Psychology

Embodied Selves and Divided Minds at Central APA

In an ‘Author Meets Critics’ session at the APA’s 2017 Central Division Meeting, author Michelle Maiese of Emmanuel College met with critics Jennifer Hansen and Elizabeth Schechter to discuss her book Embodied Selves and Divided Minds.  

Michelle Maiese
Michelle Maiese

Michelle, for those who couldn’t make it to your Author Meets Critics session, can you give an overview of your book?

The book examines how research in embodied cognition and enactivism might contribute to our understanding of the nature of self-consciousness, the metaphysics of personal identity, and the disruptions to self-awareness that occur in instances of psychopathology.  In the first part of the book, I develop an account of mindedness, conscious subjectivity, and the self as fully embodied and enactive, and as rooted in the dynamics of living organisms. I maintain that neither the mind nor the self is brainbound, and this paves the way for what I call the “Minded Animal” account of personal identity. According to this account, what we are fundamentally are minded animals. Our persistence metaphysically requires both the continued capacity for subjectivity as well as the neurobiological continuity of the living animal body.  One implication of this account is that I would not survive either (a) as a brain in a vat, or (b) if my brain was removed from my former body and transplanted into a new body. In the latter part of the book, I discuss how this conception of the self can help us to make sense of both schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. I argue that while both disorders involve serious disruptions to embodied subjectivity and distortions in self-consciousness, each one involves a single minded animal and a single self. In the concluding chapter, I maintain that because mindedness and self-consciousness are fully embodied, body-oriented therapies such as yoga, dance, and music offer the best hope for lasting improvement.

Embodied Selves and Divided MindsWhat do you think is the most important or compelling aspect of your book?  

It brings together topics that are not integrated very often. To my knowledge, it is the first book that discusses the connections between work in embodied cognition, philosophical approaches to the self and personal identity, and philosophy of psychiatry.

What intrigues you most about this topic?  

Often philosophers rely on outlandish thought experiments to discuss philosophical questions. I think it is especially interesting to think about how conditions such as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder can serve as real-life puzzle cases for theories of self-consciousness and personal identity. In schizophrenia, aspects of self-awareness that usually go together (such as the senses of ownership and agency) begin to come apart, and there are important questions about how to make sense of this. In dissociative identity disorder, the presence of multiple alter personalities may make it seem as if multiple selves inhabit a single body.  Again, it is unclear whether this is truly metaphysically possible. Thinking through these issues has important implications not only for philosophers, but also for psychiatrists and anyone else who is interested in understanding mental illness. I think the real-world importance of the discussion made this book project especially worthwhile for me.

What do you think were the most interesting, contentious, or challenging points that the critics raised in the session?

Elizabeth Schechter raised some challenging questions about my account of personal identity. According to the Minded Animal account that I present, I can remain the same minded animal even if I lose my memories and my personality alters dramatically. But I cannot remain the same minded animal if my brain is transplanted into a new body.  No doubt, to a proponent of a psychological approach, this will seem very odd.  After all, if someone imagines that in the case of a brain transplant, my memory and personality will be preserved, then it will seem counter-intuitive to suppose that I will not survive.

Schechter asks us to imagine the following scenario: suppose Lizzie’s brain is transplanted into the body of a linebacker, Lance. My Embodied Self account says that memories, character traits, desires, and long-term plans are all fully embodied and distributed body-wide rather than being brainbound. If so, then if brains don’t have even a privileged role in our psychologies, then perhaps Lizzie-brained linebacker will more closely resemble Lance in all psychological respects. In contrast, Schechter’s prediction is that Lizzie-brained linebacker would more closely resemble Lizzie than she would Lance, at least in certain respects (e.g. episodic and semantic memories, intimate attachments, and knowledge of French grammar). She admits that perhaps the desires and long-term plans of Lizzie-brained linebacker would be very different from Lizzie’s, but this is unsurprising given the radical change of circumstance. Now, I do not deny that the brain makes a difference. And I can understand the tendency to think that because this individual has Lizzie’s brain, there will be some degree of psychological resemblance. Schechter is right that this is an open empirical question to some extent. But what the essential embodiment thesis predicts is that if my brain were transplanted into a new body, then there is little reason to think that there will be psychological resemblance.

But what if turns out that, as a matter of fact, that when we actually are able to carry out the first human brain transplant, Lizzie-brained linebacker turns out to be a lot like Lizzie in terms of memory, personality, and emotional attachments? Would I then be willing to bite the bullet and resist the psychologist’s intuitions? Again, given my account of the mind and the self, as fully embodied, I doubt this is how it would turn out. But if things did turn out that way, I suppose I would bite the bullet and say that this is a numerically distinct minded animal, one that resembles Lizzie in certain psychological respects. According to the Minded Animal account, it wouldn’t be Lizzie, regardless of whether there was resemblance, because it’s a distinct animal.

Jennifer Hansen raised some interesting questions about how my account of affective framing might be adopted to make sense of depression. Affective framing, as I understand it, is the process whereby we appraise and interpret things in our surroundings by way of desiderative bodily feelings. Such framing is best understood as distributed over a complex network of brain and bodily processes; it engages not just the brain, but also metabolic systems, endocrine responses, musculoskeletal changes, and cardiovascular responses. I argue that this pre-reflective way of discriminating, filtering, and selecting information is our most basic, fundamental way of making sense of our surroundings.

Affective framing has a forward-looking temporal structure and a future-oriented temporal dimension. This is because ordinarily, as we encounter the world, we gauge things as important or significant to us in relation to open possibilities and our goals for the future. Objects and people are framed as enticing, threatening, urgent, interesting, or otherwise significant insofar as they offer potential friendship, conversation, approval, or humiliation. Things matter, and that “all of the ways in which things and people matter to us are at the same time kinds of possibility that the world presents us with” (Ratcliffe, 2010, 603). In ordinary cases, the embodied subject experiences the future as open to change, and this openness to the future has a bodily dimension: there are opportunities for movement, for bodily engagement, and for various modes of response. However, in cases of depression, the future lacks openness and no longer appears as a domain of possible activity, so that many tasks or pursuits seem to be blocked or impossible. Because a subject with depression is no longer connected or intentionally directed toward the future in the usual way, she becomes temporally de-situated: there is a change in the temporal structure of her intentional engagement that alters her receptiveness to the meaning of things, which in turn gives rise to many of the characteristic symptoms of depression.

What aspects were attendees most interested in?

Some of the discussion with the audience focused on issues related to personal identity. Many people have strong intuitions in favor of a psychological approach to personal identity and a brainbound approach to the mind. I was not surprised to have some pushback regarding my proposed Minded Animal account.

We also talked a little bit about the role of environmental factors in giving rise to mental illness and some of the cross-cultural differences in the way schizophrenia and depression manifest.  For example, auditory verbal hallucinations typically involve negative messages among subjects with depression living in the United States, but in other societies these “voices” express far more positive messages.  And while guilt is a key symptom of depression for many subjects in the U.S., subjects in the non-Western world less commonly report that guilt is a central system.  This may be due to the differing emphasis that societies put on economic productive and goal achievement.

What are some areas for further research on this topic?

I am interested in thinking more about how psychological disorders are reflective not only of disordered functioning within individuals, but also a toxic social environment. The sociocultural environment does seem to play an important role in giving rise to mental illness, but I don’t really explore this in the book.  I also am interested in thinking more about how a disruption to affective framing might help to explain major depressive disorder.

How can your thinking on this area shed light on public discourse and debates? 

Medication remains the dominant mode of treatment for psychological disorders. I think that once we understand mindedness and self-consciousness as fully embodied, this pushes us toward body-oriented modes of therapy.  These more effective modes of therapy would involve cultivating better habits of attention and emotional response. Dr. Hansen asked specifically how these ideas might be relevant for the debate surrounding neuro-enhancement. What if people who have not been diagnosed with depression wish to take SSRIs in order to “improve” their personalities? I think that here, as in the case of treatment for psychological disorders, the better path to “self-improvement” would center around becoming engaged in various forms of bodily activity.  Dance, yoga, music therapy, and art therapy all engage the body and can cultivate new modes of engaging with the world and interacting with other people.  Many of the medications prescribed for schizophrenia involve pretty awful side effects, and there aren’t really any medications available to help subjects suffering from dissociative identity disorder. More research should be done to investigate the effectiveness of body-oriented modes of treatment.

What are your top tips for authors and critics when they meet in sessions such as these?  

Definitely adopt a collaborative stance. I thought we had a really interesting discussion in our session in large part because the commenters acted more as conversation partners than they did “critics.”  They definitely raised some important questions, but in a way that moved the dialogue forward.

Michelle Maiese is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA. Her research focuses on the relationship between mind, brain, and body, the nature of psychopathology, and the integration of emotion and cognition.  

Şerife Tekin (Daemen College) chaired the session, while Jennifer Hansen (St. Lawrence University) and Elizabeth Schechter (Washington University in St. Louis) provided critical commentaries. 

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1 thought on “Embodied Selves and Divided Minds at Central APA

  1. I wonder how you would respond to the statement that what we call ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’ is restricted neither to the ‘brain’ nor to the ‘body,’ but is a bio- electro-magnetic field effect of the synchronous electromagnetic activity (coordinated synaptic firing) of the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems (cf. JohnJoe McFadden CEMI field theory of consciousness) which constantly interacts with other bio-electromagnetic fields (‘other minds’) and with the whole biophysical environment? (Although to be correct, McFadden actually denies the existence of this interaction of the CEMI field with ‘other minds’ or the environment, which I’m afraid he thinks un-scientifically suggests esp, telepathy, etc.) And that therefore what are thought of as individual psycho-pathologies (schizophrenia, depression etc.) are in most cases (barring, of course, developmental and genetic disorders and dysfunctions of the neurophysiological system) sociologically and environmentally caused by what you might call the traumatic or toxic effects of pathological influences impacting the individual from a dysfunctional or toxic sociological environment? And that therefore psychiatric analysis of these psycho-pathological disorders will never fully succeed in solving these problems (i.e, creating wholesome, healthy, sane individuals) until it acknowledges the effects of those dysfunctional or toxic influences impacting the individual from the sociological or biophysical environment, and instead of attempting to change the individual organism (by drugs or surgery), addresses the bigger problem of changing the environment (i.e., creating wholesome, healthy, sane environments)?

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