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The science of mind is the empirical and theoretical search for the foundations of our mental lives. Unlike other subjects of scientific investigation, such as stars or rocks, human mental lives defy easy definition. Yet few would dispute that such a definition would have to encompass consciousness, emotions, reasoning, language, memory, and perception. As far back as ancient Greece, one can find accounts of how these faculties are produced by the body or the soul. But it was only in the seventeenth century that they became subjects of modern scientific investigation. In the subsequent centuries, scientists have sought to dissect the mind into its components, and to assign those components to different structures of the brain. While a full history of the science of mind would demand thousands of pages, a survey of a few key topics can give a sense of its development.

The Mind Before Neurology

To many readers, the relationship between the brain and mind may be obvious, but that has not always been the case. In 1652, for example, the philosopher Henry More (16141687) declared that the brain "is no more capable of thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds" (Zimmer, p. 5).

Medieval and Renaissance physicians sought to understand the mind with a mix of Christian theology and Greek philosophy. They believed the body, for example, was divided into three anatomical regions, each designed for its own soul. The vegetative soul in the liver was responsible for desires and appetites. The heart housed the vital soul, which produced passions and action.

The rational soul, not surprisingly, was a more complicated matter. Since it was immaterial and immortal, it could not reside in one specific place in the body. But its facultiessuch as reason, memory, and imaginationwere believed to be carried out by "animal spirits" that supposedly swirled within three hollow chambers in the head known as the ventricles.

Anatomy, then, was the study of the houses of the souls. But anatomy alone was not enough to account for the life of the mind. Physicians also had to understand the fluids that coursed through the body. Known as the four humors (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm), these humors needed to be balanced for good health; if they fell out of equilibrium, they brought disease. Humors also gave each individual his or her temperament, be it the sad detachment of melancholy or the swift rage of choler. As the humors became corrupted or moved to the wrong place in the body, they could cause epilepsy or alter the temperament, even leading to madness. Physicians sought to cure many psychological disorders by bringing the humors back in balance, typically with bleeding and purging, or by applying herbs.

During the Renaissance, these theories of souls and humors were vigorously debated. And yet in all these arguments, the brain was strangely absent. The substance of the brainnow recognized as consisting of billions of neurons trading complex signalswas seen as nothing more than phlegm. This is understandable when one considers how delicate the brain is. Without preservatives or refrigeration, a brain quickly decays after death, while muscles and bones remain available for further study.

Descartes's Ambiguous Legacy

This "pre-cerebral" view of the mind disappeared in the 1600s, in the wake of advances in physics, anatomy, and chemistry. Galileo Galilei (15641642) and other natural philosophers challenged the physics of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), replacing it with a new "mechanical philosophy" in which mechanical forces acting on atoms or other small particles produced all physical change. In the 1630s the French philosopher René Descartes (15961650) used the new mechanical philosophy to offer a novel description of the body. He no longer relied on vegetative or vital souls to produce the body's functions. Instead, he proposed that the body was made of particles that obeyed the laws of physics. A body was no different from a mechanical doll: neither needed a soul to drive its movements. Instead, Descartes envisioned nerves as a system of cords and inflating tubes that mechanically produced involuntary movements.

Descartes managed to take a crucial step towards a science of the nervous system, despite the fact that he was woefully confused about the brain. He accepted the medieval notion of spirits flowing through the ventricles. He even used it to determine where the rational soul was located. For Descartes, it was obvious that the pineal gland, which was believed to dangle over the ventricles, had to be where the rational soul influenced the spirits, steering them toward different nerves in order to produce voluntary movements.

This scenario, as strange as it may seem to the modern reader, accorded with Descartes's overall philosophy. He believed that nature, including the human body, was composed solely of passive matter. The human mind, on the other hand, was completely immaterial and not subject to the laws of nature. Thus Descartes required a site where the immaterial and material could intersect. The pineal gland fit all of these requirements. It would take a separate revolution in anatomy before the brain could be appreciated as more than a bowl of curds.

Thomas Willis and the Birth of Neurology

The modern study of the body's functions began with the work of the English physician William Harvey (15781657). Harvey trained at the University of Padua, where he learned Aristotle's methods of comparative zoology and functional anatomy. He returned to England and eventually became a royal physician to James I and Charles I, during which time he discovered the circulation of the blood.

As important as this discovery was, however, Harvey's methods were even more significant. He did not rely solely on Galen (129c. 199 c.e.) or some other ancient source. Rather, he searched for confirmation of his hypothesis in comparative studies on animals and through experiments. By the 1650s, young natural philosophers were emulating Harvey, not Aristotle, as they studied the liver, lungs, and other organs of the body. And in the early 1660s, a group of Harvey's disciples applied his methods to the brain.

These natural philosophers were led by an Oxford physician named Thomas Willis (16211675). A royalist soldier during the English Civil War, Willis had been rewarded at the Restoration with an appointment as professor of natural philosophy at Oxford. He used the new position to embark on a bold projectto seek out the hiding place of the mind. Based on a decade of previous research, including dissections, chemical experiments, and medical observations, Willis decided that the most promising way to study the mind was to make a careful study of the brain.

Willis enlisted a number of colleagues, including his junior medical partner Richard Lower (16311691) and his young friend Christopher Wren (16321723). They dissected brains of humans, dogs, sheep, and other animals, and Willis recorded their work in his 1664 book The Anatomy of the Brain, the first major work on the brain ever written. Over the next eight years he would rely on both his anatomical discoveries and his careful bedside observations to write Pathologiae Cerebri (Cerebral pathology), a book on convulsive disorders, and Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes, on neurological and psychological disorders.

Together, this trilogy stands as a defining moment in neuroscience. (Indeed, Willis even coined the word neurology. ) Willis dismissed Descartes's notions of the pineal gland and ventricles, demonstrating that these chambers could not possibly house the spirits. The brain itself was the site of mental functions, Willis argued, and he carried out experiments to show that different functions were localized in different regions. Instead of Descartes's speculative sketch of involuntary movements, he offered a far more accurate account of reflexes.

Willis also added chemistry to Descartes's mechanical nervous system. As a young physician, Willis had been strongly influenced by the work of alchemist-physicians such as Paracelsus (14931541) and Jan Baptista Van Helmont; he also worked with the Irish chemist Robert Boyle (16271691) in 1650s Oxford. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic (an apparatus alchemists used to distill substances), and he conceived of the brain's disorders as disorders of chemistry. He saw epilepsy, for example, not as demonic possession, but as uncontrolled explosive reactions in the brain and nerves.

In the decades around the turn of the twenty-first century, neuroscientists looked back at Willis's work with growing admiration. He has even been called the Harvey of the nervous system. Not only did Willis create a masterful theory of the brain, but in his writings scientists can see the first clinical descriptions of a wide range of neurological conditions, ranging from myasthenia gravis to narcolepsy. By the late seventeenth century, the work of Willis and continental anatomists such as Nicolaus Steno (16381686) and Franciscus dele Bo Sylvius (16141672) had led most physicians to accept the basic tenets of neurology.

Nineteenth Century Investigation: Broca and Donders

Neurology advanced during the 1700s and early 1800s, as researchers discovered electricity's role in the nervous system and mapped out reflex pathways between the spine and limbs. But Willis's most ambitious projectto work out the foundations of the minddid not see major advances until the mid-1800s. The huge technical challenge of studying many aspects of human cognition certainly was responsible for some of the delay. But the Cartesian dualism that lingered into the nineteenth century also acted as a brake on progress. Many researchers continued to believe that the mind was a unitary, immaterial entity. It was therefore impossible to discover its components, as had been done with the heart or the lungs. According to one prominent French neurologist in the 1800s, to divide the soul was to deny it.

A growing number of scientists rejected this claim during the nineteenth century. The concept that humans were the product of evolutionfirst broached in the 1700s and brought to fruition by Charles Darwin (18091882) in the following centuryimplied that the faculties of the mind were the product of evolution as well. Scientists began to divide the soul, as it were, and in the process they established the foundations of cognitive neuroscience. The work of two researchers in particular, Pierre-Paul Broca (18241880) and Frans Cornelius Donders (18181889), illuminate the scientific shift that occurred in the mid-1800s.

In 1861, the French physician Broca treated a man who suffered a stroke. The patient could understand language but could not speak, except for one sound, "tan." (The patient became known as Tan.) After Tan's death, Broca followed Willis's example and autopsied his patient's brain. Tan's brain was damaged in the left frontal lobe. Other patients with the same difficulty in speaking exhibited damage in the same place. Broca demonstrated that a restricted part of the brain was responsible for a restricted aspect of human mental lifespecifically, the ability to produce speech.

At the same time that Broca was doing this work, the German ophthalmologist Donders was dissecting the mind in a radically differentyet complementaryway. In the early 1800s, physiologists and physicists began to study the performance of people in simple tasks, such as recognizing colors and shapes. These tests, the researchers hoped, would reveal the inner workings of the mind without any recourse to anatomical details. In the 1860s Donders performed one of the most elegant of these tests. He first measured how long it took for people to react to seeing a light come on. In his second experiment, one of two differently colored lights could turn on, and his subjects had to indicate which color had come on. He found that it consistently took 50 milliseconds longer to discriminate colors than to perceive the presence of a light. Essentially, Donders was doing in time what Broca was doing in space: He was isolating and studying a specific mental function.

In the twenty-first century, cognitive neuroscientists continue to employ the methods of Broca and Donders, albeit with more sophisticated technology.

Cognitive Neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscience, which focuses on how the mind emerges from the brain, first developed as a discipline in the 1960s. Unlike Willis or Broca, contemporary cognitive neuroscientists can build on the extraordinary advances in the understanding of the brain that took place in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, it is now accepted that the brain is composed of several billion neurons, which project a trillion branches to contact other neurons. Neurons carry information as electrical impulses, and communicate with other neurons by releasing a variety of chemicals known as neurotransmitters.

Cognitive neuroscience has also gained great strength from new technologies that provide high-resolution information about brain activity. Consider one technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI represents a modern twist on the investigative methods of Willis, Broca, and Donders. A human subject lies with head surrounded by a large, doughnut-shaped magnet. The magnet's powerful field causes some molecules in the subject's brain to release radio waves. Detectors pick up these signals, which a computer uses to reconstruct the structure of the brain. Additional analysis of this data can reveal movements of blood in the brain, which reliably indicate highly active regions of the brain.

A complex cognitive task, such as reading or recalling a person's face, involves many regions of the brain. In order to isolate components specific to these tasks, scientists borrow Donders's subtraction method. They scan the brains of their subjects as they perform one task, and then have them perform second task that is almostbut not quiteidentical to the first. The scientists then study the fMRI scans for brain activity produced by the second task that are not produced by the first task as well.

Consider, for example, the ability to understand other people's thoughts and intentions (known as mentalizing ). Psychologists and neuroscientists are fascinated by this ability because it appears to be unique to humans and may therefore represent a crucial innovation in the social evolution of the human species. Psychologists have also demonstrated that autistic people do a poor job of mentalizing. Yet despite this deficit, they can still develop other skills such as mathematics and music. This pattern suggests that mentalizing is not the result of a general-purpose intelligence, but is instead a distinct, modular function of the brain that can be selectively disabled.

In 2001, British researchers found support for this hypothesis with the help of fMRI. They designed an experiment based on the game of "rock, scissors, paper." In each round, two players simultaneously choose one object. Rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock. The subjects lay in a brain scanner and played the game on a computer screen. In some cases, they were told they were playing against a computer; in other cases, they thought their opponent was a person. In fact, the researchers generated a random sequence of choices. The only difference lay in the attitude of the subjects. As the researchers confirmed in interviews after the study, when subjects thought they were playing against a person, they tried to figure out their opponent's strategy.

Scans revealed some regions that became active in both versions of the game. But the researchers also found a handful of small regions in the brain that were only active when the subjects thought they were playing against a person. One region has been shown in other studies to integrate information from face and hand movements. Another region is active during emotional experiences, and a third distinguishes self from non-self.

These results illuminate a general lesson of cognitive neuroscience: Most complex functions of the mind, such as mentalizing, are not carried out in a single region of the brain. Instead, a network of regions works together, integrating their activities. This realization has immediate practical implications. The deficit in mentalizing found in autistic people, for example, may not be the result of a lesion to a particular region of the brain. Instead, it may result from damage to the connections between the components of the mentalizing network.

Aspects of Mind

Contemporary cognitive neuroscience has made important strides in analyzing the mind. Three areas of particularly intense research are perception, emotion, and consciousness.


Contemporary cognitive neuroscience focuses on aspects of mind that are both important and scientifically tractable. A vast amount of research has been carried out on perception, and in particular, on vision. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that the mind does not simply perceive a photograph-like representation of the world. That would demand far more information than the brain can handle. Even if the mind could cope with such a torrent of data, it would probably miss the most important aspects of what is seenfor example, a carelessly driven car lurching onto the road.

Instead, the visual perception system searches for certain patterns. If one sees a few fragmentary lines aligned together, the lines are automatically perceived as a single edge. Different parts of the visual system are tuned to different patterns; some neurons are most sensitive to movement, for example, while others are sensitive to contrasts. These regions are arranged in a pathway, with the first regions along the pathway handling simple processing and then passing on information to regions that can recognize more abstract information, such as faces.


Among the investigations of the mind, emotions have posed a particularly difficult challenge. Medieval European thinkers ascribed many of the states called emotions to souls residing in the heart and liver, or to the four humors. Descartes helped to render these explanations obsolete, but his dualism posed problems of its own. Having divided the human being into two distinct substancesbody and mindhe had to struggle to find an explanation for emotions. Emotions clearly affect the body, raising heart rate, causing one to blush, and so on. And yet humans also generally used their powers of reason to reach goals, which can be motivated by emotions. Fear of a fire, for example, might spur someone to figure out the fastest way out of a burning building. So somehow emotions must be able to influence the soul, despite the soul being made of a separate substance than the body.

Descartes envisioned passions as purely physical phenomena that could influence the mind by acting on the pineal gland, the soul's intersection with the body. The function of the passions, Descartes argued, was to dispose the soul to want the things that are useful, and to dispose the body to make the movements that would help to acquire those things. But he also argued that passions can cause suffering and thus need to be mastered by the soul. Descartes defined this mastery as wisdom.

Contemporary neuroscientists are weaning themselves from Descartes's dualism in their studies of emotions. They recognize human emotions as having a long evolutionary history. Emotions originated hundreds of millions of years ago as adaptive responses that simpler animals produced in response to a changing environment. Signs of danger, for example, triggered releases of hormones that prepared animals to fight or flee. Signs of potential reward (such as food or a mate) triggered release of neurotransmitters that caused feelings of anticipation and heightened attention.

While human emotions share a common ancestry with reactions in other animals, they are modified for the peculiarities of the human species. Fear is a case in point. Humans and other vertebrates rely on a region of the brain known as the amygdala to produce a sense of fear and vigilance. Rats learn to fear a flash of light if it reliably precedes an electric shock; remove their amygdala, and they never make the association. Humans with lesions in the amygdala also fail this test. But brain imaging shows that the human amygdala is also extremely sensitive to facial expressions. It takes only a few hundredths of a second for the amygdala to respond to an angry face, long before one becomes consciously aware of perceiving it. This is not surprising, given that humans are an intensely social species.

Emotions are also intimately involved in the most abstract thinking of which humans are capable. For example, Antonio Damasio (b. 1944) of the University of Iowa has shown that lesions to an emotion-associated region called the orbitofrontal cortex can lead to poor decision making. Damasio hypothesizes that normally people are guided by emotional reactions to memories of relevant experiences in the past.


While cognitive neuroscientists have made great strides in identifying the components of the mind, they have much left to learn about their integration. Perhaps the most powerful example of this challenge is consciousness. Neuroscientists long shied away from the question of consciousness, feeling that it was impossible to formulate a scientific program to study it. At the close of the twentieth century, though, they began to overcome their reticence and began making serious attempts to solve this mystery.

Consciousness refers to people's awareness of themselves and of their own experiences. At the same time, philosophers also see in consciousness a feature known as qualia: the subjective experience generated in each person's brain. To appreciate the difficulty of studying qualia, imagine a neuroscientist who lacks color vision, seeing the world only in black and white. Imagine that she succeeds in learning everything there is to know about how the retina transfers information about different frequencies of light to the brain, and how the brain processes that information. But she does not know what it is like to experience the sight of red, or any other color. These qualia remain beyond her reach.

Despite these conceptual obstacles, neuroscientists are beginning to study consciousness. Some are using fMRI to compare the human brain in different states of consciousness. For example, scientists can measure the differences in the brain before it is aware of seeing an object and afterwards. They can also compare unconscious processing of sensory information versus conscious processing. In another line of research, scientists place electrodes on a subject's scalp in order to take high-resolution recordings of brain waves, looking for changes in frequencies that might represent signatures of consciousness.

Such studies do not pinpoint a "consciousness organ" in the brain. Rather, they offer an increasingly detailed picture of neural activity that correlate with conscious experiences. In one model that has emerged from this work, brain waves produced in different parts of the brain become synchronized during consciousness, producing a "global workspace" in which the processes going on in different parts of the brain are united.

There are a number of other models that are being explored, however, and none has emerged as a clear favorite over the others. Some researchers have suggested that the study of consciousness in the twenty-first century is like the study of hurricanes in the 1800s. Nineteenth-century meteorologists could collect very little data in order to understand and predict hurricanes. They could take readings of air pressure, winds, and rainfall at a few weather stations, and then try to extrapolate those results. Only when weather satellites were launched into orbit were meteorologists able to see an entire hurricane and track it across the Atlantic. In order to produce a satisfying theory of consciousness, scientists may have to wait for the arrival of satellites for the mind.

See also Behaviorism ; Biology ; Body, The ; Cartesianism ; Determinism ; Dream ; Dualism ; Genius ; Humanity ; Imagination ; Knowledge ; Medicine ; Person, Idea of the ; Psychology and Psychiatry .


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Carl Zimmer

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mind / mīnd/ • n. 1. the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought: as the thoughts ran through his mind, he came to a conclusion people have the price they are prepared to pay settled in their minds. ∎  a person's mental processes contrasted with physical action: I wrote a letter in my mind. 2. a person's intellect: his keen mind. ∎  the state of normal mental functioning in a person: the strain has affected his mind. ∎  a person's memory: the company's name slips my mind. ∎  a person identified with their intellectual faculties: he was one of the greatest minds of his time. 3. a person's attention: I expect my employees to keep their minds on the job. ∎  the will or determination to achieve something: anyone can lose weight if they set their mind to it. • v. [tr.] 1. be distressed, annoyed, or worried by: I don't mind the rain. ∎  have an objection to: what does that mean, if you don't mind my asking? | do you mind if I have a cigarette? ∎  (mind doing something) be reluctant to do something (often used in polite requests): I don't mind admitting I was worried. ∎  (would not mind something) inf. used to express one's strong enthusiasm for something: I wouldn't mind some coaching from him! 2. regard as important and worthy of attention: never mind the opinion polls. ∎  [intr.] feel concern: why should she mind about a few snubs from people she didn't care for? ∎  [in imper.] dated used to urge someone to remember or take care to bring about something: mind you look after the children. ∎  [intr.] (also mind you) used to introduce a qualification to a previous statement: we've got some decorations up—not a lot, mind you. ∎  [intr.] inf. used to make a command more insistent or to draw attention to a statement: be early to bed tonight, mind. ∎  be obedient to: you think about how much Cal does for you, and you mind her, you hear? 3. take care of temporarily: we left our husbands to mind the children while we went out. ∎  [in imper.] used to warn someone to avoid injury or damage from a hazard: mind your head on that cupboard! ∎  [in imper.] be careful about the quality or nature of: mind your manners! PHRASES: be of two minds be unable to decide between alternatives. be of one (or a different) mind share the same (or hold a different) opinion. bear (or keep) in mind remember and take into account: you need to bear in mind that the figures vary from place to place. close one's mind to refuse to consider or acknowledge. come (or spring) to mind (of a thought or idea) occur to someone. don't mind if I do inf. used to accept an invitation. give someone a piece of one's mind tell someone what one thinks of them, esp. in anger. have a (or a good or half a) mind to do something be very much inclined to do something: I've a good mind to write to the manager to complain. have someone or something in mind be thinking of. ∎  intend: I had it in mind to ask you to work for me. have a mind of one's own be capable of independent opinion or action. ∎  (of an inanimate object) seem capable of thought and intention, esp. by behaving contrary to the will of the person using it: the shopping cart had a mind of its own. in one's mind's eye in one's imagination or mental view. mind over matter the use of willpower to overcome physical problems. mind one's own business refrain from prying or interfering. mind one's Ps & Qs be careful to behave well and avoid giving offense. never mind 1. used to urge someone not to feel anxiety or distress: never mind—it's all right now. ∎  used to suggest that a problem or objection is not important: that's getting off the subject, but never mind. 2. (also never you mind) used in refusing to answer a question: never mind where I'm going. 3. used to indicate that what has been said of one thing applies even more to another: he was so tired that he found it hard to think, never mind talk. not pay someone any mind not pay someone any attention. on someone's mind preoccupying someone, esp. in a disquieting way: new parents have many worries on their minds. an open mind the readiness to consider something without prejudice. open one's mind to be receptive to: he opened his mind to the ways of the rest of the world. out of one's mind having lost control of one's mental faculties. ∎ inf. suffering from a particular condition to a very high degree: she was bored out of her mind. put someone in mind of resemble and so cause someone to think of or remember: he was a small, well-dressed man who put her in mind of a jockey. put (or set ) one's mind to direct all one's attention to (achieving something): she'd have made an excellent dancer, if she'd have put her mind to it. put someone/something out of one's mind deliberately forget someone or something. to my mind in my opinion: this story is, to my mind, a masterpiece. ORIGIN: Old English gemynd ‘memory, thought,’ of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘revolve in the mind, think,’ shared by Sanskrit manas and Latin mens ‘mind.’

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mind mind one's P's and Q's be careful or particular in one's words or behaviour. The expression is recorded from the late 18th century, and may refer to the difficulty found by a child learning to write in distinguishing between the tailed letters p and q.

In the early 17th century, the dramatist Thomas Dekker has ‘Now thou art in thy pee and cue’; pee here is a kind of coat, and cue means either a queue of hair, or possibly cue as a tail; it might however indicate an early currency of this expression through a punning allusion.

See also great minds think alike, little things please little minds, travel broadens the mind, year's mind.

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mind Hypothetical faculty postulated to account for the ability of conscious beings to think, feel, will, or behave. The mind is considered to control, or consist of, so-called mental processes. Dualist philosophers, such as René Descartes, have distinguished between mind and matter as two totally independent entities. Idealism suggests that the world is a product of the mind and dependent on experience. Materialism begins with a concept of a material world independent of experience; the mind is not separate from the physical but derives from it.

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mind memory (surviving in phr. in m., to m., time out of m.); thought, purpose, intention; mental faculty. XII. ME. mind(e), münd(e), mend(e); aphetic of imünd, etc.:- OE. gemynd, corr. to OHG. gimunt, Goth. gamunds memory:- Gmc. *ʒamunðiz, f. *ʒa- Y- + *mun-, weak grade of the series *men- *man- *mun- :- IE. *men- *mon- *mn- revolve in the mind, think (repr. also by e.g. L. mēns, ment- mind).
Hence mind vb. REMIND; remember, give heed to XIV; (dial.) perceive, notice XV; contemplate XVI; be careful about XVIII.

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minddownwind, Lind, prescind, rescind, Sind, upwind, wind •Wedekind • wunderkind • Rosalind •unexamined • undetermined •tamarind • uncurtained • headwind •tradewind • tailwind • crosswind •woodwind • whirlwind •affined, behind, bind, blind, find, grind, hind, humankind, interwind, kind, mankind, mind, nonaligned, resigned, rind, unaligned, unassigned, unconfined, undefined, undersigned, undesigned, unlined, unrefined, unsigned, wynd •spellbind • womankind • snowblind •sunblind • colourblind • purblind •mastermind •abscond, beau monde, beyond, blonde, bond, correspond, demi-monde, despond, fond, frond, Gironde, haut monde, pond, respond, ronde, second, wand •Eurobond • vagabond • millpond •dewpond • Trebizond •unadorned, unmourned, unwarned

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MIND indicating National Association for Mental Health

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