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Understanding the mind

August 25, 2021
Michael Reilly
Simon Simard

Inside the three-pound lumps of mostly fat and water inside our heads we can, in a very real sense, find the root of everything we know and ever will know. Sure, the universe gave rise to our brains. But what good is the cosmos without brains and, more specifically, minds? Without them, there’d be no understanding, no appreciation, no probing of great mysteries. Which is what this issue is all about: our quest to understand what’s between our ears, and in so doing, better understand ourselves.

A friendly warning: you are in for some mind-bending stuff. As Lisa Feldman Barrett notes in our opening essay, our brains create our minds specifically to preserve our bodies and pilot them through our environment. “Your brain did not evolve to think, feel, and see,” she writes. “It evolved to regulate your body. Your thoughts, feelings, senses, and other mental capacities are consequences of that regulation.” Basically, our minds create a fiction for us to live in.

Nathan McGee knows a thing or two about having his mind bent. After suffering from PTSD since early childhood, he enrolled in a clinical trial in his 40s to test whether the psychedelic drug MDMA could help him. The result was nothing short of transformative. “I’m seeing life as a thing to be explored and appreciated rather than something to be endured,” he told Charlotte Jee in an intimate interview about his experience. 

Similarly, for those of us experiencing pandemic fatigue, Dana Smith has some good news: our brains definitely took a hit as we social-distanced and Zoomed ourselves into oblivion, but they’re also really, really good at bouncing back. Your pandemic brain will heal; just give it time.

Messing with our heads can also be fun, as Neel Patel tells us. He writes about a talent he developed as a teenager: lucid dreaming. The science behind it is still being worked out, but it’s proving useful for helping people unlock their creativity and deal with fears and traumatic memories.

It is perhaps in dreams where the power of our minds to hold sway over what we believe is “real” is most clearly on display. In a roundup of three fascinating new books on human perception, writer Matthew Hutson quotes one author: “You could even say that we’re all hallucinating all the time. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call reality."

There’s still the question of what it means to be conscious. For a long time, we humans clung to the idea that we were the only conscious animals. It’s one of several misunderstandings about brains that David Robson and David Biskup put the lie to in comic-strip form. Not only is consciousness hard to define, but it has been extremely difficult to measure. Yet there is now a consciousness meter to detect it in people, as Russ Juskalian finds out. 

Consciousness in silicon form is on Will Douglas Heaven’s brain these days; he ponders whether we’d know it if we managed to build a conscious machine. Dan Falk asks researchers whether they think a brain is a computer in the first place. And Emily Mullin takes a look at two multibillion-dollar efforts to study the human brain in unprecedented detail—one of which involved trying to simulate one from scratch.

No issue on the mind would be complete without a chance to gaze upon the gray matter itself, and there are brains aplenty in our haunting photo essay documenting a library of malformed specimens. If that’s too much, zoom in on our infographic that depicts what happens in Tate Ryan-Mosley’s brain when she sees her boyfriend’s face. And finally, we’ve included a rare treat indeed: a selection of poetry curated by our news editor, Niall Firth. It’s guaranteed to jangle your neurons into a new way of viewing this thing we call “reality.”

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