The Mind-Brain Split and Enlightenment in Mental Illness
I wrote a rather popular piece a while back called A Damaged Brain and a Mind Trying to Deal with It. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen this before as it’s part of my bio. If not, then it might be the first time you’ve heard that turn of phrase.
And recently a commenter replied:
I do not believe in this mind/body duality. I believe that you are your body.
OK, no problem. I don’t expect everyone to agree on such things. I have nothing invested in making the world agree with me.
But the thing is, I know there is a brain-mind separation. And how do I know this? Perspective. It’s your free gift with a purchase of 10 or more years of bipolar disorder.
Perspective and Bipolar Disorder
And when I say perspective, I mean the life-death-end-of-the-world-meaning-of-the-universe kind of perspective that you get when you have to look death in the face for a few years. It really makes you think about things. Or it eats you. If you haven’t been eaten there’s a good chance it’s because you thought a lot about it.
And I have thought a lot about life; and the mind-brain separation was clear for me long before I could articulate it. The mind-brain separation, after all, is a metaphor. I didn’t always know the metaphor.
The Mind-Brain Split
So to put it into a much-used computer metaphor, your mind is like a computer and your brain is like the information it receives. You input data into the computer and the computer magically turns that into a dancing robot or the 295th decimal of pi or your proximity to Starbucks or something. In this case the input is everything that you sense, experience and remember, and the dancing robot is what you do about it. How you handle it. It turns information into power. It turns data into knowledge. It’s perfectly acceptable to smell popcorn and to have that remind you of your fifth birthday party but someone has to make the executive decision not to eat all the Orville Redenbacher’s in the grocery store.
But, of course, popcorn isn’t what’s weighing on the mind of a bipolar. No, usually the pain of having to keep breathing is what’s weighing on the mind of someone with a mental illness. And that’s considerably more complicated than popcorn.
And so, one wonders – what has kept one from committing suicide all this time?
It isn’t the brain.
And I know it isn’t the brain because my brain tends to be in unimaginable amounts of pain and sickness. If it were up to my brain, I would have been dead a long time ago simply to extinguish the pain.
And I know a lot of people feel that way.
But I’m not dead and I’m not dead because it isn’t that simple. It’s not simply a matter of extinguishing pain, a body, a heartbeat. Nope. There’s something else connected there. Something with perspective.
Something with the perspective to understand the pain and live through it anyway. There’s a higher consciousness. There’s some sort of enlightenment there. To continue to exist in a state that tends to induce agony.
As the commenter mentioned, some people may think I’m speaking of a soul. I’m not. At least, not particularly. I’m not concerned with everlasting life or the great beyond, I’m just worried about the here and the now. And the here and the now is governed by more than neurons and synapses. Ask anyone that believes in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the Mind-Brain Split
Essentially, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) expects you to take note of your own input, and then do some machinations before delivering the output. It’s expecting you to interpret your brain by using your mind – a higher state of consciousness – but they don’t put it that way. Which is fine. They’re concerned about the application more than the metaphor. That’s OK; that’s the one that matters for most people anyway.
But make no mistake about it, these people readily expect you to split your consciousness in order to interrupt the way you normally do things and to try and interpret things in a more functional way.
I Still Don’t Agree. There is No Mind-Brain Split.
OK. If you say so.
But in my experience you have to be at least a bit of a philosopher to see it; it’s unsurprising that some people don’t. You have to have been pushed into seeing it through your life experiences. You have to want to see it and work really hard at seeing it. It doesn’t tend to just jump off the shelf and hit you.
You pay a lot for this kind of perspective. But the good news is it’s free with your purchase of any serious, longstanding mental illness. It might not be worth what you paid for it but you should probably play with it anyway.