An illustration from René Descartes’ ‘Treatise on Man’ pub.1662
Since we worked through a Body Scan in a recent mindfulness class a couple of related things have cropped up: we watched Awakenings, a movie about the work of psychiatrist Oliver Sacks with a group of patients in a hospital in New York, and a Guardian article about Paul Alexander, one of the last people in the world still using an iron lung. Both stories have their roots in viral epidemics: encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s and polio in the 1950s, and so have additional resonances for us in these strange and challenging times.
Awakenings tells the story of patients who ‘fell asleep’ after having seemingly recovered from a viral infection of their brains. Essentially they became trapped inside their bodies, unable to speak or respond to stimuli. They were treated as vegetables by most of the staff at the psychiatric hospital where they were incarcerated, but Sacks saw a way in which they could be ‘woken up’ and remarkably, for a time, they returned to an almost normal life. It’s an intensely moving film and asks the question- where is it that we truly ‘live’ as human beings? Where is the ‘self’ located? Is it inside the whole person, including the body, is it inside our brains, or somewhere else?
Paul Alexander’s disease also had devastating, but different, consequences. Struck down as a child by polio in the 1950s -as so many were- he could breathe only with the use of an ‘iron lung’ (basically a large metal ventilator containing all but the head). Later he learned breathing techniques that allowed him to leave the ‘lung’ for periods and was able to lead a relatively full life, even becoming a practising lawyer. The full article is here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/26/last-iron-lung-paul-alexander-polio-coronavirus
Alexander has lived nearly all his life inside his head, his body having atrophied, essentially the same as it was when he contracted polio aged 6. Oliver Sacks’ patients, conversely, had no recollection of their time ‘asleep’ living only in their bodies until they were ‘woken up’.
We might wonder about where the ‘self’ resides in both these conditions—in the body or in the brain? If our breathing stops for a few minutes like Alexander, or we are locked into a frozen state, like Sacks’ patients, where the mind ceases to function, do we cease to exist? Those of us who are lucky enough to live our lives fully conscious and physically able mostly think the core of our being lies in the centre of our head, just behind the eyes. The philosopher René Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) believed the human pineal gland, located in the centre of the brain and sometimes called the “third eye”, was the "principal seat of the soul".
Descartes was a dualist, believing the mind and body to be two entirely separate things, including the brain as part of the physical body. But there is clear evidence that when the brain is damaged in some way, so also is the mind. And here, instead of ‘damaged’, perhaps we should say ‘altered’. The MP Mo Mowlem had a brain tumour that affected her personality, slightly at the beginning and then more dramatically as the disease progressed, but some of her friends and family believed this to be part and parcel of the ‘Mo’ they loved. To believe otherwise was somehow to diminish her as a human being.
In Mindfulness we spend a lot of time cultivating our minds/brains -or trying to! But we must also reconnect with our bodies. We often feel out of touch with them, living in our minds and feeling that our ‘self’ is detached from this thing that carts us around all day. We neglect them, mistreat them, even despise them. To help with this we use a ‘Body Scan’, a technique in which we slowly and deliberately focus on different parts of our body in turn, as intensely as we can, as if we are shining a spotlight on that particular part. What sensations arise in the left big toe for example; or do we feel anything there in fact? In this way we can befriend our bodies and appreciate them for what they are, visiting them on a regular basis so we don’t forget all about them.