Analysis

Mind-Body duality under the new light of affective realism

Sudeep Adhikari

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Every time I listen to Black Francis from The Pixies bemoaning aesthetically, “Where is my mind?” I can’t help taking the context literally. Where exactly is our mind? Is it the homunculus inside our brain doing all the thinking? Or it is the totality of all neuronal fireworks inside our head? Or is it nothing but an algorithmic epiphenomenon?

But an underlying theme that we can notice here is that we are conceptually conditioned to relate the incorporeal object called “mind” to our brain machine. Are we in an urgent need of a different world-view here? Most probably, yes, and here the idea of Affective Realism is of prime relevance.

Affective Realism is an idea propounded by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in her perceptive book called “How Emotions are made: The Secret Life of the Brain”. The idea is pretty gigantic on its scope, considering the way it questions the philosophical underpinning of Cartesian mind-body dualism, backed by Barrett’s scientific research on the neuro-physiology of emotions.

Although we are way far behind creating a holistic science of consciousness, we can’t negate the significant strides that neuroscience has made in recent past. Most important of all, the presumed heterogeneity between the “mind” and the “body” seems to be slowly crumbling under the new light, which significance lies in the fact that it can alter our centuries-old erroneous world-view.

This is also very important in a sense it can tell us why there is an urgent need of a discussion between science and philosophy. Our scientific mind is still very much obsessed with the 16th century philosopher Rene Descartes’s mechanistic metaphysics, which dictates a strict dichotomy between “mind” and “matter” and we have tried to build our science of consciousness around that model. What if the dichotomy is an illusion? What if “psyche” and “matter” form an indivisible whole, just like an elementary particle which tends to be a particle and wave depending on the way it is probed?

The lesser-known but hugely influential collaboration between Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, and the renowned physicist Wolfgang Pauli during the first half of 20th century revolved a lot around this issue. Although they created a broader philosophical outlook, it seemed to have failed to reach a larger range of audience; probably due to its esoteric bent and the lack of proper scientific investigation for the backing.

Francisco Varela, the renowned Chilean philosopher/neuroscientist argued that cognition is identical with the whole process of living, such that consciousness has to be viewed in conjunction to both brain and body. Antonio Damasio, another renowned neuroscientist/philosopher from Portugal in his seminal book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994) similarly argued that our inability to grasp the totality of human-consciousness is probably rooted on our unfounded belief on mind-body duality, as propounded by a 16th century genius thinker/mathematician Rene Descartes. And it is here where Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Affective Realism exactly fits in.

Affective Realism posits that our emotions are the social-constructs which take a particular formal shape based on their intricate feedback-loops with our body. Our emotions are not the singularly mental phenomena, but a complex juxtaposition of all our matrices; biological, mental and social in an undivided whole! When we feel sad, it is not just our ethereal “mind” or “psyche” or “brain” that is out of whack, but the super-system of our organismic whole feeling the blue !

I was very uncomfortable when Daniel Kahneman in his masterpiece Thinking, Fast and Slow proposed two distinct systems of thinking; the first one is emotional or instinctual, the second one being rational. Though very effective, I was very skeptical if such compartmentalistic viewpoint can impart a righteous understanding of human-mind in totality. Kahneman’s idea is based on the same old assumption of mind-body duality which posits mind or brain to be the sole controller of our decision; the rational part attributed to the neo-cortex and the emotional/instinctual to the older limbic system.

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Image credit: zfl-berlin.org

As recently reported in The Atlantic, experimental psychology is recently facing a so-called “reproducibility crisis”; its inability to reproduce the exact results as reported by previous researchers. So what might have gone wrong? Probably the problem lies in the implicit assumption that there is a disembodied “mind” attached somehow to our brain which although communicates to our body, is the sole driver of our thoughts and emotions, and this assumption is probably making us inconsiderate to the noise coming from our body.

And here Affective Realism, albeit a weakly formed theory, seems to have a tremendous ability to explain the way we are. Not only our psyche, our physiological make-up also responds to the environment, and that is cognition-proper in totality. Our emotional responses (Daniel Kahneman’s system-1) are not just the passive reactions against environment, but the very active principle of our consciousness. These observations can have far-reaching consequences in future; the way it can revamp our theoretical understanding of human mind, and our ability to explain the infinite facets of this beautiful mystery called consciousness.

The writer is a structural engineer by profession. Also a poet, he writes regularly on philosophy, religion, science, psychology and popular culture.

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