Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes).
Part 2: “Mind Over Matter”
Today’s song is “Mind Over Matter.” This is one of two songs that Rosanne Cash, bless her heart and incredible voice, sang with me on Theory of My Mind.
To explain what this song is about, I want to briefly discuss the expression in the title.
Let’s start with something Plato reportedly said: that he looked forward to death so that he could be free of his body and all of the distractions it posed to the pure thoughts of his soul. For Plato, the body was a source of wild passions (animal instincts or emotions). To lead a good, virtuous life, one uses reason (thought or cognition) to control these inner beasts and keep them from being expressed in behavior. But this control of behavior by the mind is not what “Mind Over Matter” is about.
"Mind Over Matter" music video directed by Alexis Gambis.
Plato’s view of the mind as pure thought contrasts with the more modern scientific view, which is that cognition and emotion are both parts of the mental landscape. The goal is to understand how the brain (a material object) makes all these processes of the mind possible. The modern view also emphasizes that much of what the mind does (including the control of the behavioral responses of the material body) takes place unconsciously. This applies to both the cognitive and emotional aspects of mind.
Descartes, sort of like Plato, equated the mind with consciousness. Freud helped crystallize the idea that consciousness is only a part of the mind. But the unconscious today is considered even more important than Freud imagined—it doesn’t just refer to a repository of previously conscious anxious thoughts, but also refers to the basic mental machinations that keep everything psychological humming along.
Physics provides an understanding of how the material world works. And neuroscience is showing us how a physical object, the brain, makes the mind possible. We know a lot more about the basic processes of the brain involved in seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, eating, sleeping, and mating than we do about how some of the underlying processes percolate up into consciousness. But most scientists take for granted that the entirety of our mind operates within the constraints imposed on matter by the laws of physics. This doesn’t mean that the mind or soul does not exist. It just means that whatever the soul is, it is subject to the laws of physics.
I attended a conference sponsored by the Vatican a few years back. I was surprised to find theologians from various religions who accepted the dependence of the mind (soul) on the physical brain. These theologians, in other words, accepted that the soul was tethered to and made possible by the brain, at least during life. They were struggling to find some way that physics (as it currently exists or might exist in the future) could explain how the soul could be a physical entity (though not one you could see and touch, but a physical entity nevertheless) that survives death of the body.
As a neuroscientist, I also firmly believe that the mind (or soul, if you like) is part of the material world, a product of the brain. I am not claiming that we fully know how the brain makes the mind possible, but I believe it does. That’s the hypothesis I’ll cling to until it’s falsified by scientific evidence, or more likely, until I’m 6 feet under and no longer have a brain that can have such a thought (unless the theologians are correct and there is some kind of physics that will allow my mind a material life of its own in some invisible aspect of space-time).
Back to “Mind Over Matter.” Let’s look at a few key lines from the song. First thing to note is that a number of my songs have an inverted structure– they start and end with a chorus, and the verses come in the middle. I don’t know why I’ve been doing that but that’s how they come out sometimes (the ole unconscious at work). The opening chorus lines in the song are: “Mind over matter, that’s something I’m trying to do; it’s just a little physics, that keeps me apart from you.” So right away you know that the singer is missing someone. He then says to the missing person that he wants to “break down space and time, and be together with you.” This suggests that the person is in some unknown place. So far so good in terms of physics. But as we go into the verses we see options such as time travel (“are you still in my time?”) and communication with the afterlife (“or in a place heavenly?”). But simpler options are in there as well (“different continent or on the sea?”). Determined to close the gap, he asserts, “wherever you are now, I’ll use my mind to find; no amount of space or time, can keep you from being mine.”
So you might be thinking that “Mind Over Matter” is an odd song for a brain scientist to write since it implies several potential violations of the laws of physics. But in the end scientists are just like everyone else. We have longings and fantasies that don’t always make perfect sense. We miss those who are no longer with us, and long to be with them, even if we know it is not physically possible. I am scientifically rigorous when I am wearing my scientific hat. But I don’t necessarily spend every waking moment of the day carefully considering whether my thoughts and feelings match the predictions of physics.
I always find it interesting when song writers explain where a particular song came from. So, if I may, I’ll share the origin of “Mind Over Matter” with you. A couple of years ago my wife Nancy and I went to the Rubin Museum’s Friday evening film program called “Mind Over Matter.” The film was “The Innocents,” a chilling cinematic version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. I read the book in college, and I saw the film many years later in the old Carnegie Hall Cinema. During the showing at the Rubin, I thought that “Mind Over Matter” would be a great title for one of my mind/brain songs. So I went home I picked up my guitar and started randomly picking. Out came the opening guitar riff (again the unconscious doing its thing). I then sang the first phrase “mind over matter” and an hour later it was basically done. Record time for me.
The Rubin Museum, though, has another role in the story. This past spring I participated in the Brainwave Festival there, where I got to sing “Mind Over Matter” live in its place where it germinated. My partner in musical crime was Lenny Kaye, the legendary guitarist of the Patti Smith Group. Lenny came up with another song called “Mind Over Matter,” a much earlier version by Nolan Strong and the Diablos. The doo-wop flavor of Lenny’s choice was a perfect compliment to the rock/pop/country feel of mine. We had a great time.
“Mind Over Matter” is my favorite song on the CD. I hope you’ll listen and like it too. Thanks to Alexis Gambis, his crew, and the Imagine Science Film Festival for making the wonderful video possible.
Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a the singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders.