Thursday, August 23, 2012

The body and the mind

Special thanks to TRB in California, who used the Mathisen Corollary Facebook page to suggest that the above episode of Radiolab -- entitled "Where am I?" -- would resonate strongly with some of the recent posts on the question of consciousness.

Radiolab showcases the curious minds and creative talents of Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich and a team of researchers and writers who orchestrate journalistic pieces of art exploring the "blur between science, philosophy, and human experience," accompanied by rich layers of sound effects and rapidly juxtaposed segments of interviews and other footage.

In the program above, the team examines a range of fascinating and unsettling aspects of the relationship between "the brain and the body," and the disorienting effect of disruptions in that relationship, which most of us take for granted.  

The show visits with various guests including doctors exploring the phenomenon of brains which still feel limbs that have been amputated ("phantom limbs"), an individual working to overcome a devastating loss of his proprioception, and military jet pilots and researchers who have been studying the incidence of out-of-body experience triggered when severe G-forces cause the blood to drain from the head and send the brain into altered states.

All of the segments resonate with the question of consciousness and the way in which the body influences what we might call "the mind" (rather than "the brain," as the show insists on doing, positing a distinction between "the brain and the body" when in fact the brain is probably more accurately described as part of the body, and the distinction being explored perhaps more precisely seen as that between body and mind, or even body and consciousness).

Most pertinent to previous posts on this blog, perhaps, is the last segment of the show, discussing out-of-body experiences described by pilots during actual high-G maneuvers and also during centrifuge training (including centrifuge training specifically designed to explore this phenomenon).  That segment begins at about the 44:20 mark in the above audio file, and you can also follow a link to that specific segment of the interview here.  

The descriptions of hallucinations and out-of-body experiences when the centrifuge causes the blood to "drain out of the head" definitely recalls the discussion of "One of the most famous NDEs ever," in which Pam Reynolds had to undergo a harrowing surgery known as a "standstill operation" in which her body temperature was deliberately lowered to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and her heart was arrested with injections of potassium chloride, and then "the head of the operating table was tilted up, the cardiopulminary bypass machine was turned off, and the blood was drained from Pam's body like oil from a car."

The interviews in the Radiolab show suggest that "out-of-body experiences" (perhaps including the one described by Pam Reynolds after that successful operation in 1991) might be caused by the disoriented brain's perception of the body's lack of responsiveness, which the mind then fills in with its "best guess" of what might be going on.  

For example, one centrifuge participant subjected to massive G-forces began to black out, and his limbs were thrashing around.  When he revived, he described an experience in which he had thought he was bass fishing on a lake -- perhaps because his brain perceived the unfamiliar flailing motion of his arms and his mind took that cue to assume it was receiving the stimuli associated with the familiar activity of fishing, which it "dreamed about" as consciousness flickered off and on.  Another centrifuge subject interpreted similar limb motions to the activity of shopping in a grocery store and reaching for tubs of ice cream in the dessert aisle, only to find that it was impossible to make his arms retrieve the ice cream (a scenario reminiscent of the sort of thing that happens in dreams sometimes as well).

In his excellent book Science and the Near-Death Experience, reviewed in this previous blog post, Chris Carter spends some time examining explanations of this sort for the phenomenon of near-death experiences, and presents some analysis suggesting that the classic near-death experience (as well as the slightly different phenomenon of the deathbed vision) probably involves something more than what is taking place in the two centrifuge examples above.

All of these examples, however, provide some valuable windows into the question of consciousness, and how it is related to the physical bodies that we inhabit, and whether it is in fact "manufactured" or "generated" by the physical material of the body (and in particular the brain) or whether it involves something more than that.  

The same Chris Carter wrote a very interesting essay on this topic entitled "Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain?" which was mentioned in the previous post on "Titanic, premonitions, and the nature of consciousness."  In that essay (and in the book linked above as well), he explores the difficulty of scientifically explaining how something called "consciousness" could be generated by the physical matter of the brain, and likewise how our mind's desire to move the body is actually translated into brain impulses that then send orders to the nerves that trigger the muscles in the desired body parts.  Scientists can study the way the brain generates those impulses, but the much more difficult question is how our mind, our consciousness, our volition if you will, get transmitted to the brain to start those chemical and neural processes in the physical world.

On page 7 of the above essay, for instance, he writes:
Strictly speaking, the most we can ever observe is concomitant variation between states of the brain and states of mind – when brain activity changes in a certain way, then consciousness changes also. The hypothesis of production, or of transmission, is something that we add to the observations of concomitant variation in order to account for it. A scientist never observes states of the brain producing states of consciousness. Indeed, it is not even clear what we could possibly mean by observing such production. 
The Radiolab piece also explores the question of how the brain makes sense of all the orders sent and reports received to and from the various parts of the body, but since it does not really distinguish between the mind and the brain, it does not explore the question of how the thoughts we have in our mind or our consciousness (our "disembodied" thought) translate into those physical and chemical orders.  Perhaps this is because its angle on the issue tends towards the position that those "thoughts" or the "mind" itself are not in any way separate from the physical matter of the brain, although as Chris Carter's essay (and his books) point out, this question is still very much open to debate (and the evidence may in fact favor the conclusion that the mind is not simply a product of the physical matter of the brain).

All of these issues seem to be very important ones, and worth a lot of contemplation by everyone possessed of a body and a mind.  There can be no doubt that the experience of inhabiting a body has a profound impact our "mind" -- and that the interaction between the body and the mind is extremely complex and fraught with potential disorientations, as the Radiolab examination so brilliantly illustrates.  

Perhaps it is appropriate to close with the fascinating quotation from Ross Hamilton in his book Mystery of the Serpent Mound (quoted previously in this blog post about the hexagon on Saturn), in which he gives his own view of the matter at hand:
each and every individual spirit owns a "mass" which, united with its native homeland, essentially becomes the spherical shape.  In the body, however, the spiritual currents of the little soul become plastic in order to fit the mold of the human being by way of the nerve fibers.  At the time of death or initiation at the hands of a competent Mastersoul, the microsoul undergoes the return, however temporarily, to its original shape, experiencing great relief and high joy.   26