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Burning stakes, machines and men: "It's all in your head."

Man, machine, and a burnt-out husk

Last week, we started deconstructing that difficult phrase, "It's all in your head". Sometimes people use it to deny someone else's experience – they can’t see it, they don’t feel it, therefore it doesn’t exist, and we must be ones out of touch with reality; or sometimes it reflects their assumption that an idea that is not actually physically present is automatically suspect or less important. How did modern understanding ever reach this point?? And what does being burned at the stake have to do with it??

Let me introduce you to René Descartes. One of the greatest philosophers and scientists of the Renaissance, he made significant contributions to the development of mathematics, physics, biology, medicine and psychology. He was committed to the scientific method, and to the use of reason and logic in perceiving and understanding the ordered world his God had made.

He was the one who said “I think, therefore I am”, as a way to start down the path of setting all assumptions aside, and learning about the world through observation.

He believed that the world could be understood as a complex machine, made up of a series of ever simpler and smaller components, much like a clock is made up of interacting springs, wheels, gears and levers. The human body was one such component.

Descartes wanted to study human anatomy through dissection, to find out how its components worked. Unfortunately, the secular and religious authorities at the time were violently opposed to the idea of desecrating the human body in such a way, because they assumed the body was the seat of the immortal, ever-conscious, soul (an idea drawn in turn from Plato and other Ancient Greek philosophers, not the Bible). To desecrate the body would desecrate the soul. To do so would be heresy, and heretics were burned alive at the stake.

To get around this, Descartes struck a philosophical deal - he argued that we could study the working of the body as if we were studying a machine, and to do so, we did not need to inquire into the workings of the soul/mind/consciousness. He said that the mind was utterly non-physical, immortal, capable of existence independent of the body, and subject to completely different laws than our bodies. (In case you’re wondering, he hypothesised that the mind acted on the body by pressing down on the pineal gland in the centre of the brain, which in turn moved the rest of the body by a series of microscopic hydraulic tubes.) The religious authorities of the time were then still left with the soul, mind, and emotions in their domain, and he got to start doing autopsies without the fear of being burned at the stake!

Descartes is therefore now credited with the dubious distinction of developing dualism, or the mind-body problem. It made it easier to talk about the mechanisms of the body, but at the cost of ignoring and dismissing the processes we now associate with thoughts and emotions. The error was to assume that our bodies needed to be inhabited by “the ghost in the machine”; that we needed some utterly separate, mysterious, mind stuff to be able to move and think.

However, his way of looking at the world was popular, and ultimately birthed the western biomedical model. In its most extreme version, disease is considered a linear, one-way, causal process – one of the parts of the body breaks down and interrupts the function of the whole, so to cure it you disrupt that cause at the physical level. This then helps the machine to restore itself, return to order and regain normal function. The workings of the mind are not relevant to the disease or its cure.

Of course, when we stop to think about it (ha ha), we realise that the mind cannot be easily discarded. Yes, we must have a body and a brain in order to have a mind. When the brain is damaged, our personalities and abilites can be badly affected. But the mind can, by force of conscious attention or belief, affect the brain’s structure and function. This is part of what neuroscientists refer to as “neuroplasticity” – our brain can change in response to conscious and unconscious inputs from the internal and external environment.

For example, when you learn (i.e. choose to repeatedly practice an activity), your neural pathways shape themselves according to that activity and build stronger connections amongst themselves. So, for example, when you actively teach students that their “intelligence” can change through study and review, their effort, morale, grades and overall academic performance significantly improve! Or, consider the placebo effect – when you actually just take a sugar pill, but you believe you are taking a real drug that is going to work, and your symptoms improve! The ability to consciously exercise your mind can have powerful effects!

How can we account for this? Come back next week...


This is part two of a four-part series on this topic. If you don’t want to miss it, please subscribe to my site,, to be the first to know when it's up.

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