I love taking a scientific approach to how the body and mind are interconnected. If you’ve read any of my recent articles, it’s probably obvious that I love physiology, neurobiology, and biochemistry. Yes, molecules just rock my boat. Nerve and hormone pathways make me bristle with excitement. The intersection of mind states and psychology with this biological perspective is mind-blowingly fascinating to me. But this approach has it’s limitations.
More and more people seem to be jumping on the science-of-mind-body bandwagon. There have been a lot of articles appearing recently, that go down this route — the science of yoga, the biochemistry of meditation, how science proves that energetic meridians exist — some of which I share on my facebook page. It seems to be a pretty trendy topic.
This trend is great, and important for the world’s well-being, but it is also starting to really irritate me.
Why do we need science to prove that something is worth taking seriously? I mean, stop for a second: what even is science anyway? It’s just a methodical approach to analysing something, using particular sets of explanatory tools. We can use many explanatory tools to try to understand the totally wild entities and phenomena that make up our world. Each of those tools gets established through a fraught, continual and social process, which results in it holding some authority, or not, for some time. Scientific approaches and insights need questioning in just the same way as I need to question which of my friends is really “right” when they’re explaining what happened in their conflict. Both sides give some valuable input, but I cannot really access what happened. Science is just the same.
Yes, molecules are great, and explaining mind-body processes in terms of molecules sounds very clever and credible. But although we can *describe* certain molecular processes, that doesn’t mean we have a full *explanation* of what is going on. It’s just one angle on it. Probably you’ve heard of a few particular hormones (like cortisol, adrenaline or oxytocin) and neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin), whose names get thrown around connected to experiences of stress and anxiety or well-being and contentment. But seriously, the pathways those molecules are travelling down and transforming along in your body are so fucking complex that really, we have no idea what is going on there. They act differently in different regions of your body and brain. We just have fragments of the picture. Fascinating fragments, but not fully explanatory ones.
Scientific studies also produce pretty pictures that seem to illustrate what’s going on: “Oh look, there’s a brain in the process of thinking! Incredible! That must explain everything,” we think. But there are no pure images. Images are constructed by measuring a particular parameter that maybe-hopefully-kinda shows what we’d like to show, and then displaying different statistical levels of it in different colours, so that it looks compellingly real. Brain scans are often created using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which basically measures the levels of blood oxygen across the brain. The images make the claim that those oxygen levels *directly correlate* with brain activity and thus reveal how pathways work. This is a theoretical claim, not a fact.
The images also assume a modular understanding of how the brain works, which is also a theoretical position: that particular areas separately control different functions. The idea is that this little bit of the brain “lights up” when you think about money/sex/politics/etc, and must therefore in charge of that task, and must always denote one thing whenever it lights up. Different areas are also associated with particular emotional states, like anger, fear, disgust, love or feeling connected. So every time this little node lights up, we must be angry/afraid/etc. This is one theoretical stance, whereas another would be that the brain is made of networks, and that we still know so incredibly little about what is going on, that one area lighting up gives us some clues, but by no means an explanatory picture, because some areas light up when we are in all sorts of states. And even if we decide to trust the principles of these kind of brain scans, each individual experiment has also been designed and interpreted in particular ways, which we cannot just take as neutral claims to fact.
What we call science is a human enterprise like any other: an enterprise that humans try to regulate, monitor and standardise, but still a human enterprise. It uses particular approaches to try to access facts or truths or knowledge, but those approaches are continually being challenged. Science is much more fragile than it’s holy status would have us believe.
So, sure, let’s consider the ideas that are suggested by studies that we would label “science”, but let’s not forget other approaches, which also have instructional value in helping us become more fulfilled mind-body-beings. We could look at what we might call philosophy, spirituality, mysticism or psychology, for example. Science might finally be telling us that/how/why we need to learn to take the body and mind as a whole, and to relax and let go of old fears in order to feel well in the world. But we could also look to Taoist philosophy to hear the same thing, like this:
The sage attends to the belly, and not to what he sees.
— Tao Te Ching, 12
Those who seek knowledge,
Collect something every day.
Those who seek the Way,
Let go of something every day.
They let go and let go,
Until reaching no action.
When nothing is done,
Nothing is left undone.
Never take over the world to tamper with it.
Those who want to tamper with it
Are not fit to take over the world.
— Tao Te Ching, 48
And we could turn to so many other places of old or new wisdom on the nature of being in order to navigate our way in the world. Science is great, but don’t put it above the rest.