can’t say of any particular neuron in the brain: ‘This neuron is in pain, this neuron is experiencing thirst’.
Ibid: 22

Chambers, 1983: 1.