I guess this shows how I've really dived into the churchless, irreligious, naturalistic deep end. Reading the current New Scientist issue last night, I came across an article, "Meet your other brain."
Online version has a different title and subtitle.
Brain boosting: it's not just grey matter that matters. Inside your head, another brain is hiding in plain sight – one that responds to your cognitive needs and self-heals. It's time to make the most of your myelin
Myelin, I learned, is "the fatty sheath that envelops most neurons." Rather than it merely being like cable insulation, scientists have found that "it is dynamic and autonomous, customizing itself to match the brain's demands."
My body-embracing Aha! moment -- one that I've had numerous times before -- came after I read this passage about the brain's rate of myelination growth.
The finer circuitry is complete by the time we reach our 40s, but from the 60s onwards the coverings start to fray and degenerate, which fits with the common experience of cognitive decline as we age. As myelin degenerates, the signals get fuzzier.
Since I'm in my 60s, seemingly these words shouldn't have made me feel good. But they did. The thought, I'm just brain-meat, filled me with, if not joy, a strong sense of relief.
Relief that in my now non-religious state, I don't have to worry about my supposedly immaterial soul being trapped in a cage of physicality. This dualistic view, held by most religions, creates a giant gap between humans and everything else.
Relief that I no longer feel like I'm someone special, a soul-drop of spiritual consciousness whose cosmic destiny is to return to a divine godly ocean.
Relief that however this natural world is, I am very much the same: composed of physical matter and energy, guided by laws of nature which apply equally to everything else, a part of the whole we humans call Universe.
What's strange, of course, is that a thought so obvious, I am the brain in action, would feel so unusual.
The reason is that us members of Homo sapiens are unique among other animals in being able to conceive of ourselves as other-worldly. Meaning, having an essence that transcends physicality. We feel ourselves as looking out from behind our eyes, a free-floating consciousness unconstrained by meaty brain stuff.
Which is an illusion.
There is essentially zero evidence that we are anything other than the goings-on of the brain. To even say "of our brain" is incorrect, since there is no separate self other than what the brain conjures up, and then tells stories to itself about.
I realize that this Joy of Being Brain-Meat attitude likely sounds strange to most people. Well, all I can suggest is doing what I've found helpful: meditating (broadly speaking) on the subject.
If you find yourself thinking, "I'm more than just my brain," envision that this thought is your brain talking to itself. Even if this sounds crazy, let that hypothesis -- which most neuroscientists would say is fact -- sink in to your psyche.
When I do this, I start to feel pleasantly giddy.
I'd like to be able to say something more cogent, but this is one of those times when using more words would take me away from the truth of my direct experience.
A dialogue between two brain experts, David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis, reflects some of what I'd like to say, if I was capable of saying it. Here's Eagleman's final thought.
Neuroscience is uncovering a bracing view of what's happening below the radar of our conscious awareness, but that makes your life no more "helpless, ignorant, and zombie-like" than whatever your life is now.
If you were to read a cardiology book to learn how your heart pumps, would you feel less alive and more despondently mechanical? I wouldn't. Understanding the details of our own biological processes does not diminish the awe, it enhances it.
Like flowers, brains are more beautiful when you can glimpse the vast, intricate, exotic mechanisms behind them.