Mental Constructs

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

We can relate to the world directly or indirectly through mental constructs. Direct interaction is difficult to conceptualise but it is not that uncommon. It may be implicated, for example, in greater speed of reaction in emergencies or in sports than the speed at which information can normally be processed[1]. It may also explain implicit awareness and antedating as documented in experimental settings.

Considering that everything is essentially a set of vibrations, there is no reason, in principle, why a direct receptivity to energy fluctuations would not be possible. However, most of the time we relate to reality indirectly, via our mental constructs. In other words, our awareness of and engagement with reality is mediated not only by the filters of the body and brain, but also by the filters of our mental structures. Direct experiences can be organised or harmonised without the help of these structures (which would be analogous, perhaps, to making music from sounds we hear). However, this is hard due to the fluid nature of such experiences. So we need the help of the mind. One of its main functions is to construct reality in a way that (at least to some extent) corresponds to what is ‘out there’. Without this, it would be very difficult to make sense out of our experiences.

We should clarify that indirect interaction is not the same as constructs. The constructs are the result of (direct or indirect) interaction. This process consists of first fragmenting, and then connecting these created elements again, using various principles (e.g. generalisation based on similarities and differences, association, etc.). These mental constructs do not exist independently: our ‘thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour tend to organize themselves in meaningful and sensible ways’ (Zajonc, 1960, p.261). In other words, they are connected in a network. Processing new information or experience means fitting it into that overall structure.

The mind not only creates constructs but also contributes to maintaining them. Constructs need to be supported all the time, or otherwise they can easily break down, as is evident in situations of sensory deprivation and complete social isolation. They are kept together by repeated exposure to physical sensations and the use of language (dialogue and inner monologue). However, the mind is a process not a thing, so the constructs cannot be stored in the mind. We propose that some of their components are stored in the brain and some in a part of the soul that can be called the rings.

[1] Libet concludes that these experiences are unconscious (without awareness), but this is not plausible – we do not draw a blank in this situations. However, we may not know what we are aware of. Knowing requires at least a rudimentary level of reflection, which may indeed not be possible in such situations.

The rings can be conceived as outer layers of the soul that interact with the waves produced by the brain. We operate with their content all the time, but the perception of the rings is a challenge because it is hard to bracket mental constructs (which direct perception necessitates) without having the rings bracketed too. It is not surprising that accounts of the rings are fairly scant. Their existence and organisation is postulated here on the basis of two revelatory insights and deductive inferences. Considering the difficulty of validating transpersonal insights, the rings do not need to be accepted literally. They can be taken as a conceptual device conducive to providing a fuller account of mental operations. Such tools have been used in other disciplines. Science, for example, has created several models of the atom, of which some appeared later not to be entirely accurate, but that nevertheless served a purpose at a certain stage of understanding.

On this basis we propose first that the rings have two aspects: one that forms the world concept, and the other that form the self-concept (personality, or ‘I’). This is borne out by phenomenological observations. As sociologist Peter Marris puts it, ‘in part, these mature structures of meaning can be represented as the common knowledge into which the members of a society are inducted by the language they learn, the principles of classification and causality they are taught – its science, cosmology, ideology, and cultural assumptions. But they also interpret the unique experience of each personal history’ (1982, p.192). Furthermore, we suggest that human beings can have up to four rings. Every further ring is less conditioned and rigid, and therefore more susceptible to self-modification. Any mental event, though, can cut across the rings as brain modules cut across several layers of neural cells. Let’s consider them in more detail.

1. The first one can be called the physical ring because it is primarily constructed through sensory perception and its reference point is physical reality. One side consists of the perceptions of the material world and the other of the perceptions of one’s body (as a primary identifier). Virtually everybody agrees that our perception of the physical world consists of constructs that correspond at least to some extent to reality. This applies to our own bodies too. The image of the body is also a construct reinforced by physical sensations from moment to moment. Searle writes:

Common sense tells us that our pains are located in physical space within our bodies, that for example, a pain in the foot is literally in the physical space of the foot. But we now know that is false. The brain forms a body image, and pains like all bodily sensations, are part of the body image. (1992, p.63)

But that body image in the brain is quite different from how our bodies are (e.g. the neck in the brain is not next to the head). It is our mind that organises these sensory inputs in a more accurate way and the result is preserved in the first ring. An indication that this is not simply a mechanical process is that the body image does not always closely follow body changes (e.g. people who have greyed may still perceive their hair as dark when looking in the mirror – but not at their photo). The two sides, the perception of the physical world and of one’s body are closely related and integrated. Their de-fragmentation can have a devastating effect (as well documented in psychiatric literature). Although a largely spontaneous process, sustaining this ring requires some effort. As early as the 1920s, neurologist Paul Schilder wrote that ‘The body-image is the result of an effort and cannot be completely maintained when the effort ceases’ (1935, p.287). This effort is manifested in the attention to sensations received from physical reality through the body and from the body itself, as well as in intentional control over some parts of one’s body (our own limb, for example, can be instantly perceived as alien if we lose sensation and control over it).

2. This second one is named the conventional ring because it consists of socially induced constructs and is primarily mediated by language. The reference point is social products (e.g. text-books, religious teachings, instructions, rituals). Conceptual schemas based on these create a network that becomes another frame of the soul, alongside the body-world image. This ring is more permeable and broader because it has elements that cannot be physically perceived (e.g. abstractions such as ‘happiness’), and because it has more flexible rules than physical laws. As in the first case, one side of this ring relates to one’s social world, a framework within which a society operates – in other words, the cultural embodiment (e.g. one’s religion). The other side is built from one’s social identifications such as social roles and functions.

3. Rather than the physical or social world, the reference point in this case is one’s own private world, so we can call it the individual ring. One side of this ring relates to personal views, opinions and values about the world and others. The other incorporates personality constructs (the self-image or ego) that provide another identity besides the body and social roles. Ego is a projection that corresponds to the real person to a variable degree and is largely based on self-assessments (or self-impressions). This self-image has a protective role – we create an ego-shell as a psychological shield to protect us when we move beyond the conventional (second) ring and start developing individuality, which is why self-creation is an imperative. However, ego is quite unstable and requires constant reinforcement, so a sense of individual importance is one of its main characteristics. Rather than being shaped by nature (as the first ring) or nurture (as the second ring) reflection and self-reflection play a significant role in the formation of the third one. This can hugely accelerate personal development, but we can get stuck with this ring if it leads to self-conditioning (programming ourselves).

4. This final ring has two sides as well. The one side consists of the constructs related to wider reality beyond an individual’s immediate experience. In other words, a ‘cosmology’ or philosophy that defines one’s view of reality. The other side consists of the way we view ourselves as a human being (i.e. our answers to the question ‘what or who am I?’). So, the reference point is the universal that transcends the individual, which is why it is called the transcendent ring. All the major ways of acquiring knowledge, at their best, contribute to this ring. For example, the laws or thermodynamics in science, the dialectic principle in philosophy, common sense realism, and the notion of the meaningfulness of life in spirituality. They may not all be correct, but it is notoriously difficult to prove or refute them (even the laws of thermodynamics are in fact not laws but theorems). Thus, an element of belief and choice (that is sometimes based on unadulterated intuition) may be involved. This does not mean that they are relative and subjective, only that their validation (or refutation) requires a complex and multidisciplinary process that is hard to achieve by standard means. They are even difficult to formulate, which is why they are usually expressed in symbols (e.g. geometrical and mathematical representations, archetypal images, metaphors, etc.). This ring has the most permeable boundaries and is more susceptible to direct shaping by intent than others. The diagram below is suggested as a schematised representation of the rings:

The Mind ConstructsThis figure is, of course, only an abstraction and idealised representation. The rings might not be so clearly demarcated in reality, they are likely to have fuzzy boundaries and may cross or overlap with each other. The diagram shows though that both the brain field (that consists of waves produced by neurons) and the soul field go beyond the rings. So the rings separate and provide a sense of wholeness to that part of the soul associated with physical life (similarly, you appear in your dream as a whole, although that’s only a part of you and the rest is asleep)[2]. The field of awareness too is normally restricted to the rings. To use the same analogy again, it is like awareness in a dream that is limited by the boundaries of the dream (we usually don’t remember anything else). In addition, at any point we are aware of constructs that comprise only a small part of one or more rings. However, awareness can shift, in which case we become aware of different constructs. In addition, the further rings enable awareness to expand because it is possible to encompass more. By comparison, the awareness of animals, who most likely have only the first ring, is more limited. They, for example, are not aware of what they know (they can use their knowledge, but they don’t have a capacity to reflect on it). Then again, although the first ring may have a narrow scope and is the least permeable, it is still more so than all four rings together. This is why animals may be more sensitive to direct experiences than humans (see, for example, Sheldrake, 2000).

As a final remark, we should make an important clarification. Although the rings are mostly constructed with the help of images and words, they do not consist of them, but of impressions that are extracted from these images and words and organised into schemas. They capture abstract, ideational content (akin to propositional representations in psychology but less formal). Their constitutive elements are representations of conceptual objects and relations in a form that is not particular to any language or to any modality (e.g. vision, audition, touch)[3]. They may contribute to long term memory recall or restoration, but they are likely to have a negligible role regarding specific memories. This is evident from mistakes that those who have suffered brain damage typically make (e.g. misplacing time, locations or persons). Therefore, there is no straightforward correlation between the rings and either episodic memories (experience related) or semantic memories (information related). They have, though, multiple purposes for the soul.

The purpose of the rings

The rings have several essential functions in relation to the soul.

  • Protection – the rings create a sort of barrier which protects the soul from excessive input and uncontrolled output (dispersion) of its energy.
  • Integration – the rings maintain the part of the soul associated with the physical life integrated. Fragmentation of the rings can cause intense anxiety and, in extreme cases, a disintegration of personality. Only when the energy can be fully controlled internally, the rings are no longer essential in this respect.
  • Stability – the rings are more concrete than other non-material energy, which contributes to stability and a sense of security.
  • Separation – the rings separate the part of the soul associated with physical life from the rest of the soul and from other non-material energy. This is necessary in order to preserve the soul as a unit so that it can achieve relative independence.
  • Shaping – the rings act as dynamic moulds that shape the soul.
  • Growth – when the rings expand, the soul can grow because its boundaries expand. This also enables a gradual and controlled increase of awareness and the power of intent.

The rings exert a far-reaching influence on everyday life too (we function within our constructs, and the rings play an essential role in it). However, they have drawbacks too. There may be conflicts within them, between them, and with other processes in the soul, thus creating disharmony rather than harmony. They may also be restrictive and in that way actually slow down the development. So, as always, there are two sides of the coin.

Some possible questions

Is walking, for example,  also a construct?
Constructs do not need to be associated with symbolic representations. Walking is based on a selection of movements, affirmed by repetition and habituated. So, walking is a construct based on a brain activity that only requires the rings when awareness and intent are needed.

Does information arrive first in awareness or in the rings?
Information is not information if somebody is not aware of it. However, new information is normally perceived through the ‘glasses’ of existing constructs. In other words, awareness is filtered and when a sensation becomes information, awareness and the rings operate simultaneously.

To determine to what extent the rings are dependent on the interaction with the brain, we will examine next the so called out of body experience.


[2] The part of the soul that identifies with a physical body can still maintain the connection with the rest of the soul. We can see how it is possible if we take into account that the basic topological representation of the soul is a torus (see p.118) and that rings are not (as spheres) fully enclosed.
[3] This affects the workings of the brain too: Barry Stein’s laboratory at Wake Forest University found that the shape of a right angle drawn on the hand of a chimpanzee activates the visual part of the brain even when the shape is not seen.

Out of Body Experience

Considering that mental constructs heavily rely on the body/brain, is there any justification to think that some of their components are part of the non-material aspect? Examining the out of body experience (OBE) may help in answering this question. An OBE can be defined as having a point of view which does not coincide with that of the physical body. Such experiences are characterised by being (at least at the beginning) in the same environment where one’s body actually is, but moving away from the body, and after a while, coming back to it. It is reported that 15-20% of people have had an OBE at least once in their lifetime (Blackmore, 2005a, p.188).

The first point that should be clarified is that an OBE is not a dream. The conclusion of the research is that ‘the pattern the brain waves showed [during an OBE] is like ordinary dreaming in some ways but distinctly different in other ways’ (Tart, 2005, p.105). Psychologist Susan Blackmore also points out that ‘it is certainly clear that OBErs were not in REM (rapid eye movement), or dreaming, sleep. Therefore OBEs cannot be considered to be a kind of dream’ (2005a, p.189). It is now known, though, that dreaming does not only happen in the REM state, so further phenomenological differences need to be considered. Unlike a dream, an OBE typically starts from the same place where the person having the experience physically is, and has a beginning and an end (‘separating’ from and ‘reconnecting’ with the body). During an OBE awareness and memory are not narrowed as in dreams, but expanded (relative to the awake state). Not only does the person have at her disposal all the usual mental faculties, but it is also possible (presumably because there are no restrictions imposed by the senses and nervous system) to become aware and remember experiences that cannot be associated with the awake state. For example, after initial surprise at certain ‘new’ abilities such as floating or flying, one is in disbelief that they could have ever forgotten them[4]. Moreover, the person recognises that some phenomena do not belong to physical reality. One of the most interesting aspects of dreaming is that a dreamer accepts even the strangest events as normal. Likewise, a person who has a hallucination believes that what they perceive is real. During an OBE, one is immediately aware that something unusual is going on and is capable of separating and comparing this state with normal perception (they are conscious of what belongs to the usual description of reality and what does not). In other words, they are aware of a difference. Because there is no body to stabilise perception, the person in such a state may feel somewhat strange (as if mildly under the influence of drugs or alcohol), which does not happen in dreams. Yet the experience is fuller than in a dream (this can be compared to a difference between a two-dimensional and three-dimensional image). Blackmore writes that ‘Vision and hearing are said to be more powerful and clearer than normal… unlike ordinary dreams, an OBE feels very real, consciousness is clear, and the experience is usually remembered very vividly afterwards’ (ibid.). In addition, the events or objects do not seem to be a result only of one’s inner state. Permanency is one example: if in a dream we look again at an object we have spotted previously, it will most likely be changed in some ways, while during an OBE it will not. Another example is a sensory incongruence, rare even in the most bizarre dreams. Hearing laughter, for example, would in a dream spontaneously lead to creating its source. This may not be the case in an OBE – the sound of laughter may come, as it were, from nowhere. Nor is the environment subject to the arbitrary will of the experiencer, so an OBE cannot even be identified with so-called lucid dreams.

All the above indicates that, unlike dreams, OBEs are not an auto-generated process. Nevertheless, considering that it is difficult to verify perception that does not rely on the senses, the OBE is open to different interpretations. A materialist could say, for example, that some parts of the brain are activated during an OBE that can mimic reality better than dreams. Blackmore proposes that the OBE is only experientially real and does not involve a perceptual separation from the body. She claims that the change of perceptual perspective derive from a mixture of memories and imagination. However, this interpretation does not seem plausible. As a shift in perceptual perspective would happen in any case, it does not rule out the separation. Besides, an OBE does not always involve a different perspective (i.e. from ‘above’). It is not clear why a change of perspective would make such an experience so different and more real than dreams. Imaginative people should be more susceptible to such experiences, which is not the case. And finally, if only a change of perceptual perspective is involved, once experienced, an OBE should be easier to repeat, but this does not seem to happen. Such a view also cannot account for many common elements of the OBE. For example, Blackmore claims that ‘OBErs sometimes try to touch people they see, only to find that the people do not notice them at all’ (ibid.). Such surprising events are to be expected if they are real experiences, but not if they are a result of imagination. Therefore, the simplest explanation congruent with the beliefs of the majority who have had an OBE, which is that the OBE is real, seems more likely. In other words, the OBE can be seen as a perception of reality without the intermediary of the senses. This means that the body and the other identifications of the soul can be separated whilst the soul remains connected to both (body and soul are not connected only, and not even primarily, through the mind). This can explain the accounts of long distance travels during out of body experiences. If there is no need for the body and our other identifications to be linked (no need for the so-called ‘silver cord’), the distance between them is irrelevant.

As everything ultimately consists of waves, there is no reason why reality cannot be perceived directly. However, our perception is normally indirect, mediated by the senses and the brain that create mental constructs. In fact, we are mostly aware of these constructs. Even our dreams are, by and large, comprised of their projections. As dreams, OBEs too usually involve mental projections of ourselves and the world, but this time super-imposed onto reality. In other words, the mind provides recognisable forms to energy configurations that are being experienced. This is why what is perceived during an OBE can be very similar to what is perceived normally. The rings can (at least for a while) maintain these forms even without the help of the physical body. Sometimes, an OBE involves an image of the person who is going through the experience (a so-called ‘astral body’). We suggest that ‘astral body’ is also a mental construct – in this case, of oneself. The perception is interpreted in a familiar way, so the astral body resembles the physical body (usually including even one’s clothes). In fact, when we have an OBE, we rely on metal constructs far more than when we receive information through our senses. This is why symbolic representations that heavily rely on the brain, such as words and numbers, are next to impossible to recognise and decipher correctly. To interpret such information accurately, we need the solidity of sensory imprints on the brain circuits.

Perception of self-initiated actions during OBEs is also a mental projection. The ‘astral body’ is too light to exert a tangible effect on the material world. So moving a chair, for example, means, in fact, moving a mental construct of a chair. This does not rule out the possibility that an OBEr can influence more subtle forms of energy, but some accounts that claim actual physical effects are probably grossly exaggerated. A person in proximity of the one who is going through an OBE would most likely not notice anything unusual. An OBEr might be able to affect, in a subtle way, the energy of that person if he can get through the projections. The person on the receiving end may also sense an attempt to influence his energy field, but it is unlikely that he would be aware of the ‘astral body’. Animals, on the other hand, have only one ring and are more open to direct experience. Our own accounts indicate that if attention is turned towards them, they can sense the presence and the direction of its approximate location.

This all indicates not only that the perception during an OBE and the mental identifications through which the self perceives correspond to something real, but also that mental constructs can have relative independence from the brain and the senses. Such experiences may seem deceptively similar to experiences mediated by the senses but they are not the same. Building on this, we will try to tease out which components of our constructs are associated with the material aspect and which with the non-material.

[4] Note that in dreams that involve flying this ability is taken for granted.

In order to clarify the roles that different aspects of the person have in relation to a mental event, it is necessary to draw a distinction between the form of a mental event (the explicit side) and its content and meaning (the implicit side). A simple example can be used to clarify the difference. The sentences ‘one and one are two’ and ‘jedan i jedan su dva’ have different forms but exactly the same meaning. If the same meaning can have different forms, the meaning cannot be equated with the form.

The form is evidently preserved in the brain, but there does not seem to be a part of the brain responsible for the meaning. This indicates that the meaning and the corresponding mental representations are stored in different aspects of the person, and that the brain is essential for storing these representations, but not necessarily for the implicit side (meaning). It is indicative that the disruption of articulated language due to a brain injury is not inevitably accompanied by loss of comprehension. Sufferers of aphasia often know that the words they are uttering are wrong, but they cannot correct or alter them (‘Pass me the bread – no, not the bread, the bread – no!’) (in Gregory, 1987, p.31). Or, they recognise the meaning of a written word, but not the word itself and use a similar one to describe it (e.g. sword for duel or monk for hermit) (Gilling and Brightwell, 1982, p.63). In 1930, physician A. A. Lowe showed a patient who had suffered a stroke that had damaged his brain, simple words such as dad, child or vice. The patient read father, girl and wicked. The patient evidently understood the meaning of words, although he could not read the printed version. There is now strong evidence that most amnesic patients are well able to process information in terms of its meaning, although their memory remains impaired. It seems that the comprehension of meaning is not greatly affected even after the brain has been damaged. Psychologist Macnamara (1972) also observed that children have a world of meanings before words are produced or even understood. The infant has been finding meaning in the environment and discovering the purpose of objects well before learning language.

On this basis, we suggest that this implicit content of a mental event is preserved as non-material energy configurations. This, however, is not that simple. Any particular instance of an image or word is too specific to be directly related to its meaning. What it means to understand a word such as table, for example, is to form the idea that such a word represents. This idea is never a specific table (otherwise the word could not be generalised). Such ideational content is preserved in the rings, which enables the soul to function within the parameters of the brain. Comprehending fully any specific instance of a table requires both the rings and their neuro-correlates.

In the example of ‘one and one is two’, this can be summarised in the following way: neural correlates in the brain are mostly responsible for a particular form (e.g. the English linguistics). These correlates are established through exposure to such forms. Considering that the brain acts as a relay between the soul and the material world, when the brain is damaged the content is not lost. Rather, it is like being in a prison – the transformation of sensations into perceptions is impeded, as well as the output (e.g. verbal report). What is preserved in the rings are the general ideas of oneness, plus-ness, equal-ness and their relations – which is why speakers of different languages have fairly similar ideas about ‘one plus one is two’. This non-representational content of a mental event is saved in the soul as an energy configuration. This is why meaning is tacit – hard to formulate. Since energy is movement that doesn’t require something that moves, the meaning is derived from relations that are not dependent on objects that relate[5]. The brain and the mind act like scaffoldings, helping the formation and reinforcement of energy configurations in the soul, which, in turn, enables meaningful organisation of mental representations. However, the meaning of representations rarely has precise boundaries. Even the meaning of a simple word such as ‘table’ is notoriously difficult to capture fully by a definition. In some cases, attempts to conceptualise meaning are merely tautologies (e.g. of the term space). This is not to say that meaning escapes any formulation, but such attempts are never complete. Meaning is sensed, felt, intuited – the capacities unique to life. So, meaning is not an intrinsic feature of objects, but the result of an interplay between a subject and an object:

Considered in themselves, [words on paper], are just patches of ink. As such, they are not intrinsically meaningful, but are meaningful only in virtue of the relations in which they stand, directly or indirectly, to things that have gone on in certain conscious minds. (Lockwood, 1998, p.86).

Meaning always requires a subject because awareness plays an essential role. It is not enough that there are relations, they need to be recognised, which requires awareness, and awareness, we argued, is a property of the soul.

Of course, the above does not apply only to words or information, but to our experiences and actions. They can take many forms that are to some extent constructed (e.g. solidity of a table – as any other object, tables are, in fact, mostly empty space). The meaning of our experiences and actions also depends (and perhaps even more) on that interplay between a subject and object, and necessitates both material and non-material aspects of a living organism. Not surprisingly, this complex nature of mental events is reflected in the faculties that are closely linked to information, experience and action: thinking, affect and volition.

[5] This may sound counterintuitive but is not new to quantum physics, for example.


Although computer processing is sometimes compared to cognition, computers, are in fact nowhere near to thinking in human terms. When we think, we constantly make choices and are creative. Computers can do neither. Thoughts can be intentional, while computers do not have any intentions (they are programmed). This unbridgeable difference arises because thinking also involves the non-material aspect of the person and has its explicit and implicit sides. This is difficult to recognise because these two sides usually go together, but careful introspection shows that our thoughts are not always formulated. In addition, we often think too quickly for words and images, so it is likely that pre-verbal processes take place. Hence, the interface between the material and non-material is reflected in thinking too.


At least two components of affect can be distinguished: feeling (an experiential component) and emotional reactions (a physiological and behavioural component). There is no doubt that emotional reactions are closely related to the brain and body and involve certain physiological processes. However, these are related to the type and degree of a reaction, rather than the feeling itself. This distinction applies not only to behavioural reactions, but even to ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) reactions. Observations of animals and humans who have a damaged ANS show that they still feel, although their feelings are somewhat muted (see Dana, 1921, and Hohmann, 1966), which is to be expected if the above is correct. The patients’ reports also indicate that they experience feelings even in the absence of physiological reactions. The brain does not feel the pain. Neither, of course, does the body (otherwise the nerve impulse from an affected area of the body would not need to travel to the brain centres that relay the pain). We propose that this a capacity of the soul.


Volition also consists of one implicit aspect and the explicit one. The implicit aspect can be associated with intent which is, as already discussed, different from will. It is observed, for example, that sufferers of Parkinson’s disease can be more successful in their movements if they intend to get somewhere than if they focus on the movement itself (one patient, for instance, danced to the toilet). This is because intent can exploit the plasticity of the brain and therefore make use of unaffected areas (intent is not very strong though, so it has limited value in this respect). On the other hand, willing the movement itself is an attempt to recreate the form, and therefore uses the same brain circuitry that is not working well. This can also explain how different muscle sets can be invoked to carry out the same task, even if the original skill was not acquired using these muscles (e.g. you can sign with your foot and the signature will still be recognisably yours, see Patricia Churchland’s quote). 

With the above in mind, we can now examine what we construct: the materials of the mind.