Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Wet Mind

Mental processes: An out-of-body existence?

These days, it seems obvious that the mind arises from the b rain (not the heart, liver, or some other organ). In fact, I personally have gone so far as to claim that "the mind is what the brain does." But this notion does not preclude an unconventional idea: Your mind may arise not simply from your own brain, but in part from the brains of other people.

Let me explain. This idea rests on three key observations.

The first is that our brains are limited, and so we use crutches to supplement and extend our abilities. For example, try to multiply 756 by 312 in your head. Difficult, right? You would be happier with a pencil and piece of paper—or, better yet, an electronic calculator. These devices serve as prosthetic systems, making up for cognitive deficiencies (just as a wooden leg would make up for a physical deficiency).

The second observation is that the major prosthetic system we use is other people. We set up what I call "Social Prosthetic Systems" (SPSs), in which we rely on others to extend our reasoning abilities and to help us regulate and constructively employ our emotions. A good marriage may arise in part because two people can serve as effective SPSs for each other.

The third observation is that a key element of serving as a SPS is learning how best to help someone. Others who function as your SPSs adapt to your particular needs, desires and predilections. And the act of learning changes the brain. By becoming your SPS, a person literally lends you part of his or her brain!

In short, parts of other people's brains come to serve as extensions of your own brain. And if the mind is "what the brain does," then your mind in fact arises from the activity of not only your own brain, but those of your SPSs.

There are many implications of these ideas, ranging from reasons why we behave in certain ways toward others to foundations of ethics and even to religion. In fact, one could even argue that when your body dies, part of your mind may survive. But before getting into such dark and dusty corners, it would be nice to have firm footing—to collect evidence that these speculations are in fact worth taking seriously.