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  • Caitanya Chandra dasa

Heart vs brain: What is the center of consciousness?

The Vedas say that the heart is the center of consciousness. What about the brain? What are the different layers that cover the soul and how they interact with each other? If the intelligence is subtle and thus independent of the body, why do people have decline in their cognitive abilities when the brain is damaged? What about the mind? Who am I? This is a question that can have multiple answers according to one's level of consciousness. Even the word "atma" in sanskrit, that can be roughly translated as "the self" has different meanings according to the context and listener. Atma can mean the body, it can mean the mind, or it can mean the soul, which is our true and final identity according to the Vedic literature. The soul originates from an anti-material world that is beyond the limits of our physical universe. That world is not subjected to our physical laws, or even to the influence of time. There everything is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss, the exact opposite of the situation in this material world. How the soul falls from this position of eternal bliss to the struggle of existence in this material world is a mystery. However, when this happens, the first covering that envelops the pure soul is the concept of false-ego, or ahankara. This ahamkara creates a false sense of identity, based on which one starts to see himself as a product of this material world and starts to desire material things. Such desires lead to the acceptance of the next two coverings: the intelligence and the mind. The mind is the center of desires, it stores all the previous desires of the soul, and brings them back to consciousness when there is an opportunity to satisfy them. For example, a young boy that never saw a girl in his life, will not have sexual desires, but as soon as he sees a young girl, the mind will remember his previous desires and he will be attracted to her. The intelligence then starts to work, making plans on how to satisfy the desires of the mind. In the example, as soon as the mind would desire to associate with the girl, the intelligence would start to make plans on how to approach her and so on. Finally, we have the gross material body, composed of flesh, bones, skin and so on. The body is compared to a vehicle, that allows the soul to act in this material world and thus satisfy his desires. The body also includes the senses, that allows the soul to experiment different sensations. In this way, the soul is covered by five distinct layers: Soul > False ego > Intelligence > Mind > Senses > Gross body Just like the false-ego, both the mind and the intelligence are ethereal. Although material, they are composed of subtle elements, that are distinct and independent of the gross material body. The body and the senses, on the other hand, are composed of gross material elements. The body is composed of flesh and bones, and the senses are composed of nerves, neurons, and so on. The fact that the mind and intelligence are independent from the gross body can be understood when we examine the position of disembodied beings, that many people call "ghosts". They are nothing less than regular people, like you and me, that due to accidents or other causes die before they are prepared to accept another body. In such conditions, they wander for some time in their subtle body, composed of false ego, mind and intelligence. They still have desires (mind), they can think and remember (intelligence) and they have a concept of identity (false ego). They can even see and hear, but without a gross body and senses, they can’t touch or interact with people and objects of this world. Even more interesting is that people that are blind or deaf because of some physical defect can see and hear normally when they are out of the body. Similarly, when they accept another body they can also hear and see. Their deafness or blindness is thus limited to this current body. It’s a defect of the body only. Let’s say for example that you are driving a car and suddenly a rock hit the front glass, badly chipping it. The glass is still there, but now you can’t see anything. If you would get out of the car, you would be able to see normally, and if you would get another car you would also be able to see. Your “blindness” occurs only as long as you are inside this particular car. So, we understand that intelligence is actually independent of the body, just like the mind. One can think normally when outside the physical body, and therefore we can understand that the intelligence is not dependent on the body or the brain. In fact, the Vedic literature describes that the heart, and not the brain is the center of consciousness, being the sitting place of the soul. If the soul is in the heart and the mind and intelligence are subtle and independent of the body, what is the function of the brain? The brain works as an interface between the subtle mind and intelligence and the gross senses. It may look strange at first, but it’s actually a simple concept. Let's imagine that you are in a dark, closed room, with just your computer. Through the internet, you can see, hear, and interact with other people. The computer works as an interface between you and the outside world. Let’s imagine them that something would fall and damage the screen. Maybe you could figure-out a way to use the computer without the screen, but without the screen you can’t see anything. You can still see with your eyes, but without the screen, you lose contact with the outside world. Similarly, if the speakers would stop working, you would not be able to hear anything. So, in this example we can see that the computer works as an interface. You don’t need the computer to think or to desire, but without the computer you can’t interact with the outside world. Similarly, the brain works as an interface between the mind and intelligence and the body and senses. Just like a computer, it’s a very complex machine, and damage to different parts of the brain are going to limit the ways one can interact with the world. Naturally, the functions of the brain go beyond the example that I was able to give. Just like the brain connects the mind with the senses, it is also an interface to memory and intelligence. Someone with a better developed brain may be able to think faster and store memories more sharply and easily. Similarly, damage to the brain may impair one’s cognitive ability while still in this body. The example of the computer also can be used to explain this more esoteric aspect. If one has a faster computer with a bigger hard drive, he will be able to run applications faster, open more programs at once, store more files and so on. As a result, he will be able to do things in a much more efficient way than someone that is struggling with a very slow computer. Similarly, if the computer is damaged (we could imagine a defect in the cooling system, that makes the processor run slowly, for example) his experience can become even more limited. The brain is thus not the intelligence, but it can limit the ways the intelligence is expressed. The same soul can identify with a powerful brain and thus act like a philosopher or scientist, or can identify with a less powerful brain and act like an illiterate. It’s just like a power socket with a 20 watts lamp and with a 100 watts lamp. Although the power socket is the same, you get more or less illumination according to the lamp you plug on it.

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