Octopus pots and minds and bodies

Reading Steve Fleming’s review of Edward Bever’s new book on what we might call the physiology of witchcraft, I was struck by a potent cultural image. William James called the practice “medical materialism,” seeking to describe the desire to find scientific explanations for religious or spiritual phenomena. It’s a natural impulse–our culture often allows itself to be dominated by scientific, pseudo-scientific, and scientistic narratives, and they can provide significant authority to the speaker or writer (my brother called it “Test Tube Envy” in his first book of literary criticism). Bever’s apparent reliance on a narrative of “immune dysfunction” related to stress as an explanation for the effects of witchcraft (not terribly valid physiologically, though that makes the narrative no less powerful for many audiences) reminded me of a condition we see a few times a year. The Japanese call it “tako-tsubo,” or “octopus pot.” Over the last few decades physicians have noticed that occasional a person, often but not necessarily a woman, will arrive in the hospital looking as if she is having a massive heart attack. The heart barely beats, it may suddenly stop from an arrhythmia, and occasionally we need to use machines to support the circulation of blood. But there is no evidence of heart attack, and in most patients the disorder resolves over the course of a few days. Our best guess to the cause? An acute, severe rise in the levels of adrenalin (aka “catecholamines”) that cause most of the heart to lose its blood flow, generally caused by severe emotional stress. Though many American researchers (the nation that brought us “Freedom Fries”) have decided to use the term “catecholamine cardiomyopathy” in place of the Japanese name, there is a reasonable consensus that certain kinds of acute emotional stress actually can cause a person to drop dead.

This is a fascinating and satisfying disease to diagnose and treat–people generally recover well with the right therapy, and it allows one to wax philosophical and rhapsodic about the relationships between minds and bodies. My question today is what does it mean that there is probably (finally?) some reliable clinical evidence of the possible if rather rare occurrence of fatal emotional stress? In the nineteenth century everyone understood that an emotional shock could kill; in the twentieth century that was a folktale until maybe the last few decades.

[1] PS, the Japanese called it tako-tsubo because the heart (left ventricle) in this condition looks for all the world like one of the pots they use to catch octopus.

[2] PPS, this Sunday is the 20th anniversary of my theism. Expect a scheduled post for Fast Sunday.


  1. I think this is absolutely right Sam. I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if much of the undiagnosable conditions plaguing the world is we don’t have a way to treat these kinds of disorder with what they need: proper ritual and counter spells.

  2. How is this conceptually different from the classic “fight or flight” response? It’s been known for a long time that if your brain recognizes a tiger chasing you, a cascade of physiological changes kick in.

  3. Yeah,

    I’ve known people (and I’m one of those people) who go to the hospital thinking they’re having a heart attack and it turns out to be anxiety. I went through a series of tests — it took about five hours — just to find out that I was rather healthy.

    The mind and the body really are connected in ways that we don’t understand yet — and may never fully understand. But for now all we can do is attribute it to some kind of — uh … not witchcraft — er … something more like “dark matter.” Yeah, that sounds better.

  4. 2–catecholamines are released as part of fight:flight. Tako-tsubo is a rare response to a particularly potent release of catecholamines.
    1/3: good reminders. embodiment is confusing.

  5. Interesting post. I am right in the middle of a book called Irreducible Mind, compiled by Edward Kelly at the University of Virginia, and I’m smack dab in the chapter about these sorts of things. Spontaneous deaths, the placebo effect, faith healings, etc.

    The book is an 800-page textbook basically on dualism, and how the last century of materialist psychology and neuroscience has completely and utterly failed to account for the subjective, qualia, and these other sorts of experiences that you mention in your post. I am pretty convinced of the inability for materialism to explain these sorts of things, and it’s even more interesting to me because I’m a Latter-day Saint. So many Latter-day Saints seem to be materialists (all Spirit is matter). In this way, I often find myself agreeing more with the New Agers and mainstream Christians who aren’t afraid to say that our mind just isn’t explained by neurons, computational theories, or any other kind of matter we know of, thus it’s really not helpful to think of it as material at all. I think that if we get enough children calling out that the Emperor of materialism has no clothes, perhaps somebody will listen. But maybe not.

  6. Cynthia L. says:

    Interesting. Reminds me of The Story of an Hour.

  7. In the nineteenth century everyone understood that an emotional shock could kill; in the twentieth century that was a folktale until maybe the last few decades.

    I think this is the case for a lot of things. How much knowledge have we lost because we only believe things that are proven by science? I am thinking along the lines of basic nutrition, natural healing, etc. A couple of years ago, I did a New Beginnings for YW where we went through some of the Personal Progress requirements for the 1930s. They included things like “Take a baby outside for 60 minutes per day”. Why? Because it’s healthy for the body to be in the sun. It’s a way to get Vitamin D. And now doctors are suggesting kids get Vitamin D shots. It makes me sad for all the (basic) wisdom that has been lost.

  8. Aaron R. says:

    Syphax, it is possible that a material-semiotics (of some kind) might help us to approach some of these problems. I know your not trying to junk materialism, but perhaps merely crying out that the Emperor has no clothes does not help us solve the problems you raise; rather it seems wise to think about ways that the Emperor might be clothed.

  9. Aaron, unfortunately, I do not share your optimism about the current paradigm. The problem is simply that no arrangement of particles or matter succeeds in explaining qualia at all. How many wires can you jam into a circuit-box before “redness” or “salty” emerges? The fact of the matter (no pun intended) is that when we’re talking about qualia, it really does seem like a different type of “thing” than matter. A good start would be this excellent, modern treatment here: http://cogprints.org/6613/1/Dualism0409.pdf

    So in my opinion, any theory of mind that appeals to a different configuration of atoms will necessarily fail every time. You say material-semiotics might help us to approach some of these problems. Saying that is like saying that pi approaches 4.

    If by “material-semiotics” you mean re-framing the question to preclude the existence of qualia, well, that does seem to eliminate the difficulty. This seems to be a favorite of the Churchlands and Dennett.

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