Suffering in the Myth of the Brain [101/2]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 2)

Hartwig HKD / There is and there is not / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / There is and there is not / Flickr

In the previous article of this introductory series on Embodied Philosophy, we looked at the ancient maxim “Know Thyself” and discussed notions of “self” and different ideas about knowledge in an effort to deepen our understanding of how taken for granted notions might actually profoundly shape our experiential world. In this article, we want to look at perhaps the most universal obstacle to a sense of fullness in life: psychological suffering.

How happy and contented you are at the deepest level of your being is of course ultimately for you to decide, and so our point here is not to claim that everyone is suffering and needs to change.  However, at Embodied Philosophy we do recognize that suffering exists on a variety of personal, social and political levels, and thus one of the truths that informs our explorations is the very real truth of suffering. Besides the curious seeker, then, our work here is intended for those who are suffering - to provide resources that reveal the difference between inevitable pain and optional suffering, in such a way that the latter might be to some degree alleviated.

Inevitable pain is a fact of life. I stub my toe. I feel it. I burn myself. It hurts. Pain is a teacher that often guides us away from problematic habits, like when too many chaturrangas in a yoga asana class produces painful feelings of impingement in one’s rotator cuff. While there are indeed tales of realized beings walking through flames without a flinch, we are not here so much interested in the development of these powers (or siddhis, as they are called in Sanskrit). Our concern here is another kind of suffering that we consider optional and which often parades under the banner of “psychological” suffering – emotional habits that produce dis-ease in the body-mind.

(It should be noted in passing that “psychological” is not quite effective at capturing all of what we call optional suffering, for this word does not extend to the very real experiences of pain that we might, for lack of a better word, call psychosomatic. Also, certainly optional suffering can be seen at a social and a political level. These conflicts that exist between peoples and nations are not “psychological” per se, however these conflicts do originate in ideas we unconsciously collaborate in perpetuating, and therefore in a certain sense this suffering originates in the realm of what we might call “psycho-social”.)

Hartwig HKD / Chaos Inside / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / Chaos Inside / Flickr

The current paradigm of thinking that circulates around psychological suffering is unfortunately monopolized by the psychiatric medical establishment. According to its predominant worldview, psychological suffering can be addressed through prescription medications, because the operating belief is that psychological suffering originates in the neurochemistry of the brain. Therefore, the solution offered by this worldview is to change the neurochemistry through pharmaceutical chemical compounds.

Far be it from us at Embodied Philosophy to deny the efficaciousness of prescription medications for those who have derived great benefit from them. Certainly there are instances in which-, and conditions under which such prescriptions are both timely and practical. However, the scale at which pharmaceuticals are prescribed and consumed, in our view, far outweighs the instances in which they are necessary. And we are certainly not alone in this view. Our sense is that this issue persists for two main reasons (only the latter of which we will address here): the incentives of a for-profit pharmaceutical industry, and the myth of the chemical imbalance.

An article by Chris Kresser articulately and effectively outlines the origin, the history and the falsities perpetuated by this myth of a chemical imbalance that causes symptoms of mental illness, which has been relatively pervasive since the 1950s. Kresser cites the work of Elliot Valenstein in Blaming the Brain, a book that discusses the considerable research showing there to be no direct relationship between, for example, levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain and one’s history of depression.

An issue with this myth is a classic confusion of correlation with causation. Motivated by this confusion, one mistakenly presumes that if some condition can be shown to correlate with (exist alongside) a particular symptom, it follows that this condition is the cause of that symptom. In this instance, if a certain “chemical imbalance” (low serotonin levels) is shown to be present while someone undergoes a symptom of sadness or depression, then this imbalance, it is thought, must be the cause of that sadness.

"Dharma" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Dharma" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

The problem with this boils down to a game of chicken and egg. Did the imbalance cause the sadness or did the sadness cause the imbalance? Because our culture in general imagines the brain to be the fundamental origin and creator of psychological experience and believes furthermore that the mind can be shown to be created by the brain, it is taken for granted that one must have a particular symptom because a certain dynamic of chemicals can be found at a particular place in the brain.

However, recent work in the study of consciousness shows that this belief that the brain is the origin and creator of human experience and that consciousness is the byproduct of the brain’s supposed role as a god-like dictator is problematic. It is problematic, because, as Thomas Fuchs points out, it separates the brain from both the living body and its interactions with the environment. “As a consequence, mind and world are treated as separate from each other, with the outside world being mirrored by the mind as a representational system inside the head” (Fuchs, 2011; 196-7).

Fuchs and others therefore posit the brain as a mediating organ of the mind, but not the “seat” of the mind, for indeed “the mind is not located in any one place at all” (Ibid., 197). We find this teaching about the mind echoed in a variety of ways throughout the various traditions that we discuss and explore here at Embodied Philosophy. The mind is a process that at any given moment reflects our various relationships as embodied beings and our degree of interconnectedness with an environment. The brain serves, in the modified view supported by Fuchs and others, to mediate our experiences, actions, and interactions and is no longer considered the god-like dictator of our experience.

Instead of the brain creating mental life, then, in fact, mental life (actions and interactions in a responsive environment) creates the brain. We can see this perhaps most clearly by looking at a relatively recent case, in which a man experienced considerable brain damage in an accident, paralyzing him from the waist down. The old model of thinking would have said he’s paralyzed for life, because the region of the brain responsible for the “creation” of mobility in the legs was irreparably damaged.

Thankfully, through much recent research, this old idea of a static brain has been largely replaced by the notion of neuroplasticity. Operating on this idea that the brain is plastic and can be remolded and changed to build mobility in the legs again, physical therapists assisted the individual in a rigorous treatment that involved, at first, seemingly fruitless attempts at movement.  These attempts eventually evolved into very small hints at movement, which eventually became actual movement, which eventually became a remarkably full recovery, with complete mobility in the legs again. Observations of the brain during this process noted that a completely different, undamaged region of the brain became active, “taking over” for the part of the brain that had been damaged in the accident. The moral of the story? The brain can be changed and rewired with at least two components: an idea (neuroplasticity) and a discipline (repetitive exercises) to make that idea manifest.

What does this have to do with our original topic, the pervasiveness of suffering? Psychological suffering, from this new and radical view of the brain, should rarely, if at all, be considered a “disease of the brain”. Instead, it is a conflict, a dis-ease of the mind and its processes of meaning and relationship. Suffering is a phenomenological crisis: it ultimately can be reduced to the range and structure of phenomena that are available in one’s personal world – be they people, places, feelings, or ideas. Obviously this doesn’t mean this kind of suffering is any less debilitating or “real”; it simply means that our approach to understanding and making sense of these experiences are wrong-headed.

"Genesis" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Genesis" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

Does this deny the occasional effectiveness of drug treatment? Absolutely not. Anything can contribute to a shift in one’s status quo, and changing brain chemistry through drugs is clearly a big shift in the status quo, often leaving individuals feeling contented and renewed. But as so many people who take drugs for psychological treatment will tell you, these methods only work for a while. Eventually the structures of feeling and the patterns of thought that are sedimented in one’s awareness will rule the roost, and so the establishment says, “try this new, different drug”, and so on. Depressed and mentally ill people can have great days and perhaps even recover through drug treatment; but, for many, until a daily practice of shifting one’s normality at the level of thought and feeling is initiated, the status quo psychology will almost always prevail.

Like in the story of the man who lost mobility in his legs only to use a relatively new knowledge of neuroplasticity and the disciplined powers of mental life to change the structure of his brain, so too at Embodied Philosophy we seek to build mobility in regions of experience that have either fallen under a shadow of anxiety and sadness or have perhaps never been known before.

As so much Eastern Philosophy teaches, there are realms of conscious experience that go largely unseen because we do not engage in the practices that give us a vision of them. Like the visible tip of an iceberg, our status quo consciousness is really just a fraction of the possible. As an asana practitioner discovers, after years of practice, profoundly more space in the physical body, so too the embodied philosopher discovers a conscious space as analogously malleable as the space of the physical body.

The teachings of the various traditions housed under the umbrella of Embodied Philosophy, as ancient as they may be, represent a wisdom that, at least from the perspective of contemporary culture, has been largely forgotten. Our addiction to the new and the novel in modern capitalist economies veils itself in a myth of progress (“if it’s new, it must be better!”), when in fact even a cursory investigation into these texts and traditions will testify to just how progressive they seem when set against the values and the worldviews that are now en vogue.

Our objective at Embodied Philosophy is to make accessible and relevant this wisdom and teachings that have changed lives for, in some cases, thousands of years. Thank you for joining us on this journey into embodied consciousness.

In Article Three of the Embodied Philosophy 101 Series, we discuss the difference between abstract philosophy and “embodied” philosophy. What makes philosophy embodied?

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