As noted in my previous post about two of my favorite books on neuroscience, a few nights ago my wife and I had four other people over for an interesting discussion about what modern brain research has to say about the human condition.
Each of us took a turn summarizing what we'd read (book or article) about a neuroscientific topic. Then questions were asked and topics debated. Here's some recollections and impressions from the evening.
The brain is a bunch of meat.
That's obvious, but we humans often fail to grasp that our feelings, perceptions, memories, thoughts, dreams, intuitions, and such all are the result of biological goings-on within the brain.
One member of our group explained what a researcher has learned about memory. It was pretty technical, so I can't remember the details of what he said (appropriately, I guess). I just recall the disconnect I felt between the emotional tone of some cherished memory from my childhood, and the dryly scientific facts about chemical neurotransmitters, electrical impulses, etc.
This was a general theme that carried through much of our three hour-plus discussion. Our subjective experience of the world seems like this, while science tells us that the objective reality of how the brain functions is different.
For example, I talked about the "transparency" of how our individual ego tunnels are constructed.
Evolution hasn't made us aware of the filtering/processing within the brain that leads us to have a decidedly subjective view of the world. Thus we have the impression that we're seeing things as they actually are, which isn't true.
There isn't any such thing as "actually are."
All we know is what human cognition enables us to perceive and understand. I mentioned that color doesn't exist at the atomic or quantum level. Electromagnetic waves don't come with color. Color is produced by our eyes and brain; it isn't a quality of objective reality.
Then, each person perceives and understands in his or her own unique way, adding another level of subjectivity. Yet each of us feels that how we look upon the world is the normal way of seeing, because all we know is our own experiencing.
We can get glimpses of other people's experiencing, though.
One member of our book club talked about Jill Bolte Taylor's "stroke of insight." Taylor is a brain scientist who got to experience a stroke from the inside of her own cranium when she had one. It only affected the left side of her brain, I believe.
This made her a right-brained person who couldn't speak or think logically. However, after she recovered most of her faculties Taylor described how blissful it was in her stroke-altered experiential world.
Boundaries broke down. Reality became here and now, flowing, interconnected. At times she wondered if she wanted to become her old self again. (Of course, neuroscience tells us the self doesn't exist, but that's a subject I've already covered.)
So even though the brain is physical, and almost certainly consciousness is also, this doesn't take away from the amazing complexity, plasticity, and myriad experiential possibilities inherent in the matter that lies within our skulls.
We talked about research done on long-time meditators which showed how they are able to enter into highly unusual brain states. A woman in our group avidly followed a "devotional" meditation practice (I didn't learn the specifics of it). She spoke about how it had altered how she views life, helping make her calmer and more centered.
I resonated with her statement, "I haven't yet experienced the truth, but I'm looking forward to getting there." That's how I felt for many years, several decades, actually, during which I engaged in a seemingly similar form of mystical meditation practice.
At one point I asked her a semi-challenging question, noting that I felt OK with asking her this because I often challenge myself in this fashion.
"If you reached a point where you felt that truth lay in a direction that was different from the group (or teacher) to whom you're devoted now, would you choose to stick with truth or with your spiritual group?"
She didn't directly answer, which was fine with me. It's a tough question, filled with subtleties. What is ultimate truth? Can we know it if we see it? Does it even exist?
By the end of the evening I had a better appreciation for how she looked upon her meditation practice, which she described as being aimed at "pure awareness."
Several of us told her that we doubted this was possible, given what is known about how unconscious brain processes come between our conscious experience of reality, and our sensory perceptions of reality.
Eventually I grasped that what this woman meant by pure awareness was an experience of the world that wasn't heavily tainted by left-brain "monkey mind" thinking. It wasn't an other-worldly supernatural state, but a sort of natural, immediate, here-and-now, non-intellectual perceiving.
I told the group that something like this happened to me earlier that day during some garden work. I spread ten 40 pound bags of organic fertilizer around our large yard, scattering the pellets under the drip line of our many plantings.
For most of the time it took me to do this, I was in my usual Me-centered state.
I was enjoying what I was doing, yet kept having thoughts and feelings along the lines of "How many bags are left... why did we ever plant so many bushes with low-hanging branches... what are those holes... probably voles... hope I don't run out of fertilizer before I'm done..."
Then, when I was on the last bag, my frame of reference felt like it suddenly flipped. Now "Me" was in the background, not the foreground. Nature was much more my focus. I realized that the vegetation I was fertilizing lived because of countless creatures in the soil, rain, sunlight, and such.
I was merely playing my small part in a plant-life story that would continue long after I ceased to be.
The trees, shrubs, and what-not that we've added to our landscaping over the past twenty years we've lived at our current house would carry on for a long time. Other people eventually would be spreading their own fertilizer around this same vegetation. It was a nice feeling, this me-diminished way of being.
Neuroscience puts bounds around what is possible for us to experience, but it certainly leaves lots of room for exploring new and better ways of living. We can enlarge our personal ego tunnel. We can realize that our "self" is much more expansive, flowing, and full of creative potential than we normally consider it to be.
Early on in our discussion someone spoke about how to make time slow down. New experiences are one way, as these grab our attention, preventing us from zipping through our day in a habitual fashion.
Mindfulness, I noted, is another way.
I think this is part of what happened during my fertilizer-speading mini (or micro) satori. Paying close attention to a simple physical activity eventually put me into a mildly altered state of consciousness where "I" faded away in a pleasurable fashion.
There's lots of mystery to delve into within our brains, even if they are just a bunch of meat.