Perception. Erections. Do Something Different.

Following on from the Cartesian mind-fiddlers, how do you best understand a person as a 'whole' thing? Not body and mind or body and brain, or even person and environment?

The part of the puzzle that often gets missed here is the world itself that we're a part of and in which we live every day. For example nearly every book or piece of information you will be able to find, at any level of sophistication, about how your body works will talk about the body. Period. A bit like watching Top Gear dribbling over the latest Aston Martitn or Lamborghini, in isolation from the fact that the vast majority of people in the world firstly could never afford one, and secondly have roads that would render these pure-breds rattling heaps in super quick time (thanks to Dorothy over at Loon Pond for reminding me of the dangers of focusing just on the 'engineering').

Our bodies evolved as part of the world. Take the world out of the picture and you're basically dealing with a cadaver, which is not surprising given that most modern knowledge about the body started with dissecting corpses. Completely contrary to what Descartes thought and others after him, we are not sitting somewhere inside our bodies or minds looking out at the world, we are in the world, at all times. There is a completely continuity between our bodies and the environment around us, it's not body + world, just world, of which our bodies are just one element.

So much so that what actually gets us upright and moving in the world is not us at all. As I've mentioned here before, perception and action are not separate - we don't perceive and then act. Perception is a motor act, when you look at or smell or hear something, your body immediately and directly responds to what you're sensing (because it is part of what you're perceiving). Cognitive junkies (the descendants of Descartes) like to think that perception is a process of taking in sense 'data' (sights, sounds, smells etc.), which are then processed in the brain and turned into colours and sounds and smells. So the colours and sounds and smells are all actually made up by the brain, with the real data just a meaningless bashing together of atoms. How did this mystical mumbo jumbo every get taken seriously, you might ask? Who knows.

If you see or hear or smell something, your body doesn't process anything because it isn't separate from what you're perceiving in the first place. Your body is immediately 'erected' by what it perceives - you don't need to do anything, it happens by itself. This is quite an amazing thing for people to discover, and most people don't, except when they're not thinking about it and they don't even realise that they're just involved in whatever it is they're doing, and their body is automatically doing everything they need from it.

The implications of this are both simple and profound. It means that what happens in your 'body' is linked to everything you're up to out in the world in the things you're doing. Your kidneys are working the way they are at a given moment because of the soccer game you're watching, or the conversation you're having. Your brain and pancreas and muscles are doing what they're doing, in every tiny biochemical and genetic detail, because of the TV show you're watching and the book you're reading. Nothing is separate here, it' not you-and-a-book, or you-and-the -person-you're-talking-to. It's all the one linked pattern, right down to the genes and atoms in your body and out into the world around you.

You wouldn't know this from going to a doctor. For a doctor you're a bag of organs and bones, like a clockwork doll with parts. If your doctor measures blood pressure and it's high, almost never will they care much for what it is you're doing in your life that may be bringing this about (including sitting in a sterile, unfriendly doctor's office), beyond maybe some general chat about 'stress' and eating different food. The rich patterns in your life that have woven your body into the condition it is now are all missing from the picture.

When you understand that you are a full pattern of things that extends way out into the world around you, you can start to see how ridiculous it is to talk about mind-body interactions, or placebo effects - all of this supposes a separation that never existed in the first place. And how ridiculous it would be to start fiddling with bits of your body, or with your ideas, as if they were separate to everything else you're doing. The cognitivists like to think that peoples' ideas 'filter' their experience in the world. But there are no filters, you are just in the world. There is no boundary across which 'data' passes and is filtered in the first place.

There are some amazingly fun and fascinating implications for navigating your life from all of this, some of which I'll talk about next time. It will be about doing things differently, and how that may be the only life philosophy anybody needs.


  1. but but but, scientific studies have shown up to 35% of patients can benefit from the placebo effect (or the mind effect?). Time for you to rise to the challenge of writing about placebos? :)

  2. Oh absolutely, but it's actually much simpler to understand why the placebo effect works, once you take it out of the 'mind over matter' category. It's like the stuff on hypnosis too, it's actually *because* there is no such thing as mind and body that these things are real and do work.

    Simply put, if you act 'well', you'll tend to be well. Not because thoughts about being well will influence your body, but because thoughts about being well are not separate from your body in the first place. Thoughts are 'physical' things. If you imagine a warm place, you will feel warm, if you have a sexual fantasy, you will be aroused. Etc etc. I was going to get onto placebo at some point, thanks for reminding me.

  3. Bring it on. I've always been fascinated by the placebo effect and what it says about the power of the "mind" (for want of a better holistic word!) :)


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