Mind and Body

Collage by Eric Edelman

The New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, argues that spirit is necessarily enfleshed and flesh is necessarily enspirited. This perspective affirms the human body unequivocally, and, it seems to me, implies that after death, no soul migrates to Heaven, nor does the mind reincarnate — though our legacy lives on, as does Life.

Making Memories,” by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff, a review of Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich in the August 17, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books, considers recent neurological studies that seem to support Crossan’s view — though the review does not address Crossan’s point directly.

The review reports:

Essential to the brain’s creation of memories is that all of our memories are subjective—they are created from the point of view of the individual who is remembering. We have a sense of self because we have a preexisting sense of our body that contains that self. The basis of our subjectivity is our “body image,” a coherent, highly dynamic (it is constantly changing with our movements), three-dimensional representation of the body in the brain. This body image is an abstraction the brain creates from our movements and from the sensory responses elicited by those movements….

Since our subjectivity depends on our body image, if our body image is altered for neurological reasons, so too are our recollections…. Memories are altered every time the brain recalls them. This alteration of an existing memory is called reconsolidation. Because the memory trace changes, you can never remember the same thing twice in exactly the same way…. The way the memory is represented at the synaptic junction is altered.

Those studies also conclude:

Memory is the establishment by the hippocampus of complex relations among a variety of sensory stimuli from the point of view of the individual who is remembering…. Memory depend[s] on the ability of the hippocampus to establish relations between an individual and his or her surroundings…. The hippocampus receives and integrates many other varieties of information to create multisensory relations, which is what memory is all about…. All recollections depend on a setting that the individual may or may not be aware of.

These conclusions, which affirm a holistic attitude, strike me as relevant to daily life today for numerous reasons.

Crossan argues that prior to the spread of Greek philosophy, the Jewish faith was holistic. But the Greeks tried to split the mind and body. That dualism has persisted in Western thought and has contributed to a denigration of the body, especially sexuality. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson reinforced that Idealism. Confusion on the issue is reflected in many spiritual circles today. The holistic perspective leads to a more fulsome and wholesome embrace of the human body.

Another benefit from seeing the mind and body as being necessarily integrated is a more honest acceptance of death, which contrasts to the American tendency to try to deny its reality.

In addition, it seems to me, those neurological studies suggest that we can intentionally alter the brain in a beneficial manner through mental activity, such as making the effort to recall events for which we are grateful, as well as meditation.

The review also highlights the risk that’s involved with altering the brain neurologically. The history of psychiatry is littered with examples of devastating brain damage that resulted from arrogant or indifferent attempts to alleviate suffering with neurological tools. The brain is a fantastically complicated mechanism that has been tweaked by eons of evolution. Any attempt to mess with Nature’s miracle should be undertaken with great care.

Moreover, “Making Memories” substantiates that individuals are not isolated, but rather are profoundly interconnected with their environment, including other individuals. Even our memories depend on placing the memory in a “setting,” even if we don’t remember the setting!

And lastly, I was struck by the account of how abstractions, or generalizations, emerge from specific events. As one who is wary of ideology, that description confirms the legitimacy of certain abstractions. The danger arises when abstractions become detached from concrete realities, and ideologues try to force reality to conform to their desires. Dreams of a better world can be helpful. But those dreams are best grounded in reality. Pragmatic idealism seems to be the wisest course.

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