Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box, Part 1

Dzogchen
photo: h.koppdelaney
 Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH),Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York

When someone asks, “Where is the mind located?” most people will automatically point to their heads. Why? Is it because we experience our thoughts in our heads? That seems the case most of the time, though when dreaming, one could argue that it gets a bit more ambiguous since we feel that we are “inside” our dreams. But for most of us, most of the time, “my head” is where “my mind” is located.

However, this may simply be because so many sense organs are located there: eyes, ears, nose, tongue. With so much information flowing into one part of the body, it might merely be habit that gives us the sense that the mind is in our head. (For example, you feel your ears sitting on either side of your face, but when a car backfires behind you, the sound can’t be felt entering the ear canal, being processed in the inner ear and then in the brain’s auditory center. Quite clearly the sound of the car comes from behind you. One could say, conversely, that hearing shoots out from the head into the world. This in fact was the view of some ancient cultures. We casually use this model for vision when we say that someone “shoots a glance” at someone else.)

Babies, we are told, have a much more diffuse experience of the senses, perhaps mixing them up in what are called synesthesias (e.g. experiencing sounds as colors or tastes as shapes, an experience reported from hallucinogenic drugs and in deep meditative states). Some researchers contend that babies have a poor sense of the boundary between themselves and the world. But infants turn into toddlers, and the separation between self and other starts to harden, as does the habitual experience that “my head is where I think.” Society and family reinforce this habit as the toddler grows up, and eventually the mind takes its seat in our heads, or so it seems.

This dovetails nicely with another cultural consensus that our minds are in our brains. Mind and brain have taken up residence together in a box called the skull. In this series of posts, however, we ask that you set aside your habits and assumptions to consider quite literally “thinking outside the box,” a process that goes on outside the skull but is still mental. Is the brain actually so closed up in its box that it makes sense to speak of it as though it were a machine for making mind, the way a laser printer makes documents? Is it possible that one could have a fully functioning and thinking brain sitting in a pan on a lab bench as in some 1950’s science fiction movie? (Successful head transplants have been performed in laboratory animals, but since there is no technique for reattaching the spinal cord, the animal was left a quadriplegic. Such procedures are controversial, for obvious ethical and humane reasons.) We should be open to asking some culturally radical questions, including the most radical of all: Is a brain even necessary for “thinking”?

(To be cont.)

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Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra ofSuper Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.www.neiltheise.com