- Hi Elaine,
On 22 Feb 2007, at 01:38, Elaine wrote:
> When a patient with a trauma brain injury or stroke relearns, does
> this relearning restructure the brain?
At the risk of going off topic I would like to respond to this
You seem to be touching on a theme that is central to the century-old
rift that opened up between the Anglo-American school -with its
obsession with physical explanations and empiricism - and themes that
were developed in continental thought.
The former approach tends to concentrate its enquiry into mental
illness on damage to the physical organ of the brain. Medical
procedures based on this understanding tend to focus on chemical or
surgical approaches to fixing the damaged brain, from which it is
thought that mind and other related phenomena are "emergent properties".
Such thinking also tends to discount the free project of what Sartre
would call the being-for-itself to develop itself - presumably into a
functioning, self-conscious, sentient subject.
Heidegger invites the authentic human being to "become what you are"
and writes: "But who are 'you'? The one as whom you cast yourself
free - as who you become."
A good friend of mine, a psychiatrist who was influenced by Laing,
wrote his thesis comparing the brain with the structure of a tree.
Perhaps this is a good analogy for you.
A tree may be damaged, say by a lightning strike, but will often
recover although sometimes in a different shape from before. However,
even if the trunk is now horizontal or split, the essential shape of
the tree will be replicated in its new circumstances: branches
growing from the trunk, twigs from branches etc. Its form will
continue to mirror that of the brain, with a central trunk defining
two "halves" (viewed from any given perspective).
In order for it to recover from the damage it will require several
things to remain the case. Its roots must be still in the ground and
it must still continue to receive sunlight and carbon dioxide via its
In the analogy, the content of the brain is not the matter of the
tree's physical existence but its thoughts. We might compare its need
for blood flow with the mineral and moisture derived from the tree's
roots, but the tree's need for sunlight might be compared to healthy
brain's need for sense impressions - not just any sense impressions
but ones that actually "make sense"!
Here the analogy breaks down somewhat because what it is that makes
sense of sense impressions is the brain itself, or rather the mind.
(Perhaps here we fall to easily into physicalism because the physical
brain doesn't contain any actual memories or sense impressions.)
It seems to me that the human mind inclines itself towards meaning in
the same way that a plant organism like a tree aligns itself to
sunlight. An individual human brain cannot of itself derive meaning,
but a human mind, connected to other human minds through
communication, can. Meaning is a social construct, but it also
depends on an interpretative apparatus local to the perceiving
organism. When the social context distorts rather than positively
contextualises the communication that provides the mind (and
therefore the brain) with its meaningfully sensational nourishment,
this could be analogised in terms of our tree structure as something
that could cause the mind/brain structure to wither. But due perhaps
to a complex interaction between socially derived meaning and
individual interpretative apparatus, it could also take the form of a
cataclysmic breakdown where suddenly *nothing* makes sense.
But such a crisis could also, in the Sartrean sense, become the means
by which distorted social meaning that has resulted in the individual
adopting a bad faith position becomes undistorted. Most of us adopt
bad faith positions, some of us adopt no positions that are not in
bad faith. And these bad faith positions are all socially derived.
It seems to me that Heidegger offers more hope for the eventual re-
integration of the authentic person into his or her time than does
Sartre. His admonition to "become what you are" is not an appeal to
essentialism but rather that certain expressive talents can become so
refined and heightened that it is possible to re-integrate without
bad faith. And certainly no such authentic re-integration could take
place without a full and deep understanding of the previously
inauthentic existence and its causes.
I think that your project to try and understand this is very
interesting and relevant, and that the take on "mental illness" is a
very fertile way to proceed.
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