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Can Our Minds Extend Beyond Our Bodies?

It depends on how we define our “minds” — Can we disentangle our minds from our experiences?

Well, here’s a fun coffee break challenge offered by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., the author of Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (2016):

… our mind is not simply our perception of experiences, but those experiences themselves. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.

“I realized if someone asked me to define the shoreline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the shore is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “You can’t limit our understanding of the coastline to insist it’s one or the other. I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline—some inner and inter process. Mental life for an anthropologist or sociologist is profoundly social. Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind.”

The definition has since been supported by research across the sciences, but much of the original idea came from mathematics. Siegel realized the mind meets the mathematical definition of a complex system in that it’s open (can influence things outside itself), chaos capable (which simply means it’s roughly randomly distributed), and non-linear (which means a small input leads to large and difficult to predict result).

In math, complex systems are self-organizing, and Siegel believes this idea is the foundation to mental health.

Olivia Goldhill, “Scientists Say Your “Mind” Isn’t Confined to Your Brain, or Even Your Body” at Quartz

In a certain way, that should be reassuring. Some philosophers claim that mind is an illusion. Every month or so we hear that neuroscientists have somehow cracked the problem of consciousness, relying on one or another of the brain’s regions (the brain has many regions; you can find something new anywhere you look).

At the end of the day, consciousness is the same conundrum it has always been: Why do you know you exist? A rock doesn’t know. Yet you both exist. What’s the difference?

Why do you need other people to exist? A rock doesn’t care whether other rocks exist.

We are all both sand and sea, in the sense that we are both material and immaterial. Now, self-organization theory may or may not offer significant answers but it may help some avoid the most foolish errors, like thinking that consciousness is an illusion.

We may as well think that the number 7 is an illusion because one can’t point to a physical object and say, “There! That’s it! That’s the number 7!”


You may also enjoy: Must science be materialist? Philosopher Peter Vickers says yes. Philosopher and computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup says no. To claim that science must oppose non-materialist ideas is to make it into an ideology. We know little about some aspects of our universe.


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Can Our Minds Extend Beyond Our Bodies?