Tackling the Mind-Body Problem When You Have a Mind-Body Problem

Dr Cleo Hanaway-Oakley, early career researcher and Knowledge Exchange Facilitator (Humanities) at the University of Oxford and founder of the Oxford Phenomenology Network, writes:

The mind-body problem has fascinated me since school. In the sixth form I was introduced to Descartes, the father of dualism, at the same time as Wittgenstein, who states that it ‘is misleading […] to talk of thinking as of a “mental activity”’ (1958, p. 6). At University, I took English and Philosophy, followed by further literary-philosophical study at postgraduate level. My thesis argued that, for modernist masters such as James Joyce and Charlie Chaplin, the mind and body are entirely entwined, in a manner which prefigures the ideas of philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As James Joyce said of his characters in Ulysses (1922), ‘If they had no body they would have no mind’: ‘It’s all one’.

To me, Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of us as intertwined mind-bodies is fairly intuitive – my mind and body are obviously interlinked as my thoughts connect to bodily actions seamlessly and easily, especially when I’m carrying out familiar tasks, such as drinking a cup of tea. I don’t have to use my mind to think: ‘now lift the cup to your mouth and tip at an appropriate angle’. In Merleau-Ponty’s language, we intend towards the cup; we move, innately (without conscious mental effort) towards the cup and bring it to our mouth to drink. Similarly, my emotions are indissolubly mental and bodily; sadness is tears, a hot flush and headache, as well unhappy thoughts. It is not that I feel sad (in my mind) then express it (through my body).

Given my disavowal of Cartesian dualism and my acceptance of Merleau-Pontian embodied consciousness (the inextricable connection between mind and body), I was taken aback when I observed what appeared to be a mind-body divide in myself. Half-way through my doctorate, I was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder called Hypermobility Syndrome. The syndrome is multifaceted, involving a variety of symptoms; one major symptom is hypermobile (often very painful) joints, hence the syndrome’s name.

© Cleo Hanaway-Oakley 2012

© Cleo Hanaway-Oakley 2012

As you can see from this photo of me (taken a couple of years ago), my elbow bends back further than ‘normal’. The photo shows what my arm looks like when I’m told to ‘hold it out straight’. I think (in my mind) that I’m holding my arm out straight (which, for most people, is at an 180 degree angle) but, as the picture clearly shows, my arm (my body) creates an angle which is closer to 200 degrees. This is the mind-body split that I witnessed in myself.

This observation troubled me and I began to re-consider mind-body dualism; maybe there’s some truth in it and maybe the example above proves Merleau-Ponty wrong. After all, the biomedical model of medicinedivides the mind from the body, focusing on corporeal health and biology when making assessments and offering treatments. Who cares what my mind was thinking – my body was wrong and needed to be corrected.

As I pondered things further, however, I came to realise that my mind and body were not at odds. Instead, the language used in my assessment was skewed towards non-hypermobile people. For ‘normal’ people, ‘hold your arm out straight’ means ‘hold your arm out at roughly a 180 degree angle’. For me, however, ‘hold your arm out straight’ means ‘hold your arm out at roughly a 200 degree angle’. I am intentionally directed, in Merleau-Pontian terms, towards a 200 degree angle as that is what ‘straight’ means to my embodied consciousness.

I now feel that Merleau-Pontian phenomenology has the potential to help us comprehend the lived experience of illness, especially complex long-term conditions that have a multitude of symptoms. If it’s not giving me pain, I don’t need to start holding my arm out at 180 degrees when someone asks to me to hold it out ‘straight’. But if holding it at 200 degrees is painful, I will adjust the angle as necessary. Indeed, Merleau-Pontian theories of embodied (and enworlded) consciousness could be very useful in researching pain, particularly chronic pain which has no obvious bodily cause. Phenomenology is, already, through the work of Professor Havi Carel and others, making its way into medicine, offering alternatives to the biomedical model.

Anyone interested in discussing phenomenology and health is warmly invited to attend the Oxford Phenomenology Network’s inaugural conference.


Duncs · November 3, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Dear Cleo,

I’m pretty new to the Durham website and not 100% sure how it all fits together but thought I would share a thought about your Mind and Body article.

From my experience and readings we are certainly missing a trick when it comes to developing a more integrated approach to over all wellbeing.

Your picture showing hypermobility is one which reminded me straight away of the work of Moshe Feldenkrais … and also of some of the comments made by John Douillard in Body, Mind & Sports.

Our mental and physical maps of our bodies don’t match up. The language we use to connect the two is also inadequate as we generally haven’t taken the time to refine how we move or think. This is without getting into the intention or spirit of things.

Thanks for sharing

Cleo Hanaway-Oakley · November 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found my ramblings interesting! I will definitely look up the work of Moshe Feldenkrais and John Douillard.

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