Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mind and Matter. A Reflection

In a recent conversation a client used the word "narrative", then remarked with a smile that it was one of my favorite words, which he had learned from having discovered my blog. The concept of narrative is certainly one that I find very helpful both in the work of therapy and the understanding of my own and others lives. Sometimes I imagine readers of the blog must find it tedious to see the term employed with such frequency. I may have felt more defensive about the repeated use of that concept had I not, happily, stumbled a few days before upon a fascinating article in the New York Times; an article which boldly leads me to voyage into spaces the specifics of which I know very little;  employing the concept of narrative to sketch an understanding of what is real

It was an interview by Benedict Carey with the leading author and researcher in neurology and psychology Michael Gazzinga  ("Decoding the Brain's Cacaphony", October 31, 2011). One of the things that particularly struck me was Gazzinga's contention that the information constantly being churned out by the numerous, specialized modules of the brain are unified into a unitary, coherent experience through the on-going narratives provided by the left hemisphere; an interpretive function that takes the competing information available to it and composes a coherent story that results in a unitary experience. In that process the story-telling part of the brain organizes the myriad of information available to it; when necessary, filling in the blanks to complete the story. I felt somewhat vindicated by having a leading researcher make such a significant claim for the function of narration and felt encouraged, if you care to bear with me, to make use of the concept yet again; this time in relation to what has traditionally been understood as the mind/body problem.

With some frequency I read or hear an interview with a scientist concerning neurological discoveries related to choice or personality and the interviewer almost invariably remarks, "So, we think we're making a choice, but all that's really happening is something in the brain" or "So, who we are is really just a product of our brain." For example, I heard recently heard a neurologist being interviewed regarding the ability to produce out of body experiences through manipulation of the brain and the interviewer remarked, "So, really, such experiences are just the product of the brain." I find those remarks irritating, which, I suppose, gives you some appreciation of the privilege of my current life; there being much more compelling sources of irritation for the less privileged.

Those irritating remarks are illustrations of the fallacy of reductionism: regarding what is seen as either the cause or, often, the material composition of a thing as "all it really is". "All that really exists in the world is the flow of energy", "That painting is really just a bunch of chemicals", "Depression is only an insufficiency of serotonin uptake", "What we think is a choice is really just an inevitable outcome of neurological processes", are just a few, further examples of which you have probably heard many more. Remarks, such as these, seem to have become a sort of mantra for commentators.

One of the reasons reductionism is regarded as a fallacy is that it conflates different realms of discourse that are relevant and meaningful only in regard to particular human purposes. For example, although it is no doubt true that any process of the mind, such as thought, emotion or choice, has its correlate in some neurological process, that fact does not imply that thoughts, emotions or choices are in any way less real or less significant than those processes. While it is true that events in the mind, even events such as out of body experiences, can be produced by physical or chemical manipulation of the brain, it is also true that any event in the mind is accompanied by change in the brain.

In fact, one of the most significant observations to emerge from recent neurological research is the amazing plasticity of the brain. For example, new experiences and choices, developing different patterns of thinking and meditation, are all accompanied by neurological change; to the point that many researchers think that some deficits in neurological processes associated with genetic predisposition or negative experiences in childhood can be repaired through more positive exposures in later life. Talk-therapy and more healthy experiences of personal interaction, for example, are thought to have the potential of altering pathways in the brain that have been formed in dysfunctional ways.

An alternative to reductionism is provided through the utilization of the concept of narrative, or realms of discourse, to an understanding of the relationships between the mind and the brain. Neurology, for example, involves a language used in describing, investigating and, in some ways, constituting, an understanding of the brain as a biological organism; while our ordinary language of choice, emotion, thinking and personal interaction are used to describe, investigate and understand our behaviour in everyday life. The former has as a major objective the manipulation of the brain with a view to understanding, improving and repairing its functioning; while the latter has as a major objective the facilitating of human interaction and the organizing of human society through such concepts as responsibility, choice and value. Both realms of discourse have their own languages and utilities, neither are in any way more fundamental or real than the other; it is simply irrelevant to apply the language of either realm of discourse to the other.

Consider the metaphor of a painting. If it were damaged and you wanted to have it restored, you would take it to an expert in art restoration, who would be concerned with the chemistry of the pigments and canvas and consider how to go about physically making the repairs. On the other hand, if you wanted to know something about the artistic value of the painting, you'd go to a art critic or art historian. It is, in principle, irrelevant to the specific work of the restorer whether the painting has any artistic value; just as the chemical composition of the painting would be, generally, irrelevant to the critic or historian; each has their own language to describe the painting from the perspective of their own interests and tasks; each is, nevertheless, talking about the same thing.

A neurologist using a brain scanner to observe and describe what parts of the brain are active as a person imagines playing tennis is, in some way, describing the same thing as the person simultaneously relating what he is actively imagining. Most likely mental acts cannot take place in independence of brain activity, while the reverse is certainly not the case; the mind forming a very small segment of happenings in the brain, most of which are necessarily and happily outside of our conscious awareness. To claim that the language of the neurologist and the material composition of the brain, which is both reflected and structured by that language, describes the mind as it really is, reflects a cognitive error. It is similar to the error that would be committed by a physicist were he to claim that the material composition of the of the brain, when seen simply as an organization of lifeless particles, is somehow more real than its existence as a biological organism.

Speaking generally, if we want to understand the life of the mind, the realm of reflection, choice, values and responsibility, to name a few of its aspects, it is to philosophers, novelists, artists, jurists and experts in the arts of meditation and the inner life that we must turn. Sometimes research of neurologists is relevant to a clearer elucidation of processes of the mins; for example, neurological research on the brain processes that accompany choice, may help in understanding differences between considered choices and arbitrary ones; in the same way that a consideration of the chemical components of pigments may sometimes augment the aesthetic appreciation of a painting. The boundaries between the diverse languages or realms of discourse used in the understanding and composition of our experience are not impervious; each can enlighten and inform the other. What, ultimately, makes no sense is for one of those realms of discourse to assert that it represents what there really is in the universe.

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