Over the centuries we have had a paradigm of thinking that the mind is in the head. That the mind exists somewhere in the brain and that it processes and stores information. On a closer inspection of the brain you would find that the entity we call "mind" is not actually there, but is used as a metaphor for the process of thinking. A metaphor is a description of something that we want to explain that exists in our experience; thus a metaphor is not an explanation.

To propose that the mind or the process of thinking exists in the head or brain is only descriptive and is misleading in several ways.

For example, if you were to open up the brain not only would you not find a mind, you would not see words or pictures floating around in there either. Nor would you see a storage place or some mechanism that stores all these words or pictures.

Generally, the operation of the brain/mind and it's processes are described as a computer. The brain receives the message from the outside (the environment or someone else), decodes and stores the message for use at some other time. Other metaphors to describe this process of processing and storage, are the "unconscious" or "sub-conscious".

If the brain/mind processes are described as a computer, then how do the words and pictures get into the brain? How are these downloaded to the mind and stored for later use? Do the words somehow float in through our ears? Do the pictures pass through the retina of the eye? Do the words and pictures pass through nerve fibres to the brain and the nervous system?

Having given these questions some serious consideration, I came to the conclusion that to explain the brain/mind processes in this way is completely non-sensical. And I would like to offer another perspective.

That the system that we call the brain, is a vast network of cells that are interconnected with the rest of the nervous system and operates according to its own interconnected internal dynamics, its structure. Whatever happens in the brain or nervous system is determined by this structure. A structure that is dynamic; constantly undergoing states of change. These changes are due to the operation of its internal dynamics as well as the interactions that the organism participates in it's environment or medium, which also trigger changes of state in the brain and nervous system.

"...for the operation of the nervous system, there is no inside or outside, but only maintenance of correlations that continuously change...." (Tree of Knowledge, 1987. Maturana and Varela)

From what I have just stated, means that the brain and nervous system is operationally closed, because its operation depends on what is happening in its structure. Anything that is external to the nervous system and brain can only trigger or influence states of change in it. It is the structure that determines what happens in it. Hence, we begin to see that the notion of information is impossible from this view.

".....the nervous system does not "pick up information" from the environment, as we often hear. On the contrary, it brings forth a world by specifying what patterns of the environment are perturbations and what changes trigger them in the organism. The popular metaphor of calling the brain an "information-processing device" is not only ambiguous but patently wrong."(Tree of Knowledge, 1987, Maturana and Varela)

So how does the external environment influence the brain and nervous system? We human beings have a body with sensory surfaces; the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin. When we interact with our environment or other people, our sensory surfaces are triggered. These sensory surfaces are also part of the sensory and effector cells of the nervous system and the brain. When our sensory surfaces are triggered, the sensory and effector cells are triggered also, leading to changes of state in the nervous system and the brain.

As these interactions are repeated and repeated over a period of time, the changes of state that are triggered by the interactions will be adapted by the structure of the nervous system and the brain. These repetitions are what will become laid down or conserved as sensory motor co-relations. Sensory, meaning the sensory surfaces; motor, meaning the actions performed as a result of the changes in the structure. These repetitions of sensory-motor co-relations are not stored in the mind, but rather become conserved as part of the structural dynamics of the network as patterns of activity. This is how the environment influences the nervous system and the brain and why we find ourselves in repetitive actions or patterns.

Thinking is part of the process of sensory motor co-relations that takes place in the relations of the observer as languaging. Thinking requires the nervous system and the brain but does not take place there. Thinking takes place in the interactions or relations of the observer as part of the languaging process as co-ordinations of co-ordinations of behavior. In fact, the process of thinking requires further recursions on the languaging process. And as languaging takes place in the interactions, it can only trigger the structure. It cannot determine what happens in the structure.

It is the observer that describes this process of thinking and generates a metaphor to describe the process and becomes confused with a supposed entity that actually exists in the head, the mind.

"The mind is not in the head, the mind is in the behavior." (The Mind is Not in the Head, 1985, Maturana)

It is also interesting to note that when the mind is used to explain behaviour, it is generally talked about in terms of "the mind controls what we do" and "if we control our mind or thoughts, then this will lead to changes in our behaviour".

As I mentioned before that thoughts or thinking, can only influence or trigger what happens in the brain or nervous system, because thinking takes place in the relations or the interactions of the observer. It is the structure that determines what happens in us, not the mind.

So perhaps from this perspective we can gain an understanding that is different and yet enlightening. For me, this structural view of myself as a human being has had enormous consequences in my life. I no longer control, suppress or deny what is happening to me structurally, but rather acknowledge, accept and learn to love my amazing structure and the consequences that that entails. All in all my new worldview has been an amazing journey in understanding what it is to be human.


Copyright 1996 Jane Cull. This material may be freely copied and reused, provided the author and source are cited. However, the author would appreciate being contacted should you wish to copy or reuse the material.


The Tree of Knowledge by Humberto R. Maturana & Francisco J. Varela. Copyright 1992. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc., 300 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, MA., 02115.

The Mind is Not in the Head by Humberto R. Maturana, 1985. Department of Biology, Faculty of Sciences, University of Santiago, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile.