The mind-body question is complicated and ideas about it span a broad spectrum. I’m no expert, but it’s easy enough to sketch the basics. At one extreme lies Cartesian dualism: an immaterial soul is the source of consciousness, and it inhabits an otherwise insentient physical body. At the other we find material monism: the brain generates consciousness as a byproduct of its electrochemical activity. (Francis Crick famously wrote: “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”)
Personally, I favor the panpsychist viewpoint advocated by Alfred North Whitehead, William James, and others: sentience is an attribute of matter all the way down to subatomic scales. Of course, sentience in electrons and quarks must be rudimentary in the extreme; conscious abilities arise as material complexity increases.
For MindfulBiology purposes, however, all this is moot. What matters is the experience of consciousness, not its origin. In technologically advanced societies people speak of mind and body as two different things. We make distinctions between our private, internal, mental world and the public, external, physical one. What we call the mind comprises the former; what we call the body is part of the latter. Both common parlance and scientific discourse treat the two as distinct.
As an example, consider how often we think or say something like, “My stomach hurts.” A bodily process is witnessed and described, which implies a mind that watches the body from some remove.
The mind not only observes the body, it directs some of its movements. Similarly, the body not only influences mental states, it also responds to them. If the mind observes and directs the body while the body influences and responds to the mind, the two are in relationship.
Functional brain imaging shows the prefrontal cortex (PFC) becoming more active during analysis, judging, planning, and so on. These studies and others suggest that our most characteristically human functions—and our human minds—depend on brain tissue located just behind the forehead. Interestingly, this is also where Eastern meditative traditions place the ‘third eye’ chakra, the seat of intellect.
If the PFC is somehow central to our experience of human consciousness, it’s worth asking about what the rest of the brain contributes. The answer is: a lot. It organizes incoming sensory data into higher level perception; it combines information about self and environment and colors experience with emotional tone; it generates complex motor output that permits complex movements; it serves up drive states to motivate actions needed to survive and reproduce; it regulates body functions essential to life. The PFC may analyze, comment, and offer direction, but the rest of the brain does everything else.
In a broad sense consciousness is built up from everything that happens in the brain and body, and it is in this sense that mind and body are one. But what we ordinarily mean by the word ‘mind’ is our thinking, judging, and planning; in other words, we mean the human mind and its PFC-centered activities.
Whether we criticize the body or appreciate it, punish or nurture it, command or serve it, depends on how we think, judge, and plan. Therefore, the relationship between mind and body may be reducible to the relationship between the PFC and everything else. Fortunately, both meditative and psychological traditions offer tools to help us think more positively, judge less harshly, and plan more ethically. This is good news for the mind-body relationship: we can improve it!