Posts Tagged ‘brain’

SERMON: “A Map of the Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case).  No sooner had the episode begun but  there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently.  I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment.  But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from.  I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.

Here is a good place to make something clear:  I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self).  Still, I have a need to “place” things.  That’s only natural.  The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.

So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain.  Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness.  This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical.  Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves.  But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat).  On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain.  So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.

That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears?  Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG  IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”.  (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”.   No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much.  But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention.  Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).

You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion.  This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”.  In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case.  This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness.  They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body.  (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us).  Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the "quirks" of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog). Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the “quirks” of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree –  the chirping birds in the upper branches?  I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is.  And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life).  But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain.  We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals.  Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).

The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score.  I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice.  But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.

I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today.  I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression.  This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”.  But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night.  It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob.  This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact.  But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear.  I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness.  After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction.  Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done).  My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic.  But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine.  I was learning to fight brain with brain.

Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness.  Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer.  The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.

The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response.  Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist.  It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.

Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”).  In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications.  (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul.  What a mess).

Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment.  This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).

And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon.  I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way.  I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand.  That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break.  In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.

As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).

In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in.  Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability.  And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man.  I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Daddy Dearest” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 4th, 2012
The “scarlet A” that has become a symbol for the atheist “coming out” campaign.

Today I lingered for a moment on a syndicated Christian radio program as the host interviewed her guest.  I listened as they reached their consensus that the explanation for atheism was the deep hurt of a father who “wasn’t there” in the atheist’s youth.  They used (my beloved) Christopher Hitchen’s pronouncement that any tales of his deathbed conversion (he only recently died of cancer) should not be believed.  The man on the other side of the radio interview said these words made him want to “crawl under my desk — for man is designed to be with God”.  To these two Christians, then, the only explanation for not believing in God was the disappointment of a disappointing “earthly” father, not reason, not evidence, none of that nonsense.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run across this idea.  If I tell an evangelical Christian that I don’t believe in God, they will almost invariably become instantly sympathetic, moved, even, as they struggle to imagine the magnitude of hurt I must have experienced that “drove me away” from God.  (It’s of little consequence to them that the entire construct of that question presupposes the existence of an actual God that I could be hurt by, or disappointed in.  But that is another matter).

Having considered and studied the nature of belief for some time, it now seems to me that belief in God is a natural part of being human.  True, belief is not quite universal among our species, but the majority of humans do believe in some power “greater than themselves” (and by this they don’t mean the powerful forces of nature).  It’s been an interesting experiment to be among the minority in this regard (and in the minority of even that minority of unbelievers by virtue of identifying myself an atheist, as opposed to agnostic).

One part of this “non-spiritual” adventure of mine is experiencing the social aspect of being in this non-religious minority within a broadly religious majority culture.  But another aspect of the adventure is the challenge of being one of those humans who — unlike some of my atheist brethren — found belief to be fairly easy to go along with until it was no longer a tenable conceptual framework.  In other words, I seemed to be quite able and willing to believe…right up to the moment I realized that God didn’t actually exist.

But that has put me in a challenging cognitive spot: between a rock and hard place, as it were.  For it would appear that I have an evolved brain that is (like the brains of the believing majority) actually wired to believe (to conjure meaningful patterns from random events by selective emphasis) and yet I am currently not actively engaging that part of my brain.  So you could say that I am, in a sense, at odds with my own biology!

But I also have what could be classified as a “critical” brain.  And I don’t mean that in a completely negative sense.  I think it is precisely my critical capacity — combined with a curiosity (perhaps bequeathed to me by my own earthly father)  — that has made me the artist and writer that I am.  After all, to progress at all in any art or profession, one must develop the capacity to evaluate one’s own performance, which in my case meant finding a balance between developing a cold eye for searching out mistakes or weaknesses in my work, and a genuine appreciation for the products of my own particular talent.  But it may well be that a brain like mine — so well tuned for creating art — is not the best brain for living in a world of belief.  In other words, having the brain that I have, perhaps my declension from belief was as inevitable as my acquisition of it in the first place!

When my Christianity came to an end, I felt like a hard-rock miner who had been manning a clattering drill for fifteen years who had suddenly broken through a rock wall that, instead of leading to an open chamber, was actually the last bit of crust on the other side of the earth, and so I found myself suddenly tumbling off into the vast void of God-less space.  In time I began to look in wonder at Christians who had believed in God all of their lives (and would likely believe until they died).  How could they do it?  Was it simply a function of my determined personality that turned the seemingly virtuous trait of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things into a boring-a-hole-right-through-an-entire-belief-system character flaw?

Could be.

But getting back to the sympathetically vapid stance of our two radio people, I can honestly tell tell them that I have no beef with God.  (But, based on my experience with such discussions, I don’t think they would be quite able to grasp what that really means).  Like when a young friend recently asked me what my chief complaint was with God.  Well, I would have to answer that I have no “complaint” with God, because, well, God does not exist as a real thing that I could have a real complaint with or about.  The question itself is built upon the same presuppositions as the “bad-daddy” atheism cause I described above.

And this is where I must make a diversion into an area where things get really tricky.

So far, we’ve tended (historically) to see things in one of two ways: 1) God exists, and we were created by Him to know Him, and it is an act of sinful “will” to ignore or deny this reality; or 2) There is no god (never was), and we just made him up anyway (and so it logically follows that we can unmake him up just as easily).  But I’m coming to see that it’s more complicated than that.  For religious belief is based on a particular approach to interpreting naturally-occuring phenomenon, that is itself built on the natural cognitive structure of our evolved pattern-seeking (and highly social) brains.  This means that what we are really talking about is a difference in the interpretation of actual phenomenon, not in the existence (or validity) of that phenomenon.  So that when we say that God doesn’t exist, the believer thinks we mean that the phenomenon that a believer uses to support his or her belief doesn’t exist, (and they simply KNOW that this is bullshit).  And I suspect that a lot of atheists make that subtle, but critical, mistake in their argument.  But as I’ve come to say: “I believe in the phenomenon, I just don’t believe in the religious interpretation of it”.

And so when I listen to folks like those on the radio today, I hear people creating an entire argument in an imaginary space that never has to make contact with reality, only with a certain shared perception of it.  And the theories and questions and challenges that emerge from that cloud end up being of no practical use to someone like me.  There is no point of useful engagement with such notions.  Threats of divine judgement are not ignored by the non-believer out of some injured-child defiance, but because they are hollow threats.  There is nothing to back them up and, therefore, nothing to get riled about.

There are multiple levels to human behavior, and they are woven together in an way that makes their untangling a tricky thing.  But this shouldn’t be surprising, for isn’t that the way of all of nature?  Ecosystems and animals live in a highly interdependent dance such that any slight change in any part of that system can trigger a cascade of unforeseen consequences.  And so it is with us humans when belief is removed from the cognitive equation.  It may just turn out to be that unbelief is an unnatural state to some of us!  This could be part of the explanation for why there aren’t more non-believers than there are: on some instinctual level folks understand the risk of leaving the security of the group think.  But then we are also curious, reasoning animals, and I am certainly not the first (or only) human to come to the conclusion that he’s been believing a bunch of silliness with no basis in fact or evidence.

But then this, to me, makes the argument against God even more compelling.  For even here there is a natural explanation that is consonant with other observable realities.  Belief in God then is not merely a delusion, but a particular kind of illusion that is custom-fit to our mode of thinking and feeling.  This, too, points to the natural evolutionary origins of belief far more than it points to an actual God.  But to understand such ideas, someone in the embrace of active religious belief would have to take several significant steps back before gaining any kind of useful perspective.  And this is an action that few, it seems, are willing to take.

So the atheist recognizes the reality of the world offered by science, but must then persevere through the discomforts of living a godless life with a brain “built” for belief, whereas the believer indulges in the easy comforts of a fantastical (yet custom-tailored) mindscape of that belief.  Two different yet related modes of human existence as we navigate our way through the remarkable fact of our existence on this planet.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Getting Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version, © 1984)

The “rev” as a young Art Director in his “therapy years”.

I read that Bible verse early in what I call my “therapy years”.  I was 27, working as an Art Director for an industry publishing company, and deeply involved in my church (in fact I would soon be off on my church-supported stint as a “smuggler for Jesus” in Europe).

The immediate impact of that verse was to make me feel better about paying for my ongoing therapy sessions (with a Christian psychologist) after I had used up my annual insurance benefit for outpatient therapy.  I was facing about three months, I think, of paying full-fare for my “wisdom”, and it seemed like an awful lot of money.

I don’t regret paying that money.  I don’t miss it.  I think I made the right choice.  But I have been wondering a bit about how to quantify the effects of the years of self-examination, therapy, counseling, reading, journaling and psychic-visiting that followed.

I find I must seriously consider the possibility that much of the calm and happiness that now mark my life are as much the product of natural processes that influenced my physiology, (in most particular my brain) as they are the earned result of all of my navel-gazing.

It could be argued that the single most remarkable thing about us humans is the capacity we have to use our minds to “step outside of ourselves” and observe our own behavior.  We can act instinctively, react quickly, and yet at the same time (or shortly thereafter) notice what we are doing and analyze it.  It is a rather amazing ability, and one that we point to as a large part of what defines us as “humans”.  But at every level beneath this one (both cognitive and physiological), we are still such animals, really.  I know that we give this idea a nod in many ways, and yet I don’t know how much we really give it its due.

As a young man, it was probably obvious to everyone but me how driven my behavior was by the testosterone pulsing in my system.  I would sometimes find myself in a sexual situation that a part of my mind — had it the courage to speak up — would have asked of the rest of me: “But, do you really want to be here?”.  (The answer would, at times, have been “No”).

(Is this the dilemma that Paul talks about in the Bible as well?  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15, New International Version, © 1984)?  Such questions troubled me as a young, enthusiastic Christian).

We know now — thanks to science — that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 27.  So in that sense it’s not surprising that the late-mid-twenties marked the beginning of my “therapy years”.  I was a young professional out in the world, with enough experience to begin to question whether the way I engaged that world was really optimal.

We read about the “mid life crisis” that hits forty-year-old men, but I was a bit early for that.  And yet, when I hit thirty, I found myself in another period of re-examination.  I did a bit more therapy, and read a lot of self-help literature (which was coming out like a flood in the popular press then).  “New Age” ideas had also become popular enough to be considered “mainstream”, and so I found an easy substitute for my my abandoned Christian belief system (as well as a whole new set of “enlightened” ideas and techniques to try out in order to achieve emotional stability and “happiness”).

I worked that New Age angle for about as long as I’d worked my Christianity (roughly 15 years), eventually finding a psychic who had a technique of deeply affirming me as an individual that set me on a quest for my new Holy Grail of total self-acceptance (a quest that eventually led me to abandon the “spell of belief” altogether).

But I can remember many years made up of long, painful days trying to find a way out of depression or anxiety into a brighter world, using any tool, tip or technique that presented itself.

Eventually, the clouds began to lift.  And over a rather long period of time, I found myself feeling more and more like a complete and coherent being, a process that took a long time to get rolling but, once it did, created a sort of momentum that was its own positive feedback loop.  And then, one day, I realized that I was actually happy and getting happier, becoming increasingly content with the way I saw the world and the person I was in that world.  And one night the familiar catalog of past events that I had mulled, autopsied, and replayed in endless mental loops for years and years suddenly lost their psychic punch.  The past, it would seem, had finally slipped into irrelevance.

The story I would have told you then would have been one of pride in all of the “self work” I had done.  I was proud that I had consistently made the choice to “buy wisdom”, to look inward and face my demons and — most importantly — have the courage to be willing to be completely accepting of whoever it was “Bob” turned out to  be.  It was, indeed, a point of pride, and of no small comfort when I compared my humble external accomplishments to my peers who had families and houses and such.  Others may have gained the world, but I had gained my soul!

But now I’m not so sure.  Not about my current persistent happiness or the man I’ve turned out to be, but about just what the major factors in that process really were.

For it turns out that there is science to be considered here: for not long after my young male brain had matured, it began its cognitive decline into the decay of the thirties and forties.  But with a twist: for it seems that the aging brain works to compensate for the “Swiss cheese-like” holes forming in our gray matter by creating new synaptic connections between the hemispheres of the brain.  So what I thought was the product of my deep introspection and analysis — namely my new-found ability to synthesize thought and emotion — was more likely the result of this natural patch-work happening inside my skull.  And then, of course, there is the seemingly inevitable age-related drop in male testosterone levels (that goes a long, long way to mellowing out a man).

After a few years of those lower testosterone levels, I found myself much less the jittery lone-wolf I had been before, and was more like a cat that didn’t mind curling up and purring with people now and again.  People I had known for years almost overnight became beloved friends whom I treasured.  I became a loving man.

Then came the years when I was seeing people I knew in the obituaries every week (most in the year leading up to the death of my father at age 91).  When my dad died, I was just about exactly half his age.  Suddenly I was thrust into another period of reflection, only now I was looking back on a life of learning my professional, artistic skills from the perspective of the master pondering his path to that mastery.  And after a couple rough years of transition into “middle age” that followed, I finally decided that my primary job would no longer be my own self-discovery and growth, but that the remaining years (at least until the next phase hit) would be to get on with doing all that I could with all that I had for as long as I could.

And then finally, after all of that, I hit a time in my life where I began to feel that I had, after all, gained a good bit of wisdom.  I wasn’t ready to be a yogi on a mountaintop – - I had to much yet to do with the remnant of youth still in my physical body and brain — but I did have that sense that if it all ended tomorrow, I had, at least, achieved that much with my life.

But now I wonder just how much of that wisdom came from all of my questing and questioning, anguish and acquiring, and how much was mostly the result of having simply stayed alive long enough for my brain to move through the phases of the first fifty years of my life?  It’s impossible to know.

(In fairness to my introspective self, I think that what I am really looking at here is the issue of emotional equilibrium and emotional intelligence — the sort of self-knowing that allows us to make decisions based on a certain clarity about what we feel, desire and need, not our storehouse of general knowledge or acquired technical skills, though the former helps in the application and appreciation of the latter, perhaps more than the acquisition of the latter inevitably brings about the former).

In short, it is not impossible to believe that a good deal of what I would like to take “credit” for (in terms of my general “happiness” or “contentment”) is pretty much pure biology that I have dressed up in a contemporary “personal growth” narrative.

This viewpoint has the appeal of injecting a bit of humility into the way I view the “wisdom” I have acquired in my lifetime.  And that, to me, is a fairly good indicator of the amount of “truth” in the idea.  It’s something I like about science: it puts us in our place in a particular way.  Meaning that it doesn’t degrade us (as another person might for their own gain), but neither does it give us license to think of ourselves as more clever than we actually are.  Science is, I think, the single best mirror we have in which to behold our true selves.  Everything else is wishing and fear.

Does this mean, then, that all the reading, counseling, praying, thinking and wondering I did in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties was a waste of time, energy and money?  No, I don’t think I can say that.  After all, I had to fill those difficult years with something, and I did, at least, choose to occupy myself some useful actives (I went to art school, for example, and worked a series of professional jobs, continuing to seize opportunities to develop my natural artistic talents into professional abilities).  But when it comes to all of the “self-help” work, I think it will remain an open question whether it was anywhere near as effective as I needed to believe it was at the time!

And so I’m left with this: not knowing, completely, from whence I — as the individual I now am — sprang.

My DNA, of course, was there from the start, and I was lucky enough to have a family that saw to it that I didn’t starve or get eaten by hyenas.  I was educated and socialized by my parents and siblings so that I could make my own way in the world.  I had opportunities for counseling when my melancholic and anxious personality was more than I could handle.  I had time alone to think…and think…and think (perhaps a bit too much of that).  And I had a talent for art and expression that gave me a place to invest time and education that eventually became a deeply satisfying career.  But in so many ways I am simply a male animal that has had the good fortune to live long enough to mature through the sequential phases of childhood into a mature adult who is now able to enjoy his life free from many of the uncomfortable by-products of DNA’s insistent urge to procreate.

After eons of the biological evolution that led to my own human parents, I have navigated the tumbling whitewater of my individual evolutionary path and lived to pop out the other side — onto calmer waters where evolution doesn’t give a rip about what happens to me next.  It is a fluke of history that I am alive in a time where so many of us get to live as long as we do in this post-evolutionary land of (potentially) enjoyable existence.  And though I can’t completely credit my own wisdom for getting me here, maybe I can borrow back just a bit of that satisfaction — suspect though it is — in recognizing that I do have the wisdom to recognize who and what I am.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Dislocation of the Self” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

I’m going to walk myself out onto a limb and talk about a theory of mine.  I suppose I could also call it a theory of mind, because it has to do with the way we humans experience spiritual phenomenon.

As I took advantage of the shade of a weeping willow tree for a short recline on a hot Summers-day bench, I looked up through the leaves at the sky above, and felt the warmth of the sun as it dappled its way through the branches.  As I did I mused that when we look at nature, we see mostly abundance and diversity.

Because life is so profligate, we hardly notice (unless we shift our focus) the waste and the decay that is the natural corollary to that abundance.  Instead we see the product of the seed that took root (not the uncountable millions that did not).  We see the offspring of the bird that successfully mated and built a nest, and whose eggs hatched (only rarely do we walk past the egg that was blown from its nest to break on the sidewalk, or the bird who has fallen dead from out of the sky).  The result is that our mental bias toward seeing life over decay is pretty much constantly encouraged.  (This is why it can be such a shock when death comes calling very close to us: at such times we are often stunned into a disconcerting awareness of our own vulnerability to life-ending disease or injury.  This is a state of awareness that we busily work to push back into the shadows of our mind).

This is one aspect of the “why” of the way in which we view our world.  Another is our long cognitive history of attributing intention to non-intentional forces by projecting our natural mind-reading skills onto events that don’t have a mind to read.  We do this almost without thinking — instinctively feeling that a “fierce” wind is somehow opposed to us riding our bike across town, or that an “angry” storm is “threatening” to “keep us” from holding an outdoor wedding.  We have days when we are sure that every traffic light in town is conspiring to frustrate our attempts to make an appointment on time.  We pray (or ask the “universe”) for a parking spot close to the store (and utter a “thank you” when one happens to open up).  All of this is so completely natural to the human mind that the minority of humans who do not respond to the world in this way are considered suspect!

We humans are natural believers and are equipped with brains that have evolved to detect the slightest change in the demeanor of another individual of our own (or other) species.  For any of you who have endured bouts of therapy or counseling, you probably discovered rather early in that process that your brain is quite capable of jumping to all sorts of conclusions that have as their basis nothing more than the trigger of an overly-sensitive misreading of an interpersonal cue.  In short — we are actually probably wrong more often than we are right.  (But in the world of natural selection, where it is not just the strong — but the wary and the agile — that survive, a slew of false positives is not necessarily a disqualifier in the race of life).

It’s always been happening inside our hominid skulls…

The fact that we humans have the most accomplished brains of the animal kingdom tempts us to think of ourselves as having somehow transcended our biology of mere flesh and bone, synapse and stimuli.  But this is, I think, an error of judgement that has some potentially destructive side effects.  An example might be the way we merge our natural tendency toward belief and projection with reason, and come up with the idea that it’s okay for other humans to suffer and die because there is a spiritual life to come where every one will get his or her due (so that anyone who has suffered unjustly, and had this earthly life cut short, will be compensated by the creator in the “better” life to come).  (Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a load of crap that actually diminishes the value of human life, despite the misnomer of  the “pro-life” moniker adapted by those who believe most in the next life, and think the least of this one).

Religious believers are most able to give their projecting mind free reign, limiting their “spiritual” experience only at the interpretation stage, where phenomenon is filtered to make sure it conforms to their belief system’s worldview.  They defend their interpretations of “spiritual” experience against all critics, especially those who would say that they are experiencing nothing at all.

And they are right to do so.  Up to a point.  For they are not experiencing “nothing”.  We all share a certain catalog of cognitive experiences, no matter what we believe or how we interpret the world.  But what I would say is that these things that we experience do not originate in the places we like to locate(or dis-locate) them, but are all a part of the brain’s internal work of assembling sensory input and making sense of the constant flow of data that our sensory organs take in.  In other words — the only intentional agents that exist in the world are those contained inside the skulls of living creatures.  There is no evidence of a spirit realm where intelligence and personality can exist outside of the consciousness of living biological organisms.

Of course — one must admit — there is no known way to disprove the existence of anything “spiritual”.  But then, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, there is also no way of disproving the notion that there is an invisible celestial teapot orbiting the sun (or that we were created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  But the retreat to that line of defense is a desperate one, and not, I think, very fruitful.  For the most basic reason that there is so damn much evidence for the handful of ways that we create this sense of external spiritual experience through our own powers of perception.  There are so many ways that our eyes and ears and brains can be fooled that it is foolishness itself to rely on our subjective personal experience alone as solid evidence for god(s), fairies or aliens.

So that when we feel the spirit of a loved one pass through us upon their death, for example, isn’t it more likely that the part of our awareness that we long ago dedicated to that person is relocating itself within the very consciousness that dislocated it in the first place, rather than that the actual “spirit” of another human being has coalesced into a softball-sized sphere of energy that took a short detour from the body of the deceased through our chest on its way to heaven?

Note what I’m saying here:  I am NOT saying that the “spiritual” experience did not (or does not) happen.  But I think the explanation of it is much more simple and direct than we tend to think.

And so it is with nature.  We are confused by the variety and sheer scope of life on earth and therefore cannot bring ourselves to see that — despite the amazing range of the shapes that life assumes — life itself is all of the same basic stuff.  We share eighty percent of our DNA with mice, forty percent with a head of lettuce.  Half of our cellular weight is bacteria.  Most of our own DNA can’t be called completely “human” at all.  And we have ample evidence that we humans are all too willing to trust our mammalian brains even when they make verifiable mistakes in interpreting our experience of living.

Once the first life got started, and found in the recombination of traits (through DNA) a way of reproducing itself, the astoundingly varied living world we see around us today was inevitable.  Not you or me (or dinosaurs or pine cones) necessarily, but something like them.  In a similar way, once brains as big as ours evolved, the idea of the spiritual — the dislocation of parts of our own consciousness — was just as inevitable.  One more example of the multitude of possible outcomes when evolution has time to work on living things.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “A Tour of the Senses: How Your Brain Interprets the World” by John M. Henshaw.

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

John Henshaw is chair of the Department of Engineering at the University of Tulsa, but clearly he is more interested than the average engineer in the workings of his own sensory systems.  And in “A Tour of the Senses” he takes us on a pleasant journey through the various types and flavors of stimulus, sensation and perception: the three necessary parts of every bit of our experience of life.

I kept thinking as I read this book “He had to do a lot of work outside of his field to write this!” (this is pure conjecture on my part and a reflection of my own bias after working and socializing with so many engineers over the years)!  But the subject of this book is something of deep interest to me, and, I believe, of deep value to any of my fellow humans that has the least interest in seeing the world (and themselves) as clearly as possible.

The book is organized into three sections (the above-referenced Stimulus, Sensation and Perception), which are further broken down into their component (and related) parts.  The book gives a very workable overview of just how our parts have evolved to do the remarkable job they do of taking everything that comes our way and turning it into electrical signals that the brain then makes sense of.  It was reading about this last part the process that made the biggest impression on me: namely the insights into the plasticity of the brain (as revealed by stories from those that have suffered damage to vital areas of the brain, for example, only to recover lost function when other areas of the brain then took up the task).

I’d call this a pleasant and informative read.  The writing is congenial, the author personable (and clearly fascinated by his subject), and there is a lot of truly fascinating information here.  I’m curious how a mechanical engineer from Tulsa gets a book on neurobiology published by The Johns Hopkins University Press (seeing that imprint is what gave me the nudge to give the book a shot), but I’m rather glad he did.

If you would like to get better acquainted with your own eyes and brain and nerves and sensors (and learn why our eyeballs perceive only the visible light spectrum) give this book a read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it three out of four Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “Splitting the Hairs of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Attempting to see the world in a materialist, scientific sort of way (which is a formal way of saying “See the world for what it actually is”) has a sort of cumulative effect on one’s perception of life.  One of the more interesting of those are the moments of rather startling clarity about former beliefs.  It is the nature of such insights that they can only come after a certain distance is put between one’s self and the spell of belief (assuming that the spell of belief has been “broken”).  This makes sense: we rarely, if ever, see things very clearly in the heat of the moment.

And so it was that I was suddenly able to see the astounding quality of fantasy that attends such notions as a creator God that has — literally — numbered the hairs on our head.  Now I can assume that this includes eyelashes and beards, but what about the some five million other hair follicles on the human body (times the bodies of some 8 billion living humans)?  And what could possibly be the point?  Such a statement of religious devotion is clearly intended to be poetic, and, like poetry, it goes straight to the heart in a warming sort of way.  That is all well and good, but both you and I know that a whole lot of our fellow humans actually believe this sort of thing on some foundational level.  Of course they don’t analyze it or dissect it — to do so would to rob the poetry of its sweetness.  So we just sort of nod in approval whenever someone repeats this chestnut, savoring the warm feeling it gives us.

And here comes another wag (me) — like that kid who pees in the pool — saying it’s all rubbish!

Now I have a conservative Christian friend who is convinced that I am deeply angry (what is it about the archly conservative that makes perceived-anger-as-instant-argument-invaidator such a fetish with them?).  But I’m not angry.  I’m incredulous!  For how can it possibly be more believable that the God of all the Universe devotes his vast energy to keeping track of the status of, say, lower back follicle number 3,452,789 than it is to accept the vast amount of scientific evidence of the evolution of life on earth?  This doesn’t make me furious — it leaves me almost speechless.

Loads of people try to dismiss champion of evolution Richard Dawkins as "angry" and "arrogant", as if that proves that his arguments are invalid.

But of course the answer is as obvious as it is perplexing:  the notion of a loving heavenly father is far more palatable to our vulnerable psyches.  It is an idea we are already familiar with from our own experiences of having had a father (or at least a loving adult in our lives).  Belief is warm and familiar, like a teddy bear.  Science is cold and unfamiliar, and snatches our teddy bears away from us.

The progression from childhood to adult belief is generally seamless.  And little wonder, really.  What is clearly the exception are those that break away from belief (generally, but not always, due to trauma or a betrayal of some kind).  This serves to confirm my own view that we humans are natural believers, and that it takes a certain amount of effort (be it catalyzed or self-motivated) to move us beyond the believing world view.

To me the answers — or, I should say, the lack of answers (in the case of religion) — are obvious.  The scientific evidence (the only “testable” kind) is overwhelming.  So why do so many of us not just fail to accept the evidence, but actively and fervently oppose it?  This is not rational.

Ah, but it is human.

I’m beginning to realize that science is challenging to internalize because it is describing phenomenon that — though truly a “part” of us — have no sensory connection to the way in which we actually experience life.  Some scientific concepts are comprehensible through our body, such as our own weight in relation to earth’s gravity, or the feeling of the wind on our skin that can remind us that air has mass.  But no matter how hard I smack my hand against a table, it’s almost impossible to really grasp that my flesh is not actually touching wood, and that what is stopping the widely-dispersed atoms in my hand from passing right through the equally-widely-dispersed atoms in the table is a bunch of electrical bonds between those atoms.

In practical terms it is much easier to just say that my flesh is solid, but flexible, whereas the table is just plain solid.  This is how we live our lives.  And when it comes to the “why” of it all, we’d rather cast our lot with a God who numbers our hairs than a scientist who splits them.

Our brains evolved according to the iron laws of natural selection, which means that there is little room for the frivolous or unnecessary in any animal that must compete for resources.  There has never been a need for us to see life at an atomic level.  For one, we are not naturally equipped to either see it or sense it in any meaningful way.  For another, we will never find our dinner or mate “there”.  Our living happens in the world of things that we can control, avoid or domesticate.  And yet (without meaning too!) we have developed these large, complex brains and the capacity for language that have brought us science and microscopes and space telescopes that have, in turn, opened up to us a world incomprehensibly more vast than we ever thought could exist.  And, frankly, our brains aren’t up to the task.

Seriously: they aren’t!

As I continue to read popular science, I find my brain stretched to its limits to comprehend what I read.  And I can almost feel our collective minds (and even the minds of the most brilliant humans) being stretched when I read about the frontiers of current research.  Maybe it has always been this way with us (at least since the start of the Neolithic “revolution”).  After all, there was a time when no human had ever seen (much less even imagined) a wheel, and yet someone thought it up.  Everything about us and our culture and our knowledge came about in that way.

But science has always, in a way, been the work of the outsider who upsets the calm of the tribe, pissing off the witchdoctor who has held sway over the minds of his followers for generations.  But it’s not just the witchdoctor who fights knowledge (he or she out of obvious commercial self-interest), but the individuals who find themselves forced into thinking things that are, frankly, very close to impossible to understand.

And yet…evolution makes sense.  In fact, it is the only explanation for life on earth that does make sense.  It’s hard to wrap your mind around, yes, but it’s not impossible with a little time and attention.  Ideas of divine creation are far more familiar to us, to be sure, woven poetically (and through tradition) into our consciousness, but they are laughable as actual theories (despite the intellectual contortions that creationists put themselves through).

But the science of our reality will always be a challenge to internalize, as it will always suffer from the internal conflict between the precision of description that science demands and the use of imprecise metaphor that is needed to make it understandable to the non-scientist.  I think this conflict is one of the foundational reasons that believers in the divine story feel less than confident about jumping the ship of belief.  For us humans, it would appear, it’s not enough that something be true.  We need to be able to believe in it too.
t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Led Astray” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

I spend my Saturday mornings on my hands and knees creating paintings in chalk on the street during our local Farmers and Crafts Market.  Focused on my work, what I mostly I hear is the burble of the crowd, catching occasional glimpses of the feet of those who stop to watch or drop a dollar in my tip jar.  But I do look up from time to time.  One morning I looked up to see an elderly man walking away from me — and before I realized what was happening my throat seized with a sob that had leapt up from my chest.  In the moment that it took for my conscious mind to form the question: “What’s going on?” the reason for my reaction was delivered to that conscious mind: I was watching my dead father walk away from me.  Of course, it wasn’t my father at all, but a man of a very similar size, with a similar walk, wearing familiar colors.  It took only a few seconds before my critical mind was able to distinguish the differences between the actual man I was watching and my real father.

It’s a rather stunning illustration of how the mind works, and also how the mind can be fooled: I had glanced up with no thought in particular in my mind, and had seen a man with enough physical similarities to my father to trigger the reaction I would have had had my actual dead father walked past me at the Market.  My tears were real — my vision was not.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to err on the side of caution: to jump or run away first before deciding that the snake in the grass is really just a snakey-looking stick.  That same ancient instinct told my brain in a fraction of a second that I was looking at my father.  One very interesting aspect of all of this is that it happened before my conscious brain had a chance to get involved.

But this is not surprising, as recent neuroscience research has shown that, basically, the conscious mind is the last to know.  Most often our decisions are happening on the next level down, in a different part of the brain, with the net result that our bodies are reacting to the news at the same moment that the memo is being read by that part of our brain that we like to believe is in control.

We are invested in the notion that we are the authors of our fate, therefore the realization that so much of our reactions and decisions are happening on a pre-conscious level can be unsettling, as if some palace coup is afoot to dethrone our conscious mind from the role of monarch of the ship of our natural state.  The actual message is not that dramatic.  Our mind — the conscious product of our brain (or brains) — operates on several levels.  Those who study such things tend to identify them with the time of their biological evolution, from the more primitive to the more modern: the later adaptations being added to (but not replacing) the earlier brain(s).

Our brains don't always give us the correct readings.

To me it’s clear that this tells us that we are animals — complex organisms like any other on the planet, but with larger, more complex brains.  We argue endlessly about the things that separate us from the other animals, yet are always drawn back to the enormous biological and cognitive heritage that we share.  No matter how hard religions tries to resist the erosion of the temple of our uniqueness, the waves of data and science and reality continue to wear it down.

But why should this even be an issue?  Why does it seem to matter so much to so many people that we NOT be like the other animals?

The answer to that is as obvious as it is irrational: to accept that we are of a kind with every other life form on the planet makes it harder to hold to the idea that we are special creations of an infinite intelligence.  For, despite the fact that our social natures intimately entwine us with small groups of our fellow humans (an animals — our pets!), we are subject to feelings of painful loneliness in those moments when the company of others cannot protect us from the deep dark of night, or our smallness in the face of nature.  We have a deep need to not be alone, and that extends into the universe as well as into our community.

This is the primal existential terror that stalks each of us conscious beings.  Perhaps it is the force that fuels our profoundly social nature: our need to bond with each other; to form and nurture meaningful and lasting connections with friends, lovers and families; extending acts of charity to strangers we’ll never meet.

As I “saw” my dead father in the body of a stranger at the Market, we see the hand of God in random events, our brain’s stored associations with a lifetime of experience with other thinking beings triggered by unrelated sights and sounds that seem to have a shape we recognize.

I wasn’t thinking of my father that morning, but deep within me was a ready desire to see him if I could.  The fact that the experience was unbidden is the sort of detail we take to infer outside agency (“I didn’t make it happen”), which gives us the freedom to ascribe “meaning” to a random event.  The fact that my brain could even have the deep emotional response it did tells me something even more startling: that this brain of mine is willing to believe that which I know to be physically impossible: my deceased father walking through the market as if living some new, other life, that just happened to take him on a walk past his son drawing on the street.

It is little wonder, then, that we have built entire systems of belief on the quirks of our evolved brains.  We have all had these experiences, after all, and therefore have a common frame of reference for this kind of phenomena.  And it is the quality of these experiences, much more than their detail, that seems to matter most.

The more I read about the variety of human religious experience, the harder it is to hold to the idea that there is some objective spiritual reality out there that we are all given equal access to.  It sounds much more like the tales that children tell each other when they are making believe, and I would argue that it touches the same emotional and psychological triggers that such child’s play can trip: the expansive feeling in the chest, the cinching in the throat from excitement, the tingle of mystery tinged with danger, all within the safety of another’s company.

This is religion, then: the things we make up to describe the things that take us by surprise.  Whether it’s the face of Jesus on a tortilla or my father back from the dead at the Farmers Market.  Our brains are like a cosmic Global Positioning System that sometimes gives us a wild reading, and we have to go back to the old-fashioned tools to check our bearings.

In my pilot training we learned that even the reliable magnetic compass is subject to distortions: It can be affected by the magnetic field of electronic equipment in the aircraft; certain maneuvers can make it spin wildly; depending on your longitude, you have to add or subtract degrees from its reading; and every compass comes with it’s own “correction card” where you note the quirks of your own particular device.

So it is with our brains.  Mostly steady and reliable and, frankly, wondrous electrical devices, we nevertheless have to take note of the times they will lead us astray.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Animal Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

What's the human mind really good at doing?

So, here’s the deal:  Having followed my many years of religious experience with a further exploration of the terrain of no god, no higher power, and no higher self to call upon, I’m still left with the reality that the part of my consciousness that always answered when I called upon God, my Higher Power or my Higher Self is, well, still there.

In a very real sense, this is the “god” that really never does go away.  And if it’s always been simply a part of my own consciousness trained (or naturally tended) toward answering the part of my brain that talks out loud to it, why not use it?

Of course, I think the reason I veered so strongly away from relying upon the “answering god” part of my consciousness was: a) to see if there was any noticeable change in the quality of my life (there wasn’t, or if there was, it wasn’t much), and; b) to check my own tendency to ascribe to my own subconscious any magical powers.  Oh, and c) I was trying to outsmart my own confirmation bias as well.

So now the question remains to be answered: just what is this consciousness within a consciousness actually capable of?  Or, perhaps more to the point: is it really “capable” of anything at all?

The mind certainly is good at holding and retrieving information (such as when I tell it out loud that I need to remember to get eggs when I’m out, and then, hours later, it pops that thought into my head as I leave the coffee shop and am about to drive home without walking to the grocery store a hundred feet away and getting the damn eggs).  But beyond the storage and recall of data, what’s the brain good at?  Can it effect other people or create phenomenon in the physical world?

The book I read on the history of electricity (Electric Universe — reviewed on this blog) offers a tantalizing rationale for believing that our thoughts can travel some distance, because the radio waves our minds generate actually travel millions of miles (and pass through other minds on their way).  “Aha!”  We want to say: “That is the scientific evidence to support prayer and psychics and mind-reading and getting those vibes when something is happening somewhere far away to someone we know”.  The problem is that we are ever bombarded with these radio waves from every damn neuron-firing brain within radio range.  So realistically, how could we ever sort them out?  Oh well.

Still, there are the seemingly mysterious phenomenon that we all experience.  But who knows what radio waves or burst of body electricity (or pheromones, for goodness sake) or pollen, or biochemical reactions trigger the handful of conscious responses that our brains have become habituated to pay attention to?

I’m beginning to suspect that, in reality, we have a generally sympathetic — but often clumsy — helper in our own mind.

After all, look at our anxieties.  For a long time I took the traditional view that things came into our lives “for a reason”, so if some terrible memory (or just a disturbing one) came up, it must “mean” that it was time for me to “deal with it”.

Instead, I have a new idea:  I think there is something about the way our brains are wired that they respond to stimuli almost like a librarian — aged and be-speckled — that knows where every old memory is stored, and when the “librarian” recognizes a similar constellation of stimuli on the horizon, he or she just starts pulling every bit of related shit it can find off the shelves.

The psychic and emotional result can be overwhelming, just annoying, or actually distressing as old memories come up and instantly trigger familiar anxieties, fears or what have you in a new (seemingly) related experience.

Although this sort of memory storage makes absolute sense as a survival strategy for an animal on the savannah, it seems terribly outdated for modern humans navigating their way through a fairly non- (physically) threatening social milieu that is a jungle only in a metaphorical sense.

That’s what I think.  I wonder what the evolutionary psychologists think about that.  Guess I’ll need to read up on it.

To sum up the insight that my primate brain concocted about itself: our brains are wonderful biological machines that have some real and significant handicaps in processing the reality of a fairly calm modern life.

Oh well.  That’s what happens when you evolve: the old bits come along for the ride (provided they’re not carrying with them traits that will get us flat out killed before we can reproduce)!

Of course I haven’t really answered the question I raised about what other powers the human brain might have.  Hmm.

Well, for all the harping I’ve done these many Sundays on the non-spiritual realities of human consciousness, and my insistence on a mechanical basis for all of our conscious experiences, there is no ignoring or denying the one quite remarkable trait that our minds posses: the ability to step outside itself and use the function of its own consciousness to examine that very consciousness.  We are the animals that can think about what it means to be an animal, and catalog and study our own behavior.  That is something.

But, beyond that, I think we’ve misplaced some of the wonder we attach to the human mind.  Perhaps as modern neuroscience continues to reveal the true biochemical and electrical complexity of the mind our admiration for this most amazing aspect of the brain will increase, allowing us to release even more of our lingering assignment of intention and deep intelligence to the data-retrieval-machine encased in our skulls.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my brain.  I just don’t think it’s as smart as I thought it was.

t.n.s.r. bob