S2E9 The Brain vs. The Mind

What is the difference between the brain and the mind? Is there a difference? In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete discuss how these two parts ourselves are often conflated (especially since they both exist inside our skulls!) They also define and distinguish the brain as an organ in the human body and the mind as something a lot less tangible. Time is also spent addressing how eastern perspectives tend to target the mind, while western approaches likely target helping both. Tune in to learn more.




Nikki: Pete, I'm really excited about this episode. Because I talk about this all the time with people I've already said this many times in this podcast. So today we are going to talk about the difference between the brain and the mind.

Pete: It's sort of like sound of the mind being blown.

Nikki: Yeah, so I think this is really interesting, because I would say, in my experience, as a human being and as a psychologist, clinically, this is very confusing for folks. People do not see them as separate things. Is that your experience as well?

Pete: Absolutely. Well, it's so abstract, this is such a higher level it's philosophical.

Nikki: Well, the mind is.

Pete: Yes, right.

Nikki: But the brain isn’t.

Pete: Correct, but the idea of even trying to segregate the two, because where's the mind housed?

Nikki: Right, well, it's like, Where's the soul housed?

Pete: That's right. And that's why it says saying philosophical.

Nikki: Well, sure. Okay, so maybe I can just like start by throwing out some things reiterating now that I've said in other episodes, which is, to that point. Asked anybody we experience our minds in our skulls, like nobody experiences thinking like, in their tosh.

Pete: No.

Nikki: You don’t disagree?

Pete: I am not accepting that.

Nikki: Okay. Let me let me rephrase. I've never met anybody that said, I've never read any...

Pete: Yes you have, you’re talking to him right now.

Nikki: You experienced your mind if you’re…

Pete: I don't know where the mind is.

Nikki: I'm going to push you on that a little bit. When you're thinking and that's a behavior, thinking a covert behavior, where do you feel it? In your shoulder? In your ear lobe?

Pete: Depends, did I swim that morning or not?

Nikki: It doesn't matter, where's the thinking happening?

Pete: Yes. So, because the brain is neurologically processing thoughts I think that's why we're getting at the fact that it's happening in the brain.

Nikki: Well, this is why I say it's happening in the skull.

Pete: Okay.

Nikki: It's happening…

Pete: I think we should say the brain the organ there.

Nikki: Well, I think that's where you're starting to cross into it; it's like, where is the mind in the brain? We don't know.

Pete: But we know where the brain processes, thoughts. So I think when you say they’re behavioral thinking that I'll be with you on?

Nikki: Sure, sure.

Pete: But if we say in the scull, hold on let's think about this because is it also in the fluid like in the spinal fluid?

Nikki: That's the part where I go like, I don't know, I'm just saying like, within what I'm thinking, I know, I experienced my mind in the general head region.

Pete: How cool it could be if it could be your tosh and how cool of you to the user word.  

Nikki: I knew. But I was at butt and then I thought, no, tosh feels right.

Pete: And that's just, it's made my day. So thank you for that.

Nikki: You're welcome. Got to bring a little Urdish into this podcast.

Pete: Is that Urdish?

Nikki: I think so, pushy. Sorry, guys. I don't know where we're going. Okay, But the brain is an organ, right? It isn't made of tissue, there are like neuron cells in there, there's like electrical firings right. And the brain functions and malfunctions like at the same rates as every other part of the body right sometimes it needs medicine right? just like we can't like think our way into making our hearts slow down like we could like do certain breathing exercise that might slow down the heart rate but we can't say stop beating heart like that doesn't work but people talk to their brains that way right?

Pete: It would be scary if that happened.

Nikki: Oh my gosh that would be horrifying right?

Pete: Stomach stop growing. We might want that to happen.

Nikki: Yeah, right.

Pete: I wonder women so embarrassed by that?

Nikki: I don't know I'm not embarrassed by my stomach growling.

Pete: You’re not?

Nikki: No.

Pete: [inaudible 04:41] be a big gender stereotype.

Nikki: But what do I think people, whatever, I don't embarrass that easily maybe that's part of why I'm so, yeah, but clinically I always experienced people are always telling me especially when I'm like sending them for like a med support. If I think their brains need medication support it Like, no, I can do this on my own. I'm like, okay, your mind is not your brain.

Pete: Yeah, your mind is not your brain. in eastern traditional man think that there's a lot on this where, and I feel like I'm reflecting a lot on like some like high school classes, where I don't know that my brain was ready to understand this. Like you learn this, that the mind is formless, that the mind is like fluid and is not really a construct and I think that that just is so hard to understand and to comprehend.

Nikki: I love that you just brought that up, because that's actually such a beautiful example of how the brain is not the mind because when you're in high school, your brain is very underdeveloped. Like our brains grow and all that people are aware of this, like they the research shows, like men's brains grow when they're about 28 women's brains till about 26.

Pete: Because we're smarter. Yeah guys.

Nikki: I didn't do the research. I'm just reporting it.

Pete: That's also because women brains do have more words earlier so women’s brains go faster so they're smarter from the get go. I got you.

Nikki: Yeah, so when you're changing your brain, the organ of the brain, just like the rest of your body is not fully developed yet as an adult and so it can't process this concept of the mind. Like I have such a memory like being like, I think I was 14 and I was trying to read catch 22. And I have such a memory of like, not getting it like I could read it but it was like, for some reason, the concept wasn't landing with me. And then I remember being like 25 or something, and rereading it and going like, oh, yeah, like, now my brain has the capacity to process but to your point, it's like, yeah, the mind is this formless abstract thing. And like the organ of your brain doesn't have the computing power at 15 or whatever to understand what that means.

Pete: Not at all. And frankly even at my age, which today I'm not sure that I have it, especially depends on the day of the week or the time of the day.

Nikki: Right, totally.

Pete: How rested is my brain to really conceptualize this stuff, because it's intellectual.

Nikki: It is.

Pete: So we're also calling a philosophical, but it's intellectual, the Buddhist would really say, and Thich Nhat Hanh has written a lot about this, because the mind is typically somewhat synonymous with consciousness. And I know we've been saying that foreve we need to do an episode on that too.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: But like, it's the map within the understanding of the mind is really related directly to consciousness.

Nikki: So I do think it’s worth just like, dipping our toes in a little bit there. Because I think, again, like these are kind of inner woven, but say, it's a little bit more about why he says that. I don't know.

Pete: I don't know. I mean, intellectually, it's about this idea that because it's intangible. It is real, you know, it's somehow connected with neurology or neuroscience. You know, I think a lot of the stuff I read in like neuroscience, or like some of these more like Buddhist writers will say, like, neuroscience has so much to learn from Buddhism.

Nikki: Oh, yeah.

Pete: Rather than Buddhism learning for neuroscience, because I think, you know, but also, like, I think we're trying to apply the scientific method to something that might not be researchable.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: So what do you think about that?

Nikki: Yeah, I think that's so important because this then gets into, I bring this up a lot, but it's like, there's like a spirituality component, they're like, intangible things that we also know when we're connected to them. So I think that's right, though… [Inaudible 08:50]. But it's funny, because the mind is something that we work with a lot like both as in contra imperial therapies, and also in mindfulness, right. And this is, of course, also fold a little bit maybe into the consciousness stuff. I like to help people distinguish between, get ready for this, which they are and what their mind is. And so I'll say like, your mind is always chattering at you, right? Like, there's a very famous mindfulness teacher, psychologist Jack Kornfield says, the mind secretes thoughts, the way the salivary glands secrete saliva, right? It's like, that's what it does. It just like turns out thinking, and so I'll tell people like, your mind is always chattering at you and in fact, an acceptance and Commitment Therapy and act. There's sort of like a technique that will often say to people like thank your mind for saying that, or that's your mind saying that. And I'll say so your mind's always chattering at you and then I invite people to connect with again, values and intuition and their gut. And I'll say that's your authentic you, that's not your mind and whether we interact with our minds, like, that's our power to determine like, do we listen to it, do we not listen to it? But whatever your mind is saying to you, that's not the same thing as like your authentic self. And again, I know we're getting our getting out there a little bit, but does that resonate with you?

Pete: But this is out there, because it's philosophical, in Buddhism, we also say there is no self so it's really about just diffusing from all of it. And my teacher, I think it was maybe last week or the week before, we're doing some virtual lessons and he was like, ‘nothing exists outside the mind.’ You know, and so like, that's the other teaching within Zen is that everything is about how we perceive it and our mind is that construct that doesn't actually have a construct that processes right, I like that, the secretes.

Nikki: Yeah, the mind secretes thoughts [inaudible 11:02] secretes saliva, yeah.

Pete: Yeah, secretes saliva. That's like a tongue twister.

Nikki: It is. Because also what I like about that one is, it speaks to, if there could be a trigger that shows up that increases the production of saliva or thoughts, right. like right now everyone has to like their salivary glands, or screen saliva, whether you're eating food or not. However, if a Domino's Pizza came in here, right now, our thoughts.

Pete: Or if we say the word lemon or think of eating a lemon right now.

Nikki: I'd rather think about eating a Domino's Pizza.

Pete: I know but that sourness is going to create more saliva than Domino’s. Domino’s, unless you're going to sponsor us.

Nikki: Yes, please. So that is going to increase saliva production. So it's like, the mind is going to secrete thoughts, even if you're like, super chilled out and relaxed on a beach somewhere. But then let's say somebody says something hurtful to you or it’s really hot outside or you see somebody attractive, the mind is going to start to produce more thoughts, right?

Pete: That’s right.

Nikki: So, let's come back to this concept of like distinguishing this from the brain. Because again, like, I would say, most people think that their brains are their minds, which leads to this really inaccurate belief that we have, like, 100%. Agency over what our brains do. And it's really problematic, because it's not like I always say, like, we got to bow down to the power of this as a human body part. I mean, do you find that that people like have that assumption? Like, do you see that a lot clinically, as well, where they're just like, I can think my way out of it or you know?

Pete: Or like, I want to cut my brain out, I mean, there's a book I've used with clients ‘Brain on fire.’ Have you ever used that?

Nikki: I've heard of it actually.

Pete: I think it’s by Susanna Callahan. But it's about just this idea of like, the mental health journey and how you just feel like your brain is on fire. So I like that because then people wanted to pull it out but really, it's not your brain. I mean, again, like, if we can really conceptualize it as an organ and think about what it's doing. I mean it's having asleep, it's regulating our home, it’s our state, I mean, it's beating our heart.

Nikki: Right.

Pete: It's having us talk right now; it's having me lose some words when I'm trying to lose. It’s doing all this beautiful stuff.

Pete: And it's doing not beautiful stuff and I like to say to people, everyone's brains wired a little bit some way. And obviously, often I'm talking about emotional, I'll say like, some people are wired a little bit more towards anxiety, some people a little bit more towards irritability. some people towards actually like being disconnected from motion, you know, but it's like, if we don't accept that, that's just how your particular body works, then there's this illusion that's created. like, that being mentally healthy means like, not struggling and I'll say that'd be like saying there's some people like their stomachs are sensitive to spicy food, it's like, okay.

Pete: So what’s wrong with them?

Nikki: Right. When it's like, okay, that's just how your body is designed. Like you didn't choose that you can decide maybe you're going to eat spicy food and then you know, like, you're going to have a stomachache afterwards. Or you might choose to not eat spicy food, but that's just the way, you didn't choose that that's just like your body part, right?

Pete: Like lactose, you know, you'll eat ice cream because you enjoy it even though you know that you'll have a terrible stomachache after.

Nikki: Right.

Pete: I wanted to, I think, if I may, the nature of mind just within like the two main points that we think about the main which we haven't talked about at all is the idea of connecting the mind with karma. And so for listeners, karma is the energy in which you live in this life that then it comes back in your next life, essentially. So am I doing the Eightfold Path these like, right action Right mindfulness, right thought Right Speech, in an attempt to have a better life in might when I'm reincarnated? The mind is directly connected that because that's part of how we could send good energy or send an intention for other folks and we do that through our mind not our brain.

Nikki: Right our brains like you said, I love that you brought it apart like, yeah, our brains like regulating our heartbeat and do all these other things and maybe like causing a little too much anxiety or whatever. Yeah, the mind is what we can learn to shape how we interact with it, maybe it's best way to say it.

Pete: It's a beautiful way. And then the other piece of it is that the state of the mind actually plays a crucial role both in our happiness and in our suffering. Because if you think about it, that's how we interpret happiness and it's how we interpret suffering. And that's all a part of the experience of it in the Buddhist teachings; you're going to learn how your mind is directly connected to overall happiness and suffering.

Nikki: Yeah, because if I can take a step further here would be that we can learn to help our minds see the world more accurately, right? And so that's going to help us reduce suffering because if we can accept and experience pain, right, that's how we reduce suffering. And it also helps us connect with joyful experiences.  

Pete: Exactly.

Nikki: So it's not going to change the brains that we were given. It influences them, right? Like, if your mind is like, judging your anxiety all the time, it's going to make your anxiety more intense.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: If your mind is like, okay, I have anxiety, that's uncomfortable, I'm mindfully experiencing it. It's not going to get you a new brain without anxiety but it is going to keep the anxiety where it is at baseline.

Pete: Yeah. Because many people that we work with would want new brains, but I don't know that the new brain would fix what their experiences and that's the ultimate teaching.

Nikki: Yeah, goes back to this thing we always talk about, because there's no perfect life, there's no perfect body, there's no perfect brain, there's no perfect experience, you know. And I often say to people, when we're talking about accepting the parts of their brain that they don't like, I'll say, like, we're not getting you a new brain. And we don't want to get you a new brain. I'm like; your brain is great in lots of ways. There's also things you don't like about it and we're going to learn to interact with that in a more effective way using the mind, right?

Pete: Yeah, beautiful distinction between the two and really challenging listeners to think about ways that they do that. And another way of accessing the mind is also through yoga practice, which again, you don't think about it. But for our listeners, I mean, yoga was developed for a warm up to meditate. In meditation is likely involving all of the mind.

Nikki: Yeah, and we're connecting, we're learning to interact with it in a different way. By the way, I don't think a lot of people are familiar with that, that yoga is a, we got to do episode on yoga, too, of course, a whole system.

Pete: Because I'm going to make a judgment of like all your folks there in the West Coast definitely have Hollywood eyed it and made it the exercise and the glamour exercise.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: But really, traditionally speaking, it was a way to warm up your mind. So traditionally speaking, people would do an hour long hour and a half long of yoga, just to then go sit for three hours.

Nikki: Totally, yeah.

Pete: Because it's a really critical balance between the two. And that's what I say like most other exercises, like being a hamster on a wheel. You don't want to think you could just kind of go through the motions, whereas yoga requires mind and body and it's just you on the mat. And it encourages you not to judge yourself, not to judge your performance on the person next to you to set an intention for someone who might be suffering at the beginning of the end of your practice to acknowledge and honor that all being suffer.

Nikki: Well while using the physical body to do that, and that, you know, ties in very nicely where the brain is part of the physical body, right. So I'll end by saying, brains are organs, you guys, brains are organs, we've got to take them off the pedestal. They're cool. They're not that cool, right? They're just as cool as other parts of the body. And the more we can understand and accept our brains, parts, we like them parts we don't like as they are. We can then also shift our attention to learn to interact with the mind in a more effective way. This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave. This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors, Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.