Lesson 1 - What is the Mind?

What is "Mental Health"?

The Mind is Embodied

But it’s important to note, as Curt reminds us here, that the mind is embodied. In other words, if we didn’t have bodies, we wouldn’t be aware of any of the mind’s activities. We might put it like this: our minds emerge from our brains, but they are not reducible to our brains. As a working definition of the mind, then, Curt offers this:

The mind is an embodied and relational process that emerges from within and between brains, whose task it is to regulate the flow of energy and information.

Curt Thompson

Reflect:

  • How would you characterize the mind’s relationship to the body?  

  • Curt notes that the very first thing a patient brings to a clinician is actually their body. How does the knowledge that the mind is embodied impact your practice? To put it another way: what can you learn about the state of a patient’s mind by being attentive to their body?

The Mind is Relational

“I think, therefore I am,” wrote René Descartes in his 1644 work, Meditations on First Philosophy. Although it may not have been Descartes’s intent, this dictum—cogito ergo sum—has become a kind of shorthand for the way in which modern Westerners understand themselves: as autonomous, free, thinking subjects. 

We may think of ourselves as independent centers of consciousness, but as Curt explains here, the neuro-biological data tell a different story about how the human mind works. Our minds literally cannot exist independently, and that’s because they are relational—our neural development requires interaction with other brains and we flourish only when we have robust interpersonal interactions. 

Reflect:

  • In your experience as a clinician, how have you seen the negative effects of a malformed understanding of the self as an autonomous subject independent from other people?  

  • How might the knowledge that our minds are relational inform your practice of counseling? 

The Mind is a Process

The mind is characterized by dynamic movement. As Curt explains by way of a typical interaction with a teenager, it is never true that we are thinking about nothing. Our minds are always at work, never static but always in motion. 

The question, then, is not whether our minds are moving, but rather to what end they are moving. The second law of thermodynamics holds that any isolated system tends toward entropy. In other words, in a vacuum and without intervention, any system will move toward disorder. Similarly, if we treat our minds as closed systems by sealing them off from other minds, for instance, they will tend toward disintegration

We might think of mental health as a state of integration and a state of mental distress as disintegration

Reflect:

  • The mind is a process, which suggests that we never finished products, but always moving—whether toward order or disorder. In the 4th century, Augustine of Hippo described the human spirit as a “scattered self,” constantly threatened with disorder. In your experience, what does a “scattered self,” a mind moving toward disintegration, look like?  

  • Think about your specific area of practice. How would you define “mental health” in your context? What does it look like for you to help patients move toward a state of integration? 

The Mind is Emergent

The Task of the Mind

So, what do our minds do? Obviously this is a complex question with a complex answer, but at the very least, says Curt, our minds “regulate the flow of energy and information.” Our minds direct the flow of energy by controlling the countless neuro-biochemical interactions occurring everywhere in our bodies each instant. In this respect, we might say, the mind fulfills a physical function. 

But our minds also process information, which is another way of saying that our minds make meaning out of our experiences, and this is something that the brain does constantly, moment-by-moment, even when we are not conscious of it. And one helpful definition of mental distress is the experience of being unable to make meaning out of our experience. In this second respect, the mind fulfills a spiritual function. 

These two functions of the mind—one physical and one spiritual—correspond exactly to the way that the Bible thinks about the nature of human beings. As Curt illustrates with reference to the creation account in Genesis 2, the bodies of human beings are made of the physical elements of the earth, but they are animated by spirit. “We are breath, and we are dirt,” as Curt puts it. “And if you take either one of those away we stop being human.” Humans are more than a cocktail of chemicals (although we are that, in one dimension of our being); this is why it’s extremely damaging to tell a patient that their symptoms are solely reducible to a chemical imbalance. 

The essential nature of man contains two elements . . . On the one hand, all his natural endowments, and determinations, his physical and social impulses . . . in short his character as a creature embedded in the natural order. On the other hand, his essential nature also includes the freedom of his spirit, his transcendence over natural process and finally his self-transcendence.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man

To put it another way: human beings are the only creatures that are both matter and spirit, and this should inform the way we treat our patients. 

Reflect:

  • The Bible teaches that human beings are the only creatures that exist at the intersection of the physical and the spiritual. How does this unique understanding of human existence inform your practice? 

  • Since human beings are physical and spiritual creatures, we can experience mental distress for multiple reasons, some physical and some spiritual. In your practice, what are some of the ways that you treat the whole person?

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