My heart recently broken by a horse whisperer, a long forgotten ghost of Wodan from the time before Sunna was translated into neutered masculinity, or an inverse Virginian Orlando, I have been hobbling in pain. And in that pain I’ve been straining against the reins that would subdue me.
I was asked not long ago by someone in search of his soul mate, “what is the difference between love, romance, and sex?” A dissertation could be found in that I sighed in lazy exasperation. Still, it got under my skin like some foreign allergen and I’ve been scratching myself endlessly since.
In it are many old questions that once animated me, like what is it that makes me who I am (my soul, my body, my mind), and what is it that connects us (our stories and rituals or reason and power or history and conflict), and you get the picture. So I started digging through my old favorite sources getting more and more confused (and irritated), which is why I’m here trying to sort it out.
This man in search of a soul mate told me to listen to and trust my heart. I had to explain I have a very complicated relation to its fibers, for as I shared, I’ve seen heart tissue dissected, isolated, clamped to wires as it soaks in chemical solutions, and shocked to understand its rhythms. That is what my father did when I was a child and would spend days off from school in his lab.
What I only just learned is that his profession was likely first wrought from philosophers, novelists, and explorers perplexed about how invisible animal spirits transverse the nerves. There was Plato and torpedo rays, and then Aphra Behn, a 17th century English Restoration playwright and novelist, and the electric eel, for example.
Unlike many, I’m incapable of understanding myself as purely a substance, whether immaterial or material, or as an essential attribute extended by God or a genetic variant evolved by Nature. That is to devoid us of the dynamic shock – not purely an “it” or “thing” – but flowing current – that moves us and gives us life.
It can be deeply revealing though to understand why we try to locate the soul – or what it is that makes us who we are – in a particular body part, but to believe that as fact is misplaced. Few of us, I bet, would follow Baudelaire in allegorically finding it in the spleen, no matter how Walter Benjamin found the source of Baudelaire’s bitterness in Parisian bourgeois sensibility, in his perception that individual taste became but a reproduced simulation of consumed moral standards.
I confess I follow Baudelaire more in his parodies of romanticism than those who seek medieval chivalry in its courtships. For hearing me talk, my soul talks to me through my gut, which I suppose makes sense as I’m one of more than 50 million Americans, 75 percent of whom are women, suffering from an autoimmune disorder, or where one’s immune system starts attacking itself because it does not recognize itself as itself.
My own admittedly amateur theory, cobbled together from my gobbled readings, is that we can probably blame stress, such as theorized in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, for a lot of this, and that our microbial cells (or 90 percent of us) have evolved to resist our modern everyday rituals of ignoring their benefits and attacking their harms, which sometimes we obsessively overdo, as we are now seeing with antibiotic abuse (and yes, my doctor has prescribed me an antibiotic for a virus!), leading to major problems with antimicrobial resistances, among other things. There is related philosophical speculation elsewhere.
Where the big money is on, of course, is the brain, not surprising given our obsessions for executive control and processing, which would please Descartes tremendously as he sought in the brain’s pineal gland the source of humanity’s unique identity, our self-consciousness, or our ability to consciously know and thus will freely, choose rationally.
I discussed this trumping of the brain indirectly with my grandmother over lunch once. She had been part of a research team that conducted one of the first brain scans and thus thought, even as she was slowly beginning to dement, that it would make an excellent science experiment to test whether a person would remain the same person if that person split that person’s brain and exchanged half of it with another person.
I really don’t want to revisit that old thought experiment, in part because it led to some really bad dialogue, but rather, I want to dig back to the work of another team that began to form mid-20th century to pioneer a new field, in this case, cybernetics. Warren Sturgis McCulloch, a neurophysiologist who once worked as a doctor at Bellevue, partnered with Walter Pitts, a sort of prodigy of logic, who penniless and homeless, attended, unregistered, Bernard Russell’s visiting lectures at the University of Chicago, and then dropped an annotated copy of The Logical Syntax of Language in Rudolf Carnap’s lap, causing Carnap to search for him for months so that he may teach him. McCulloch and Pitts tried like Leibnitz to model a calculus, in this case the “all-or-none” character of nervous activity.
I find in this work, perhaps like Gregory Bateson, an opening to try to understand, as his daughter put it in a preface of his Steps to An Ecology of Mind, “that interface between the realm of mind and physical reality.” Again, the endless debate of body or mind, or nature or nurture is not what is of interest here. What is of interest is the question of their mapping, of the way signs are socially signaled and logically structured, and move and are moved by the biophysical properties of which they are biochemically constituted and perceptually mediated or categorically sensed.
In other words, my interest is slightly different than the thrust towards personalized or precision medicine. My concern in that initiative is that rather than focus on ecological stresses leading to disease, we are obsessed to sequence genomes to identify risky molecular variants probably responsible for phenotypic diseases. In that mad rush to compute against standardized human genomic reference sets, I can’t help but wonder if we may in fact unwittingly find ourselves reproducing the very environment straining the diversity of life into the bred artifices of a few well-funded and good-intentioned scientists. Are we restraining our ability to adapt to our environmental stresses in expecting nature to conform to our prevailing cognitive maps of it?
More sinister, albeit likely innocently sinister, than that, is it possible we may be investing in these very diseases we claim we wish to alleviate? That is, while we may be hedging against their risks, are we necessitating a demand for disease to satisfy the blossoming market supply of patented tests and drugs promising miracles?
Take that autoimmune disorder I have, Hashimoto’s Disease, for example. AbbVie, a company specializing in immunology, sells Synthroid, a synthetic thyroid hormone I take to replace the natural one that is all out of balance in my body. Last quarter alone, AbbVie made 188 million dollars selling it; in the last nine months they made 561 million off it. In total, their worldwide sales just last quarter were $5.944 billion, up 18.4 percent year-over-year. To put that in perspective, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases’ (NIDDK) entire budget for all of 2015 was $1.749 billion, a 0.02% increase from the previous year.
Disease rakes in big money. And companies like AbbVie will protect their interests, to the extent of trying to hide the harms of their drugs. Yes, people are fighting back, and the ongoing development of ClinicalTrials.gov is one response to do something about it. Yet, it’s a political minefield, because funding agencies are then also forced to account for their funding portfolios, be that in citations or products like patents. They don’t necessarily want to be caught having funded trials with null effects, for instance. Of course, this itself, as anyone in academia knows, is a self-spiraling audit game, where registering in ClinicalTrials.gov or a similar registry will itself likely lead to a citation that counts on one’s CV reported to administrators.
If C. Wright Mills were alive today, he might write a new edition of Power Elite to describe this interplay between industry-science-government. For instance, he and his followers may try to trace the career of someone like Tom Insel who recently left National Institute of Mental Health to work for Google Life Sciences. Google, or now Alphabet, wants to use their technology to detect when someone is slipping into mental illness, whether through their search history, shopping habits, email and social media habits, or their very speech habits. What they don’t say, or I couldn’t find where they say, is what they’d do if they detect this.
If someone loses the capacity for dialogue as Hölderlin began to as he became Scardanelli and spoke in poetic monologues lacking deictic context or syntactic coherence, will they do as his once roommates Hegel and Shelling did, abandon him to a sympathetic stranger that hosted him as an isolated mad hermit whose only solace was a borrowed piano? One, or should I say I, find it perplexing that just as Hegel found fame in his dialectic positively straining the spirit in a universalized truth in the beauty of a formal idea, and Shelling was fading behind Hegel’s shadow as he sought to reconcile the negation of nature through the positivism of idealism by undertaking a history of mythology, Hölderlin became captive to the echo chambers of a self consciousness that detached itself from its here and now in its grasp for a self-contained idea of itself.
That example may suggest prescribing and insuring patients wear health-tracking wristbands or download apps to track and feedback their every move through the filter of formal algorithms may backfire in isolating them within some diseased identity they unwittingly slipped into. Rather than reconnecting them to the world and its inhabitants through meaningful talk or interaction, it makes them hyperaware of their every sensation, of their every thought, of their every response, and further disconnects them from anything but that self contained in that critical gaze of some technocrat’s authority.
And that, to return after my long digression, is the problem with failing to understand the ecology of the mind: one begins to create new identities by amalgamating particular expected behaviors and filtering them through automated technical applications. We tend to believe more in the validity of our ideas – our knowledge – than we do those shifting fluctuations of our actual bodies through them. When they don’t exactly correspond as we’d expect, we get nervous, that malady of Columbus’s heirs.