Monday, October 29, 2007

The body and the clear mind

Kevin Miller points to this study about the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on the emotional life. It seems that lack of sleep shuts down an important emotion processing center in the prefrontal lob of the brain.

My sleep-deprived wife's reaction when I read this to her was "duh!"

Anyway, our Cartesian culture lives as if this is not true. One can especially see this on college campuses. Kids really think they are thinking well even though they don't get enough sleep, exercise, fresh air, and good food. If I were a young adult who was in recovery from this lifestyle I would carefully sift through all the judgments about important matters I was so certain about while I was in college, especially negative or pessimistic ones. Avery Dulles talks about his own experience of this in his college years at Harvard in his autobiography, A Testimony to Grace.

A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. (are you tired of me quoting him yet?) says:
In men of otherwise equal gifts, it is certain that sickness is a serious handicap. It lessens the output; it interferes with the freedom of the soul at the moment of its delicate operations; it sidetracks attention; it may warp the judgment by effects on the imagination and the nervous reaction that suffering brings about. A disease of the stomach changes a man's character, his character changes his thoughts. If Leopardi [a 19th century Italian agnostic poet--very influential on Msgr. Giussani] had not been delicate and deformed, would he have been among the pessimists? (Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, p. 36)

Interestingly, Henri de Lubac suffered most of his adult life from severe headaches cause by a war injury. What might he have done had he been well?

2 comments:

Jeff Vehige said...

Robert -

You wrote: If I were a young adult who was in recovery from this lifestyle I would carefully sift through all the judgments about important matters I was so certain about while I was in college, especially negative or pessimistic ones.

Would you mind elaborating on this point? I think I know what you are trying to say -- that once you being to reform the body, the judgments of the soul also must be reformed.

The reason why I ask is that recently it's occurred to me that I need to take better care of myself. I'm sleep deprived; I don't exercise; my diet isn't very healthy. At 33, I think I've reached the age where the 20-something lifestyle (which you properly describe as Cartesian) is catching up with me. I've finally realized that if I'm going to do the things in this life that I want to do (and that I think God is calling me to do), then I better start taking care of the instrument of my soul (as Sertillanges calls it on p. 38).

Robert said...

Jeff,

I really can't elaborate on this any better than Sertillanges does. He beats this drum again and again throughout the book. He had a very intuitive Thomistic grasp of the theology of the body long before it because popular.

I am lucky on some counts. I walk to work (40 minutes of walking a day) through the woods! I eat very well (although I consume altogether too much caffeine).

My big problem is sleep deprivation, which comes from having a 2 year old who hasn't figured out that he can live happily without nursing during the hours when his parents are in bed.

One think I do is limit my intellectual work to a few hours a day, while I'm at work. I also limit my access to the internet, that most Cartesian of media, to work. We don't have internet access at home.

By the way, speaking of media, I have come more and more to believe that movies are an intrinsically Cartesian medium, whereas live theater, where the bodies of the actors interact with the bodies of the viewers, is much more Thomistic. I can hardly stand to sit and watch a movie these days, even ones I love.

I'd guess your biggest problem is that you are the primary educator, which makes it difficult to find time to exercise, especially if you jealously guard your intellectual work during the rest of your waking hours.

I don't know if gumbo is healthy or not. I never liked it that much, although I love fried okra, which is definitely not healthy for you!