Out of our heads
I’m a big fan of the work and writings of Alva Noë, I’ve found his arguments about mind and consciousness both challenging and compelling. I think his book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness is a must read for any clinician or therapist interested in philosophy of mind.
Today marks the release of Alva Noë’s newest book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature:
“This is a book about art. What is art? Why is it so important? What does art tell us about ourselves? In Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature I engage these questions.
… Art, really, is an engagement with the ways in which our practices, techniques, and technologies, organize us and it is, finally, a way to understand that organization and, inevitably, to reorganize ourselves.”
In the lead up to the release of Strange Tools, Noë published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which, I think, is worth a read.
“The basic problem with the brain theory of art is that neuroscience continues to be straitjacketed by an ideology about what we are. Each of us, according to this ideology, is a brain in a vat of flesh and bone…
“The brain is necessary for human life and consciousness. But it can’t be the whole story.”
Crucially, this picture — you are your brain; the body is the brain’s vessel; the world, including other people, are unknowable stimuli, sources of irradiation of the nervous system — is not one of neuroscience’s findings. It is rather something that has been taken for granted by neuroscience from the start: Descartes’s conception with a materialist makeover.
…But a work of art, like the meaningful world around us, is not a mere stimulus. And we work hard — we look, we ask, we think, we collaborate — to bring art and world into focus for consciousness” (emphasis added)
I like Noë’s idea that perception – seeing, hearing, feeling, is not something that just happens to us, or in us, as energies impinge on our nervous system, but rather that it is something that we do – that we have to work, and be engaged in the activity of perception.
The phrase ‘seeing patients’ is common enough in the health and medical world as a shorthand way of explaining what we do, but Noë’s idea of perception as action – as work, raises possible thoughts that are potentially cautionary, and at the same time, enriching. Take the following opening passages from Noë’s essay:
“You go to a gallery. The work is strange. You don’t know the artist. You aren’t familiar with the style. The pictures all look the same. Flat and dull. They fail to capture your attention. You move on to the next room. You give your energy to your date.
But what if your friend knows this work and she invites you to stop and look again? She calls your attention to features. She suggests questions for you to ask about patterns and relationship, color and content, as well as about the artist’s intent, influences, milieu, and preoccupations.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, something remarkable happens. Where all the pieces looked alike, now they start to stand out individually. Where they were flat, now you see depth. Where they were dull, now they fascinate.
What a transformation. The paintings have not changed. But neither is the change simply a subjective one, as if you merely have new beliefs or feelings about what you see. No, thanks to your exchange with the work — your queries, your probes, against the background of what you know, how you feel, what you desire — you now see what is there differently. The change opens up a world to you.”
Rather than a work of art, substitute a new patient as the focus of attention – someone you don’t know, perhaps with an unfamiliar culture (style), whose thoughts and beliefs (content), relationships, intentions, influences, and social milieu are not known to you. Rather than ‘dull’ perhaps this patient is closed off to you, inaccessible in some way. But then you do the work – with interest and questions and through collaborative engagement with the person, a new world – their world, perhaps a shared world, opens up to you and you see them in a whole new light.
Good clinicians and therapists are without a doubt doing this already, but maybe a bit of philosophy, a little bit of Noë’s way of thinking, might perhaps illuminate therapeutic encounters anew?