The Brain Dancing
When we left off, I described how I had been in heated discussion with a correspondent who had said that he did not believe that the mind was only made up of chemicals, then went further to say there are no thoughts outside of the brain. The gauntlet was thrown down when he challenged me to say how one could think without a head. This may have been another artifact of Twitter, since I recall being the one to introduce the whole notion of head removal. So, there you have it. We may have been in agreement on that point the whole time after all. However, I do not believe that this is the end of the discussion nor should be.
At the center of the play is the brain, fully attached this time and running amok in expected ways. The vast majority of us think we are doing what we like, when we’re actually walking in the same track we have previously trod and that others may have worn down before us through repeated use. If what we do is cover previously explored territory, can we say it is worth exploring or that the experience makes us unique? Is the brain only concerned with itself-- its own dispositions, preferences, and moods…or is it busy doing things to change itself in various ways? This is to say, is the brain only holding up a mirror or does it have interest in the world around it outside the mirror beyond what is expected in the day-to-day? To what extent does it interact with that world and what are the effects of that interaction?
So, a man goes to a psychiatrist, not a man,—let’s say Woody Allen—and he is in analysis for years and he writes about it in books, articles, standup comedy routines, scripts for movies that he makes, what is the purpose of the therapy? Is it to become less depressed, be a better person by plumbing the depths, is it to get material for his creations, is it to garner fame, make money? Perhaps the only useful answer is, all the above. The question is simple enough (not). Let’s say that this hypothetical Woody Allen is a successful comedy writer, but he is just not happy and may even be depressed.
So, this man goes to a psychiatrist and lies on the couch. “Doc,” he says, “I am not happy” and he’s not. And somewhere over the 20 years that he does this, he comes to discover that what he is doing by free associating isn’t really getting him anywhere with feeling better about himself, but it gives him a lot of material for his writing, which makes him more productive and successful, which makes him feel somewhat better about himself, but does not relieve the depression. He continues to do both. He continues to go to therapy and to write fantastically funny pieces. He writes AND he continues in therapy because, just as with God, you have to keep going to therapy because, you never know, it might eventually help. If we consider that all of these myriad thoughts and feelings are chemically driven within the same bony repository (think brain in skull), what parts of the brain are affected, what chemical processes do we need to alter to produce relief. Don’t forget, the treatment is now addressing a whole host of issues which are now competing with the problem that brought this man into treatment in the first place, for example, next script, next article, TV appearance, getting production money, marriage problems, public exposure of things that he would prefer to keep private. There is so much going on that it becomes impossible to know what the doc is treating for anyway. Would this man be pleased with the outcome if the treatment were successful in reducing the depression? Could there possibly be a reduction of symptoms amidst so many competing needs, each with its own set of demands?
Like psychiatry, let’s take first things first. Let’s focus on the original complaint. Let’s treat the depression. With the current state of the art of psychiatry, one could fully expect that any chemicals that would be introduced, psychotropic medications in other words, would target depression. The meds are offered and taken religiously with the response, “Doc, the medications have been helpful, I have more energy to get through my day and I feel less unhappy. The problem is that that’s not enough. I don’t want to feel less unhappy. I want to feel happy. I want to dance like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In the Rain. I don’t want to agonize over stories and scripts. I want a more meaningful life. Do you have a pill for that?” Good question! While our Woody Allen knockoff is busy living, he continues to not feel happy enough. Any cause of his depression may be found in different parts of his brain since he may very well feel out of control and depressed in various parts of his life, even in ones in which he is successful. He may even be depressed because of things that people think about him as a result of actions taken decades before. “How can you still think that way about me, after all the time that’s past?”
But, here’s the thing. The only thing that separates our hero from the rest of us is that the man on the couch with the med bottle is a subject of public interest, while we are not. What remains in common is that we all have interests and attachments that contribute to who we are, our thoughts and feelings, and many of them compete. There are also many that we don’t think about, but that lie dormant until such time as they are brought to mind. If we forget about those things, do they simply disappear? What happens to them? What do we do about them if they were to come back? How are we to create order in this chaos we are trying to ignore or that no longer seems important? Shall we treat it, examine it, write about it? Can we possibly know it all? What shall we do about it?
This is not about pathology or treatment. This is about living. All of the things that occupy our minds that we may call depression, that we may call anything are really about the ways in which we interact with the world. It is all part of the dance, the dance of the mind affecting our experience and our life experience affecting our minds. Whether a mind dance or spirit dance, this is what puts each one of us center stage in our own drama. It is a stage on which we interact with the Universe whether we raise our eyes to see its face or not. Then the question becomes, are our thoughts all our own residing in the brain's machinery or are they also the result of circumstances outside our brain acting on the machinery affecting our thoughts? The answer has to be both. Because of this, we have to consider that we have thoughts outside the brain, things that impel us to think the way we do whether we want to think that way or not. We can take ideas into ourselves and use them the way we do in school or we can refuse to learn them and wait for necessity to impel us to reconsider. But the ideas have to be available if they are ever to be learned at all. It is our omnipotent brains that make the decision whether we will learn what is available to maximize adaptation or if we leave it up to others to do the work for us.
Conclusion: It may not be possible to think without a head, but there is still thinking go on without having a head with thoughts that seem to occupy an entire space outside ourselves.