The Human Nervous System

Modern science separated body from the mind at its birth and proceeded to model the body as objects which by definition don't have the representational, intentional, and qualitative properties of the mind. Since the mind-body problem was never resolved, therefore, even the conceptual and the physical realms have always remained separate. An alternative conception of matter is essential to solve the mind-body problem and talk about how matter represents meaning. Such a conception is subsequently required to understand why different parts of the nervous system exist for different purposes. Without a solution to the mind-body problem, and a comprehensive model of conscious experience, neuroscientific theories and experiments are bumbling in darkness.

To chart the human nervous system, a comprehensive model of human experience is needed, but such a model does not exist neither in modern science nor philosophy. Therefore, we have to begin with such a model in the Vedic texts. It is a hierarchical model in the sense that there are deeper and surface realities, the deeper realities affecting and causing the surface realities. This model is described in many ways.

One, it divides experience into waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and conscious will. The will is transcendent but its capacities for intention, emotion, cognition, conation, and relation can be covered by matter. Two, the description of material covering pertains to the above five tiers that progressively go from intention to relation. The intention represents not the will’s intention but the material destiny comprising karma, guna, and chitta. These three can be consistent or conflicting. As a result, the emotional state is divided into “relaxing” and “disturbing” states. The relaxing state puts the person into deep sleep and the disturbing state brings him to dreaming or waking.

The dreaming and waking state are alike in the sense that all experience is produced top-down and the world we see is a world within our mind and senses. The dreaming and waking state are unlike in the sense that intention to fulfill a destiny may be fulfilled internally or externally. When it is fulfilled internally, it is called dreaming. When it is fulfilled externally it is called waking. It is generally very hard for a person to realize whether they are dreaming or waking because both appear the same.

The cognition pertains to the judgment of whether something is true (due to intellect), good (due to ego), and right (due to morality). The mind and the senses are both called senses (together as eleven senses—five senses of knowledge, five senses of action, and the mind—the mind being the eleventh sense) and constitute conation. The relation is to some properties and their values bound together by object-concepts. Whether during dreaming or during waking, we think these are separate from us.

The glue between these “layers” is called prāṇa, the higher layer is called manas, and the lower layer is called vāk. Therefore, the entire hierarchical system is sometimes simplified into a triad called manas-prāṇa-vāk. However, whatever is vāk then becomes yet another manas-prāṇa-vāk to generate a hierarchy. These are therefore also described triguna or three modes. The manas is a space, the prāṇa is the location in that space, and the vāk is an individual object within that space. The space is a class of things, a location in that space is a type of thing, and an instance of that type is an object. These objects are not physical. They are symbols of meaning. For instance, manas can denote color as a space, yellow will then be a location within that space, and a specific instance of yellow will be an object within that color-class-space.

The individual object can be moved in that space due to the effect of prāṇa. By such movement, for instance, the same entity can become red or blue. Thereby, it acquires a different value of color. The same individual object can exit the color space and enter the shape space, acquire a new location, and then be moved as an effect of prāṇa. Thus movement pertains to the an entity acquiring different properties. But those properties are types, the space in which they move is a class, and motion is due to prāṇa.

Everything can be alternately manas, prāṇa, and vāk because it is symbol of meaning, that can generate or produce types within that class. When a mind produces a thought, the mind is a space, the meaning denoted by the thought is a location in the space, and the thought is an individual instance of that meaning. The location and the space are always present. However, prāṇa converts that location into an object. Thereby, an object “pops out” of space and then “pops into” space. This process is very similar to that discussed in quantum field theory creating particles out of a quantum field. But the cause of that production, isn’t randomness. It is the effect of prāṇa.

We could liken prāṇa to a “force” or “energy” but it is operating under the influence of all the higher tiers of reality, all the way to the will. Most of the time, the will isn’t involved as lower tiers can control its production and hence create autonomous behavior. The will can participate in this activity to terminate the autonomous working. The situation is thus compared to a chariot, horses, reins, and a driver. The horses can keep running on their own, taking the chariot and the driver along. However, if the driver wants, he can pull the reins and bring the horses under its control.

The specific location of a symbol within a class-space is determined by all the deeper levels of reality outside that space. For instance, if we hear a sound, then we can talk about the tone, pitch, and form of the sound. We can discuss the meaning it represents. When can then note if that meaning is true, right, and good. Finally, we can determine if that sound is relaxing or disturbing—i.e., putting us to sleep or waking us up. The deep cause of that sound is chitta, guna, and karma, namely, that we are capable of hearing and cognizing a type of sound (chitta), we like or dislike to hear that sound (guna), and that we are destined to receive what we like or dislike (karma).

The principle of all the surface effects being present in the deep cause is called Satkāryavāda and the principle of all the deep causes being present in the surface effects is called Arthavāda. Due to Satkāryavāda, the mind produces thought. Due to Arthavāda, that thought is meaningful. When this principle is extended to all manas-prāṇa-vāk triads, then every object becomes a symbol of meaning. It can reveal that meaning to us because the meaning is in that symbol. It was caused by the meaning because the symbol was within the meaning. Thus, the same thing—e.g., symbol or meaning—is both inside and outside the meaning or symbol respectively.

When we study the body, we cannot say that the mind is not inside the body, nor can we say that the mind is not outside the body. The mind produced the body when the body did not exist, therefore, the mind is prior to the body. However, when the body is produced, the mind is in the body because the body is symbols of meaning. The body is not meaningless for us to say that the mind is a separate substance (as the mind-body duality theorists claim). The mind caused the body and cannot be reduced to it (as the mind-body identity theorists claim). Both mind-body identity and dualism are false. The truth is that both mind and body are real but each is inside and outside the other.

Arthavāda and Satkāryavāda can be understood by an example of color and yellow. Yellow is a part of the class color and the class color is a part of a specific instance of yellow. Square is a part of the class shape and class shape is a part of the specific instance of square. This problem is conceiving objects and classes creates set-theoretic paradoxes because they conceive reality as quantities. The Vedic system, however, conceives reality in terms of qualities—square, yellow, shape, color, etc. Hence, no quantitative description is used in conceiving the body. All descriptions are in terms of qualities. Quantities, however, are emergent properties of qualities.

A quantitative property like “distance” emerges from the interaction between two symbols. There is a specific type of prāṇa called vyāna that causes interactions (the prāṇa itself manifests a thought from the mind). When the vyāna interaction is strong, the corresponding symbols seems near. When the interaction is weak, then the corresponding symbols is far. Changing distances are therefore not the result of motion. They are results of stronger or weaker interaction. We can be close or far to anything in a moment by changing the strength of interaction. When we speak about an electric current moving in a wire, the current is not moving. Rather, there is an electron that is changing its strength of interaction with other electron(s). By that changing interaction, the electron appears to move although it is not moving.

With this background, we can talk about what a neuron is. It is a manas-prāṇa-vāk triad. As manas, it is a space. As prāṇa (or vyāna) it interacts with other spaces and objects in them. As vāk we see it as an object, although it is a symbol of meaning. In quantum theory terms, an electron is three things—a field, a force, and a particle. The classic dualisms of quantum mechanics—e.g., field vs. particle, or fermion vs. boson—do not exist in this description. One thing is at least three distinct things. However, if we try to understand the field, then it is all the unseen deeper levels of reality.

Once we understand what a neuron is, then we can talk about a collection of neurons. They are set of manas-prāṇa-vāk. However, the connections between neurons are not fixed because that connection is nothing but a stronger or weaker interaction with another neuron due to the effect of vyāna. Since the vyāna can change as the effect of the numerous deeper levels of reality (including the will), a collection of neurons is not in a fixed structure. It can change its structure due to deeper realities. All these changing structures are referred to as the plasticity of the brain. But the brain is not just plastic. It is also elastic. It can generate new neurons and destroy old ones.

The structure among the neurons (i.e., the interaction patterns between neurons that create the appearance of connections and proximity between neurons) can only be understood by grasping the deeper levels of reality because that structure is not between physical things. It should rather be likened to an agglomeration of symbols (manas-prāṇa-vāk triads) in which the symbols move around fluidly (due to the effect of vyāna) to dynamically construct a meaningful book. The only difference is that the book is fixed but the collection of neurons is elastic and plastic. Thereby, each type of nervous system (a collection of neurons) is akin to a dynamically evolving book by rearranging symbols in different sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters.

The deeper level reality has broader level effects. This “breadth” is seen as a bigger nervous system. Based on this we can talk about five main nervous systems:

  • The unconscious effect is the autonomic nervous system and it spans every part of the body. It controls digestion, breathing, blood circulation, immunity, and so on.
  • The relaxing subconscious effect is the parasympathetic nervous system as it puts the body to sleep and it is a little smaller compared to the autonomic nervous system.
  • The disturbing subconscious effect is the sympathetic nervous system, called the fight-flight-freeze response, and it is smaller than the parasympathetic system.
  • The cognitive parts of morality, ego, and the intellect are present within the frontal and the temporal lobes of the brain, smaller than the sympathetic nervous system.
  • The conative parts of mind and the ten senses are present in the parietal and the occipital lobes of the brain and the spinal cord, smaller than the cognitive system.
  • The sensory-somatic nervous system gives voluntary control over the organs of the body and is the smallest compared to the previous five nervous systems.

The five-fold distinction between intention-emotion-cognition-conation-relation helps us organize these nervous systems in a hierarchy under which the deepest reality has the broadest effects and the shallowest reality has the narrowest effects. The sensory-somatic nervous system has the narrowest effects. The autonomic working of breathing, digestion, blood circulation, and immunity are the broadest effects. Any change to the autonomic system has a large effect on all the other systems. But a change to the sensory-somatic system has minimal effects on other systems.

When we see two body parts farther apart (in terms of physical distance) we must know that they interact weakly. If we see two body parts nearer to each other (in terms of physical distance) we must know that they interact strongly. The body shape and size is simply an indicator of the strength of interaction between parts. For instance, the hands interact strongly with the head than the legs. The legs however interact strongly with the stomach. The heart and lungs interact strongly with the head, even stronger than the hands. These basic principles are used in Vedic texts to construct hierarchies in which the body is divided into four parts called the upper part (including the head, heart, and lungs), the hands, the stomach, and the legs.

With this big picture of the body and nervous system, we can delve into neuroscience and solve its outstanding problems. At present, the experimental evidence is abundant but the theory to sort, sift, filter, and organize this evidence is missing. Looked through the lens of the above theoretical model, the evidence can prove the theoretical model.