Personhood – Location of the Mind (and Understanding Dementia)

In the posting titled  Personhood – Which Comes First Death of the Body or Departure of the Soul[1]  I grappled with the question of the mind. Science can show that activities of the mind and physical activities in the brain are connected but science does not prove that the mind is simply a function of physical brain activity. Clearly, for others to know that thoughts are occurring in a person’s mind the person must have a functioning brain to express the thoughts through. Actually, more than just a functioning brain is usually required. Except when there is some kind of real time brain scanner, such as a functional MRI scan, assessing the brain, we can only know that the mind is active when the brain uses the physical attributes of the body to express the activity of the mind, such as the movement of the lungs, vocal cords and mouth, etc. This does not necessarily mean that a person’s brain must be functioning in order to think. There are examples of people who because of brain malfunction have temporarily lost the ability to move or speak, who were later able to reveal that, during the time of lost function, their minds were active. The question before us is this. Is there some area of the brain that is the mind, or is the mind other than the brain and only, in a sense, making use of the brain? I accept that the center of the mind in our bodies is the brain but is the brain the mind?

The Bible describes mankind as having a body and a soul, that remain united until death.  After death, the body goes to the ground and the soul goes to God. A more detailed description of this can found in an essay I wrote, titled Comments on the Doctrine of Body and Soul.[2] Whether one believes that the mind is physical and is part of the brain or that the mind is other than the brain depends on what one believes about the nature of reality. If you believe that reality is only the physical stuff of the universe along with the interaction between the pieces of stuff, then you will likely believe that the brain is the mind. If you believe that reality is found in a personal, infinite, eternal, wise, all powerful, God, as described in the Bible, then you you will likely believe that the mind, although connected to the brain, is other than the brain. To test the truth of any theory of reality we can look at whether the parts of the theory consistently fit together in a way that is consistent with reality of the world we live in. How does the biblical description of the mind hold up in the face of a problem like dementia where a person progressively “loses their mind?”

If we begin with the Biblical teaching of body and soul and we consider all physical or material aspects of our being as “body” and all non physical or immaterial aspects of our being as “soul,” then what do we make of the brain? The cells and all of the molecules of water, proteins, carbohydrates and salts etc. needed to make a cell work, are physical. But what about the messages that move between the molecules of the cells? Scientists have continued to delve deeper into this question.  We know messages move along nerves with the movement of electrons as different charged molecules move in and out of the cells.  We know that messages move from one nerve ending to the next by molecules, like acetylcholine,  moving across the gap between nerve endings.  We know damage or interference of such movement can disrupt or modify the movement of messages.  We know that certain types of thoughts can be found to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.  But where to these thoughts come from?  If the brain does not function, do thoughts cease to exist?

The Bible suggests our thoughts do not cease to exist.  At death, the body, including the brain, returns to the dust and the soul goes to God. (Ecclesiastes 3) The thoughts of some souls are recorded in The Revelation 6:9-11.[3] Their physical brains have gone to the dust and ceased to function but their minds continue to think. The bible teaches that the body and soul are connected in life and that they separate from one another at the time of death.  The thoughts which are part of the soul continue.

Consider the problem of a progressive dementia. Mom or dad are not the same as they used to be. They do not even seem like the same person. What has happened to their mind? Have they really lost their mind? If brain is the mind, then, when the mind part of the brain is lost, the mind is lost. Such a conclusion is without hope. If the mind is other than brain, we come to a far less distressing conclusion, which leaves us with hope. If the mind is not the brain, what is happening in a progressive dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease? If we have a material body and an immaterial soul, then the part of us that includes our mind, the soul, needs the body to communicate in a material way. For our mind to properly take in or receive what others are saying or doing and what is going on around us, we need properly functioning senses, properly functioning nerves to carry the message to the brain and a properly functioning brain to process the information delivered from the sense organs. If the sense organs, the nerves or the brain distorts the information that is delivered to the mind, then the mind will have, at best, a distorted understanding of events. On the other hand, for our mind to properly communicate verbally to others in this world, we need a properly functioning brain, as well as lungs, vocal cords, facial muscles, etc. If any part of our material body involved in communication, including our brain, is not functioning properly then the mind may not be able to communicate with those around them effectively.

Consider the example of a computer.  The cognitive part of the mind of the computer is other than the physical parts of the computer. Consider the program (and programmer) and memory as the thinking part of the computer and connections, screen, keyboard, etc as the physical parts.  The micro-processor is like the brain.  It is not the program or the memory but the program and the memory depend on a properly functioning microprocessor.  It is the programmer, or mind of the computer, who ultimately directs the computer in what to do with the information that is input into it and how to respond to the information.   If all of the pathways in the computer remain functioning and programs (the cognitive mind) of the computer remain unchanged then the computer, ultimately, will respond as expected each time information is input.  The computer will follow the path that it was programmed to follow, which is the path the mind of the computer directed it to follow.

Now let us assume that the various input devices, which are all part of the physical computer, like the keyboard, the camera and microphone are damaged so that they do not provide the information to the “brains” of the computer in the way that the programmer (the mind) expects them to.  The program is now dealing with faulty information and will now respond to that faulty information rather than to the information that was actually inputted. As a result, the computer will respond in an unexpected way.  And let us assume that the output devices, like the screen and the speakers, are also faulty.  The programmer (the mind) has directed the “brains” of the computer to respond in a certain way to the information that has been inputted into the computer. But the final outcome will be different than expected due to a faulty screen and speakers.  If the input is seriously messed up, the programmer (the mind) will have difficulty recognizing what those who are imputing information are trying to say.  And if the output is seriously messed up then those those expecting a response will not recognize the response the programmer (the mind) was trying to provide.

Now, what if the “brains of the computer (the microprocessor) is messed up, and do not handle the information the way the programmer (the mind) expects.  The same kinds of problems with communication and understanding between the programmer and the one using the computer, as have all ready been mentioned, will exist.  So if the input devices, the output devices or the brains of the computer malfunction, the mind (the programs and information collected) will not be able to communicate effectively and, from the outside, the computer will appear confused, even though the programmer or mind is functioning in a normal way.

Now let us return to our loved one with dementia.  According to many in our society, people with dementia progressively lose their minds.  What is happening?   The body and soul view of a person, found in the Bible, does not require that the mind be lost in order for a person to appear to have lost their mind.  The mind, that is other than the physical body, is dependent on the physical body to receive information from those around them and to provide a response to the information received.  As our loved one’s physical neurological system deteriorates and becomes less able to provide the mind with an accurate picture of what is going on around them and less able to let others know what our loved one’s mind is thinking, then there will be communication problems and it may even seem like the mind is being lost.  The person’s mind may not be able to appreciate what we are trying to communicate to them, not because the mind itself is not functioning correctly but because the body (including the brain) that the mind of the person uses to communicate is distorting the information.  Likewise the person’s mind may not be able to communicate effectively to us what they are trying to communicate.  For the mind of a person to be connected to such a body with such dysfunction could be very frustrating. When working with people with dementia one can often see what appears to be frustration. This reality fits with the biblical soul/body or mind/body view of mankind.

This nature of reality that accepts that man is soul and body connected together until death and believes that the mind is connected to the body and thus to the brain but is not the physical brain or even a part of the brain, has great hope, even in the event of a progressive dementia illness or even a severe brain injury.  Yes, for a time, the mind connected to the malfunctioning body is somewhat limited when it comes to interacting in the world.  But, this reality, outlined in the Bible, promises that one day the mind will be separated from its broken body.  At death the body goes to dust and decomposes in the earth, while the soul or the mind goes to God.  The promise is even greater than this.  This broken world will be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth and all those who accept and live according to the reality outlined in the Bible will have their minds reunited to new bodies that will have no brokenness, such as dementia or brain injury.

So far this discussion has assumed that all of the dysfunction seen in a person with an illness like dementia is due to malfunction in the physical part of the person. We have assumed that the non physical mind remains intact and functioning. There is more to the story. As well as speaking of the relationship of mind and body, the Bible also speaks of the depravity of the mind and of the renewing of the mind. I will not take time to consider this in detail, but I do want to point out that, according to the Bible, the mind too can run into problems. In chapter one of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul says that men are given enough information to know about God. He says that because men refused to give glory to God or to give thanks to Him that their foolish hearts were darkened. This reference to heart is referring to the mind. Paul says that although they thought they were wise, they became fools. Biblical foolishness includes anything that is against God. This includes many things that our society considers normal but it also includes things like outburst of wrath and inappropriate sexual behaviour. There is much outward foolishness in our society but there is also much that each of us keeps secret in our minds. In people with dementia it is not uncommon to see people begin to express some of these behaviours that are linked to such foolish thoughts. I suspect that this happens because, along with the physical deterioration of the brain, there is an increased difficulty controlling what we say and do. The physical barriers to mind communication that the dementia brain presents can account for a lot of what we see with dementia, but some of the problem behaviours of demented people are due to depravity or foolishness of mind that was there before the dementia and is now showing through in behaviours more often. This may explain why some people with dementia often seem sweet and kind while others seem angry and upset. This can be a difficult part of biblical body-soul description of life to accept. But each of us has depravity or foolishness of mind. The Bible calls this sin. True freedom from progressing down this path of foolishness is found in God. Those who accept the Biblical God have their sins forgiven, even those sins that may still show themselves in dementia.

In summary, the Biblical description of a person that includes body and soul, or physical and mind, where the mind is not physical and is other than the physical brain,  provides a comforting explanation of what happened when we are faced with a dementing illness in one of our loved ones. That the biblical description also makes sense when we consider reality and provides support for the truth of this Biblical view of reality.

Some questions remain.  Given that the mind is not the brain and the brain is a physical tool used by the mind, along with the rest of the body, to communicate with others in this world, how connected is the mind to the brain?  Does a person with a living body (one with circulating oxygenated blood) need a functioning brain for the soul or mind to still be connected to the body?  If so, how much brain function needs to remain present for the soul to remain connected?  Hopefully, I can find time to grapple with these questions in another blog posting.


[1] Link to Personhood – Which Comes First Death of the Body or Departure of the Soul

[2]Link to Comments on the Doctrine of Body and Soul on
Link to Comments on the Doctrine of Body and Soul found on Spindleworks

[3] From Revelation 6:9-10 – I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.  And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”


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