Monday, February 11, 2008

It's all in the Mind 2

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.  Life is not easy, is it?  There are all those existential questions - why do I suffer?  Why has my mother breast cancer?  Why did I fail that test?  Why did I have to meet him or her just now?  The list of possible questions is legion to say the least. (One can ask other less existential and more theoretical questions, of course, like why should I not suffer?  Isn't all about luck and randomness after all?  Who am I to consider myself to be special and blessed beyond the randomness I believe in in other circumstances.)  Then you have those nightmare scenes that flit across the mind from time to time: like pictures of going bankrupt, of your relationship foundering on the rocks or of losing your job.  Or simply, or not so simply, living in the angst and fear of the unknown - like, say, waiting on the results of an x-ray, an MRI scan or whatever.

An yes, the mind - what an intricate and complex concept.  I use the term "concept", of course, because that is precisely what it is, I think. (Not, mind you (very punny) that I'm all that sure exactly what mind is).  However, we can surely ask questions about what the mind is - at least I can, as I'm not at all certain as to what the mind is at all.  Is it synonymous with the brain?  Does it transcend the brain?  Can the mind be equated with what we know as personality?  Is it more or is it less?  Okay, the brain is an organ that regulates the thinking and motor centres of the body.  Do other organs share in any way in the process of thinking?  Good question.  I seem to remember reading somewhere that while the brain is primarily a "thinking" organ that other organs can share to some little, though not to a totally insignificant extent, in what may be termed in the widest understanding what thinking is.

But, then, is the mind solely a thinking apparatus?  The brain is a regular of sensations also - coordinating the five senses - hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling.  Then it also manages to coordinate our movements from crawling, walking, running, swimming, rope-walking (funambulation) and juggling etc.  The possibilities are legion and it seems the brain and indeed the mind are infinitely pliable and flexible.

It is also a regulator of feelings.  The brain feels pain of all types from physical to emotional or mental pain.  Obviously it would be very obtuse and stupid of anyone to argue that the mind does not feel all these pain sensations either.  However, I still believe, as do all scientists that brain and mind are not precisely synonymous.  The brain is the physical organ science can study and map while the mind seems to be "me" with my individual personality.  However, I believe that mind and personality are distinct concepts representing distinct realities which overlap while not being precisely the same thing.

The concept of Multiple Intelligences, spearheaded by the wonderful psychologist, Howard Gardner(born 1943). (See Multiple Intelligences) always appealed to be because it broadens our understanding of concepts and, in a practical way what we mean by intelligence and consequently what we mean when we refer to what we term the mind.  It would seem to me that any theory or hypothesis that stretches the imagination, that reaches out to explore unknown possibilities is the way to go.  On the other hand I believe that any theory that seeks to do the opposite, namely to narrow the imagination, reduce the mystery, to oversimplify reality is neither a good nor morally enriching theory.  Narrowness of approach bespeaks bias, prejudice and hypocrisy to this writer.

The brilliance of Gardner, I believe, can be found pragmatically in that his hypotheses have had a profound influence on the practice of education in the United States of America and elsewhere.  We are only beginning to use some of his insights in the Irish educational system.  His theory expanded the narrow idea that human intelligence can be confined to the numerical, linguistic and spatial abilities measured by classical intelligence tests which originated in the great work of Albert Binet.  Gardner's suggested intelligences are as follows: linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, spatial intelligence, interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence.  However, it is beyond the scope of this present post to go into any more detail about each of these suggested intelligences and how they have been each used in practical ways by individual teachers employing strategies based on this psychologist's concepts.  The reason I have adverted to Gardner at all is because he has expanded what we mean educationally by intelligence.  He has not reduced or simplified the problem of intelligence by insisting on narrow categories.  Rather he has expanded the frontiers of the mystery of both the brain and the mind.  Now, we further realise, if indeed we needed Gardner to confirm us in the more complex views on the mind that were advanced by many brilliant philosophers, theologians, writers and scientists over the past centuries - I advert here to the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Isaac Newton, John Hume, Immanuel Kant, Bishop Berkeley of TCD here in Dublin, Francis Bacon, John Henry Newman, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Richard Feynman, Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking etc who have added and expanded on our understanding of what man is in the universe.  Not one of these great geniuses could be termed a reductionist of the mystery with which humankind presents us, and certainly never a reductionist of what the mind may entail.

Outside of all this, I must declare my existential interest in the mind.  I am a sufferer from endogenous depression, namely the unipolar form of the same disease.  Both interventions by what is termed psychopharmacology (drug treatment) and by therapy (orthodox psychotherapy and counselling mainly) have worked wonders for my mental well being.  The awful and dreadful experience of any kind of depression I would not wish upon my worse enemy.  The so called "normal" person (whatever this category of "normal" may mean at all I can only guess at.  But that moot question might have to wait for another post) experiences himself or herself as thinking his or her thoughts.  I did, too, before I had my major breakdown at forty. I then had the experience of my thoughts thinking me.  My thoughts, which had become uncontrollable, had hijacked my mind.  If one's thoughts have hijacked the mind where then does the centre of control lie?  This is a big question that has literally a cartload of other stinking questions under its all too thin tarpaulin.  What is my personality so if it can disappear into a cauldron of malfunctioning synapses?  Is my personality a chemical entity solely that psychopharmacological interventions can modify?  What then are feelings?  What then is love?  What then are needs and desires any more than a thirst that must be slaked?  Where then lies meaning in life?  Where then lie great concepts like God, Heaven, Hell, Nirvana etc?  Just another game that the mind invented to while away the time - impossible, inscrutable, inexorable and so indifferent time.

Ah, yes indeed, Noel Brosnan was right, all those years ago - it is, after all is said and done, all in the mind!

Does it really matter what direction I go in if it's all in my mind anyway? Above a picture of some signposts I took in Paris in recent years.

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