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Thursday, 5 May 2011

Mind body split

I blame Descartes; for it was he that concluded that the mind and body were separate. According to Descartes physical things such as hat-stands, blancmanges, and houses have “extension” in various directions into the physical world. Thoughts, however, do not.

The mind according to Descartes is a non-physical thing that thinks; and is entirely separate from the body.

This causes a problem though, because clearly the mind can have an effect on the body. Think of a lemon and your mouth may water, think of your fingernails being pulled off and your heart rate may rise, think of jelly down your trousers and you may start to laugh.

But how can this non physical thing have a causal effect on the physical body? This is the so called "problem of interactionism." It was thrown up (if that is the right word) by Descarte’s (Where to put the apostrophe?) musings on the split between mind and body. It caused him a problem because undermined his theory. Merde! Combien incommode!

In order to fix this glitch Descartes decided that animals were in fact automata, and that us humans were different as we possess the pineal gland located the centre of the brain between the two hemispheres. The only part of the brain not duplicated. He, incorrectly, believed that animals did not have the pineal. Others tried to resolve the matter by arguing that mind / body interactions were the result of interventions by God -no less.

At this point I think we can see the mess that splitting ourselves in two can lead to.

Common experience demonstrates to us that there is a great connection between the mind and the body. We know, for example, that anticipation of a difficult experience can make the heart beat faster, your armpits and forehead sweat, and bring about the urge to find a loo.

In some eastern philosophies the mind body split does not seem to appear so much. I believe that Buddhism talks of mind body unity although I’m not sure about this. In western medicine we have stitched ourselves together rather cruelly by using the word Psychsomatic.

There is still debate as to whether Ulcerative Colitis, for example, is a psychosomatic illness. For example in 1983 Milton Rosenbaum MD wrote a paper (Ulcerative colitis, Psychosomatic illness review: No. 10 in a series) in which he says there is extensive clinical evidence which shows that in someone who suffers from Ulcerative Colitis, emotions and personality will play a large part. In particular he suggests that there are intrapsychic conflicts which lead to regression to anal behaviour, and dependant immature emotional relationships – especially with Mum. Thanks mate.

The difficulty with this kind of description is that it appears to be a bit judgemental, and implies blame. Maybe it is because words like immature are considered, in ordinary language, to be insulting. In medical language it may be a precise term.

Thinking of my own experiences, and trying to see beyond the language I’m starting to wonder whether there is some truth in this. Only recently in my mid 50’s have I started to realise that I may actually have abandonment issues.

At the age of 7 I was sent to a boarding school. Nothing has frightened and hurt so much since. The sight of our clapped out grey Cortina disappearing down the school drive, and the feeling of undiluted fear is seared into my being. Add to this the fact that my home was in the same village, and that I could actually see Dad driving the tractor about the place, see the house I called home, yet I could not go there, was a Tantalus too far.

In the Journal of Psychology, 2004, 49, 683 – 705,  Joy Schavarien has an article entitled “Boarding School: The trauma of the privileged child”. This articulates very well the strange schism I felt. In particular, the difficulty of balancing the idea that this experience was an expression by my parents of how much they cared for me. That in being rejected I was loved. That they were sacrificing so much to send us all to good schools was hard to understand.

At such a school there is a really inconsistent view of the relationship between the mind and the body. On the one hand they are separate; physical weakness and pain can be simply ignored by a disciplined mind. On the other hand they are intimately connected; a mind that is weak and feeble can be fixed by physical punishment.

A track or a trace is left in the mind, a habitual way of thinking, a stream of self-doubt, a morbid fear of authority, a fractured resistance.

You know how when you are scared you feel it in your guts, like a serpent writhing inside. I felt that a lot, not just at school but often afterwards. I certainly was, and maybe still am, a little unsteady.

I’m not suggesting that everyone else with UC has necessarily got the same kind of connection. That is for each individual to decide. For myself I think there is.

My speculation is that these experiences, in conjunction with my genetic inheritance, may have been at the root of my Ulcerative Colitis.

Furthermore I speculate that by a harmonious balance between mind and body, both will benefit.


  1. Absolutely fascinating Arkers, and very poignant too. You sweep through an enormous area of great significance with a magisterial clarity (by which I mean, if I ever land up in front of a magistrate, I hope he is as clear-minded and well-balanced as you are here.)

    I think I'll post on this mind/body/illness/early trauma area, in response to this, rather than bung up yer blog.

    For now: feeling a bit down this a.m. so I tried putting jelly down my trousers. I can tell you there is nothing funny about it at all.

  2. I think boarding school made it hard for me to leave home or feel at home somewhere else. Odd in a way as it should have made me better at being away - but then I was a wimp in those days socially (more than I am now). I didn't feel happy unless near parents or our home. Sad for an oldie. Not sure though - it's a sort of theory.

  3. I think it's clear that state of mind can and does have effects on physical health. The remaining questions are more specific: what effects and in what circumstances?

    As for boarding school, it clearly has different effects on each person who passes through. I haven't noticed any bad effect on my physical health, but that means nothing as far as you're concerned. Mental health, I dunno, you'd have to compare with another version of me who went to day schools in an alternate timestream, and then you'd have to figure out which one was crazier.

  4. Oh I totally agree and have tried to push that sort of discussion with my GI but to no avail. I think we all may have traumas that weren't dealt with properly and left to fester ... mines my Mother....also abandonment issues too but different circumstances. I still believe that my UC was caused by work stress that just knocked me over the edge and into a life of UC. When I looked back at all the work stress I wondered why I didn't have a mental break down ... hence why I think I got UC.

    Everyone is life has stuff that they hold onto ... but some of u stuff mentally

  5. What a lot in these comments! No doubt there’s a lot more in this pile of . . . you know what.

    Jonathan; you are quite right to point out that many people went through the prep school unscathed, in fact I think Stephen Fry has said something similar although he was not entirely happy as I recall.
    For some it was an escape from life in another country, or bad experiences at home. I’m only talking about my own particular experience. I think that Paula is right about the festering. Fester at your peril.

    Boarding school can leave you in a strange unresolved state of dependence and independence. Geraldine (my sister) and I later shared a boarding school in Cumbria – a Quaker school no less. It took about two days to get there before the motorways. When we first got there the smell of Bacon and Porridge in the mornings, the long corridors, the weird accent and words, the strange-ness was very unsettling. I now realise that it was actually quite a benign school - that one.

    Most importantly of all, if I ever am a magistrate I shall ensure that not only do a wear a wig and gown, but that I have a good few gallons of jelly in my chambers to keep me happy.

  6. Said I wouldn’t comment lengthily, but can’t resist it, sorry, such fascinating comments.

    Boarding school? Yeah, me too. But I get a bit impatient with the “boarding school survivors” stuff on the net (don’t at all mean the above!) – what about the comprehensive school survivors, the sec mods, the grammar school, the…etc. Any school can be horrible, then great, then a bit nasty again, then….Or good for some, hell for others. But - at the end of the day, literally, you go home. Or not. (But then home can be hell. Ain't life complex?)

    But I feel Geraldine is being a bit hard on herself when she calls herself a wimp. Going to a boarding school at such a young age can often have a strangely dislocating effect, I think. Where do I come from, where was my childhood home? Well, obviously in one sense, where my parents lived. But no half-term in my day, so for almost two-thirds of the year, for ten or 11 weeks at a time, you were somewhere else than at home. So some roots in that other place, but roots which were almost entirely dislocated at the end of your schooling. Roots in your parental home, but you weren’t there much of the time.

    The effects of going away to school may be useful in later life, in terms of agency. My bro did his National Service in a tough outfit (Royal Marines) and he said great hulking blokes were in tears at first because they missed Mum and Home. Naturally. But as he observed, we went through (n.b. went through, not necessarily got past) all that aged 13, or 11, or…hang on…nine?? Seven????

    Too bloody young. Seems obvious now, doesn’t it? Just like letting them have half-term, or monthly, or weekly, exeats is obvious. To go home.

    Psychologists have studied the effects of single-sex boarding on attitudes to gender and sexuality, personality development, emotional intelligence, core stuff. Of course, boarding doesn't have only bad outcomes – some useful things perhaps, in terms of how we relate to the world.

    But effective agency in the world is not the same as personal stability. You don’t have to believe in one standard model of the “normal” person to accept that unresolved issues deep in the personality can cause anxiety and tension in later life, with physical consequences.

    Arkers’ way of dealing with this is hypnotherapy, mine is mindful meditation. Different roads on the same journey, man. Go well.

    ps recommend use the jelly down the accused's trousers, more fun.

  7. G,

    Maybe more appropriate down the convicted person's trousers, (innocent until proven Guilty etc) or perhaps even better under the prosecuting / defence council's wig?

    I digress - do excuse me.

  8. You are sentenced to a pint and a half of trouser jelly every morning for the next month. Take him down, and get this jelly out from under my wig.


I'm always interested to hear any thoughts or stories of your own. Please do comment.