Mystery is a big part of why people are attracted to religions. True believers in God, or some other supernatural entity, thrill to the notion that they're diving into a vast unknown spiritual ocean whose depths can't be fathomed.
Lots of devotees also embrace the idea of surrender -- turning one's life over to a higher power who knows better than we do what is good for us.
Well, modern neuroscience has some news for these religious folks: if you want mystery, unfathomability, and surrender of your conscious will, look no farther than right here and right now.
Because the human brain is what you desire. And you've already got it. In fact, you are it.
This scientifically accurate premise is the theme of quite a few neuroscience books that I've read during the past few years. But after reading only one chapter of David Eagleman's "Incognito," which arrived on my doorstep from Amazon yesterday, I can tell that his book is going to be special.
Eagleman, a neuroscientist, is a terrific writer. I loved his "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives." Incognito is non-fiction, yet its style is equally entertaining. Scientific truths come to life with more vitality through Eagleman's creative prose.
Speaking of the brain, he writes...
Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, comic instincts, great ideas, fetishes, senses of humor, and desires all emerge from this strange organ -- and when the brain changes, so do we. So although it's easy to intuit that thoughts don't have a physical basis, that they are something like feathers on the wind, they in fact depend directly on the integrity of the enigmatic, three-pound mission control center.
The first thing we learn from studying our own circuitry is a simple lesson: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you -- the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning -- is the smallest bit of what's transpiring in your brain.
Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The I simply has no right of entry. Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.
...Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn't matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision-making. And most of the time, it's not.
Whether we're talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.
...As Carl Jung put it, "In each of us there is another whom we do not know." As Pink Floyd put it, "There's someone in my head, but it's not me."
This isn't speculation. This is scientific fact, in the same fashion as "Earth revolves around the sun" and "The Milky Way is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe."
Facts must be faced if someone wants to come up with a theory of how the cosmos came to be and what the future holds for physical existence. Likewise, facts must be faced if someone wants to theorize about what sort of divinity might exist above and beyond everyday reality.
Spiritual seekers shouldn't be threatened by neuroscience. Rather, they should embrace what we humans are learning about the human brain. This is amazing -- a species evolving the ability to comprehend, albeit imperfectly, how it is able to comprehend.
To ignore that ability, to discard what's being learned about the universe within our cranium that has only begun to be explored, this is shameful. To speak of soul or spirit separate from the brain without a shred of evidence that such exists, this is indefensible.
There's someone in my head, but it's not me. I love that Pink Floyd lyric. Neuroscience has a lot to say about what this "someone" consists of. Religion, mysticism, spirituality, philosophy -- not so much.
And that's being overly generous. Better to say -- virtually nothing.
Pure awareness. Self-realization. Mindfulness. Will power. Inner freedom. These sorts of appealing aspirational notions are just mental bleatings, signifying nothing, without a firm understanding of how our conscious awareness relates to the much vaster and more powerful unconcious brain processes.
I'll have more to say about David Eagleman's "Incognito" after I read more of his book. Take a look at his web site if you can't wait to learn more about what Eagleman is telling us about ourselves.