The Brain’s I: the great intermingling

by Katalin Balog

This is the last in a series of four essays on subjectivity and objectivity. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

"…tie me to earth…"

(Angel Damiel from Wings of Desire)

1. Mind and body

Descartes thought God could create a disembodied mind – indeed he thought angels are such beings. Angels-from-battistero-firenzeConsequently, he thought that mind and body are distinct and separate entities. The essence of mind, or what he thought was the same, the person, is to think, feel, perceive, reflect, understand, and doubt; bodies, whose essence is to occupy space, are in some sense external to persons. Having a body, though supremely important for actual human beings, is not part of what it is to be a person.

Others deny that disembodied minds – minds that exists in the absence of anything physical – are possible. According to most contemporary philosophers, minds can only arise in brains – or, perhaps, in other physical substrates, not to rule out the possibility of alien intelligence – though the details of what this means are controversial. But even these philosophers could assent to the possibility of a brain-in-the-vat scenario, in which a person survives as a mere brain, hooked up to appropriate input and output channels; or, perhaps less fancifully, to the possibility of a brain transplant. These cases suggest that my body is external to myself, much in the way my cat is external to myself.

Yet Descartes was also puzzled about the relationship of mind and body. As he muses in his Sixth Meditation, sensations of hunger, pain, and bodily feeling reveal that "I am …compounded and intermingled with my body, that I form, as it were, a single whole with it". In a letter to Princess Elizabeth, he suggested that it is hard, maybe impossible to understand clearly how mind and body can be both separate and a "single whole". My body reveals itself, rather than being external to myself, as myself, a piece of the physical world, but alive and suffused by soul. The notion of two separate things interacting – as Descartes thought mind and body were – doesn't do justice to our experience of the intermingling of the mental and the physical in our own body.

Vision and hearing connects us, as it were, to the world outside, at least in this sense: when I close my eyes, the cat in front of me disappears, yet I remain. The testimony of my eyes and ears is vivid; and it gives me a sense of the world that no abstract description can convey. But when the world stops impinging on my senses, I loose contact with it. I can close my eyes, plug my ears. By contrast, there isn't the same kind of distance between myself and my body as there is between myself and my cat. Sensory deprivation might demonstrate that one can, under very special circumstances, withdraw even from one's own body. The brain-in-the-vat scenario whose pop culture iterations include the movie Avatar and The Matrix, as well as the philosopher Daniel Dennett's hilarious essay "Where am I" (also set to film) – might render imaginable the possibility of a disconnect between where I am as a person and the physical location of my body. But each of these scenarios are parasitic on the way the body actually channels the world to the mind. As for the rest – which is for now, all of us –, the sense that one's body is oneself is in some fundamental sense accurate: there is no distancing from it, no place to withdraw from it. My body is where I am, it is safe when I am, I am stuck with it for good or ill, its fate is my fate. It is the source of my sweetest delights and greatest torments. Bodily sensations inform me about the state of my own being whereas vision mostly informs me of other things.

Descartes is right to single out the body as a crucial, but mysterious locus for the self. My body feels like it is what I am. While the actual seat of the soul is the brain – Descartes thought it to be the pineal gland – we of course do not experience ourselves to be located in our brain, accept perhaps by theoretical bias. Ancient attempts at scientific explanations of the mind located it variously in the brain, heart, gut, or the liver. Lived experience locates it dispersed throughout the body.

So mind and body intermingles in two different ways: once in the brain where mind and consciousness arises, once in the body, where the mind and the world meet; where our presence is felt. Our embodiment is a source of mystery; it cannot be fully comprehended in either of its manifestations. It is also a central aspect of ourselves; but one that is fraught with confusion and conflict.

2. Objective and subjective

Our attitude toward embodiment – towards our brains and bodies – is conditioned by the fact that there are two, radically different ways to understand ourselves and the world: objective and subjective. Objective conceptions abstract away, in various degrees, from subjective experience; the ultimate goal of objectivity is to form a conception of reality independent of individual points of view. Subjective concepts, on the other hand, are based on the unfolding conscious stream of feeling, sensing, thinking and valuing. This distinction has been brought into contemporary philosophical discourse most notably by Thomas Nagel, in a number of his essays, most famously in "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?". "Red", for example, is a subjective concept whereas "surface reflectance of such and such wave length" is objective. It is the difference between the subjective concept I form of my body based on what it looks and feels like at this moment, and an abstract conception of my body as comprised of organs, bones, blood, muscles, skin, hair, etc. Objective and subjective, of course, comes in degrees. Many everyday concepts, like "water", are somewhat objective, though still connected to subjective concepts such as "colorless", "tasteless"; concepts in the social sciences, such as "class" or "gender" are more objective; concepts in the natural sciences, like "global warming", or "H2O" are more objective still; and concepts in fundamental physics, such as "quark", or "wave function" are the most objective of all. The most subjective conceptions, by contrast, are formed in contemplation of the world in perception, as in contemplating nature or art; and of course, in turning subjectivity on itself: becoming aware of our own conscious stream.

3. Brain and mind

Although mind and brain are intimately related, there is a sense in which we know them differently. The mind's very nature is to understand itself directly in subjective reflection, whereas the brain, qua brain, is best studied in the objective modes of scientific inquiry. These two different modes of understanding, the one subjective, and the other more abstract, more "angelic", less specifically human – in that it could be shared by creatures whose sensorium differs from us – afford starkly different approaches to our own selves. Knowledge gained by the cultivation of subjectivity is very different from the information gleaned from medicine or the cognitive sciences, nevertheless, both are legitimate routes to self-knowledge and both can be used to bring about change.

Perfecting the self, or, rather, just managing it without major setbacks is an ongoing preoccupation for most humans. We try various substances, medicine, healers of various sorts, surgery; we try to trick ourselves into better habits by manipulating our surroundings; we practice religion, study the arts, and, sometimes, we try to tame our minds from within, by getting familiar with ourselves as conscious individuals.

I started writing this series of essays shortly after a diagnosis of ADD. The diagnosis left me a bit puzzled with regard to my relationship to work. I was used to thinking about it in familiar psychological and moral – mostly subjective – terms. But the discovery that the medicine I was prescribed will, "by itself", as it were, stop my mind from wandering, seemed to require a revision in my psychological story. If my "condition" turns out to be a chemical deficiency of sorts, can it also be explained by my deepest preferences, experiences and values? Are the two stories complementary? Or does the chemical explanation obviate, or even disqualify my earlier, subjective understanding?

Taken in one way, the question is merely rhetorical. The science of the mind-brain nexus is only making its first baby-steps. Medicines are developed and prescribed, but their use is still a relatively crude process of trial and error. Presently there is no way to refashion the mind with any kind of precision through an objective, scientific approach; and no biochemical explanation of the mind can seriously compete with subjective, psychological explanations. Similarly, though cognitive science has made many discoveries about language, perception, and the unconscious, it is nowhere near having an account of what makes us tick. It is a repository of various amusing "scientific" facts that can be trotted out in explaining how much science can contribute to the project of self-knowledge but the self-knowledge it imparts is not particularly deep.

Still, there is a sense that the objective and subjective approaches to the mind do not go smoothly together. There is an ambivalence, even revulsion, that many people feel about the idea of "external", physical manipulation of the mind through the brain, and this ambivalence extends even to the objective study of it in general. Brain surgery, the ultimate frontier in "engineering", and manipulating the soul, is a widespread object of fascination and horror – as a recent lengthy report in The New York Times by Knausgaard testifies – and not only because of the enormous risks involved.

4. The dream of disembodiment

This ambivalence is motivated by some bad reasons and some good ones. One of the bad reasons is a vague and mystical sense that "tampering" with one's brain might lead to a loss of one's identity; or at the very least that it is in some way undignified: attempting to manipulate what's higher, spiritual in existence, with coarse material means. Behind that is a dream of disembodiment.

Some people would not take anti-depressants lest they might be "changed" in illegitimate ways. Interestingly, mind-altering drugs have also played the opposite role in the spiritually oriented counterculture of the 1950s and 60s – as well as some precincts of contemporary medicine and culture at large – as revealers of deep truths and the true self. Borroughs explores in Junky the difference that context – medical vs. countercultural or New Age-y spiritual – makes. In any case, the sense that one's self is an independent, self-sufficient entity, which nevertheless, somewhat paradoxically, needs to be protected in its angelic purity from external manipulation through the brain, is seductive. One likes to think about the normal state of things: having one's memory and rational faculties intact, emotions within the usual range, character and dispositions stable, etc. as "who one is". Even though most of us have experienced the dissolution of this "normal state", by emotional wound or trauma, intoxication, illness, a migraine attack, or depression – we still cling to the fiction that who we essentially are is the "normal state". This thought acts as defense against thoughts of deep vulnerability, and the gnawing fear that one's own mental strength might not be enough to cope. The fact of our groundedness in the brain, and the consequent possibility of disruption and change, out of our own control – reveals the independent, angelic self as an illusion. We – yes, even our inner selves – are an ever-changing product of forces mostly out of our control. How about Alzheimer's disease for a reminder of the embodied (or rather: "embrained"), impermanent nature of the self? It is with suspicion and trepidation that we regard the brain. Rejecting medication in the name of protecting the self is a way of closing our eyes to it.

On the other hand, treating the self essentially as fateless "material", something to be manipulated based on psychological or physiological law – be that cognitive behavior therapy, the advice of self-help manuals, psychopharmacology, or other methods of brain-hacking – can go too far. It is true that the numinous nature of the world is disclosed with a lot more vividness after exercise or yoga – and there is nothing wrong with exercising as a way of taking care of the soul. One can also gain valuable insight into one's attitude toward mind-wondering after having ingested Adderall. But there are legitimate objections to taking a predominantly objective approach to oneself. Such efforts cannot replace the work of "becoming subjective". As William Boroughs says in Junky, "There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you." Or as Kierkegaard puts it in Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

The thinker who in all that he thinks, can forget to think it along with the fact that he exists, does not explain life; he makes an attempt at ceasing to be a human being, to become a book or an objective something which only a Münchhausen can be.

Without reflection on our ongoing, subjective existence, the machinery of mind churns away and its capacity for change and self-direction diminishes, a quality of drivenness develops. Motivation becomes external and disconnected from the wellspring of our being: lived experience. By neglecting subjectivity, we make our world less rich; we cut ourselves off from major sources of meaning and value.

5. The necessity of body

My body is part of nature, but it is, because I feel it from inside, also part of myself. It mixes together the mind and the world. It is at once a reminder of embodiment and so of the impermanent and dependent nature of the self; and a path to subjectivity.

The discomfort with physical existence extends to the body at large. We often withdraw from a sense of bodily presence in the world into more abstract preoccupations, thinking, planning, etc. Thinking crowds out perception as well but sensations – unless they are particularly intense – are easier to ignore. Blake's diagnosis of our everyday experiential deficit in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is apt:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

But it is also a common observation of meditative traditions that the path to a life rich in subjective reflection runs through the body. Being present in our "too solid flesh" – that perfect reminder of our impermanence, our limitation, our bondage to earth – offers a cure for the illusion of the independent, angelic self. It also frees us to leave our cavern of abstraction and appreciate the world we live in and what it means for us. Subjectivity is a presence both ordinary and sublime, and it is closely tied to the body. In the performance piece "Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present" (MoMA, 2010), participants found that, as Abramovic put it, "there is nowhere to go but into yourself". That experience, for most people, is profoundly moving.

The subtitle of Descartes' Meditations promises a demonstration of the immortality of the soul. The vision of the self as separate, permanent, and potentially disembodied – a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle sarcastically put it – might seem hopeful. But I don't need to refute Descartes' dualism or question the promise of immortality to show that there is something amiss in this vision. Angels, lacking body, seem to lack personhood as well – if sense can even be made of a purely intellectual, spiritual existence uninformed by the senses. (What would their understanding of light and dark be? What would their understanding of anything be?) Angel Damiel's wish in the movie Wings of Desire, "I'd like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth", is a wish is to become a person – to whom things can happen. Mind and body might be distinct; but without the great intermingling, there is not much point in having a mind.