New glasses, renewed perspective

I used to have remarkably acute vision (20/15, if you’re curious) and exceptional color perception to go with it. It used to make me happy just to look. Turning my sweet eagle’s eyes on a treetop and picking out each leaf really felt good. Noticing the individual speckles on a falcon overhead made my heart sing.

I liked to see.

That has been changing for some years; I remember when I could no longer see the star at the center of the sparkle in the night sky, for instance. With more pressing matters (food, rent, keeping CRPS under control) I’ve adapted and adapted and adapted to my worsening vision, using pattern-matching skills (another 5-star category in my old brain) to replace actual perception.

It is an excellent adaptation to use, leveraging a primitive part of the brain that is very hard to screw up. However, it does have its limits.

My housemate, the excellent R. (I avoid using personal names without permission), finally confessed that my driving scared him because he really thought I couldn’t see well enough to manage it safely. He worried even more when he wasn’t in the car. That made me think.

And then I scared myself today on the road, and decided that was the last time. I called the ocular shop and they squeezed me in at 4 o’clock on a Sunday.

My visual acuity had deteriorated from 20/15 to 20/80.

Some things should not be adapted to.

I’m now a member of the four-eyed fraternity.

I think my nose was red because I almost cried.

I wear my polycarbonate steel-rimmed cheaters as if they were portals into heaven, because they are. I spent an hour and a half simply strolling around, agog, with the whole world smacking me squarely in the eyeballs.

First thing I noticed is, everything has an edge. I had forgotten that; more precisely, I had taken it so much for granted when I could see, that I didn’t notice when it faded from view. It’s like the resolution on the world is turned up to infinity. (…It is, in case you’re wondering.)

The next humdinger was the warping effect. Looking through the lenses is hunky-dory, but it gets a bit weird at the very edges, and beyond the rims there is no correction at all — the world is a palid mess, off to the sides and around the bottom, right where my feet and hands are most of the time.

I twisted my head slowly around, expecting wa-wa noises and doppler effects to accompany the dizzying twist of light around the margins of my sight.

I stumbled until I figured out that my feet were just where I’d left them, and I’d have to treat them just the same as I did before the glasses.

I was sure the pavement was breathing.

I’ve never taken hallucinogens (apart from exhaustion, surgery and chronic pain). I have nothing against them, I just felt no need to. There might be a reason why: all it takes is a pair of new glasses and I’m nearly there.

I went down to the beach and saw two boys in red shirts. I was riveted. My ocular nerve itself was stained, the color was so intense. Did you know red is the color of healthy, living blood? Red so glorious and alive that it almost quivered was all over street signs, cars, carts — shirts.

When I noticed that, I noticed that all the colors were darker, richer, more alive. The dim shapes of the SF Peninsula across the Bay were purple, dark steel and deep amber. I had no idea. It was spectacular, in a tasteful and slightly intimidating palette.

Then the shapes and colors came together for me as I looked up at the sky. The clouds didn’t just drift stately by, they floated in a tender dance of radiant whites and silvers, caressing the air with fingertips trailing Chantilly lace and oxygen.

As I saw that, I realized that the movement of things had taken on new poetry. Palm trees shifted in the breeze with the distracted grace of mermaids playing with their hair. Every frond was alive and had a finger of wind wrapped around it. Who knew?

I walked until I could bear to focus on a path, could do head checks without headspins, and generally felt able to drive more safely. It was still a stunning trip home, and I got here just as the sun touched the top of the Marin Headlands and dropped out of sight, staining the sky with farewell colors. I said thanks to it, right out loud.

I’m told it will take another day to adapt, and by then I’ll know what my world will look like from now on. The hallucinatory wonder will probably be replaced by something I can talk about in public (“Didja see that? Looked like the Goodyear blimp!”) but, from my personal history as a visual junkie of ocular delight, this intense thrill of LOOKING will probably be mine again forever — or for as long as I keep my prescription up to date.

I’m pretty motivated. This cuts into my car-buying budget, but I do think it’s worth it. Being able to survive driving is not a bad idea at all.

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Pertinent pain data

Here’s a little gem I found while cleaning up my hard drive. It’s from early last year…

===========

Each year, 80,000,000 (that’s eighty million) Americans seek professional care for pain.

Combine the numbers of Americans who seek care for diabetes, heart disease, or cancer — three much sexier issues — and they still aren’t as many as those who seek care for pain.

  • Pain is the cause of 25% of all sick days.
  • 50% of those with nonmalignant pain have considered suicide.  (That puts a real crimp in a family’s earning power.)

The consequent costs of lost productivity and reduced contribution to the tax base & economic flow, the social impact with concomitant loss of productivity, etc., has never been quantified (that I know of), although it certainly exists. With that large a base, and that wide a ripple-effect, it has to run into billions of dollars per year.


Each year, we spend $100,000,000,000 (that’s one hundred billion) on the direct costs of dealing — badly, expensively, and inconclusively — with pain.

That same amount could buy:

  • More than one-fifth of Medicare’s entire 2010 budget.
  • 60% of 2010 Federal spending on long-term unemployment (to which disability is the single biggest contributing factor, and pain is the single most common factor in disability.)
  • 5 weeks of current military spending, with two wars to prosecute and unprecedented numbers of walking wounded to care for.

===========

I had forgotten those facts.  I was geekishly delighted to find them. But it is definitely an answer in search of a question, and in this case the question is this: why the hell are we wasting so much money, time, life and energy on handling pain so badly??

There are profound cultural and economic reasons why the present, appalling system is still in place.  I’m not rich enough to face those reasons down so I’ll leave that as an exercise in logic for the reader: follow the money.  Who profits by this system?  Who funds it?  Who benefits, and of those who benefit, exactly how do they benefit? What do they give up or pay, in order to reap those benefits? What are the benefit/drawback profiles for the many different stakeholders in this system?

Pain patients are the least important stakeholders in this system, and that doesn’t seem right to me. I realize I may be biased.

Sorting out the answers could keep you busy for awhile, but once you figure out a couple of common denominators, it starts to fall into place very easily. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, though.

The point, as far as pain control is concerned, is this: we’re studying the wrong things about it, and we’re treating it the wrong way around.  There is no conclusive success path on the present trajectory, just increasingly expensive ways of mitigating these largely failed clinical (and economic) strategies.

And that’s today’s ray of sunshine! 🙂

References:
“Chronic Pain Fact Sheet”, http://www.cssa-inc.org/Articles/Chronic_Pain.htm (journalistic summary)
“AAPM Facts and Figures on Pain” , http://www.painmed.org/patient/facts.html (cited sources include the AMA, ADA, AHA, NIH)
THOMAS (Library of Congress online)
Office of ppp, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2011

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Reality check bounce

I got a settlement last year of $40,000. In 8 months, it’s nearly gone. I ran through my numbers and realized that all that money went into taking care of myself (clothes, for the first time in years; chiropracty, not covered by insurance; acupuncture, which should be covered but is sometimes improperly denied; $300/month in supplements which aren’t covered, but do let me function; $500/month for fresh whole food that keeps me from getting worse, more important now that I’m allergic to inexpensive foods like wheat, corn and rice; massage prepayments, for my masseur who was stuck abroad but is finally back & starting to work on me.) There were a couple of large one-offs, but they total the equivalent of the other 3-4 months of the year.
Although I’m certainly far better than I’d have been without it, I’m considerably sicker, weaker, sorer and more mentally impaired overall.
Meanwhile, insurance has — most improperly — denied any of the care that they are supposed to pay for and have covered in the past.
This disease is a bit like cancer in that, if treatment is delayed, you’re liable to lose ground, and there’s no realistic hope of regaining the ground you lose.
I’ve been pegging my hopes on federal disability (the dole, but a relatively generous dole) but even that will provide only one-third of what I need to live on. If I weren’t tending this illness — and could eat grains — it would be enough; that gives scale to these expenses. It takes 40k to support me for a year and the best I’ll get is 14.4k.
If I move ashore, which I’m trying to do (finishing up the boats and selling them being this winter/spring’s project), then it will be considerably less, because rent ashore is so high. However, it’s becoming impossible to function without hot running water, a bath and a laundry machine. Catch-22, or at least a choice of impossible situations.
If I could get a year’s funding for the intensive health work I’d hoped to do this year, I’d stand a chance of regaining enough ground to work and earn. I don’t see how to make that happen. I may be lacking in imagination.
Anyway, I’m beginning to wonder if it makes sense to keep working on figuring out how to mend. I’ve contemplated the babbling fool I’ll become on the present trajectory without supplements and so forth: pride and dignity aside, there’s no realistic way to bear it — the waking with a muddle in my mind, the increasing helplessness and isolation as my friends get more and more frustrated with dealing with me, the waxing helplessness in the face of the most basic tasks like budgets and shopping, the inability to make decisions on the basis of imperfect understanding, the constant wounding of my amour propre as the patronizing tones and “there, there” remarks continue to mount. The startling shafts of clarity when I see just how stupid I’ve been, and knowing I’ll soon fall into the fog again. It’s simply unbearable.
Had I grown up unintelligent, I’d have the skills to manage life with fuzzy brains, but I really don’t. It’s desperately confusing and the constant humiliation doesn’t help.
When I can just sit down and write, focusing on the one thing for a stretch of time, I do fine. (I hope that’s obvious.) The hopping about from topic to topic, without having time to sink into one and pull up the mental flash cards, is becoming impossible. And that’s what life requires.
My mind is thixotrophic: quick moves bounce right off; it takes time and gentle pressure for me to get in.
Though without the rigorously pure food and costly supplements, that focused writing-mind doesn’t work either. It can’t even start.
I read up on Woolf and Hemingway some years ago. I felt the usual poignant poetic feelings about their deaths, gilding over a sneaking suspicion that they’d copped out. But, as my own mental life becomes ever more fraught, I become ever more awed at the strength, grace and nerve each brought to their final stages. The words that sounded just a little bit like whining or wounded vainglory, were really a symptom of the inadequacy of language in the face of an assault on one’s core that defies meaning itself, let alone language’s ability to convey meaning.
I need more options. I need real care. I’m out of ideas.
I liked being happy & relieved last summer. I could do with more of that!
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Himalayan dreams

Had a dream of a remarkable wolf. It said it was from an extinct ancestral species. There were great mountains around us. I got curious and looked a few things up.

Timing couldn’t have been much better. In 2004, scientists examined mitochondrial DNA and cleared up a lot of questions about speciation and ancestry:

Here’s the Smithsonian’s article with that graphic: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/SpotlightOnScience/fleischer2003108.cfm

Until this study, all canids except maned wolves (truly ancient) and coyotes were thought to be basically a type of grey wolf; Tibetan and Himalayan wolves were different flavors of the same breed. (The web being what it is, the old ideas of the much-loved grey wolf being the grand-daddy of them all still show up everywhere.)

Turns out the beautiful and sweet-faced Himalayan wolf is the ancestral canid from which Tibetan wolves, grey wolves, Mexican wolves, red wolves and modern dogs (from molossers to dachsunds) are all descended.

The adorable mutt I grew up with. The huge, terrifying sheepdogs of Turkey, where I was born. The overdressed show poodle that walks my marina. The chihuahua who helped fix my boat. All from the Himalayan wolf.

There are only 350 of this extraordinary species left, as of 2004.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3804817.stm

The main problem? Human ignorance, voraciousness and violence.

Because 12 billion of us just isn’t enough, humans are expanding cultivable and buildable land every day to feed still more. I’m not sure why this is still seen as a better option than parental education and birth control, which are tragically underfunded worldwide.

Wolves are hunted for sport, because some people just have to prove they’re better than anything that doesn’t have ballistics and steel.

Wolves are hunted out of fear, because they are the bugaboos of Himalayan legend — since wolves have been made metaphors for the vilest traits of humanity in Europe and Asia alike. They aren’t like that, we just wish they were, so we wouldn’t realize we are looking in the mirror when we think of unrelenting evil.

They are hunted for killing livestock, which they do in the winter … But the ranchers who keep a couple donkeys with their herds, never lose animals to wolves. Donkeys have no fear of wolves and will kick the living snot out of anything that attacks their herd. Many ranchers don’t know this! Livestock predation is a stupid problem with an easy fix.

Rumor has it there’s a captive breeding program in India, but I haven’t been able to track it down online. I’d be happy to make a website for them with a big, persuasive “Donate” button.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking.

Addendum 1

Turns out that donations aren’t possible: http://wildlifesaviour.blogspot.com/2011/05/himalayan-wolf.html. HOW is that POSSIBLE? Further research needed, apparently.

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Refocus on what works: In memoriam

Debbie died yesterday. She was a never-failing source of encouragement and intelligent support on one of my key online CRPS support groups.

She died on the table, while undergoing a medical procedure. I don’t know exactly what it was, and given my respect for patient confidentiality, it’s none of my business.

She’s the first person to die of my disease, to whom I felt personally attached. Needless to say, it’s sobering as hell.

I’ve written about the need to attribute deaths from this disease correctly. I’m preparing my own final papers. These thoughts are nothing new.

But today, they are biting deep.

I’ve recently become highly politicized over rights abuses and intolerable corporate stature in my country. I have privately — and quietly — become convinced that the US healthcare system is so completely predatory, so opposed to its own mandate, that it will never offer healing for anyone in my position.

Debbie’s death has broken through my professional anxiety about appearing detached and scientifically sound. I have, at long last, become politicized about the most important subject in my life, after 25 years of personal and professional involvement up to my back teeth.

I have minimized my discussion here of what actually works. That dishonest omission has done us all a great disservice. I’m going to discuss what works, whether or not it’s FDA approved, pharmaceutically profitable, or adequately studied.

Medical studies are a shining example of the fact that we inspect what we expect, not necessarily what we need. The fact that studies have not been done on most modalities, or not rigorously done in double-blind experiments, doesn’t mean the modalities don’t work.

It means the studies need to be done. Period.

Where I understand the mechanisms of action, I will explain them. Where studies don’t exist, I’ll detail what should probably be explored.

But I have had enough of silence. I will not die as Debbie did. I will not die on the table. I certainly will not die saturated with soul-destroying pharmaceutical-grade poisons, as so many of us do.

I will find a better way. I will find a way that works. I’ll do my best to persuade others to study the modalities involved, and to fund the studies. My legislators will learn to recognize my name on sight, because their slavish debt to the pharmaceutical industry is absolutely intolerable and it’s up to me, and others like me, to convince them of that.

I wish Debbie a painless and peaceful rest. I hope her extraordinary husband finds enough strength and comfort to manage life without her.

For myself, I want the intelligence, resources and strength to find a solid cure, make it happen, and spread the word.

No more silence. It’s too much like consent or, worse, collusion.

I do not consent to the deaths of my friends.

With my eyes now open, I’ll no longer collude.

Let’s find a real way out.

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Polarity, Extremism, and the Real Alternative

We have gotten so used to thinking in binary terms — either/or, for/against, all/nothing — that it’s becoming more and more common to have to stop the conversation part way in and say, “But wait, I’m not talking about the other extreme. I’m talking about something other than extremes.”

This happens all the time in political conversations. Three sentences in, and there you are: binary, oppositional language. How tedious is that?

It’s so tedious that I’m going to change the subject completely.

I have an excellent friend who tends to flit. When I was expecting him to show up on a regular basis, it could be maddening, because he tended to get so caught up with the flitting that he forgot to update me.

You’d think that, if flitting where the problem, flitting less would somehow solve it. This is where polarized thinking, or the opposite extreme, can be a real red herring. Suggesting it sets up an antagonistic feeling in the space of a single breath.

Flitting less is not the issue. Updating me is what solves the real problem, which is not about him flitting, but about my being able to plan, so I can get things done and have some company (and aid) while doing so.

In order to see that, I had to realize that the issue is not binary: “do this, not that.” No.

I wanted to be mad at him flitting, because he was having such a damn good time that I felt a little envious. The essential silliness of being mad at someone for having health and friends is pretty obvious.

So I peeked under the layers of frustration and irritation, and realized that the main point was simply knowing what to expect. I can’t do much myself, yet the accomplishment of getting things done is one of my key brain management tools (think in terms of dopamine: executive decisions, motivation, initiative.)

So if I’m relying on the help and don’t get it, it kind of screws up my day in a whole new way. But I can adapt to changes like crazy, if only I can see them coming.

Once I could convey what I really needed (to know what to expect), could explain the factual logistical impact of not getting it (it sort of blows my brain up and kills my day), and clear out the emotional rubbish, it was very easy for us to communicate across our different styles and different needs in a compact, useful way. So I love the guy as much as ever and feel more secure about working with him.

We don’t have to be alike to figure out how to get along. Who knew? In fact, I find people who are too much like me to be rather annoying, so it’s probably best if we’re not.

I look forward to the day when, over dinner tables and coffee cups and news reports everywhere, we’re all a little better at peeking under our layers of frustration and seeing what the real issue is — and realizing that it’s not extreme at all. It might be as simple as keeping each other updated.

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Pain Manifesto

This came out of cold chronic CRPS type 1, a debilitating condition of intractable chronic pain, nervous system disruption, and multi-system dysregulation — destroying the body’s ability to manage heat/cold, blood sugar, immune defense, circulation, sensation, bone density, movement, vision, digestion, heart function, and ultimately survival.

“Standard” treatments don’t work well for me; moreover, they involve invasive procedures too brutal to tolerate and medications I’m either outright allergic to, or that impair me so profoundly I can no longer function. At all.

So I took myself off my meds, thought things over, and came to the following conclusions.

MY CHRONIC PAIN MANIFESTO

Yes, it hurts.
It’s going to anyway.

So should I hoard my days
And fast from life?
Comfort myself with poisons,
Blister-packed and FDA approved?

Some think it would be best all ’round.
I’d cure them if I could (heh!)
But I’m too tired for
Yet another pointless struggle.

The sunlight pours through trees like prosecco
And reminds me what it means to live:

Voices warm with love, the
Mouth-smack of good food,
The hug of hills and the
Rough snuggles of the sea.

Hoard my days? I’ll spend each one
Like it’s stuffed with jewels
Pouring through my hands like a miser’s dream.

Feast on this:
The cost of life is much the same.
The difference lies in how you spend it.

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Fair Share Challenge: what taxes do for me

This budget horror-show has given us a lot to think about. The role of taxes in our country is probably the biggest, sorest issue of them all right now.
“Why should we pay taxes? That money is ours – we earned it!”I heard this from a member of the armed services who’s quite intelligent.   
Out of respect and consideration for my impassioned, but perhaps distracted, old friend, I wanted to find a non-partisan, preferably non-political way to discuss the point of taxation. So let’s simply see how that money gets used in real life.
Everything in bold-face type is heavily subsidized or completely funded by government money – local or federal, for better or worse. Do any of these tax-funded things affect you?
I take pain medicine which was funded by government grants to develop. My treatment was developed by government grantees. It keeps me alive and functional, so I can write things like this. Is that a good use of taxpayer dollars (printed at the Mint and monitored at the Federal Reserve)?
Read on and let’s all decide.
My nephews go to school by bus, when their mother can’t take them. She has just received her teaching credentials, so she will soon be working as a teacher. Their father, my brother, is a Marine. He runs a base where he supervises the training of National Reservists of the Army, Marines, and Air Force.  He recently visited a friend in the VA hospital.  All of his children were born in military hospitals.
Since they all run on a tight schedule, they use their car a lot. It uses gasoline; they used to have one that ran on diesel; the next one may be an electric hybrid. To cover short distances, they use local roads. To cover long distances, they use highways. They’re careful of road crews, and drive sensibly over bridges and through tunnels (I hope.) Me, I mostly use the bus and train.
My brother and his wife pull over to make room for fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. (Many ambulance systems have been privatized; however, they still work on the basis of city or county contracts that are funded by taxes.)
They eat on the healthy side of a normal American diet. With three growing boys in the house, they eat plenty of wheat and corn-based products, such as bread for sandwiches, cereal, pasta, and so on. They’re allowed occasional treats, including candy and soda sweetened with corn or cane sugar.  I bet they get their beef from the grocery store, so you know it was raised on soy and corn, and was probably fed antibiotics.  Those boys are pure dynamite anyway.
My dear old friend David used to work at the library. He still volunteers there. His pension keeps him in a simple but comfortable style of life. He likes to attend church, though most of his real friends are out and about on the city sidewalks.  He keeps in touch with a friend who has been in the mental hospital, and their conversations help her stay on track.
When my Dad died suddenly, I attended support groups at the local Hospice.  I used to be a nurse, working in hospitals and home care.  In the ER we took care of prison inmates when they got hurt. 
I ran out of work at one point and wound up on food stamps and welfare.  I will never forget that they kept me alive until I could find work again.  Since then, I haven’t really minded paying my fair share of taxes.  
During the last election cycle, I saw an angry woman on TV waving a sign that read, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”  I hope she understands things better now. 
This has given me a lot to think about.  
And, fellow bloggers, here’s an invitation/challenge: how much better can you write on this theme?  How much do you really know about government support for the things you use every single day that make your life do-able?  How does this pertain to your work, paycheck, interests, family – whatever really matters?
I’d love it if you’d share links here and let me know.
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Dopamine, poverty, and pain: the lighter side

Executive decisions are made in the forebrain. The information that goes into them comes from the sensory cortex (nearby) and the hypothalamus (back in the dark heart of the brain.) The execution of those decisions happens in the pituitary, among other places. In short, there’s a lot of nerve-impulse mileage laid down between the moment you feel the itch in your armpit, check your surroundings for privacy, scratch away, and give a happy little sigh of relief. Lots of neurotransmission there.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of executive decisions. It’s a daughter chemical of adrenaline, and your adrenal glands share blood supply with your kidneys; interestingly, Chinese medicine views the need to make too many decisions as being hard on the kidneys. Makes perfect sense to me. But that’s a red herring.

The key is, without dopamine, the decision can’t get from the frontal lobe to the action parts of the brain. Dopamine levels can be knocked back by pain, drugs (including the prescribed ones), depression, poor diet, and — of course — overuse.

People who have crippling pain have to make exponentially more decisions than those who don’t. Every action is measured against an internal set of standards that don’t exist for normos: how much pain will lifting that cost me? That car door — which way should I turn my hand to minimize damage when I pull it? How many function-dollars do I have left in my body’s account — enough to do laundry _and_ shower? Or should I do just one? If so, which one is more necessary?

Poor people have a similar ceaseless train of calculations running in their heads, but with different parameters. Can I get a little meat this week? What are my produce options, since there’s no good market in this area? Which neighborhood’s market has the best prices? Have I got the bus fare? Will I get into trouble over there? How do I blend in? Can I call in a favor to get some Tylenol too? These headaches are killing me.

As a poor person with pain, I figure I make easily 20 times as many decisions — on a slow day — as a normal person my age. When I was still overmedicated, I used to feel like a loser for not making 100% perfect decisions 100% of the time; in fact, I occasionally just goofed. And the trouble with living within such narrow parameters of function and finance is, the occasional goof can put you behindhand for a very long time.

It’s easy to sneer at those who make weird decisions like paying for a flat-screen TV instead of a semester of junior college. But try wringing out your dopamine every single blessed day, week after month after year, and see how well you do. These people don’t have decision-making disorders, so much as decision-making overload.

If you’re poor or in pain, take some credit for getting through the day. Cut yourself a little slack. Take a moment to rest and relax. See, it’s easier already.

Being hypercritical just uses up your dopamine faster. Why? Because criticism is the result of long strings of decisions. It’s very dopamine-expensive. (Ever wonder why hypercritical people don’t seem very happy? Now you know.)

Take a moment to be happy, to notice what’s good. Those moments rebuild your store of decision-making, anti-depressant dopamine. Each natural, happy little sigh is a shot of the stuff.

Sniff that flower one more time. Scratch where it itches (preferably in private.) Feel the sun warming your head. Laugh with your friends. There’s a reason why it feels so good. It really does make you stronger. It freely gives back what life makes you use. And it’s not too hard to find a reason to be happy.

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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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