At the End of the Day


This piece is a propos not very much, actually. But it’s been bouncing around in my head for some weeks now, and over the last two days something happened to make me consider the issue again.

Those wishing to defend the Castle of Darkness love to talk about “settled science”. This silly term is in the same vein of ideological compulsion as “politically correct”: its aim is to shut down discussion in  bid to have their Weltanschauung “last for a Thousand years”. As a certain Herr Hitler once predicted, and turned out to be a mere 988 years out.

Nevertheless, you might reasonably think that some science is settled. One example is that of the division of human response into primary senses, emotions and reason. The proposition seems sound enough: we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, so those must be the five senses. We can feel things in such a way as to evoke an emotional reaction, but we can’t photograph these feelings, and so they can’t be physical senses. And of course, we can use that cerebral hemisphere largely devoted to logic in order to reach a rational hypothesis: it’s less and less common in the West now, but let’s leave that to one side.

But as both Buddhists and contemporary physicists now insist, “All separation is an illusion – everything is connected”. I don’t want to get into Meaning of the Universe stuff at this point….but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that both Buddha and Brian Cox are right. However, that seems to me evident merely by starting to deconstruct our reponses into three discreet groups.

The day before yesterday, I made a sweet n sour sauce the traditional way (as taught to me by a Chinese girlfriend 50-odd years ago). I made too much, greed got the better of me, and I polished off the lot. So the physical enjoyment of taste poked my cerebral pleasure centres of emotion, and then the next morning I woke up with a pretty badly irritated GI tract. That gave off a physical pain reaction, and this had two effects on me: first, a reasoned decision to eat plain food until the discomfort receded, and an emotional memory I found unpleasant.

The emotion is an unpleasant one because it reminds me of a time 30 years ago in advertising when too much stress gave me a chronic digestive problem. And in the background, there’s that neurotic catastrophisation that wonders if I’m going to spiral back into a similar period again. So I quickly reverted to the rational bits of the cortex, and resolved to use the CBT meditation technique I’ve used for nearly two decades now. (There are also Tai chi exercises one can do to restore a natural digestive rhythm).

Those two paragraphs seem to me to be ones of solid connection between everything taking place in my body, and in no way at all discretely separate.

There are myriad other examples. I cannot see a child, woman or old person in danger without experiencing a physical pain in the chest. A random smell can transport me instantly to, say, 1967. Seeing an item on a menu produces both a taste memory, and an emotional expectation. I can hear and see in dreams, but they aren’t a physical reality. I have (or had) a good left brain for assessing a maths answer, but I “see” days of the week in different colours, and can only grasp dates and numbers in three-dimensional space (with differing sizes for different dates) not in rows and columns.

Painters use colour and texture to communicate emotions. Many young people will get IBS – a physical response to emotional fear – before taking an exam, or a driving test. Patients in drug-test control groups sometimes recover from an ailment despite being given nothing more than a salt tablet. Steven Hawking confounded all his medical experts by outliving his predicted span by 30 years. A positive thought approach to getting over cancer successfully is now widely recognised, but little understood.

The structural functionalist approach to human response looks less and less credible the more one goes into it… does any one-size-fits-all attempt to produce general rules across our species. We feel guilt about the past and anxiety about the future because we have astonishing memories and vivid imaginations; we are suggestible, but in many varying ways dependent on cultural experience and DNA chemical structures. Change those structures through injury, illness or medication, and the personality will change.

The point is, physical senses can and do see, hear, smell, taste and touch things that aren’t there. They will also set off emotions….and they will distract. You may be on the verge of a cold fusion breakthrough, but the smell of bacon, coffee and bread or a waft of warm wind in summer, or the sound of people jumping in a pool, can persuade the best of us to down tools. Under anaesthetic, Time ceases to exist. While asleep, many hours and long dreams can seem to pass in seconds or days respectively.

Of course, we all have brains. But we have barely scratched the surface of the mind, and how it can skip happily from reason to sensory stimulation and emotion – none of them being mutually exclusive – while retaining an ethereal ability to jump from reality into thought and back again.

What is Time, does it exist, what is reality why are we here….metaphysics always contains the big questions and confounds all certainties. Perhaps all I’m saying (for now) is that it would be a good start if the medical profession stopped saying, “Oh, that’s just placebo effect,” and started doing more work on the holistic effect that produces it. One day in time, it may well save the State more than £14billion in pharmco costs.