Mind vs. Brain: What's the Difference? 

Published June 24, 2022
woman with eyes closed leaning against tree in forest,

Are the mind and the brain the same thing? Scientists and psychologists have been debating this topic for years. Depending on which side of science you find yourself on, you may hear that the brain is the mind and that the two are intertwined. On the other hand you may hear that the mind and brain are completely separate and unique entities.

To fully understand the great mind vs. brain debate, it can be helpful to explore the characteristics associated with each term. For example, the brain is a tangible object --an organ. The mind, on the other hand, is not an organ that physically exists. While some people focus on this key difference between mind and brain, there's no denying that they work together to make each human unique.

What Is the Brain?

The brain is the most complex part of the human body. It's responsible for your conscious thoughts and muscle movements. It is also responsible for subconscious or autonomic functions in the body. It's why your heart continues to beat and why you remember to breathe.

The brain itself is an organ in the body, not a muscle like people previously believed. It helps make up the central nervous system (CNS), which is the body's processing center for a broad spectrum of functions ranging from your sense of smell to your general awareness of the environment.

Parts of the Brain

The brain is split into three sections including the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain. These parts are also known as the cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) these three sections of the brain work together to assist in nearly every function of the human body. For instance, your brain is engaged when you try to run a record-breaking mile. And it is also involved when you sit on your couch surfing through channels on the TV.

The brain can also be broken down into four different lobes responsible for different aspects of the body, including:

  • Frontal lobe - Responsible for personality traits, speech, decision-making, and movement
  • Parietal lobe - Associated with pain and touch, helps people understand language, and is involved in spatial rotation
  • Occipital lobe - Involved with vision
  • Temporal lobe - Responsible for short-term memory and speech

How Does the Brain Work?

The brain is composed of neurons. Neurons are responsible for sending signals from your brain throughout the rest of your body. These signals can be chemical or electrical and can trigger a variety of different responses.

Whenever you walk, speak, or think it's because neurons have sent a signal that causes that specific response. For example, if you're playing catch and someone throws a baseball to you, your brain sends signals to your body to open your glove and put it in front of you to (hopefully) catch the ball.

Brain Functions

Research from the NIH shows that the brain is responsible for:

  • Balance
  • Coordinating movement
  • Emotions
  • Enabling speech
  • Experiencing the five senses
  • Judgment, thinking, and reasoning
  • Learning
  • Problem-solving
  • Reflexive activities, like coughing or sneezing
  • Regulating heart rate, breathing, and blood flow
  • Regulating temperature

What Is the Mind?

The mind is where biology and philosophy meet, and also conflict. Many believe that the mind is related to the body, but remains separate and intangible. But some philosophers, known as dualists, believe that the brain and the mind are distinctly different. To a dualist, the brain is much more than the sum of its parts. Dualists believe that when you add the lobes and their different abilities together, you actually get something extremely special-- the mind.

The mind can be thought of as a person's internal dialogue, your 'self', or, in other words, what makes you you. The mind is also considered the "seat of human consciousness." Of course, there isn't really a little person inside of your brain sitting on a special throne. Rather, the metaphor allows people to visualize the concept that there is more inside of their heads than just a brain.

Philosophers believe that the mind makes humans distinct and separates them from other animals on Earth. Unlike grass and trees, humans aren't merely alive, they're conscious.

Parts of the Mind

The mind is composed of a person's conscious self. To be conscious means that a person is aware of their surroundings and of any internal and external changes. The definition of consciousness also includes the concept that people view these experiences subjectively.

For example, imagine that two people get caught in the rain when walking to work. One notices the rain and becomes upset that they are wet, and the other views it as a fun surprise. People are able to have these different interpretations because they are conscious.

Consciousness is what helps humans develop empathy or pass tests on a computer like those where you need to click every image containing a traffic light. It's also why computers can't pass those tests. It is composed of both the brain and the body, as well as a person's subjective views.

According to Sigmund Freud, the mind is composed of three parts, including:

  • The id - A primitive and instinctual part of the mind involved with sexual desires and pleasure-seeking.
  • The ego - A mediator between the primitive parts of the brain and high morality. It is influenced by the outside world in order to regulate emotions and actions.
  • The superego - A part of the mind that strives for moral consciousness and perfectionism in the world and in the self.

How Does the Mind Work?

Your mind is at work whenever you develop thoughts. For example, when you find yourself thinking "why did I just say that?" or "come on, you can do this!" it's because of your mind.

According to one theory of psychology, the body and nervous system are an information processing center. First, information from the environment is gathered. Then the mind (the body's head executive), forms thoughts about that information. For example, when a bee lands on your shirt, your body notices and processes the information. Then, the mind decides whether it's best for you to run away or remain still until the bee leaves.

Even if you run away from a bee out of reflex, your mind will be there to remind you of how silly you may look to others around you. Your mind is what consciously monitors your thoughts and central nervous system. It takes in and reacts to your environment.

Functions of the Mind

Dualists believe that the mind is responsible for:

  • A person's internal dialogue
  • A person's sense of self
  • Agency
  • Being able to think about our thoughts or meta-thinking
  • Believing in an afterlife
  • Free will
  • Human consciousness
  • Morality
  • Motivation
  • Point of view
  • Subconscious/unconscious feelings and thoughts

Mind vs. Brain: What Are the Differences?

According to many, there are several differences between the mind and the brain, despite the fact that they both seem to function from inside a person's head and respond to the same environment.

Mind Brain
Isn't tangible Is tangible
Is responsible for why the body works Is responsible for how the body works
Responses are triggered by a person's conscious and unconscious thoughts Responses are triggered by neurons send signals throughout the body
Allows humans to know that they are thinking Allows humans to think
Controls both conscious and unconscious processes Controls biological processes
Is part of the greater brain-body connection Is a part of the central nervous system

The brain and its neuron signals combine with your internal dialogue and your sense of self to form the person that is uniquely you. People may have similar brain chemistry with neurons firing throughout the body. However, your own point of view and unconscious thoughts are what help separate you not just from robots or computers, but from the person standing next to you in line at the grocery store. Philosophers and biologists may still not agree on exactly how or if the mind and body are connected, but it's clear that both fields agree that they come together to form something particularly special, you.

Mind vs. Brain: What's the Difference?