Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mind-body connection

i'm no philosopher, but i was raised cartesian enough to be habituated to a strict distinction between mind and body. "cogito ergo sum" was a way of life -- a way of thinking about life -- long before i knew enough latin to translate it. you'd do things so differently if you believed "i breathe, therefore i am" or "my heart beats, therefore i am" or "being part of a community produces a sense of individual being" (which i don't think has a fancy latin tag, though undoubtedly there's a nice phrase for it in some language).

it's not like there haven't been opportunities to unlearn the subjugation of my body to my mind. for one thing, i suffer migraines. what is a migraine if not a painful reminder that the brain is a bodily organ? likewise, i received one of the best health diagnoses ever from the venerable dr aung, years ago. in chinese medicine, each fingertip represents the function of an inner organ. dr aung clipped a sensor to the end of each finger in turn and together we bent over the hand-held meter to watch the electrical currents register. my lungs, it appeared, were functioning at about 35%, my kidneys struggling for 30% and my liver ticking along at nearly 40. finally we came to the right index finger, connected to the brain, and the dial redlined. "aha!," said dr aung. "you are theenking too mach!"

in spite of all these ... learning opportunities, i remain painfully mental. migrainous. im-patient. unrealistic, idealistic. the connection between mind and body keeps eluding me. however, in this latest diagnosis, vasovagal syncope, i've been given another chance. in fact, i've learned how to name the mind-body connection. it's called the vagus nerve.

from the latin for "wanderer," the vagus nerve runs from brainstem to viscera, branching off at the heart, lungs and stomach along the way. (seriously! and how about this, from our good friends at wikipedia: "research has shown that women who have complete transection of the spinal cord can experience orgasms through the vagus nerve"?) in situations of extreme pain, fear, or anxiety, your vagus nerve causes your heart rate to slow and your blood vessels to dilate. the combination of low blood pressure and blood pooling in your extremities results in fainting. being prone on the ground means that your circulatory system no longer has to fight gravity. blood can circulate back up to the head, so consciousness is restored.

if i understand all of this correctly, it means something like this: physical and emotional distress so taxes the mind-body connection that the normally vagabond nerve centre panics and shuts everything down. fainting -- prostration without consciousness -- is the body's way of recalibrating.

or am i over-analyzing?


Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, Vagas orgasms you say? I am adding the Vagas Nerve to my inner smile meditations immediately!!:)


Anonymous said...

I have the same diagnosis, but I'm beginning to think there's more to it than that. Or even less? Perhaps we've overworked ourselves and arrived at that stop, Fatigue, and we don't realize just how overdone/overextended we are. I continue to teach too much, take on too many other tasks, and eat well one day, mediocre the next. My body hasn't had a chance to 'reset' itself and recover. Or vice versa. I don't know. But dizziness is upon me at the moment, so I thought to look around instead of attempting sleep. So hello, random prof -- nice to virtually make your acquaintance! Hope you're well and congrats on this historical moment in U.S. history!