The Brain-consciousness knot revisited

Implications for psychopathology, Psychotherapy and Coaching Psychology

Arnon Levy PhD


The paper deals with the age-old problem of the self/brain relationships and its impact upon psychotherapy. Following Gell-mann's suggestion that the scientific project is composed of a hierarchy of complex systems, the author acknowledges that the brain and the self, being parts of the scientific project (biology, psychology), form complex adaptive systems(CAS). While each system in the scientific pyramid cannot exist without the lower, the "higher" systems comprise the lower ones plus additional information. CAS oppose linear causality and the Question "Where Action Begins in the Brain or in the Mind"? becomes irrelevant. While the brain is part of the biological system, the self is influenced in addition by the psycho/socio/cultural systems generated by many brains/minds in history. Mindfulness, imagery, and  stress-reduction demonstrate that the self can generates changes in the brain and the body (brain neuroplasticity, neurogenesis) while paradoxically it is  dependent upon them for its existence. There are common systemic mechanism effecting both the self and the brain such as: self-regulation, self-organization, emergence, actions according to pre-established patterns, and more.  The common mechanisms form a meta-language by which the self , brain and body can communicate to effectively generate desired changes.

Short Historical Review

The Mind-body,brain-consciousness problem Is an ancient problem that concern human cultures for millennia. Plato's suggestion that the soul belongs to the world of forms and ideas, which are the real world, positioned himself with the idealistic approach construing the overpowering of the spirit over matter – the body. Aristotle's position according to which the soul is but the expression of the body's activity and with the death of the body the soul perishes, represent the materialistic approach which is much more common today among scientists (Solms & Turnbull 2005).

Within this short review one cannot overlook Descartes influential dualistic position according to which the mechanistic body and the immortal soul are two separate entities that cannot be reduced to each other.

By and large these attitudes are compatible with the current hypotheses concerning these problemsthat could be summarized as follows:

  1. Materialism versus idealism: idealism says that the mind is "the real thing". The material world, including the brainis the fruit of perceptual representation of the mind. The opposite materialistic approach claims that the mind is the product of brain activity' nothing more.
  2. Monism vs. dualism ": The monist would say that mind and brain are different expressions of the same thing. The dualist, like Descartes, claims that the soul and the body are 2 different entities that can't be reduced

Current Approaches

These classical philosophical positions concerning the brain-consciousness relationships were historically influenced by traditional philosophical approaches such as Epistemology, Ontology, Idealism etc. In recent years, developments in Neuroimaging and advanced technological research apparatus such as FMRI, Pet Scan, MEG, NMR have changed the scene. These high tech facilities joinedaccelerated progress in brain lesions research and generated great interest in the field by neuroscientists. Now scientists felt that science can solve this intricate philosophical problem. Neuroscience, anew multidisciplinary science,  was born and unitedneurologists, psychologists, linguists, philosophers and computer scientists. The new knowledge inspired scientists to solve this hard riddle of brain/consciousness and the last decade of the 20th century was solemnly declared by the USA past president Bush as "the decade of the Brain" (ibid).

The Easy Problem and the Hard Problem

However, D. Chalmers claims (1996) that the present brain research,can significantly contribute to the solution of what he callsthe easy problem. The easy problem is the relationships between brain functions, structure, and localizations.In this field the progress done is immense.

The hard problem, says Chalmers is of a different order. How our aspirations, fears, dreams and passions stem from biochemistry  ?

A Knot or a loop ? Beyond the hard and easy problem.

As much as researchers made progress in the easy problem it seems that there is no consensual solution to the hard problem. It seemsthat this intriguing problem challenges us not only intellectually but is paved with our worst anxieties of the insignificance of our subjective inner world.

 It seems that the intricate problem leads us into a loop that bring many scholars to claim that the problem could not be solved (Solms & Turnbull 2005). The problem is not only about what comes first brain or mind in terms of cause and effect, but implicitly also raises the question as what is the "real thing" and what is its representation?

To be more explicit, within this knot, scientists are challenged in the value of theirmethodology by formulating hypothesis that are on the limits of science. Philosophers are challenged with hazardous situation to human intellectual freedomand to the value of human subjective life and the unique singularity of the human subjective experience.

Let us try to identify the elements of the loop

  1. The first one is that we are so fascinated by the immense complexity and tremendous abilities of the brain, described byEdelman (Edelman G. M. & Tononi Giulio 2000)as the most complex "thing" in the universe that we tend to ignore the fact that the brain is part of a wonderful complexity of the human organism, of life, and of the natural world.
  2. The question of brain/consciousness cannot stand alone and is part of a larger question of body and mind. Damasio (2003) suggested that the human organism generates emotions for survival. The emotions originate  in the body's perception of the inner and external world and form in the brain neural maps that become represented in consciousness.
  3. We know that even though the brain is at the center of mental activity there are many neurons in different regions of the body outside the brain that significantly influence the mind and human behavior. It was found that the brain cannot function without the entire organism,its perceptions and sensations. Deprived of information emanating from the body the brain functioning becomes chaotic (Mason OJ1, Brady F. 2009)to the dismay of those who believe that the conservation of the individual brain or its digital replication may grant them with eternal life.
  4. Our position is that once we acknowledge the fact that the brain is a complex adaptive system part of larger systems (the human organism, the living world, nature) we make a meaningful step forward to resolve the problem.

The Scientific project as an integrative system made of different dynamic sub-systems

Murray Gell-Mann suggests (1995) that the scientific project is composed of one integrative system made of different dynamic sub-systems placed in hierarchical order from elementary physics through chemistry, biology, to psychology and we may add Sociology and ecology at the top. Each discipline contains the laws of the discipline below however the "higher" discipline accumulates additional information and develop additional laws to deal with its particular environment.

The scientific project, says Gell-Mann, is the study of the laws of the different disciplines. The study is performed from up/down and down/up and the scientific project enables us to build bridges between the disciplines. Gell-Mann approach is compatible with Kurt Gödel (         ) incompleteness theorem according to which a the axioms of a system cannot be proven    within the system but by another system.

Can we consider the self to be part of the scientific project?

  • The self is not a scientific fact. No one saw a self by a microscope, telescope or naked eye but its existence seems obvious to us. Damasio comprehends the self as a concept representing the subjective experience (qualia) of the organism. While the brain is part of the biological system, the self is a central concept in psychology that fulfills (Serena Chan 2001) the criteria for Complex Adaptive Systems.  It is dynamic, it adapts and evolves with the changing environment and its  general attributes are as follows:
  1. Lack of central Control: although the individual self gives the illusion of central control we know that human behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values are highly influenced by the cultural and experiential environment especially of early life. The spontaneous organization of these attributes creates the individual self and not vice versa.
  2. Interrelationships and co-evolution: Change in one of the elements of the system may change the system and other related systems. In mental or spiritual life new convictions, environmental influence, new beliefs and external coercion change the position and behavior of the individual and create changes in his brain(new memories,  patterns of action).
  3. Dependence on initial condition – a word, a thought, an imagination today may generate radical consequences like total change in lifestyle or belief system, homicide, suicide or altruistic acts. This is especially prevalent in the influence of early experiences as every psychotherapy client acknowledges.
  4. Emergence and self-organization: the human mind and behaviors are subject to countless factors from the biological setup, environmental conditions, cultural influences, psychotherapy etc. All these condition create new patterns often unpredictable in the individual and his life.
  5. State of paradox: Dynamic systems evolve on the edge of Chaos between order and Chaos. Human life is conflictual and moves between the need for order provided by cultural paradigms and uncertainty and chaos related to doubts about the future and unknown life circumstances. So human behavior will always be between order and chaos, stability and change, competition and cooperation etc.

Scientific disciplines are complex adaptive systems that influence one another but not by causal relationships. They are modified by laws of synergy, co-evolution, interdependence and interrelations.

Consequently to this, the body/brain, cannot affect the mind by causal relationships and we can’t talk of what comes first – brain or mind. The relations between the two are of co-evolution: any initial change in one of them may generate changes in the other and in the whole ecosystem: the atomic-physical, chemical-molecular, biological-cellular, psychological-behavioral, cultural-linguistic-social

We know that bio-feedback, psychotherapy, mindfulness, life coaching or mental training can change the brain by neurogenesis  and neuroplasticity.In parallel, psychotropic drugs or emergence occurring in a hyper-complex functioning of the brain can generate insights and changes in the mind. These are the relations of co-evolution.

We may say than that since the brain and the self are complex adaptive systems they exercise relationships of co-evolution rather than causal relationships. They influence each other and evolve together, yet we claim that while the existence of the self depends on the functioning brain, the self functioning as a “higher” system in Gell-Mann’s scientific hierarchy has additional features.

Brain vs. mind(A)

The brain/body contains integrated knowledge from millions of years of evolution. From evolutionary perspective the brain was not programmed for thinking but for survival.

Brains are programmed by natural selection to search shelter, to forage food and provisions, to breed, to sleep and dream, and in higher mammals, to search for power and status (being Alfa male or female), to play and to search comfort and well-being.

These features are represented in behaviors of humans and in animals.

When a pride of lionesses prepare an ambush and they see that the prey escapes towards the woods, They might change their strategy and tactics in real time in collaboration with the other lionesses to block the way of the prey. Animals experience feelings, learn from their experiences and recall memories. Why are we not overwhelmed by the fact that the animal “mind” is the representation of the animal brain like we do with humans ?

The reason seems clear. Animals  do not write poetry, do not fly to the moon and cannot understand Kant's "The critic of pure reason". Besides having lower brain capacities they do not have the language, culture and civilization of humans that enable human achievements.

Can we say that the accumulation of the extraordinary achievements of the human spirit originates only in the brain functioning ?

or is it the result of accumulation of millions of human brains throughout human cultural histories ? Could we transmit the immense cultural heritage without using verbal and mathematical language ?

We know that the subjective experience of the few known cases of children that grew up in the wild (Zingg. R. M. 1940), dissociated from human culture, is closer to the animals that took care of them rather than to humans.

We can sum this part by saying that the brain's basic features, derived from survival needs, are common to humans and other species and they generate the basic features of the mind.

On the evolutionary basis, the self develops its cultural accomplishments and creates a unique CAS which by co-evolution and self-organization develops itself and the brain in an ever growing synergy. 

The difference between brain  and mind B

The higher functions of the self like free choice, the creation of value system and personal vision, self-actualization, future planning, decision making, the need to create meaningful authentic life and to leave a footprint in the world beyond the material existence, are the fruit of human cultures. They co-evolve with the brain that needs to support these features and consequently changes by neuroplasticity and neurogenesis and creates more neuronal networks and thus develops and co-evolves with the self.

An individual can decide to starve himself to death, become a suicide bomber, or burn himself to death, because of social pressures, ideology or his value system and thus with himself he kills the brain and the body contrary to the law of survival that guides the brain . And it seems that the brain can do nothing about it.

The wonderful transformation of simplicity into complexity

We agree with F.  Crick ( 1994 ) that consciousness is the result of complex activity of many neurons together. Like our computers that are based on simple connections between electric chips and produce wonderful complex programs and applications.

However, the higher part of the self mainly influenced by culture can be demonstrated in this metaphor as an artificial intelligence device.

Artificial intelligence devices, as  sophisticated as they are, depends upon the hardware, like consciousness upon the brain. If we  remove their energy source they will stop functioning.

However, an artificial intelligence device could be programmed to develop independently ways to create backup systems, then, it becomes independent of his programmer/creator as we sometimes see in horror films where computers take over humans.

Likewise, the existence    of cultures depends    on human brains but    its “products” goes far beyond.  

What is the distinction of humans in the natural world

The distinction of humans in the natural world is neither in their brain volume, nor is it in the human genome that is not very different than that of other primates.

It is not even in the co-evolution of the brain and the self. Co-evolution of the brain and the primary self in animals, is simply the act of learning existing also in the natural world.

The distinction of the human self from in the  natural world is the co-evolution of the brain with human cultural “products”. These products has been generated by millions of human brains throughout history, and their effect on the brain and on the self in return is exponential.

Following my previous words we can divide the self into three functional parts. This division reminds us with the Triune brain model suggested by Paul MacLean:

The higher self: includes the self's predisposition to create value systems, meaningfulness, free choice, spirituality etc.

 The higher self is inseparable from culture and the society in which lives the individual.

The middle self: includes the ego and the automatic pilot, highly correlated with what Kahanman, entitled as system one.

System one, is the operational aspect of the self, formed by natural selection, and composed of algorithms of behavior, assimilated in the brain to create rapid action essential to survival.

The deep self: is highly correlated with the core self, or the nuclear self. It is composed of collective memories that unite humanity.

It is epitomized by information formed of phylogenetic and ontogenetic human evolutionary and individual experiences.

The deep self feeds the middle and the higher parts of the self. It forms the automatic pilot behaviors in the middle self, and in the higher self, it creates representations which express the human life story such as human values, myths, ceremonies, archetypes and the ground for the foundation of human cultures.


 We suggest that many types of psychopathology derive from discordance between the biological (brain/body) system and the psycho-cultural (consciousness/self).

We said that the brain is programmed to increase chances of survival and enhance learning to better adapt to changing environments in nature and to avoid life-threatening situations.

However, humans do not usually live in nature but within a civilization where the self is mainly exposed to symbolic hazards.

For ex. Be the self constantly criticized by parents, humiliated by teachers in front of friends or by boss in front of colleagues. In  situations as such, the self will react like the animal in the wild, to form a Fight or Flight Response and to develop stress reaction.While in the wild, once the threat is over the parasympathetic branch takes control and brings the body back into a balanced state.In human cultures, the self forms new neurological response patterns activated in similar situations as if they were life-threatening and not symbolic hazards.

Consequently the self creates repeating stress formations in form of shame, regret, and low self value. Some other stress formations “go down” to the deep self and might create information within the deep self, not accessible to the higher self, in forms of anxieties, depression, wounded self value etc.  


We can mention only the guidelines. Let me just say that we offer a meta-structure that can incorporate many of the existing forms of psychotherapy.

The first stage of psychotherapy is to separate the functioning of the middle self from the unsuccessful learnings patterns formed by the higher or deep self and to restore stress-free spontaneous activity.The separation can be done by various forms of psychotherapy that we cannot describe here. When the middle self becomes liberated from the unsuccessful learnings patterns its functioning becomes spontaneous and constantly improving by new learnings from its experiences.

The second stage is the creation of synchronization between the parts of the self. While the higher self provides the individual with meaningfulness, the deep self is more related to authenticity. When the two meet in the individual he may experience a flow-like situation.

As described by Csíkszentmihályi (1990), flow is the intense and focused concentration on the present moment, merging of action and awareness, loss of ego feeling and self-consciousness, and lack of time perception.

We suggest that these situations are not    assimilated with the  search for happiness so popular today.These situations derive from a sense of    authenticity emanating from the deep self    and meaningfulness originating in the higher self  and their activation within the middle self.

So our final purpose is facilitating and empowering the client to exercise the flow-like situation where authentic and meaningful behaviors are performed spontaneously in the here and now co-evolving with the brain that creates new patterns of activity.

Since the self and the brain use the same meta language of CAS, once these behaviors are assimilated into the brain, it will continue to enhance the new behaviors in the integrated self. 




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