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Mind & Body

Article

Separate and yet interdependent, the two halves of our existence.

Why do we talk about mind and body rather than brain and body? Perhaps because we see the brain as a physical entity, controlling the nervous system and bodily functions, while the mind holds memory, emotion and personality. In the past, society might have considered the essence of what makes an individual the 'soul', and the seat of the soul hasn't always been considered to be the brain. The Babylonians thought that human emotion and spirit resided in the liver the Egyptians, that the soul (or 'ka') was located in the heart. The Mesopotamians hedged their bets with the theory that intellect lay in the heart, emotions in the liver and cunning in the stomach.

Are the mind and the body separate? Western medicine seems to have come full circle, beginning and ending with an approach that recognises the interdependency of mind and body, bracketing several hundred years when the two were approached as distinct entities. 'It's all in his head' seems to have faded from popular parlance over recent decades as we come to understand that the vast majority of afflictions have both mental and physical aspects.

Unless the symptoms are very pronounced, it can be hard to 'see' mental illness. For the individual trying to disguise their condition this can be an advantage: mental illness continues to have a stigma attached to it. Society seems to be more comfortable with a broken leg than a broken spirit - more acceptable, more predictable, easier to cure. Now we understand a little more about the brain and body, we seem determined to 'fix' anything that leads an individual to stray from the norm. Is the problem with the person who is 'different', or with a society which finds it difficult to accept and cater for this difference? Why do we find it easier to accept someone who has mental health issues as a result of an accident or stroke, than we do someone who has developed schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?

For the majority of historically recorded medicine, patients have been treated holistically - in much the same way that alternative medicine and medical care in other cultures has always done. Within the framework of the four humours it was taken for granted that the balance of elements in each individual would affect their personality, as well as which conditions they might be most susceptible to. Most obvious would be those of a melancholic disposition - the glass half-empty people, the 'Eeyores' among us who need to guard against depression.

From the Renaissance onwards, as knowledge increased, ways of seeing the body diversified. For some the body was a machine, with pumps and valves, levers and hinges for others the body was a collection of chemical processes and reactions, such as the breaking down of food and creation of heat. Seen from a mechanical perspective, the body becomes something very different from the mind.

Considering the physical construction of the brain is considerably harder. Researchers have approached the brain from many directions: physical, chemical, electrical, behavioural. The incredible ability of the brain to adapt, learn, interpret and anticipate underlines the complexity of this most vital organ and how much more there is discover.