Of Cause & Effect

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR

Our brain has a fundamental influence on our ‘mindful’ experience, not to speak of conscious responsiveness. It has a demonstrable pattern, or synergetic symmetry, no less. Yet, when consciousness is ‘measured’ in conventional parlance, the emergence of conscious experience seems mystifying.

The argument is simple; also profound.

While it is agreed that our neural origins could possibly have neuro-physiological and other corporal effects, the perplexing point is — how could something so objective and corporeal generate a subjective occurrence?

The point, again, is, we do not yet know, notwithstanding astounding advances in medical science and technology, how consciousness persuades certain processes in the brain as it ought to. It is trite too for most of us to take it as a given — that we are endowed with a conscious mind that controls our intentional actions. This view not only holds ‘good’ for our belief structures, but also our ethics, politics and legal systems. 

Conscious Mind

All said and done, understanding our conscious mind is not as simple as stealing a candy from a child. How itexercises’ its influence is far too complex than we often surmise, or take for granted. While it is, again, agreed that consciousness is fundamental for most forms of complex, or effective processing, it is also, ironically, not as indispensable, as one would think, to everyday living. The reason is simple — there are just no ‘cracks’ in the sequence of neuro-psychological and neuro-physiological events that engage the intercession of ‘perception’ for our brain to ‘tick’ with computerised precision.

Research surmises that our consciousness presents a causative contradiction. This is, in more ways than one, connected to our body-brain and mind-consciousness — the basis for causal irony. To highlight some examples — there may be physical triggers for physical states, physical causes of mental states, mental causes of mental states, and emotional causes of physical states and vice versa. What does this signify? That getting to the ‘root cause’ presents us with apparent connotations for understanding the cause and treatment of illness, or disease.

As Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize-winning immunologist and virtuoso writer, put it, “[Tuberculosis] is an affliction in which the psychosomatic element is admitted even by those who contemptuously dismiss it in the context of any other ailment.” Not surprisingly, there’s plentiful support, since ancient times, that the path and development of tuberculosis is predisposed by the individual’s emotional state. It also goes without saying that one who is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis develops a defensive immune response that can hold the bacteria in check and prevent them from multiplying. This ‘resultant’ deadlock between the body and bacteria can keep the disease quiescent for years, all right. But, if something were to compromise, or ‘flag,’ the body’s immune defenses, the bacteria could trigger a revival of the illness.

Stress, depression, and other psychological factors can, likewise, alter our vulnerability to many illnesses, including viral and bacterial infections, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The deduction? The association between mind and health could be construed to be connected, not only by our behaviour, but also by the biological relationship that exists between our brain and immune system. These connections work in either direction. The result is predictable — our state of physical health can ‘stage-manage’ our mental health and vice versa.

Conscious Experience

Not long ago, most theories about human nature were based on conscious experience. They were also suggested to be nothing short of ‘prescientific’ hearsay, or ‘folk psychology.’ Yet, clinical and investigational validation for the causal patterns of our conscious mind in health and illness has continued to accrue. It is not also without reason, therefore, that a whole new school of thought accepts the use of meditation, hypnosis, imagery, and biofeedback, as therapeutic in a range of medical conditions, triggered by emotions. What is most remarkable is the mounting evidence accrued — that, under certain conditions, such therapeutic interventions regulate and influence our autonomic bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure and immune system function.

Not Just Placebo Effect

It’d be, in such a context, interesting to note that one of the most acknowledged validations for the ‘upshot’ of our states of mind on medical treatment is the ‘placebo effect.’ Just having the assurance in the therapy, or therapist, that it will work, has by itself been found to be curative in many clinical situations — more so, in a host of functional disorders. It is also, again, obvious that the mind-body interaction goes far beyond the ‘placebo effect,’ albeit some researchers assert that the outcome can ‘affect’ illness, not organic disease. Conversely, yet another body of research suggests that placebo treatments may produce ‘organic’ changes.

It is conceivable, therefore, to suggest that our mind and consciousness interact with our body and brain in innumerable ways. The inference is predictable —

  • Our body and brain connect with mind and consciousness
  • There is evidence that the body and brain affect mind and consciousness
  • There is also wide-ranging data to demonstrate that the mind and consciousness affect the body and brain.

Now, the interesting point — most reductionists would assert that ‘tapping’ the neural causes and correlates of consciousness would help establish our conscious awareness to be identical with the functional states of the brain. The point also is causation, or correlation — this is not just as simplistic. Modern research acquiesces to the fact that consciousness is causally influenced and correlated with neural events, although it may interpret the design that consciousness is nothing but a state of the brain. This produces a fundamental dilemma for ‘reductionism.’ The reason being — no information about consciousness, other than its neural causes, correlates with the neuro-psychological and/or the neuro-physiological explorations of the brain.

To make it a plausible plank, one needs to go back to philosopher Benedict Spinoza’s dual-aspect theory. The mind is not material, nor is matter mental, said Spinoza. This is because neither the brain-process is the cause, nor the effect of thought. As there are no two processes independent and parallel, or two entities, Spinoza aptly conjured up of but one process seen inwardly as thought and outwardly as matter — in reality, an inextricable mixture and unity of both. The mind and body, as Spinoza also observed, do not act upon each other, because they are not other — they are one. He observed, “The body cannot determine the mind to think; nor the mind determine the body to remain in motion, or at rest, or in any other state… The decision of the mind, and the desire and the determination of the body are one and the same thing.”

Call it the cause and effect of consciousness, or what you may.

Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic and Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360.

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