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"It’s all in your head": What it is to be human

The mysterious intersection of perspective, fellowship, connection and presence

So far in this series, I've partially deconstructed that difficult phrase “It’s all in your head,” and uncovered its source in Descartes’ desire to avoid being burned alive at the stake (really), and in the assumption that physical material reality (the body) matters more than the mind in understanding humanity. I also made the point that the conscious mind is influential in its own right, because when we direct our conscious attention to different tasks, we can actually physically change the body (ie the brain). So if the biomedical dualistic model that grew out of Descartes' research can’t work because it has no room for the mind, what then? How can we conceptualise what it is to be human?

Clearly, our physical biology is a necessary part of what makes us human. The physical environment that we need to survive also has to be considered.

Just as clearly, our mind/ consciousness/ psyche must be included. As Descartes observed, “I think, therefore I am”. The brain and mind interact in ways that we don’t always understand. When the brain changes, our personalities, expectations, and abilities can change – indeed, without a brain, we can’t have a mind. Yet when we direct our conscious attention to specific memories, when we deliberately behave in specific ways, we can not only change the brain’s action, but its form. People may like to assume that the body and mind exist separately, but the mental is inseparable from the physical.

Place, people, and common goals

We are also embedded in a complex social network of relationships with other people and organisations – our families, friends, workmates and work places and policies, education and health care providers, government systems and processes. On a large scale level, we can understand the impact of being on the negative side of governmental policies (e.g. Medicare, tax law, the marriage equality debate). Individually, we all know the pain of being out of sync with people or the subtle joy of being completely in sync with the people in our surroundings, and the effects that has on our drive to continue connecting, and on our general motivation and energy.

Finally, there is that part of ourselves that looks for the larger perspective and meaning. The most convenient label for it is spirituality. What is it to be human? What does it mean to be alive? What is my purpose? How should I interact with the world? How can I connect meaningfully to the sacred or divine? Why am I suffering? Do things happen for a reason? People have been asking these questions for as long as there have been people. As such, it is a universal human experience - something that touches us all. And usually, those who have found meaningful answers to those questions cope better with the ups and downs of life.

So, the answer to the “all in your head” dismissive, dualistic model is what we call the biopsychosocial-spiritual model. (Sorry, I know it's a mouthful!) I conceptualise it like a set of four circles:

Biopsychosocial-spiritual model

Now, let’s have some fun (yes, I know - I do have a strange definition of "fun") and put this back onto Descartes. Have a look - what do you think were the most influential factors affecting Descartes as he developed his theory of the mind? What were the things most in his favour? What were the things that acted against him? You could even copy this image and start drawing arrows from one factor to the next (e.g. male - white male privilege - education - scientific reputation...?)

The biopsychosocial-spiritual model as applied to Descartes development of dualism

Now stop and think for a moment, if you have reflected on the above figure. How has your mind been affected by looking at Descartes’ actions and beliefs in this way? What changed?

Maybe you'd like some ideas on how to apply it to yourself? Come back next time...


This is part three of a four-part series on this topic. If you don’t want to miss it, please subscribe to my site and I’ll let you know when it’s live.

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