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Insights Journey into the heart of contemplative science
Journey into the heart of contemplative science

What is Mind? Why better understanding the mind lies at the heart of addressing some of today’s most daunting challenges. By Evan Thompson

Iillustration by Sirin Thada of cranes taking flight - a metaphor used by the author to help answer the question: what is mind?

“A bird’s flight takes place, not inside its wings, but in relation to the whole animal and the environment,” shares the author. Here, a flock of cranes flying above the water represents this kind of embeddedness and relationality. We invite readers to explore your own interpretation. Artist: Sirin Thada

Roshi Joan Halifax tells a story about witnessing a conversation in the early 1970s between Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, and Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist and systems theorist, about the mind. Bateson asked, “Where is the mind?” Salk pointed to his own head. Bateson chuckled, shook his head, and pointed to the space between them, making a circling gesture to include them both.

I saw Bateson and Salk myself in 1975 when they spoke at a Lindisfarne Association conference1 organized by my father, William Irwin Thompson. I was twelve years old. Salk opened the conference by presenting a vision of humanity collectively transitioning to a new age of prosperity, peace, and enlightenment, based on medical advances, increased access to education, and economic development, along with a change in values away from competition and towards cooperation. Bateson again shook his head and grumbled that Salk’s Cartesian graphs plotting the transition were based on the same kind of supposedly value-free, technocratic thinking that had created the crises of our industrial society. The graphs superimposed linear concepts onto the entangled and circular patterns of our relationships to each other and the living world. As Ted Morgan reported2 in The New York Times Magazine: “The gospel according to Gregory, as it came to be called at the conference, was that such catastrophic errors as pollution, overpopulation, the possibility of melting the Antarctic icecap or destroying the ozone layer, and the threat of nuclear war were all due to a discrepancy between the way the human mind thinks and the way the world really works.”

I was just twelve years old, but Gregory’s presence and ideas captivated me. Two years later he lived with us at the Lindisfarne community while finishing his book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. That summer of 1977 he and my father organized another conference, to which they invited neurobiologist Francisco Varela, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (Gregory’s daughter), and quantum physicist David Finkelstein, among others. Although their conversations were scientific and philosophical, they were animated by the conviction that we need to understand the mind to deal with our catastrophic errors, particularly the one we now call the climate crisis. Gregory urged that we need to understand “the pattern which connects,”3 especially now that we risk destroying our place in it. This urgency spurred my interest in the mind, and keeps me motivated in my work today.

When we ask, what or where is mind?, the temptation is to try to pin it down, whether to a thing (the brain) or a place (inside the head). But if mind is inherently relational, then it can’t be pinned down. Instead, we have to look for the patterns where it manifests.

Evan elaborates on 4E cognition and why it’s critical today to understand
the human mind in nuanced ways.

Mind in Life

In Mind and Nature Bateson asked, “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you?” The question implies that the patterns making up life and mind are interwoven.

One connective pattern is that living beings are “self-making.” They produce and maintain themselves, individually and collectively. Self-making is easiest to see in single-cell organisms. They embody the circular pattern that biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela called “autopoiesis.” A cell consists of a semipermeable membrane, chemical reaction networks taking place inside the membrane, and an interdependency between the membrane and the networks, such that the networks produce the membrane while the membrane supplies necessary conditions for the networks to regenerate themselves. This circular pattern makes the single-cell organism a self-producing (autopoietic) whole.

“Sense-making” is another connective pattern in the living world. Organisms are sense-making beings. They establish their own goals, and make meaning out of their interactions with their environments. For example, bacteria move towards what they find attractive, and away from what they find repellent. They communicate with each other through chemical signals, and thereby regulate one another’s gene expression in response to fluctuations in their cell population density. Like all organisms, they alter their own environments and those of other organisms. Living is sense-making in precarious conditions, and sense-making is the beginning of mind.4

Sense-making may also be the beginning of sentience, the capacity to feel. Bacteria use cilia and flagella to sense obstacles and swim around them. Do they feel their own movement and what they bump into? Do they feel pleasure and pain, or excitation and distress, as they swim towards beneficial chemicals and away from noxious ones? Do they feel their own state of being alive? Watching them from the outside, there seems no definitive way to know. But it’s not unreasonable to think that sense-making and sentience go together.

I once watched a video of microbes who live inside the gut of a termite. The video came from Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist renowned for her work on the role of symbiosis in cell evolution, and co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis, according to which all the organisms and inorganic material of the Earth form one self-regulating system. (She showed the video at another Lindisfarne meeting in the 1980s.) The termite is able to digest wood because its gut contains protists, tiny organisms that break down cellulose. Spirochete bacteria live inside each protist. They convert the byproducts of the broken-down cellulose into an energy source the termites can use. As I listened to Margulis describe these life forms, the fact that life and mind are based on patterns of cooperative interdependencies immediately stood out. She was convinced that these organisms are sentient, and listening to her meticulous and impassioned description of them, I couldn’t help but see them that way too.

In 2012 a group of prominent neuroscientists issued the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states that many animals, including not just vertebrates but also many invertebrates, are sentient beings. In their words: “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” Since 2012, there has been a growing consensus5 that mammals, birds, and some cephalopod molluscs (octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish) are sentient. Meanwhile scientists continue to debate about fish and insects. Many of these discussions happen in the important new journal Animal Sentience. This journal, and the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, are important steps, because they support extending moral consideration to nonhuman animals who are capable of experiencing harm.

Still, the question of whether sentience may extend to all organisms, not just animals, remains open. Restricting sentience to animals with brains is a working assumption or hypothesis, not an established fact. We do not know which neurological substrates are responsible for animal consciousness. At a deeper level, we lack an understanding of how the brain, as a physical system, could possibly generate consciousness in the sense of subjective experience. So we should allow for the possibility that all life is sentient6 and not just certain animals.

From the perspective of life-mind continuity, the brain or nervous system does not create mind, but rather expands the range of mind already present in life. The expansion is linked to multicellularity and movement over distance. An organism that is made up of many cells, and that moves quickly over distances, must be able to coordinate sensing and acting, while holding together as a structural unity. The nervous system makes this possible. It links sense organs and nerve endings to effectors (muscles, glands) within the body, thereby integrating the body, holding it together as a structurally complex and mobile unity. Sense-making here takes the familiar form of animal perception, action, and emotion.

…the brain or nervous system does not create mind, but rather expands the range of mind already present in life.

When we come to highly social animals, such as mammals and particularly primates, sense-making becomes what philosopher Hanne De Jaegher calls “participatory sense-making.”7 Consider parental care. The nurturing relationship between parent and infant strongly affects the development of the infant’s brain, especially the brain systems crucial for social development. The nurturing relationship co-regulates the physiologies of parent and infant. In humans, the child’s ability to follow the eyes of the parent and share attention with them leads to the formation of a sense of self, as the child comes to understand that they themselves are an object of attention from the parent’s outside viewpoint. In participatory sense-making, individuals directly participate in each other’s sense-making. This social kind of relational pattern is the one Bateson signaled in his exchange with Salk.

The Enactive Mind

The concepts of life-mind continuity, autopoiesis, sense-making, and participatory sense-making are central to the “enactive approach” in cognitive science, originally proposed by Francisco Varela8 and subsequently developed by me and many others.9 Its main idea is that cognition is not the representation of an independent outside world by an independent inside mind, but instead is the enactment or bringing forth of a world of significance through embodied action. We can build up to this idea of enaction by describing the “4E” approach to cognition, according to which cognition is embodied, embedded, extended, and enacted.

The idea that cognition is embodied means that it depends directly on the body as a functional whole, not just the brain. For example, studies of visual perception10 have shown that how people move directly contributes to what they see. They make different judgments about depth and three-dimensional structure depending on whether they are actively moving or being passively moved in exactly the same way in relation to the same stimulus. Self-generated motor activity doesn’t simply cause perception; it’s part of perceiving. Seeing doesn’t happen inside the brain; it happens in the interactive relation between the body and the world. The brain crucially facilitates this relation but doesn’t generate it all by itself.

Another example is gesture. Studies suggest that gesture isn’t a mere accompaniment to speech and thought; it’s an integral component of them. Gesturing is thought in action.11

In being embodied, cognition is also embedded in the environment. It leans heavily on the physical and social environment, which serves to scaffold—to build and support—ongoing cognition. Cognition is a performance of the entire coupled brain-body-environment system, not an episode inside the head.

The idea that cognition is extended means that the environment is not only an outer scaffold for cognition, but also part of cognition when it’s linked to the brain and the rest of the body in the right way. Technologies, particularly writing and computers, have provided a new kind of external memory, extending personal and cultural memory. For many of us, this can be illustrated by imagining how unmoored you’d feel if you lost your mobile phone. Biological memory and external memory together make up a hybrid cognitive system. Memory extends beyond what’s contained inside the individual head.

Psychologist Merlin Donald calls the interdependency of human biology and culture “brain-culture symbiosis.”12 The human brain is adapted to the environment of symbolic culture and can’t function properly unless it’s embedded in that environment. At the same time, the symbolic cultural environment is a creation of the cognitive capacities that the human brain makes possible. Donald argues that this culturally extended cognitive system has made possible an evolutionary expansion of the mind, enabling voluntary (self-directed) attention and metacognition (the ability to think about and attend to your own mental processes)—precisely the mental capacities required for and emphasized by many styles of meditation practice.

These ideas connect to a long history of research in cultural psychology. Early in the twentieth century, Soviet psychologist Les Vygotsky13 proposed that all higher mental processes (those involving metacognition), appear twice in development—first, socially, and second, internalized individually. Socially, a child participates with others in cultural practices and shared mental activities; with repeated experience, the child internalizes the shared mental activities so that they become individual. For example, in joint attention, the child and the caregiver recognize each other as paying attention to the same thing (say, a toy). Eventually, the child comes to understand that they, too, can be an object of shared attention, and so they internalize an outward perspective on themselves. Coming to have such an outside perspective from within is crucial for metacognition. Psychologist Michael Tomasello14 builds on this idea. He proposes that voluntary attention and metacognition are internalized forms of social cognition, dependent on being able to share intentions, imitate others, and share attention. In short, having a sense of self and being able to attend to your own mind are born from participatory sense-making.

We can now return to enaction. The idea that cognition is enactive is that in being embodied, embedded, and extended, it enacts or brings forth a lived world of meaning and relevance.

Here’s an analogy. A bird needs wings to fly, but the bird’s flight isn’t inside its wings; it’s a relation between the whole animal and its environment. Flying is a kind of embodied action. Similarly, you need a brain to think or to perceive, but your thinking isn’t inside your brain; it’s a relation between you and the world. Cognition is embodied sense-making. More generally, you need a brain to have a human mind, but your mind isn’t inside your brain; it’s a relation between you and the world, including society and culture.

…you need a brain to have a human mind, but your mind isn’t inside your brain; it’s a relation between you and the world, including society and culture.

The enactive approach implies that locating the mind inside the brain gets the boundaries of the cognitive system wrong. A better unit of analysis is the coupled brain-body-world system. This idea is central to “cognitive ecology,” which uses the tools and perspective of enactive cognitive science to study “cognitive ecosystems.”

Edwin Hutchins, one of the principal scientists responsible for cognitive ecology, defines a cognitive ecosystem15 as a system of relationships among cognitive processes and structures in a community. One fascinating example he describes is preliterate Micronesian ship navigation. Micronesian navigators make voyages over large distances across the open ocean by using a frame of reference whose origin is defined by the boat. When they’re out of sight of land, they lie on the boat and imagine that it’s stationary and that the islands are moving past them, while keeping track of the nighttime trajectories of the stars. Navigation emerges from a cognitive ecosystem consisting of cultural practices, habits of attention and imagination, and ways of using the body to interact with one’s material and social surroundings. Cultural practices (sea navigation) orchestrate cognitive capacities (attention, imagination, and body awareness), and thereby enact cognitive performances in the world (sea travel). As the thirteenth-century Zen master Dōgen wrote, using the image of riding in a boat16 as a metaphor of life, “When you ride in a boat, your body and mind and the environs together are the undivided activity of the boat. The entire earth and the entire sky are both the undivided activity of the boat.”

Hutchins calls attention to the perils of leaving out culture in the analysis of human cognition. If the cultural practices are different, the cognitive processes can be different, even if the cognitive systems are otherwise similar. For example, although activation of a part of the brain’s frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is necessary for controlling attention, two brains with similar activation patterns in this area can be engaged in very different cognitive activities, depending on how the two individuals are being culturally orchestrated. It’s not the brain activity by itself but rather how it’s being culturally put to work that matters for understanding the cognitive activities that are being performed.

Evan delivers the keynote address, “What is Mindfulness? An Embodied Cognitive Perspective,” at the 2016 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies.

Implications for Studying the Mind

All of this applies to science, especially cognitive neuroscience.17 Scientific experimentation is a cultural practice. In the case of brain imaging studies, every experiment with human participants deploys cultural practices in a richly structured, cultural context. Given that cultural practices orchestrate cognitive capacities in order to produce cognitive outcomes, attributing the observed cognitive outcomes in a neuroimaging experiment solely to the brains of the participants is unwarranted. How those brains are enmeshed in culture is crucial. Mind doesn’t come just from what’s inside the brain but also from what the brain’s inside of—the physical and social world.

This perspective also has important implications for contemplative science. Although thus far meditation has been studied mainly in individuals, meditation practice depends on social communities of practitioners. These communities involve cultural practices, habits of attending, and ways of using the body. If you’ve practiced meditation in the different settings of a Japanese or North American zendo, an insight meditation center, or a health clinic, you’ll know what I mean. Cultural practices, especially ritual (whether religious or secular), orchestrate cognitive abilities, such as attention and mindfulness, and thereby enact meditation as a cognitive performance. Given that the mental effects of meditation depend on community and cultural orchestration, focusing just on biological and psychological measures of individual practitioners is inadequate.

Recall that meditation, especially mindfulness practice, requires mental abilities (voluntary attention and metacognition) that originate from participatory sense-making and social cognition. When we practice meditation, we’re making use of cognitive skills that come from social cognition. Meditation is social not just because it’s a culturally orchestrated practice carried out in a community. (This is true even for hermits; they’re socially supported, and the meaning they attach to their practice is socially and culturally created.) It’s social also because the cognitive abilities it employs are inherently social.

Meditation is social not just because it’s a culturally orchestrated practice carried out in a community… It’s social also because the cognitive abilities it employs are inherently social.

I don’t mean to imply that everything pertaining to awareness or consciousness is socially constituted. I leave open the question whether there exists a “pure awareness” that transcends the socially configured mind. The concept of pure awareness is important for many Asian contemplative traditions. Still, even if it is possible to “rest” in pure, nondual awareness, the minute one thinks about or conceptualizes the experience, including conceptualizing it as “nondual,” one is in the world of metacognition, language, and social life.

Bringing It Home

I end with three thoughts.

The first one is about contemplative science. From an enactive perspective, we need to move from a predominantly biobehavioral, and especially neurocognitive, perspective to investigating contemplative practices from a cognitive ecology perspective. We should move from focusing just on measures of the brain and behavior to also examining how cultural practices orchestrate the cognitive skills that belong to meditation. Cultural psychology and cognitive anthropology are particularly relevant for this effort.

The second thought is about mind. I began with the thought that mind is inherently relational and can’t be narrowly defined in terms of a structure (the brain) or a location (inside the head). In the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition we find a similar thought: “the mind is neither within nor without, nor is it to be apprehended between the two.” This statement, from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, expresses the idea of nonduality, that the dualities we experience—mind versus world, subject versus object, me versus you, us versus them—are illusory, and that reality and experience are nondual. In the language of Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy, the mind is not “findable under analysis.” It can’t be grasped—either within, without, or between the two. But neither can its ungraspability be grasped. As Robert Thurman writes,18 “The grasping mind cannot grasp its ultimate inability to grasp; it can only cultivate its tolerance of that inability.”

One way to think that the mind can be grasped is to think that it can be pinned down and identified as essentially the brain. But this is to reify the mind and confuse it with one of its principal conditions (at least in animals). Reification—treating something as a mentally graspable thing that exists independently—is precisely the cognitive tendency that Mahāyāna Buddhism identifies as resulting from ignorance, and as the basis of craving and suffering. If we take the Buddhist insight seriously, as well as the insights from enactive cognitive science, we need to ask how we can create a science of mind that remains mindful of the mind’s ungraspability.

The last thought concerns the ethics of knowledge. Given that the quest for knowledge is open-ended and the amount to be known is infinite, yet we are finite beings, what and how should we seek to know? Bateson called for cultivating wisdom—knowledge attuned to the patterns that connect—and love—mutual recognition and care for each other and the biosphere. Seeking knowledge of the mind should be in service to these ends.

The enactive perspective helps us keep these ends in view. It reminds us that the patterns connecting life and mind include the whole Earth in which we live.

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    The Lindisfarne Association lectures by Bateson and Salk can be heard at the Lindisfarne Tapes: See Series C: “Summer Conference 1975,” Tape C-1 (Salk) and Tape C-2 (Bateson).

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