Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mind and Body

Say, you wake up one morning with the flu. It has been known to happen.

You call your workplace and tell someone you're not coming in. You call a friend and ask for a ride to the urgent care clinic. You want to get better soon, since your sick-leave comes from the same pool as vacation days.

The receptionist is pleasant, she takes your insurance information and asks you to wait. Mozart music is playing in the background (because the clinic's management faithfully followed a research finding that said playing Mozart in the waiting area helps patients relax). But the wait is long, your muscles are hurting, head is splitting, eyes are burning and throat is sore. You go to the counter and ask for the approximate wait time. You notice the receptionist has changed. The new person seems distracted, as if her mind is elsewhere. She is impatient with you. Sir, just keep waiting. She will be with you shortly. You feel hurt, your sickness feels worse.

Finally you see the physician. She is sufficiently knowledgeable, is competent and takes care of your condition. Prescribes pills. In the car you tell your friend- oh, man, she was good, polite, she even apologized for the wait. She was cute too.

Not once do you wonder why you should be affected by the pleasantness of the first receptionist, irritation of the second receptionist (superseding the soothing effect of background Mozart) and the demeanor of the physician (whose main job is to tend to your sickness with a trained and tested methodology, being nice is only optional).
But we know that - what we see and feel has an effect on our physiological body.
First, how would it have changed if all the people in the clinic were completely expressionless and spoke like robots? Second, would you have been affected to the same level if you were not sick and not feeling vulnerable?

Who is “we” over here? Mind or body? Mind and body? Is our mind seeing and feeling separately from the body? Or are they always together? How together?
Dennett loses his body in a landfill in “Where Am I”, a delightful sci-fi-philosophy (scifiphi) chapter in Douglas Hofstadter's and Daniel Dennett's “The Mind's I”. This chapter was written by Daniel Dennett. 
But before this incident, Dennett's brain had been surgically taken out. Dennett's former body had been working with electrodes tapped in, taking in remote signals from his brain sitting comfortably in a vat in a laboratory.
But first, right after brain-removal surgery, he wakes and wonders where Dennett is- is Dennett the brain (nicknamed Yorick) in the vat or the rest of his body (nicknamed Hamlet) sitting in a chair? He tries hard but fails to see himself as staring out from a vat.
Hamlet goes on the above mentioned top-secret assignment and gets buried in a landfill, an accident. In an instant he wakes up as Yorick, disembodied. What was difficult before happened now, Dennett wakes up as Yorick- and finds himself staring out from a vat.

A new body (nicknamed Fortinbras) is eventually connected to Yorick via electrodes and remote signals. One day, Fortinbras walks into the lab, to a big applause but finds out that a computer program (nicknamed Hubert) has been created to duplicate Yorick, his brain-in-a-vat. Yorick and Hubert are identical and one cannot tell the difference. It was even tested without Fortinbras's knowledge by flipping back and forth successfully.
Now, if another new body is connected to Hubert, he would be a super twin brother of Yorick-Fortinbras (lets call him Hubert-Viru). Then, who would be the true Dennett in this brain-body couple?

The prospect of having two Dennetts feels abhorrent to Dennett. He does not want to be his own rival for the affections of his wife. Or share his meager professor's salary with a new twin. The story continues, about the body-brain couples or if I may venture that far, the body-mind-couple states.

Far too many times in life our mind feels trapped within physical surroundings and/or limitations of the body.
Katha Politt has a book of poems “The Mind-Body Problem". The discrepancies between our feelings and doings are beautifully presented, as only in poetry. Some lines that stayed with me-

Lilacs in September
to passersby
What will unleash
itself in you
when your storm comes?

Two Cats
but because they see things as they are. Cats
never mistake a
saucer of milk for a declaration of passion
or the crook of your knees for

a permanent address. ….

The Heron in the Marsh
with only yourself as armor,
tell me, why is loss real
even when love was not?

Vulnerability or insecurity increases our perception of imbalance between mind and body. In that state, the mind has heightened awareness. Sees things in slow motion. Magnified. Vulnerability, as people in stress of any kind feel. Sometimes the most creative spurts in the minds of famous artists have been known to come while they were in these terrible distorted states of health (but with sufficient lucidity to produce the work of art).
Also, the disconnectedness of mind-body increases when one is physically sick and is hospitalized in a standard medical facility. The body gets treatment which the mind tries to keep pace with. This becomes very apparent especially after distress such as- surgically losing a limb or worse. The mind struggles to make sense of the altered body.

Some alternate medical practices take a whole body approach to treatment. Mind and matter. But a few practitioners go very far, they quote the energy-mass relation, implying we can control our body with our mind. Even the Buddha had to struggle towards this for years and he wasn't even ill!
That said, being positive in outlook does have an influence, that is as far we can go.

On the other hand, in either state, vulnerable or secure, there are times and places when we find our mind-body at peace. Some artists, though rare, have created from this beautiful state of mind.
Some such places are - by a gentle stream of water, in the smiles of children in sleep, in the deep quietness of a large tree, in the silence of warm afternoon shadows, in meditation, in music, in love. We feel a reluctance to turn away from the balance. It somehow seems we are meant to be that way, all the time. There is a pang, we don't want to return to the inevitable imbalance.

Entertainment and art - many movie plots, TV series, stories, blog-posts, popular music and some poems have a recurrent theme of
“mind-of-a-person-is-feeling-something-strong, -that-he/she-tries-make-sense-of-in-a-slow/dramatic-unraveling-of-plot/insight, -leading-to-an-aha-moment-for-all”.
Sports. The athlete or player with mind in control under duress has the edge.
It is amazing how much the mind-body balance/imbalance occupies us all. Our lifestyle, culture and civilization takes it for a lifelong ride, and we go along. 

It appears the mind-body communication is something we concern ourselves a lot but talk about only obliquely through stories and events.