Sketchbook entry

The mental functions of our immune system

by Fletcher Kovich


It’s been known for thousands of years that our main abdominal organs also process certain of our thoughts. In my new book, I’ve described our immune system as also having mental functions, just as the other organs have; and I’ve given examples of the types of thoughts our immune system produces in us.

I was recently ill. It seemed my body had already successfully adjusted to Autumn, but then on the equinox I came down with a one day “bug”. There was no initial sneezing, no congestion. I simply felt extremely weak; too weak to stand for long, so I spent most of the day sitting or lying. I felt nausea, had no appetite, and slightly achy joints. All my pulses were full (which is the opposite of their normal states in me) and there was a thick tongue coating, mostly in the stomach region, indicating the presence of a strong pathogen.

During this one day, when clearly my immune system was working hard, I felt a great dislike for almost all external stimuli, such as TV programmes, music, and I felt even more dislike than usual for “personality” factors; you could say I simply felt a dislike for any mental quality emanating from other people. I just wanted to sit in silence and not even look at anything; I even found the sight of my normal surroundings distasteful. At the time, my observation was that I was made extremely sensitive by the illness, even more sensitive than I was normally. But then afterwards, it occurred to me that this may have been the effect of my overactive immune system processing my thoughts and rejecting almost everything.

It's true that when you're ill, most of your senses can be affected; your sense of taste, smell, sight, hearing. This can be understood as being due to the physical affect of the illness on our body. But why would our thoughts be affected, and be affected in a way that resembles the action of our immune system?

Our immune system protects us from damaging external “pathogens”. In our normal state, when our immune system is just “ticking over”, it also appears to continuously processes our thoughts, just as all our other organs do, and it may recognise certain thoughts as harmful (the idea of a particular person’s conduct, which our immune system recognises as alien in some way, distasteful, damaging to us, “infectious” and to be avoided; or any of our thoughts related to other things), causing us to reject that idea, person, or thing. But when my immune system was operating at its peak, at the moment of its greatest battle against this invading pathogen, its normal presence in my thoughts would also have been similarly amplified, which may have caused me to reject all the stimuli that I normally found either pleasing or simply neutral. And the following day, once I’d returned to normal, and my immune system had calmed down, I no longer found all these thoughts distasteful, and could enjoy them again.

Another factor that may be involved here is the mental function of our lungs. This is to discern quality in all the ethereal things around us (just at the physical lung function is to extract something precious from the air around us). And when ill in this way, our lungs are under attack. They are the first line of defence against such pathogens. Because my lungs were under this heavy attack and were weakened, my ability to appreciate quality in the things around me would also have been diminished, and this factor may have been partly responsible for me being unable to find pleasure in such things as media, sights, sounds, and so on. But then, the elements of our immune system that are present in our lungs could be considered an integral part of the lung function; the two are so intimately related that it may not be possible to separate them, when considering some of these mental functions.

The lungs extract something precious from the air around us (identify quality); and our immune system rejects pathogens (something harmful to us), which is another way of saying "something of poor quality". What's the difference between the inability to identify quality, and an exaggerated tendency to reject things as being of poor quality (harmful to us)? There is an obvious overlap here. One actively seeks quality; the other actively rejects poor quality. But what can be said is that when our lung function is weakened, so that we cannot appreciate quality, and our immune system is working hard, so that many of our thoughts may be rejected as possibly being harmful to us, then just about everything we encounter will seem unpleasant or distasteful to us.

25 September 2015