A functional framework of the human mind: Yoga and Cognitive Neuroscience Perspectives from Yoga and Cognitive Neuroscience on the Human Mind

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Why should one be interested in studying the Yoga Sutras? While the primary purpose of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras is to guide advanced seekers on the spiritual path, it is also a science of the human mind and therefore personally relevant to every one of us. Gaining deeper insights into the functioning of the mind can help us understand ourselves better, design a meaningful life for ourselves, improve our attention, cognitive abilities, work with greater creativity and efficiency and also create more harmonious relationships with friends and family. When the Yoga Sutras are studied together with modern cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, it can lead to numerous beneficial applications in diverse fields such as neuroscience research, mental health treatment, teaching and learning methods in education, leadership, human resource management, entrepreneurship and social work. The list can go on longer, but let’s stop here for now!

A few terms before we begin

Before we discuss the human mind as described in the Yoga Sutras, a few terms need to be clearly explained so that we know that they refer to the same process in both cognitive psychology as well as Yoga psychology. The concepts in Yoga psychology can then be described using these terms. This would enhance one’s understanding of the two schools of thought and facilitate communication between them.

Sensation refers to the process of detection of sensory information by the senses. For example, sound is a pressure wave that has alternating regions of high and low air pressure. In the inner ear, the cochlea receives these sound waves in the form of mechanical vibrations. The hair cells in the cochlea convert these vibrations into electrical nerve signals which are then transmitted to the brain for interpretation.

Perception refers to the process by which the brain interprets the information recorded by the senses. Perception involves the conscious experience of the sensations. Perception is a process that is a level above sensation.

Cognition refers to mental activity that involves transformation of stored information. In other words, information about the world is acquired through the senses and stored in memory. Cognition occurs when associations and implications (for example, cause and effect correlations) are made about observed events or facts. Cognition is a higher order process compared to perception.

Thought comes under cognition since it is a complex mental activity based on accumulation of experience, knowledge and skill.

Attention refers to focused awareness of relevant information, while filtering out unwanted information.

Emotion is a strong feeling that affects all mental processes and behavior.

 With that, let’s get straight to the heart of the matter.

 Yoga psychology

 Purusha and Prakriti – co-existent principles

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali accept the frameworks of Sankhya philosophy to describe the human mind. Sankhya is a darshana, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘view’ or ‘observation’. The Sankhya darshana is a view of the universe and the human being. It is one of the six primary systems of Indian philosophy. According to the Sankhya darshana, the fundamental principle in the universe is called purusha, pure consciousness without a beginning or end. All of creation emerged from the creative potential inherent in consciousness, known as prakriti. Prakriti is unmanifest, immutable and eternal. Prakriti does not have any origin; it is the primordial source of all other 23 evolutes, which make up the entire universe.

The three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas

When prakriti is unmanifest, the three gunas are in perfect equilibrium. The gunas are sattva, rajas and tamas and they represent the qualities of the 23 evolutes. Sattva represents a conscious, luminous and refined quality. Rajas is an impelling, dynamic and turbulent quality. Tamas represents stasis, stability and also obscuration of consciousness. Sattva, rajas and tamas can also be looked at as progressively decreasing grades of consciousness.

The faculties of the mind (chitta) – buddhi, ahamkara and manas

When there is a fluctuation in the equilibrium of gunas within prakriti, mahat emerges forth. Mahat or buddhi refers to the faculty of intelligence that can discriminate, reason, understand and make decisions. It is the most sattvic and finest evolute of prakriti. From buddhi, ahamkara evolves. Ahamkara refers to the principle of self-identification with name and form, in distinguishing self from non-self. At this point, the evolutes differentiate into the subject and the objective universe.

 The sattvic ahamkara creates the manas, which is the faculty involved in basic sensory level processing and emotional responses to stimuli. From the manas evolve the five jnanendriya, the senses corresponding to audition, touch, vision, taste, smell and also the five karmendriya, the motor pathways corresponding to speech, action, locomotion, reproduction and elimination.

The tamasic ahamkara creates the objective universe. From the tamasic ahamkara evolve the five tanmatra or subtle elements, which are the subtle objects of the senses. They “solidify” and become gross elements or physical matter. The gross elements are the panchabhutas – space, air, fire, water and earth. They are not to be understood literally from a modern physics and chemistry perspective. These elements represent different “densities” of matter, moving from from the subtle to the gross.  

The rajasic ahamkara acts as the impelling force between the sattvic evolutes and the tamasic evolutes, by which the senses recognize their objects, the panchabhutas, which make up the external world of experience. The panchabhutas also make up the physical body that is tangible to the senses.

Thus, the 23 evolutes of prakriti are buddhi, ahamkara, manas, five jnanendriya, five karmendriya, five tanmatra or subtle elements and five gross elements (Figure 1).

Yoga Sutra II.19 categorizes these 23 evolutes as vishesha, avishesha, alinga and linga-matra.

viśeṣa-aviśeṣa-liṅga-mātra-aliṅgāni guṇa-parvāṇi  (II.19)

Translation: Particularised, unparticularised, assigned-only and unassigned are the segments among the evolutes of gunas.

The manas, five jnanendriya and five karmendriya are classified as vishesha, particularised. Vishesha refers to all the final evolutes of prakriti. They are end products that do not produce evolutes out of themselves.

The ahamkara and the five tanmatra (subtle elements) are classified as avishesha, unparticularized. They are evolutes that produce further evolutes out of themselves.

Prakriti is called alinga. Linga means ‘mark’ or ‘sign’. Prakriti is called alinga, meaning ‘without a sign or mark’, as there are no signs by which prakriti can be discerned before the movement of the three gunas.

Buddhi is called linga-matra, meaning distinctive, with signs that distinguishes it. Buddhi can be distinguished as it manifests from prakriti as the most sattvic evolute.

Figure 1: The model of the human mind according to Sankhya darshana and the Yoga Sutras

To summarize the key concepts of Yoga psychology, the jnanendriya are the five sensory pathways which detect the objects of the senses in the external world. The karmendriya are the five motor pathways which allow one to respond to the sensory stimuli. The manas is the faculty of the mind which is responsible for basic processing and interpretation of sensory stimuli and also for emotional responses. The ahamkara is the principle of self-identification with the body and also takes ownership for actions. The buddhi is the faculty of intelligence and discrimination responsible for higher order cognitive processing, which takes place after manas presents the first-level processed information to it.  

The Yoga Sutras use the term chitta to refer to the entire mind field, which includes the operations of all its faculties – the manas, ahamkara and buddhi. Chitta is also the storage space for memories of  experiences. In Yoga psychology, the gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas – are an important framework for understanding variations in mental processes between individuals and within a single individual. Since all faculties of the mind are evolutes, they are composed of the three gunas. Hence, variations in thoughts, behavior, tendencies, personality, and relationships are due to the dominance and preponderance of a guna in the chitta.

Cognitive psychology

 The information processing model

Now, let us understand the foundational principles of cognitive psychology. According to this school of thought, which originated in the 1950s, human cognition is explained using an information processing model, which is very similar to how a computer works.  The process of cognition consists of an input stage, a processing stage and an output stage. The cognitive processes in the brain can be driven by the physical environment and sensation (bottom up), or driven by existing knowledge and abilities (top down). Figure 2 shows the information processing model of human cognition.

 

Figure 2: A conceptual diagram of the information processing model of human cognition accepted in modern cognitive psychology. (Adapted from Gage and Baars, Fundamentals of Cognitive Neuroscience: A Beginner’s Guide, 2nd edition, Chapter 1)

 Sensory and perceptual system

The input stage consists of the sensory and perceptual system. Sensory stimuli in the form of sound, touch, form, taste and smell are recorded by the senses, converted to electrical nerve signals and sent to the brain for interpretation. This is the process of sensation. When the brain interprets the sensed information, it is perception. At any given moment in time, the brain rapidly encodes information detected by the five senses into five sensory memory registers. The sensory memories, representing a “snapshot of the environment”, are retained for a very brief for time. The 5 types of sensory registers are:

Echoic memory: sound

Haptic memory: touch

Iconic memory: sight

Gustatory memory: taste

Olfactory memory: smell

Then, attention comes into the picture. Attention focuses on information in the environment that is of relevance or interest to the individual and filters  out unwanted information. When the individual attends to a particular object in the environment, the information is transferred from the sensory register to the short term memory for further processing. For example, in a crowd, a person could be looking out for his friend, and when he finds his friend, attention gets focused on the friend and information pertaining to the friend alone goes into higher stages of cognitive processing. Other objects and people in his visual field are filtered out.

 Working memory

The information that is attended to in the sensory field then enters working memory, which is a form of short term memory with a limited capacity and holds information that the individual is currently using. It can be compared to the random access memory (RAM) of a computer. Depending on the RAM capacity, we can run only a limited number of applications simultaneously. Exceeding this limit causes the computer to slow down. The working memory model is one of the most widely accepted models of short term memory in the field of psychology and was devised by Baddeley and Hitch, two British cognitive psychologists.

 Working memory consists of 3 components:

1. Phonological loop, which is described as the “inner ear”, stores and processes sounds. It involves silent repetition of words mentally, a process termed articulatory rehearsal. For example, silent repetition happens while reading and learning.

2. Visuospatial sketchpad, which is the equivalent of the phonological loop for visual stimuli. It stores and processes visual images and spatial information. For example, remembering where one kept his book in a room, remembering the face of a friend. Spatial memory can involve information from other senses such as sound and touch as well.

3. Episodic buffer, which links the working memory with long term memory and is responsible for bringing information stored in the long term memory into conscious awareness for the current process. The episodic buffer is also capable of binding new information in the working memory to the information stored in the long term memory.

The long term memory is similar to the hard disk of a computer; it has a vast capacity for storing information. There are two main types of long term memory, declarative and nondeclarative. The declarative memory is further classified into episodic and semantic.

Episodic memory – refers to memories of actual life experiences and witnessed events

Semantic memory – refers to conceptual knowledge and general facts that one has learnt         over long periods of time

Non-declarative memory refers to acquired skills like writing, language, walking, conditioned behaviors, and habits.

From a neuroscience perspective, the hippocampus (Figure 3) is a crucial structure that is involved in the consolidation of long term memories, and this process can take days, months or even years.  The hippocampus is itself not the region where memories are stored. Rather, it organizes and consolidates memories in other regions of the brain, such as the temporal lobe. Its location and connection to other areas of the brain enables it to play the central role in creating new memories. It consolidates memories by activating all features of a memory at the same time and binding the features together. As a simple example, different features of a fruit are its shape, size, colour, texture and smell. The hippocampus can also bind new information from working memory with existing knowledge in the memory by activating both simultaneously.

 

Figure 3: A cut-away view of the brain shows subcortical structures hippocampus (crucial for memory consolidation) and amygdala (the emotion center in the brain). (Image courtesy: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/memory/where-are-memories-stored)

The central executive and attention allocation

The central executive is the central processor of working memory and its name underscores its fundamental importance. It is similar to the central processing unit of a computer. The central executive is the driving force in attention regulation and is responsible for allocating attentional resources to the various components of working memory. In cognitive psychology, attention is looked at as a limited resource that can get depleted due to exertion of mental effort and restored through rest and relaxation. The functions of the central executive are called executive functions.

There are three core functions of the central executive:

 1. To focus attention on a particular task, while ignoring (inhibiting) distractions. This function is also called inhibitory control. For example, focusing on studying for an exam while ignoring stimuli coming from social media apps in one’s cell phone.

 2. To switch attention between different tasks. This function is important for cognitive flexibility. For example, leaving behind a demanding task like coding to attend to an urgent or important phone call from the boss and coming back to the task to complete it.

3. To divide attention between different tasks. For example, talking on the phone while driving.

 Based on these 3 core functions, the central executive is responsible for a wide range of complex higher order functions such as reasoning, problem solving and understanding patterns and relations among ideas, which are collectively called fluid intelligence. Goal setting, planning, decision-making, regulating behavior to attain goals and self-monitoring are other important executive functions.

There is strong evidence that the activity of the central executive is located in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (shown in Figure 4). Extensive neuroimaging studies have shown that the frontal lobes of the brain (located just behind the forehead) are responsible for most of the executive processes. The frontal lobes are part of a network of brain regions known as the parieto-frontal network, which involves the parietal cortex and frontal lobes. These regions are involved in attention and inhibition effects which are fundamental to executive processes.

 

Figure 4: The central executive network in the human brain mapped through extensive neuroimaging studies. It supports most of the executive processes. (Image courtesy: https://www.beckleyfoundation.org/resource/amanda-feildings-talk-at-horizons-2017/)

The information processing model of human cognition is also supported by neuroscience. The sensory organs detect sensory stimuli from the world and transmit the signals to perception centers in the brain. For example, in the case of vision, the perception region is the occipital lobe at the back of the head. The processed information of visual stimuli then passes forward from the perception center in the occipital lobe to the attention centers in the parietal lobe (top of the head). The information passes to the memory centers in the temporal lobe (beneath the temples), where visual stimuli are matched with visual memories and recognition occurs. Higher level reasoning and thought processes take place in the frontal lobes. Although this is an oversimplified description, it shows how the information processing model in cognitive psychology corresponds well with how the brain processes information.

Emotion

Cognitive psychology recognizes the significant influence that emotions have on cognition. An emotion is a strong feeling that changes the physical and mental state of an individual and affects his or her cognitive functions and behavior. Emotion affects how things are perceived, how events are encoded in memory, ability to pay attention, learning, decision-making and behavior.

From a neuroscience perspective, the amygdala (Figure 3), a structure that is close to the hippocampus is central to emotion processes. It plays a key role in understanding and appreciating emotions displayed by other individuals as well as expressing one’s own emotions.

The amygdala and the hippocampus share a close relationship and the amygdala can modulate the functions of the hippocampus, enabling one to store emotionally charged memories.

The amygdala is especially known to be involved in fear related processing and is central to triggering fight-or-flight responses. For example, during dangerous situations, emergencies or stressful situations.

Common threads in Yoga psychology and cognitive psychology

It is quite easy to observe common threads running through both Yoga psychology, cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Cognitive psychology considers sensation and perception as relatively simple, low level mental processes. Emotions corresponding to fight-or-flight responses are also considered to be a low level process essential for survival that developed very early in evolution. Cognitive processes involved in working memory and executive functions are considered to be of a much higher order. The frontal lobes of the brain are also highly evolved and developed much later in evolution. From a Yoga psychology perspective, manas is involved in low level processing of sensory stimuli and basic emotional responses. The manas then presents the information to the buddhi, the higher order intelligence which discriminates, reasons, makes associations and decisions. The different levels of information processing in the mind are clearly outlined in both systems of psychology.

 Another common thread is that of intelligence. Studies have shown that people have significant differences in the working memory capacity.  The working memory span is a measure of the capacity of a person’s working memory and is measured by psychologists using a test. Studies have shown that working memory span correlates strongly with intelligence. Research has also shown that working memory span predicts people’s ability to understand texts, children’s academic performance, performance on reasoning tasks and even performance by Air Force pilots. Neuroscientifically, a higher working memory span corresponds to neurons in the brain functioning more efficiently. From a Yoga psychology point of view, working memory and functions of the central executive are similar to the functions of the buddhi, the intelligence. In particular, the buddhi in its sattvic nature allows for the optimal development and expression of human intelligence.

In this article, we mainly focused on discussing the models of the human mind as per Yoga psychology as well as cognitive psychology in order to get an overview of the concepts and organizing principles. A combined knowledge of frameworks from both systems of psychology can help us better understand how Yogic practices can help us improve specific aspects of our mental functioning and design our life the way we wish to. Future articles will focus on more specific principles from the Yoga Sutras, discussed in a similar manner in the context of modern cognitive psychology and how they can be relevant to our everyday life.

References

Bryant, Edwin F. The yoga sutras of Patanjali: A new edition, translation, and commentary. North Point Press, 2015.

Arya, Pandit Usharbudh. Yoga Sutras Of-Patanjali With The Exposition Of Vyasa. The Himalayan International Institute: Pennsylvania (1986).

Bharati, Swami Veda. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (with the Exposition of Vyasa),(Vol. II: Sadhana-Pada). (2001): 860.

Smith, Edward E., and Stephen M. Kosslyn. Cognitive psychology: Pearson new international edition: Mind and brain. Pearson Higher Ed, 2013.

Baars, Bernard, and Nicole M. Gage. Fundamentals of cognitive neuroscience: a beginner’s guide. Academic Press, 2013.

Hills, Peter J and Pake, Micheal J. Cognitive psychology for dummies. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.