Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

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