Pain Stops Play

On Dizziness and Dualism

Spiral Vertigo, by Sifter, with Creative Commons licenceVertigo is a curious phenomenon – something like the split-second at which stability becomes movement, repeated once, twice and again, always spinning around. In its mild state the condition is relatively common, but given that it’s rarely spoken about there must be quite a few silently worried people walking one cautious step at a time. The very realisation that the brain is misinterpreting its physical surrounds is not a pleasant experience. An effect for which we might pay substantial amounts of money on a Friday night – and alcohol is seldom more than vertigo in a bottle – is not welcome when it arrives unannounced, uninvited. So the feeling that things are slipping away brings with it anxiety, which increases the sense that the brain has taken on a life of its own.

But, of course, the brain is not independent of the thinker. Vertigo seems to highlight the distinction between the mind – our conscious thoughts, our perceptions – and the brain, the organ that makes all thought possible. To perceive uncontrollable movement when you know that nothing is happening suggests a clear division between the physical processes of the brain and the purely mental way in which those processes are understood. Yet even that description highlights how the very popular notion of a mind-brain dualism fails to notice the brain generating the thoughts that the ethereal mind uses to doubt its own dependence on the brain.

So much for a philosophical cure.

Tom Clark discussed the mind-brain distinction in more detail early last year, and his commentary on the impossibility of “brain sculpting”, how thoughts alone won’t allow us to make our brains function better, is well worth reading. So are the comments on his post. It all comes down to understanding that thoughts are vestiges of the brain – even those thoughts that claim independence in the republic of the mind.

I’m also reminded after reading Tom’s post that Urban Outcries, by CARF, with Creative Commons licenceno amount of conscious effort can ever overcome discrepancies between what the brain receives and what the sensory organs provide. In that way vertigo is a great leveller – it drags you back from delusions of the sovereign intellect and dumps you in the squalor of your own malfunctioning biology.

So if you have mild vertigo as I currently have, and headaches to go with it, pain really can stop play. It can grind out almost any task, reducing pleasure in accomplishment to relief at conclusion. Biology can be glorious, but it’s also downright torturous at times. That’s the reality of the non-dualistic human condition.

At least it’s not all in my mind.

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