What is the mind? Most of us think about it as a storehouse of ideas and memories. It is the place where we experience the world. Sometimes we think about it as a movie screen that exists in our head and plays a continuous feature film of the world with us in the staring role. Or we think of it as a computer that tells us what to think and figures things out for us.
What is the relationship between the mind and the brain? If we don’t think too deeply we probably simply think that whatever the mind is, it happens inside the brain. We all know that the brain is the place where little electrical signals snap back and forth and that somehow all of those electrical impulses add up to our experience of the world – our thoughts, sensations, feelings and memories.
The fact is that no one knows what relationship that spongy grey thing under our skull has to our experience of mind. It is just a big question mark. Sure people have theories, but no one knows.
Recently I read Alva Noe’s book Out of Our heads for the second time. I don’t know if Dr. Noe would consider himself a Pragmatist but he is certainly starting from a Pragmatic assumption about reality. He starts with the assumption that the best way to understand what the mind is is to look at it functionally – what does the mind do for us?
The mind allows us to interact with the world. Minds grow in relationship with the world and at least according to Noe they only exist in relationship to the world. Mind is not something that exists in the brain although some brain function is certainly related to the mind. Mind exists partly in the brain, but also in the body, in our body’s interaction with the world, and in the world itself.
Mind is an ongoing, self organizing relationship of human beings and the world. Rather than thinking of the mind as a movie screen, or a computer, Dr. Noe believes that we should think of it as a dance.
If you go to a dance performance and the person next to you leaned over in the middle of it and asked, “Where is the dance?” You would look at him oddly. But, where is the dance? The dance is not in the brains of the dancers although the brains of the dancers are involved with the dance. The dance is also not in the body of any one dancer although the bodies of all the dancers are involved in the dance. The dance exists in the relationship with all of the dancers and the stage and the costumes and the scenery. The dance is the whole interacting event.
In the same way Dr. Noe says that we should not look for the mind in the brain. The mind is the whole interactive event of human beings living in relationship with the world. It is not a thing, it is an achievement. Just like a dance is an achievement. The mind is a performance that includes events that happen in the brain, but is not limited to them.