Georg Ivanovas From Autism to Humanism - systems theory in medicine

2.3 The psychosomatic confusion

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a) the Cartesian split

Mostly the term mind is associated with a body. In this common use, body and mind create each other complementarily. Mind is what is not body and body is what is not mind. They exclude each other (von Uexküll: XXVI), but both remain undefined. It is like Rubin’s vase with only grounds and no figure.

This leads to the unsatisfactory situation that a distinction is assumed where actually is none. This becomes clear when someone aims to attribute a certain process to the body or to the mind. Heartbeat is body. But is the quick heartbeat in excitement body or mind? One might argue that it is body as it concerns the heart. But then every physiological process would be body. One might argue that it is mind as excitement is an emotion. Then the sino-atrial node which is controlled by the autonomous nervous system and by emotions would be mainly mind and the slower pacemaker of the atro-ventricular node would be more body. That is, the body – mind split could be located exactly between these two pacemakers. This is of little use, just as all the other attempts to locate this split. The distinction is neither precise nor helpful. But more important: it does not represent any kind of reality.

Things are even more confusing when one goes a step further and asks about the psycho-somatic model: How do the two parts (body and mind) influence each other? In this context it is often referred to physiological components like neurotransmitters. But this is no solution of the logical problem as it pushes the undefined distinction only further. What is a mind able to release neurotransmitters? If such a mind is assumed, it has to have power over matter. But without a construction like a ‘mind’ one has to assume that quantity can determine pattern. It is a kind of logical deadlock and Bateson defined both possibilities – a mind which has power over matter and the assumption that quantity is able to create pattern – as superstition (Bateson, 1988: 57-60).

Uexküll proposed to see body and mind as different levels of the system human (von Uexküll 1986: 10). This would explain the lack of a distinction. But such a definition does not solve the problem what mind really is and how it relates to the body.

Günther proposed that the body – mind spilt is a consequence of a binary logic (Günther 1976: 208-213, Günther 1979: 203-240). If true, - and there is a lot of evidence supporting this view – it would imply that the Cartesian split is a convenient method to maintain a linear, two valued methodology which is unsuitable for biological processes. The Cartesian split is probably a main hindrance in the attempt to develop more appropriate concepts of the living.

A hint in this direction is that a lot of ‘scientific` concepts of mind come from neuroscientists, psychoanalysists or philosophers and have one thing in common: they are developed by observing immobilized persons (under stable conditions). Psychoanalysis or brain scanning are classical examples where the ‘body’ is to be held as stable as possible. If one takes into account that “even the change in posture, while preserving the same identical sensorial stimulation, alters the neuronal response in primary visual cortex” (Varela et al 1993: 93) it might be assumed that a ‘mind’ found in such a context will differ fundamentally from a ‘mind’ in action (Niedenthal 2007). In fact therapists working with people in motion never thought of mind being something different from the body. From Reich’s Charakteranalyse (1933), Perls’ Ego, Hunger and Aggression (1946), Lowen’s Institute for Bioenergetics (1956) to Petzold’s current Integrative Therapy (Petzold 1998) there is a clear line that Ida Rolf summarizes: “There ain’t no psychology, just biology” (Johnson 1998: 6).


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