What is a mind? One of the great mysteries of our time

Professor Mark Solms is the lead educator of the University of Cape Town’s free online course, “What Is a Mind?” Here, he discusses how he approaches this question – one of the great mysteries of our time.

Professor Mark Solms and Professor Susan Levine filming for this course

Professor Mark Solms (right) filming for this course.

“What is a mind?” is an extremely important question. For what are you if not your mind?

Psychology is of course the science of the mind, and yet graduate students of psychology have great difficulty answering this question. From their replies, you might think that the mind is just a very complicated information processing device. But are you a complicated information processing device?

The mind is not an object

The source of the difficulty is the fact that the mind is not an object; it is not something out there in the world that you can point to and say: “That is a mind; that thing over there is what I call ‘the mind’.”

The mind is invisible. But it is not invisible in the same way that gravity and electricity are. It is true that the existence of the mind, like that of gravity and electricity, can be inferred from its physical effects (For example, “She moved her hand when I asked her to; that movement was caused by her mind, by an act of the will.”) The difference is that the mind can also be perceived directly. It feels like something to be a mind.

The mind can be perceived

So the mind can be perceived, no less than planets and atoms, but this kind of perception – perceiving things like memories, thoughts and feelings – is something subjective. Therefore, you can only ever experience your own mind.

This is the nub of the problem. You cannot experience minds in general. That makes it very difficult to have a science of the mind. For science, of course, aspires to objectivity – to generalizability. We go to great lengths to exclude the subjective from science.

The mind versus the brain

As a result, throughout the history of psychology, there have been serious attempts to exclude the mind from science. We were told by the Behaviourists (who dominated 20th century psychology), for example, that the mind does not really exist. Only its responses exist – its behaviours.

Today, in the era of Neuroscience, we face a similar problem. We are told that the mind is really just the brain. It is an elaborate illusion produced by the brain. So what if I told you that you – your subjective experience – will cease to exist from tomorrow, but that you shouldn’t worry because I will keep your brain alive?

The fact that your brain will be alive but devoid of experiences will be cold comfort to you. Because you – your beloved self – will no longer be there. This simple fact seems to prove that your mind is not identical with your brain.

But now I hear you say: the brain in a coma is just the brain minus the mind. The mind is the part of the brain that is lost when it is in a coma. The question then becomes: what part of the brain is essential to produce the mind? And how does it do it? How does the brain get over the hump from electrochemistry to feeling?

What is a mind really?

This question will be the starting point for our free online course, “What Is a Mind?” Based on the latest discoveries in neuroscience, but also taking account of lived experience (as studied, for example, by psychoanalysts) and of the philosophical wisdom of the ages, we will address one of the great mysteries of our time.

Step by step, we answer this question: What is a mind… what is it really?

Want to know more? Read Professor Solms’s latest post for the FutureLearn blog or join the free online course “What I a Mind?

Category Learning

Comments (172)


  • Bob

    What if I throw spirit and communion with an invisible force into the mix.
    Only playing devils advocate but if we see science as one end of the spectrum what lies at the other end.

    • Leo Njeru

      That opens a whole realm of the universe, cosmos, the past, present, future and eternity. Astrophysicists will suggest that a human is a tiny spec of a HUGE limitless expansive multiverse.

      Probably, in all it’s nuances, humanity and the cosmos seamlessly merge through multiple cosmic realities. That, for instance, after death, the mind transitions to a spirit form. Well, the body decays back to the hydrocarbons, minerals and metals that “FORMED” it. The physiology and anatomy end. But, the mind, the essence of the person becomes spiritual.

      Now the issue is the how exclusive is the corporeal from the spiritual?

  • Javier Santos

    Can’t we really experience the minds of others? what about all those mirror neurons, do they provide a (underestimated) insight into someone else’s mind? Can we have a collective mind?
    These are all important questions to me that I look forward to discuss and hopefully clarify in the “What is a mind?” course.

  • Tina Warner

    The unconscious exposes the true feelings, emotions, & thoughts of the individual, I think feelings came first. Fear is a strong emotion & we are driven to survive. The mind controls our behavior, cognitive neuroscience continues to gather evidence of direct correlations between physiological brain activity & putative mental states, endorsing the basis for cognitive psychology. Did consciousness evolve with the origin of language ? I think it developed more but I believe consciousness existed before language.

    There is Quantum Mechanics, the concept is the mind, ( human or otherwise ) is simply evolved physical scaffold for an entity of electrical & quantum impulses. I like the idea of Panpsychism, the dizzy notion that everything in the universe might be conscious or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations.

    Stars make the universe fertile, 93% of our body mass is made up of dead stars, from the big bang the universe is expanding, stars create energy, why not consciousness ? when we understand the mysteries of the universe, then I think we might understand the mysteries of the mind.

  • Desiree

    Aren’t we back at Sartre’s essence and existence issue? to do or to be? Essence seems to be detected (not the same as ‘experienced”..or is it?)via the senses. ‘Experience’ is as near to abstract awareness as I can get, but it might also include some physical sensation, like tingling or flushes or tears arising from within…so does ‘existence precede essence’ ? Existential therapy seems to offer more hope for getting side another’s experience? certainly more than Cog behaviour mod.

  • Iftikhar Ahmed

    God has gifted the best mind to humans only to think and feel wisely. So God blessed all revealed prophets with Books of Wisdom i. e Torah. Ingeal (Bible ) and Al Quran. to guide human to the “Straight Path” to have peace of mind and be successful and happy
    Wisdom = Guidance + Knowledge So Wisdom is mind power

  • Carina

    The most throught-provoking article I read in years is the one Prof Solms sugests in his second blog and which I happened on early last year – Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? (from The Guardian). But I’m still lost in trying to talk about mind/brain/consciousness

    • Curt Booz

      It seems to me that the mystery of the mind/consciousness is solvable on an individual basis. Then further via conference and sharing notes. The first step being for each individual to look in the place that they would find results. This being inside themselves, individually. Meditation would be a start…..Ahh, how very unscientific (chuckle) though the answers will be (are being) solved as we experience the convergence of science and what is presently called subjective reality (spirituality).

  • Heinrich

    Mind vs Brain……

    Perhaps “mind” is how the brain perceives itself. Remember, the sum of the parts is greater than the parts on their own. Therefore, every bit of brain, every chemical and electrical interaction plays its role. It is only when the brain perceives “itself” that we start expressing a sense of “mind” a sense of…self.

    Lastly, if there is no brain, there cannot be a mind. I do not see any likelihood of a dualist perspective of brain and mind being separate as being likely to hold true.


    Lastly (for now), “The question then becomes: what part of the brain is essential to produce the mind? And how does it do it?”

    The brain is an organ, the same as any other unique organ of the body, evolved and gestated by life in the womb, and along with, and in conjunction with the mental and emotional realms. The mind is the overall capacity that embodies our mental and emotional realms, including our bodies with all their organs and sensory perception mechanisms, but is generated by our being-identity, rather than by any of its parts, and is therefore more than the sum of its parts, of which the mind is our furthest reaching capacity-of-awareness, and designed to interface between inner and outer consciousness and the worlds we create in extended collective expression.


    Second point: — “So the mind can be perceived, no less than planets and atoms, but this kind of perception – perceiving things like memories, thoughts and feelings – is something subjective. Therefore, you can only ever experience your own mind.”

    If the mind (individual) can be perceived, which it can, who or what is doing the perceiving? Well of course it is the in-dwelling being. However, since the individual in-dwelling being comes from the same source – life – as every other in-dwelling being, then although each one is unique, one mind is designed the same as any other mind, and if this is so, and because our minds are designed by and for the same life-purpose, then in true consciousness we are also designed to share agreement. This means putting the minds together, for instance, for furthering creative expression; “where two or more are in agreement, I am” – life expressing — “in their midst.”

    The reason it may have seemed that “you can only ever experience your own mind”, is because the mind has only been functioning on the basis of a conditioned belief in a state-of-separation, caused initially be fear.

    • Desiree

      well put Peter
      It helps me understand how, whenever we have the courage to venture beyond out own solipsistic protections, we can experience love and ‘see;’ god


    May we review your opening statement Professor: — “What is a mind?” is an extremely important question. For what are you if not your mind?”

    Professor, I have a mind, just as I have a feeling-realm and a body; those are my capacities of expression, but not who or what I am. I suggest that is where the confusion that has contributed to a universal sense of false identity — an identity that claims, “I am only human” — usually to excuse failure, and which is not true else that person would be only human remains, fit for burial. It should instead be understood that we, you, me, everyone, are the ‘being’ identity that inhabits our bodies.

    You go on to say, “the mind is not an object”, but then neither is life, and yet we know there is life before birth and life after death, else we would not be here. However, since nothing exists or has meaning without life, the mind, emotional-realm, and the body must be products of life, since life was present before the mind and emotions, or the body, all of which life evolved and gestated miraculously in just nine months in the womb of our mothers.

    If that is so, then our true identity is life, and not our mind.

  • Shah Alam

    I found it great, full of knowledge. If some thing may be added to it about heart feelings or thoughts of heart than the myth of heart thinking may be cleared and resolved.

  • Poppy Mohlala

    I hope this course will definately help me and answer some of my questions. Question: Is my thinking(the thought) coming from my mind? Example: I changed my mind. Do you change your mind or your thinking?

  • halima

    Leave a comment…I realy a mind is a brain it self when we go back to scientific because when mind it transform the object back it gives u information with deferent people and may be they were gave different answers and this depend on hw they hve capacity of their mind .

  • GRAY

    Really thought-provoking topic (excuse the pun), engaging script, prompted me to sign-up for the course. My 10c worth, although a rhetorical question; “But are you a complicated information processing device?”
    If you interpret ‘basis of intelligence’ (genralisation), as patterns and memory. In my mind, high-probability of being more than less, given the features (Naive Bayes) that we are able to classify.

  • kamal

    Sir is it related to our sub conscious mind or spirituality or more un explained focusing things.

  • Mike

    Why do we talk about mind and not psyche?
    Why feelings – it has so many meanings in everyday language?
    Is there not a better subject term?

  • Glen

    I think it is thought itself that transforms and creates the mind. But more than this it is also our interaction with the world around us – thus learning to play a musical instrument enables greater mathematical ability; juggling is supposed to help one process thought more quickly. But creativity where does that come from? Do we need to free the mind for that? I am really looking forward to this course!

  • Lesley H

    Do you think it will be possible – in the future – to read a mind?

  • John

    Hi Gill,
    I was struck by your thoughts about the link between mind and personality.
    My mother-in-law, when she was losing her memory, would often say, “I think I’m losing my mind.” We would respond that she was just losing her memory. Her gracious, positive view of life remained as strong as ever, so it was clear that she was not losing her personality.
    On reflection, though, I now think that her personality was changing – she was not given to doubting her mental powers earlier in her life, and her loss of memory induced her to become quieter and more reticent. so I’m inclined to think that her mind was changing. And from that I move on to thinking that all of us undergo changes in our minds throughout our lives as we acquire new experiences.

    • Marco

      John very interesting post. An objective experience. Experience is what we need to study brain. Mind reading is already happening everyday but most of us 99% do not see that: social networking facebook posts twitter. Cell phone calls Is mind reading.
      Mind sharing is the future.
      We areso many and thus it is complex to allow anyone to take part to this process many are with good intentions some will come into sharing mind pools with dangerous aims.

      Stay positive.

      World has always been about influencing and working on sharing minds and brains…
      Future is full of huge potentials. Good course

    • Caroline

      I would agree with you John. I think the mind is connected to an awareness of self. My mother had Alzheimer’s and, literally, lost her mind. Sadly, she was no longer the person we had known, and no longer able to understand the effect that some of her behaviour had on my Dad, her husband.

  • Adriaan

    Referring to ‘the mind vs the brain’ section above, why does the ‘simple fact’ that I am more attached to mind than to my ‘alive’ brain minus subjective experience (which by the assumption being refuted is part of the brain) prove that [mind NOT EQUAL brain]?
    Does it not only prove [mind NOT EQUAL (brain minus subjective experience)]?