Now that (hopefully) we possess a more informed and enlightened perception of body and brain, i.e. of their capacity to contribute and combine and of their inextricable interelatedness, we can move on to one of the truly great questions to emerge from ongoing scientific enquiry as, more than a decade away now, our world entered the new millennium. And that question put simply, is this. “What really is the status of mind and how does mind emerge from the organ that we call brain?” Not that the question is by any manner of means a new one. Indeed, it has been expressed in widely different forms in different eras and has clearly been in the minds and on the lips of philosophers and pioneers in human thought and history since written records began. Nevertheless, knowing what we now know, following the rapid assimilation of knowledge about the brain, especially throughout the 1990s (known as “the decade of the brain”·) and beyond, it can justly be declared to possess unquestionably greater point and relevance than at any time hitherto.
We know and have witnessed in an earlier blog how it is that mind amounts to so much more than what is entailed via a physical, biological and neuro-endocrinological account of brain, however detailed and full. Yet nothing is so familiar – so mundane even – in daily parlance as is the use of the term “mind”. Indeed, it all seems so tantalisingly simple, given the manner in which we frequently and casually refer to it. Phrases describing those about us as perhaps being quick-minded, open-minded, single-minded etc. are commonplace. Yet in truth, even so much as the latent counterpart of an active representation such as – say – the perception of a face, can and frequently does immediately “conjure up”, not one but an entire complex of emotional reactions and responses, e.g. friendliness, hostility, affection, longing, frustration, anger etc..
Is mind then to be defined in terms of mental and emotional processes representing our moment-to-moment interactions with others and our environment; the sum as it were, of all internal states ensuing from such interactions? Well if it is, clearly this can be but a fragment of it. Vastly bigger questions emerge once we employ human intellect in order to comprehend how mind emerges from brain and thus attempt to connect our essentially first person mind to a third person body. And the issue is complicated yet further by the awareness that our understanding about the functioning of multiple brain regions is, for the present, far from complete. Well, we need to start somewhere and where better than with that which formed the entire subject matter of all of these writings; namely with that relationship which clearly exists between mind and body and which is evidenced in the most fundamental but necessary form of survival and progression; i.e. in matters relating to health and to sickness. (Yet again, we shall witness how it is that everything we experience, together with much that lies below the level of awareness, i.e. in subliminal and unconscious activity, possesses a physiological and/or biochemical correlate).
Take for instance, such evidence as exists concerning the role played out by the mind in coping with serious illness, an interest resulting in a belief which, incidentally, predates even classical times several centuries BC. No other time period in the history of man could boast the increase in such knowledge as the twentieth century has witnessed. Over the past three decades in particular, the vital role played by the immune system and brain combining to mediate experience and behaviour, has become increasingly clear and we now know that both function via a complex, sophisticated and ceaseless network of actions and reactions. Moreover, several studies have delivered special significance to the clinical component of such findings. Indeed, it has now become possible to demonstrate how and by what means, state of mind does unquestionably influence our ability to resist, succumb to and recover from the wide range of serious illnesses known to afflict man. Whilst it is perfectly true that the variable degree of suffering that can flow from illness is a hard taskmaster, it is nevertheless a wonderful teacher. Thus are we becoming increasingly aware of the manifold benefits that flow once we take human feelings, reactions and responses into account: indeed, to the very heart of medical science.
There have, of course, always been compelling humanitarian reasons as to why those engaged in healthcare should consider the psychological, social and spiritual realities (as well as potential) of their patients. However, there now exists an undoubted scientific case to be made for perceiving – and indeed treating – illness generally in an altogether wider physical/emotional/spiritual context. Moreover, there is an important, indeed a key distinction to be made between disease, which accounts for the medical disorder and illness, which is the patients’ perception and experience of it.