A Philosopher on Brain Rest

Jun 25, 2019 · 193 comments
Philly Spartan (Philadelphia, PA)
Thanks for Prof. Craig for this thoughtful piece, and it's good to hear she has recovered. "Brain rest" is an evidence-based recommendation, but at the same time something of an enigmatic concept. Thinking "don't think" is of course itself a thought. The key -- I think! -- is to avoid brain overstimulation, which primarily can come from busy visual stimuli. I'm puzzled though as to why the experience caused Prof. Craig to reconsider dualism. The injury to a part of the body, the brain, that results in disorientation and potentially loss of self and identity would seem to confirm materialism and undermine the notion that there is any mind distinct from the body.
Julia Scott (New England)
Thank you for your essay - it was intriguing, particularly as it hit rather home for me. A rear-end car crash destroyed part of my cervical spine and many nerves, leaving me with a panoply of disabling, painful conditions. As one who always felt trapped by my physical body - a dualist, I suppose - recovery has been a nasty wakeup call. I reluctantly see my life now as a network of beings where brain, body, mind, soul, spirit, and psych are intertwined with my family, work, friends, and community. Life before was complex. Life now is painfully confusing. We see this in small ways every day. A new medication affects a seemingly-unrelated condition. Psychological changes impact our work and family life. Stress affects everything. A physical injury causes long-lasting ramifications that cascade across our life. As I worked to rebuild some of what I lost, I cared for my mother who was dying of dementia. When we define ourselves by our intellect, as I did, as my mother did, we risk losing ourselves when faced with brain injury/illness. I do not know if I will face my mother's fate in a few decades. I do not know if I will ever fully recover. I know what I have now is more than I had a year ago, and that has to be enough.
Andrew (Colorado Springs, CO)
Yeah, I feel you. I had a large brain tumor as a teen - the effects are still here at 50. All you can do is adapt the best you can. One of the more interesting things I've come to realize is it's much easier for others to get a handle on the idea that a person can't do pushups as easily with only one arm, than grasping a person with a brain injury might have trouble remembering faces and dates.
Ross Best (Missoula, Montana)
Surely there should have been some mention of sleep. Does brain rest all happen while we are awake?
Ash. (WA)
Despite being a physician and scientist... (the following is a very personal opinion) there are innumerable times when my brain or mind has clear-cut logical answers, but something inside my chest (and that's the odd part, this feel comes from where the heart is), says no. I want to ignore it, my brain literally argues back with this illogical thing in my chest but, it is a strange pervading feel inside the whole body which can revolt-- I hate to phrase it so-- but very much like a child. I read Cartesian theory long while back, but I couldn't even as a teenager reconcile with it, something inside me, said no, again. Call it heart, or soul, or that indefinable thing inside us, I have always been aware of one-me in the brain, one-me apart, a combination of heart/soul, more like an essence of me. These two talk all the time. And brain injury, even minor, is difficult to contain internally, as the person (if you have insight about what you have lost) and worse in dementia patients, when it is the loved ones who watch it happening. It s silent anguish. Ms Craig, I am glad you're better. Life is tenacious and yet, so fragile, like spider silk, like gossamer cobwebs blown away by wind but able to handle hundred times its weight.
Djt (Dc)
This is a prime example of the ivory tower effect inherent in some disciplines and how each must learn to be interdisciplinary.
Kristin (Portland, OR)
It's beyond personal identity that Truth is waiting to be found. It's so interesting, isn't it, that even when the brain's functioning was compromised, there was still something there, a consciousness, observing everything that was happening.
jazz one (Wisconsin)
From the article: "I recalled my grandfather, late in his life, describing his own failing mind as a library where all of the books were shelved too high to reach." Profound. And so true. At some point, those high shelves will be so far out of sight or reach, they might as well be on the Moon. Losing oneself -- one's mind, memory, ability to think and act. It's awful. I wish the author continued healing. (And next time on the ice, wear a helmet?)
Raphael (Renaissance)
I suffered a horrific concussion at an ice rink on 9/11/2011, my "9/11". I lost the ability to read without pain. Reading more than a few sentences at a time caused pulsating, all-consuming pain amidst an ever pervasive fog of mental sluggishness. Vertigo, intense depression, debilitating fatigue were frequent companions. Mind you, this injury occurred during an evening early in my first year of law school. I had fought to be admitted to this law school, and had been rejected the year before; wait-listed just a few months earlier, and only admitted to the "Evening Division" just a few days before the commencement of classes. I knew I had a concussion. I struggled through law school at a fraction of my full potential. The years that followed would make a Tolstoy novel read like a Disney screenplay. A concussion is a severe brain injury. Any injury to the brain is severe. A highly functioning brain is absolutely essential to our jobs, lives, etc. The knowledge and science about concussions drummed into the minds of most doctors today is beyond hidebound. Loss of consciousness is not a requisite condition for a severe concussion. And very sadly, most doctors are clueless about emerging, evidence-based, cutting-edge treatment for concussions such as that offered by brain photo-biomodulation (Vielight) and Dynavision D2 technology. Equally, most doctors are clueless about the need for an expert nutritional consult and a neuropsych exam following concussion.
Alex. Blumenstiel (Stowe, VT)
Quantum physics is based on an experimentally validated theory that all matter is a probabilistic particle/wave function which 'settles' into 'material reality' only when measured (i.e., when perceived). In this interpretation, it can be argued that the entire material universe from the sub-atomic to the macro level 'exists' because our consciousnesses perceives it.
Mary Sojourner (Flagstaff)
Thank you for your honesty, wit and writing skill. I am keeping this article to remind myself how tiny we are - and how delicately balanced.
William M. Palmer, Esq. (Boston)
There is no "I" - read Metzinger's Being No One!! https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/being-no-one Unfortunately, as I experienced the study of philosophy (at Harvard College), apart from individual such as Metzinger and Daniel Dennett and their ilk, philosophers use dated and abstract terminology to seek to address issues that are far better examined through the lenses of neuroscience and cognitive pschology as to mechanisms and models - and novels, as to subjective experience ....
James Smith (Austin To)
How do you define identity? It seems to me that I am always me. If I forget my name, I am me depressed because I know that we all have names and it is stupid or infirm, i.e. embarrassing or frightening, to forget your own (though it does not have to be either embarrassing or frightening). If I forget my name and also that I am supposed to have one, I am me without a name being told that I am supposed to have one. Seems to me, I am always me, the rest is what? Clothing?
biblioagogo (Claremont, CA)
So sorry the writer’s head was injured, but this is more of the same substantialism and epiphenomenology the NYT feels passes as “philosophy”. Just the self-identifier “I am a philosopher” shows this, and I’m pretty sure she conceived of her”self” in this manner before her trauma as well.
The American philosopher author has probably not Read Michel Montaigne's experience of a fall from his horse and his loss of conscience who triggered a whole human thinking revolution. Americans just know the British kind of philosophy of science. Hence the "brain philosophy" notion. They are completely ignorant in phenomenology. Descartes, Bergson, Husserl , Merleau Ponty ? No ideas.
David (NJ)
“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh)” Genesis 2:7 Oh, If we could only “shuffle off this mortal coil” Shakespeare
Terence (On the Mississippi)
I think that what your article underscores is that " mild traumatic brain injury" is something not to be taken lightly. The depression and character changes following such an injury can ruin a life and the life of the people close to you. I am glad your doctor understood your injury and actually cared.
Steve Jepsen (Berkeley)
I think, therefore I think I am.
PoliticalGenius (Houston)
Cogito ergo sum!
Clearheaded (Philadelphia)
We're all just happy accidents, a collection of brains from different periods of evolution smashed together into a composite that sloshes around in our skulls. Somehow each of us has the sensation that we are unique individuals composed of a body and some mysterious other quality that we like to imagine is independent of the body, and just might outlive it. Relax, we're all just machines, and a blow to the head can disrupt the illusion. The good news is that this is old temporary. Enjoy whatever comes your way before that long dark night.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Clearheaded: I wonder though: how many people really have the sensation that we are unique individual, with a mysterious other quality independent of the body etc? I suspect that those concepts are intellectual attempts to find words for things that few people really feel. We are talking about social constructs here, and people at some point probably figure that if everybody else seems to think there is a mind body problem, they are probably right, and that this must be what it supposedly feels like...
Jim (FL)
It seems, at least in my case, the brain has a mind of its own.
Matt Fisher (Michigan)
I find it comical that the brain is referred to as a “muscle” twice in this article....
Thomas (Oakland)
I can assure you that point guards use their brains also.
Patrick (San Diego)
As a philosopher, I suggest distinguishing a number of issues here. We might begin by putting aside Descartes, a very careful thinker, who insisted in Meditations VI that 'nature teaches me that I am not lodged in my body as a pilot in vessel, but very closely united with it, and so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.' Modern neuroscience does not affect his arguments, in any case. Ms Craig's & others' issues here are about relationships among personal identity, brains (including nervous systems) and the rest of our bodies. One's sense of self can be strongly affected by brain traumas such as hers, also chemicals, ageing and mental conditions such as depression and schizophrenia. Diminishing sense of central self has very different meanings, some of which would not be sought.
Tracy Rupp (Brookings, Oregon)
Argh! Philosophers! They talk, therefore they are. So little of value here, compared to any dharma talk. Interesting sandwich but no meat.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Tracy Rupp: I have to say, I've heard some dharma talks that just went on and on. I kept thinking, what ever happened to just banging your stick on the floor and stomping out? (Well, looking back, I suppose I had that option myself... maybe next time...)
Shiv (New York)
@Tracy Rupp Absolutely nothing interesting in Dharma talk either. All untestable theories like Dharma are utterly uninteresting.
Ashley (vermont)
i had a TBI when i was 15, and another one at 16 that was more severe than the first. I've had numerous blows to the head since from sports. recovery was tough, and many years later, i feel like i never fully recovered. i also started doing psychedelic mushrooms a couple years ago - first for fun, and then when i realized how much it helped my depression, i started doing them more often. i mention this because i believe it has changed my thinking about reality - what is real? (especially in this day and age of fake news and faked lives on social media and our fake president) i often feel like i live in a video game (mind you, i was never much of a gamer). like a character who can be played. if for example, i travel somewhere, it is as if my character accessed a new level in the game. everything feels like its part of the game, even other people. a few months (year?) ago i read this far right wing theory about "NPCs" aka non-playable characters in a videogame. the adherents to this theory were using "NPC" as a derogative word about people they didnt like - in a way to dehumanize them, which is terrifying. but then i see people going through the motions of life without any critical thought whatsoever, doing whatever theyre told, following the crowd, white picket fence and 2 kids and a mortgage and a job they hate and vacation time they never take until theyre 65+, and i wonder if they are NPCs. we cant prove/disprove any of it. we all might be characters in a videogame.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Ashley: But the graphics are better than any other video game I've ever seen, and some of the effects are unique. Try jumping in the ocean! Pretty amazing!
don salmon (asheville nc)
THE NATURE OF "I" A group of us attempted to engage neuroscientist Anil Seth in a conversation about this topic. Seth has been making the "TED" rounds in recent years expounding the "astonishing hypothesis" (which neither he nor Crick came up with; it's been a tired tautological, nihilistic sentiment among arrogant neuroscientists for over a century) that all that we perceive and label "the external world" is merely a construct of the brain. We pointed out the the percept "brain," assuming this theory is consistent, would also be one of those "constructs" which begs the question, what is it that is constructing these percepts? We get back to the Indian philosophic view that all (including the percept "brain") is constructed by the mind. Seth never got it. But if you contemplate this deeply, you will inevitably get to the questions of the Kena Upanishad, "What is it that sees through the eye, but which the eye does not see? What is it that knows through the mind, but the mind does not know? You may enjoy contemplating this with the help of Dan Siegel's "Wheel of Awareness" - at the center of the wheel is pure awareness, pure Being, neither "subjective" nor "objective" (hence neither physicalist nor dualist nor idealist). On the rim of the wheel is all that we are aware OF. That awareness at the center includes all that we are aware OF, which ultimately is no more than ripples in a boundless sea (see!) of Awareness. www.remember-to-breathe.org
Alex. Blumenstiel (Stowe, VT)
I remember coasting down the hill on my bike and --with absolutely no passage of time for me -- being in that ICU and thinking "What the heck? Where's my bike?" They told me i had amnesia from the TBI and would take months to recover. So, where was 'I' in the hours between slamming my head, which i still don't remember years later, and that moment of 'being' in the ICU looking for my bike, which i do remember? For that matter, where was this 'I' before the breathing, eating, etc. thing 'i' call 'me' was born, and where will it be, if anywhere, after this 'me' stops'? Just an eternal blank, i suspect. But .....
Edward (Philadelphia)
"There was no protective cone to keep the wounded place from being itched, no cast to keep the brain still." Sure there is, it's called meditation.
Aristotle Gluteus Maximus (Louisiana)
If you want brain rest why didn't the doctor prescribe watching TV for hours on end and marijuana?
Eugene (Boston)
"Mind-body dualism is often ridiculed in contemporary philosophy as a legacy of stubbornly metaphysical, patriarchal and Western thinking." These people ruin everything. Literally, everything.
Shiv (New York)
@Eugene Agree. I have to say I find it even more ridiculous that philosophers ridicule other philosophers over the point of mind-body duality when the truly fascinating question is how it is that the millions of individual cells that constitute multicellular life forms somehow subjugate their individual identities and begin to think of themselves as a single entity.
SMB (Boston)
As an academic who’s suffered a couple of concussions, I find the author’s conclusions perplexing. If anything, a concussion serves to remind us of what Damasio famously titled, “Descartes’ Error:” There is no “I” magically nestled, or as Descartes put it, “conjoined,” inside our brains. One cannot compartmentalize, or as the author suggests, “balance,” mind and body. Nor is the “body” simply that meat puppet below the neck. Last time I did a dissection, the brain also appeared organic. My colleagues in molecular neurobiology tell me that pinkish colloid works all the way down to individual atoms triggering synapses to fire in patterns, or to proliferate new memory. Bruise the colloid, and we compromise those fire patterns. If we’re lucky, synapses do a work-around, and the “I” patterns start coming online again. Long long ago, natural selection favored one celled life that reacted to its surroundings. After a few hundred million years, multicellular life specialized enough to have a rudimentary nervous system. Fast forward again, and selection favored enough linked neurons for awareness to emerge. Zoom forward again, selection for more neurons, bigger, more complex patterns, and self-awareness. Eventually, evolutionary advantages accrued for the illusion of a stable, predictable “self,” an “I.” Modern computer science, evolutionary biology, and psychiatry are sanguine about this notion. Even philosophers like Dan Dennett. Why does it rattle the author?
K Henderson (NYC)
SMB I think you are very misreading the essay. The writer comes to the conclusion that "he is his mind" after the experience with the brain injury. In other words, the writer speaks against dualism not for it. The question for you since you are so sure about the "self" is the physiology of anesthesia. We still dont know how exactly it works and the loss of consciousness that happens is still not understood at a complete level. It opens lots of questions of how exactly the brain works of course but it also asks us to create complicated definitions of words like self and awareness and consciousness.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@SMB: The article is about how experiencing brain trauma became a real-life experiment in how our minds live and act as functions of the brain, functions that feel different as the brain goes through changes. What she is saying is that there are things about being a living brain that people take for granted when everything is working smoothly, but that take on new significance when the system is disrupted. You might say, there is nothing intellectually new here, it's a just report on the real-time experience of things that have been discussed by philosophers like Dennet. (On the other hand, give her some credit, she's been recovering from a concussion.) There's nothing at all here about being "rattled" by the familiar ideas of neurobiology.
Shiv (New York)
@SMB Thanks for the clear explanation. I have the same reaction whenever I see philosophers digging into the issue of consciousness. I’m not a scientist, but my understanding is that scientists studying consciousness are focused on the process by which the millions of cells that comprise multicellular entities come to think of themselves as a single entity, to the point that some cells even sacrifice themselves for the overall benefit of the consortium. The philosophical discussion the author is engaged in offers no insight on the truly interesting scientific question. Instead, like all philosophy, it’s unable to offer an answer that actually adds value. Stephen Hawking had it right when he claimed that “Philosophy is dead”.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
Without having suffered any trauma like Megan Craig describes, I'm familiar with the feeling of running into a mental limitation: I try to play the flute at a beginner level, and there are times when I get to some phrase, very simple as flute music goes, but with some combination of eight notes, rests and maybe a dotted quarter note, and I just have to step back for a minute and let my brain rest, although I haven't thought of it quite like that before. I suppose I would feel the same limitation if I tried really hard to solve a logic puzzle, but I'm lazy enough to set most of that kind of puzzle aside without straining too much. But music can be rewarding, when you finally get it right.
A. Stanton (Dallas, TX)
Yesterday in the space of about three hours I lost my wallet, then found it, then lost it again and found it again. Finally I gave it to my wife to hold onto for me. How that's going to work out I can't tell you. Her memory is no great shakes either. There is nothing philosophical about aging. This getting old is a problem.
Che Beauchard (Lower East Side)
@A. Stanton Not to worry, A. Stanton. The getting old problem has a cure: dying. You'll get over the aging thing. We all will.
Brian (NY)
What a wonderful read! There is an aspect of memory loss/retention that you may not have experienced yet, as it may be age related, but it has some interest. My wife and I are in our 80's yet are fortunate in that we are still mentally up to living complex lives. We have several long time friends who are similar and with whom we frequently share dinners, etc.. One small thing I have noticed - the inability to recall a name is an example. When conversing and one of us cannot come up with it, almost always the others cannot either. If however, one of us is not present at that moment, for example walking in several minutes later, the late arrival is usually able to remember right away. Social interaction seems to be influencing our group memories.
Ramon.Reiser (Seattle / Myrtle Beach)
👍🏼 ME: I feel, therefore I am. And so are the whales and ravens and . . . “I have often lamented the fact that my job as a philosophy professor confines me so much to a chair and a desk. I’ve wished that philosophy entailed more calisthenics, rugged walking, running outdoors. “ Socrates was a superb wrestler and warrior. Aristotle travele by foot everywhere. Walking and thinking and philosophy should go hand and hand and not as a Chairborne Ranger. As the Greeks traveled by foot so did the philosophers of India and Ethiopia and China. (Or by water and horse.) When I was in a train/bus wreck
Bob G. (San Francisco)
During an operation last year for which I was anesthetized, I had either an out-of-body experience or a very trippy drug reaction. Although supposedly unconscious, I was aware of being aware, there was a conscious "I" who was experiencing a certain reality that wasn't the operating room, but I couldn't remember who I was. This was momentarily terrifying, until I had a vision of a box which I somehow knew contained not only my identity, but also my personality, my history, and the stories I tell myself about who I am. I realized that "I" was the only identity that really mattered, the rest were just unimportant add-ons in the greater scheme of life and death.
Peter (La Paz, BCS)
You seem to have recovered enough to write an intriguing and thought provoking article. Does the brain create consciousness or is it the interpreter thereof? Is mind consciousness or is it just thought and identity that arises in consciousness? What if the brain is also a part of the virtual world/illusion along with all physical matter (which is almost 100% a vacuum devoid of anything apparently)? You spoke of being terrified and depressed concerning loss of identity, but there must be something of you there in order to be affected by these sensations. If there was no identity then who was terrified? Who was depressed?
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Peter: I think the way to think about this would be along the lines of: There is terror. There is depression. To the extent that there is a "self" experiencing them at all, it is a very reduced self. Mostly it's just terror and depression. (That would be on the bad days...)
Sally Amtmann (Flemington NJ)
Recovering from encephalitis from West Nile virus has been a significant experience. Neuroplasticity is real! I am making a strong recovery from a brain with lesions, to a brain with scars, now to a brain that is almost healed and continues to improve. 3 years of recovery so far.... Keep the faith, Sally
Daniel Friedman (Charlottesville, VA)
I suffered a fluke concussion last July when accidentally knocking heads with a fellow passenger getting off a plane that had arrived at O'Hare. I lost consciousness for a few seconds; fortunately, the other passenger was okay. I am a writer. My ability to focus, to read and write, remains impacted one year later. I'm trying to be patient and continue to hope that, with more time, I will fully recover.
R. Anderson (South Carolina)
I have an old friend who suffered a mild TBI after banging her head on an open refrigerator door freezer top. She had the impression that recovery would be a matter of weeks but that may be overly optimistic. Medical doctors should refrain from unrealistic prognoses. There is enough anxiety from an injury in the first place without having it heightened when promises of quick recovery are not realized.
Christopher Colt (Miami, Florida)
In Buddhist psychology, the brain is one of six sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tong, body and mind) and just as the eyes sense light, the brain senses thoughts. The self (self consciousness) is a construct of our thoughts and feelings. Feelings arise in the body and trigger thoughts which are then sensed by the brain. These six senses are called consciousnesses. The seventh consciousness is that of the self. The eighth consciousness is that of the collective. Dualistic thinking sees self and other as separate, though this is not so as all phenomena, including the self are co-arising and interdependent. It is when we separate self from other (the 7th and 8th consciousness) that suffering arises because one can not exist without the other.
K Henderson (NYC)
The brain is the central receiver of all of those senses. You have to ignore basic physiology and neurology to suggest that.
Shiv (New York)
@Christopher Colt I have one question and one comment. The question: what is Buddhist psychology? The comment: the Buddhist explanation of the six/seven/whatever senses is both gobbledygook and incorrect. For example, we know that sight results from both the processing of light through the lenses of our eyes and the processing of that information in our brains. The brain can’t sense anything relating to vision if the eyes don’t register light.
Adam (Warsaw, Poland)
The only access that we have to this world is provided by our embodied parts. Nevertheless, it affects our perceiving of the things which itself displays as non-materialistic. The major question is about the illusion of the self, built upon these impressions. Is there any container that could mean existing of saperated consciousness, or we are just conglomarete of random impressions provided by senses?
Daniel12 (Wash d.c.)
Brain injury and how this can affect a person's identity? This is a question dear to anyone who values their brain, has been fortunate enough to learn somewhat how it works and to apply it, and probably people who use their brains are somewhat paranoid about damage to the brain like athletes are sensitive about their bodies or musicians their hands or actors their faces. I recall when about six some kid dropping a rock on my head when playing by a ditch near a creek. I don't recall it hurting but apparently it surprised me enough to fix as a memory. I guess it's my first negative memory of a kid I was playing with, contrasted with positive memories of maybe a year earlier of a British kid named Ian. Ian is probably my favorite name of all time, and then you have the kid who dropped a rock on my head. I wonder how much my brain was damaged by drug and alcohol use and getting punched repeatedly in the face between the ages of 12 and 20. Those years were years of fist fights and substance abuse. Not that I wanted to damage my brain, it's more like society seemed to have no use for it, and certainly didn't teach how to take it in hand, operate it. I have few good memories of being young. I'm not sure which is the worse, more traumatic injury to the brain: Actual damage or years of contact with people who seem to add up to subversion of its intelligent operation. I'm not just sensitive to actual brain injury but sensitive to people who attempt to touch it by other means.
Bruce (Canada)
Descartes stated: I think therefore I am. Nobody stated: I am therefore I think. Dualism only functions in time and space whilst Being permits it. Agency is misrepresented as our thoughts .... thoughts that unfold independently of our best intentions.
Pat (Philadelphia, PA)
@Bruce Your second statement is inaccurate. Antonio Damasio said that very thing in "Descartes' Error" published in 1994.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Bruce: Well, a lot has been said about our thinking vis-a-vis our intentions. There's the famous "Don't think of a rhinoceros": the joke is, supposedly you are then unable to not think of a rhinoceros. But in practice, most people can deliberately turn their thoughts away from one topic and toward another. It might take a minute. But it's actually pretty normal to be able to focus on something we want to think about, when we want to. And then there are also times when thoughts unfold seemingly of their own accord, or when we hand over our mental state to a book or movie or somebody talking to us, or we might feel taken over by an overheard conversation. Interesting stuff.
Stanley (NY, NY)
Fascinating reading and considering ! I thank-you for sharing your opportunity in your life's journey to experience what you have and will forever consider. Pain is definitely a learning experience, seldom does one voluntarily participate ( I am an activist for/with/through human rights and duties. I have a PhD in Constitutional law specializing in human rights and metaphysics. It's been 24/7, BUT I was "fortunate" to have experienced a body problem when I was young so that it has definitely given me a different perspective and this has actually helped me try to help others so they in turn help others.) You said "...Plato’s theory of the soul as the immortal, essential and indestructible part of the human being, the body a temporary prison or shell....." Three comments. 1/ careful to read "immortal" not as "immoral". 2/ Body is not so much prison or shell but opportunity as a temple 3/ one cannot, it humbly seems to be, ignore the spirituality of/in/through our lives. Thanks again. I wish you a good life together - you and your body. I have a thousand questions to ask you, but, perhaps, some other time or place.
TMBM (Jamaica Plain)
Our physical brains are not us in the sense that they can exist as cold, lifeless tissue long after we die. And yet they are the indispensable vessels of the electrical activity that underlies our conscientiousness, uniquely shaped by countless, patterned signals between neurons over a lifetime. It's an interesting speculation to think some day we might be able to "download" a conscientiousness into something else (looking at you "Black Mirror"), but the physical shape of our neural networks---more unique to us than fingerprints---are also essential to that conscientiousness. You can separate them and neither the tissue or the energy truly disappear from existence, but it doesn't seem possible that they could ever be bound together again and result in the same mind with all its memories, emotions, predilections and self-awareness.
Russ (Seattle, WA)
I suppose it's understandable that the animal with the most complex brain would consider this organ the end-all/be-all of the self. Philosophers and psychologists anguish over the illusive "I," that definitive source of awareness, point of view and self identity. What is it? Where is it? Does it really have the slightest "free will?" Apparently not, is the emerging consensus (our "will" mandated by genetic and unconscious masters). Yet the answer is clearly present. We are surrounded by the "I." There is no mind-body duality; there are the Three Selves that evolution has crafted: the Physical Self, the Emotional Self, the Rational Self. It all started, and still starts, with the physical. All living things are physical, yet somehow more than just that. All living things perceive! From the very beginning, the "simplest" life forms were able to discern food/not-food, light/dark, hot/cold, acidic/alkaline. At some point in the long and winding road of evolution, the emotions emerged from this rudimentary discernment, and at some later point a supra-emotional, non-instinctual thinking process, which we humans call "logic," emerged. The physical-emotional-rational "selves" merge and blend into each other and form our whole self. Take away anything from this array and the "self" is diminished. Take enough away from the physical, and the self is destroyed. This holistic self is the "I." Not the brain, or some specific part of the brain (i.e. frontal cortex). Embrace the whole "you."
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Russ: I don't think the emotions actually represent some early evolutionary stage, with the rational then emerging: Crocodiles aren't notably more emotional than we are, although they supposedly evolved their present form much earlier. Their "something moving there/to bite." seems as much like a primitive form of logic as it does like a primitive emotion. And isn't the complex of desire, resentment and sympathy, wonder and so on that we call our emotions pretty much the pinnacle that evolution has reached so far? (Unless that would be this season's flu virus, but let's not be cynical.)
Richard (NYC)
Mind-body dualism maybe very ill-conceived. But patriarchal?
Andreas (South Africa)
I recently found a book from the 70s written for progressive European teachers whose main topic was that mathematics, as taught in school, was an instrument of oppression used by the ruling class to shape the minds of the oppressed. There is no limit to the creativity of intellectuals if they are only zealous enough.
Richard (NYC)
@Andreas The article makes me think that "patriarchal" is tossed about heedlessly and now means anything that academics look upon with disfavor. Is anything conceived by dead white European or American males suspect as patriarchal -- the theory of relativity? the music of Debussy? Airplanes?
Jocelyn (Vista, CA)
What puzzles me in this essay is the treatment of brain and body as the potential seat of dualism (rather than mind and body). The brain is part of the body - it is a physical organ, like any other, susceptible to injury. To treat the brain as separate from the body is, for lack of a better word, weird. Whatever happens to the brain itself is, inherently, embodied. What is interesting is the question of whether and how much mind resides in brain, which is what this experience (and many others) seem to suggest. At the same time, anyone who has experienced profound pain and illness in the rest of the body knows very well the effect on mind, absent injury to the brain itself (as just one example, the mind fog associated with many autoimmune illnesses), which suggests that the picture is tremendously complicated, indeed.
Laurel (Santa Cruz, CA)
The observations Dr. Craig are compelling and important. I was struck by why the editors chose to use an image of the generic male face when the piece is written by a woman. These subtle, however pervasive biases only serve to perpetuate our male dominated ways of interacting with, and seeing the world. I invite The Times to embrace this struggling, age-old paradigm and help society continue to move the needle toward gender equality.
Patrick Gleeson (Los Angeles)
I’m a musician and composer. Three hours before the most important solo performance in my 60 year career, I did a face plant onto the concrete of a badly lit parking garage, with a lot of blood and a concussion the result. I gave a good performance without difficulty—even got a standing ovation. Then got a CT scan and was told there were no issues, but 2 months later I’m still having memory and balance problems. By 6pm I’m ready for bed. And I have the same question: how do you “rest” your mind? It’s not as if you can stop thinking.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Patrick Gleeson: I wish she had said more about what they told her about that. There are meditation techniques where instead of trying to discipline your mind, you just let ideas come and go with no judgement... that's what I would suggest to people who wanted to rest their mind. You are still thinking in a sense, but just drifting idly, rather than paddling skillfully along. I understand there are people who think pretty strenuously, pushing themselves to focus their attention, to solve problems or figure out next weeks grocery list or what to say at the next meeting: That would be the kind of thing to let slide.
Jim (FL)
@Patrick Gleeson - I would recommend you have more extensive tests done (maybe CT scan with contrast). I hit my head from passing out (dehydration), and thought I was okay but a full 2 months later (my 70th birthday) I became weak could barely move. It was discovered that I had an undiscovered micro brain bleed and the pressure had crushed my brain down to 2/3 its size. A subdural hematoma that required bilateral craniotomy. The neurosurgeon said I was a walking miracle, lucky to be alive. Am fine now after some physical and cognitive therapy. Best wishes.
Jim Schulman (Chicago)
Thank you for this article. You were able to smile at the absurdity of being a philosopher on brain rest, and mourn the sluggishness of your thinking. So who was doing the smiling and mourning? Self reference famously blows up most formal logic. Moreover, your capacity for self awareness was unaffected by the injury to your thinking. This seems to point beyond the usual mind/body/consciousness talk.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@Jim Schulman: But was her capacity for self awareness unaffected? The self isn't just like a light bulb that is either on or off: there can be states of vague presence, where yes, you are there, but not vividly present and concerned. It's you, in the sense that it isn't somebody else, but it might be a kind of partial, incomplete version of "you". That seems to be part of what she is talking about.
Susan Halevi (MA)
I also suffered a head injury earlier this year. Until my brain recovered, it was not possible for me to sustain complex thought, tolerate ordinary levels of light, or function normally. Although I'm an attorney with an affinity for challenges and complexity, the injury did not cause the loss of identity that Professor Craig describes. To the contrary, I was surprised by how much identity I retained. My affinity for challenges helped a lot when simple tasks became difficult. Forced to rest, I learned to enjoy it. I talked with family and friends and appreciated the encouragement of colleagues and clients. Recovery brought gratitude and a sense of urgency--there's so much I want to accomplish. Yet as the fog receded, it left behind an unexpected awareness that a life diminished is still worth living. Identity, like meaning, runs deeper than acuity and accomplishments.
Having Fun In (Santa Cruz)
I've often found that illness or disruption of my normal mental functions is a good opportunity to consider my true identity. A question for the author: there is "something" that knows when the mind is clear and when it's muddled and cloudy. "That" which knows, is always clear and never muddled. What is "it" that knows? I find the answer to be "I know". But what is that "I"? Where does that sense of "I" come from? Or...Who Am I? When I intensely consider these questions, I find happiness, reality, and identity - all in the same place - within. Very liberating and full of bliss and peace.
This article very much reminds me of the book: Who Dies? by Stephen Levine. An interesting read.
Daniel Polowetzky (NYC)
Having a medical procedure under propofol will disabuse anybody of the notion of life after death!
LdV (NY)
Loss of self is bad only if you're aware of it. Many are those who live the unexamined life and will never, per Socrates, know themselves.
J Chaffee (Mexico)
This essay illustrates Gilbert Ryle's argument that mind in the mind-body duality sense is a linguistic mistake. Ryle's example is that you have a visitor who wants to the see your university, so you show him the administration buildings, the quad, the library, classrooms and as you leave, he asks, Yes, but where is the university? It amazes me that people continue to point to Platonic idealism as a viable view of reality. What a study of Plato shows us is that language is a two-edged sword. Very little of what humans express to one another has signification. Humans are confounded by language, which becomes a tool of casuistry. Expressions such as The Economy, The Market, The People, for some simple examples, have no signification, but have powerful emotional effect. No matter who uses those or like terms, listeners have no idea what the speaker might mean. It is quite unlikely that the speaker has any idea what he or she means, either. Those are effectively ape calls, completely without semantic content. One way to try to gain an understanding of what, if anything, is being expressed is to demand operational definitions that allow one to test for signification. An example is square root: a number is a square root of another if by multiplying the claimed square root by itself, one gets the value of the other. There is also an operational definition of free market in classical economics that leads to a theorem that it is impossible to make a profit in a free market.
John Bergstrom (Boston)
@J Chaffee: And yet, if you went to a lecture on economics, and the person started discussing the time that Van Gogh spent with Gauguin, particularly in terms of their use of yellow pigment... as it became clear that this wasn't some kind of elaborate metaphor, you would realize that you were in the wrong lecture. So, not just ape calls. You may disagree with a lot of propositions of classical economics -- I should hope so! -- but you probably disagree in terms of some alternative economics...
J Chaffee (Mexico)
@John Bergstrom That is like the argument I heard someone make that Newtonian physics gets the orbit of Mercury right if said measurements are made using Newtonian physics. Of course the measurements of Mercury's orbit are measured independently of Newtonian physics or relativistic physics or Ptolemaic physics and in fact said problem with Newtonian prediction of Mercury's orbit was known before there was any theory of relativity. You postulated that if I went to a lecture on economics and the person starting discussing blah blah blah about van Gogh and Gaughin etc. First of all, that would not be possible if it were not an elaborate metaphor, as that would not be the major point of discussion in an economics lecture. Your example is impossible. In fact, your example is a perfect example of an ape call. I suggest studying some logic. Nor have I said anything about whether or not I disagree with propositions of classical economics. Your hope is entirely misplaced. I therefor suggest before studying some logic that you take a reading comprehension course, as you did not understand anything in my comment.
K Henderson (NYC)
"It amazes me that people continue to point to Platonic idealism as a viable view of reality." Actually the article writer says just that early on. As a counterpoint == Christianity has as its very core the notion of an indivisible immortal soul so there are plenty still believing in the idea to this day. Indeed many believe Paul read Plato given what he says in his letters. Plato would have been read by literate folks in that time period. Its a complicated topic.
Jack Matthews
Jack Matthews shows up here because this is our account. I am a college teacher of history and I experienced the same issues. Took me a year to fully recover from a “mild” concussion!
"I’m not sure where my identity resides or even what my identity is or consists in..." Welcome to Buddhism!
Julius Caesar (Rome)
So much said in the comments. I just want to add that no person should go on without reading Edmund Husserl, directly or perhaps better first via some introduction to phenomenology. Also I believe that no philosopher can be properly called such without at least a good basic idea of History of Philosophy, nor a responsible citizen should leave such knowledge outside of her/his life long interests. One more opinion. Without Philosophy and History we are condemned to be second or third class citizens. It is a slave like condition, but who cares, who says it? I am going to check those books from the philosopher, phenomenology is back big time these days! :)
Lawyermom (Washington DC)
I am sorry for your injury and I hope you got a CT scan. I fell on ice, striking the back of my head, and a scan was ruled out. 6 weeks later, I had a hemmorhagic stroke. While due to an existing anomaly, I think it’s likely that the trauma in that area hastened the tear in the blood vessel. I well know the symptoms you describe and I had to retire. I wish you a long and healthy career and life.
decencyadvocate (Bronx, NY)
I believe my consciousness developed as language developed, in particular the use of metaphorical language. One can be intelligent, perform tasks, but the ability to see myself outside of me, is a weird juxtaposition of my ability to process in my mind and my language abilities (learned) to give an outside view of my thoughts. The best book on this is the Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
SMC (Canada)
We probably know just 2% of how the brain works. Therefore, neuroscientists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and doctors know next to nothing. Having a doctor tell you you need "brain rest" is not much different than what a witch doctor or a medieval housewife might have told you centuries ago or in some African forest. The first truth of brain injury is that doctors don't know anything. But people want their illusions. The question I ask is, would you agree to a heart surgeon operating on your heart if they only knew 2% of how the heart works? The brain is this enormous unknown, the most complex thing in the known universe and we've barely scratched the surface. Why spend money going to Mars when we could explore our own brains.
K Henderson (NYC)
"We probably know just 2% of how the brain works." I grew up hearing versions of that statement too but science (and MRI's and other types of scans) have mapped out quite a lot of the human brain in 2019.
HH (Rochester, NY)
@SMC You say the brain is "the most complex thing in the known universe". How do you "know" that? The brain is an organ that consists of several quintillion particles that receives and processes analog electric signal from various sensor across the the body. So what? So do fish brains, earthworms and parmecia. . You have elevated the brain to the point of being an idol. . You seem awed by this organ - erhaps because you are impressed by the things that homo sapiens do. Don't be. That's self worship.You and me are mechanisms that behave according to the same physics that determine the activity of everything in the universe. There is no purpose or meaning in this. It's only activity - physical activity.
W (Minneapolis, MN)
A wise philosopher once said: "the purpose of suffering is to learn compassion". Your injury will no doubt improve your work.
Alan C Gregory (Mountain Home, Idaho)
I suffered a TBI on April 27, 2007, when a car struck the bicycle I was riding near my then-home in Pennsylvania. The VP shunt in my head is my badge-of-honor. Laypeople have no idea, seems to me, what living with brain injury is really like
Paulie (Earth)
Congratulations of being able to make a living as a philosophy PhD. My brother has one and has never been able to get employment that required that degree. He’s been reduced to teaching illiterate state college students in Florida, a state where if you have a Florida high school diploma you are guaranteed admission to a state university wether you are qualified or not.
Marat1784 (CT)
To paraphrase something Freud probably didn’t say: sometimes a degree is just a degree. There are lots of jobs where a Ph.D. is only a required credential, and sometimes, only a necessity for a pay grade increase. I can remember my high school teachers, long ago, grubbing through night school to get the scrap of paper, not that it would influence their teaching at all, just the paycheck. It may be that a philo degree is just a sad joke on the Ph in PhD, but there are many other majors that are disconnected from employment, and new ones invented all the time. So, those illiterate students your brother has are no less suffering through irrelevancies just for that scrap of paper, needed for nearly any scut job these days. And it doesn’t help soothe us ‘doctors’ much that many of the new billionaire heroes of the modern world left school really early!
HH (Rochester, NY)
In the light of modern science, Megan Craig's observations are illogical and naive. . The brain is a structure of several quintillion particles. Like evrerthing else in this universe, it is a mechanism that acts according to the laws of physics. There no such thing as "intent", purpose, choice or moral standard. There is only activity - physical activity. . The poetic language thae Craig employs to describe herself only obscurs the reality that she purports to understand.
Daniel Polowetzky (NYC)
No brain=no consciousness=no afterlife.
Michael (Philly)
If you can find an “I”, who or what is it that identified it?
albert (virginia)
What is the effect of emotional trauma?
randyman (Bristol, RI USA)
“There was no protective cone to keep the wounded place from being itched, no cast to keep the brain still.” Sorry to be pedantic, but … have I missed something? Has language deteriorated – er, “evolved” – to where it’s considered acceptable to use “itch” as a verb, instead of “scratch?” For my entire life, saying one was “itching” a mosquito bite was considered anathema. Que pasa?
Patrick Gleeson (Los Angeles)
I understand your misgivings. It’s quite natural, particularly for an educated speaker, to find changes in common usage disturbing. “He gave it to you and l,” for example. But as any linguist will tell you, there’s really no fixed right way to speak a language. If enough persons begin a usage, then eventually that becomes Standard English. Irritating, but true...
Marat1784 (CT)
@Randyman. This usage seemed be prevalent when I lived in Texas. I think it’s a southern thing, y’all.
David Apolloni (Shoreview, MN)
“Dualism oversimplifies both mind and body and leads to a devaluation of the complexly embodied, psychosomatic ways in which beings inhabit the world. No serious philosopher or neuroscientist today thinks that mind and body can be neatly parsed into two distinctly separate objects or systems.” Really? Let’s see: not serious philosophers—Karl Popper, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Jon Foster, E.J. Lowe, David Chalmers, and at times, Thomas Nagel, inclined in that direction, among numerous others, Saul Kripke; not a serious neuroscientist, Sir John Eccles? Perhaps you have never heard of any of these people? Perhaps the fudge phrase is “neatly parsed.” Then your claim is trivial, since nothing is neatly parsed. Or did I misunderstand you? I wish you a full recovery. David Apolloni, Chair, Philosophy Department Augsburg University (Not a serious philosopher)
Shiv (New York)
@David Apolloni How does one determine whether a philosopher is serious or not? They dwell in the realm of the untestable. All untestable ideas are equally useless, ie not serious.
Danny (Minnesota)
Jan Sand (Helsinki)
At the age of a few months under 94, I am blessed with having had a lousy memory most of my life so my luck in having Google to nudge my molasses mind into the necessary revelations to operate normally gives me a sense of gratitude for current technology. I have spent a good deal of thought as to how my mind functions and from the idea that all forms of life need some sort of system to to stay alive and one of the gadgets it invented was the nervous system and although much of life gets by without a brain, having one does give me a touch of comfort. Enclosed in its shell, the brain has to configure what to do with all those nerve impulses pounding in so it invents what we call the universe in model form and like a chess piece in that game it makes a model of itself and places it in this simple model universe. That model of the brain which is a really simple device, my consciousness, compared with the complex monstrosity of the actual brain, lives in this exceedingly simple model of the outstde world but it seems to function significantly well enough to keep me alive.
Brad (Texas)
Of course we live in a virtual reality. None of us have ever really experienced the Real World outside of our sense organs!
benslow (USA)
As the author expresses, the mind-body-identity triad is a lot more vulnerable than commonly recognized. Having my world turned on its head with delayed PTSD caused me first to lose my identity to the point I went around asking people who I was. It is terrifying not knowing who you are. After I started to regain some semblance of an identity, I then lost total contact with my body, to the point that I had zero recognition of it in the mirror and it felt like a separate thing that I had to lug around and force-feed. I would have gladly changed bodies with any random person on the street, as my body meant nothing to me. This went on for years until I got a tattoo and my mind said, "Oh, I recognize that ... so then this must be my arm and it is connected to my shoulder which means this must be my head." And presto, I suddenly saw the body in the mirror as being me. So, mind-body-identity can be fragile and very disturbing when one part seemingly vanishes. So philosophers probably can have a field day creating theories as we learn more about these biological and psychological connections.
Christopher P. (NY, NY)
First and foremost, I was very moved by the author's experience with brain injury and can totally relate. But the other stuff linking it to outdated philosophical thinking was not just all over the map and disjointed, but did lead me to wonder if someone is a philosopher simply because they have a PhD in philosophy and teach philosophy at university.
John Howe (Mercer Island, WA)
I have treated many people with head injuries as a neurosurgeon, And I have puzzled over questions like these and read and continue to read contributions philosophers make to the mind. Consequently I greatly appreciate this contribution. The brain not only integrates the body but also the greater environment, social and physical and in turn through learning the individual brain is modified and the species brain by natural selection. The brain functions is a metastable condition and can fall into instability rather easily. I trust Dr. Graig will have many more contributions to make to my understanding of the brain that I look at during surgeries and cannot deduce how it works from visual inspection. And she will have perhaps greater insight and empathy for those with injured brains than most of us and such empathy will help healing.
Impermanence (USA)
I wish Ms. Craig an expeditious and full recovery. I also suggest that if she hasn't already, she should undertake any form of meditation where you quietly observe your mind's thoughts and feelings, negative emotions to wane and positive emotions to wax. Such introspection may help Ms. Craig on her journey to recovery and perhaps facilitate new insights about mind and consciousness.
mark (lands end)
So insightful and beautifully expressed, thank you sharing such profound questions from - it reads to me at least - a brain that is functioning at an extremely high level.
Blackmamba (Il)
Three members of my family have gone through the tribulations of Alzheimer's. What I learned from their emotional and mental dissolution is that who we are is a collection of complicated correlated life time memories and experiences. If you can't recall your favorite color or salad dressing or jelly or song or vacation then you are not who you used to be. Nor will you ever be that person again. When your short- term memory fades the past becomes your only present and future.
Sheilah McAdams (Ohio)
26 years ago, I incurred a mild traumatic brain injury as a result of a serious car accident. I also had an episode of “walking amnesia” that extended for 45 minutes from just before the accident When I “came to”, I was standing in the shut down highway with backed up cars stretching to the horizon surrounded by emergency vehicles cutting my passenger out of my totaled car. My mind at that moment strikes me as similar to what an animal must feel when it looks out at the world- no emotion whatsoever, very limited verbal and cognitive ability, and an instinctive drive to hide all signs of injury or weakness.
Marat1784 (CT)
Love and concussion; a memoir. There I was, driving up to meet a cycling club ride about an hour from home. On the ride, my inattention in grouping up in a vague pace line led to an instant fall and the guy behind riding directly over my head. His chain wheel left a cute series of punctures in my flimsy hockey helmet. Advice of the day after a concussion was to not drive for a day in case swelling ensued, and maybe a blackout. So I overnighted with the group on the floor of a high school gym. And wound up with this girl for the next few years. Modern advice, of course is to avoid making important decisions with a rung bell, but like the author, how do you tell what’s important? Males also think with a remote part of the anatomy, not often the brain. Lately, our country has become increasingly delusional about many things, philosophical, scientific and of course, political. One of the signs is that like anti-vaxers, parents now cite essentially ill-intended ‘news’ that helmets do not prevent concussions, which of course makes terribly image-conscious children happy to not wear one, with considerable nasty overlap in other sports and activities. Our author, hopefully pretty much healed and re-booted, is in the perfect occupation to worry about the deeper meaning of a knock on the head, and even write about it. The rest of us not so much.
dmbones (Portland Oregon)
Thank you for sharing your MTBI experience so intimately. Reading it, I couldn't help but compare it to my experience of seated meditation, although one is involuntary and the other chosen. Although one does not involve loss of memory, and the other does, both subsume our third dimensional materiality in our fourth dimensional non-material essential identities, our souls, if you will. I "lost consciousness" in a car crash seven years ago, according to subsequent neurological evaluation, but seemingly somewhere above my slumped body my consciousness was very much alert and focused, still aware of my physical surroundings although they were of no interest to me. That reality, free of bodily concerns, was liberating, mysterious and joyful for me. Prior to that crash I had practiced yoga and meditation daily for twelve years, but from that day forward I had real life experience of where my practice was heading. Since then, my sense of personal identity evolved toward a much more consciousness-based ideation, beyond life and form. It appears now that when the walls all fall down, we're enabled by grace to see more clearly what has always been around us. Thank you again for your intimate sharing of this ethereal aspect of our common humanity.
MEM (Los Angeles)
There is no disembodied mind. The mental activities of humans are entirely the products of their brains. The same is true of all other natural creatures and man-made computers, too. We don't know why certain brain states are feelings, including consciousness, but there is no reason to think those are not material. No mind. No soul. Live with it. I am glad that Ms. Craig's brain recovered. For many people with brain disorders, the outcome is not as good.
Nanny goat (oregon)
This happened to me when I started on chemotherapy at age 50. I could no longer converse because my brain worked slowly; I couldn't remember a word I needed. My entire sense of self was shattered because I'd been a word person and with my words, who was I? I'm still not normal 30 years later, but I've gotten used to it now.
tropigal (east cost)
This article really hits home for me. I had a similar experience after falling off my bike and getting a mild concussion then having a car accident one week later. I couldn't concentrate, couldn't remember street names and other basic things, couldn't make decisions properly, couldn't walk for very long, couldn't do much of anything for many, many weeks after the accidents. It was frustrating because I rely on my brain to earn a living. I didn't look sick so people couldn't understand why I sometimes looked disoriented or spoke slowly like I had a learning disability (I developed a speech condition as well). 1.5 years later I am a lot better now but still not out of the woods yet. The brain is powerful is the ultimate motherboard. I like to compare it to H.A.L. in "2001: A Space Odyssey". I controls us, gives us the real sense of who we are and who we want others to think we are. Without it functioning properly, we feel lost.
Gillian Holbrook (Portland, Oregon)
I also empathize with Ms. Craig. As far as my identity, some people say that post-MTBI I am a nicer person to be around. Well, okay! I’m also concerned about being at higher risk for dementia. Having heard that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, I began running, albeit quite slowly. Thank you for your article.
K Henderson (NYC)
A great short essay on Dualism (mind and body) or the alternative; "I am my brain." My mom's progressing dementia confirmed what I already knew -- which is that the self is _entirely_ comprised of the synapses in the brain. As various parts of the brain die, so do parts of the self. Religious folks of virtually all types will of course disagree.
bounce33 (West Coast)
So here's the real question. When you lost yourself, who was the "I" you keep mentioning--the I who couldn't finish a children's book and who did all that thinking anyway? That I would the I that knows itself in every conscious being and calls itself "I" in any circumstance it finds itself in. It is the universal consciousness. Word is, if you can truly know this is the real you, you'll find enlightenment.
stonezen (Erie pa)
Dear Megan Craig, Please investigate Tom Campbell and his book "My Big TOE" Theory of Everything. One of his premises that I currently agree with is that consciousness is fundamental and physicality is a manifestation of the system of all consciousnesses. The encumbrance of the brain trauma is simply a constraint inside the rule set of the system hence the thinking is actually not encumbered but the abilities of the link are.
Betsy B (Dallas)
Interesting questions from a professional thinker. Craig frames her essay with the now quaint idea of dualism, but interestingly never mentions consciousness. Concussion affects the physical self, as well as her ability to perceive experience. The injury to her body affects the depth and quality of her cognitive capacity. My experience was with an episode of "transient global amnesia", which has left me pondering where my consciousness is. I was walking, talking and sitting at my desk, yet completely unaware of this. I could form no short term memories during this 40 minute timespan. I more or less "came back" to myself when I moved a file that I regularly used at home, into a drawer at work. There was no file in my hand when I became aware that I was trying to put "it" away. My experience made me think less about "identity" and more about consciousness: functioning without it, as a person with dementia or inability to form memories might. "Brain rest" is a charming appellation for her ordered recovery period, and almost an invitation to burrow into the difficulties of defining what we perceive (or don't) about our experience. Even more elusive, some people with brain injuries have personality changes as well as cognitive deficits. How to comprehend that kind of change the part of the self (personality) that filters our experience. Changes in our "normal" perceptual experience can open lots of doors to see the fragile quality of our whole selves.
David A. Lee (Ottawa KS 66067)
Please, Ms. Craig, be aware that there are those of us out here who are satisfied that no philosophy or philosopher has every fully or satisfactorily explained the meaning of the word "identity," as applied to the human self. The Merck Manual confidently declares that the human brain is, in the totality of its operations, a "mystery," and I believe that totally. Meanwhile, your readers, I included, wish you complete healing.
Glenn Ribotsky (Queens, NY)
I admit to having debated dualism as a young philosophy student, but I was more or less dissauded from the viewpoint by a little pamphlet I highly recommend to all who are curious--John Perry's "A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality". It deals ostensibly with the concepts of "life after death", but by delving deeply into the concept of a "soul" separate from the brain, and how that leads to some insoluble conundra, it cured me pretty much of both that idea and of dualism.
David (Oak Lawn)
Very interesting. Having suffered various strokes, I know how you feel. There is a tertium quid between dualism and monism that I think you're getting at. And in advanced intelligence, this third thing reveals something that needs some sort of physical substrate (it can't be completely immaterial) but just the thinnest of physicality. I think that physical substrate grounds intelligence in reality, and ensures that we're not living in some evil genius's world. But it also allows us to commune with an intelligence that, sharing our immanent world, calls us to greater purpose.
SA (Canada)
The functioning of mind is best observed from inside it, in real time - like in the practice of mindfulness. This creates a challenge for science, since any discovery made in the course of that process is not repeatable. One Western writer recorded such an experiment over 50 years: Paul Valéry, in his 20,000 page Notebooks. Millions of Buddhist meditators do it in a different way, without necessarily communicating the results, but all the while necessarily changing their own mind's functioning. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies here even more than in quantum physics.
dorjepismo (Albuquerque)
This is a fantastic example of making constructive use of negative experience, and of a philosopher applying theory to the realities of life in a flexible, open minded way and highly edifying way. It should be mentioned, though, that the whole tradition of Buddhism is largely based on the relativity of "self," and in some of its philosophy and practice, the dualism referred to here is resolved on the basis of the non-duality of awareness, as opposed to what we frequently mean by "consciousness." Our academic philosophy still has a heavy Western bias that can limit it unduly; it would be nice if more people were exposed to Dr. Craig's insights without having to be introduced to them through a nasty knock on the head!
Joseph F. Panzica (Sunapee, NH)
Could Ms. Craig be conflating “brain” with “mind”? Isn’t it terminology which trips us up, tumbling us into conceptual bayous like “dualism”? The most apt term might be “psychosomatic” which (in all its connotations) touches upon the impossibility of separating “mind” from body. Even the term “embodied mind” reinforces a dualistic image of “mind” enmeshed in tangible materiality. But it’s ever so difficult for us to define or even discuss “mind” without eventually contrasting it with “matter”. Another problem when considering “mind” is our tendency to compare and contrast different “minds”: for instance your mind vs. mine. And what is our stance regarding the relationship of an individual “mind” to the “mind” associated with a collective whether it be a family, a religion, a culture, or even a species? (Some might argue it’s inappropriate to apply the singular term “mind” to a collective, but then they’d have to claim that their own individual mind was somehow less fragmentary/divided than they’d have to admit is really the case.) Empirical science has focused almost exclusively into delving into the secrets of “matter”. “Matter and energy” have been neatly unified in both theory and experience, but has that really been done in contrast to “mind”. Whatever mind is, the deeper we delve into the infinitesimal nature of matter and energy, the less “materiality” there is for us to recognize. That doesn’t help us define “mind” though it might warn us away from “duality”.
Tom (New Brunswick)
A lovely and sensitive essay ... but Craig thinks she is musing about *dualism*? Really? She said that "mild traumatic" physical damage to the physical bit which "serious philosopher[s] or neuroscientist[s]" presume is the only factory of thought ... resulted in her factory producing fewer and sub-standard thought-widgets. This is not an epiphany that "she" is not "her thinking;" that Craig's "being" (and identity, and presumably worth) is distinct from her "thinking" or other attributes/accomplishments. Instead, she finds that her identity is unsettlingly ephemeral - founded upon an ultimately entropic physical organ. To the degree that "it" falls apart, so does "she." And so, she considers, must it be for other people with physically induced mental losses. This is admirable as well as elegiac, but it can lead in dangerous directions. Is one's "personhood" dependent on one's capacity to experience "identity" in these terms? What of folks with mental disabilities, congenital or acquired by injury/disease? Are their rights affected along with their capacity to have a sense of self? I find myself wondering if a little bit of dualism might be a good thing.
John Jones (Cherry Hill NJ)
MILD TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY Can require a prolonged period of recuperation. The struggles of the writer bring to mind what the brains of persons playing tackle football undergo. Studies have shown that repeated head trauma results in a condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. At first the condition was observed in professional football players. But then studies were done on the brains of high school and junior high school football players, whose brains were shown to exhibit the same injuries, though to a lesser extent, as the professional players. For a philosophy professor, who engages in higher level brain processes, originating in the prefrontal lobe, the subtleties and complexities of thought patterns are the focus of one's profession and identity. So the struggle to recover is very challenging. I wish that the ice skating rink had required all skaters to wear protective helmets. I wish the professor a speedy and full recovery.
Radical Inquiry (World Government)
The question of the personal self is the main question in philosophy and psychology. The worldwide traditions of meditation address this issue.
ZA (Branchburg, NJ)
Regrettably, I’m experienced with both brain injury and dementia in my family. As an armchair philosopher I’ve wrestled with the mind/ body duality and the meaning of consciousness. This is a very good article. We need more conversations like this. I’ve long ago concluded that the entire range of brain problems is too wide and obscure to fully comprehend. The extreme forced categorization of disease and dysfunction by the medical and psychological establishment has limitations. Perhaps the philosophers can help find the answers. Kudos to Ms. Craig for a good conversation starter and best wishes for recovery.
Fred (Henderson, NV)
As a psychotherapist, not a philosopher, I find myself logicking myself to the probably absurd notion that a healthy person shouldn't need an ego. I picture a young child who is jazzed by the external world and doesn't need a defended "I" to have a sense of meaning; doesn't need to feel important or special because the infrastructure of love and acceptance are in place. From that base one can look outward. What if we adults were like that? We'd simply be receivers of the world, with an urge to creativity in the same way a baby is curious.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
@Fred - Having an ego is inseparable from being human. Our blessing and our curse, after all, is the gift of a high level of self-awareness. Our challenge is to grok that our ego is not the essence, the spark, of our Being, of who "we" really are. To learn, through Practice, to step back and Observe the meanderings of our ego, without attachment, is our ultimate challenge. Or something like that? Maybe?
camusfan (Pasadena, CA USA)
Certainly, the best words in the article were « the loss was temporary ». At 70, I am experiencing words as elusive Butterflies. Words are not self (are they?), and thoughts seem to transcend verbal construct, but I feel the inévitable flow of entropy getting the better of me, and, alas, the loss is not temporary.
john lafleur (Brookline, Mass.)
The concept of Cartesian duality has it that there are two essential sorts of things: physical and non-physical. In one sense this is self-evident: consciousness on the face of it isn't a thing like an apple or an airplane. The real question is what is the relationship between them: can a particular consciousness exist apart from the brain that gives rise to it? I would say that ultimately this is a question for the theory of evolution--which traffics in its own flavor of duality: 'life' and the matter--cells--which gives rise to life. There are patterns of DNA called transposons that can move through species and jump from one to another without having any unique physical embodiment--this kind of thing would suggest the possibility that a given consciousness could continue to exist somehow beyond a particular physical context--but, personally, I doubt this is the case--not that it is impossible, just that it doesn't happen. What the author describes is not so much an issue of Cartestan duality, as it is the dependence of consciousness upon its vulnerable physical matrix.
Martin (New York)
@john lafleur Handing the question over to evolutionary theory (or neuroscience, or any other objective science) assumes the nature of the relationship it pretends to investigate. The non-material “I” and materialist science can only ever find that the other is some sort of illusion. There is the reality I experience by being it, and the reality I experience by objectifying it, and we have no third point of view from which to describe the relation between them.
William (South Africa)
@Martin Yes, perhaps this is what the Buddha was getting at when he pointed to a "middle way" - which is not another point of view but the absence of all points of view (including the point of view of the absence of points of view, just to be thorough), because all points of view will suffer the fate you describe.
Ron Hellendall (Chapel Hill, NC)
As expressed elsewhere in the comments section, absent the physical entity of the brain, there is no premise from which to seed the construct of mind. This does not beg the question nor cede the argument to science; it simply accepts the obvious working model that mind originates from the interplay of neuronal (and glial) signaling and the totality of these neurochemical events produces something more than (our current understanding of) the sum of the parts. But if you don’t begin with a thorough understanding of neuroscience - or if you presume such an understanding will ‘bias’ your methodology - than your perspective, and your attitude, towards ‘mind’ will remain rooted, with Descartes, in the 17th century.
Pat (Mid South)
Thanks for writing this. Lots of rich stuff here, not the least of which is the discussion of the profound sorrow of dementia. It seems that we are still working on being able to talk about “the mind” without getting led down linguistic dead end paths. Tricky. So, some comments to stimulate more thinking - in no particular order. While brain resting, how did the healing happen? Through physiological processes, underwritten perhaps from going through the literal motions of being Megan Craig and having others respond to you as Megan Craig. While brain resting, it sounds like you were able to function, just a lot less competently and with a lot fewer names for what was going on. I assume you still “recognized” your daughter, your family, your colleagues and could gauge who was more important to you in terms of emotional content? How did this recognition happen? I assume your family and colleagues still recognized you and knew how to treat you during your brain rest - they knew how to treat you differently, as well as the same. In my own life, I have been thinking a lot about - and trying in my own way to practice - the day of rest, the sabbath. The benefits of this day which is different from all the others to *every aspect of life are starting to come into focus. Our political and economic system doesn’t care much for sabbath, but your experience is just one kind of hint of why it is a worthy practice.
Passion for Peaches (Left Coast)
@Pat, putting aside the question of whether brain rest accomplishes anything physical or quantifiable (the jury is out on that), I can tell you from personal experience that taking it easy protects your emotional health after a concussion. It’s hard to fully describe the feeling of panic and sorrow I felt, in the early days of my recovery, when I could not comprehend something that was once part of everyday life (words on a page, television shows, the buttons on a microwave, etc.). So I can easily imagine that avoiding mental challenges for a few weeks is a sensible, protective measure for the concussed. But I have found no evidence that brain rest promote physical healing of brain matter. Concussions can make a person excessively emotional, and fragile. That’s no condition to be in when facing difficult challenges, and when you are concussed even the simplest things can be perplexing and immensely frustrating. So I think that when you rest your brain, you rest your psyche. It’s not necessarily just the physical organ.
Howard Kessler (Yarmouth, ME)
@Passion for Peaches The literature suggests that anything beyond as few days of brain rest is likely useless.
LS (New York, NY)
I empathize with Ms. Craig. Been there, done that. Rather more serious; pull the plug serious. Every time I asked how long, the response was 6 months to a year. They lied. It is now five plus years. I am in recovery, both physical and mental. I write 1,000 words a week to a group of friends both to share the richness of life and the discipline of regular thought to explore experience, education, philosophy and faith. I found regaining physical strength is a critical component of regaining mental endurance. Naps become a necessity. Instead of just powering through, the balance of mind and body becomes important. Frustration is a constant companion when you know that you cannot recall, or that you cannot easily finish a thought, or that you have overloaded the brain current capacity. Dementia or not knowing you don’t know may be a blessing. The one gift that I have been given is the ability to reach out to others less fortunate than myself. Treating the soul as the repository of goodness and the body as a physical necessity achieves a balance of what is. Thank you, Ms. Craig
Joseph Knecth (Fort Collins, CO)
@LS This is a very well thought out and well written essay. I salute you.
Lawyermom (Washington DC)
@LS My neurosurgeon was good enough to explain the problem with prognosis beyond one year is because there were few, if any, studies that followed patients more than a year post-injury.
Daphne (NY)
@LS I so empathize with you and the author. I was riding a bike when an elderly motorist crossed double lines into my lane, making an illegal U-turn. As I was going downhill. Sent me flying. I haven’t been myself since—headaches; vision and equilibrium issues; cognitive fog and easily exhausted. I am not me anymore. And don’t know that I ever will be again.
SGK (Austin Area)
Now in my early seventies, I increasingly find it easy to "zone out," especially as I watch the birds or stare at flowers. Consciousness dissolves into a watercolor wash of just participating in whatever I'm observing - and even the observing vanishes as well, with the "I" no longer existing ---- it's very calming, even if a potential sign of dementia. Those who sit Zen, who meditate deeply, etc., may experience something similar. I do believe the mind-body dualism is a concept past its prime. But philosophy of mind and the science of consciousness have a long way to go: if humankind is to get a grip on what's really going on in the human brain and human mind, it'll have to get a lot more thoughtful about the use of human language, where so much confusion clouds the understanding, Most important: I'm glad Dr Craig recovered -- and is so articulate about her experience.
David Hartman (Chicago)
Since there is little support for this type of concussion producing chronic brain damage or imbalance, it would have been interesting to see what might have happened had the author immediately gone back to her regular routine after a couple of days. Her symptoms describe depression, not concussion.
A Griffith (Massachusetts)
Why does the graphic illustration accompanying Megan Craig’s essay show an incomplete male head? Was there some notion that a philosopher could be represented as brain-troubled but not female?
TL (Madison)
@A Griffith Bring out the pitchforks, folks.
Len Arends (California)
@A Griffith Are you assuming that head's gender? smh
Pam Flohr (Carmichael, Ca.)
This took me back 48 years after a car accident. It was later, when I studied neurology, that I finally learned why I felt so disabled. I suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. No " brain rest" for me. I was responsible for 2 small children and a house to run. I could do everything I needed to,but it took intense concentration and was exhausting. Reading a news article was impossible...at the end of a paragraph, I had no idea what I just read. So, I developed a system to relearn how to read. Later as a speech pathologist working with the neurologically brain injured, I was able to use that system to help others (with more than mild brain injury) to regain their reading. This included a former national reporter whose identity was being able to read the newspaper, when he had lost so much else of who he was.
Bob (USA)
Folks might check out Schopenhauer, who has interesting things to say about these questions. And he is a very good writer to boot. Galen Strawson has lately written some good pages on identity and self. Hope the writer fully recovers soon.
Anne (Cincinnati, OH)
You aren't your brain. The brain is an immoral organ with its own wiring and needs. This is something people in recovery from addiction know very well but have difficulty explaining to those without addictive behaviors, and are thus often misunderstood or viewed with skepticism. Your mind is consciousness, the self met in meditation, what children are born with and forget, only perhaps to meet again after much living and trauma requires a change in patterns the brain has developed for survival. These survival tactics may become rigid and no longer work, so new patterns have to be developed in the wiring.
HH (Rochester, NY)
@Anne There is no such thing as "you." Similarly, the things you call "conciousness" and "self" are misnomers that mislead understanding how the structure we call homo sapiens work.
don salmon (asheville nc)
@HH You're interpreting Anne's writing through a particular structure that is tangential to what she is pointing to.
Anne (Cincinnati, OH)
@HH Maybe. Except unfortunately I think there is a you, or me. Me? My real me/you is a self I believe I share with all homo sapiens. Then there's my ego, which trips me up all the time. That's the brain's formation, and in general it wants to kill me.
Concerned Mom (NJ)
I hope Megan Craig is writing a book on her experience for the general public. I can't recall (without a brain injury) the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a NY Times piece. Even with the critical (in the best sense?) comments.
Jonathan C. Smith (Chicago)
Try meditation as an experiment. The brain skill of no mind. No thought. Here mind wandering is just a distraction.
Felix Qui (Bangkok)
The author appears to be in two minds as to whether the brain is part of the body or not.
Felix Qui (Bangkok)
@Felix Qui But the points raised are nonetheless an interesting reflection on what it is to be an I, and how wholly dependent that I is on the brain and other organs of the body.
Mainz (Philadelphia)
Thanks for a great article, particularly combining thought processes/philosophy interacting with brain/memory/ability to understand. FYI, up to 20 years or so ago, people were generally told that 2 years would be the maximum period for brain improvement. Through brain research in the meantime, they now know--as I'm sure you know--that neurons are constantly being created, and healing can go on for over 10 years. One needn't anymore be 'resigned' to non-improvement. Also, the 'use it or lose it' phrase seems to apply to the brain, so "too much rest" isn't useful either. P.S. After something similar happened to me 30 years ago, everyone got a new name: "There" as in "Hi, there"... Peace, Moi
Catherine (PA)
Very interesting piece. Certainly the brain plays a key role in all that we do. But it is not the whole story. Thus, identity (which has been and can be defined in varied ways) does not reside in one place. It is cultural and social as well. It involves other bodily processes in addition to the brain. If there is a major disruption in cultural and social processes, identity can become disrupted as well. The challenge is to conceptualize and discern how identity is an ongoing and dynamic process that emerges through other ongoing and dynamic processes.
Jason (Chicago)
I appreciate the author sharing her experience and reflections. Most meaningful to me was the memorable line she attributes to her grandfather who struggled to maintain his mind as he aged, describing it as "a library where all of the books were shelved too high to reach." A powerful and frightening image. All those things known and committed to memory but inaccessible to all--lost forever. A lifetime of work and reflection that will pass before the man does, rendering worthless to the world every thought not communicated through word or deed and every feeling not written, spoken, or physically conveyed. Ephemeral seems too weak a word for a thought retained by the thinker as his mind becomes too weak to access it.
Buelteman (Montara)
Welcome to my world. I had advanced nuerologic Lyme disease and my brain was so swollen I could not remember my kid's names nor make distinctions between what was happening on TV and real life. While I have experienced some recovery, the brain damage remains. No philosophy in it, just loss.
Stephen Merritt (Gainesville)
Why are people in the medical profession so eager to tell patients not to think too hard because of this or that condition? Surely, if the brain has been injured, thinking will help rebuild neural connections (I may have just proved that I'm not a neurologist by saying that). If it's an issue of keeping blood pressure down, perhaps the idea ought to be to encourage some kinds of thinking rather than others. But surely being told to "rest the brain" is going to create a lot of distress in many people, which hardly seems likely to help the brain.
Denise (Brooklyn, NY)
@Stephen Merritt Your response is surely a common sense one...after all, you rebuild muscle by using it. I certainly thought the same...until my husband suffered a concussion. The doctors told him to rest and, surprising to me, that included reading and using the computer. As I researched the issue, every medical article I found said the same thing, Rest! Fatigue is the commonest symptom of brain injuries, mild through severe. We lay people don't associate "thinking" with other energy-consuming activities, such as physical exercise. The brain uses energy equivalent of 20% of our resting metabolic rate...that's why post-concussion people can feel exhausted by non-physical tasks like reading. So a brain busy with healing from a physical trauma benefits from our conserving energy and allowing it to direct its resources to that task.
@Stephen Merritt I have taught a number of students who've gotten concussions. Some get migraines when they try to follow lectures, some can follow lectures but get migraines if they try to study for exams. These symptoms go away after weeks or months, but in the meantime, it is necessary for them to avoid "thinking too hard." People know what this phrase means intuitively, and apparently it also has meaning neurologically.
Joe (Pittsburgh)
The brain in the vat thing is the physicalist's version of Descartes' esprit mal. Like the Matrix thing. So physicalism doesn't make the scary stuff go away. So, uh, what? Btw, did you like Altered Carbon? Double sleeving is the reductio of the software version of physicalism the characters and societies in the show otherwise embrace. Great show, though.
Sal Anthony (Queens, NY)
Dear Professor Craig, A few months ago I was stopped for a red light, and when it turned green I did what I always do, which is wait for a long moment before proceeding. The car opposite me did not wait, and was sideswiped at some sixty miles an hour by a police cruiser with flashing lights but no sirens. The occupants of both cars miraculously survived owing to a multitude of air bags, but the only thought in my middle-aged mind was that I was glad my mother and my wife did not have to grieve my loss had I been less patient. My point is, I wish you a full recovery, and though I don’t know you, I’m both sorry you had to go through such a wrenching experience and yet gratified that in a very palpable sense, you gained a larger philosophical perspective of the nature of the mind. Cordially, S.A. Traina
Ron Hellendall (Chapel Hill, NC)
The author incurs a traumatic shock to the body organ that creates and maintains ‘mind.’ He experiences a compromised sensation to the state of his ‘mind.’ If this occurred had to me it would have reinforced - as if reinforcing were necessary - on a very personal level that mind and body are one. A reflexive contemplation of dualism would have been the farthest thing ...from my mind.
SMP, PhD (Saratoga Springs, NY)
@Ron Hellendall The author is female and SHE discusses the state of HER mind.
Gretchen Horlacher (Maryland)
My experience of Menieres Disease (a balance disorder characterized by severe vertigo), even when I’m not symptomatic, reminds of the mind-body connection daily. I move differently even if I don’t “need” to, and I rest frequently even if it’s not “necessary.” I also “work” to think differently, to keep troubling thoughts about ill health in perspective. My point is that even when healing is “over” we carry (healthy I hope!) experiences of disease that connect mind and body.
Local (NY)
"Brain rest" is going the way of bed rest. There is no evidence that avoiding cognitive/physical exertion hastens recovery, except avoiding the concussion-inducing activity (e.g. football) so as to avoid repeat concussions. There is some evidence that rest extends the recovery period and prolongs symptoms, at least in a subset of patients. "vigorous physical activity should be avoided if it leads to unbearable symptoms, but for not more than 48 hours" "mild symptom exacerbation is common, transient, and will not prolong recovery" Wishing you a speedy and full recovery, and wishing your doctors would crack open Kant.
Deb W. (Bucks County)
Because I did not know that I had a concussion (after missing the last step on a flight of stairs and landing on my face), I did exactly the opposite of what is recommended. I attended a seminar, wrote a lengthy report, spent my usual time on screens. A few days later, I began to experience a cascade of symptoms including loss of proprioception, headaches, inability to think clearly, dizziness, and depression. I was ultimately diagnosed with post concussion syndrome. It was two years before I felt myself again, although I still experience headaches, which I’d never had previously. Anyone who doubts the importance of “brain rest” has never had a concussion.
Passion for Peaches (Left Coast)
@Local, glad to hear that. A few years ago I slipped and came down on the back of my head on a stone floor. My head bounced. The ER doctor who diagnosed my concussion told me to avoid physical exertion and major life decisions for some weeks (don’t sign any contracts!), but he said nothing about brain rest. I let my body (including my brain) decide how to progress through my recovery. A concussed brain won’t allow mental overexertion. For a few weeks after the fall I was unable to read more than a few words at a time. Arithmetic baffled me. I could watch tv without getting a headache, but couldn't follow the simplest storylines. My head felt as if it had been profoundly rattled. I imagined brain bits swirling in around in my skull, like flakes in a snow globe. I have a hard time imagining that anyone in this state — philosopher or not — would have deep thoughts about the separation of mind and body. I fretted about my future, but concentrated more on retaining sanity. And placing one foot in front if the other while remaining vertical was hard enough, given the pervasive vertigo. The one thing I could comprehend fully, in the early weeks of my recovery, was music. It made sense to me, unlike everything else in the world. It clicked into place. A couple months in, I remember going to the market and standing in front if a several-shelf display of one brand of pasta. I was flummoxed, panicked, terrified. Frozen by the prospect of too many choices. Deep thoughts? No.
Passion for Peaches (Left Coast)
@Deb W., I have been concussed. In mild concussions, the symptoms you describe generally don’t appear right after the head impact, regardless of what the patient does. You may have made them worse by doing too much, but it would have taken a few days for all those cognitive and balance issues to come up anyway. The one symptom that developed quickly for me for me was the inexplicable weepiness the writer mentions. I felt that even in the ER, a couple hours after my fall. When I mentioned it to the doctor, he nodded and quickly noted it in my record. The confusion and brain fog came days later.
J Higgs (FL)
Having recently (February 12 of this year) had a "mild" traumatic concussion I can relate to this considerably more than I'd like. (It didn't feel 'mild', hence the quotes). It's very important for others to know that it's not just... "sleep it off and carry on". It bothers me immensely when I can't remember a name or name of something that I know! I've had all of the symptoms Professor Craig mentions. It's tormenting in its way. I see my 95 year old mother now struggling with dementia after 2 bad falls resulting in concussions. When I fell that was my first thought. 'Oh my God, what have it done to myself' - like I did it on purpose. In this day and age to be told to keep all sensory input to nil is, pardon me, mind boggling. But it is exactly what is necessary - try that... it's near impossible. What I hate most is feeling that I'm just not as quick and sharp as I'm used to being. Gradually, yes, it's returning, but in the back of my traumatized brain is the bothersome question of whether my quickness and ability to smoothly handle myriads of detail and my 'normal' daily life and work ever return. I describe the blank spots Prof. Craig mentions as "Swiss cheese brain". My memory has blank spots, holes scattered about it - and they drive me crazy. But, they are getting smaller and smaller, and further apart. Thank you Professor Craig for writing this. I appreciate it immensely.
Gem (North Idaho)
@J Higgs What you describe is what I have experienced after the trauma of caring for my beloved Chewybean cat when he had hyperthyroidism, chronic kidney disease, and pancreatitis, then IBD and heart disease. For 2 years and 3 months I was awake every 1-3 hours when sleeping to give him food, meds and attention, and was able to give him excellent quality of life, with him still catching mice, a chipmunk and a packrat, and going on little hikes in the forest surrounding our home. He was the love of my life and I am still recovering from the loss. This was the most significant trauma of my life, and while I have regained many of my cognitive skills, and have less physical exhaustion, I am still not who I was before Chewy was diagnosed. It appears in my experience anyway, that emotional and psychic trauma have the many of same symptoms of a cuncussion.
howard b. hecht, Ph.D. (port jefferson,ny)
The loss of a sense of self Ms. Craig experiences parallels one's experience doing mindfullness meditation and is the essential Buddhist concept of 'no-self'.
Noah McBurnett (Newport, Ri)
I enjoyed many parts of your article. I am a little troubled with some of the simplicity you related to athletes and the brain. Specifically correlating your brain injury to a point guard hand injury. I am not a social justice or left wing sensitive type, but I saw this comparison as extremely narrow “minded” to think athletes only rely on their physical prowess and not the combined continuous physical-mental system that humans have. A point guard uses their brain-body systems in perhaps much more complicated and advanced ways then those of us in pure intellectual professions. Try being a NFL Linebacker, quarterback, MLB Pitcher, US Women’s Soccer forward or goalie. All of these states require very similar creative and thought processes as philosopher or military officer. While later in the piece you attempt to empathize with NFL players suffered get brain trauma, I think you are not fully grasping the linkage between all human pursuits. I did enjoy the article but thought you could think better about how others use the mind.
Barking Doggerel (America)
Lovely essay! It is refreshing to have such clear and delightful prose in The Stone, which is occasionally/frequently tangled and needlessly esoteric. Professor Craig's brain is working just fine!
Jim Muncy (Florida)
"all I had to do to hasten my recovery was commit to 'brain rest ... '" That's comical and impossible. Comical, because the doctor compares the nonphysical mind with a physical muscle. Impossible, because asking the mind not to think is like asking the lungs not to breathe. You simply can't prohibit thought. Granted, meditators claim that they do; but when I meditated, I still had incessant thoughts pop into my mind from the Unconscious, for lack of a better term. Thoughts just show up; and they won't stop. And it may not only be futile to try, but also harmful to do so. It's like wanting your blood to stop flowing for a while, so you can relax, recuperate, and recover. In short, it's absurd. Who or whatever set the universe in motion and keeps it going obviously designed thoughts to be nonstop. For humans to try to sabotage that order is impiety of the highest order, and God or Nature is not mocked. But I did learn to beware of stout kids on ice skates.
Harold Feinleib (Stamford CT)
@Jim Muncy It’s not about stopping thought, it is about noticing them and noticing when you get lost in them rather than observing them. At least that’s my opinion.
Jim Muncy (Florida)
@Harold Feinleib Many yoga teachers agree with you, and so do I. But her doctor just casually recommended no thinking, which is an impossibility. Certainly, I can't do it, and I've tried many, many times.
Diane (Seattle)
@Jim Muncy To add to what Harold Feinlaub wrote. I found that by repeatedly witnessing the thoughts arising and falling away, meditation showed me that there’s a difference between thoughts and consciousness. After much practice, I now see that my thoughts are not my identity, rather the witness is. While it sounds like splitting hairs, realizing that I am not my thoughts has been very freeing to me. Just my 2 cents.
Laveck (Chicago)
Thank you for your thoughts. They are a perfect supplement to my current reading, Intellect: Mind over Matter, by Mortimer J. Adler. Although I'm not fully convinced by Adler's argument--I lean toward materialism on the mind/brain issue--he takes on the dualism question in an interesting and unique way. I recommend that you give it a go when the awfulness of concussion comes to an end. It will. I know from experience. I was a hockey player and my third concussion put an end to a much loved hobby. Good luck!
Tony Peterson (Ottawa)
Social “scientists” are still having trouble with the word “theory”. Descartes did not have a Theory of Mind, which would be a description of its workings, distilled and summarized from countless observations - shared with and similarly experienced with fellow humans and other animals - with testable predictions coming out of it. He did not even propose a model. No, what Descartes had would most accurately be called an epiphany, which is not transferable. Let’s remember, he was seeking to “prove” the existence of god, as unscientific an enterprise as one could imagine. A correct example of “theory” would be Number Theory, which examines the consequences of certain universally agreed upon principles like 1 0=1. Evolutionary Theory is similarly based upon the repeated, published observations and reproducible experiments of innumerable biologists (and increasingly, physicists and chemists). Science is the ultimate social activity. Even Newton, in his glorious, genius-soaked isolation, was told that if he didn’t publish the Principia, then it was nothing, because no one else would know it. No theory of gravity until every one gets to test it. We all dream our own reality. Reserve your theories for the dreamer, not the dreams themselves. So to be clear - a philosophical examination of one’s own dream cannot be science.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
@Tony Peterson - "We all dream our own reality." Ah yes, we're all just makin' it up, folks. As Poe said, "All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream".
TurandotNeverSleeps (New York)
Be vigilant (but not paranoid) about monitoring and developing your brain health if you’ve suffered a concussion - “mild” or not. Two years ago, I suffered a concussion after an errant NJ Transit bus driver tore out of my stop so fast I bumped my head in 3 places, yet thought I was fine after E.R. CT scan, week-long headache and lots of Advil. Fast forward 7 months, severe migraines plagued me daily, then a battery of tests, prescribed medication that caused 7-lb. weight gain, despite exercise & healthful diet, led to the ultimate insult to this lifelong careerist (earned an MBA in finance in mid-50s and have taught college-level business for 10 years): a supercilious Ph.D. neuropsychologist declared I had “mild cognitive impairment”. This, after a ridiculous 3-hr assay administered by a 20-yr-old grad student who could not figure out how to turn off a computer monitor that kept flashing multi-colored type and visuals in the background and distracted me throughout the whole test. Ultimately, my M.D. neurologist, a headache specialist who had prescribed the tests, assured me I was healthy, did not need to plan for assisted living any time soon (I’m in my late 60s), and to keep doing all the brain work I loved. It has made me more vigilant about protecting my head but even more determined to expand and exult in the brain’s capacity to heal.
Alex K (Massachusetts)
Mindful meditation is a fine form of brain rest. Even without the concussion, it’s a health-giving practice.
Anam Cara (Beyond the Pale)
E Pluribus Unum. All are not the same, but all are connected to form the whole.
See also