If we're on the slope of a steep snowy mountain, it makes sense to be afraid of an avalanche. Bodies usually don't fare well by suddenly being ripped from their moorings in a violent manner.
But minds/brains, they're different. Having our psyche turned upside down, twisted around, mixed up topsy-turvy... this can be marvelously interesting, productive, creative, truthful -- maybe even enlightening.
A New Scientist article, "Disorderly Genius," describes how the brain operates on the edge of chaos.
Have you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?
Actually, no. In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.
...In technical terms, systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of "self-organised criticality". These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour - such as a swinging pendulum - and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence.
This sounds kind of geeky, and it is. The basic notion is simple, though.
As the article's author, David Robson, goes on to explain, almost everyone is familiar with sand piles. Sitting on the beach, we idly pick up handfuls of sand and let them slip between our fingers, forming a pile. The pile gets higher and higher as more sand flows on top.
As grains build up, the pile grows in a predictable way until, suddenly and without warning, it hits a critical point and collapses. These "sand avalanches" occur spontaneously and are almost impossible to predict, so the system is said to be both critical and self-organising. Earthquakes, avalanches and wildfires are also thought to behave like this, with periods of stability followed by catastrophic periods of instability that rearrange the system into a new, temporarily stable state.
Why do some people suddenly de-convert from a religion? Why do others embrace a faith, seemingly impulsively? Who knows?
We can sense the mental avalanche that decisively impels us in a new direction, but the grains of psychological sand build up in an area outside our conscious awareness. "Faith," for me now, means trusting that whatever my mind/brain is up to behind the scenes, by and large it knows what it's doing -- being the product of billions of years of evolution where useful characteristics tend to survive.
I said "by and large" because a psychotic break also is an avalanche of sorts. Every sudden rearrangement of our viewpoint on life won't be worthy of being heartily embraced. Sometimes we need to lean back and say, "Whoa...what's happening here?"
On the whole, though, I love the notion that all the separate itty-bitty experiences I'm having are forming a sandpile of understanding which can transform itself in a Wow! flash. Unpredictability is beautiful. It's a big part of what makes life so lively.
Many years ago, I used to be addicted to a computer game, Loony Labyrinth. In this post I described how, all of a sudden, I shifted from an intense desire to play the game into utter disinterest.
So I know that mental avalanches are possible.
Pretty much the same thing happened after I'd worked in the health planning/policy arena for quite a few years, devoted to improving our nation's crappy health care non-system. Then, almost overnight... I simply didn't care any more. Intellectually I had the same understanding of our health care problems, yet my mind had flipped in how I looked at them.
Since I started this churchless blog I've had many people leave comments along the lines of, "What happened to you? How could you have forsaken a faith that you believed so strongly in for so many years?"
Well, ask a sand pile why it suddenly transforms itself into a different shape. Ask a snowy slope why a small disturbance creates a massive avalanche.
This is how the world works, how nature operates. Change happens. Often chaotically. Meaning, unpredictably. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas (the "butterfly effect"). Who knew? Who could know? No one.
Being human, as if we had a choice, we tend to cling to the way things have been, fearing change. If we're religious, we erect barriers in an attempt to shore up the foundations of our faith. This may keep the grains of belief-sand in place for a bit longer, but eventually an avalanche of doubt will roll through our psyche, if such is bound to happen.
I like Susan Blackmore's description of how she switched from being a fervent believer in paranormal psychic phenomena to a firm skeptic. Her tale is honest and direct. I relate to the process she went through, though naturally the content of her mental discarding was different for her and me.
At last, I've done it. I've thrown in the towel, kicked the habit and gone on the wagon. After thirty years, I have escaped from a fearsome addiction.
To be truthful, I'm not really sure I've gone cold turkey yet. Only last month I was at a psychical research conference. Only days ago, I emptied the last of those meticulously organised filing cabinets, fighting the little voice that warned: "Don't do it, you might want to read that again" with a stronger one that urged: "You've given up!" as I threw paper after paper on ESP, psychokinesis, psychic pets, aromatherapy and haunted houses into the recycling sack. If cold turkey does strike, the dustbin men will have taken away my fix.
Come to think of it, I feel slightly sad. It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena - only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a sceptic.
Which was fine. Gloriously fine.
Now Blackmore is on to other areas of discovery. Her personal avalanche propelled her in a new meaning-of-life direction. We shouldn't fear such sudden mental changes of perception, but rather embrace them.