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Mind in Vedanta and Neuroscience
Introduction and Definitions
Mind means mental activity. Mind is the product of brain activity, which depends on brain’s self-organization . Brain and mental activities occur concurrently like two parallel streams. Mental activity includes three classical domains of conation, cognition, and affect.
Conation means intention or volition with self-activation toward a goal. Conation is defined as the proactive, as opposed to habitual, part of motivation . Intention implies a conscious decision to perform a behavior. Volition is the mental faculty by which an individual decides upon and commits to a particular course of action. Volition involves a sense of self and an active control over the decision and behavior.
Cognition means information processing . It is the flow of information through an organism’s brain and mind. Information is a reduction in uncertainty provided by a message or a stimulus. A biophysical stimulus has both energy and information in it. Information is knowledge about facts or ideas gained through experience and learning. Cognition includes subprocesses of perception, comprehension, remembering, reasoning, judging, imagining, and problem solving. The executive cognitive control is a set of processes that organize, plan, and schedule other mental operations. Cognition also means thinking or the thought process, which may be verbal, visual, or tactile. Such a process is usually silent and has to be inferred from observable behavior or verbal self-report. It is also symbolic in the sense that it involves experience and manipulation of mental representations processed through the brain.
Affect is any experience of feeling or emotion, ranging from suffering to elation. Affect can be irreflexive meaning directly experienced or reflexive when the person makes the emotion an object of his or her conscious perception. Emotion is an experience with physiological and behavioral response to a personally significant event. Emotional control implies self-regulation of one’s emotions and their influence on one’s thoughts and behavior. Emotional insight is an awareness of one’s own and others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence is the ability to process emotional information and to use it in reasoning and cognition .
Feeling is a self-contained phenomenal experience. Feelings can vary along three dimensions: pleasant-unpleasant, exciting-calm, and arousal-relaxation. Approach and avoid are two fundamental emotional responses that an organism has when facing a new situation. I would add a third mode of being, namely, to pause, wait, and learn about the evolving situation. Humans can experience a variety of feeligs including, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, boredom, and disgust . They may also have an intuitive feeling of knowing something without any sensation or focal attention. This may happen in certain meditative states. It has been variously described as creative background, or matrix awareness.
The concept of human Consciousness is under an intense investigation and debate in the neurosciences. One clear definition of consciousness is that it is a set of neuro-biological processes that allow an individual to perceive, comprehend, and act on the internal and external environments . Consciousness defines the present experience. Mental activity can be conscious, preconscious, or subconscious.
Consciousness has three main functional components: arousal, awareness, and attention. Conscious arousal describes the degree to which an individual is able to interact with the environments. General arousal is higher in a person who is more alert to sensory stimuli, more physically active, and more reactive emotionally .Conscious arousal requires the interplay between the brainstem reticular activating system and the cerebral hemispheres.
Conscious awareness implies that the individual is not only alert but also cognizant of self and surroundings. Awareness is global, multimodal but nonspecific in terms of any a particular sensory, motor, or cognitive modality. Awareness depends on arousal. The neuronal mechanism required for conscious awareness is the intralaminar thalamic nuclei with their brainstem and cortical connections .
Conscious attention implies the ability to respond and process modality-specific information at a given time and place. Different sensory-motor-cognitive modalities include visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, locomotion, limb movements, speech, memories, thoughts, and images. Attention directed to a specific aspect of the experienced self and the world requires both an intact general awareness and a well functioning, modality-specific thalamo-cortical network.
The concept of self has been recently reviewed . Self is difficult to define because of its multiple, constitutive streams of functional existence. A more comprehensive and expanded definition of self was proposed. The standard bio-psycho-social model of psyche was expanded to the biophysical-mental-social and existential self. The total human experience is better understood and explained by adding the existential component. Existential refers to the lived-experience, which is firmly rooted in reality, as is.
There are two main philosophical perspectives of looking at the mind and body. Dualistic perspective considers mind and body as separate phenomena, whereas, monistic perspective views body and mind as aspects of the same reality. One of the most appealing perspectives of conscious experience is that of a single reality with dynamic on-flowing energy and information. Pred described it as organic monism of pure experience .
Pred’s perspective is mainly based on William James’ metaphor of stream of consciousness and Whitehead’s notion of “bud” for a unitary act of experience. The growth of a bud is the formation of a concrete experience. Such a process of becoming concrete has been called concrescence. A stream of experiential energy is a stream of such buds, forming and growing together with what was before and what is probable in the near future. The self is a self-in-the-making, from moment to moment. The ultimate reality represents the underlying, energetic, creative ground for concrescence of the ongoing flow of events. Such a primal ground manifests unity, creativity, and diversity.
Another important monistic view is a quantum approach to consciousness. According to the quantum approach, the physical world is not made up of mindless matter, but actual events, which have both material as well as experiential aspects to them. Each quantum event injects new bit of information for its observer. We are both spectators and actors in the natural world. “Nature is to be considered divided into two parts: the observer and the observed system. The observer consists of the stream of consciousness of a human agent, together with the brain and body of that person, and also the measuring devices that he or she uses to probe the observed system.” .
The Mind in Vedanta
The Samkhya system of Vedanta philosophy looks at the observable reality as an ever-changing phenomenon, Prakriti and the ultimate, meta-conscious, transcendent being as a spontaneous and change-free person, Purusha . The experienced world including one’s body and mind are parts of Prakriti. Purusha is the ultimate witness of the mind and everything experienced (Upa-drashtu). Purusha, the transcendent being can never be observed as an object. Purusha is the pure consciousness itself (Chaitanya). It is self-sufficient (Svartha). It is the being-in-itself. There is nothing beyond it. The direct and convincing knowledge of the total reality of Purusha-Prakriti is the culmination of self-knowledge (Atma-Jnana). Then one is a light to oneself.
Vedanta considers the physical environment, the body as well as mind to be observable. Despite the common belief, the mind is not our true self. Mind is our observable, internal environment. Mind remains active but unconscious and unknown. It is only illuminated by our spontaneous, transcendent awareness.
Vedanta classifies the natural elements into five main categories: a) solid like the earth (Prithvi), b) liquid like the water (Jala), c) fluid like the wind (Vayu), d) light energy of the sun (Teja), and e) space like the sky (Akasha). From conception till death every living being is constituted of and is exposed to these elements. The brain functions as an interface between the internal (Antar) and the external (Bahya) environments.
In order to survive and thrive within their environmental matrix, all organisms have developed effective sensory, motor, and cognitive organs for interaction. For each organism, the observed environment is continuously changing in a quantum way by the instantaneous combination of three primary forces (Gunas), which are inertia (Tamas), activity (Rajas), and homeostasis or equilibrium (Satva). Such quantum transformation is the basis of experienced events in reality (Parinama-aikatvad vastu-tattvam). A well known quotation in Vedanta states that the body is an instrument for achieving life’s goals (Shariram adyam khalu dharma sadhanam).
Vedanta names energy-information-processing organs of the body as a) sensory-perceptual (Jnanendriya), b) motor-action (Karmendriya), and c) mental (Antarendriya). Even our sense of self is divided into the external (Bahyatma), internal (Antaratma) and transcendent (Paramatma) .
There are five Jnanendriyas, namely, a) eyes for visual, b) ears for auditory, c) nose for olfactory, d) skin for tactile, and e) tongue for gustatory perception and experience. The five Karmendriyas are a) tongue, mouth, and nose for breathing, swallowing, tasting, eating, and speech, b) hands for skillful manual and creative work and arts, c) feet for standing, walking, running, and playing, d) excretory organs for elimination of bodily waste, and e) genital organs for fulfilling sexual desires and reproductive activity. The four Antarendriyas are: a) Citta, a storehouse of memory, b) Manas, comprehension, synthesis, and analysis of perceptions and cognitions, c) Buddhi, intelligent discrimination of experience and decision making, and d) Ahamkar, a sense of I-me-mine.
Citta is the storehouse of genetic endowment and all past memories and experiences (Samskaras). These Samskaras set the stage and context for all of our experiences and actions. Ordinarily, we are heavily conditioned and limited by these memories of the past and expectations of the future. We feel as if we are imprisoned in this self-made cage, as if we are ever committed to this life of bondage, limited understanding, and endless suffering. But in all of us there is a natural instinct for freedom. This natural desire for freedom helps us rescue ourselves from the bondage by self-observation and learning. We can realize the final goal of complete self-freedom with an unshakable understanding, awareness, energy, wellness, and tranquility. That is the goal of Vedanta philosophy of life.
Manas is the internal faculty of perception, comprehension and cognition. It is sometimes referred to as heart (Hridaya) to include the emotional aspect of human experience and the mental eye (manas-chakshus). It also includes faculties of thinking, reflection, imagination, invention, affection, desire, mood and temper. Manaspresents the cognized information to intelligence, Buddhi for discrimination and voluntary decision. Therefore it is required for both knowledge and action. Ahamkar is an illusive sense of doer-ship that arises as a result of repeated voluntary efforts, decision making, and actions. When one realizes that most events are controlled by multiple variables including a chance factor or providence (Daivam), one’s Ahamkar or sense of doer-ship dissipates .
The spontaneous meta-conscious being (Purusha) is beyond these fourteen instruments (Indriyas) of indirect knowing (Paroksha). The organs of perception, cognition and action transform the nonspecific awareness into a specific mental event. The conviction of the experiencer that the true being is distinct from the experienced phenomenon is self-transcendence (apavarga). It is the ultimate truth-within each one of us and the ultimate reality. It is the one-and-only infinite that is (Ekam-eva-advitiyam).
The concept of the subconscious mind, Chitta has been elaborated in the Vedantic literature . The repository of unresolved conflicts and memories forms the content of the subconscious mind. It is the arena of repressed and conflicting impulses, emotions, desires, thoughts, and ideas. There are five primary instincts: a) self-preservation b) socialization c) sexuality and reproduction, d) self-expression and creativity, and e) the desire to know everything including self, others, and the world. Vedanta recommends learning and developing personal skills of self-observation, analysis and discipline. Such paths of growth and development of self form the basis of Yoga and meditation.
Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras continue to be the key reference for the study of mind in Vedanta. When mind becomes calm due to practice of Yoga, (Yogashchitta-vritti-nirodhah), then, the self reveals its true nature spontaneously (Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam). Otherwise, it assumes itself to be the mind with its activities (Vritti-sarupyam itaratra). There are five different characteristics of mental activity: a) Unenergetic, bored, disinterested (Mudha), b) Impulsive, unruly, chaotic (Kshipta), c) Distracted (Vikshipta), d) Focused, concentrated, one-pointed (Ekagra), and e) Calm, composed, organized, integrated, effortless, spontaneous, self-transcendent (Niruddha).
Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras clearly define the stages of self-transformation and self-realization (Samadhi or Atma-sakshatkar). Samadhi or enlightenment is the actualization of one’s transcendent, spontaneous being, free of all objectifiable phenomenon. The successive stages of Samadhi include the freedom from four different types of contents or opacities: a) Vitarka is a deliberate, intentional, and self-reflected thought, b) Vichara is mode of acting, proceeding, judging, and deciding, c)Anand is joy, pleasure, and happiness, d) Asmita is the sense of I-me-mine.
The word Prajna means to know and to understand. The word Beeja means a seed with the potential to grow into a living being like a plant, or an animal. It can also be the seed of a mental state and thus grow into an experience. With these meanings in mind, the stages of Samadhi can be further classified into a) with or without awareness (Samprajnata or Asamprajnata) and b) with or without a seed (Sabeeja or Nirbeeja). The mental seed would also indicate some content in consciousness. Kaivalya or Mukti is the complete, unconditional freedom from phenomenal experience (Viram-pratyaya) with absolute conscious clarity and an unshakable peace and well-being, Sthita-prajnata. It is the enlightened living with a full realization of Truth.
The Mind in Neuroscience
Neuroscience is a scientific study of the brain and mind. A lot of progress has been made in our understanding of the brain that mediates the mental processes. The brain is an interface between the internal and external environments of a living organism. In general, the internal environment is monitored and managed by the brainstem-limbic system, whereas the external environment and situations are handled by the thalamo-cortico-striate system. The major conscious mental functions including conation, cognition and emotion are experienced and responded to by the multimodal associative cortex. The back part of the associative cortex, occipito-parieto-temporal cortex mediates perception, cognition, attention, memory, comprehension, self-situational monitoring and awareness. It has been called the semantic-conceptual field . The front part of the multimodal associative cortex frontal-premotor-cingulate-prefrontal cortex is involved in sensory-motor-cognitive and emotional integration, decision making, working memory, intention, voluntary action, and the executive control of behavior and mentation.
Most complex mental functions are mediated by cortical neural networks with multiple, reciprocal connections between different cortical areas and both cerebral hemispheres. Some areas of the brain are specialized. For instance, Wernicke’s area specializes in processing language comprehension and semantic integration andBroca’s area specializes in language expression including semantic, phonological, and grammatical processing . Hippocampus and the medial temporal lobespecialize in episodic memories including autobiographical memories. Right hemispheric parietal association areas specialize in attention to both right and left halves of environment and the body. Fusiform gyrus specializes in face recognition. Prefrontal cortex with its “frontal intelligence” is crucial for working memory, decision-making, and executive functioning, which includes initiation, continuation, pausing, and stopping of cognition and voluntary action .
There are four different types memories represented in the brain: a) long term semantic memories, serving as the basis of general knowledge, are stored in theoccipito-parieto-temporal association cortex, b) episodic memories of specific events, including individual life events, are represented in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, c) procedural memory of skills and performance of learned actions is represented in frontal premotor cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, d) workingmemory, by which one can hold and manipulate information for a brief period of time, like remembering a telephone number, is dependent on the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex.
The attended information in the working memory is held in active awareness by replaying it intentionally by the internal self-talk . If the information is not rehearsed, it quickly dissipates out of awareness like the cliché, “out of sight, out of mind.” This is also true of all emotions, thoughts and intentions, which dissipate if not voluntarily or habitually maintained in awareness. Like many functions of the body, the mind also follows the general principle of “dissipative homeostasis.” So, it may be called the “homeostatic mind.” Homeostasis is defined as a state of equilibrium between different but interdependent elements of an organism.
Human consciousness has three interdependent components: conscious arousal, awareness and attention. a) Conscious arousal depends upon a well functioning brainstem reticular activating system. Any damage or disease in this area could result in loss of consciousness, coma, or death. b) Conscious awareness depends upon multimodal, nonspecific thalamo-cortical system including intralaminar thalamic nuclei and their connections . Awareness depends on optimal arousal. c) Consciousattention directs and specifies awareness and behavior of a specific modality to a specific time, place and person. Attention has two components: a global matrix function and a specific vector function . The global matrix function depends upon modality-nonspecific thalamo-cortical circuit. The specific vector function depends upon specific thalamo-cortico-striate circuits. The attentional vector creates a specific experience with subject-object duality and a unique mental content. It can be conscious or subconscious, and voluntary or habitual.
In the specific cortical areas, aspects of an experienced object and the organism’s ongoing response are integrated. For instance, the ventral occipito-temporal pathway mediates what the object is; the dorsal occipito-parietal pathway is involved in processing where the object is and the prefrontal-cingulate-parietal cortexprocesses when to respond or not to respond. From moment to moment, each organism has to make a decision to either approach or avoid the new object or situation.Frontal lobes process the avoidance response, whereas, parietal lobes are involved in the approach response . Neurosciences of Meditation and Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness have been reviewed.
The neuroscientific definition of mind and its components conation, cognition, affect, arousal, awareness, and attention are described. Vedanta explains the person (Purusha) as the ultimate observer, and Prakriti, as the observed environment, body, and mind. Five natural elements and three forces of quantum transformation are described. An organism interacts with its external and internal environments using specialized organs of perception, mentation, and action. The organs of mentation (Antarendriya) include memory (Chitta), perception-cognition-action (Manas), intelligence (Buddhi), and ego (Ahamkar). Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras have explained stages of self-realization (Samadhi).
The neuroscientific model of mind includes three interdependent, neural networks. a) The brainstem-limbic system manages the internal bodily environment, and mediates general and specific arousal of the organism. b) The multimodal, nonspecific thalamo-cortical system mediates stable and unitive awareness with cognizance of self and surroundings. c) The specific thalamo-cortico-striate network serves a variety of modality-specific mental functions including attention, language, memory, conation, cognition, and affect. Memory can be semantic, episodic, procedural, and working. Working memory is essential for holding and manipulating online information during communication, conversation, and problem-solving. Verbal thoughts and visual images are created and maintained by internal self-talk with rehearsal.
The similarities are noted between a) Purusha-prakriti and the observer-observed systems, b) Satva guna and homeostatic equilibrium, c) Parinam-ekatva and quantum transformation of events, d) Jnanendriya, Karmendriya, Antarendriya and the organs of perception-action-cognition, e) Chitta and semantic-conceptual field, f) Manas and attention-cognition-emotion, g) Buddhi and intelligence, h) Ahamkar and ego, and i) Beeja and the germ of experienced event.
The differences are shown between the two models. Some Vedantists emphasize the spiritual aspect of personality (Purusha) as invincible, un-aging, and immortal, whereas most neuroscientists accept the limits of human knowledge, vulnerability, and mortality. Neuroscience recognizes intuitive and insightful consciousness, but not any mystical cosmic consciousness, which remains a purely subjective and nonverifiable observation.