28 November 2012

Mind Breaking

Since our experience of both happiness and pain depends upon the mind, wouldn't it make sense to learn how it works? Demystifying the relationship we have with our mind, our thoughts and emotions, is the essence... ~Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

We work hard to memorize and remember many different things, yet we often forget them. Other times, we desperately want to forget certain memories, yet they haunt us for lifetime. Many abused children and soldiers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) go through life-long suffering from past experiences and memories. Many of us are just lucky enough not to have such bad experiences in our life. We do feel that we have control over our mind and life. Yet we struggle with many kinds of addictions and cravings! What kind of control do we have with our wants and desires? What kind of control do we have with our mind and so with our life?

Survival Machine

The genetic molecules [genes/DNA] once existed [survived] in the young earth's primordial oceans (4 billion years ago) without any protective or survival containers [cell]. Through natural selection process (i.e., whichever is happened to be suitable to the environment survives and hence naturally selected), they are slowly evolved to design survival containers, and then far more complex survival machines. These survival machines come in many forms such as bacteria, plants and animals. In the tree of life evolution, we are one such survival machine – our design and our life survival policies are in our genes!

It takes many generations to naturally select proper genes that suit the environment (from random errors/mutations, few rare genes that are happened to be suitable to the environment). But the environment changes constantly. So there is always some gap between the suitability of genes to the environment. This gap especially impacts the survival of higher level life forms as they live longer and reproduce slowly. So, in the higher level life forms, there are genes selected to design some kind of flexibility mechanisms such as brain to lean and adapt to the current environment within one's lifetime. Thus our brain executes life survival policies of our genes in our lifetime. This flexibility gives us a sense of control over our life!

Survival and reproduction are the ultimate goals of all life policies – as only those genes are naturally selected. Though the life policies of our genes are elaborate and extensive, they are not perfect – after all, they are just blindly evolved, not intelligently designed. The life policies of our genes contain many gaps, limitations and loopholes. Our executive brain often finds these gaps and loopholes as shortcuts to pleasure, happiness, peacefulness, etc. without any regard to the original underlining goals or intentions of those policies. This is how we enjoy self-pleasure, music and many drugs; this is how we discovered prayers and meditation; this is how some commit suicide to solve life issues and extreme pains. We are so vulnerable to these kinds of shortcuts! (They are short cuts from evolutionary goals perspective. But, some are useful shortcuts and some others are harmful. If a shortcut helps our survival in any ways, then it may very well be further naturally selected and evolved - and become part of our genes.)

Recent WHO (World Health Organization) estimate shows: almost one million people die from suicide every year (people who attempts to commit suicide or have such  thoughts would be many folds higher!); 230 million people, or 1 in 20 adults, used illicit drugs at least once; the harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths each year; and tobacco kills nearly 6 million people each year! The flexibility that we have from our executive brain comes with a huge price! Hence our brain cannot be evolved to have full flexibility. If so, what kind of flexibility and control does our brain have?

 The Society of Mind

Big corporations, companies, organizations and our societies are organized and managed hierarchically with many levels - because that is the efficient way to process complex information and handle it appropriately. As our functioning brain or mind is basically an information processing system, it is also organized and managed hierarchically with many levels. So, our mind can better be understood by studying how its society is organized - the society of mind1 (Like walk emerges from functioning legs, the mind emerges from the functioning brain. If the brain may be regarded as computer hardware, then the mind can be regarded as running software).

The society of mind is organized with Agencies made of Agents that in turn made of neuronal brain cell circuitry (for example walking-agency may consist of many agents - each controls different parts of legs). There are hierarchical levels of agencies. Our brain has evolved inside out in four major stages or levels as listed below (from low level to high level). Though these four levels are physical than mental, they do have certain functional/mental correlations - functionally our mind should have more levels2.

  • Brain stem: It is the oldest part. It conducts basic biological functions such as heart beat and breathing.
  • Diencephalon (Reptilian brain): It is the seat of aggression, rituals, territoriality, and social hierarchy. It evolved 100s of millions of years ago in our reptilian ancestors.
  • Limbic System (Mammalian brain or Emotional brain): It is evolved 10s of millions of years ago in mammals. It controls moods, emotions, concerns, care for the young, etc.
  • Cerebral cortex (Thinking or Cognitive brain): It is evolved millions of years ago in primates (monkeys, apes, humans). It is a realm of intuition and critical analysis; ideas and inspiration; read and write; mathematics and music; arts and science.
All incoming sensory information first enters the low level and then propagates to higher levels. So, the lower level agencies handle the information first (for example, reflex withdrawal of a finger from fire). From evolutionary and child-development perspective, low level agencies are primitive and fast, while high level agencies are slow but more accurate. Low level agencies are mostly hard-wired by the genes – so certain critical functions are operational at birth, and high level agencies are wired mostly by learning from the environment step by step as we grow up. Hence the plasticity of the brain (i.e. a capability to change and learn from the environment) increases from low level to high level.

Low level agencies report to high level agencies and high level agencies control/modulate low level agencies (this is how, agencies in Cortex control/modulate our emotions related agencies in Limbic System). At the top of this hierarchy, there is conscious-agency3 – let us say CA – this is where we feel a sense of self, conscious awareness, consciousness of senses (seeing, hearing, etc.), conscious awareness of emotions, conscious control (volition), and consciousness of thinking and planning. Agencies work in parallel to take care of many different things (such as basic biological functions, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, thinking, etc.). Agencies may cooperate with each other to carry out common goals, and sometimes they may compete with each other when there is a conflict of interest, limitation or priority. For example: we cannot talk and write two different topics at the same time. Here talk-agency and write-agency compete to use common language and grammar agencies - this is a conflict of limitation. An example for a conflict of interest: working hard vs. taking rest (vs. having fun) – here two or three or even more agencies compete to satisfy different goals.

When there is a competition, it is forwarded to their high level agency to decide. There are checks and balances of control and power among agencies that includes CA. So, no one agency can control everything or destroy everything. For example, If CA decides to work hard for next day exam, rest-taking-agency power gets stronger and stronger as time goes by, so we will not end-up destroying our body. CA has control to raise our arms, stop our breathing – but only for some time, and it has no direct control to stop our heart beat. Our basic fundamental goals, wants and desires are deeply rooted in the low level agencies. Though CA can learn to modulate them to certain degree, it is difficult to totally stop or change them.


Though many agencies work in parallel (parallel processing), CA handles only one unit of work at a time (serial processing) – hence we sense a sequential or streaming nature of consciousness. But there may be more than one input signals competing for CA to handle at the same time. When this happens, one input signal is selected based on importance and intention – we sense this selection filter as attention. There are two kinds of attention:
  • Bottom-up attention: signals coming from the low level may be so important or critical that it reaches CA with high priority – hence we automatically give attention to any sudden exploding sound.
  • Top-down attention: CA may intentionally select and choose one specific signal coming from the low level – for example, we may give selective attention to the lecturer.
A situation or signal is processed and handled by one or more dedicated agencies  - they might have been hard-wired by the genes or learned from past experience. Most of the signals will not reach to the top agency, CA - hence we are not consciously aware most of the functions of our mind! If a competition among agencies is not solved in all low levels, then the signal is ultimately forwarded to CA to handle. Or, if the situation is new, the signal is ultimately forwarded to CA to handle, as all existing agencies cannot handle it. CA may handle the new situation by searching similar past experiences or finding a solution by trying out different solutions using simulation or just trying out a novel solution that may or may not work – depending on the availability of time and criticality of the situation. Basically CA broadcasts the situation to the entire mind to get an overall feedback to judge the situation4.

If this same new situation repeats over and over again, CA may create a dedicated agency to handle it – we call this process as learning. Once it is learned, the situation will be handled by this dedicated agency and then the signal may not be forwarded to CA anymore. This learning process includes learning something new and correcting/fine-tuning something already learned. Thus any learning requires:
  • Proper attention (to get CA involvement – hence we are consciously aware when we learn)
  • Repetition (practice).


Keeping all agencies active (turn-on) in the mind is not only energy consuming and inefficient, it can be overwhelming. As life is way too complex and full of contradictions, keeping all competing agencies active may just lead to gridlock situations – after all, nothing is perfect and we have to compromise many things in life. Depending on certain categories of situations, the mind is evolved to tune into different modes by activating (turning-on) certain set of agencies and deactivating (turning-off) others5. CA senses these modes as mental states or emotional states. For example, romantic-love mode may deactivate many critic agencies – hence the world may look more beautiful and perfect than before (so, two different individuals can come together compromising their flaws). Each emotional state may persist for different length of time – while some may be short, others may linger as moods. Most emotional states (if not all) prepare our body for the situation to react – for example, fear would increase heartbeat. CA can better sense these body reactions such as heart beat and breathing changes, pain in chest or other parts of body, tightening of muscles, etc., to indirectly to aware of those emotional states.

Our mind processes staggering amount of information every day and it cannot focus on all information equally. It focuses based on emotional importance (linked to emotional states) and stores them accordingly for future reference. For example, we cannot afford to wait for many repetitions to learn from life threatening experiences. That is why we tend to remember so many details that occurred during emotionally charged situations. As they are stored so strongly (storage binding strength depends on emotional importance and repetitions), it may stay in the brain for a long time - and it may haunt us for a long time!

Thus the emotional states not only affect our present perception and experience, but also our behavior for a longtime by powerfully influencing our learning. It is important for us to remember and learn many things from our loved ones. Just like we build our own self model in our mind, we build models for our loved ones - we very well know their likes and dislikes, habits and characteristics. Our life experiences can be mingled together with their models. As we start to trust and love someone, our mental state also slowly shifts – by turning off many criticizing and protecting agencies – in a way, we are open and vulnerable! It gives us powerful and beautiful experience during good times and horrible when it goes bad!


Any physically damaging situation is sensed as pain and handled by the pain-agency. As a first response, the pain-agency motivates us to withdraw from the damaging situation. It helps us to learn to avoid similar experiences in the future. We continue to feel the pain to protect the damaged body part while it heals. If the damage is serious, then the pain-agency may create new goals to find solutions by searching past experiences (such as applying medicine or bandage), and may suppress some existing (already planned) goals of other agencies (such as cancelling morning run). If the damage is even more serious, it may create more new goals or may focus further to seek solutions and may suppress more of existing goals of more of other agencies. As the pain severity continues, it cascades further and further, and our mind may mainly focus on solving this by suppressing all other non-critical goals. This is not just suppressing goals, but suppressing all the interests and excitements in them (as it is important to focus on the critical problem, and not to indulge in other activities) – so, the world may seem like a dull place or even gruesome place! CA senses this as depressed mental state. Once the damage has healed, the pain resolves and the mind goes back to normal state.

Evolution often reuses existing mechanisms to handle similar new functions, as it offers an easy initial adaptation. Eventually it will be further evolved over the time to better handle the new function. Our brain is evolved to reuse existing physical pain handling mechanism (agency and processes) to handle psychologically damaging situations, psychological pains as well – as this evolutionarily offers easy initial adaptation. But there are important differences between physical and psychological pains – perhaps we suffer more from the consequences of it! (This may especially affect animals with highly evolved thinking brain. Hence humans often seek desperate cry for help - for supposed to be evolutionarily simple survival life policies!)

Most of the time, sources of physical pain is straight forward. Whereas, sources of psychological pain can be complex, vague and confusing, and the pain can be easily further triggered and enforced again and again from many different ways from memory associations. Most of the time, solutions to a physical pain is straight forward. Whereas, solutions to a psychological pain can be not only complex, vague and confusing, often there is no solution at all! (Is there really any solution, if we lose someone we dearly loved?). As the pain handling agency tries to find solutions by searching our past painful psychological experiences – often it further extends our suffering! Because of these differences, psychological pains can easily lead us to a depressed mental state compare to physical pains.

Letting it go or forgetting may be a simple solution – but, as our mind is in a depressed state in which the world is so dull and gruesome, nothing else may motivate us or interest us to move on. Hence our mind may be locked in the depressed state for days, months and even years! A severe form of depression may be one of the most gruesome experiences of sentient beings! Recent WHO (World Health Organization) estimate shows that (clinically diagnosed) depression affects more than 350 million people worldwide. You may think, you can brush aside and come out of it easily, but the hard reality is that many of us are just lucky enough not to have such bad experiences (and some bad genes) in our life!


Achilles: If we compare the society of mind with American society. Agents in the mind = People in the society; Agencies in the mind = local, federal and other government and private agencies; CA = the president and his/her panel. Clearly there are many similarities between them: bottom-up and top-down information flows, co-operations, competitions, checks and balances, etc. Since the sense of self 'I' comes from CA, I am the president of my mind, body and life; we are the president of our own mind, body and life.

Tortoise: Well, the society of mind is also evolved more like a democratic system than a dictatorship system. Hence CA does not have with full control and flexibility. Like any democratic system, it may sometimes be frustrating and it may take long time and sustained effort to learn and correct things, but at the same time, it is not easy to destroy things by mistake.

Achilles: Since the president does not have full control or power, often he/she has to use inspirations and motivations to convince and mobilize different parts of the society.

Tortoise: CA also uses many mental techniques and tricks including motivations and inspirations to bias towards one side between competing agencies. For example, our views and believes, and our way of life are important for our self-interest. But, as a social animal, our survival also depends on how we cooperate with others and their views. Often, these two self-defending and conformity agencies conflict and compete in our mind and lives.

Achilles: A quote that may fit here: "If you care too much about what other people think, you will always be their prisoner"

Tortoise: How much is too much? – nevertheless this quote works from the powerful tactic word 'prisoner'. Or we may use "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" to have a opposite effect. As CA does not have direct control over those agencies, we discovered these kinds of tactics to indirectly change the strengths of those agencies. Thus we convince ourselves and motivate ourselves!

Achilles: If a friend makes a sudden unexpected sound from our back, we may get scared immediately. But then we calm down once we realize it. Isn't surprising that how easily our world view changes from fear to normal?

Tortoise: Our low level agencies may not be accurate but they are fast. If they sense an emotional event, it immediately changes our mental states and prepares our body to react. The high level agencies and CA may decide otherwise and modulate the low levels agencies. Sometimes, this would suddenly make a world of difference in our experience!

Achilles: Perhaps that is why, sometimes kids may or may not cry based on parents or adults reaction, though the pain might be same.

Tortoise: Likewise, depending on our faith, a coincidence may feel like magic or nothing; depending on our belief, a seemingly simple emotional event in our life may trigger the cascading process to end-up with a nightmare experience or nothing!

Achilles: Though we experience emotional suffering in our mind, it is interesting that we often refer it as heartache and heartbreaking!

Tortoise: An emotional shock or pain first affects our mind – it is mind-breaking at first! As it changes its emotional state to desperately try to cope with the new situation and figure out a possible solution, it prepares our body in many ways to their limits including heart. As our heart is a sensitive organ, its physical pain is easily sensed by our mind. Hence we easily recognize our emotions as heartache and heartbreaking.

This image shows a symbolic mind-heart connections. Inside the brain, there are many levels of Agencies shown with different solid colors and in each agency, small star like Agents are shown. CA senses states of these agencies as a whole as an emotional state. Agencies in this mental state may affect heart beat rhythm and hence its pain level which is measured by another agency and ultimately sensed by CA.

Achilles: History of mankind filled with so many tragic ends of romantic-love failures. Why does romantic-love6 have such a power, even though it may be just few years of relationship or just few months? Even lifelong, family bonded relationships with our parents, brothers, sisters and children do not seem to have such power!

Tortoise: Romantic-love is so closely linked with reproduction - one of the fundamental goals of life policies of our genes. That is why it is strong and powerful mental state – that is how, we are evolved and programmed in our brain. Though we enjoy love stories, it is difficult for us to fully realize its power, until one day when we get caught in its influence in our own life!

Achilles: Why do you think, it is hard for us to understand without our own experience?

Tortoise: Because our mental states do not exist anywhere else, except in our subjective reality. Even our empathy/sympathy is based on our own experience. How can you explain the experience of seeing colors to a blind or color blind person? If he/she has suddenly gained color vision7, how may he/she feel? No words and no understanding could have explained that experience before8.

Our mind has many such hidden secrets (not yet activated/deactivated agencies), some of which may shock us when there are activated/deactivated for the first time. No intellectual knowledge may help us to fully understand a mental experience, except actually experiencing it! Such a new experience may allow us to see our life and human life in a new perspective – it is wisdom!

Achilles: What about spiritual and mystic experiences such as feeling-one-with-the-universe, out-of-body-experience, bliss, etc.?

Tortoise: However surprising, shocking, painful, beautiful or wonderful our mental experiences might be… they are all just our subjective experiences! Without proper objective/scientific understanding, they may very well lead us to wrong interpretations and beliefs. Wisdom is not an objective understanding or reality!

Achilles: Still, it is useful to learn and use the wisdoms of our parents and ancestors.

Tortoise: Music, prayers and meditation are evolved from the wisdoms of our ancestors. Our society is filled with many useful wisdoms from our ancestors. But they lose their ground when we equate all of them as objective reality. They lose their ground when we treat them as dogma, so stopping them from further evolving (adding, extending, correcting and removing) – now our society is filled with many outdated and harmful wisdoms as well! We should learn the wisdoms of our ancestors, but intelligently and critically with open and curious mind! We should remember that they are heart-aching wisdoms of our ancestors to help heartaches of fellow human beings - this is not a place for arrogance!

Achilles: To summarize it... as the president of the society of our mind, what kind of control/flexibility do we really have?

Tortoise: If our brain works as intended for the most part (without any major failures or issues), our closest to a real control/flexibility comes from learning. One of our best learning may come from observing and  learning how our mind works –  cultivating mindfulness!

Achilles: What is the secret of mindfulness?

Tortoise: Any learning requires our conscious attention and continuous practice. Mindfulness is not just learning a new skill - as we give continuous conscious attention to our own thoughts, it gives a chance to relearn and correct every part of the society of our mind, step by step, slowly. It may allow us to put down our centuries of unnecessary mental baggage that we accumulated personally and socially!

We are the president of the society of our mind and hence our life. We may be a careless president, who ignores all the cries of the low level agencies, end-up destroying ourselves; or we may be a weak president who falls for every small cry of the low level agencies. We may not have much control, but we could try to learn and cultivate to be a confident president who sincerely listens, but not fall to the low level agencies – to their cries, commands, pretends, confusions and chaos – and handles them coolly, confidently and properly! Many of our ancestors' wisdoms point towards such a lifelong cultivation with important ingredients like courageousness and compassion!


  1. Psychology deals with too high level of the mind – close enough to the commonsense level. Neuroscience deals with too low level of the mind – close enough to the physical brain (hardware) level. In order to fully understand the mind, we need to go to the levels in between them to understand processes of mind and their architecture – Cognitive Science deals with such a level. 
  2. From functional or processes perspective, Marvin Minsky lists six different levels: Inborn-instinctive Reactions, Learned Reactions, Deliberative Thinking, Reflective Thinking, Self-Reflective Thinking and Self-Conscious Emotions. 
  3. I use many hypothetical agencies in this article to explain it easily. In reality, it may be collection/mix of many agencies that many span across many different levels – but it is not going to change the conceptual idea behind it. 
  4. Global Workspace Theory (GWT).
  5. Different neurotransmitters such as Dopamine, Serotonin involve in turning on/off of agencies or neuronal pathways. 
  6. As Helen Fisher refers three types of love : Lust (the sex drive or libido), Romantic-love (early stage intense love), Attachment-love (deep feelings of union with a long term partner) 
  7. Just like we learn to walk and talk, we also learn to see, hear, etc. as we grow up. So, in general "suddenly" seeing is not possible. As hearing is closely linked with talking, perhaps hearing at least in a crude way seems to work (somewhat suddenly), though over the time the brain can learn to hear better. First time hearing experience! 
  8. Perhaps we will have better understanding and techniques in the future. mFRI machines are already giving us some feedback.


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