Traditionally, people have looked outward toward mystery.
For a long time maps of the world had large sections labeled "terra incognita" (unknown land). Now Earth is almost entirely explored, but the vast universe beyond attracts those who are lured by the unknown (witness the popularity of Star Trek and other forms of science fiction).
Religions have capitalized upon our human fascination for mystery. God often is viewed as unknowable, unfathomable, beyond being -- leading apophatic theology and mysticism to emphasize what God is not, rather than what God is.
Searching the (almost) omniscient Google for what I've written about mystery on my blogs, I find the search results span 10 pages.
Mystery and me are old friends. Inspired by my ever-questioning mother, for as long as I can remember I've been drawn to the alluring borderland where we stand on familiar ground and gaze outward into the hazy darkness of... who knows?
Now, though, my looking is trending in a different direction. Well, it'd be more accurate to say in no direction, because my current fascination is with the brain that is me.
(So the title of this post is epistemically inaccurate, the "your" in it actually being identical with "brain," since there is no evidence that the me who is so fascinated by the mystery of my brain is in any way different from what I'm mystified about.)
My meditation area used to be filled with inspirational reading on Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and various forms of mysticism. Popular books on neuroscience now are more common, along with scientific inquiries into the ultimate nature of physical reality -- which also turns my attention towards Material Me.
I'm still inspired by mystery. I'm still committed to digging as deep into reality as possible before I die. The only difference between my churched and churchless self is what turns me on, inspiration-wise, and where the focus of my truth-excavating is.
What never fails to amaze me is the source of amazement: the amazing human brain.
Our conscious awareness is the small tip of a vast neurological iceberg. Our sense of who we are is terribly restricted, the equivalent of a medieval monk believing that Earth is the end-all and be-all of physical existence.
In his new book, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement," David Brooks shares core insights of modern neuroscience and psychology in a style that, so far in my early reading, I find engaging -- though some readers are irritated by.
Over the centuries, zillions of books have been written about how to succeed. But these tales are usually told on the surface level of life.
...This story is told one level down. This success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind -- the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms. This is the realm where character is formed and street smarts grow.
We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing.
And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.
The subconscious parts of the mind are not primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions. They are not dark caverns of repressed sexual urges. Instead, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind -- where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place.
...So this intellectual revolution removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of everyday life. It points to a deeper way of flourishing and a different definition of success.
...The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make sense of what the unconscious mind is doing of its own accord.
Yes, indeed. Someone has an intuition, a vision, a sudden sense of what life is all about. They make up a story that explains what happened: Wow! God is speaking to me!
No, most likely their brain, working away behind the curtain of consciousness, produced this seemingly "miraculous" experience.
It seemed to come out of nowhere because the unconscious aspect of the mind is, by definition, not part of our awareness until something produced in the psyche's depths pops to the conscious surface.
So mystery remains, since we can't know how the universe within our skull functions with such astounding complexity, creativity, and connectivity. But with scientific understanding the need for God-stories vanishes.
The brain's mysteries are left as is: mysterious. Wonder and awe remain when imagined myths and theologies depart.