Digestion Revisited

I was greatly impressed by a recent book, Out of Our Heads, by Alva Noë, who presents a different way to look at consciousness. He believes that current approaches to the question of consciousness are wrongheaded: instead of looking for consciousness as arising inside a person’s head, it is a result of interaction of with the environment. My favorite quote from the book is: “Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion.” [1]

Deep Brain Stimulation, [2] a book by Jamie Talan, details the history of stimulation deep inside the organ inside our head to alleviate intractable conditions. Talan describes Wilder Penfield’s early mapping of functions of the brain through stimulation of the brains of conscious patients. She then details the early history brain surgery from ablation by cauterization, to electrical stimulation at different frequencies, of parts of the brain thought to be involved with movement-related disorders such as: essential tremors, Parkinson’s disease and dystonia. There was a good deal of success in these efforts despite the fact it wasn’t clear: 1) which parts of the brain were actually responsible for the disorders and 2) whether placement of the ablation or stimulation electrode reached the intended target. However, as inaccurate as it was in the beginning (ca 1960s), it struck a finer balance than the gross (literally and figuratively) method of lobotomization introduced and perpetuated by Walter Freeman in the 1950s, who performed many of these procedures in his office with an ice pick.

The neurologist, Helen Mayberg spent her career mapping the brain to determine which areas are involved in depression. She determined that a group of brain structures called the limbic system (my favorite part of the brain), distributed along the midline of the brain were the ultimate target of treatments for depression. [3]

Her work had historical precedent. In 1937, James Papez wrote “… it is proposed that the hypothalamus, the anterior thalamic nuclei and the gyrus cinguli, the hippocampus and their interconnections constitute a harmonious mechanism which may elaborate the functions of central emotion, as well as participate in emotional expression.” [4] Paul MacLean followed up on Papez’s discovery. “MacLean was the first to recognize in his 1949 paper “Psychosomatic Disease and the ‘Visceral’ Brain,” that Papez’s tentative “proposition” that emotions have a physiologically explorable and anatomically definable machinery was a true discovery and not a “delusion” as had hitherto been widely held.” [5] [emphasis added]

My favorite quotation from Mayberg is, “We want to treat depression like we treat heart disease.” [6]

Given that depression is a conscious state, how can this be reconciled with Noë’s statement above that consciousness is not like digestion (read: heart disease)?

A re-read is in order. Stay tuned.

[1] Noë, A. Out of Our Heads New York: Hill & Wang 2009

[2] Talan, J. Deep Brain Stimulation New York: Dana Press 2009

[3] Ibid pg 81

[4] Papez, J.W. A proposed mechanism of emotion. Arch Neurol. Psychiatry, 38, 725-743 (1937)

[5] Yakovlev, P.I. Limbic Mechanisms (K.E. Livingston and  O. Hornykiewicz eds.)  pg 351 (1978)

[6] Talan, J. Deep Brain Stimulation New York: Dana Press 2009 pg 91

3 thoughts on “Digestion Revisited

  1. I don’t think consciousness is in the head either. It’s a metaphor like everything else. What ever that metaphor actually alludes to is as invisible and as mysterious as the concept itself. I sometimes think it’s a futile exercise trying to define anything with language, as the moment you have spoken you have automatically limited your perception of whatever it is you are trying to explain or describe. I’m not saying that communication is futile, but rather it serves a very different purpose than is popularly believed. It is much less about the transference of information than it is about building relationships with others, even if it is based upon common interests that may be information based. Why do we talk to anyone, and why do we rely on metaphor and humour in order to communicate? When we really begin to look at our own motivations for communicating with others then definitions of what is fundamentally important change, and it becomes obvious I think why our definitions of the world and our experiences are so vague and non-specific. I really ought to write that post about this very subject.
    Very interesting post Jack.

    Warm regards

    • I suppose consciousness needs to be defined. There certainly seems to be regions inside the head that, when ablated or stimulated cause different modes of consciousness. Depressive feelings can be evoked, as can elation or even deja vu. States of mind can be altered by drugs, as we all know.

      Now I’m not saying that consciousness is merely a collection of brain parts all working among themselves. But I do wonder what conditions are necessary AND sufficient for consciousness to exist.

      M, thanks for the continuing dialog. You’ve also gotten me very interested in communication and language, which I’ll be trying to post about in the next few days.

      best and warmest regards,


      • I shall look forward to your up and coming posts Jack. I’m pleased I’ve sparked some interest in communication for you. It is a fascinating subject and I think one that can tell us much about human behaviour and motivations. I’ve been getting a little sidetracked recently, so I’m not up to speed with posting the topics that I wanted to write about, especially the language pieces. Although I know doing so will help clarify what I’m studying.
        I enjoy our dialogue it certainly stimulates new ideas for me too, which is invaluable.

        Warm regards

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