Friday, 6 May 2011

Mind/body, mind/brain, mind fulness

This will be tediously lengthy, but it is about things I need to continue to try to work out for myself , because they seem to me important, if how we see ourselves governs much of how we behave. As you will quickly see, I am not an expert philosopher or psychologist. To put it mildly. But do come with me if you want, and please chip in at the end. Here goes.

Over on theknifeyousee (click on my title above to get there) Arkayeff writes most clearly and interestingly about the so-called "mind/body problem." He observes that of course the mind influences the body and vice versa - for him this is an important question because it has a lot to do with his state of health, in a very real and immediate sense. He accuses the famous French philosopher of putting Descartes before de 'orse (come on, don't tell me you couldn't see that coming) and thinking that one gland joins two separate things, mind and body, to each other. Well, Descartes was a clever bloke, sans doute, but he got that wrong.

But - since we can prove that mental states affect our physical well-being, (glands, hormones, bodily reactions to states of mind, immune systems, all that) I think the real problem is actually the mind/brain problem. I'll return to that in a moment. Or two.

Does this philosphical/psychological stuff matter? Seems to me it very much does. A lingeringly mechanistic view of health leads us to label an illness "psychosomatic," almost as a sort of sneer - usually prefaced by "just a.." or "only a..." i.e. it's not a real illness, like flu or a broken femur. I think that this separate view of mind/body, mind/brain, is an obstacle to a balanced view of self and a mindful view of the present moment, it hinders the development of a well-integrated personality.

Arkayeff is thinking through the degree to which his characteristic states of mind may have contributed to, even caused, his condition, and he takes us back to his school days. "Psychosomatic" seems to me nowadays an almost useless term, because it implies: mind, over there; body, over here. Mind causes illness over here. But it's separate. We're still stuck with Descartes.

The way round this one may be to concentrate on the brain. Now, at this point I tend to piss off people with certain kinds of belief. An old friend of mine jeers at the idea that the mind is the same, or comes from, the brain. He is interested in more metaphysical, or supernatural, models. Fine, I'm not being narrow-minded about all that, I just want to sidestep it or we'll get stuck. So I'll just say for now that many psychologists see the unique mind as being what the brain develops (starting from very very small) as a child grows up, using what genetics and the environment gives us.

So the mind can be seen as an aspect of the brain's function (whatever else it may be.) It makes sense, I think, to say that the conscious mind is one aspect of the brain's activity, and that area of brain activity is where the consciousness of self comes from. Self-consciousness seems not to be a static thing you can find somewhere in the brain, it's a thing the brain does all over, much (but not all) of the time we are awake. (Thanks to Sue Blackmore, Susan Greenwood, Antonio Damasio, for the little I know about neuroscience and the "problem of consciousness.")

An aside: Look, if you want to think that the mind is related to the immortal soul and nothing to do with the body, help yourself, but I'm on a different track here, a more mundane but I think important one. OK?

Other aspects of the brain are not part of the conscious mind. Breathing - not really a choice, though we can affect it a bit as it goes on. Heart pumping - an absolute. No brain= No heart pump. No pump, no blood to brain. What we loosely call death..a neat feedback loop. Brain needs heart needs brain needs heart needs.... for however long you live. I emphasize this because it seems helpful to me to remember that the brain is as much part of the body as a hand - and vice versa, since when my hand hurts, that's an event not in my hand (although it feels like it) it's an event in my brain. The inter-relationship is absolute. There is no "psychosomatic" illness. There's just illness - dysentry, depression - and there's just health - being able to walk ten miles, being able to find contentment.

Consciousness of the self, of my personality, changes over time, in endless and complex interactions with the internal and external environment. This only looks like a reductive view of human beings if you have trouble accepting that the brain is the most wonderfully complex thing in the known universe, and that is not separate from the body, it is "simply," part of it, in an endless feedback loop as long as we live. And that we have much more to learn about ourselves, and the way the world moves through us as we move through it.

Now serendipitously, just as Arkayeff was posting his thoughts, up comes a poem from the wonderful Digital Cuttlefish, see

which is bang on the issue.

If we can accept that the mind is an aspect of the brain (to put it very very loosely) and the brain is part of the body, then as the DC suggests in his poem, a lot of the problem might be simply how we describe these things. We are still stuck with the ghost of Descartes - dualism.

We don't, it seems to me, need to accept the wilder shores of "alternative" or "holistic" beliefs to take a whole-systems approach to how we think and feel. Nothing against mysticism - likes a bit of it meself at times - but not just now please Swami.

Arkayeff concludes:
My speculation is that these experiences, in conjunction with my genetic inheritance, may have been at the root of my Ulcerative Colitis.

Furthermore I speculate that by a harmonious balance between mind and body, both will benefit.

He refers to some childhood experiences to do with his schooling. Seems to me he is very likely entirely right.

And now I will wave the mindfulness flag. Arkayeff's preferred route is hypnosis, mine is mindful meditation - same objective: increased levels of calm, of living in the moment, of not anticipating, not regretting, planning, worrying, judging, polarising, criticising to excess- all useful and necessary states of mind, when and only when needed. Like the famous "flight or fight" hormone responses - handy if ambushed by an angry bull, self-destructive if suffered before and during every business meeting.

Why do we make things complicated by defining them unhelpfully? Arkayeff has been ill. His state of mind, affected by his early experiences (and no doubt other things, as he says) have had much to do with the development of his illness. Mind is generated by brain. Brain is part of body. What's good for brain is good for body, what's good for body is good for brain.

Any questions?

Yes. Why are you oversimplifying this complex stuff - neuroscience, theories of mind, psychology, philosophy?

I speak as I find. The clever guys working at the cutting edge bring back exciting and fascinating news - from the profound meditators, from the neuroscience labs, from the deep thought days. I try to understand it when I read it. But me, I need to make sense of all this. So I try to keep it simple. OK?



  1. GM, you are well in to the realm of Hard Thoughts here and I confess that you have taxed my little bean to the outrance. Not just you, of course. That Digital Cuttlefish is a darned hard-thinking philosophish -- and the comment stream on the post he refers to is a Wonder of the World; quite extraordinarily brilliant.

    Coming down to earth, I confess that I have never thought about these things. Don't have the IQ, most likely. But I can relate to Arkayeff, having been sent away at the age of 6. I'm lucky not to have any physical fallout, but I don't doubt there are psychological scars. What's the difference?

    This mind/brain thing... You've got me thinking, now. This should see me through the ironing.

    Thank you, GM, you nourish the parts that would otherwise lie idle.

  2. Well I must confess Charles, I did have to go and lie down for a bit after that one - which is blundering stuff compared to the tentacled poet himself, of course, and his smart pals.

    But I bypass your nonsense about your IQ. For eg, you raise in a brief sentence the heart of the matter - psychological scars/physical fallout, what's the diff? Indeed, sir. Next question please....

  3. "Descartes before de 'orse" Ha! Ha! Brilliant...
    I'm afraid that's the only bit I could respond to. If both your brains are hurting after that post then what hope have the rest of us?! (By both I mean Charles and GM - not suggesting you are literally The Man With Two Brains, GM, or are you?)

  4. CB, if any of my post is difficult to understand, that's almost certainly because of how I struggle to grasp and re-express these ideas, not because of any perceived difficulty in the brain of the reader!

    Consciousness studies, neuroscience and philosophy of mind needs another Professor Brian Cox, and I, as you will have noticed, am not he, the invaluable genius. And I do feel this stuff matters, it's to do with who we really (demonstrably) are.

    But I do appreciate an appreciative response on such an old groaner of a joke, thanks!

    Two brains? Many a morning, just the single GM brain is reluctant to gear up to working revs...

  5. Oh GM, I fear I may have hurt your feelings. I love your posts because they encourage me to think and they are always bursting with thoughts and ideas that matter. As this one was. My lack of understanding wasn't due to any fault of the writer. But definitely (though you beg to differ) my grey matter not having expanded that far before!

  6. Good heavens CB, of course not! I meant it - it's my efforts to simplify something I barely understand myself that will be at fault, but I find it helpful to try. And thanks for the encouraging words. I shall burble on, from time to time....

  7. Maybe we live in a brain body embrace rather than split.

    Perhaps we are (as individuals - interesting word) a process rather than a fixed point. Not split, but a complex and integrated model.

    Maybe our processes can start imperceptibly and grow and develop over long periods of time.

    Experimental tracks trodden at an early age become a habitual paths trodden without care or learning.

    GM, thanks for the name check, and all the other stuff as well.

    Always tuning in with interest and pleasure to read what you (plural) are mapping in the glory of the world.


  8. Thus, Arkers, do you sum up eloquently much of what I was working at. I feel sure we are proceses not points, that experimental tracks become habitual paths hence the potential power of early trauma (to use a cold word) and that our self-awareness is a mental construct, constantly renewed, allowed to subside (sleep, some other mental states) booted up again and modified, ad finitum. That's why, I agree, "individuals" is an interesting word. We are such, but maybe not as we think.

    I shall plagiarise ruthlessly all such eloquence. Thanks to you

  9. Thanks to Blogger chaos for a day, I've lost the comment I posted here in response to yours above, and I can't remember my mighty thoughts now, so I'll just say thanks for a high-protein comment, Arkers!

  10. Medieval people believed there was a split between the rational and the emotional, didn't they? Rationality happened in the head (the bit the Egyptians thought was responsible only for manufacturing snot)and (the baser) emotions happened in the heart or guts (where we mostly feel them). Humankind hypothesises most creatively from a position of ignorance. I guess science'll sort all this out in the end. For now, as I enter that period of my life characterised as Too Late I shall ruefully reflect on Arkayeff's brilliant if chilling 'Experimental tracks trodden at an early age become a habitual paths trodden without care or learning.'

    GM, you are much too prone to self-deprecation! (When did that all start, eh?)

  11. What an interesting comment Charles, thanks. Too clever by half, that young Arkers, and you and he have got me thinking about self-deprecation. We Brits of the middling sort tend to value it,other cultures perhaps less so. So self-deprecation followed some experimental trends in early life - maybe self-defence, maybe a desire to win approval, became a habitual path" etc...?

    The medieval idea that emotions happen in the heart and the guts gets interesting support from Antonio Damasio in his book "Looking for Spinoza," in which he argues from observations of our brains that emotions are generated by bodily processes, and indeed the guts are an important source of such. Emotions then cause feelings, and...can't do any more. It's an interesting book, but reasonably demanding, and I might finish it one day!

    Science does seem to be teaching us more and more about the inter-relation between external universe, and body (including brain,) and specifically how that works.

    Maybe in some ways it was and is always Too Late, and other ways it never will be Too Late because it simply Is.

    Do you know, I am beginning to confuse myself, so I'd do better to turn in.