Posts Tagged ‘cognition’

SERMON: “Why I Preach!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Why I preach.

If I criticize religious belief as irrational (which I clearly do), it is for two reasons.  For one, I see little good that can come from believing things that are not true (especially when there is so much that is verifiably true to ponder with awe).  For another, I think that there is a genuine benefit to us both as individuals and as a society in seeing ourselves for the rather surprising (and challenged) evolved animals that we now know ourselves (through science) to be.  One of those benefits includes releasing ourselves from unreasonable expectations that can flow from the notion that we are striving for a God-created “perfection” (which also releases us from the false burden of “Eden’s” legacy of irreparable damage: that we were “perfect” before we screwed things up).  Though it can be a frightening and difficult transition to move from belief to such an “acceptance”, I would not propose such if I had not done it myself, having found, on the other side, a whole new world that is rich, satisfying and, well, real.

But here I have to be honest about that “other world”.  Because it is “real” it can leave one feeling a bit, well, exposed.  To borrow one popular metaphor, it leaves one without a familiar “backstop”.  (Well, at least the sort of “backstop” most of us have been used to).  But in the larger scheme of things what we are talking about is the loss of something that never was in the first place (so we lose, in fact, nothing).  We only thought it was there: a god in the sky — in some form or other — watching over us.  What we hoped for in moments of desperation was that there was someone with more strength and power out there who would nevertheless look kindly upon us and lend us a hand once in a while.  (What can be most unsettling is the realization of just how dependent we social primates are upon each other, and the sense of vulnerability that comes with such a realization.  This was the most unexpected surprise in my journey of discoveries).

I should also make clear the distinction that when I use the term “irrational” I don’t mean that it is crazy or idiotic to believe (or want to believe) in such things.  By irrational I mean any belief that is unsupported by (or denies strong contradictory) evidence.  Personally, I understand the urge to believe.  I think it’s almost impossible to be a conscious human being and not understand this.  When I heard the bone in my foot break last December, I felt an instant and instinctual urge to ask any thing that might be listening to turn back time just a couple of minutes (really, now, is that so much to ask?).  But even in that moment, I recognized that such a plea arose from deep in my animal psyche (that part of my consciousness that recognized that I was suddenly a deeply injured animal that could not run from danger if he had to).  But that deep animal part of our brains speaks in wordless bursts that are thrust up through the cognitive strata of our middle and higher brain that must then turn animal terror into actual thoughts, words and concepts.

It is this ancient animal mind that is, I think, is the deeper wellspring of our religious beliefs.

You and I are no longer the “lizards” for whom we name this deep, survival part of our brain.  But it is good that we have such concepts in our “modern” world to remind us that though we have left our lizard (or fish, or shrew or monkey) lives far in our past, we yet carry a deep and present legacy of the brains we began with.  In a very real (anatomical and cognitive) way, we are fish riding bicycles, lizards driving cars and monkeys at typewriters clacking out Hemingway novels.

So where (and why, and how) did “religion” enter the picture?  Like so many things in our prehistoric past, we can never know when a particular cultural moment occurred.  We can only guess when the first human had the first spiritual thought.  And by spiritual, I mean the first moment that we had an experience of something like ourselves existing, invisibly, outside of our physical selves.  (The “like ourselves” part is a crucial clue to the source of our divine beings, by the way).  But knowing what I do about how our brains work (and having the sense I now have of the continuum of biological life) it is not difficult at all to imagine a moment when our first ancestors began to use their first words to describe their world.  No, this is not where religion began, for an animal does not need to have verbal language to act as if there are mysterious forces at work around them (again, I return to Hannah Holmes’ example dog barking at the vacuum cleaner as an example of an animal version of believing in “god”).  We humans are different only in that we have an added layer of processing brain that has filtered these animal “beliefs” into coherent concepts that can be shared between ourselves.

And that is the key to belief: a story must be made of an experience, as a sort of “vehicle” for the transmission (and maintenance) of any belief.  This is perhaps why Richard Dawkins refers to such universally-transmittable ideas as “memes” that can move through us (and evolve and adapt) in a manner that is very similar to that of a virus.  And as far as that goes, it matters surprisingly little whether the story is true (just as it matters naught if a virus is “good” for us), it only matters that enough of us agree on the plausibility of the story to keep it in circulation.

It is, in fact, this form of human agreement that is the glue that holds us social animals together: we tend to clump together with those who have chosen to believe the same stories we do.  I think this even goes down to the level of couples who create a story of their own relationship.  At this level, who can say what is “true” or not — what matters most is the agreement.  When our stories diverge, so can our connections to others around us.  (Look what happens when an evangelical preacher starts to declare that there is no hell, or a politician stands up for an opponent who is being unfairly accused — suddenly they are ostracized as outsiders by those who only a moment before would have defended them to extreme ends).

All this to say that belief is something that has been with us for a long, long time.  And not just as humans, but even before.  So there is no reason to think that it will go away soon, or ever.  For the biology that created belief is our own biology, and from that we cannot escape.  However — and this is perhaps the most remarkable (and, I might argue, the most interesting) thing — it seems that we can use these brains of ours to escape irrational belief!  It’s worth a try, at least.  For though religion permeates the minds of humans all over the globe, there are entire worlds awaiting discovery that religion has never — and can never — know.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

I had just dropped my truck off at the garage for a day of repairs, and had enjoyed a twenty minute bike ride back to my office downtown.  As I rounded the corner into my parking lot, I saw before me a truck that looked just like the truck I had just left across town.  But that was not my first thought.

Before I could even have a conscious “thought”, I was having the surreal perceptual (and therefore physical) experience of seeing my truck where I was not expecting to see it.  But this sight was not just the slight surprise of the unexpected, no: what was presented to my eyes was so far outside the range of pictures that my predictive brain was prepared to see in that moment that my brain kind of seized up.

I kept looking at that little gray truck — again and again — searching out the details.  I noticed the shape of the truck and the color first — both perfect matches for mine.  My eye then shifted to the details.  It had the same model nameplate.  I then looked for the black bed liner, and at first saw none, but then noticed what seemed like a line of old adhesive where one might have once been secured (which meant that my brain could not easily judge this bit of evidence).  I had to look at this detail at least three times before I was able to satisfy my brain’s aggressive impulse to see this as my truck, parked as it was in a space that mine frequently occupies.

I had never seen this truck in this parking lot before, and it wasn’t a regular visitor to my neighborhood (though I may have seen it around town — I have noticed at least one similar truck to mine on one or two occasions over as many years).

One (or both) of the two animals in this picture is very likely having difficulty processing a rather convincing delusion!

All of these things combined in that one confusing moment to set my brain to wanting to believe that this was my truck (or to figure out how it had gotten here — no matter the physical impossibility of such a thing occurring).  This impulse toward belief was powerful enough to (temporarily) completely suppress the rational part of my brain that clearly remembered having left my truck half way across town only a few minutes before!

As I got off my bike and walked into my office, I was still feeling the aftereffects of my brain struggling to deconstruct the vision of my quantum truck that was in two places at one time (or else changed location in some dramatic manner while I was riding my bike along a route different than that my magical truck took).

It’s incredibly interesting to have cognitive experiences like this, especially when one can be aware enough of it as it’s happening (or very soon after) to ponder it.  (It is akin, I think, to lucid dreaming, where one gets the rare opportunity to watch the inner workings of one’s own brain).

In this case, I got to see how it is that the brain can be tricked by unexpectedly familiar-looking things that aren’t where they are supposed to be.  In essence, I had a magical and mystical experience that was all based on a perfect mini-storm of the right amount of sensory inputs and a minor processing error in my brain.

But I don’t think my experience is an anomaly.  In fact, I think it is a perfectly normal, everyday episode of the kinds of brains we have.  We know, for one thing, that the brain works by constantly creating predictions about what we will see, say, taste or hear next.  This is how we are able to keep up in a fast conversation, or navigate traffic on a freeway.  It is also why we can be surprised (in a pleasing way) by a magician’s trick or the unexpected twist in a comedian’s joke.  It is also why we can be slow to react to the radically unexpected event (think anomalous events like a plane crash or a sudden violent act).  At it’s core — it is part of our evolved skill set for surviving in the physical world: the oblivious walk off of cliffs; the wary do not.  (And what is wariness, but a constant imagining of future events).

The most striking part of my experience with my vehicle’s doppelgänger was the urge toward belief and how that urge was able to suppress reason.  I think this is a perfect demonstration of the natural tendency toward belief that is part and parcel of being human.  After all, it seems to be well demonstrated that we are so profoundly social that we always lean toward believing what others tell us, only engaging our critical faculties after (and even then only when pushed to do so).  Mainly we prefer to believe from the start and keep on believing.  (For a quick overview of how our believing brain works, see this article by Michael Shermer).

That’s what my brain was trying to do — but the data being gathered by my critical, rational brain began to break that “belief” down.

This is like the experience I once described of seeing my dead dad at the Farmers Market (as I was painting on the street on a Saturday morning).  Of course it wasn’t my dad, but I glanced up to see an old man walking away from me who was very similar to my late father in his build, mode of dress and gait.  I merely glimpsed this man and before I knew it I was feeling my heart swell and my throat constrict with emotion.  My analytical mind pretty quickly figured out what was going on, but by then the tears had already jumped to my eyes.  It’s like Malcolm Gladwell explains in” Blink” (reviewed this blog): this middle part of our brain — that part that worked to make sense of “my” truck being in two places at once (or my dead father walking among the living) is where our split-second decisions are made, and the reasoning frontal lobes — in such situations — can only wait for the memo to get passed upstairs (even as our body is already responding to the rapid-fire signaling from the reactive brain).

After years of work — both getting to know it and learning to work with it — I have decided that I have a highly enjoyable brain.  It is creative, agile and an incredible analytical and emotional workhorse for me.  But it has its own quirks and deficits that can, at times, overwhelm me.  Seeing it for the remarkable, evolved organ that it is is the most fruitful way to appreciate it best, I think.  To see it as neither more nor less than it is.  And experiences like that of “seeing” my late father (or my truck) where he (or it) wasn’t is one of those perfect reminders of my own cognitive imperfection.  And with that comes a very humane kind of humility that can, I think, benefit anyone willing to see — and accept — themselves for what they truly are: highly evolved animals with unusually large and complex brains.

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 Brain: A User’s Guide — Abridged” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

WHAT OUR BRAINS ARE GOOD AT:

Keeping us from stepping on a rattlesnake.

Getting us to throw up when we see someone else do it.

Thinking about sex.

These are survival responses: fight or flight; mirror neurons that pay detailed attention to what those close to us are feeling, experiencing, or seeing, and; reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

What our brains are not good at:

Critically examining things we hear from others.

Perceiving reality without a thick filter of magical belief.

Not being fearful.

Our brains are physical machines that have evolved with us over millions of years.  They exist because they are good at keeping us alive and fruitful.  We exist because they work as well as they do.

When we started using tools to aid our survival (around 6 million years ago), we were on our way toward becoming the dominant life form on the planet that we are today.  Our advancement, however, was slow.  But over time our cleverness led us to things like fire and cooked food (which fed our growing brains while reducing the need for our huge ape-like chewing muscles, which then allowed our brain cases to expand to the limits finally imposed on them by natural selection — namely the width of the human female’s pelvis).

We are the tool-making ape, and because of the protections we have built for ourselves from the forces of nature (extreme heat, cold and disease), and our ability to alter the environments we live in (as well as the plants and animals we live with), we have spread out and flourished.  In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.

This is no small success.  But we are mistaken to lean as much as we do on the idea that our brains are more than our most advanced sensory organ — that our minds are something that transcends the physical world.  They don’t.

As I sat on a park bench today, watching a pair of grackles chase a squirrel from the lawn beneath “their” tree, and then return to their mix of mating and feeding behavior, I was reminded that, if you get right down to it, the “purpose” of life is to continue to live.  Life, by any definition, is a complex process that exists only by dint of its ability to feed itself and reproduce.  Even the most mindless of life is propelled by this innate impulse.  And we humans are no different.

But, of course, we are very different when it comes to cognition. All animals have brains, some small, some large.  And some of those animals are eerily similar to us in having a social sense and an emotional interior life.  Some even make simple tools.  But none have the self-awareness that we humans do, and I think that gives us a very singular set of existential problems to deal with.

We humans have huge brains. Okay, maybe not quite THIS huge!

In particular is the question of “why us?”  Our attempts to answer that existential question have created thousands of gods, thousands of religions to go with those gods, and creation myths aplenty — all of them stories with us at the center, revealing some satisfying aspect of our “true” purpose here on Earth.

Of course one of the problems with that approach is that we are not divine in origin (at least as far as we can tell), nor are we “intelligently designed”.  What we are is  “naturally selected” (a process that can bring about results that easily mimic what we might consider “design”).  And what we generally end up with, then, is a lofty narrative of our special creation draped over the pulsing drive of the survival-insuring primitive animal brain.  This is a recipe for conflict and cognitive dissonance on a fairly grand scale!

The fact that we are living in an age of technology and science lends support to our already-elevated view of our brain’s “designed” perfection.  Therefore we consistently overestimate the power of the human brain — to the point that many believe that with the right amount of practice, we can project ourselves across the universe, read other minds or predict the future.  At the same time we under-estimate some of the real powers of the brain: such as our natural animal wariness that can create debilitating fears, irrational thoughts and faulty perception.  Both are problematic.

The predicament that we are in is this: we are alive, we are conscious, and the only organ we have for navigating that rather stunning state of existence is a multi-layered, quirky sensory organ that retains its most primitive life-preserving functions even as it serves as the source of our most lofty, artistic and humane expressions.  Darwin wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that “…man with all his noble qualities …still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. ”  We do.  Oh, indeed, we do.

The truth is that we humans can seem to be rational only as a sort of last resort.  As I observe the battle lines of ideological debate in our current Presidential campaign, I am mostly struck by how many people are willing to take, at face value, almost any falsehood as long as it promises to support their belief-dependent view of reality.  If I could put one idea into the brains of all of my fellow citizens, it would be to embrace the true challenge that ownership of an evolved conscious mind entails, and learn to use our brains as effectively as possible (which has to include an awareness of the many quirks, biases and sensory mistakes that it is subject to).

It is a paradoxical challenge, this: using one part of our brain to figure out where the other parts of that same brain might be leading us astray.  But this is our reality: everything about our consciousness is playing out within the confines of our physical bodies.  (Though little wonder — since it can feel at times like there’s more than one person inside our head — so many of us are willing to imagine the different parts of our own consciousness as external beings, be they demons, spirits or angels).

Our brains may not be perfect, but they are certainly remarkable.  We just have to remember that they can rule us (fear) as much as we rule them (reason).  The best we can do is come to an understanding — an alliance, if you will — with the several aspects of our brain, and recognize the reality of what is happening inside our skulls.

t.n.s.r. bob

[CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: My statement “In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.” is incorrect in that modern humans had already occupied regions of the Middle East and Central Europe before this time, but our global expansion has occurred within the last 15,000 years.  — t.n.s.r. bob