The Brain is in the Body, the Mind is in the Brain

This website is nominally about body and mind interactions. The body includes the brain. And the mind depends on the brain to function. Everything is connected. In the not too distant past, the mind was seen as totally ineffable. The words ‘spirit’ and ‘mind’ were often used interchangeably. That is, they were both considered beyond understanding. Today, with MRI devices, we are able to correlate the physical actions of a person’s brain with their subjective experiences of thoughts and feelings. In other words, we can relate body phenomena to psychological events.

Freud was a neurologist who built a psychological theory of the mind. He knew, of course, that the psychology depended on the biology. He thought that 100 years after he built the theory of psychoanalysis, we would be able to see connections between mental and physical events. It turns out he was exactly right! The field of Neuropsychoanalysis came into being in 1999, 100 years after Freud’s publication of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams” of 1900.

The biology of dreaming began to be be studied in the early 1950’s. Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) was discovered then. Kleitman, Jouvet, and others found that the person had the most vivid dreams while their eyes darted back and forth during REM–a clear connection between biological and subjective experience. Animals from sharks to humans have REM sleep. So, certainly, REM sleep has been conserved over evolution as a key feature of maintaining brain functions, and it seems reasonable that lions, dogs, cats and apes have subjective experiences when in REM states.

Besides being able to measure brain and mind connections via MRI and EEG methods, a great deal is now know about how chemicals, especially psychiatric drugs, operate to affect feelings, thoughts and overt behavior. Antidepressants like prozac, stimulants such as ritalin, mood stabilizers like Lithium, and antipsychotics like Seroquel affect subjective experiences in more or less reliable ways. These drugs work at the level of neurons, the single cells which make up the brain and its connections to the rest of he the body.

So body-brain-mind connections are being increasingly illuminated. Today, there are more neuroscientists than any other kinds of scientists. Formerly genetics research drew the most biologists. Now it’s neuroscience. Computer technology is very related to brain-mind studies. Computers made it clear that concrete, physical things could do something like thinking. Such insights have transformed the world. This is very exciting and sometimes disagreeable. While these discoveries can enhance our lives, they also can be used by nefarious forces within governments, the military, and corporations. The world is now in a very unstable condition driven in large part by advances in computing which affect energy, agriculture, communication, manufacturing, education, medicine, government, the military, and frankly everything else.

I am not too optimistic about the short term effect of humankind’s scientific advances. Some lunatics deny the validity of science altogether. They want to think what they think regardless of scientific knowledge. This has been on stark display during the politicization of the Covid pandemic. But whenever one of these science deniers needs heart surgery, life saving medications, or even a root canal procedure, they run to the best scientific medical professional they can find. Go figure.

Healing after Trauma

The photo above has the qualities of a ‘reversible figure’. At one moment it looks like a happy girl facing right with arms behind her, a life ahead of her. Then, the photo seems to show a sad, dejected girl looking left with her arms hanging limp in front of her. Reversing one’s interpretation of a visual stimulus can happen in less than a second. Reversing one’s mood from sad to glad usually takes more time.

Victims of trauma caused by, for example, parental abuse, combat in war, and betrayal in marriage need to ‘reverse their understanding’ of what has happened. The most basic feature of this change is the realization that the traumatizing event is in the past. Panic attacks, dissociation, and depression occur when memories of the injury become conscious. This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In other words the person is still suffering from an injury that occured in the past. They are now no longer in danger. But somehow memories associated with the trauma causes a ‘reliving’ of the pain in the present. This is an awful thing to live with. As Freud said, these patients are suffering from memories.

How can one get over this? Another way to ask this question is, “What gets in the way of recovery in this and other mental disorders?” Triggers related to the original trauma such as a car backfiring, reminds the veteran of gunshots. The sound triggers memories of the original trauma, and symptoms like panic. Neurologically, trigger information reaches the amygdala, the fear avoidance part of the brain, a fraction of a second before it gets to the neocortex. This means that tendencies to flee from the trauma memories gain momentum before they reach the part of the brain that can reason. The part that can say “that was then, this is now”. But fleeing from memories one needs to understand in order to heal, makes the healing process tortuous.

In treatment, aspects of the personality least injured should be enlisted in the healing process. For example, if one has a particular expertise that has remained in tact, such as painting, it should be practised as much as possible. Creative processes cause good feelings somehow. And the better one feels, even if for a limited time of day, the more one ‘learns to feel good (again)’. The memories of being creative in the morning can work to displace bad memories at night. It is the nature of the creative experience, making something new, that gives one hope for remaking an injured mind. This is like seeing the better side of a reversible figure—the hopeful girl. In the throes of a mental illness like depression or panic, it is hard to imagine not being depressed or anxious. To imagine accomplishing anything like writing a book, composing music, or cooking a meal promotes an image of oneself as not being imprisoned by memories. People who get over PTSD, by definition, will experience a greatly expanded idea of what life is about.