Mind as a Sense

Mind is a sense organ that sees thoughts and emotions. Just like the eye is a sense organ that sees form, and the ear is a sense organ that senses sounds. This is how we have it in Buddhism – does the science marry up to this model ?

ON SATURDAY 29th Nov.  we will be asking some of these questions in the Nirvana Neuron in Bangkok on Saturday- Don’t worry, you don’t have to be too brainy to join in; We’re aiming for a pleasant lunch and good company with a bit of discussion on the topic thrown in. It’s a good chance to get to know each other and meet some of the interesting faces who you’ll have seen at some of the talks.

The Mind Stealer

Your ear hears sounds the whole time but you are not conscious of it. Only if a sound particularly stands out, such as someone calling your name (or calling you a name) does your conscious mind get diverted to hearing. The result is what we call listening. Same goes for the eye. You see a whole field of stuff, but you are not consciously aware of it until something grabs your attention. Then you go from seeing to looking. Multiply up for 5 senses.

Each object of sense you jump to is called Vinnana in Buddhism, translated as ‘Consciousness’. In fact it should be translated  ‘cognition’ – since we are cognizing a particular object of sense – such as a sound or an itch on the body. The mind consciously latches on to only one thing at a time, though it can jump fairly fast between objects. This process is observable in meditation.

In this way you can know by experience that hearing is going on, even when you are not conscious of it. If you pass your attention back to hearing, you will be roughly aware of what you have heard in the last few seconds. If you do not put your attntion there, those seconds of record will be quickly be lost forever.

Moving your attention around your senses is something like shining a torch [translation for Americans : flashlight] around a room. If you apply intention, you can direct the process according to what you want to focus on. Otherwise attention will drift around, and providing nothing is threatening you, it will probably settle on daydreaming.

Mind as Sense?

So is the mind also a sense? So far as our model in Buddhism is concerned, yes it is. You can focus your attention on your thoughts just like you can focus on a sound or a physical feeling. You can concentrate on something, say a feeling in the foot, for a period of time, and then bring your attention back to the mind. You should find that it was drifting along with its thoughts, and you have a short term memory of what had been going on there over the last few seconds. The mind sense is bobbing along just like the hearing or feeling sense. Putting your attention on any sense, including the thinking, makes that sense conscious.

As noted in a previous blog, the intention in Buddhism is not to formulate a beautiful and detailed explanation of how the mind works, but to get enlightened. There are certain insights gained by placing your attention on certain aspects of this process, and this is what we call insight meditation, or vipassana. One important insight is this sense of consciousness that arises with focussing on something, is synonymous with the sense of ‘self’. There is no dukkha (suffering) where cognition is not focussing.

(This means that the thumb you banged with a hammer, does not hurt the whole time, but only when you put attention on it. But more on that another time.)


So how does the science marry up? A mixed bag of results. The research shows the brain ticks along continuously when you are not ‘doing’ anything. But when you consciously engage in an activity, the background processes, which in fact use up just as much physical fuel (glucose) as the active mind, shut down. It appears as if the brian has two modes of behaviour – intentional and non-intentional.

You can see some recent detail on this in an excellent, if lengthy, article in New Scientist magazine (link is now under paid access 🙁 ). In short it reinforces the Buddhist supposition that mind is a sense – it carries on thinking the whole time whether you are aware of it or not. On the other hand, it would suggest that thinking stops as intention directs resources to a particular object of consideration.

The researchers call this continual non-conscious movement daydreaming, and figure that like dreams, it is a way to ‘process’ information in the memory. Their view seems overly mechanical, and suspiciously close to the way computers work. Another suggestion is that the glucose intake that signifies activity (in a PET scan) is not so much due to background ‘thinking’ but to the brain manufacturing the vital neurochemicals it needs to function. Looking at the mind from outside will always be an inexact science.

As usual, in the article there is a nod to Buddhism. A section at the end presents summarized research that shows Zen meditators are faster at reigning in the daydreaming mind than normal people. It raises interesting questions – if mind is a sense, how come we can control it in ways we can’t control the other senses. Do we need to stop the mind in meditation? And what about those super-mundane states of mind we read about in scriptures that describe powers of remembering past lives, seeing other peoples minds, of seeing and hearing devas etc… All valid questions. Collaberation is needed between qualified researchers and accomplished meditators.