Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

depression, an interlude (or, minding the body)

I have to begin with an apology. 

I’m sorry.

Last week I said that my series on depression was going to be a two-parter, but that has turned out to be far too ambitious. I have much that I want to share about the implications of depression with respect to the individual; however, in order for my thoughts to make sense, I’ve realised that I first need to share a few popular ideas about how the mind and the body work together. This last-last minute change of tack has also made me miss my usual Friday morning publishing deadline. I hope you can forgive me. Let’s just consider this week’s entry an interlude. And why not let it be a musical interlude?

Philosopher Jonathan Westphal succinctly demonstrates the essence of the mind-body problem (in his book, The Mind-Body Problem) using the following four propositions:

  1. The mind is a non-physical thing.
  2. The body is a physical thing.
  3. The mind and the body interact.
  4. Physical and non-physical things cannot interact.

Westphal goes on to explain exactly what makes this an inconsistent tetrad:

It is very hard to deny any of these four propositions. But they cannot consistently be held to be true together. At least one of them must be false, and the attempt to show the exact way in which this plays out is the work of developing a solution to the mind-body problem.

A detailed exploration of the various attempts to solve this problem would overwhelm even the generally generous word allotment I give myself each week. Not to worry, though, fellow philosophy wonks! Due to the fact that the mind-body “problem” holds a high ranking on my list of interests, we’ll certainly be revisiting this theme regularly and getting into more specifics in future essays. But for now, this brief look at some of the attempts at resolving this inconsistent tetrad is a bit of a whirlwind, so…

The West has seen several dualistic philosophers, with René Descartes as their godfather, who have rejected proposition three: the premise that physical and non-physical things cannot interact. In this model, the mind (or soul, or spirit) has causal agency over the body—that is to say, the non-physical mind can make things happen in the physical body. Many philosophers refer to this process as “downward causation,” thus placing the mind on a superior plane to the bag of bones. Yet somewhat paradoxically, the pervasive and lingering effect of the dualistic theory has led to a general view of physical conditions being somehow more real or relevant than mental ones. This disappointing and frustrating consequence of the dualistic approach can be summed up in this tweet from Matt Haig, which he happened to post right when I began to work on this essay:

In a dualistic philosophy, the physical realm becomes the only mutually accessible plane amongst humans. As a result, we have a far easier time accepting the reality of a physical illness than a mental one like depression. This creates a potentially dangerous stigma which makes things like depression all the more difficult for people to understand; furthermore, as Haig also points out in Reasons to Stay Alive, it leads many people to take an attitude toward depression that they would not dream of taking toward other potentially lethal conditions: 

Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations:

‘Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one’s died.’
'Why do you think you got cancer of the stomach?’
‘Yes, I know, colon cancer is hard, but you ought to try living with someone who has got it. Sheesh. Nightmare.’
‘Oh, Alzheimer’s you say? Oh, tell me about it, I get that all the time.’
‘Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter.’ 
‘Yes, yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to help things, is it?’
‘Okay. Yes. Yes. Maybe your parachute has failed. But chin up.'

I find it rather disheartening that people could so easily dismiss a condition like depression as “just” mental when the physical repercussions can be so extreme. This frustration may help us to appreciate a couple of ways in which dualism falls short with regard to how the mind and body interact:

The first is that, from any logical point of view, dualism has no way of explaining the mechanism by which this “downward causation” occurs. Descartes himself famously (and rather arbitrarily) posited that the pituitary gland served essentially as the physical portal through which the spirit affected the body, but never exactly explained how. 

Yet even if dualism could find a way to explain the means by which a non-physical mind affects physical matter, a second issue hangs in the air: that of double causation. If physical events have both physical and non-physical causes, we end up in a chicken-or-the-egg scenario when attempting to ascertain whether body or mind acts as the prime mover. If we posit, for example, that the non-physical mind causes depression, we must reconcile the idea to the fact that we know that depression also has a fair number of physical causes: head trauma, hormonal imbalance, food allergies, nutritional deficiencies, just to name a few. So does the mental cause the physical, which affects the mental, which affects the physical? Or vice versa? This line of inquiry leads rather easily to an infinite regress.

Despite popular notions that Eastern cultures have a less delineated view of mind and body, dualism does indeed run deep in philosophies such as Classical Yoga. Patañjali, author of the Yogasūtra, bases his system rather heavily on the more ancient Sāmkhya philosophy. This school of thinking claims that form (Prakriti) and consciousness (Purusha) do not affect each other at all. In this scheme, the “lower” mind (manas)—a constituent part of Prakriti—precedes and gives rise to matter, which organises itself into the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space, which correlate to the five senses, which express themselves via the organs of the physical body. According to the Sāmkhya model, everything in nature—including mind and body—is subject to the vicissitudes of the three gunas: rajas (volition), tamas (inertia), and sattva (homeostasis). These gunas act as the primary causes of everything that the mind and body experience.

Yet in spite of the way many in the yoga community present the philosophy of the Yogasūtra, the goal of Pātañjala-Yoga is not, in fact, to achieve homeostatic balance; instead, the yogin seeks to transcend the gunas, and thereby nature itself, entirely. Patañjali names this ultimate aim “kaivalya,” which translates literally as “solitude” or “isolation,” and refers to the ability to experience a permanent state of pure consciousness by extracting oneself utterly from the natural world of Prakriti. As the final sūtra (IV.34) states, “the power of pure consciousness settles into its own pure nature.”

This flies in the face of the ubiquitous contemporary definition of yoga as “union” between body, mind, and spirit. Indeed, Patañjali insinuates that the real mind-body problem is that the very existence of the mind and body just screws everything up. For obvious reasons, I find this particular philosophy’s denigration of both body and mind untenable for anyone who believes in the genuine potential for a meaningful human existence. 

In contrast to the dualistic world views espoused by the likes of Descartes and Patañjali, the lineage of yoga in which I grew up (so to speak) stems from a philosophical school known as tantra. Emerging in medieval India, the majority of the tantric traditions espouse what they call a “non-dualistic” (advaita, in Sanskrit) philosophy. (I have always had a bit of an issue with the term “non-dualism,” because I think it confuses matters to define something by referring to its negative. I’ll therefore adopt the term “monism,” which Western philosophers tend to use, both in an attempt to frame the subject in the positive and, ultimately, to help myself be that bit more frugal with my word count.) Amongst the monistic approaches to the mind-body problem, two Western endeavours at reaching a solution claim the most adherents: idealism and physicalism.

Idealism, which Plato popularised, asserts that nothing—including the body—is actually physical. Instead, the mind alone experiences a transcendental world of Ideas. Perhaps due to ignorance of the Real (remember Plato’s cave? Or, perhaps, The Matrix?), what we interpret as physical objects are in fact merely shadows of the Ideas. Idealism’s attempt at solving the mind-body problem hinges on its denial of proposition two in our inconsistent tetrad. Consequently, if neither the body nor anything else is a physical thing, the tetrad is no longer inconsistent. 

In a way, idealism presents an attractive framework. Can you recall a dream from which you awoke with a feeling of amazement that your mind wields the capacity to create such a seemingly realistic world? Such visions, along with hallucinations, can serve as compelling evidence for the possibility that our minds simply create everything we experience. Another tasty morsel for thought comes from a phenomenon which initially claimed fame due to Wilder Penfield’s revolutionary surgeries on the brains of epileptic patients in the 1930s. Penfield routinely performed these operations whilst the patient lay awake under local anaesthesia for the scalp and the skull, because the brain itself does not have any pain sensors. In order to ensure that he could, as safely as possible, excise the epileptic focus in the brain—which was in a unique location for each individual—Penfield would speak to the patient during surgery whilst exploring the brain with a surgical electrode. In Touch: The Science of the Sense that Makes Us Human, David J. Linden describes the process:

Penfield would methodically move the electrode across the exposed surface of the brain, asking the patient, ‘What do you feel now?’ at every location. The patient might respond, ‘I feel a tingling in my left wrist,’ or ‘I smell burnt toast,’ or, ‘I’m hearing a bit of music that I last heard during childhood.’

In combination with our experiences of dreams and hallucinations, the possibility of producing these sensations with mere electrical currents in the brain can certainly make one question the degree to which our brain creates reality. Do physical objects actually need to exist if the mind is capable of creating sensory experience without them?

Yet the subjects of these operations consistently reported that the sensations they experienced due to the electrical stimulation seemed somehow “lacking some essential richness or context” when compared to perception via the actual sense organs. This anecdotal evidence hangs well together with the way most of us experience the vast majority of our moments of interaction with the physical world: it just feels so undeniably real. Furthermore, idealism leaves in its wake a number of unanswered questions about why the physical world operates as it does. Why, for example, do causes have effects, in that specific order? If we could boil it down to Ideas affecting each other, it still seems fair to question how time fits into the equation, since Ideas are ostensibly timeless. If we wish to understand how anything interacts with anything else according to the reliably observable laws of the physical universe, idealism is far from ideal.

In more recent decades, another monistic philosophy outshone idealism to an almost eclipsing degree: physicalism. This school of thought acts as the direct antithesis to idealism in that it asserts that not only is the body a physical thing, but the mind is also a physical thing—thus negating proposition one in our inconsistent tetrad. In other words, everything mental occurs as a byproduct of physical processes in the brain: electrical impulses from neuron to neuron for example, or hormonal activity. This notion feels logical in light of the rather obvious observation that anything that affects the physical brain tends to have a resulting effect on the mind. If the mind and the brain were two different things, or if mind preceded brain in some way, it seems very difficult to understand how doing something to the physical brain would have consequences on one’s mental state. In fact, as cognitive scientists advance more and more in their work, they come closer and closer to pinpointing the physical procedures upon which sensory processing, verbal expression of internal states, and—quite excitingly recently—the formation of memory depend. 

From a physicalist perspective, mental illness is a physical illness—just as Matt Haig pointed out a week ago. Depression can be linked to pathological brain wave activity, a shrunken hippocampus, and nutritional deficiencies, amongst other physical causes. As such, scientific research provides plenty of sets of data about the various physiological causes of depression, along with a host of other mental illnesses. In so many ways, the more we know about the physical mechanisms behind the problem, the more likely it is that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

However, the one fact which stymies physicalism remains that, even if we can reach a perfect working model of the processes of the body and the brain, it seems unlikely that such a model will ever supply us with an understanding of why a subjective, qualitative experience accompanies those processes. Philosopher David Chalmers famously refers to this as the “hard problem” of consciousness

The hard problem…is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This puzzle involves the inner aspect of thought and perception: the way things feel for the subject. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations, such as that of vivid blue. Or think of the ineffable sound of a distant oboe, the agony of an intense pain, the spark of happiness or the meditative quality of a moment lost in thought. All are part of what I call consciousness. It is these phenomena that pose the real mystery of the mind.

What Chalmers describes as “the way things feel,” Robert Nagel phrases as “something it's like” to have a particular subjective experience, and others attempt to capture in terms such as “raw feels,” in contrast to the “raw data” our senses take in, and upon which the computational theory of mind tends to focus. Philosophers of mind have collectively adapted Clarence Irving Lewis’ term qualia (rhymes with “dahlia,” singular form: quale, which as far as I can tell, rhymes not with “quail” but with “Wally”) to refer to this subjective, ineffable awareness of what Daniel Dennett once termed as “the way things seem to us.”

Qualia, to put it bluntly, are basically the big pain in physicalism’s ass. Not only does it seem unlikely that science will be able to produce any answer to the question of how physical processes could create qualia, physicalism has a terribly difficult time coming up with a reason why qualia are even necessary at all. Essentially, since raw, physical, sensory data itself plays the causal role on the activities of our body in the physicalist model, the idea that non-physical qualia could create physical effects leads to the same problem of double-causation and infinite regress that dualism does. The issue is so stymying that Dennett and others have posited that qualia do not exist at all.

However, from a common-sense perspective, denying the existence of qualia or their causal role in life feels like a special kind of madness. The warmth of the sun on our skin; the bliss of the first bite of our favourite chocolate; the strange sweetness of the scent of a new puppy; the time-bending rush of orgasmic ecstasy: these are the things that give life to life. 

Qualia are where the magic happens. And as we’ll see next week, they may well give us our best shot at both understanding depression and solving the mind-body problem. 



depression (part 3 of 2, or a case of mistaken category)

depression (part one, or, how i learned to stop worrying and ask for help)