Between the Brain and the Mind: Knowing (or SOCK)

Fluorescent image, obtained using multiphoton excitation (MPE) microscopy, showing the brain neurons of a live mouse expressing GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein). Image courtesy of Carlos Portera-Cailliau, UCLA and Coherent.

We know that the brain's neural firing generates activity in the mind, but in the past 15 to 20 years, we've come to understand that the opposite is also true, that the mind can influence the structure of the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity showed that instead of the previous scientifically-held belief that the brain stopped developing after the age of two, and thereafter only experienced the decline in the number of neurons in the brain, we are actually capable of activating and even creating new neurons into our senior years. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). 

In this way, we see that the brain and the mind create each other.  Before embarking on how their functions correlate, it would be useful to distinguish their roles and capacities.

Obviously, the brain is the organ, and the mind is something generated out of the brain's processes, but a little more ethereal because aside from just knowing, we can know that we know- something unique to the human brain. Daniel Siegel defines the mind as the process that regulates the flow of energy and information. 

The mind comes up with concepts through SOCK- sensation, observation, conceptions- they all lead to knowing.  The energy and information that comes in through the S- Sensations is experienced on two levels: internal sensations (travelling from the visceral organs to the Pre-frontal cortex in the forehead region) and external sensations (travelling from the peripheral nervous system to the sensory area of the cortex at the top of the head). 

We have energy and information coming in through the O: Observation, as well.  Siegel describes observation as the key that unlocks the doors to sensation.  You're talking to a friend or relative and you're really present, and you notice something about them you hadn't noticed before- perhaps a smile line, or the worry they seem to be carrying, which leads to a sensation of tenderness arising from the chest area, or you feel tightness because your mirror neurons are picking up on their worries.  Observation keeps us from careening from moment to moment on automatic pilot.

There is energy and information coming in through the C: Conception.  Our mental concepts can keep us from direct sensation, sure, but mindfulness teachers remind us not to play favorites among what arises- sensations, observations, and concepts- are all to be treated like a welcome guest and allowed to pass through.  Conception can in fact integrate what we've picked up through sensations and observation into a deeper kind of wisdom than had we been operating out of the prison of ordinary living.

Finally, when each of these three streams-- sensation, observation, and conceptializing-- converge, they reach the headwaters of K: Knowing.  The S, O, and C allow us to Know the present moment, "a knowing paradoxically without words, without concepts, without sensations.  This knowing is a kind of subterranean stream, beneath this valley of the present moment, a formless Knowing" (Siegel, 2007).

Practicing mindfulness over a period of time has shown to have an effect on the structure of the brain- thickening affected areas of the brain, or creating new neuropathways- even new neurons.  The mind and the brain work hand-in hand to build and shape each other.

Join the Conversation