“This is how your brain makes your mind”
MIT Technology Review, August 25, 2021
by Lisa Feldman Barrett
“Your mind is in fact an ongoing construction of your brain, your body, and the surrounding world. ”
What is your mind? It’s a strange question, perhaps, but if pressed, you might describe it as the part of yourself that makes you who you are—your consciousness, dreams, emotions, and memories. Scientists believed for a long time that such aspects of the mind had specific brain locations, like a circuit for fear, a region for memory, and so on.
But in recent years we’ve learned that the human brain is actually a master of deception, and your experiences and actions do not reveal its inner workings. Your mind is in fact an ongoing construction of your brain, your body, and the surrounding world.
In every moment, as you see, think, feel, and navigate the world around you, your perception of these things is built from three ingredients. One is the signals we receive from the outside world, called sense data. Light waves enter your retinas to be experienced as blooming gardens and starry skies. Changes in pressure reach your cochlea and skin and become the voices and hugs of loved ones. Chemicals arrive in your nose and mouth and are transformed into sweetness and spice.
A second ingredient of your experience is sense data from events inside your body, like the blood rushing through your veins and arteries, your lungs expanding and contracting, and your stomach gurgling. Much of this symphony is silent and outside your awareness, thank goodness. If you could feel every inner tug and rumble directly, you’d never pay attention to anything outside your skin.
Finally, a third ingredient is past experience. Without this, the sense data around and inside you would be meaningless noise. It would be like being bombarded by the sounds of a language that you don’t speak, so you can’t even tell where one word ends and the next begins. Your brain uses what you’ve seen, done, and learned in the past to explain sense data in the present, plan your next action, and predict what’s coming next. This all happens automatically and invisibly, faster than you can snap your fingers.
These three ingredients might not be the whole story, and there may be other routes to create other kinds of minds—say, in a futuristic machine. But a human mind is constructed by a brain in constant conversation, moment by unique moment, with a body and the outside world.
About the Author:
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain and How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Learn more at LisaFeldmanBarrett.com.