States of Mind

By Ron Kurtz

So, the stars, the galaxies, and all that, have come into existence. We don’t really know how. But there is no serious reason why they shouldn’t be there either. The universe has quite a bit of randomness in it, but also quite a bit of structure. And life has come into the universe. …. The little genetic messages that are the essence of life faced the challenge of the randomness of the universe and adapted to it by trial and error. ….
And life has created a proliferation of shapes and devices to make use of the world, to take advantage of the regularities of the structure of the universe.
Because there is order, organization is possible. Because there is randomness, organization is necessary.
Because there are regularities in the structure of the universe, and because life can take advantage of it, a new feature of life, which we call intelligence, has slowly emerged.
— David Ruelle, (1) (2)

Living things are called organisms because of the overriding importance of organization, and each part of the pattern somehow contains the information as to what it is in relation to the whole.
— Robert O. Becker (3)

Living beings like ourselves are systems. We are organized. The organs of our bodies are interdependent, they communicate and interact in ways that support our entire being. All living things have complex structures, though they be as different in size and ways of life as whales and whippoorwills. But, no matter what they grow into, they do it according to the same developmental rules. These same rules guide the development and functioning of our brains and minds. The human brain embodies the greatest complexity of any organ we know. It is the very pinnacle of organization, more complex at this moment in the year 2000 than all the computers in the world combined. (4) (Some say, that won’t last.)

At levels beyond the individual, all kinds of organizations exist, families, neighborhoods, communities, cities, nations, corporations, world institutions. They are all systems and can be studied and understood with the same conceptual tools. With some of these tools, let’s take a broad look at the organization of the human mind and everyday experience.

A good metaphor for states of mind might be the different ways an orchestra changes from one passage of music to another. There’s one exception, however. There’s no one conducting the brain. (5) For various passages in the music, some instruments are playing, others are not. When something loud and dramatic is required, drums and horns are more likely to be playing. For something soft and ethereal, a harp maybe and a flute. For jazz, you want saxophones and pianos. For bluegrass, banjos, mandolins and guitars. Each “state” of the music is played by a different combination of instruments. From the perspective of an individual instrument, say a flute, it might join with the violins for one part of the music and the horns for another. Any individual instrument may be part of any passage, but need not be.

So it is with states of mind. Each one is for a particular passage in the music, each requires its own combinations of functional units of the brain. Each is only one of the many ways to configure the brain. Each is a different kind of mind. It depends on what “music” is playing. It depends on the entire complex dynamics of internal and external situations. The external situation, the internal biochemical situation, perceptions, the emotions aroused, memories activated, needs felt thoughts flowing through the mix and all kinds of habits, biases, modulators and who knows what all.

If we consider very fine distinctions, there are an infinite number of possible states of mind. In practical terms, we learn to live with a limited set, which become highly stable and familiar. As we move through our daily lives, we also pass from one of these habitual states of mind to another, as the situation changes from sleep to wakefulness, from resting to activity, from one task to another, one social situation to another.

Some types of events are triggers for particular states of mind. Some habits have a strong effect on states of mind. For example, someone steps on your toes. Depending on who it is, where you are, what you’re feeling at the moment, different states of mind can emerge. If you’re happy, at a party, and some good friend of yours accidentally steps gently on your work boot, you’re not going to “go non-linear” as they say in silicon valley. But, if you’re unhappy about something and some annoying drunk who you’ve never liked is getting in your face and steps on your bare toes just as he’s confronting you, that might just fire off your amygdala, release sugar from your liver into the bloodstream, mobilize a lot of muscle tension in your jaw, neck shoulders and arms, contract your peripheral blood vessels, grimace and possibly say something unkind to the fellow. All depends.

If you are in the habit, for whatever reason, of being tolerant and kind, you might not react very much to someone stepping on your toes. If you have a long history of uncontrolled violent outbursts, you might hit him with a beer bottle. All depends on what kind of “music” you’re used to playing. Your organization, the states of mind you’ve practiced and used a lot, the various components of the brain you habitually recruit, the thoughts and impulses that come easily to mind….. they’re going to determine what happens. The habitual states of minds of Buddhist monks and career criminals are different, though each can still change. The poverty stricken children of the third world have different states of mind from the rich children of the highly industrious countries. They have different memories and habits of thought. Different hopes, ideas, values… Different states of mind. They’re organized differently.

You, too, are organize differently as situations change. As each day unfolds, different states of mind emerge. They flow one into the other, ceaselessly. Ultimately, there’s no “we” that “has” these states. We are them. Experiencing ourselves as somehow different from them, somehow above or outside of them, is itself a common part of almost all conscious states of mind. But, let’s leave the philosophy for later (if at all).

What makes a person seem to be a self, at least to others who know him or her, is the relative stability and limited number of states of mind he or she exhibits. “He’s just that way,” we might say. And, of course, people generally are stable, and to that extent they reflect the amount of reliable structure in their worlds.


  1. Ruelle’s book is marvelous, readable and enlightening. The last quote is taken from and especially informative chapter on “The Meaning of Sex.” Lord knows, anything even half right on that subject would be a great contribution.
  2. From Chance and Chaos, Princeton University Press, 1991
  3. From The Body Electric
  4. At least that’s what Ray Kurzweil says in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines. (pg. 104)
  5. This brain is a self-organizing system. There is the possibility that it will self-organize a state of mind in which information from all other systems flows through one component which in turn influences the overall functioning of the whole. The right orbitofrontal cortex of the brain is thought to be where that function is located. See The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel.

With permission, excerpts from writings of Ron Kurtz
© 2007 Ron Kurtz Trainings, Inc.