Mysteries of the Mind - Unsolved Mysteries Week


By Timothy Dillon

The final frontier of human inquiry does not lie beyond our planet. It doesn’t even exist outside our bodies. The conscious mind is perhaps the most bizarre and wonderful gift that any species could have been endowed with. A mind allows a person to learn and store information. Even better, a mind lets us have opinions on that information. Minds can be inspired, disgusted, challenged, and that is just what can happen to them. What they can produce is staggering.

But what is the mind? Some will point to the brain as the CEO of our body. The mind then is a tangible thing, and our thoughts are merely cells moving along the infrastructure in our brains like cars on interstate highways. Yet, when a person imagines a red chair in their head, and if you were to look inside that head, you would not see a tiny red chair that they have imagined. Instead you will see a pinkish grey organ, hardly the mystical mind we seek.

While we know the brain is an important piece to the puzzle, there is only so much the tangible brain can tell us about the intangible mind. Like how the mind exists both consciously and unconsciously. The most frightening mystery might be how the subconscious affects the conscious thinking mind. How the mind can have its own agenda beneath the surface?

Approaching the mind and trying to offer an explanation to the “why” questions is a daunting task. We approach one of the chief mysteries and offer some possible answers as well as some practical advice with the help of Alva Noe, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley.

A popular mystery that was commercialized with films like The Matrix and Vanilla Sky is the idea that the world around us is a fabricated illusion, either created by our minds or by another elusive agent. Realistic dreams can confuse and daze us, leaving us questioning our actions and even intentions. Sensations like deja vu make us doubt that an experience is genuine and give us an all too familiar feeling about events that are still manifesting themselves.

Image by Peta-de-Atzlan’s.

The major problem here is that there hasn’t really been a convincing counter argument. Trying to prove that reality as we perceive it is real is confined by the channels of perception: the five senses. And who hasn’t confused each of those senses into experiencing something that isn’t?

When you go see a 3D film, there are not really giant blue aliens running around the theatre. Turn on your iPod and the band does not magically appear to start playing your favorite song. There are companies dedicated to producing flavors and scents that trick you body and mind. People experience phantom pains, meaning pain that has no physical presence. Who is to say that the world could not be as fictitious as these sensations? Alva Noe does, that’s who.

It comes down to a matter of sight. In Out of Our Heads, Noe explores the myths of the mind with a sharp knife of scrutiny that cuts away at the superfluous and outdated assumptions about how we live and perceive the world. “Science cannot prove that we are victims of a grand illusion,” Noe tells BTR.

This basic counter point actually brings with it a great deal of reason. Noe explains that we cannot prove one way or another, but in order for all of our sense to actually work as we assume they do, there first needs to be something.

What is a sensory organ if there is nothing to sense in the first place? When sight occurs it is because there is a direct correlation between the world and the organ. Both have changed and that change is experienced in an eye that is busy oscillating and floating around your socket weaving an intricate tapestry of color and depth.

The mind is far too busy doing the work of figuring out the world around it to be able to create it at the same time. What Noe offers is akin to a neutral monism, though he does not put it this way. The mind and world around the mind are parts of the same whole, and thus one is no more real than the other.

The ‘grand illusion’ hypothesis is bad philosophy; the cognitive science that supposedly provides evidence in its favor is bad science. Excellent work in perceptual psychology for example, work on change blindness–properly construed, in fact provides excellent reasons to think of ourselves not as victims of a grand illusion but, rather, as open to an environment that matters to us. (Noe, 130)

If nothing else can be taken from this mystery, is that there is a practical solution to it. You should act as if all of this is real, whether or not it really is. Reality seems to keep on moving regardless of our internal wants and desires that already occupy our minds. Why would the same mind not give ourselves what we want? And so what if this world is the dream of some cosmic giant or if this is a crazed drug induced hallucination on the muddy hill of Woodstock circa 1969? When you snap out of it that means there will still be something to perceive and not an empty universe. Bottom line: live life as though it matters.


1. Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.