Losing Your Mind: The Problem with the Concept of Mind

The great majority of people who live in the Western world are convinced that they have a mind. So widespread is this belief that they would probably find it bizarre to encounter someone who challenges this view, as if one were to doubt the existence of common everyday objects like stones, water, trees, and the Sun. But, of course, we know, both from personal experience and the historical record, that not all commonly-held beliefs are true.

Neurologists have shown that there is a very precise, one-to-one relationship between everything a person senses, perceives, feels, imagines, or experiences in some other way and the activation of a specific region, connection of neurons, the release of a neurotransmitter or hormone, or some other neurological process in the person’s brain. This is also true of brain malfunctions, such as visual or auditory hallucinations, or neurological disorders like schizophrenia, which may include such hallucinations.

The concept of the mind is similar to another mistaken attribution that continues to influence the things people say and write in certain languages or cultures, namely, the belief that the heart is the seat of emotion, specifically of love, and other human qualities such as good and evil, or generosity (“kind-heartedness”) and stinginess (“hard-heartedness”). Like the concept of mind, this belief has come to us from past ages when the functions of the brain were not well understood. But unlike the concept of mind, most people now realize, even if they continue to use phrases like “warm-hearted,” “cold-hearted,” “she has a good heart,” “you stole my heart,” and “I gave you my heart but you scorned it,” that the heart only performs the vital function of pumping blood continually through the circulatory system of arteries and veins so that our body can function properly, thus enabling us to remain alive.

There is a fundamental difference between looking at a brain and what, due to the limitations of language, I will call looking or perceiving – since there are other forms of perceiving besides looking – with or through a brain. There is only one brain with which any person or other sentient creature can perform the latter operation, and that is the brain one was born and goes through life with. When one looks at a brain, one is not looking through that brain. In other words, one is not experiencing all the wide range of sensations, feelings, perceptions, and other experiences that are produced by perceiving through a brain. It is this inertness that sometimes puzzles us when we look at an image of the human brain, which makes us wonder where all that inner richness lies, thus giving rise to concepts like the mind, spirit, soul, or psyche. If one wanted to, something that I am not at all inclined to do, since I do not admire Plato and Socrates, those inveterate definers of words, one could define the mind as the result or process of perceiving through a brain, in particular one’s own.

When we look at a brain, or at an image or photograph of a brain – even if that brain happens to be our own – we are not looking through that brain, and it is this confusion between “looking at” and “looking through” that has contributed to the continued usage of the wholly superfluous and highly confusing notion of the mind. Let us keep in view – and not “let us keep in mind,” which is merely another way of saying “let us remember” or “let us not forget” – the fact that the concept of the mind originated long before the time when the functions of the brain were understood, as they are today. In fact, all the features and functions which were mistakenly attributed to this mysterious, non-material substance called the mind actually belong to the brain. But so strong is this widespread delusion that these scientific discoveries have not been sufficient to render the concept of mind obsolete. This has led to all kinds of completely spurious philosophical pseudo-problems such as mind-body duality, how a non-material substance can affect a material substance and vice versa, and whether the mind continues to exist after the body’s death.

There are many people who refuse to believe that other sentient creatures have minds, primarily because they have never had the opportunity to look or perceive through those creatures’ brains. I am not saying that their cerebral experiences are as rich and varied as ours, or that they resemble our perceptual worlds. But it is mere stupid and ignorant arrogance on our part, simply because we have never experienced these creatures’ perceptual worlds, to suppose that only human beings possess minds.

The phrase “to keep in mind” is not the only common phrase that employs this duplicitous word. Some others are “to change one’s mind” and the title of this essay, “losing your mind.” If we consider what these commonly-used phrases actually mean, we will see that, taken literally, they make no sense whatsoever.

In all other uses of the verb “to change,” such as to change one’s clothes, spouse, habits, or identity, what happens is one exchanges one thing or person for another. So, for example, when one changes one’s clothes, one first removes the clothes one is wearing before putting on different clothes. When one changes one’s spouse, one gets rid of one’s present spouse before replacing that person with a new spouse. When one changes one’s identity, one divests oneself of one’s present identity – one’s name, date of birth and other biographical facts, appearance, habits, preferences, occupation, and so forth – and adopts a new identity in its place. So, by analogy, “to change one’s mind” should mean removing one’s mind and replacing it with a different mind, just as if one were replacing a broken part of an automobile. But, of course, this is an impossibility, despite the plausible fictions created by the brains, and not by the minds, of some science-fiction writers and movie screenwriters.

What this banal phrase actually means is “to change one’s opinion, intention, belief, or some other attitude that one formerly had.” When one says, “I’ve changed my mind about you,” one means that formerly one thought certain things about the person, but now one thinks something different. So what has changed is not one’s mind, but one’s opinion or attitude towards that person. And the same is true of every other usage of this badly-constructed phrase.

Other languages do not contain this linguistic absurdity. For example, In French, the literal translation of the phrase, “I changed my mind,” is “J’ai changé mon esprit” or “Je me suis changé d’esprit.” But French speakers never say this, saying instead, “J’ai changé d’avis,” which means literally, “I changed my opinion” – which makes far more sense than its English equivalent. In German, the equivalent phrase is “Ich habe meine Meinung geändert,” which literally means “I have my meaning or opinion changed.”

The same holds for the phrase, “losing your mind,” which again, is an impossibility. When one loses a body part such as one’s hand, arm, foot, finger, or ear, that part is physically disconnected from the rest of one’s body and never again attached to it. When a person permanently loses one’s sight or hearing, it means that one is never again able to see or hear anything.  So, by analogy, “losing your mind” should mean the complete absence of all sensations, perceptions, feelings, emotions, images, etc., since, according to the naive philosophical theory that accompanies the concept of mind, all these mental phenomena take place in one’s mind. In other words, “losing one’s mind” means returning to the state one was in before one was conceived or born, when one was aware of absolutely nothing. But the only way to accomplish this is by death. And yet, people who “lose their minds” do not die.

What this phrase actually means is that these people are no longer able to function like most other people in the society in which they happen to live. This is illustrated by the phrase, “Have you (completely) lost your mind?” which most of us have heard at some point in our lives, generally following an instance of violent, stupid, or highly irrational or emotional behaviour. There is an admonition contained in this reproof – that you must cease doing whatever you were doing and return to behaving like a normal human being, according to the standards of the society in which you live. Such behaviours are also described as bouts of “temporary insanity.” And it is precisely those poor individuals who become insane that are denoted by the phrase “to lose one’s mind.” They still possess the mind or, more correctly, the brain they have always had, but now they are afflicted with images, feelings, visions, urges or impulses, and other highly disturbing sensations that render them no longer able to behave like ordinary members of their society.

When I read or hear someone using the word “mind,” it makes me think of a person who carries a ceramic pot with a plant in it at all times, including when one walks on the street, goes to the washroom, eats one’s meals, performs one’s occupation, plays a sport, or is in bed making love. One does it because one sees everyone else doing it, but one doesn’t realize just how silly it looks. After a while, one comes to believe that this is a perfectly normal way of behaving, and may even think that those who don’t do so are strange or peculiar, when in truth the reverse is the case.

It is entirely possible to dispense with the notion of mind in one’s thinking, speech, and writing, and instead substitute the word “brain” in its place. I have attempted to avoid using this confusion-sowing term whenever possible. The discovery of the functions of the brain rendered the concept of mind completely superfluous; and yet, this has not been sufficient to eliminate this word and all the philosophical nonsense that accompanies its usage.

This brings me to the other reason for the title of this essay, which is to encourage you, the reader, to cease employing this ridiculous term, along with the completely ridiculous phrases, at least in the English language, that are based on it, not to mention the absurd philosophical theory that accompanies it. In doing so, you will not lose anything of value: rather, you will only free yourself from the confusion that the concept of mind has disseminated wherever and whenever it has been accepted and used. For, in truth, you cannot lose something that you never had.