Learning From Injuries

An injury is always a learning experience. Most straightforwardly, if you are an active type, you acquire the dreadful knowledge of the precipitous drop in mood that follows one. There is also the terrible castigation, the self-flagellation that is the inevitable accompaniment to such disasters: there is always, in retrospect, some decision that was fatal, some fork that should not have been taken, there is always some moment you wish you could have back to dispose of all over again, that fatal instant before you hurt yourself. And even if you aren’t an active type, you very quickly encounter the most basic, and of course, valuable, lesson of all:  privation makes more precious the ordinary, the mundane, the weekday. Experience pain, and pain-free existence appears miraculous, salubrious, the most pleasurable state of being of all; you look back upon your pain-free times as halcyon days, hopefully to be revisited in the near future. You realize how terrible the suffering of those must be who live in a state of chronic pain; as you sense your mental fabric unravel, you wonder how they keep theirs together.

You learn about the essential automaticity of the body; on the occasion of an injury, there is little for ‘us,’ for ‘me’ to do, but sit back, and let the body do what it does best i.e., figuring out, how, given the resources available to it, it can get back to locomotion and physical activity as soon as possible. I pulled my calf this past Sunday; a limp appeared out of nowhere, unbidden and unprompted, and attached itself to my gait; my body had calculated the precise amount of pressure my left leg could bear and had made the appropriate adjustments elsewhere in my biomechanical frame; mess with that boundary even fractionally, and a sharp, agonizing pain in my calf muscle applied an immediate correction; there was no messing with my own personal taskmaster, the one that knew best how to accommodate any undisciplined silliness on my part. The body has a pace all its own, a method to its madness; there is accumulated wisdom here, acquired slowly and painfully through an evolutionary history. We now have occasion again to pay witness to it in action.

Lastly, you acquire knowledge about a new kind of euphoria, one that appears as hints of recovery make an appearance. As a spasmed muscle first begins to release, as pain provides the first indicators of a slow recession, we sense deliverance; we grasp at straws; we are grateful. We know we are merely destined to return to a state which we had been willing to scorn previously as merely ‘normal,’ but that destination now appears as the most desired of all. Sobbing with relief, we reassure ourselves we will be appropriately grateful for our daily blessings from now on; we will not take for granted what has been revealed to be a rare and precious treasure. We do this even as we know that we will not; that we will all too quickly return to the blasé acceptance of our fortunes. Till the next misfortune.

Honey And Me And Quining Qualia

I grew up loathing honey. I preferred jams: plum, orange. apple, ‘mixed fruit,’ gauva, mango, marmalade. Toasted bread with thick white cream and jam; never honey. Honey was just a little ‘sickly-sweet;’ its taste was a ‘little off.’ It crossed some permissible boundary of ‘sweetness’ and became cloying; it sent shudders through me. I couldn’t wait to get a drink of water, washing out the offending affect. My taste was inexplicable; I could not make sense of it when I made my reluctance to consume honey known. I stood by, a mere onlooker, as others around me sang paeans to its glory.

But then, just as mysteriously, shortly after I moved to the US, I began adoring honey. The ‘taste of honey’ was now a glorious treat, the right attribute of a nectar of sorts. I liked honey with crackers and cheese, on toasted bagels, in iced tea, lemonade–all of it. Sugar seemed a crude sweetener, its ‘taste’ not ‘complex’ enough; honey gave off the right airs of sophistication. Had I, in ‘growing up,’ finally found, in this new maturity, the right apparatus to process honey’s ‘taste’? Or was the honey just ‘better’?

Time rolled by; I found myself growing distant from honey again. Its ‘taste’ lost its standing on the pedestal I had erected for it, and now mingled with the masses. I grew suspicious of sugar and sweeteners and things that gave you insulin spikes; like many men north of the forties, I possessed a new-found rectitude at the dinner table, the salad bar, the diner counter. Honey’s ‘taste’ acquired connotations and allusions; honey entered the precinct marked ‘treats,’ its contents to be pilfered with care. The contrast with all else I ate grew, marking every encounter with honey with a distinctive shock of sorts. The ‘taste of honey’ ain’t what it used to be, no sir.

A curious business then, this ‘taste’ of honey.  Talking about ‘the taste of honey’:

presumes that we can isolate [it] from everything else that is going on….What counts as the way [honey tasted to me] can be distinguished , one supposes, from what is a mere accompaniment, contributory cause, or byproduct of this ‘central’ way. One dimly imagines taking [my tasting experiences] and stripping them down gradually to the essentials, leaving their common residuum, the way [honey tasted to me] at various times….The mistake is not in supposing that we can in practice ever or always perform this act of purification with certainty, but the more fundamental mistake of supposing that there is such a residual property to take seriously [Daniel Dennett, ‘Quining Qualia‘, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, Oxford University Press, (1988)].

If such thoughts are correct, then there was no ‘taste of honey’–always indexed by ‘to me’–there were only various experiences: ‘tasting-honey-during-my-childhood-years;’ ‘tasting-honey-after-I-migrated;’ ‘tasting-honey-as-a-forty-something’–the ‘taste of honey’–the way honey seems to me–is not something that can be drawn apart from these. There’s no articulable qualitative experience, independent of the surrounding ‘context.’

We’ve known this for other supposed qualia too, of course. That shortness of breath, that pounding in your chest, that fire in your legs, those reminders of your determination and outward bound spirit that herald the glory to come as you ascend a steep switchback with a cool wind raking your brow and the aroma of pine trees wafts by, if transplanted to a hospital ward with the sick visible, the smell of disinfectant in your nostrils, becomes ‘unbearable agony.’ There is no separable ‘pain’ here; just a different assemblage of my ‘world-sensation’, experienced differently thanks to its arrangement and presentation and internal relationships. We don’t experience the world as a bunch of separate parcels of sensation and phenomenal experience; the world comes to us a package with each component receiving its ‘meaning’ by its placement within the ‘field,’ by its relationships within it. What we notice, taste, see, smell, hear is a function of the arrangement of this field, and of course, our histories and anticipations (our ‘interests‘) which have performed this arrangement.

A Bloody Shin, Homeostasis and Automaticity

On Saturday morning, while working out in my gym and attempting to complete a series of twenty jumps on to a 24-inch box, I momentarily took my eyes off the target, stumbled, and hit my shin on the jagged edge of the box. I almost fell to the left, recovered, and completed my workout. A few minutes later, after catching my breath and downing a bottle of water, I looked down to see that a 2-inch long, bleeding gash had magically appeared; the force of the blow had pulled a small skin fold away from the open wound; it lay on the right, forming a hairy, matted, bloody, sweaty mess on my leg.  It smarted a bit, and given the potential for the intermingling of various bacterial life-forms, dirt, and the body fluids of those who had previously used the box,  it was probably best to administer a little first-aid, so after washing the wound, I walked over to our handy medical kit, swabbed the area with alcohol, applied an antiseptic cream, laid on a cotton gauze patch, taped it over, and went home.

Two days on, as I gleefully look forward to the prospect of an interesting scar (always good for a story or two), and wait for a scab to form so that the healing process can accelerate, and I can dispense with the nuisance of bandaging, I’m struck again by how injuries and the homeostatic process of healing that follows their disruption of the steady-state equilibrium of the inner and outer layers of skin, provide salutary reminders about the exquisite biochemistry of the body, about consciousness, physical sensations, and attention, and the curious mixture of automaticity and autonomy that seemingly constitutes our bodies and our selves.

I barely felt the blow that caused that wound; at that moment, a host of other sensations–my legs burned from the effort required to explosively jump up on the box–crowded out that momentary trauma caused by the impact on the splintered, sharp edge, and forced my conscious attention elsewhere. The bleeding came to a halt soon enough as platelets and fibrin-containing clots set to work to repair damaged blood vessels; and voila, the always-magical process of wound healing began.

And as that series of complex maneuvers kick off, the admixture that we are is brought front and center: I do not issue conscious directives for this healing to begin, it has ‘a mind of its own.’ I can intervene (my first aid attempts for instance), disrupt and aggravate (by exposing the wound to more trauma) or facilitate (by changing bandage dressings), but the commencement of this exercise was not under my control. Equilibria disturbed; normal service is sought to be resumed. Stand back and marvel; one is given a glimpse of the humming factory that runs 24/7 just beneath, and even on top of, our skins.

Sometimes you can pay attention to the way you sweat on a hot day; and sometimes you need a smack upside the head–or a scrape on the shin, to remind you of the finely pitched control maintained by this fantastically intricate bag of skin, bones, and blood, striving constantly to maintain its integrity against all that presses in on it from the ‘outside.’