Powers of Mind: In Praise of Subtle Actions

By Deepak Chopra


At a time when the mass of headlines seem to be about the brain, artificial intelligence, robotics, and smarter computers, not enough is said about the mind. When reduced to a mechanism, the mind somehow is thought to turn into the brain, with no difference between them. It’s true that the brain seems to exhibit physical changes that correlate with every activity of the mind, and one day the word “seems” may no longer be necessary. The brain as mirror of the mind may be completely understood and mapped out.


It should be underlined, however, that neuroscience is far from understanding the mind’s subtlety, and the most sophisticated brain scans take broad swipes at mental processes–there is no fine detail. The same areas of the brain devoted to language will light up on an fMRI whether Shakespeare is writing a sonnet or a very bad poet is writing doggerel. There is no area of the brain that can remotely be detected in such detail that a researcher reading the scan can say, “Oh, that’s Mozart.” In fact, if you present our brain scan to a neuroscientist, he won’t be able to identify who you are, either. The broad strokes of current brain research yield interesting and medically valuable information, but they don’t come close to explaining the activity I’d call “subtle action.”

Here are a dozen subtle actions you perform every day that no computer can match.













These actions aren’t incidental. The fact that they cannot be programmed into a computer or analyzed on a brain scan is critical, because it’s these activities that make us human.  A computer can be programmed to imitate these actions, but there isn’t anyone at home. Churning out the words “I imagine” or “I appreciate” or “I love” in a machine-like way doesn’t come close to the aspect of mind implicit in each of these actions: self-awareness.


Self-awareness can achieve almost everything we value in a person. Consider the list again and ask yourself, “Would I want a partner or friend with these qualities?” You undoubtedly would. The notion that AI will one day produce a machine that’s self-aware has been a standard feature of science fiction, where robots that feel rebellious or sad have come to be. But self-awareness has no content; therefore, there’s nothing in the form of information or data that can be programmed into a machine. This means that self-awareness will remain a human property, untouched by computers.


But does this rule out a neuroscience of awareness?  If Shakespeare is sitting at his desk saying to himself, “Maybe To be or not to be is better than To exist or not to exist,” will a brain scan one day tell us exactly how he arrived at this conclusion? Or to be strictly scientific, will a neuroscientist of the future, handed two brain scans, be able to pick out which one belongs to an actor reciting “To be or not to be” and which one to an actor reciting “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt”?  The difference is self-evident to anyone hearing the words, because we have understanding, which grows out of awareness.


I’ll pose the notion that subtle actions are a dividing line between mind and brain, meaning that these mental activities define how a life unfolds, even though there is little or no evidence of corresponding brain activity. Self-awareness lies completely outside any plausible brain model. More importantly, we should be turning the tables around, because subtle action is the most powerful way to change the brain. In the next post we’ll discuss how this works.


(To be cont.)


Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. His latest book is The Future of God