A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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The mind is thought to be the seat of perception, self-consciousness, thinking, believing, remembering, hoping, desiring, willing, judging, analyzing, evaluating, reasoning, etc.

Dualists consider the mind to be an immaterial substance, capable of existence as a conscious, perceiving entity independent of any physical body. Dualism is popular with those who believe in life after death. The brain and body may decay and disintegrate, but the mind (or soul) does not depend on the body for its existence and so may continue to flourish in another world. The belief in the mind as a substance that exists independently of the brain seems to be a requisite for immortality (and reincarnation), but the idea is also popular with many New Agers who believe they are contacting spirits, angels, and other supernatural entities with their magical thinking. Some philosophers think mind must be an immaterial substance for there to be free will; these philosophers consider free will to be necessary for morality. If the only thing that exists are material particles, these philosophers say, then human actions are determined by material causes over which we have no control. If so, then we can't help what we do, there is no responsibility for our actions, and punishing people for their misdeeds (or rewarding them for their good actions) is misguided.

The mind-body problem emerges when mind is defined as non-physical and not occupying space, while body is defined as physical and occupying space. Physical things can cause effects in other physical things but not in non-physical things because they don't occupy space. And non-material substances can't affect physical substances. So the dualists say, but they also say that it is obvious that the two substances do interact because perceptions and thoughts can give rise to feelings and changes in the body, while changes in the body can give rise to thoughts. This way of thinking may have made sense at one time, but it is hard to understand why anyone after the dawn of modern physics and neuroscience would talk about substances, material or immaterial, when talking about mind or consciousness. Yet, they do. Some, who recognize the absurdity of Descartes' notion that the place of interaction between mind and body is in the pineal gland, opine that the quantum mechanics explains everything: how mind and body interact, how free will exists, and how immortality is possible (Schwartz 2002).

A better model today would be one that recognizes the interrelationship between neural networks, physiological processes such as hormone and neurochemical production, brain modules such as those that comprise the visual pathways, perception, subjective experience, memory, the sense of self, and consciousness. Whether one considers the self as a substance or an illusion, the sense of self is real and so are the thoughts, feelings, and moods of a person. One need not take a position on the reality of the self itself in order to describe how one might affect a neural network, for example, by concentrated effort at controlling one's thoughts or focusing one's attention. It may be true that only the person having thoughts can have direct access to those thoughts, but an outside observer might witness and record changes in neural pathways brought about by processes accessible only to the subject himself.

Metaphysical materialists consider the mind to be the brain itself. For the materialist, 'mind' is a catchall term for a number of processes or activities that can be reduced to cerebral, neurological, and physiological processes, some of which are conscious and some of which are not. On this view, consciousness is not identical to mind, but represents a part of what is referred to as the mind. The 'unconscious mind' refers to those cerebral, neurological, and physiological processes that affect feelings, thoughts, and moods without our being conscious of their influence.

One apparent problem with the materialist view is that it is obvious that the mind, consciousness, perception, and the sense of self includes subjective experience, which is not equivalent to the neuronal activity except in the same sort of way that, say, matter is equivalent to energy.

Behaviorists, on the other hand, consider 'mind' to be a catchall term for a set of behaviors and have no mind-body problem. The behaviorists have been criticized, however, for not recognizing the differences in evolution of the human brain from that of other animals. John B. Watson's declaration that "the behaviorist recognizes no dividing line between man and brute" has been taken as an open-door policy to dehumanizing therapeutic practices (Schwartz: 2ff.), as well as an admission of ignorance of the significance of vital differences between the brains of, say, dogs, orcas, and humans.

the brain, body, mind, consciousness feedback loop

In a typical adult human brain, there might be one hundred billion neurons and each of them might have thousands of connections with other neurons. (Plus, there are about a billion neurons in the spinal cord.) We have no idea how they collectively create thoughts or feelings or moods. In any case, we are never aware of these neural networks or connections while we are going about are daily affairs (unless we are neuroscientists studying or operating on brains as part of our daily business). We have no idea how the sense of self arises from these hidden neural networks, but it is obvious that the sense of self does arise and is not identical to the brain activity that results in simple perception, self-awareness, imagination, memory, or planning tomorrow's menu. This fact has led some to refer to the mind as an epiphenomenon or emergent substance: the mind is not identical to the brain but its existence depends on the brain and when the brain dies so does the mind. Some who adhere to epiphenomenalism deny that the mind can cause effects in the body, but this view does not seem plausible.

Just as the qualia one perceives are distinct from both what stimulates the brain to perceive those qualia and from the brain itself, so too are the mind and consciousness distinct from what stimulates the brain and from the brain itself. The qualia don't exist at all when there is no creature with a brain perceiving something. Consciousness itself doesn't exist if there is no brain in a body that can perceive. Where there's no consciousness, there's clearly no self-consciousness. The human mind, on this model, is the entire feedback loop of the brain, body, qualia, consciousness, and self-consciousness. One might even consider many unconscious brain and physiological processes as part of the mind since they affect thoughts, feelings, and moods. The mind is not an additional object to the processes that occur when brains in bodies perceive, think, and reflect on or guide perception and thought. This model is sometimes called materialism because it does not recognize the mind as an immaterial substance, i.e., an incorporeal body (a notion that Thomas Hobbes noted long ago is a self-contradiction). But, as noted above, modern physics does not recognize anything like the traditional philosophical concept of material substance. We can't study substances in the classical sense in our labs and our interest is in what we can know. We can know a great deal about various forms of electro-magnetic reality, about magnetic and electrical forces, about energy and power, about light and sub-atomic particles, and the like. We can know a lot about the brain, neural networks, hormone and neurochemical production, feelings, moods, and the like. We can study the effects of various cognitive conditioning programs on neural networks and the effects of various electrical or chemical brain stimulations on thoughts, feelings, and actions. And we can do this without labeling the mind as material or immaterial. As noted above, the mind and self and consciousness are not additional things in the world that exist above and beyond the brain and the body and their interaction with the world.

There is probably no more fascinating topic in philosophy or neurology than mind or consciousness. Yet, despite the fact that the human mind has made it possible to gain all the understanding of the world and ourselves that we now possess, it has done precious little to help us understand itself. For example, memory is something we all have to some degree or another. Yet, we do not fully understand the nature of memory, and several models of memory are equally plausible. Some models, however, seem more intelligible than others. When trying to understand something like Alzheimer's disease, for example, the view of the mind as identical to or emergent from the brain has advantages over the mind as an immaterial substance existing independently of the brain. For the immaterialist, the mind has no parts and there is no plausible way to determine how various mental activities like memory, sense perception, and self-awareness are related to one another. It is not even clear what 'subconscious' could mean in a mind that knows no parts. We may not know exactly how neural networks give rise to particular memories, but we do know how brain diseases like Alzheimer's disease disrupt neural connections essential to memories. Amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles explain why various mental and physical functions cease. There is no plausible explanation for loss of memory or other sensory functions possible with the mind as spirit hypothesis. The usual explanation is that the mind somehow works in parallel with the brain, but there seems to be little in favor of this notion except that it is consistent with the concept of the mind as an immaterial, independent substance. To be plausible, there must be more to an idea than that it is consistent with another idea that is not based on much evidence itself.

Models of mind or consciousness continue to occupy the brains of some of our best philosophers and scientists. Yet, despite the fact that the key to understanding the human mind is likely to be found in the study of the functioning and evolution of the human brain, some philosophers and psychologists continue to be guided by the belief that the mind can be adequately understood independently of the brain. It seems obvious to most scientists that the human brain is a product of millions of years of evolution and is intimately related to the brains of all species from which our species is descended. Somewhere near the beginning of the chain of beings with brains were creatures who did not possess self-consciousness, much less anything like the complex brain modules (some thirty in all) that make up the visual system of the modern human. The notion that consciousness could have emerged from basic biological processes over millions of years conflicts with the notion, favored by many, of an independent consciousness created by another consciousness--albeit one of infinite power--with the capacity to exist in a body and outside of a body when the body dies. To the materialist, there is no need to posit a consciousness or mind as the creator of the minds that we humans call our own. The human mind may not be able to fathom how the universe came to be or how it exists without any beginning, but positing a mind that brought the universe into being or which has existed forever just pushes the incomprehensibility up to another level. We may not be able to understand how self-consciousness emerges from neural networks, but positing an immaterial self piloting the material body through life and leaving that body at death just pushes our non-understanding up a notch. It explains nothing and seems attractive mainly because it is consistent with the notion of life after death. Instead of asking what is the evidence for this immaterial mental substance, we might better ask "what makes the idea of immortality attractive?" There are some obvious pros, of course. You could be with the ones you love forever. You could see your parents and dead relatives and friends again. Is there a down side to immortality? I'd say the downside is nearly infinite even without considering concepts like eternal hellfire, but each of us should figure out this kind of thing for ourselves. Then, there is the notion that, as Steven Pinker put it, "the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth."

mind-body medicine & mind-body science

Whereas dualist philosophers have long struggled with what is known as the mind-body problem, New Age gurus are calling for mind-body harmony in medicine, therapy and science. In short, philosophers have realized that there is a problem in explaining how two fundamentally different kinds of reality can affect one another, while New Age pundits think the problem has been caused by treating the two--mind and body--as if they do not interact. Science-based medicine is well aware of the mind/brain/body feedback loop and has no need to posit substances that do or don't interact.

While many advocates of so-called mind-body medicine are dualists, it is not necessary to posit an immaterial substance to accommodate such things as the physical effects of meditation, yoga, tai chi, or hypnosis--activities often cited as examples of mind-body medicine. The relationship of the mind to the body is not well understood, but some models fit better with the data than others. Philosophers and psychologists have long divided the mind into conscious and subconscious processes. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever divided the brain into conscious and subconscious processes. All brain processes occur outside of awareness of those processes. Logically, it seems impossible for the brain and mind and self to be one. From that fact, however, it does not follow that the mind and self can exist independently of a brain. What percolates into consciousness from brain processes, whether the result of intentional perception or unintentional triggering of neuronal networks, is perceived to occur effortlessly. What manifests itself as a feeling or mood may appear to us as due to this or that experience or event, but the underlying brain, hormonal, and other physiological processes that give rise to the feeling or the mood are hidden from conscious awareness. The sense of self that each of us has emerges as we develop. What might be called the standard model of the brain today sees the self as emerging from some sort of brain processes not yet understood or identified. How these processes will be identified is thought to be similar to the way that many other specific brain functions have been identified: (1) we will study people who have lost the sense of self and try to identify areas of the brain that are damaged or malfunctioning; (2) we will study the effects of stimulating specific parts of the brain; (3) we will study the brain in action with fMRI technology, including trying to detect what parts of the brain change when a person's consciousness changes focus. For example, one aspect of the concept of self is that we identify it as existing within the confines of our body, usually as located in the head behind the eyes. Stimulation of the right temporo-parietal region has induced the sense of the self floating above the body. Studies have also found that imagining the self floating above the body activates the same area of the brain (Burton 2008: 128).

Neurological studies on the sense of self-identity have not located a single brain module that gives rise to the sense of self.

A small group of brain scientists is now investigating misidentification syndromes, as the delusions are called, for clues to one of the most confounding problems in brain science: identity. How and where does the brain maintain the “self”? What researchers are finding is that there is no single “identity spot” in the brain. Instead, the brain uses several different neural regions, working closely together, to sustain and update the identities of self and others. Learning what makes identity, researchers say, will help doctors understand how some people preserve their identities in the face of creeping dementia, and how others, battling [brain] injuries ... are sometimes able to reconstitute one....

Researchers who have taken images of the brain as it processes information related to personal identity have noticed that several areas are particularly active. Called cortical midline structures, they run like an apple core from the frontal lobes near the forehead through the center of the brain.

These frontal and midline areas communicate with regions of the brain that process memory and emotion, in the medial temporal lobe, buried deep beneath each ear. And studies strongly suggest that in delusions of identity, these emotion centers are either not well connected to frontal midline areas or not providing good information.*

In addition to the fundamental sense of self that we use terms such as "I" and "me" to refer to, there are the memories each of us has that we think of as "ours" and without which we would become a different person. Anyone who has lived with a person with dementia who you've known for many years knows what it is like to watch a person become a different person. It is, of course, impossible to know what it feels like to have a brain that cannot access much of one's life's experiences and memories. Such a brain can't be aware of what has been lost, although false memories can be created with stories and photographs. These new memories can be reinforced through repetition, giving the demented person a sense of remembering some elements of her past life. I have watched a person develop dementia over a period of several years who never lost a sense of self, but whose self-identity changed drastically as she lost more and more memories.

One misconception of the self that has been corrected by science is the notion of the self as a "ghost in the machine," a kind of pilot who steers and directs the body through life. As Steven Pinker puts it in The Blank Slate: "The conscious mind—the self or soul—is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief."

Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along. (Pinker 2007)

A complicating factor in neurological studies trying to locate areas of the brain from which the sense of self or consciousness itself emerges is the brain's plasticity: the ability of the brain to alter itself so that functions previously governed by a part of the brain that has become damaged are taken up by different parts of the brain.1

Scientists often describe self-awareness as having three components: (1) awareness of one's body and a sense of the ability to act; (2) autobiographical memories and a sense of one's own personality and physical traits; and (3) an ability to reflect on one's own actions and mental states and their consequences. Some studies have identified several specific areas of the brain as being involved in these processes, yet there are cases of people brain-damaged in these identified areas who have a sense of self-awareness.

Self-awareness is a complex concept, and neuroscientists are debating from where it arises in the brain. Some have argued that certain regions in the brain play critical roles in generating self-awareness. The regions neuroscientists have advocated include the insular cortex, thought to play a fundamental role in all aspects of self-awareness; the anterior cingulate cortex, implicated in body and emotional awareness, as well as the ability to recognize one's own face and process one's conscious experience; and the medial prefrontal cortex, linked with processing information about oneself. Patient R's illness destroyed nearly all of these regions of his brain.

....[yet] Patient R's self-awareness is largely intact in spite of his brain injury.*

In short, the research so far on consciousness, mind, self-awareness, and the like is complicated and incomplete. On the other hand, a model of the mind as an immaterial substance adds nothing to understanding anything about the mind and its relationship to the brain. Why posit the mind as an immaterial parallel processor to the brain whose existence is somehow completely disconnected from that of the brain? Again, the main reason seems to be that the idea fits well with the desire for immortality or at least some sort of continued existence after death. Some also think that free will can only exist if the mind is an immaterial substance distinct from the body and morality is not possible without free will. To which the materialist or science-based philosopher might say, "so what?"

Finally, since it makes sense to talk of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, mind and consciousness are not identical. The word 'mind' is a catch-all term for both conscious perception and unconscious brain processes that affect thoughts, feelings, and moods. 'Consciousness' is also a catch-all term for subjective experience of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and moods. Neither 'mind' nor 'consciousness' refer to objects. They are neither material nor immaterial, much the same way that force or energy is neither material nor immaterial.


1. Re neuroplasticity: Dr. Steven Novella wrote the following in comments on a book review by Dr. Harriet Hall.

No magic need be invoked to explain neuroplasticity. Along with recent discoveries that show there is more plasticity than we had previously recognized, is research showing what at least part of the basis for that plasticity is. We have also recently learned that there are neuro-stem cells in the brain – cells waiting to become new neurons, to make new pathways and connections.

We also already have a great deal of information about the cellular mechanisms underlying plasticity. We know that neurons grow and make synapses in response to neurotrophic hormones secreted by other neurons.

When cells are injured they release chemicals into the local environment, and those chemical act as signals to other cells to repair the injury.

Of course, this is a complex system and we have a long way to go before we understand it fully. But so far we are finding good old-fashioned biological causes (cells, chemical signals, hormones) producing all of the brain effects that we see.* (see comment 15)

See also astral projection, change blindness, dualism, free will, inattentional blindness, materialism, memory , soul, Charles Tart, the unconscious mind, and p-zombies.

book reviews

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (2012)

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable by Bruce Hood (HarperCollins 2010)

The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (Crown 2010)

The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine
by Anne Harrington (W. W. Norton 2008).

Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine
 by R. Barker Bausell (Oxford 2007).

Madness on the Couch - Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis
by Edward Dolnick (Simon & Schuster 1998).

Searching for Memory - the brain, the mind, and the past
by Daniel L. Schacter (Basic Books 1996).

The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together by Charles T. Tart, Ph.D. (New Harbinger 2009)

The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death
by Gary Schwartz (Atria 2003)

Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death
by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press 2006).

The Rediscovery of the Human Soul
by L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology Press ? 1996).

further reading

books and articles

Blackmore, Susan. Consciousness: An Introduction (Oxford University Press 2003).

Burton, Robert A., M.D. 2013. A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves. St. Martin's Press.

Burton, Robert A., M.D. 2008. On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You're Not. St. Martin's Griffin.

Churchland, Patricia Smith. 2013. Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. W. W. Norton.

Churchland, Patricia Smith. 1986. Neurophilosophy - Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. MIT Press.

Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Avon Books, 1995).

Davies, P.C.W. 2004. Does quantum mechanics play a non-trivial role in life? Biosystems. "The case for quantum biology remains one of 'not proven.' There are many suggestive experiments and lines of argument indicating that some biological func- tions operate close to, or within, the quantum regime, but as yet no clear-cut example has been presented of non-trivial quantum effects at work in a key biologi- cal process."

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Montgomery, Vt.: Bradford Books, 1978).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Elbow room: the varieties of free will worth wanting (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1984).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Consciousness explained illustrated by Paul Weiner (Boston : Little, Brown and Co., 1991).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Kinds of minds: toward an understanding of consciousness (New York, N.Y. : Basic Books, 1996).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2005).

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Books.

Fine, Cordelia. 2008.A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. W. W. Norton & Company.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. and Daniel C. Dennett The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul (New York : Basic Books, 1981).

Hofstadter, Douglas. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

Hood, Bruce. 2009. SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. HarperCollins.

Hotz, Robert Lee. "Deciphering the Miracles of the Mind," Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1996.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2012. A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning. Oxford University Press.

Kandel, Eric R. & James H. Schwartz, eds. Principles of Neural Science 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2000).

Linden, David J. 2009.The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God. Belknap Press.

Mlodinow, Leonard. 2012. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Random House.

Norretranders,Tor. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Viking Press, 1999).

Pinker, Steven. 2007. "The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness." Time.

Pinker, Steven. 2008. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Penguin Books.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking.

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes and Noble: 1949).

Sacks, Oliver W. An anthropologist on Mars : seven paradoxical tales (New York : Knopf, 1995).

Sacks, Oliver W. The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales (New York : Summit Books, 1985).

Sacks, Oliver W. A leg to stand on (New York : Summit Books, 1984).

Sacks, Oliver W. Seeing voices : a journey into the world of the deaf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

Sala, Sergio Della. (1999). Editor. Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain. Wiley & Sons. 

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory - the brain, the mind, and the past (New York: Basic Books, 1996), especially chapter 6, "The Hidden World of Implicit memory".  Review.

Schwartz,Jeffrey M., M.D. and Sharon Begley.2002. The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Harper Perennial.

Watters, Ethan and Richard Ofshe. Therapy's Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today's Walking Worried (Simon and Schuster, 1999).


The Whole Brain Atlas

Mind and Body: René Descartes to William James by Robert Wozniak of Bryn Mawr College

Street Map of the Mind

Neurosciences on the Internet


Tracking Down Consciousness by Stephen Novella, Neurologica Blog A new study by neuroscientists at Cambridge claims to have found a possible signature of conscious processing.

Last updated 21-Oct-2015

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