Differences Between the Mind and the Brain

Thought makes us human. We all think and reason, but it's difficult to define such complex processes with words and biological mechanisms. In an attempt to achieve this, we'll show you the differences between the mind and the brain and how the two complement one another.
Differences Between the Mind and the Brain
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 10 June, 2023

Thought is one of the main bases when defining human existence. We all think about every moment of our life (we produce about 60,000 or more thoughts a day), but defining what the mind, the brain, and other neurological processes that enable reasoning are is a real challenge. In the following article, we’ll tell you the differences between some of the cited terms.

The mind makes us who we are, while the brain makes it possible to carry out all the activities that the body dictates (either consciously or unconsciously). Although they seem like interchangeable concepts, the reality is that there are several key distinctions between them. Keep reading, because here we’ll tell you about them.

What’s the brain?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines the brain as the largest part of the encephalon, which is divided into 2 hemispheres or halves known as cerebral hemispheres. The internal areas of this organ control the functioning of muscles, speech, thinking, reading, emotions, writing, and learning, among many other things.

Normally, we use the term brain and encephalon interchangeably, but they’re different: The first is only a part of the second. The encephalon is the organ within the head that organizes and dictates all functions within the human body. It’s protected by the bones of the skull and is made up of the brain, the cerebellum, the and brainstem.

The brain is the main organ of the nervous system and, together with the spinal cord, it makes up the central nervous system (CNS). Each of its hemispheres that make is composed of a nucleus of white matter (especially myelinated axons) and a cortex of gray matter (which contains more cell bodies and fewer axons).

Parts of the brain

We could talk about data from the brain for hours, as it’s undoubtedly the most complex organ in the body of any vertebrate. In any case, we’ll show you briefly what its most general parts are in the following list:

  1. Frontal lobe: This is more developed in ethologically complex living beings, making it one of the most “modern” at the phylogenetic level. In each of these 2 structures (one for each cerebral hemisphere) it’s located in Broca’s area, which is responsible for linguistic and oral production.
  2. Temporal lobe: Each of the temporal lobes is located on the sides of the brain. It handles auditory language and speech understanding systems and also performs key tasks in the interpretation of complex visual processes.
  3. Parietal lobe: Each parietal lobe lies behind the fissure of Rolando. It has 2 main functions, which as somatosensation and sensorimotor integration. It’s responsible for interpreting temperature, pain, touch, and many other basic stimuli.
  4. Occipital lobe: Each occipital lobe is located in the posterior cap of its respective cerebral hemisphere. It represents the processing center of our visual system.
  5. Insular cortex (also insula and insular lobe): This cerebral mass is located in the depth of the Sylvian fissure. It serves as an integration center for various sub-regions.
  6. Limbic lobe: This conglomerate, also known as the limbic system, is primarily responsible for emotional life in human beings.

The brain is divided by a longitudinal fissure that delimits the 2 hemispheres and, as we’ve seen, each of them is made up of 6 different lobes and 2 layers according to their depth (white and gray). Undoubtedly, the anatomical complexity of this organ explains its importance when governing all the anatomical and emotional processes of the human being.

The human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds. It contains about 100 billion neurons and a vast number of neuronal connections.

What’s the mind?

The differences between mind and brain include their complexity.
The mind is a much more abstract concept than the brain, as it’s much more than the sum of the organic parts that make it up.

The Oxford University Dictionary defines the mind as the set of intellectual capacities of a person. In other words, it represents the totality of cognitive abilities that include processes such as perception, thought, memory, consciousness, imagination, and many other qualities of the human being.

The concept of the mind is largely subjective and doesn’t have a universal definition, but the mental processes that characterize it to some extent can be “quantified” according to neuronal activation and their contact with other cell bodies (synapses).

Parts of the mind

The main cognitive abilities that make up our mind are the following:

  1. Attention: Attention is the ability to choose and register a specific stimulus that we recognize as important or necessary. In other words, it’s a voluntary application of mental activity.
  2. Memory: This is the mental capacity that enables us to record, preserve, and remember previous experiences. It can be sensory, short-term (STM), working, or long-term (LTM).
  3. Perception: Perception is the brain’s way of interpreting the sensations it receives through stimulus channels (sight, touch, hearing, etc.). The impression formed can be conscious or unconscious.
  4. Reasoning: This term represents the faculty that allows us to solve problems, draw conclusions, and learn in a conscious way, establishing logical and causal connections between the events experienced.
  5. Coordination: This is the ability of the musculoskeletal system to synchronize under the parameters of a trajectory and movement. It allows us to relate effectively to the three-dimensional environment and perform complex tasks in it.

Beyond this categorization, it should also be noted that mental processes can be conscious or subconscious. Many of the physiological changes that the body undergoes based on mental processes are so succinct that we don’t even realize they’re happening.

There’s no universal definition of the mind. It’s easier to understand it by indicating what processes it enables us to carry out than by trying to circumscribe it to a concrete tangible region.

Differences between the mind and the brain

Now that we’ve extensively described what each of the terms we’re going to work with is, we’re ready to list the differences between the mind and the brain. We’ll present them to you in the following categorized lines.

1. The mind uses the brain

As indicated by professionals in the field of neuroscience, one of the main differences between the mind and the brain is that the former “uses” the latter to carry out the physiological processes that characterize it. We’ll explain this better in the following lines, as we’re entering a fairly abstract terrain.

The mind uses the brain, and the brain responds to the mental demands of the individual. For example, we’ve said that the attention or focus of our senses toward a specific stimulus is an essential part of what we know as the mind. At the brain level, the sensory maps responsible for guiding attention are manufactured in the parietal lobe, according to cognitive-themed portals.

Memory also characterizes the mind as an abstract concept, but the temporal lobes are those mainly responsible for storing our memories in the short and long term. In other words and more simply put, each of the components of the mind relies on one or more specific anatomical structures of the brain to be carried out.

The mind, an abstract concept, uses specific anatomical regions of the brain (and cerebellum) to carry out specific tangible functions.

2. The brain is a physical organ, but the mind isn’t

The brain is an organ circumscribed by the cranial cavity that has 2 hemispheres, each one divided into 6 more or less complex lobes. Together with the cerebellum and brain stem, they form the encephalon itself. This mass weighs about 3 pounds and is composed mainly of neurons and glial cells.

The brain is tangible and is made up of tissues that can be seen under a microscope, which in turn make up a functional unit. On the other hand, the mind is an abstract concept that exemplifies the results of the processes carried out in the tissues that make up the brain. A single head region or cell group can’t be attributed to it.

The mind goes beyond the sum of its parts in complexity and functionality. Not all the processes that occur at the psychological level in humans are limited to a single brain region or a group of synapses.

3. The mind goes beyond the brain

The brain is the regulatory center for all physiological processes that take place in the body, from the heartbeat to the interpretation of a thunderous sound that occurs in our environment. Almost everything passes through the brain before being transformed into an order (reflex acts are the exception, as they’re processed at the level of the spinal cord).

In any case, the concept of the mind goes far beyond the brain, as it also implies the responses sent to the rest of the body from the encephalon that make up the emotional state or the mental picture of the moment. Let’s take an example, as it’ll make it much easier to understand what we mean.

A practical example: The stress response

When we feel stressed (a physiological process and an emotion that encompasses the mental realm), the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the amygdala, the limbic areas, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HHA) axis are stimulated. This produces the order for the release of catecholamines by the adrenal glands, essential in the physical response to stress.

Some of these catecholamine hormones are epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When these are released into the bloodstream, a series of physiological changes occur, such as an increase in heart rate, an increase in respiratory rate, an increase in pupillary diameter, a decrease in gastrointestinal activity, and a greater reflex response.

The brain is only responsible for integrating the stimuli and releasing the neurotransmitters/signals necessary for the rest of the organs to respond, in this case, the adrenal glands and the systems affected by them. On the other hand, the “mental” process of stress involves all the physical and psychological changes that are manifested in this state. In other words, it goes far beyond the brain.

The brain is just an organ, but the mind encompasses the organ and the emotional responses that occur in the rest of the body as a result of its actions. A state of mind isn’t explained only by brain connections.

4. The mind emerges from the brain

Differences between mind and brain include their origin
The mind is intimately linked to the existence of the brain: Without this last organ, it would be impossible to develop this faculty that characterizes human beings.

We don’t want to get into spiritual or overly abstract realms (like the concept of the soul), but there’s a scientific consensus that the mind emerges from the brain. This means that mentality is an emergent property of brain activity, as is the digestion of the gastrointestinal tract or the respiration of the lung movement.

There are biological entities with a brain that don’t have a mind (such as a human corpse or an invertebrate with a centralized nervous system in the cephalic region), but no living being without a brain can express mentality even in its minimum expression.

The mind is an entity emerging from the brain, but it makes up more than the sum of the parts of the brain.

5. The brain doesn’t just control thinking

We’ve come to this last of the differences between mind and brain after exploring the most abstract terrain. In any case, this idea is much easier to understand than the previous ones: The mind involves thinking, while the brain modulates many more processes.

As we’ve said in previous lines, the mind is usually conceived as the set of a person’s intellectual properties. This involves thoughts, beliefs, imagination, will, memory, and sensations, among many other things. As you can see, this concept is widely related to ethereal terms and linked to ideas.

The brain also controls all of the aforementioned, but at the same time, it’s in charge of keeping the respiratory rate constant (8-16 breaths per minute), preserving the rhythm of heartbeats (60-100 beats per minute), maintaining the basal metabolic rate of the individual, internal temperature, and much more. In other words, the concept of the brain includes the physiology that keeps us alive.

The mind emerges from the thoughts. The brain thinks, but it also keeps the whole body afloat from a physiological and objective point of view.

Differences between the brain and the mind: Abstract but complementary concepts

As complex as this topic may sound, the clear distinction between the two terms lies in a single idea: The mind is abstract, but the brain is tangible.

Despite all the above, a final distinction must be made. Many professionals use the terms brain and mind interchangeably, which isn’t entirely wrong. Although one is an organ and the other a non-tangible concept, they’re inseparable and can’t be understood without the other.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.