Pop Psychology #1: “Bodysnatchers” by Radiohead / The Mind-Body Problem

(First in a series, set to run every five posts, that will look at songs from the popular canon that deal with issues relative to psychology, psychiatry or – as here – neuroscience.)

From the album "In Rainbows" (2007)

Listen to “Bodysnatchers”

No warning, no shuddering to life, no reason why, the riff just begins. It’s mechanical yet fluid, terrifying and irresistible, a circular algorithm cycling ineluctably to Point A, barely contained by the blistering speakers. Soon enough, harmonics are flying off like sparks from a pinwheel.

Trapped within, a voice:

I do not

Understand

What it is

I’ve done wrong

Who does? Who honestly deserves to live like this? As an invisi-mini-me, a homunculus, locked inside a skull, wired up to all these bewildering inputs, riding around in a fleshy container?

All full of holes

Check for pulse

One for yes

Two for no

This is our miserable lot! Because, just like you, when I say “I”, I’m not referring to this bipedal meat unit plonked before you, I’m referring to the real inner me: the homunculus that does all the thinking; that pulls the sinews to get the limbs moving; that pushes the buttons to make the sounds.

I have no idea what I am talking about

You see? It isn’t me saying that, it’s this crappy apparatus I’m strapped in to. Can’t you see how awful it is? Can’t you help me?

I am trapped in this body, can’t get out

Intensified to the point of psychosis by Thom E. Yorke and friends, this is the fundamental paradox of human existence: the mind-body problem. It’s a problem of a thousand questions. How can it be that my mind, which travels with my body wherever I go, is so very different from my body? Are there then two substances, the physical and the mental? How do the two interact?

René Descartes, the pre-eminent Enlightenment philosopher, is the man most often associated with this problem. But he was not the first to address it. It’s just that before Descartes, philosophers were more likely to speak of the “soul” than the mind.

Ah, the immaterial and eternal soul! The divine solution to this problem! All together now, best papal singing voice: nolite timere eos qui occidunt corpus animam autem non possunt occidere…

Not so fast: the same questions arise whether we call that little homunculus the “soul”, the “mind” or the “flibbertigibbet”. Just ask Thomas Aquinas (about the soul, not the flibbertigibbet).

And anyhow, who believes in this mystical, transcendent soul anymore? God is dead and the soul went with Him.

You killed the sound

Removed backbone

A pale imitation

With the edges

Sawn off

No, the mind is a product of the brain and we can use Daniel Dennett’s reformulation of the central question: “How on earth [can] my thoughts and feelings fit in the same world as the nerve cells and molecules that make up my brain?”

But even “mind” is starting to sound a little abstruse. Much better to talk of “consciousness” as Dennett does: the quote above is pulled from the preface to his “Consciousness Explained”.

I have no idea what you are talking about

Your mouth moves only with someone’s hand

Up your arse

In “Consciousness Explained” Dennett draws on research in neuroscience to dissolve our innate conception of “mind” and thereby remove one half of the mind-body equation.

Problem solved!

Has the light gone out for you?

Because the light’s gone out for me

It is the 21st century

It is the 21st century

For if this inner “I” really did exist, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons, surely the brain would be arranged like a panopticon:  all the neurones lined up and pointing to the control room where the homunculus sits taking it all in and dispatching the orders.

But the brain is nothing like this and – despite Descartes’ suggestion of the pineal gland fulfilling this function – there is no control room. Rather the picture we have after centuries of brain research – and the one laid out by Dennett – is of different areas of the brain working independently but in concert, producing a necessary illusion of unifying consciousness. Necessary because if the illusion wasn’t there you wouldn’t function as a human being: you’d have dissociative identity disorder on a very grand scale indeed.

It can follow you like a dog

It brought me to my knees

They got a skin and they put me in

They got a skin and they put me in

All the lines wrapped around my face

All the lines wrapped around my face

Are for anyone else to see

Are for anyone else to see

This is neuroscience’s Big Lesson: that the “soul”, the “mind”, even “consciousness” is but an illusion, immaterial in every sense.

There is no ghost in the machine.

I’m a lie!

But it’s a lie that won’t leave us alone. Dennett can bang on for 528 pages about how we must lay Cartesian dualism – the mind-body dichotomy – to rest but, good God, we can’t! It’s all we know: a necessary illusion, remember?

So when I say “I”, I’m still not talking about the lump of meat that goes by my name – I’m talking about the homunculus!

Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…

You know what this all means don’t you? If “I” is just an illusion created by my brain then when it stops working, “I” do too.

I’m going down with the ship!

I’ve seen it coming!

I’ve seen it coming!

I’ve seen it coming!

I’ve seen it coming!

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