Last week, I experienced a song that made me cry. The sounds reached my ear from my desk. My nose tingled until I felt the water in my eyes. It suddenly dawned on me that there is no specific scientific data to explain the range of emotion I felt from the song.
Sure, there may be studies conducing ideas of brain chemistry and the mechanisms involved with crying. But what about the specific way I felt from the song? Should we make distinctions between the brain that can be studied and the mysteriously unique experience of the mind?
Where the mind and brain diverge
We can study the difference between mind and brain by considering perception. Perception, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation.” As defined, the brain is actually involved in perception. There is literature published examining how our brains make out colors, sounds, and so on. But even then, synesthesia, a state of receiving unique perceptual crossovers (e.g., hearing colors, seeing thunder), exists.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary displays another definition of perception, further bringing the difference between mind and brain into question. The other definition is: “quick, acute, and intuitive cognition.” The term “intuitive” is key and will guide us into the province of the abstract mind from here on out.
In his popular book “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” Alan Watts, a scholar of Eastern philosophy, states something profound yet abstract, relatable yet difficult to grasp:
“Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.”
Watts carried his Eastern knowledge into lecture halls and became known for describing the philosophies in very relatable and even healing manners. Watts also happened to be very invested in the mind. In the above quote, for example, Watts speaks of words and conventions almost as if they’re empirical fallacies of the mind. To Watts, these separate us from the intuitive, ultimate, yet abstract reality, whatever that may be.
Using the difference between mind and brain to heal
Researchers are trying to map subjective feelings. Instead of criticizing this process for any held beliefs, it’s better to simply ask: why make our feelings and personal subjective experience scientific?
It’s important to know the difference between mind and brain, especially when considering how to better each one as a separate entity.
Strengthening the mind
Alan Watts’s quote is about healing the mind. It’s about letting go of beliefs and thought patterns that keep us from spiritual wholeness. Basically, it’s a form of meditation.
Alan Watts says something else about meditation that speaks to strengthening the mind:
“Meditation is the art of suspending verbal and symbolic thinking for a time, somewhat as a courteous audience will stop talking when a concert is about to begin.”
What happens when an audience settles down for a performance? Magic is made. Similarly, settling the mind through meditation and other mindfulness techniques allows us to tap into our creative powers.
Overthinking seems to be the bane of our civilization which shows through such high rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. So what, more specifically, can be done to support our intuitive center: the mind?
- We need to respect the views we hold about the world. Subjectivity can lead to confusion. People hold varying viewpoints in health, in politics, in technology and more. Other people’s opinions can bring us on whirlwinds of overthinking. Because of this, it’s important to become grounded in our own views about the world rather than always being influenced by others. This can look like journaling to establish our truths and reflecting via meditation to gain confidence in our unique paths and contributions to the world.
- We need higher quality meditation. Many will ask: “how often should I meditate?” Yet a better question is: “when I sit to meditate, how much of that is quality meditation?” You can set yourself up for quality meditation by going somewhere you know you won’t be disturbed, by actively letting go of ruminations, and by knowing how to deal with thoughts when they arise.
- Deal with thoughts when they arise. By now, you’ve likely heard the saying “you are not your thoughts.” When we sit to meditate, thoughts will undoubtedly arise. It’s natural and not to be avoided. A human brain is a thinking machine. It’s designed to think. Meditation is the practice of not identifying with our thoughts. For example, while meditating, you may suddenly begin to think about someone who embarrassed you. Suddenly, you’re angry. Meditation is the practice of admitting that anger is actually coming from the perception and thought of what happened. With that realization, you’re able to maintain peace and continue sitting easily in silence.
The difference between mind and brain becomes obvious when considering how to strengthen each one as a separate entity. Now let’s talk about how to heal the brain.
Healing the brain
Healing the brain is about looking at the physical, more tangible aspects of our consciousness. For example, a lack of sleep causes a sense of mental fatigue throughout the day. When we don’t get enough REM sleep, an observable phenomenon (through brain scans), our brains don’t get the recuperation they need.
Sleep is definitely a factor I’ll go over in further detail. I’ll also be focusing on dietary choices, exercise, and other interesting life hacks for rebooting the brain.
- Exercise quickly yet intensely. Our biology prefers that our exercise be kept short yet intense. There are benefits to aerobics, of course, but some studies are finding better results from short, high-intensity training including higher human growth hormone (HGH). HGH benefits the brain by promoting neurogenesis and, overall, by strengthening the central nervous system.
- Eat the right foods. Eating right will heal your brain. There are even specific foods that chemically make us happier. For example, bananas and cacao contain tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. We feel happier with more serotonin.
- Get adequate sunlight. Sunlight, as many know, delivers a very bioavailable form of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for mood and overall brain function. Getting in the sun for at least 15 minutes daily is highly advised.
- Sleep well. Maintaining good sleep habits promotes overall vitality. To get good sleep, avoid using electronics within 2-3 hours before sleep. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, blacking out the bedroom, and avoiding caffeine can also help profoundly.
Moving forward while knowing the difference between mind and brain
The difference between mind and brain, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, is what made me cry over a song I heard last week. Sure, there may be physical mechanisms about that experience to be studied, but the uniqueness of the feeling can’t be fully observed scientifically.
How can subjectivity be studied? Zhuang Zhou, the ancient Chinese philosopher and one of Alan Watts’ greatest inspirations, knew about subjectivity:
“We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.”
The mind dominates how we experience the universe as individuals. Zhou also said: “To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” Knowing the difference between mind and brain allows us to work with the mind in transformative ways. For example, meditation and stilling the mind, as prescribed by Zhou, can free us from thought patterns that weigh down our lives.
Meanwhile, understanding the physical brain is important for implementing lifestyle choices that promote neuroenhancement. These phenomena can be scientifically studied and help us to feel energetic and prepared for attaining wellness of the mind in the first place.
Want to learn more about your mind and your brain? Explore the TelMD Upstream Blog.
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