The mind's three levels
The mind and brain activity: the first level
In taking for granted that mental activity – as perceived by the conscious Ego – is determined by the functioning of the neural networks of the brain, it is better to highlight how there are substantial differences in the way the brain functions operate, which are reflected in the quality of our mental activity, making it possible to identify at least three substantially different levels. First of all, on the physical level the brain receives and interprets the signals and stimuli, coming both from the external world and from our own body, as far as it is allowed by the development of the nervous system, which shows some limits: for example, we are not able to perceive electromagnetic frequencies outside the range of colors, nor acoustic frequencies above 20 kHz, while dogs, cats and other animals can hear much higher frequencies. This brain activity in part remains unconscious, and partly results in conscious mental activity, which can be focused with greater or lesser intensity depending on the level of attention and interest aroused in the Ego (always through brain circuits).
This first level of brain activity (and the consequent mental activity perceived by the conscious Ego) concerns the functioning of the body in its interactions with the environment: being related to the natural evolution of our body, it is also present in animals, in greater or lesser measure depending on their degree of evolution. On the mental plane, we can attribute to this level the perception of pain, pleasure, and most emotional and instinctive reactions, such as fear, anger or compulsive desires, which trigger real somatic automatisms. Against these mechanisms the control power of the Ego is usually minimal, given that they are activated at the levels of the cerebellum, the brainstem, the diencephalon and the evolutionary more archaic structures of the limbic system. Mentally, the Ego is involved in an intense and engaging feeling, towards which it fails to differentiate itself except with difficulty and with an effort of will, provided that it has acquired the resources necessary to activate those areas of the cortex capable of interacting with the instinctive mechanisms that determine the animal aspects of the functioning of our body.
The second level's lower aspect
The second level of mental activity has two aspects, which we can call lower and higher. The lower level is made up of the conditioning and cultural programs that are transmitted to us from the beginning of our life, and later through education and information structures. Often the conditioning systems are linked to the mental reactions of the first level, through a reinforcement activity based on reward and punishment, made possible thanks to the emotional reactions of the first level, which represent the constant background of our human life. With regard to learning, however, an innate interest in knowledge must be highlighted, which in some people is present to a greater extent than others, which is accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction every time a new element of knowledge is integrated inside our mental organization. At this level, however, the activity of acquiring cognitive information is completely conditioned by the temporal and geographic location of the culture through which the information is transmitted, and the programming is more effective the more the brain to which it is directed is young and the method of transmission is intense. Every non-injured brain is therefore predisposed to acquire the one or the other form of knowledge system developed up to that specific historical moment by the culture in which the organism (of which that brain is a part) is brought up: it is a real programming, which teaches the brain how to interpret the world and how to react and behave in various circumstances.
The programs, of course, can be transmitted from brain to brain because every new brain is set up to receive them. In all cultures – and in particular in complex ones – the brains are interconnected in a network, and organized structures are created for the transmission and spread of certain programs. At the base of these transmissions there is the acquisition of a language, which occurs already in the first years of life and which constitutes, so to speak, the operating system that makes the transmission of the other programs possible. Different cultures are characterized by the use of different languages, and the understanding of a culture different from one's own requires first of all the learning of its language. The functioning of most human brains is blocked at this level: from the point of view of mental activity, the Ego shows submission towards the programs and conditionings received, at least as long as these programs do not conflict with the natural requests of the first level. But even in this case, the conscious Ego will suffer the effects of such conflicts without having the resources to be able to control them and process them autonomously. Eventually it will seek, within its cultural network of reference, other programs that can alleviate the suffering caused by internal conflicts.
A certain activity of autonomous processing by the brain's neural networks may also be present at this level, if nothing else, because the mental experiences that progressively occur throughout a person's life sometimes require a different and more effective organization of neural circuits, as far as the plasticity of the brain can allow it. However, at this level, the ability to compare the existing programs and independently develop new creative solutions that can then be translated into advanced cultural programs, to be transmitted to other brains, is lacking. A well-functioning brain manifests its intelligence even at this level, performing diligently and efficiently the tasks assigned to it, and can manifest forms of gratification on the mental level associated with the feeling of having done one's duty to other people's benefit. If things go well, a brain of this level can grant a serene and active life, with few existential problems. In negative conditions, this type of brain stubbornly proceeds with the tasks assigned to it, insensitive even to the suffering it can cause to others.
Since it is evident that cultural programs transmitted to the brain vary from one culture to another, change according to the transformations to which a culture is subject over time (due, in fact, to the changes in the programs which spread in the brains network), and – in complex cultures – can be very different within the same culture, we must attribute to the brain an autonomous creative faculty, not equally developed in all brains. The cognitive framework offered to us by neurosciences is not yet able to give us an exhaustive explanation of how the human brain is able to create, but certainly the conscious Ego of many humans directly experiences the mental dynamics that determine new creative elaborations.
The second level's higher aspect
The upper aspect of the second level is represented by the creative activity of the mind, which can be traced back to brain activity – provided that we could understand how this can occur in the context of neural circuits – but which should anyway be considered as a reflection of the creative activity of the Mind in relation to the physical universe. It is evident that the creative faculty is – in some brains – much more developed than the average. It manifests itself above all as an activity of elaboration of programs already culturally acquired, in search of new solutions for problems and needs that arise in the social context: this is what happens in the field of engineering or architecture, where creative ideation, design and planning precede the realization. Intense intelligent creative activity is also necessary in scientific research, both to develop new experiments that allow us to understand what happens at dimensional levels that are beyond our senses and the tools we already have, and to elaborate new theories explanatory of natural laws. In the artistic field – in the musical composition, in the writing of a novel, etc. – a more free individual creativity manifests, that is less bound to social needs.
As far as mental activity is concerned, we can only consider the conscious aspects of creative activity, which takes place largely on an unconscious level. The conscious Ego engages all the mental resources at its disposal, concentrating the attention and focusing its intelligence, in an often fatiguing process, many aspects of which are beyond its capacity for understanding and control. When the results of this process of creative elaboration reach consciousness, they can be examined and evaluated as more or less satisfactory. While assuming that creative processing develops through brain activity, both in its conscious and unconscious aspects, at the current state of our knowledge on the functioning of neural networks we can only hypothesize an intense work of activating new complex circuits and processing of associated information, but the essence of the creative phenomenon remains mysterious. Unless we want to assume a conscious activity already at the level of the single neuron, the creation of a new circuit of neural connections should be considered as a tuner of a new mental (psychic) event, which through consciousness would be transmitted into the physical world.
A particular creative activity of the brain is represented by dreaming, both in its ordinary manifestations and in the less common ones. Although it is true that for the most part dreams are forgotten, or are remembered for a day or two and then forgotten, some dreams are imprinted on the long-term memory and become part of the Ego's heritage of memories. As for normal dreams, we cannot speak of a conscious mental activity like that of the waking state: the Ego is more or less involved in the events of a dream, within which it can also be able to act, to think, to feel emotions and to make decisions, but the state of dream consciousness is different, in intensity and in intentional attention, from that of waking. Only in some lucid dreams and in conscious dreams the state of consciousness of the Ego is indistinguishable from that of waking, and the Ego – like Alice in Wonderland – discovers that it is able to interact with a strange world, often with magical connotations. Apart from this kind of dream experiences, we must then consider other experiences, such as OBEs and NDEs, concerning which the role and functioning of brain activity are yet to be deciphered.
Although an intelligent and well-educated person wants to keep up-to-date on the progress of neuroscience, it is likely it will take a long time before scientific knowledge can satisfactorily account for the interactions between brain functioning and mental activity, interactions that already some scientists are beginning to consider in both directions: if the brain determines mental activity, the mind too can influence the brain functioning. I believe that, in any case, in the period of time I have left to live, the cognitive framework will not change substantially, and therefore I must draw my deductions from the information I can get here and now. Mental activity has been experienced by humans over the centuries, producing interesting results, but also aberrations of all kinds. Now we have reached the point where the human mind turns its attention to the brain functioning, to discover the mechanisms that allow it to more effectively control its performances. I do not know to what extent this enterprise will be successful, given the complexity of the brain: making mental activity dependent on the brain functioning in the end means, after all, pretending that the brain can study and understand itself.
The essence of the problem lies in the fact that the whole brain-mind-consciousness-Ego system has evolved under the pressure of forces and energies whose understanding is – at least for now – beyond our capabilities and resources. We can certainly investigate the brain functioning and draw from it valuable knowledge, useful also to solve at least in part the individual and social problems deriving from the functional defects of this organ. We can also discover the activation circuits of the sensory, motor, interpretative and memorization systems, as well as the neural networks and the neurotransmitters that determine the desires and the fulfilment deriving from their satisfaction. The fact remains that this knowledge makes sense to us as it translates into mental activity, through which brain research can continue by using the resources of creative intelligence. If we decide to adopt a completely reductionist vision, attributing every mental event, our consciousness and the very existence of the Ego to brain activity, then we find ourselves in the difficult condition of having to understand mentally – because the brain is supposed to already be able to operate in accordance with this type of information – through which neural circuits mental phenomena, consciousness and the Ego itself are generated, and why this transformation of brain functioning into conscious mental activity must occur in such a complex and obscure way.
Theoretically, a computer – or a computer network – could analyze the component systems of another computer and their interactions, if it were equipped with a suitable program, but not for this it could understand the intelligence that created that program. The brain does not work like the computers designed and built by humans, but for different aspects (neural connections, action potentials, neurotransmitters, etc.) it is studied and interpreted as if it were a machine, because this is what our senses and resources allow us to perceive. Hardly a neuroscientist will claim that a neuron wants to connect with another neuron because it wants to achieve a certain effect: an arbitrary transposition of consciousness quanta and mental activity at the neuronal level goes beyond our cognitive faculties. Furthermore, it would only transfer the problem to a microscopic level, without solving it. The total dependence of the conscious Ego on the brain functioning represents the initial condition of the human adventure: even if – in many cases – this dependence continues, more or less unchanged, for the whole life span, the Ego is given the possibility to use the mind to determine a brain functioning more suited to its evolutionary needs. For this to happen, however, it is necessary for the brain to be uninjured and its functioning not compromised.
The third level
The third level of mental activity concerns both those subjective phenomena associated with an intense and involving psychic activity, such as some NDEs, and objective phenomena that involve a direct action of mind on matter, such as psychokinesis (PK) and mediumistic phenomena with physical effects, or ESP (Extra-sensory Perception) manifestations such as telepathy and clairvoyance. In the sections of this site dedicated to NDEs and mediumistic phenomena, the interested reader can find a good number of examples. Subjective phenomena can undoubtedly be considered as mental, since the involved subject experiences them consciously and they remain well impressed in her/his long-term memory. In the case of mediumistic phenomena, the mental aspect can be referred to those who witness them, but not to the medium if he/she is in a trance state that involves a complete absence of consciousness. Even in this case, however, the problem of the role of the medium's mind must be carefully taken into account, as I will try to explain shortly.
Given that these are occasional and uncommon phenomena, it has not been possible – until today – to undertake any serious investigation into the brain functioning associated with the occurrence of these experiences. In the case of NDEs it has been hypothesized that they can be caused by the brain functioning in particular conditions: they would therefore be something analogous to a very lucid, long-lasting, conscious dream with strong emotional implications, made possible by a creative brain activity, particularly intense and meaningful for the conscious Ego of the experimenter. This is a hypothesis on which not all the investigators of this phenomenon agree, and which still lacks the data necessary to validate it. If it were, this would mean that the brain – at least in some people – is endowed with an extraordinary capacity to tune extremely interesting, real, meaningful and satisfying mental states: real alternative dimensions in which the conscious Ego feels it is living more intensely than in the ordinary reality of the physical world. However, the fact remains that these subjective experiences concern only a minority of human beings.
In the case of physical mediumistic phenomena – such as apports, materialisations, levitations and object displacements – we find ourselves in a truly paradoxical condition: on the one hand, the physical presence of the medium is absolutely necessary for these phenomena to occur, which can induce someone to believe that the cause must be sought in some psychophysical features of the medium's organism; but, on the other hand, it is impossible to understand what kind of energies can be attributed to the medium's brain, to enable it to operate with those objective modalities on physical matter. The same can be said for psychokinesis, especially in the context of those manifestations that go under the name of poltergeist. These phenomena necessarily lead us to hypothesize the existence of something that normally is not perceptible to our senses, and that almost certainly belongs to a different dimension than the physical one, but that can occasionally be tuned through a mental activity of the third level – to which only a few people are able to access – managing to operate also on the physical plane.
One can understand how, in this case, it is difficult for the researchers of the neural circuits of the brain to be able to enlighten us on the causes of these phenomena: moreover, investigations should be performed on the brains of mediums with physical effects, which are really rare. However, assuming that some brains can be able to tune in on an autonomous mental reality – and not to produce it – the cognitive framework, while still remaining unsatisfactory, becomes less paradoxical. In fact some experimenters have found, in relation to certain physical effects – as displacements, levitations, etc. – the action of phantom limbs, functioning as levers to which forces of a physical nature were applied, which led to hypothesize the presence of an invisible body endowed with elasticity, extension ability and strength of its own. A very interesting example of this kind of investigations – in addition to the experiments performed by Bottazzi on Eusapia Palladino (about which youcan read on this page) – is offered by a 1919 book by engineer W. J. Crawford, The Reality of Psychic Phenomena, which can be downloaded from the Library.
However, it should be remembered that, as far as physical mediumistic phenomena are concerned, the presence of the medium – and therefore also of her/his brain – is indispensable for the phenomena to occur. In the case of other types of PK phenomena, such as the poltergeist, there are some cases reported in the specialized literature in which the physical effects, sometimes impressive, were perceived and witnessed by a plurality of different people, without it being possible to identify a single individual to whose psychic faculties the phenomena could be attributed. In many other cases, however, it was possible to identify a subject – often a teenager – whose presence determined the onset of the phenomena, in one place or another. In all these cases the mental activity takes over, interpreting the phenomena and referring them to some form of alien entity, basing on a process of cultural elaboration that can also be attributed to the brain creative activity (once it is understood the functioning of this faculty). However, it is not possible – at the current state of our knowledge – to reasonably attribute the forces that produce the phenomena themselves to the brain functioning.
With regard to ESP faculties such as telepathy and clairvoyance, which necessarily translate into a form of mental activity of the third level by a more or less gifted subject –the psychic – brain functioning could be taken into account, on condition of consider this organ – or some of its subsystems – as a tuner and processor of information present in the environment, and not inside it. In the case of those particular forms of clairvoyance that refer to events and things of the past, currently no longer present, we must refer to an extratemporal environment, in which such information is stored so that the psychic's brain can tune into them. However, we are far from understanding what neural circuits should be activated in order to allow this kind of tuning. In any case, if we can go so far as to hypothesize that some non-ordinary mental faculties, such as clairvoyance, can be attributed to the functioning of a brain endowed with the ability to tune into normally inaccessible sources of information, we are not in a position to directly attribute to the brain functioning the remarkable phenomena of psychokinesis reported in the specialized literature. We can only assume that the psychic's brain is able to tune into the mind of intelligent operators – not belonging to the physical dimension – which through energies taken from the psychophysical systems of the medium and the sitters, or through other forms of energy, can under certain circumstances interact with objects and substances of our physical world.
It should be clear, at this point, that – while fully recognizing the indispensable function of the brain in relation to mental activity – our current knowledge is not such as to enable us to explain every phenomenon in the light of a fully reductionist theory, which wants to lead back any phenomenon related to mental activity to the functioning of the brain, considered as the organ that produces the mind. Instead, it is more logical and coherent to consider neural circuits, or at least a part of them, as tuning elements of autonomous energies, which are reflected in the mental activity of humans – and, before that, in the animals – determining the wide range of psychic reactions and interactions between single individuals or more or less numerous human groups, which characterize the behavioral dynamics present in our world. It should never be forgotten that the human brain is the result of the action of evolutionary forces that we humans cannot know, or that we can know only within those limits set by our mental activity, determined by the functioning of the brain itself.
The brain is an imperfect tool
Whether we examine the brain functioning from the point of view of the neuroscientist, or we want to consider our mental activity as determined by brain activity, we must recognize that the complexity of the human brain – even if arouses in us wonder and admiration – causes its vulnerability and unreliability (at least in relation to the needs of the conscious Ego). As for its vulnerability, each brain must in any case undergo an aging process followed by death, which at present can be possibly delayed, but not avoided. In considering the human functioning as a whole, we refer – more or less consciously – to a network of brains, within which there is a continuous regeneration (the new brains replace the older ones), and are usually taken as a model those brains that work to the best of their abilities. Within what I have called the big brain cloud, however, everything can be found regarding the integrity, health and efficiency of the brain system.
In relation to the functioning problems that may arise, the conscious Ego – regarded as an emanation of the brain – does not count on itself, as every solitary animal is instead forced to do, but relies on other brains of the network to which it is linked, the organization of which constitutes a computerized system of a higher order than that of the single isolated brain. Only recently, within this system, some knowledge on the brain functioning has begun to circulate: the level of complexity of this organ is nevertheless such as to suggest that much more time is needed for a reliable cognitive framework to be obtained that may allow to solve some of the problems caused by anomalies in its functioning. In relying on the functioning of its own brain, the Ego realizes – sooner or later – that it is in the hands of a precarious system, which can possibly learn from its own evaluation errors only after having committed them, when it manages to compare the (real) consequences of its actions or reactions with its own (imaginary) expectations. And what applies to one's brain also applies to all other brains interconnected in the big cloud, including those to which some form of authority is naively attributed, although it is true that some brains work better and are more efficient than the majority. The scientific method, the only one that offers real guarantees of verification with respect to errors of theoretical evaluation by the brain, applies only to a reduced part of human activities.
But the brain also shows its faults in the way in which mental ideas – if considered as processes referable to brain activity – circulate and spread within the big cloud, regardless of whether they are reliable or verifiable. From this point of view, the average brain proves to be unreliable up to imbecility: human history is full of examples of absurd mental programs, completely devoid of verifiable elements, which are easily assimilated by an incredible number of brains – especially during childhood, when the brain does not yet have sufficient experience and critical resources – and are then steadily defended during all life. And it's not like things are much better today. The most contaminated sectors by this kind of unreliable programs are those concerning social interactions, that is, politics and religion, but the brain shows to be easily deceived even on matters of personal relevance, economic or sentimental, about which it often lets itself be dazzled by an immediate advantage – sometimes only presumed – to the detriment of the future consequences of its choices.
And yet, despite all these defects, the mental activity of some human beings is able to critically evaluate the functioning of the brain and to detach itself, so to speak, from the behavioral dynamics, both individual and collective, determined by the brain interconnections occurring inside the big cloud. If we wanted to bring all mental activity back to brain functioning, we should recognize that a part of the cerebral cortex shows to be dissatisfied with the functioning of the brain as a whole, since precisely from its way of functioning can derive nothing but an experience of the human life that is random, insecure, conflictual, unsatisfactory and – ultimately – limited in time and meaningless from the point of view of the conscious Ego. The fact that there can be rich human lives with gratifying, interesting, meaningful and intense experiences, which make life worth, as we use to say, to be lived, does not substantially change the overall picture: it is basically a lottery effect, determined probably by our origin of animals subject to nature laws, by which some have better game than most others, without this fact being an advantage for the conscious Ego against the inevitability of aging and death. Everything in this scheme comes to depend on the brain functioning, for better or worse.
The idea – or rather, the hope – that seems to support the human project according to this perspective, is that through the acquisition of knowledge about the brain functioning and their circulation inside the cloud, some defects can be corrected and some anomalies modified, in order to get a more satisfying human experience, according to the standardized needs of the Ego. Until today, history of humanity shows how this process is extremely uncertain and insecure, at least in relation to the needs of the individual, considered as an expendable and replaceable entity, always under the flag of the presumed collective good. We'll see if things can change in the future. The ways of functioning of human brain show substantial differences from individual to individual, and I do not believe it is possible to bring these differences back to a standardized model, especially if we consider the variety and complexity of the programs circulating within our social systems. In some respects, one has the impression that actual progress – in its increasing and difficult to manage complexity – is laying the basis for a chaotic involution of social models.
From the point of view of our mental activity, the brain functioning seems instead to tune a fundamental conflict – present in the context of the human psyche – between the natural needs coming from our animal origin and the cultural and spiritual aspirations deriving from another source of which the conscious Ego feels the call. That these aspirations manifest themselves through the activity of acquisition and subsequent processing by the brain of information and knowledge circulating within the big cloud – according to modalities that are still to be investigated – is understandable and acceptable, but only with reference to a tuning activity of mental processes that are autonomous and quite distinct from the needs deriving from our animal nature. The knowledge we currently have on the functioning of human brain is, at 90%, relevant to the functioning of the brains of primates and other higher mammals, with the exception of areas related to the use and understanding of language. By reducing mental activity to brain functioning alone, we run the risk of considering the human being only in relation to the animal origin of his/her body.
The study of the brain is important, and the progress of scientific knowledge on the functioning of this organ will have (and already has) a considerable impact on the cultural programs that determine social changes. Some human beings, however, will always feel the need for a deeper knowledge that can take into account all aspects of human mental activity, with particular attention to the more creative and evolutionary ones. We hope they are not a puny minority. It is precisely the development of this evolutionary path by the human mind that makes us sense a future direction in which our mind will resonate with the path of the creative Mind, which – through the not easy existential activity of the Ego – will take on more and more consciousness of itself and its powers from within this physical dimension.