meditations on psychosomatics

The relationship between mind and body has always been a fascination of mine. Something about the interaction of the tangible/intangible is so intriguing; I think because the human mind is still such a mystery. There's still so much that we can't explain or understand exactly how it works. Like my enduring obsession with the Thai word jai or the Japanese word kokoro, I've always thought it exceptionally elegant of other languages to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the physical body and the abstract mind.

This fascination was the primary reason for taking a Literature and Mind class called "Body Language" in my senior year of college, in which we focused heavily on the psychoanalytics of hysteria, particularly the way it's manifested in the body. Hysteria is especially interesting. Colloquially, it's used to express "exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement," but it's actually a psychological disorder (fun fact: It comes from the Greek word for uterushystera, because it was originally thought to be an exclusively female condition).

Hysteria is unique in that it interprets mental distress as physical symptoms. Freud studied it extensively, most prominently in the case of "Dora," a patient whose strange cough and inability to speak he believed to be the result of sexual abuse and sexual repression. He mentions something he calls "displacement," or feeling the effects of traumatic events in a seemingly unrelated part of the body. And this is why it's so difficult to identify the source of hysteria; it doesn't follow the "organic logic" of disease.

While modern psychiatrists have since stopped using the term "hysteria" in a medical context in favor of a multitude of more specific conditions, there are much more contemporary examples of psychosomatic afflictions, from Sherlock to phantom limbs to our own unconscious body language.

I went to the Museum of Tolerance in LA a couple of weeks ago (if you haven't gone, it should be at the top of your list), and by far one of the most interesting pieces of information mentioned was that trauma is not only deeply influential to cognitive processes, but it actually changes the structure of the brain (what my Body Language teacher referred to as "mental scaffolding"). Amazingly (and tragically), these effects are inheritable—being a descendant of a Holocaust survivor can profoundly affect your stress levels and make you more susceptible to PTSD. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (yes, the Stanford Prison Experiment guy) reasons that PTSD is exceptionally difficult to treat because of the complex nature of trauma: the memories are stored in multiple regions of the brain.

The mind-body problem poses the question of how the mind and body interact, on the premise that the two are separate and fundamentally different entities; it provokes a discussion of correlation vs. causation. But at its core, it examines the ways in which mental processes directly affect bodily ones. It asserts that our perceptual experiences are shaped by external physical stimuli, and unconsciously affect our bodily behavior.

The question, then, is how it can be possible for conscious experiences to arise out of a lump of gray matter endowed with nothing but electrochemical properties.

Part of this question comes from the important distinction of the brain vs. the mind. While neuroscience is well-established, we are still learning how to navigate the consciousness of the human mind. It's for this reason that we still struggle with treating mental illness—partly because it's difficult to discern the degree to which the mind affects us, and partly because it doesn't exhibit physical symptoms. But as we see in hysteria, and the implications following the invalidation of hysteria as a singular condition, it is a possibility.

The case of Phineas Gage, an accident from the 1900s that shaped the modern practice of neuroscience, conveys the enigmatic nature of the physical brain and its relation to the mind. Like many other organs, its form follows its function (ever wonder why our brains are wrinkly?). But unlike other organs, there's no telling what the consequences of disrupting neural networks may be. A heart or a lung can be patched with stem cells (well...we're working on it), but the brain holds a trove of interwoven information and memories that aren't easily replaceable.

While much of this research is speculative, it does confirm that the mind and body are connected in inexplicable ways. My mom and I always marvel at the human body; it's such a delicate and complex machine, one in which everything is in such excruciatingly perfect balance on a cellular level. Like pulling on an invisible thread, one little slip, and your entire physiological equilibrium can come undone.

I think it was the United Negro College Fund that first said, "A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste." And in a practical sense, it absolutely cannot be simply dismissed as unimportant in the context of the human body. I think it's actually a pretty good argument for intelligent design, but not in a religious or an evolutionary sense. I just think it's amazing how much potential for error our existence has, and yet, somehow...we just naturally are. And it may not be perfect, but it's pretty damn impressive all the same.