Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Xin: HeartMind

I've been going through a fair amount of emotional "Sturm und Drang" recently as I try to deal with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has got me thinking about modern discoveries in brain physiology and how they relate to the ancient Daoist understanding of human nature.

Up until very recently Westerners have considered that the entirety of what it means to be a human being resides in the brain. In effect, the human body was simply a mechanism that existed to make the brain mobile and to serve it's demands. In science fiction terms, human beings are not much more than "cyborgs"---machines with brains controlling them. In the crudest possible terms, the idea is that if you could cut out the brain, and attach it to something else that would keep it alive and be able speak for it, you would find that the entire personality of the human being was still there.

The cartoon show "Futurama" plays with this idea by having a large number of celebrities' heads preserved in jars. The result is a being that is just like he or she was before the process. (Which allows the writers to make jokes about current celebrities while still placing the show a thousand years in the future.)

Modern research in brain physiology totally rejects this idea. As I understand it, scientists have found out that the brain is dramatically influenced by the hormones that are released by our entire body. Of course, a moment's reflection should point out that a disembodied head would no longer have either estrogen or testosterone being released into the brain---which means that probably it would cease to feel any sexual desire. In addition, without an intestinal tract, hunger would no longer exist.

Beyond these obvious issues, there would be a great many other things missing too. For example, a large part of the exhilaration we feel in life comes from the physical sensations we have when doing things like moving with speed, grace and dexterity. It is to mimic this experience that people like to ride on things like roller coasters, for example.

Take a good look at this photo. It gives me a feeling of vertigo, which again involves the release of hormones into the bloodstream, which influences the way our minds operate.

The experiences I am having in trying to deal with my PTSD directly relate to the way the brain and body interact. One of the worst elements of PTSD is having "flashbacks". These are dreadful experiences where I feel all the emotions that I felt when I was experiencing absolute and utter terror as a child. The emotion registers itself in physiological responses: I am drenched with sweat, my heart races, etc. My body is creating the hormonal response that evolution has prepared for the situation of having a tiger jump out of the bushes, yet I am safe at home with nothing but memories of my childhood threatening me. Even when I'm not having a full-fledged flashback, my recent experiences have consisted of feeling very sad and a smaller amount of anxiety for most of the day for a couple weeks---which is tremendously exhausting.

The ancient Daoists had a much better understanding of this phenomenon than does our modern, Western society. I understand, for example, that ancient Chinese simply doesn't have a word for "mind" that is separate from the human body. Instead, they have the word "xin", which scholars translate as "heartmind". The ancients probably saw the world this way because they observed that our consciousness is directly related to the way our body feels. When we are disappointed in love, for example, we literally feel a deep and horrible pain in our chest where our heart resides.

Another aspect of this, something that I really don't know much about, is the school of Daoism that posited that there were specific "spirits" that lived in different parts of the body. These spirits had to be tamed in order that the individual would be able achieve a long life and maybe even become a realized man. It's sometimes a foolish thing to try and project backwards a modern understanding into an ancient concept, but I wonder if maybe that was also some sort of intimation of the way our bodily hormones influence our consciousness.

1 comment:

The Rambling Taoist said...

Yes, western thought is all about separation and distinctions; each part isolated from the others.

Just consider the western viewpoint of the environment. Too many refuse to see the interconnection of all parts that equal a whole. Destroy or severely alter one and the whole organism suffers.