Be ye transformed by the renewing of….your brain? (I)

Lately I’ve been putting a lot of thought into questions about the relationship and difference (if there is one) between the body and the soul, and specifically between the brain and the mind. Most Christians believe something close to the idea that humans are an immaterial soul that inhabits a material body. Most of us see our bodies as something like a vehicle for our souls. Our souls “get in” or are developed within our bodies as they develop in the womb, we live our lives out in the material world through our material bodies, and at death we are separated from our bodies, which are inserted into the ground as we make our way into God’s presence. At the resurrection we will be given new, imperishable bodies which our sould will inhabit for all of eternity.

This position, the classical Xian position, is called substance dualism – we are composed of two (that’s the “dualism”) things (substances): a body and a soul.

Now I’m not sure I’m totally sold on this view, but I think my thoughts on how these two things relate would hold on most views, so I’ll get on to what I’m really wanting to talk about.

As I said, this has been on my mind a lot lately….no pun intended. It seems like at least a slightly important thing to ask – what am I? One particularly important question to me has been the question of how my mind and my brain interact with each other. Is it a one-way thing where my mind tells my brain what to do? (I.e. does my mind somehow command my brain to move my arm, and my brain follows the command by firing a certain trail of synapses to contract my muscles and tendons causing my arm to move?) Or is there a two way interaction? Can my immaterial, unintelligent brain cause my mind to do anything? Think about that for a minute. If (certain versions of) substance dualism is true, your brain is as unintelligent as a rock and has no more life than a tree or a fungus. It’s just an assortment of organic tissue like a kidney or a lichen. It just has the special priveledge of being used by your brain as the steering wheel for your body.

Some eyebrows may get a raise here, but most christians I know would still be on board at this point. Here’s the puzzle though: It seems to be almost unanimouly agreed upon by scientists that your brain states can effect your mental states, or at least correlate with them. Most christians think this too it seems. Lets take a look at exactly why that’s possibly problematic.

First we need to understand the difference between a mental state and a brain state. Remember now, the widely accepted idea in christianity is that our minds and our brains are not the same thing. Our minds are a feature of our soul. They are immaterial. Our brains are the lumps of soggy, grey, organic tissue cradled inside our skulls. So a mental state would be a state held by the mind such as holding a belief, questioning, having an idea, dreaming, experiencing an emotion, fantasizing, etc. A brain state, by contrast would be a physical state such as there being a certain level of dopamine in the brain, a hightened level of electric emmission in the frontal lobe, a certain level of seratonin, or the firing of synapses. So, under the normal conception of body-and-soul substance dualism, brain states aren’t mental states. They’re just not the same thing.

So why is it then that, when people find themselves in certain undesirable mental states, such as depression, the first solution often considered is to start fiddling with brain states by using chemicals like antidepressants? More significantly, why is it that it (at least seems to be) effective? This may seem like a pretty impractical question, but it’s really not at all. You see, the modern scientific belief about what goes on in our brain being able to effect what goes on in our mind is founded on a more foundational belief about what we are. Most scientists who believe that the brain can effect the mind do so because they believe that the brain IS the mind. That is, they hold that we are nothing more than a body. The logical conclusion is that, since brain and mind are the same thing, all of our mental states are just physical brain states, and if we have a peskily persisting undesirable mental state that we want to get rid of, we can do so if we only figure out what chemicals to pump into the pudgy ball of grey spaghetti in our head.

***WARNING TO READER: The following is in no way intended to incite pathetic pity or empty concern from others. Neither would be appreciated by the author.***

So, I was put on antidepressants a week ago. The reason is that I pretty regularly find myself in strong, painful, persisting mental states – beliefs about myself, beliefs about what other people believe aboue me, and emotions that accompany them. What makes them additionally painful is that I semi-consciously return to them on a regular basis, and cannot will myself out of them.

I decided that, since my doctor is a Christian and an intelligent person, and if for no other reason than to conduct in an interesting subjective experiment and have even temporary relief from these mental states, I would give them a try. After four days on them, tonight I flushed them down the toilet. Why? Because they were totally impotent to effect my mental states. I took them and, as far as I can interpret my experience, what they did was keep me from feeling pain, pleasure, or anything at all with intensity. But, behind the misty veil of emotional apathy, my mental states were totally unaffected. I still held the same beliefs, repeated the same chains of thought, and had the same negative views. The only difference was that they didn’t hurt any more. I wasn’t healed. I was numbed. From my experience with the drugs (Celexa) I’ve definitely had to rethink, and reformulate how I think about the mind and the body. This reformulation isn’t just a lofty chain of abstractions. It has serious, practical consequences. I’ll be trying to hash them out in the next blog, but, for the time being at least ponder this:

If the goal of the Christian life is to become a whole, aware person who is functioning as he/she was intended to function, and if we are body and soul, how do we respond to deep depression and other mental illnesses?

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  1. #1 by d on 3.18.07 - 10.39 pm

    Michael

    exelent post!

    I have pondered this question but not like this. I have been mystified as I watch people sink into altimerz (spelling?), or a autistic child playing. I have friends that suffer from severe depression as well. It has always been difficult to permit entry into my christian worldview the existence of these problems, hence they remain a mystery, or worse. I find it more challengeing however, to consider that we are nothing more than advanced machines. I admire you for flushing them down the toilet, not because I think it was a good idea for I’m certainly in no position to know if it was in fact, but because of your decision not to simply seek relief from the pain for relief’s sake. I hasten to add here that I would not think it a bad idea to start taking them again either, for the same reasons.

    Thank you for sharing this, I and my family will pray for you.

    Also I agree about the serouisness of the consequences that come with the answer to this question. (not that it would have any bearing on the truth of the matter if I didn’t).

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