Our Amazing Mind
“MARY, where did you put my fishing reel?”
“On the top shelf of the cabinet in the garage,” the fisherman’s wife replied without hesitation. Though she had put the reel there six months ago, she answered immediately, as if the information were right in front of her, a part of her present consciousness.
Although she was unaware of it, uncounted numbers of impulses from her senses of sight, hearing, touch, and so forth, had bombarded her nervous system every waking second of that past six months. Of that total, eight hundred million of these impulses were important enough to get through to her higher brain center, according to researchers. Yet out of that tremendous mass of information in its “files,” her mind was able to sort out the answer and put it into speech.
While she was doing this, the bombardment of more millions of bits of information continued. At the same time her mind was guiding her in cooking a special dish for her husband’s supper—all this with ease, a routine matter.
It is impossible to describe the many-faceted activities of the housewife’s mind as she did all these things at once. How was it possible? What was involved? Actually, scientists know a few of the things involved but practically nothing about how the mind’s memory “file” works with such speed and precision. Let us look for a moment at the brain, instrument of the mind.
The Human Brain
The human brain, on the average, weighs about three pounds. Brain sizes vary, but the old theory that brain size determines intelligence is a fallacy. Another false idea is that man uses only a small percentage of his brain. There is apparently no part of the brain that is never used. However, this does not mean that anyone’s brain capacity is ever fully used. The question appears to be, How well does he use it, by exercising his mind and storing worthwhile memories in it?
The brain is made up of a soft, jellylike tissue. Encased in the skull, it is surrounded by protective membranes and is cushioned against shocks by the cerebrospinal fluid, which is a plasma that “leaks” from certain blood vessels. Large arteries carry to the brain a richer supply of blood than to any other part of the body, for it uses about one fourth of all the body’s oxygen consumption. However, the brain is extremely efficient. One investigator says that half a peanut provides enough power for an hour of intense mental effort.
The brain is composed of several parts, each having special functions, performing connectedly and interdependently. The part that we are most concerned with at present is the “higher” section, which takes in primarily the cerebrum, with its external layer of gray matter, the cerebral cortex. However, the other parts of the brain cannot be ignored in considering any function of the mind.
We start learning from infancy. A baby must learn nearly all but the most elementary things. A baby’s brain can be likened, in a way, to a road map that has been roughly “sketched out,” having main outlines, but few interconnecting roads. The general mental organization has been inherited, but most other connections have to be made as the child takes in information from a world that is all new to him.
What does the learning process involve? How, for example, did the wife put into her mind the location of the fishing reel so that it “stuck” and could be recalled as needed?
Researchers have suggested certain possibilities. One is that learning, which involves memory, does not increase the number of cells in the brain, but stimulates the nerve fibers to grow extra branches, which communicate chemo-electrically with other nerve cells. Other changes may also be made, as discussed later. Exercise of the brain is therefore essential for mental growth. A brain neuron (nerve cell) has to be used. Otherwise it tends to “wither,” much as an unused muscle does. Not that it completely dies so that it cannot be used at all, but a brain not exercised has a much harder time learning. It will remain immature, not developing the “connections” that it should.
A brain little used is like a library that has only a few books. There is a real scarcity of information. The individual is poorly equipped to face the challenges of life. On the other hand, one who has been brought up in a criminal environment may have put wrong things in his mind and may be very shrewd in the ways that bring “success” criminally, but lacking in the qualities of honesty, mercy and love. And the person who has hate or jealousy in his heart and mind—what does he have to draw upon for guiding his actions? A person who thinks negatively all the time and who sees only the faults and mistakes of others has excluded all the good “books” from his memory “library,” and so has only “books” that feed his hate and critical attitude. Such an individual may be very clever in creating trouble, justifying himself, and so forth, but he should change and begin to develop good patterns of sincere interest in others and in the good things around him.
All of this demonstrates the importance of using our minds on profitable things, really learning. When a person spends his time in idle pursuits, his mind is also “idling.” It is, in a sense, “wasting,” just as his time is also wasted. The Bible recommends keeping the mind on good things. (Phil. 4:8) And the apostle Peter wrote to Christians: “The time that has passed by is sufficient for you to have worked out the will of the nations when you proceeded in deeds of loose conduct, lusts, excesses with wine, revelries, drinking matches, and illegal idolatries.”—1 Pet. 4:3.
Some people will excuse themselves from mental activity with the expression, “I’m too old to learn.” This is not true. It is found that people continue learning at a high rate until their late forties and, actually, learning ability in many persons continues at a high level until the end of their lives.
Sometimes old persons do not answer questions as readily or react as quickly as young people. Why? This is not always due to a slowing down in the nervous system, but is often because older persons are more conservative and cautious. They are more hesitant to make choices under pressure. They have had more experience and often know more, therefore have more things to choose from. While youth may incline toward “snap judgments,” the older person’s conclusions are usually more complete, with greater depth. This is true particularly if the older person has made good use of his mind from youth up.
How Spacious Is Our Memory?
A person’s memory is prodigious, containing untold millions of items of importance to the individual and many more things that are relatively unimportant. Therefore the ten thousand million cells in the cerebral cortex are not enough for storing this, if we view each cell as a little container holding one memory of a particular point or scene. They would all be “full” in a week, considering the constant barrage of information that comes to the brain through the various senses, primarily the eyes.
However, the brain contains one thousand billion billion protein molecules (one followed by twenty-one zeros). Each of these molecules can undergo many changes in its structure and afterward retain the changed shape. This changed structure may represent a new memory impression. As the molecules are replaced by wear, they duplicate themselves so that the replacement molecules are the same. But this is not all. The increase of branches of the nerve cells as the memory grows makes millions of new combinations by their increased “contacts.” By this the possible number of memories becomes indefinite, beyond comprehension. Additionally, other unknown factors seem to exist, to multiply the number even more.
To illustrate how just the one factor, namely, the different combinations of the ten thousand million cells in the cerebral cortex can make an inconceivably high figure: In a deck of only fifty-two cards there are more than 635,000,000,000 different possible bridge hands of thirteen cards each. But this is nothing compared to the multiplied billions of billions more combinations in the brain!
Giving even added capacity to all of this is the way in which memories seem to be stored. When we look at something, say a mountain scene, it is not stored in our brain as an intact image. It is broken up into parts, electrically or chemically coded bits, forming a sort of coded “mosaic.” Then, when we see another scene, certain bits of one scene compare with the other. Cross-comparisons help memory and allow the mind to “experiment” by making these comparisons and contrasts. It might be a comparison of sizes, shapes, colors, of parts of conversations, of Bible passages, of ideas and principles. This greatly enlarges and strengthens memory. It also leads to imagination, reasoning, arriving at new ideas and conclusions. In this process the mind is not doing a mechanical work, or the “drudgery” of mere remembering, but something in which the person takes great pleasure.
George Leonard, author of Education and Ecstasy, amazed at the staggering possibilities of the brain’s neuron interactions, said: “A brain composed of such neurons obviously can never be ‘filled up.’” Some researchers say that everything you have ever seen, heard or experienced is somewhere, somehow, in your memory. Others say that you discard or forget about 90 percent—things of little importance, things you casually see only once or consider unimportant. Your eye may take in a view of a building. The details are there—the number of windows, the names on the offices, and so forth. But your mind does not try to retain these details. Yet the mind sometimes performs feats that seem to belie this idea that it forgets. For instance, you may be able to recall a store you saw in a little town you passed through on your vacation trip. You may see the store clearly, a car standing in front of it, though you had no interest in it at the time.
Nevertheless, the mind generally seems to register impressions, not merely for the purpose of being a large storehouse of facts, but primarily to be useful for future needs. John Pfeiffer, in his book The Human Brain, says: “The word ‘stored’ may be too tame. The brain is a dynamic system of cells. It never stops using and reusing its memory traces, adding new items, or trying new combinations. The abstractions it makes are used, among other things, to help us predict.” Forecasts of weather or business trends, our actions in everyday life, such as buying clothing, are based on our memory of what happened yesterday, or last month, or last year.
An example of how memory serves your immediate, present purpose and is not merely a storage space of past events is this: You may be in a variety store looking for a certain item, say, a spool of red thread. In passing by the counters you pay no particular attention to other items, but look only for thread. However, days later you may need another item—a child’s schoolbook bag. You remember that you saw one in the store. Or it may have been a sign “Book Bags,” which you really paid no attention to at the time. You may not remember exactly where the item is displayed, nor any of the other items nearby. But now you have a need, and memory of this specific item comes flashing to your aid. The memory was there, recalled when there was an “emergency.” Had it not been for the need, it might never have been recalled from your memory “files.”
Memory is so valuable to the individual that to destroy it completely would be a disaster. It would wipe out a large portion of his personality. But there is an unknown “safety factor” that usually prevents such a calamity. Most persons who lose their memory, due to an accident or injury, lose only the recent past. The book The Human Brain, referred to earlier, recounts a report that appeared in the New York Times years ago. It was when Jack Sharkey was contender for the world heavyweight championship. He was walking past Yankee Stadium with his manager. Sharkey remarked:
“I don’t like the looks of that sky. It might rain and I’d hate to have my fight postponed.”
“What fight?” his manager asked.
“Are you my manager or aren’t you?” Sharkey retorted. “I don’t want to surprise you but I’m fighting Jack Dempsey in the Stadium tonight.”
“This may be news to you, but you’ve already fought Dempsey. He knocked you out in the seventh round.”
The book then says:
“Complete blackouts of past episodes are typical of damage to the temporal lobes of the cortex [under the temples on each side of the head]. When the regions are hurt, no memory traces may be formed. Sharkey knew exactly what he was doing during the fight. He recognized his manager, followed advice and put up a good battle. He was completely conscious and had access to past memories. But his brain was not producing records of current events. In other words, the immediate past was represented by short-term memory only, eddying currents in nerve-cell circuits. The eddies stopped after the knockout. Although the previous memories of the boxer were left intact, there was a gap—a ‘hole’ in his past—for the time of the fighting.”
This incident demonstrates that memories very recently made, called “short-term” memories, can be erased. Much more rarely, persons have been known to lose also their earlier, more permanent memory as well, but this has often been restored in time. An enigma as to the location of memory is this: When a person’s brain is stimulated at a certain point by an electric current, he may recall an entire experience of many years ago in sharp detail. Yet, strangely, a brain injury affecting exactly that same part of the brain does not destroy that memory. People have had their brains damaged extensively without seriously affecting their stored (more permanent) memory. Animals have had half their brain disconnected without seriously affecting the things they had learned. Memory seems to have alternate routes, or a “three-dimension” location in the brain, not being restricted to one part—a real protection.
It is important to remember that the mind does not function by itself. The entire body contributes to its operation. All the organs of the body being interrelated, are interdependent, in harmony with the Bible explanation that man is a unit, a soul. (Gen. 2:7; 1 Cor. 12:14-20) Each organ has its effect on the personality. The brain gets its information through the senses. These senses are essential to the brain’s function. They also supply “feedback,” without which the brain would be of little practical use. When you pick up a fruit, perhaps a peach, your eye relays to your mind the position, direction and speed of your hand, constantly making corrections. Your sense of touch tells the mind when the fingers touch the peach, the strength of your grip on it, enough to hold it but not so much that you crush it. At the same time the saliva and other digestive juices may begin to flow in anticipation of eating it.
Developing the Mind for Life and Happiness
What are some factors involved in developing the mind? Language is an important one. It makes memory and the recall of things learned much easier. The importance of the use of language in speech is seen in the brain’s constitution. How? In that an unusually large area of the brain is reserved to control the expressions of the face, especially the mouth, tongue and lips. Speech helps the mind to store up a lot of information in a compact way. Words are “coded” information. Think of all the meaning and associations brought to mind by the word “house.”
Consequently, developing our use of language develops our mind. Use of right speech, expressive words, avoiding vulgarity and obscenity, builds up the memory “library” for profitable use.—Eph. 4:29; Col. 3:8, 9.
Of most vital importance to the development of our mind is our attitude. It governs to a great extent the things we put into our permanent memory. If we love exclusively the things that merely entertain the mind, we may never rise beyond the mental level of a twelve-year-old child. We will not have in our memory the things that our mind needs to be able to piece together to reach serious conclusions on important matters of life. If we focus our love and attention on unessential or degrading things, our memory will be filled with “trash,” and trash is all we will get out of it.
Repetition of good or bad conversation or actions develops in the individual a “spirit” or dominant mental inclination one way or the other. But even if we have let our mind be unused or have dwelt on wrong things to a large extent, we should not despair. It is not too late to get busy and make a recovery, no matter what our age. The apostle Paul said that we can ‘be made new in the “spirit” or dominant attitude that actuates our mind,’ and can “put on the new personality.” (Eph. 4:23, 24, Kingdom Interlinear Translation) Sincerely studying God’s Word, the Bible, will help us to get assistance from God. Thinking about and putting to work the things we learn will arouse our minds to activity and bring them vigor, along with happiness and real purpose in life.
This points inevitably to one feature of the mind that scientists have been unable to observe functioning as they study the brain, but many acknowledge that it is there. That is the capacity for spirituality, the need for a relationship with God. In fact, the mind was created with this capacity. (Gen. 1:26) All men have the desire to worship, and even efforts by atheistic governments have been unable to submerge it completely. If this capacity or need is not satisfied, a man cannot be happy. Jesus Christ repeated God’s words to ancient Israel: “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth,” and, “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.”—Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:8; Deut. 6:13; 8:3; 10:20.
So the mind that does not take in spiritual things is not operating fully according to the way it was made to function. Improper functioning of the mind, in turn, affects the entire person, with deterioration resulting. (Jas. 1:13-15) But we can make our minds over so that they are operating the way their Maker designed them. (Rom. 12:2) There is great satisfaction in life when we do so.
[Diagram on page 16]
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One side of the brain. The mouth, tongue and hands have the largest area of brain tissue devoted to controlling them
[Pictures on page 17]
What a person dwells on is stored up in his memory “library.” Which library would you prefer for proper guidance?
[Picture on page 19]
When we view an object, our brain does not “see” it as a whole. Thousands of nerve cells in the retina of our eye transmit the information in coded “bits” in a sort of mosaic pattern to the brain