Wednesday, 8 March 2017

How do you know you exist?

The short answer is you don’t. But is very clear that each of us tends to have a robust experience and sense that “I exist.” In the latest Veterinary Record (180(7):165) a study is presented examining the potential benefits of exercise in stress relief. You can almost certainly predict the results and whilst I in no way belittle a novel approach, I believe it goes far deeper than a simple biological saturation with endorphins.

I was asked, in an interview, several years ago, why did I think vets, including myself, undertook extreme sports during their down time? I answered it was because of their type A personality but knew that answered nothing other than incorrectly associating cause and causality.

Interestingly there is a neuropsychological condition called Cotard’s syndrome, where people are convinced they do not exist. It has been shown that in such people, brain scans demonstrate that activity in the area of the brain associated with internal awareness is low. Down even to levels seen in people who are minimally conscious and so creating a perception of non-existence.

In the deeply claustrophobic world of depression, a plight suffered by many and seemingly increasing numbers of vets, there is often a feeling of non-existence. A living state of existence without value, existence without recognition, existence without self.

I know that going for a run, no matter how endorphin inducing, does little to remove this core feeling, and it is in my view crass to suggest to a sufferer to “go for a run.” Extrapolating from Cotard’s however suggests that by creating a vivid perception of our body and its various states, our brain also generates the feeling of existence of self, a vital sense of worth that may aid in a simple but vital step toward improvement.

But is not just perception of our bodies, it could be perception of spaces, of environments, of countryside, of people, music, art, food, science, dance….. Anything that reawakens the mind and person to their existence as a vital and necessary human being. Whilst the need for recreation and escapism will always exist, whilst exercise is a valid aspect of therapy, don’t forget or ignore that the variety of life may be all you need to remember and remind you that you do truly exist.

Ben Sturgeon

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