Mind, brain, spirit, and the im/pertinence of death

I referred to this material in an earlier post, where I described the online conversation that started it. My first thought was to turn it into a coherent essay. On reflection, I realized that digesting what my co-conversationalists said was not necessarily going to improve the content, as they’re very eloquent and have distinctive voices. So I chose to let them speak for themselves.

Note to non-academics and other civilized beings: I find that, with academics as with working engineers, it’s more important to be clear than to be sweet. Caveat emptor.

This thread is from James Croft’s blog on “State of Formation,” an excellent venue for lively conversations. It started with Jim F., as I secretly suspect a lot of the most interesting arguments do:

Jim F. says:
[…] Injuries to the brain from accidents or from disease like tumors or strokes can lead to radical changes in personality and/or character. In Lamont’s opinion, there are no real good reasons for believing that consciousness is something that can exist without the body. Therefore, when the body dies, so does the mind.

Isabel says:
February 28, 2011 at 2:30 am
Jim, I’ve mulled that relationship a lot. (Lifelong interest in neurology, now with neurologic disorder.) My studies and experience leave me certain that it’s a seductive mutuality, but not an absolute connection. It’s certainly not a simple one.

While mental states are associated with neuroendocrine activity, the subjective experience is inevitable _only_ to the extent that it’s unaware — or, of course, volitional.

This seriously disturbs the structure of the idea that “mental state doesn’t exist without physical state.” And that doesn’t even go near the eternal chicken/egg question — whether the chemical shift or the feeling it’s supposed to transmit comes first.

Go on to look at more organized ways of managing one’s mentation & neuroendocrine flow, like meditation or yoga or “inward” martial arts, and the question of connection and control becomes not just loose, but flaccid.

The more I think about awareness, and the more I learn about neurophysiology and endocrine behavior, and the further I go on the personal inquiry into how to navigate this neurologic disruption, the less I’m persuadable that the mind depends on the brain. That concept totally fails in the face of this experience — the clinching argument for me, obviously — but it also fails to describe those experiences that are _not_ as unaware, uncontrolled, and are experienced as irreflectively as those of animals. We are richer beings.

When my neurochemistry is whacked, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding other ways to hold my mind in a bearable state. That would be impossible if the brain were the only determinant of mental state. And I know I’m not so special that this capacity MUST be rare if I have it.

I’ve never found a good explanation for that part of the mind that can participate with and respond to neurochemistry, without being pwned by it (in hacker parlance.) It sure is an interesting inquiry, though I don’t need an answer. I just need to continually improve my command of it, since so far this condition is incurable. (We shall see.)

I’m glad you raised the mind/brain issue. More philosophers should study neuroendocrinology — and meditation.

Jim F. says:
March 1, 2011 at 7:21 am
Responding to Isabel. I have always found Hume to be pretty persuasive on this subject, even though he was without the benefit of modern neuroscience. In his essay, “The Immortality of the Soul”, he wrote:

“[…]— Sleep, a very small effect on the body, is attended with a temporary extinction, at least a great confusion in the soul. — The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned, their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness; their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death.”

//Isabel comments: Hume must have had curious nightmares. My own dreams tend to be rich and narrative; not as rich as waking life but often more encouraging.
// Hume’s understanding of mental development is clearly in step with his own time, which is to say, very uninformed: the brain of an infant is in the most quickly-developing, rationally evolving period of the person’s entire lifetime. Never again are we as aware, as able to learn, and as able to prune away useless thoughts as we are in infancy. The tiny fledgling bodies we have are needy indeed, but again, the capacity to recover from proportional insults to the body and brain is better than it ever will be again. Still, the brain function far exceeds the body’s function in infancy. Not proportional at all.
// The mutual disorder of the body and mind in sickness is rarely proportional, and as I have worked with sick and injured people for most of my life, I am the authority there. Sorry, Hume. Normally-healthy men are vile patients, making their tenders miserable while refusing to mend themselves; old women typically manage their way through pain and physical disruption that would have most of us on our knees in howling agony — unless it kills them. And of course, the rest of us fall in between these extremes, depending more on our personalities and cultures than on a proportional response to the illness or injury.
// Senility in old age is not a given, either: some people’s bodies rot long before their minds do, and with others, their minds go fast while their bodies soldier mercilessly on for decades. Any true proportionality between a fading body and fading mind is so rare that, in my clinical experience, it’s the exception and not the rule. (It would be fun to find a study on that, if only to discover the name of a doctor who has the nerve to tell us what degree of disintegration is “proportional.”)
// Thus, while Hume’s prose is wonderfully telling, his conclusions are not.

“[…] Every thing is in common betwixt soul and body. The organs of the one are all of them the organs of the other. The existence therefore of the one must be dependant on that of the other. — The souls of animals are allowed to be mortal; and these bear so near a resemblance to the souls of men, that the analogy from one to the other forms a very strong argument. Their bodies are not more resembling; yet no one rejects the argument drawn from comparative anatomy. The Metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind that philosophy can harken to.

// Hume is always delicious to read, but he is ignorant of the better-developed spiritual traditions which characterize the spiritual body as overlapping and interacting with the physical, but not being either a clone or tied into lockstep with it. These (both Asian and European) traditions therefore fundamentally differ from his base assumption about the twin-image nature of the body-mind relationship.

Concerning meditation, Rick Heller has been writing on the neurological basis of meditation in The New Humanism. He is himelf a practioner and teacher of meditation and also a convinced naturalist and physicalist.

// I’ll have to look him up. Could be interesting.

There seem to me a lot of problems with the sort of psychophysical dualism that Isabel seems to be defending. If it is true then this would seem to violate some of the most basic laws oh physics. Maybe such basic laws like the laws of the conservation of energy and of momentum are not completely valid, but most natural scientists are going to requires lots of very strong evidence to be so persuaded. Dualists have yet to come up with a convincing account of how a nonphysical mind can interact with the physical body. Dualistic interactionism therefore seems to violate a general heuristic principle of science: the causal closure of the physical world. And at this point we can invoke Ockam’s Razor to argue that we really have no need to posit any sort of a mental substance that exists apart from the physical organism.

// The assumption that mind is necessarily physical because the brain is, is a false conclusion. This nonbrain attribute is generally considered to be energetic in nature. Energy interacts with matter all the time, or none of us could (for instance) access this web site, let alone think the thoughts we bring to it. Hence the law of conservation is easily observed.
// Given how the body parts transmute so nothing is wasted, it remains reasonable to suppose that the energetic component transmutes as well, without being lost. Unrecognizable, perhaps, as Paul indicates below — but not annihilated. That would indeed contravene a number of laws of physics.

Returning to Corliss Lamont, one of the other arguments that he made was that even in the Abrahamic religious traditions, there is the tacit assumption that a body is required for conscious existence. Hence, the doctrines concerning the resurrection of the dead that exist in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. Eastern religions likewise have their doctrines concerning reincarnation

// I’ve been content to agree with the theologists/spiritual philosophers who explain that this is a metaphor for the benefit of the many-headed, i.e., a handy lie; the inward self continues in a way that does have its own integrity, but re-inserting the energetic “self” into the physical body is not something that happens literally. It makes a useful concept for the bulk of the laity to work with, to reinforce the idea that they are going to be held responsible for what they do to themselves.
// (While I object to using religion as a form of terrorism, it _is_ an ancient form of crowd-control. In the times of short lifespans, societies were run by adolescents and post-adolescents; therefore, these kinds of down-to-earth metaphors could be very useful indeed.)
// Physical experience has no exact correlation in the nonphysical realm; therefore, certain kinds of understanding can only be reached by means of in-carn-ation — allowing the spiritual/energetic/durable self to become embodied. This is one of the most basic theses in many traditions which consider both life and afterlife to be valid memes.
// It would be more accurate to speak, not of “conscious existence”, but of incarnate life that’s perceptible to itself. This leaves an obvious logical gap: What about perceiving non-incarnate “life”, or un-embodied types of consciousness? That’s a much more sophisticated question than, “is there continued existence after bodily death”, and requires a degree of intellectual care on everyone’s side.
// Why so much intellectual care? Partly because, to assume that spiritual life must be consistently observable only through a narrow spectrum of physical means, is to overlook one or two (or a million) basic realities of matter, energy, logic, and so on. And partly because, if spiritual theses can’t be described in plain language, they probably need rethinking. Thus, both sides need to approach that question with consideration, care, and (ironically) good faith.

Paul J. G. says:
March 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm
So thought-provoking as always. You just can’t help yourself can you?

// obviously, I didn’t even try to 🙂

Something cannot become nothing. What is it precisely that we want from an ‘afterlife’? What did the Star that went Supernova ‘want’? It probably wanted to keep being a Star. It could never have imagined its afterlife to be human cogitation, and Happy Meals, because it lacked the vision and imagination to see its new emergence as an afterlife. So maybe the Star thought it had no afterlife. I would disagree. Brian Swimme leads us down this road.

[…] What’s more, we don’t need to wait till some ‘final’ death (in the way we usually talk about death of a person as a person) to identify our many continuation bodies– the infinite ways that our life, energy, heat, thoughts, words, bodies, breath continue. Just because we are not sensitive enough to identify all of these continuation bodies, teaches Thich Nhat Hanh, does not mean they are not there. It just means that we fail to see. Hanh teaches this because the Buddha teaches that there is no annihilation.

I think there is no such thing as a final death– and that’s what is meant by afterlife: endless going on, eternal life. But, I agree with Charles Hartshorne who says, eternal life is not some eternal human career after death. To think that is an offense against the lavish exuberance of cosmic creativity. Human beings are not the end. Maybe we are merely embryos, or blastocysts, or zygotes of what is yet to come!

Isabel says:
March 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm
Well put, Paul. Yeah.

Further thoughts on stroke and brain injury …

These are good examples of unprepared-for, unawarely-encountered changes in the brain state, and these are the kinds of conditions that most disrupt the mind. Without a chance to become aware of the interface between your mind and your brain, and without a chance to learn and practice the techniques that give you some conscious leverage over it, the damage that these injuries do to the mind – that energetic aspect of the self, the one that may or may not outlive your body – can be devastating indeed, because the injuries to the brain specifically disrupt your ability to understand and deal intelligently with that interface. The injuries that disrupt the personality are perhaps the most difficult to overcome, because access to your accustomed “self” is specifically disrupted.

Practical note: It’s much easier to manage a well-hydrated brain. Drink more water.

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Query: where have all the good studies gone?

I wonder why so much money gets thrown at the same basic studies over and over again. My personal hair-puller is the ones that call for subjects “with chronic CRPS, with only one affected limb.” They must be testing the same dozen people over and over and over again. Wait, they can’t, because if the subjects have chronic CRPS with only one limb affected, they’re either about to get better or much worse.

It’s all very well to keep re-proving a treatment until a level of acceptance is reached, but there are more effective and cheaper avenues — and much richer ones — that are passed by, in favor of flogging a handful of horses who are, at best, unconscious.

It has been too long since significant effort has gone into much more basic research: by and large, we’re still working with the scientific equivalent of the horse collar, when it comes to pain management — not the Ferrari. In fact, it’s unclear to me why we’re still fixated on management, when we need to think in terms of cure. Most chronic pain is needless.

If we knew more about the relevant neurochemistry and cellular metabolism, we’d be in a MUCH better position to figure out when NSAIDS, lido, shock, acupuncture, spinal cord stim, or ketamine comas will work, and when they’ll just be another doorway into hell.

Can you imagine how much money — and misery, and time — it would save to have a short list of things to try, based not on each doctor’s semi-religious leanings or equipment contracts, but based on each body’s signal framework and chemical signature?

Dreaming is free. Studies require funding. Follow the money, and unfortunately the reasons behind all this brutal silliness become clear.

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Expanding these horizons

As a gift of my old friend Jen, I’ve scraped the online acquaintanceship of a very lively group of secularists… And it says a lot that many will shoot down that collective noun; these are the intellectual equivalents of the clan of Asterix the Gaul, who will cheerfully scrap with each other when there’s no one else around to scrap with, and woe betide anyone silly enough to try and conquer them.

I love it. Oink heaven. My memory still has Swiss-cheese holes in it, but my reasoning is not completely shot.

I was mulling a blog entry on “trying to remember there’s a forest among the trees”, given the way that we tend to get fixated on a tiny handful of things which, if we had ’em, would surely fix everything. Surely.

These thoughts have been rather derailed by an online conversation I got into about the mind/brain issue. It touches on neurology, history, philosophy and theology, with logic and info architecture as palette-cleansing interjections (or so my thoughts are trending.) Naturally, I’m knawing it like a rawhide bone, tail thumping.

In fairness, not everyone wants the erudite stuff; nor does everyone want the why-what-works pragmatism. Both are so closely linked for me (the blogger, here) that I’ve decided not to break out a different blog. I’ll get better about tagging, and I’ll use indicative titles.

Please come along and play. I hope this works out well.

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Inspiration and vacation

I must remember to inhale. It’s too normal to go about with my whole core clenched. It’s very tiring, and I’m generally tired enough, thank you.

Here’s an interesting thought… If I feel chronically un-rested, it’s tempting to think that the solution is to rest, at some point, for long enough to recuperate completely. Nice thought, eh?

Doesn’t work. For one thing, I need to Do Something to keep the lymph flowing & neurotransmitters cycling, so absolute rest is beyond me. For another … Well, pursuing yet another extreme state probably misses the point.

So I come to the idea — by a very long route — that resting and recuperation are supposed to be as much a part of daily life as eating and breathing and sleeping. (Strange thought.)

It takes a certain amount of determination and persistence. It’s much easier, given my situation and habits, to churn on something that frustrates me or to brace for the next unexpected blow.

I’m practicing. Yesterday, I took a more scenic route home; don’t think it took much longer, but I got quite a bit of sun on my hair … And I remembered how to inhale.

I got only a couple hours’ sleep the prior night and worked hard that day, but at 5:04 pm I felt more rested than I can remember.

Today, I still feel that much better. Inhaling is still something I need to remember to do, but the part about digging the moment I’m in is already easier. Stretching is spa-time. A moment in the sun is a break. A beautiful glimpse of sparkling sea is a mini-vacation.

So something worked.

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Balancing act: homeostasis and words I live by

A balance has two ends: when one goes up, the other goes down. As a metaphor for living, it lacks dimension.

Homeostasis is better. It has no end, but it does count every factor. With a balance, it’s possible to find a point where everything holds perfectly still – until the wind changes. With homeostasis, there is no still-point, because even the thing that pushes the wind is part of it. It’s always shifting.

Homeostasis is a puzzle to which there is no lasting solution, only a series of adjustments. There’s always something new to learn, something different happening.

I find that intriguing.

After living on the water, in the forest, by the desert, and in cities of all sizes, it also makes perfect sense to me. No change sets off only one corresponding change. All real things are clusters of changes, and in the end we can either adjust or be adjusted – and only one of those alternatives accounts for our own wishes.

Living, like homeostasis, is not about flattening the ocean. It’s about riding the waves.

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Chalk boored: cortisol and dentition

My teeth were crumbling. I thought that was churlish of them, especially since I was moving at the time and had quite enough going on.

My naturopath has gotten them back to something more toothlike and durable, but the thing about tooth chips — like stretch marks — is that there’s no undoing them.

Another blow to my vanity, or what’s left of it.

I’m told this churlish chalkification was due to the effects of the cortisol my body now has again — and responds far too strenuously to. This makes sense at a basic level, since mineralization is one of the things cortisol affects. I haven’t looked into the specific science but, since I can chew without fearing for my molars now, I’ll accept the explanation and keep going.

I’m glad my teeth are stronger. I can probably live without using them for pulling needles and trimming cuticles, but I was stumped for ways to chew my food without them. As it is, I suspect beef jerky and rock cakes are entirely in my past.

Think I’ll have an apple for breakfast. Wonderful thought. It really is the simple things that make life sweet.

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Hope

At 12:11 this morning, a soft sea-wind went through me. My insides relaxed.

2010 was tough all over. We know that. Mortality sucks, life is hard, and all the rest.

But something has changed in here. Even though this date is, technically, just an arbitrary accident of history, it’s a good one. A happy accident.

I don’t know if this year will be any better than the last one, but I like this gentler sense of life I’ve woken up with. It leaves more room for hope.

Now there’s a New Year resolution I hadn’t even imagined: keep this inward gentleness. Leave more room for hope.

Yeah. I like that.

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No choice but integrity

I’m a walking, talking, babbling, ceaseless argument for the fact that sexuality is not a choice. Integrity is — though that’s not my point here.

As a sometime lesbian and appalled heterosexual, I’m well aware that the combination of qualities I adore are hopelessly rare in either sex:

Men are disgusting… Women are unbearable… And sadly, as friend Lori remarked, “There is no third sex… And goats are too chatty.”

But that’s not the point either, though there’s plenty of material there — and some of it’s even original. This is about nonconsensual sexuality: the understanding that most of us don’t choose our orientation.

To what do I attribute my own unforeseen, profound internal shift?

Brain damage. Obviously.

The answers that sound less flippant are somewhat less convincing to me. However, CRPS’s extensive disruption of the endocrine system (that is, system of hormone-secreting organs) is already amply demonstrated. I think that’s it.

When I was more lesbian, and other people were being silly about that, I used to ask, “Why would I ‘choose’ to be something that has led several companies not to hire me, my own government to refuse to let me marry despite my being such a good citizen, and at least one individual to try to kill me in cold blood?”

Now, nobody gets silly about my orientation, but I ask myself the complementary questions. They are a lot more trivial, but also much more intransigent: “Why would I ‘choose’ to be relentlessly attracted to a sex as ill-mannered as chimps, as emotionally corrupt as usurers, and as stable as malaria?”

But hey, nobody’s tried to kill me for being straight; same-sex marriage is heading towards legality; and I’m unhireable for reasons that have nothing to do with my orientation. If I were less lonely and more selfless, I would take these changes as major victories. (As it is, it’s more like a no-score win.)

But, at New Year’s, I’ll toast those victories nonetheless, in the names of all my spiritual kindred who can be a bit safer, a bit freer, a bit better recognized for being good people, good spouses, and good citizens.

Hope to hear your voices, and see your glasses, raised with mine! Who knows, I might even run into my own better half in 2011. Whatever that person turns out to be.

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Julian Assange and Swedish herrings (red)

The Interpol-ation of Julian Assange, the most widely-known of the Wikileaks founders, is a thoroughgoing exercise in logical fallacies and predatory smoke-screening.

First, the fallacies…

Straw man: The sex was consensual, though it may have gotten out of hand in one case. Charges weren’t brought until the two girlfriends found out about each other. They backed and forthed about whether they wanted to press charges or not. (Whether large men in dark suits paid them furtive visits is open to debate.)

Selective memory: Sweden has a shamefully high rate of unexamined, unpursued, unprosecuted cases of true rape — that is, forced sex, nonconsensual sex, sex with minors. Why pursue this sexual “irregularity” over condom use and infidelity?

Entrapment: Why give him direct permission to leave the country, at his explicit request, then send the Rottweilers after him?

These charges are not designed to bring someone down. They’re designed to tie him up. How else were they going to keep tabs on someone who can afford to dress like that without having a fixed address?

The real harm was not done by Assange. That imputes too much leverage to a self-infatuated ho with mad hash skillz.

The U.S. was hoist by its own sloppy petard. The State Department and the Military decided to share records, without sharing precautions. Let’s look at that, shall we?

The U.S. State Department, whose core purpose is the pursuit and use of social and political information, has an educational requirement involving alphabet soup behind your name; a staggering array of tests; and a final examination for *entry-level positions* that takes days to complete. The computers are subject to high levels of security, including an inability to even accept removable media.

The U.S. Military has three things it wants to know: What’s your name? Got a pulse? All your parts attached? And some people scrape by on the third try.

The military develops some of the fiercest computer security in the world, but guess what? Removable media! Oh, and all that State Department data … accessible by anybody with technical skills. Guess what the Army and Air Force specifically teach? Technical skills, maybe?

Well done.

So here’s the setup:

Tons, masses, heaps of socio-political data …
– collected on the basis of strict secrecy
– sometimes at terrible personal risk
– on people and issues who remain viable and valuable;

Gets passed by the State Dept. …
– from graduate-prepared, carefully-selected, highly-socialized personnel
– in an environment with lojack and hijack protections in place
– with no meaningful guarantees of its continued protection;

To the U.S. Military,
– an organization with minimal entry requirements
– and a post-adolescent social environment
– staffed by technically competent personnel.

Doesn’t that seem kind of silly to you? I realize most of us are not masters-prepared, much less possessed of a law degree, but pure common sense would make that unthinkable. Wouldn’t it?

Now, as for the leaky boy …

While being accused of being gay is a common put-down these days, in the U.S. Military this accusation could lead to someone losing his job, his housing situation, his social network, and his entire career path. Feel powerless, much?

They’re isolating, freezing, and tormenting an idiot kid over the staggering, monumental idiocy of the Military implementation of secrecy AND the State Department’s lack of due diligence.

They’re hunting down and marginalizing a tired, aging hack who misjudged the value of his own charms, over his willingness to advertise that kind of collective stupidity.

There were a whole lot of much brighter, much better-educated, far better-informed people who fucked up on a simply staggering scale before Assange or that kid ever got into this.

Where are the courts martial? Where are the heads that should be rolling out the state dept. doors and down the steps — bouncing on the way?

The real damage, sadly, is to the wider world. The US has lost credibitlity and leverage on the world stage to a degree unmatched by anything since the initial invasion of Iraq. That, folks, is the real tragedy: we have demonstrated that we are poisonous even to our most important friends.

How many more will die for _this_ mistake, eh?

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B. C. E. takes on new meaning

Les was a chef before he was born. He helped with a BAADS Thanksgiving some years ago as a gesture of kindness, and found that — as he remarked to a friend helping out yesterday — “boy, these disabled people sure can cook!”

I laughed out loud, losing several points for coolness — but I regained them later with my Drunken Sweet Potatoes.

A weighty label like “disabled” sweeps everything before it. Literally, everything… before it. Most of us had full lives before we got a crippling illness or injury; we all have full lives now, even when much of that fullness has to do with how much harder simple things are.

But everything we did, or were, _before_ or _besides_ being [whatever] is still with us. Abled-bodied people rarely seem to think of that themselves: the term “disabled” makes our able-ness seem surprising.

Back in the late 1980’s, the socially-preferred term was moving from “disabled” to “handicapped”. This explanation from a kindly woman explained why: “It’s not correct to say I’m dis-abled, because I’m _able_ to do many different things. But I have to deal with added burdens to get the same things done that a normal person does, so I’m _handicapped_.”

Horses carry extra weight in a race, golfers get extra points on their score, and racers get penalties added to their times to handicap them. Though life isn’t a sport I entered with any thought of competition (and that’s where the analogy falls down), it’s true that I do carry a burden which makes it harder to complete the same tasks that anyone does.

But I can still cook one heck of a pan of Drunken Sweet Potatoes. Not everyone is, ahem, able to do that.

I’m definitely handicapped. I’m not sure I’m disabled. I can still write, and often remain coherent through a whole paragraph. That’s an ability!

B. C. E. — in my case, that means Before Crippling Event — I could play the flute pretty well, too. I can’t even hold the darn thing for more than a few seconds, now; the handicap there is too great to overcome.

Sadly, it’s still true that — whatever we call it — this is a nasty, harsh reality which everyone handles poorly sooner or later; the terms will continue to revolve as we try to keep from getting too stuck in our collective thinking.

As the next decade turns, I expect the terminology to change again. And then again a decade after that. And again and again, as people age and grow and try to loosen up their thinking. Rock on, I say! — We could all use a little more change.

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