It would have been a much-honoured regulation for our early philosophers to refer to the thinking brain as the seat of our mental life. In today’s context, there is a clear understanding of the ubiquitous and/or the complex psycho-neurological connections and parallels that exist between mental phenomena and neural states of our brain. This is not merely scientific analogy; it is all part of our empirical evidence derived through modern science and advanced technology.
It is suggested that anything that affects the brain, be it a physical or emotional trauma, often has a powerful impact on one’s mental and emotional life. The spin-off is obvious — the consequence compromises our ability to reason, remember and distinguish things. What’s more, it can significantly impair the affected individual’s cognitive skills, or facility, aside from altering their personality portraits. This is akin to the tangible changes that occur in the brain following gross indulgence in alcohol, antidepressants and psychotropic drugs, which affect our moods, emotions and intellectual functions. When a brain injury, so dramatically depicted in popular movies, thumps us, our “mindful” life goes “vacant.” This is represented by the famed expression — retrograde amnesia, or loss of memory caused by the impact. While highly advanced imaging techniques help us to decipher what is precisely going on in our brains, by way of our never-ending mental activities, modern science is today endowed with the awe-inspiring technical ability to “tap” the criticality of the brain and its endless bustle as factors of our mental life — just as our ancient philosophers rightly suggested, with no access whatsoever to the imaging techniques of our epoch.
New research confirms that the most marginal, or peripheral, neural events are a result of isolated causes — not as they have been illustrated in emblematic parlance. What actually “triggers” our conscious experiences are elements that cause appropriate states of the brain. Picture this — when one is given anaesthesia during surgery, the nerve signals are blocked, while the customary functions of the brain are impeded. This prevents, or bars, the central neural processes that define our conscious experience from the ambit. This is precisely the reason why there is no experience of pain. This holds good for everything that emerges in our mental life — because we are defined by the state of the brain as the basis of our physical existence. In the physiological context, our life depends on the presence of appropriately functioning neural systems — including our cells, or molecules of emotions, that make up our brain and other systems to work seamlessly, day-in and day-out.
This brings us to another interesting point — the heart being the seat of our mental life, or intelligence. The philosopher Aristotle, who eulogised in purple prose about the heart being the engine of our mentality, was perhaps the first to articulate the idea of a mind-heart connect, ages before our much-feted, contemporary mind-brain and mind-body framework. Aristotle argued that the heart was the centre of sensation and movement too, among other things. Agreed, that, in the light of scientific progress — more so, in terms of neuroscience — Aristotle’s pristine purport is flawed. Yet, it must be acknowledged that it was the legendary Greek who bid fair to the subsequent development of the study of the brain. He inspired others to follow suit and conduct anatomical studies on the brain and heart — from the basics to the most sophisticated, over the ages, till today, where our understanding of the subject is at its acme, if not absolutely all-encompassing.
The inference is simple. As Aristotle, yet again, quantified, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
— The writer is a wellness physician, independent researcher and author