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All of us use our minds to write. Have you ever wondered what it is, this mind that we employ with such abandon in our stories?

I recently did a six-week MOOC course on ‘What is a mind’ by Prof Mark Solms from the University of Cape Town on FutureLearn. It was the most thought-provoking exercise I had ever done. It not only interrogated the question, what is a mind, but what it is for, and provided insight into depression and mental disorders.

Although it was an extremely difficult topic, merging neuroscience and psychoanalysis (neuropsychoanalysis) to answer the question, what is a mind, the professor made it accessible to the students, ranging from neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, general practitioners, to ordinary people like me.

What I came away with was the newfound knowledge that the mind has four ‘defining properties’: subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and agency. Each of these is situated in a specific area of the brain.

That locates the mind firmly in the body. Without these structures in the brain, the mind ceases to exist. Prof Solms cited brain injury. If that part is damaged, you disappear into a coma. And those who emerge from a coma, when asked what it was like, said it felt like nothing. They were not there and suddenly they were.

However, this is disputed by others in the field, making it not only a challenging subject but also one riven with disagreements and counter arguments.

An interesting idea for me was that we share seven basic emotions with mammals, fear, anger, panic, seeking, lust, care and play. It made me look at animals in a different way.

My mother used to tell this story about a snake that chased her big brother. They grew up in the Free State and the chase took place in terrain where the grass was shoulder high. Every few metres the snake would lift its head out of the grass to look for its quarry.

Fortunately, his half-brother was with him and he warned, “It’s there!”, pointing to the right and my uncle would swerve to the left. Again a warning, “The snake is there!” which prompted a move to the other side. Aside from scaring the hell out of me, this story made me wonder about the determination of the snake. Now I’m thinking that he had probably activated its rage!

An excerpt: ‘The defining feature of the basic emotions is that they are inborn responses to situations of universal biological significance. They are, in a sense, inherited memories of how to respond in such situations, crucial for survival and reproductive success. Those of our ancestors who did not possess the genetic sequences that pre-programme these responses therefore tended not to survive and reproduce — which is why we do not resemble them. Take FEAR, for example, one of the seven basic emotions. If we had to learn what happens when we walk off cliffs, that would be the only thing that we ever learnt. Instead we are born with an instinctual aversion to heights, and several other such things (which reappear in most of the well-known phobias, which are over-sensitivities of this system). Rats, for this reason, freeze when exposed to a single cat hair, even on the first day of life. The FEAR system, though, like all basic emotion systems, is also open to learning. That is how things that evolution had no knowledge of, like electric sockets, come to be associated with fear.’

This course enriched my understanding of my place in the world, as well as driving home the importance of feelings as an indication of how well a person is doing in the world – which I will use in future when creating my characters.

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