Alan Watts on Brain vs Body

Brain against Body: Confusing Needs with Desires

We have been taught to neglect, despise, and violate our bodies, and to put all faith in our brains. Indeed, the special disease of civilized man might be described as a block or schism between his brain [specifically, the cortex] and the rest of his body. This corresponds to the split between “I” and “me,” man and nature, and to the confusion of Ouroborus, the mixed-up snake, who does not know that his tail belongs with his head. Scientists Lancelot Whyte and Trigant Burrow calls this disease the “European dissociation,” not because it is peculiar to European-American civilization, but because it is specially characteristic of it.

It is simply saying in “medical” language that we have allowed brain thinking to develop and dominate our lives out of all proportion to “instinctual wisdom,” which we are allowing to slump into atrophy. As a consequence, we are at war within ourselves – the brain desiring things which the body does not want, and the body desiring things which the brain does not allow; the brain giving directions which the body will not follow, and the body giving impulses which the brain cannot understand.

When we compare human with animal desire we find many extraordinary differences. The animal tends to eat with his stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal’s stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can. It is due, also, to the knowledge that, in an insecure world, pleasure is uncertain. Therefore the immediate pleasure of eating must be exploited to the full, even though it does violence to the digestion.

Despite the immense hubbub and nervous strain, we are convinced that sleep [which is also a form of meditation] is a waste of valuable time and continue to chase our fantasies far into the night, whether in sleep or in forced insomnia. Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of egoic-intellectual consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.

The vague, nebulous and insatiable character of brainy desire makes it particularly hard to come down to earth – to be material and real. Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help others, or to be a “real person”. But these are not real wants because thy are not actually things. They are the by-products, the flavors and atmospheres of real things – shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol for all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.

It is therefore far from correct to say that modern civilization is materialistic, that is if a materialist is a person who loves matter. The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, not solids but surfaces. He drinks for the percentage of alcohol (“spirit”) and not for the “body” and taste of the liquid. He builds to put up an impressive “front” rather than provide a space for living. Therefore he tends to put up structures which appear from the outside to be a baronial mansions but are inwardly warrens. The individual living-units in these warrens are designed less for living as for creating an impression. The main space is devoted to a “living room” of proportions suitable to a large house, while such essential spaces for living (rather than mere “entertaining”) as the kitchen are reduced to small closets where one can hardly move–much less cook. Consequently these wretched little galleys provide fare which is chiefly gaseous–cocktails and “appetizers” rather than honest meals. Because we all want to be “ladies and gentlemen” and look as if we had servants, we do not soil our hands with growing and cooking real food. Instead we buy our products designed for “front” and appearance rather than content–immense and tasteless fruit, bread which is little more than a light froth, wine faked with chemicals, and vegetables flavored with the arid concoctions of test tubes which render them so much impressive pulp.

One might suppose that the most outright example of civilized man’s beastliness and animality is his passion for sex, but in fact there is almost nothing beastly or animal about it. Animals have sexual intercourse when they feel like it, which is usually in some sort of rhythmic pattern. Between whiles it does not interest them. But of all pleasures sex is the one which civilized man pursues with the greatest anxiety. That the craving is brainy rather than bodily is shown by the common impotence of the male when he comes to act, his brain pursuing what his genes do not want at the moment desire. This confuses him hopelessly, because he simply cannot understand not wanting the great delicacy of sex when it is available. He has been hankering after it for hours and days on end, but when the reality appears his body will not co-operate.

A particularly significant example of brain against body, or measures against matter, is urban man’s total slavery to clocks. A clock is a convenient device for arranging to meet a friend, or for helping people to do things together, although things of this kind happened long before they were invented. Clocks should not be smashed; they should simply be kept in their place. And they are very much out of their place when we try to adapt our biological rythyms of eating, sleeping, evacuation, working, and relaxing to their uniform circular rotation. Our slavery to these mechanical drill masters has gone so far and our whole culture is so involved with it that reform is a forlorn hope; without them civilization would collapse entirely. A less brainy culture would learn to synchronize its body rhythms rather than its clocks.

For the brain, including its reasoning and calculating centers, is a part and product of the body. It is as natural as the heart and stomach, and rightly used, is anything but an enemy of man. But to be used rightly it must be put in its place, for the brain is made for man, not man for his brain. In other words, the function of the brain is to serve the present and the real, not to send man chasing wildly after the phantoms of future or escaping such from the past or vice versa.

Furthermore, in our habitual state of mental tension the brain does not work properly, and this is one reason why its abstractions seem to have so great a reality. When the heart is out of order, we are clearly conscious of its beating; it becomes a distraction, pounding within the breast. It seems most probable that our preoccupation with thinking and planning, together with the sense of mental fatigue, is a sign of some disorder of the brain. The brain should, and in some cases does, calculate and reason with the unconscious ease of the other bodily organs. After all, the brain is not a muscle, and thus is not designed for effort and strain.

But when most people try to think or concentrate, they behave as if they were trying to push their brains around. They screw up their faces, knit their brows, and approach mental problems as if they were something like heaving bricks. Yet you do not have to grind and strain to digest food, and still less to see, hear, and receive other neural impressions.

By Alan Watts