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Altering Bodies and Minds

by Barbara Brehm-Curtis and Nicholas Horton

Altering Bodies and Minds

The impulse to alter body or mind in pursuit of the improvement of some aspect of human life and functioning has existed for at least as long as history has been documented and raises issues regarding tradeoffs between risk and reward.  During this semester-long project, we considered the practices and problems of various efforts to alter mind and body, and found that these provided a rich store of intellectual questions for exploration. To address the time constraints inherent in our shorter fall-term project, we scheduled a provocative inaugural speaker to jump-start our deliberations at the end of the preceding spring semester.  Rick Doblin, director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, presented his vision for the increased use of psychedelics and other related substances for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. The questions raised during this talk, including the role of government in regulating practices of alteration, the changing definitions of addiction, and the opportunities and consequences for unfettered use, percolated throughout our group’s time together. How do we ensure that decisions to use addictive substances are informed?  How do societal taboos and prohibitions, and social norms (e.g. increased support for medical use of marijuana) change, and what role do cultural references (e.g. to drug use in hip-hop culture) play in such transitions?

Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at RPI, was our first visitor in the fall.  She spoke about the Lexington, Kentucky Narcotic Farm and its role in the development of research on addictions.  The Farm, where our own Faculty Fellow and Founding Director of the Kahn Marjorie Senechal grew up, served as both a substance abuse treatment center and prison, undertaking a series of experiments and building an understanding of substances which heretofore were only known anecdotally.  Campbell also highlighted the interplay between psychopathology and substance abuse, and the literary and artistic connections between drugs and creativity.  Through faculty and student projects, we further explored cultural use of hallucinogenic substances, and ways that they have been used historically.

Tom Derr, Emeritus Professor of Religion, and member of the Bioethics Service at Baystate Medical Center, spoke about the changing role of bioethics.   He reviewed a series of challenges raised by new medical procedures and interventions that pose more questions than they answer.  Should interventions such as gender change be restricted only to those with ability to pay?  At what age can such decisions be made?  The insatiable demand for harvesting of organs blurs the connection between donor and recipient. How does the advent of face transplants change our sense of self and the body?  How do others respond to recipients of these transplants?  As computers become more powerful and integrated with our bodies, will there be a time when the distinction blurs?  What impact would immortality and infinite cognitive ability have on society?  Who would have access to these technological advances, and how would disparities in access influence the structure of society?

Our next visitor, Alison Field, Professor of Epidemiology at Children's Hospital/Boston, spoke about her work on the etiology and treatment of eating disorders.  The cultural and societal norms regarding body shape and idealized beauty are entangled with behaviors and practices which mirror those of addiction to drugs or gambling, but with certain unique aspects. Our discussion of behavioral addictions over the semester also included issues of body image, media stereotypes, and attempts to alter the body using disordered eating and other pathogenic weight control behaviors. Addiction to altering the body was further explored in discussions about body piercing and tattoing, and the possibility that these might also have "addiction" potential.  Discussions frequently returned to the notion of behavior change, and the differences between habit and addiction in many contexts, including movement patterning, and patterns of perception and body image. Some presenters and participants implied that our ability to change our mind/body is quite limited without the aid of drugs while others suggested that it is possible through education, re-patterning and long-term conscious effort. As a community of teachers and learners, we discussed the applications of these ideas to the liberal arts college environment.

Our final visitor was our own Mary Harrington, Professor of Neuroscience, who provided a guide to the internal and external inputs that undergird our central nervous system.  A recurring theme in our discussions related to the plasticity of the brain, and the ability for it to be rewired over time.  Mary’s talk also stimulated interesting discussion on another recurrent theme for our group: while we refer to body and mind, does this duality actually exist?  Where does the mind end and the body begin?  Indeed, is there any difference? Our group explored the positive mind/body effects of physical activity as well as the potential for exercise "abuse".  We also learned about new realms of mind/body communication and the role that the body’s fascia take on in terms of sensory input.  Group presentations and discussions also explored other questions about the perception of reality: How does language constrain our thoughts and perceptions?  In what ways do the increased use of electronic devices influence our perceptions and behavior?

Over the course of the project, while we did not expect to come up with definitive answers to the questions that were posed, the semester provided sufficient opportunity to jointly reflect on these issues.  Our discussions encompassed a truly broad range of perspectives that included the social, the historical, the economic, the cultural, the philosophical and the psychological, as well as through the sciences of linguistics, physiology, neuroscience and statistics. Over the semester, we developed a shared sense of understanding and identified many common threads that tied together our various interests, enjoyed expanding our perspectives on our individual ways of knowing, and moved toward a clearer sense of the next steps for many of our projects.


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