Monday, February 11, 2008

Still Ill

During my morose teenage years The Smiths played their one and only Canadian concert at Canada's Wonderland in the summer of 1985 and I was there. I had to open the Kiwk-E-Mart in the morning that day on Hamilton Mountain and worked there until mid-afternoon. After work we piled into my blue Renault and headed up to the Kingswood Concert theatre north of Toronto. We got there well before the concert but too late to see Morrissey and the opening act Billy Bragg galavant through the park. They had apparently taken advantage of their free park passes and tried nearly every ride and rollercoaster on the premises. They were followed by a posse of young fans, some of whom got a little too much celebrity intimacy when both singers apparently puked during one of the rides. About midway through the concert Morrissey introduced a song by laughing and saying "this is a song about our favourite subject, 'Still Ill'". By then the story about their misadventures had made it around to everyone in the crowd and we all laughed at the inside joke.

There is a question posed within this song:

Does the body rule the mind

Or does the mind rule the body?

Descartes couldn't even be sure that he had a body. The only thing that he could be certain of was that he thought and therefore he was. So the mind was primary and the body followed. Plato before him considered the realm of ideas to be the true reality and the realm of experience to be merely shadows of that more basic truth. Sometime between them Budhha, Jesus and countless other holy men spoke of the body as merely a husk that housed the kernel of the soul. Throughout most of western and eastern thought the body is relegated as a secondary and profane adjunct to the true reality that is somehow separate and distinct from the mind. The so-called mind/body problem arises when we have to consider how two totally different modes can affect each other.

It is not really until the previous century that the mind comes to be seriously considered within the realm of the physical. Materialist thinking reduces the mind to the brain and thus psychiatry and biology intersect to understand the mind/body problem. This approach is still dominant today and is responsible for the pharmacological approach to mental illness. If you are depressed or manic or violent or can't sleep then a pill or injection will be administered to alter your physical chemistry to achieve desired changes within your brain to therefore alter your mind. The physical is now understood to be the primary basis that can affect the mental.

But what about the Placebo Effect? This seems to be a process that goes in reverse. If you give someone a regimen of non-medicated sugar pills but tell them that they contain powerful medicine then in many cases these people will undergo physical changes similar to the people who are given the actual medicated pills. The power of positive thinking has also been well and widely documented to affect the speed and extent of recovery from illness. As much as the body alters the mind it seems clear that the mind can alter the body. This points to the possibility that things are not so clear cut. It is reasonable to consider that everything around us is comprised of physical matter and therefore subject to physical laws but that does not preclude the possibility that the mental could be understood as another mode of reality.

The study of Emergence considers the circumstances when certain properties arise out of more fundamental properties but is irreducible to them. The process is uncomfortably similar to magic but nevertheless employs a useful language in which to frame our understanding of exceptional things like mental events. When Morrissey poses the question he wisely and immediately answers "I dunno... " because there isn't a black and white answer to that question. Each rules the other and they can spiral upward or down. When I'm down I don't feel like going to the gym which brings me down further and I'm even less likely to exercise. This positive feedback loop can be altered and stopped dead in its tracks simply through the act of making a decision. I can decide to break the loop and start a new one. If I'm busy doing productive and enjoyable things then my spirits are lifted and I'm capable of doing even more.

I'm going to go to a yoga class tomorrow.


Sparky said...

What you describe as emergence -- essentially "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" -- is really more holism, I think. Emergence, a la C. Lloyd Morgan, suggests that certain phenomena emerge out of conditions from in it is impossible to predict the given outcome. Like you said, magic, to a certain degree. In any event, it's a concept that stretches the limits of language. Even language itself is emergent.

The whole mind-body problem is central in the history of med., my field. I actually just wrote about this stuff myself recently. It's a pre-occupation.

Neat post. The way philosophy, biology and medicine intersect is probably one of the most important questions for our future, and eventual emergence.

You know, to the other side...

Sparky said...

Sorry, I meant to say "emerge out of conditions from within which it is impossible to predict the given outcome."

Mind-bender, no?

Cathy said...

That was their only Canadian concert ever? Wow. I didn't know that.

JakeJakob said...

Sparky: Pretty cool stuff. Historian of Science? I'm about to restart my PhD thesis which will likely touch on some of these ideas.

Cathy: I'm pretty sure that was their only Canadian appearance.

Anonymous said...

I find you fascinating and intriguing. :-)


Cathy said...

Morrissey quote:

"We will not include any Canadian dates on our world tour to promote our new album. This is in protest against the barbaric slaughter of over 325,000 baby seals which is now underway."

This is one reason why Morrissey didn't like Canada.

JakeJakob said...

Stacie: I blush

Cathy: I guess Fur, like Meat, is Murder.