Just imagine

Previously I questioned the way Ezra Bayda called our fears “largely imaginary,” meaning “no real  danger to us.”  Then, he implied that imagining is just “mental,” as distinct from the neurological process of writing grooves “into the cellular memory of the body.”  As we have seen from Walter Cannon’s work, we don’t just “slide into an established groove in the brain” (Bayda) when our fears are “triggered.”  The processes encompass endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and muscular activities, as well as many neurological reactions in addition to those in the brain.  But that’s not my problem with Bayda’s description of fear.  It may be more complex than he describes, but I don’t disagree with his main point that during fear the body seems to have a dynamic of its own, as so well described and analyzed by Cannon .

My problem is the dichotomies that Bayda sets up between the act of imagining and the “real,” and between the mental and the bodily.  If he had connected his description of fear more thoroughly with where he is heading, i.e., to become “at home with” fear, or what I would call to open fear, I think Bayda would have avoided these dichotomies.  He would have paid more attention to how we imagine when we fear.  And he would have opened his eyes to the ways we imagine.

Imagining does not always mean that we are making things up, even though we do make (an image) as we imagine.  I put “an image” in parenthesis because, once again, I want to minimize our tendency to convert moving and changing into things.  In fact, scientists call this activity of encoding a “picture” and passing it from neuron to neuron “neural computation.”  According to a recent article in the New York Times (Gorman), scientists are still 10 years away from figuring out how a mouse does what I would call “imagining,” in one basic sense of the word.  After photons strike the retina, the retina changes the energy of the photons into electrical charges that move through the nervous system in a series of electrical and chemical reactions to reach the thalamus and the cortex in the brain.  Scientists are 20-30 years from seeing how the whole process from photons to action works, how the neurons in the cortex then interact with and change (compute with) this incoming energy (electrical and chemical) and transmit energy to other parts of the body, which translate this energy into movement or non-movement.

By no means am I trying to reduce the process of imagining to material activities.  Whether one calls imagining the making and sending of pictures or the making and sending of electrical and chemical energy, we imagine as we interact with our world.  (I’m avoiding the words “signal” and “information” here because they beg the question.)  I’m not trying to reduce imagining to nothing but certain neurological processes, but I do want to bring imagining back down to earth.  To imagine is both more common than, and as puzzling as, artistic creation or flights of fancy or insecurity or neurosis.  To imagine is as simple as to see” and as complex.  And we haven’t even started to explore how our neurons compute with hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.  Nor what goes on when computing neurons pull in images from previous imagining (a process we turn into another entity called “memory”).

Dichotomies like those between imagining and reality, between body and mind, create intractable (false?) questions and set us off on the wrong paths to answering them.  Bayda writes as if fearful thoughts trigger bodily reactions.  He is not alone in viewing the bodily processes of fear, pain and turmoil as responses to some trigger.  But what puzzles physiologists like Cannon and Buytendijk is that very often these bodily processes get started and then they seem to trigger awareness of pain and fear, not the other way around.  Which comes first—the bodily processes or imagining the trigger?  pain or disturbance?  Nociception or pain?  Does it matter which comes first if that’s the wrong question?

Melzack spent years studying the pain that people can feel from a limb that’s been amputated.  Chronic pain dominates much of the current research on pain, and most chronic pain doesn’t have an identifiable source.  Can chronic pain and neuropathic pain be dismissed as “imaginary” because the other side of the dichotomy, the “real,” “physical” trigger, can’t be found?  No. Imagining arises within Melzack’s neuromatrix of pain and its multidirectional, multilevel, multisystem movement (or as Gawande says, program) that doesn’t require a fixed starting location.  Recent medical literature goes beyond Melzack to consider pain as a “biopsychosocial” event, adding more scientific content and explanation to Aristotle’s insightful phrase, “pain and disturbance,” lúpē ē taraché.  (Gatchel et al., Hadjistavropoulos et al., Lumley et al.)

We have been focusing on three aspects of that definition—pain, disturbance, and “bad things.”  Now it is time to focus on imagining.  After all Aristotle doesn’t say that that pain + disturbance + “bad things” = fear.  No, we experience the pain or disturbance of fear when we imagine that we are about to experience “bad things.”  In Aristotle’s words we are imagining imminent destructive and painful evil, phantasías méllontos kakoū phthartikoū ē lúpēroū . (R. II.5  1382a22)



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