mind and body



Philosophers have been talking about mind and body more or less since its dawn. We can be quite sure that Socrates spoke extensively about the topic, and certainly Plato set out in the Phaedo that he believed in a form of dualism, in other words that the mind and the body, or perhaps the brain, are distinct things. Almost concurrently Parmenides formed the idea of monism, the idea that the mind and body or brain are in fact the same thing. Although nowadays we mostly think of the mind and brain as the same thing, dualism has a much richer philosophical history.


Perhaps most importantly, Descartes put forward his Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I am. Descartes’ method consisted of throwing doubt onto everything we perceive or think of. How do I know that the world I live in is not in some kind of Truman Show-esque production, or in Descartes’ terms, that everything I see and believe is just a projection created from an evil demon intent on tricking me. If we take this seriously we can call everything into question from science and mathematics, right down to knowledge of my own body. The only thing I can be sure of is that when i think of these deceptions, or indeed of anything, i am thinking. If i think then some idea of the mind, at least for myself, must exist. If I can be sure of nothing else, I can be sure that I think, and if I think, then there must be an I to do the thinking.


Of course, philosophy has come some way since Descartes. We have some idea now via phenomenology that it really doesn’t matter whether or not we can confirm the existence of external things, only that they appear to us. I feel however that in our own day and age, suggesting that the mind and body are totally separate has somewhat run its course. We have technology now that can find the activity in the brain corresponding to what the person is thinking about. I certainly wouldn’t call the matter a closed case though.


Arguably most people would say that the mind is housed entirely in the brain. I would strongly disagree. I think that practices such as yoga and meditation go some way to show that the mind and the entire body are in direct relation. An example would be when a yoga session begins and ends with total relaxation, however the entire experience of relaxation is inexplicably different at both ends. The first relaxation seems agitated compared to the gravity and stillness of the end of the session. Clearly the whole body is important to the sensation of the mind.


At the more scientific end of things we have the experience of hysteria, or its more modern, less controversial name, conversion disorder, by which the repressed unconscious returns via bodily affects. There is concrete evidence that factors in the mind can cause limbs to stop functioning or remove all feeling in localised areas, symptoms like coughs or vomiting can arise and become intolerable without any pathogen, even false pregnancies can occur in incredible similarity to real pregnancy.


Nothing I have said here is original or in depth, however I hope to the uninitiated in philosophy and psychoanalysis it might make one consider that the mind is so much more than just the brain. It certainly involves the entire body, but I would go further than that; I’d go as far as to say that it involves what is outside the body, especially other bodies. A certain amount of us is the product of our biology, the rest is a product of our upbringing and our own adventures with our own minds, bodies, environment and other people’s minds. If anything shapes the way we think, its not just how our own mind or brain works, but how other people’s minds and brain works: there is simply no easy answer to questions of the mind and body.