I think that we can all buy into the idea that we have multiple levels of consciousness. As an example: I’m one of those that can drift off into a thought while I’m driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving the last half of a block. How did I do that without the car suddenly flying into the tumbleweeds? Well, of course there is physics, with the combined forces of inertia and gyroscopic effects that tend to keep a vehicle going fairly straight most of the time, but there is still a measure of continued human control inputs that were being fed to the steering wheel and gas pedal by some part of my brain. We tend to call this part of our consciousness “body memory”, or the “unconscious” or even “reflex”. (Though reflex –as I understand it — is more properly the domain of the deeper part of our brain, just above the parts that keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing).
But if we consider the functions of our brain from the most basic: running the bodily processes that keep us alive; to the most abstract: the part of our brain that allows us to consider our own thoughts (as in: we are having a thought; we are aware that we are having a thought; we are having a thought about that thought; thinking about that thought changes the thought –or the process that generated that thought — thereby literally re-wiring a small part of our brain; whew!), we must come to the conclusion that there are multiple levels of processing going on inside these skulls of ours!
For the religiously minded, these different levels of consciousness are personified as mind, body and spirit (the body being the “lowest”). So the part of consciousness that we are most familiar with — the one that converses with others and makes the grocery list — is the “mind” (in this organizational system). For the more severe believer, our ancient animal impulses are labelled as our “sinful nature”, and therefore confined to the “body” where they can (in theory) be isolated, berated and battled (or, more often than not, happily succumbed to!). But one level of our consciousness — the one that talks back to us when we talk to it — we make out to be God, or the Holy Spirit, the one that hears our prayers.
Science tells us that we have at least three physical, evolutionary layers of brain, meaning we have two additional (and later) add-ons to the primitive, non-reflective, yet reflexive survival brain. The latest evolutionary addition contains the higher rational faculties, and probably is the part most responsible for our ability to be self-reflective to the degree we are.
Evolutionary psychologists will also tell you that these later developed parts of our brain serve a very important social function in that they allow us to moderate, or interrupt, our natural fearful response to strangers and reach out a slightly damp hand to introduce ourselves (as opposed to attacking them and trying to rip their throat out).
Every spiritual guru or new-age whats-it peddle their own brand-names for our intrinsic multi-layered consciousness. What is most often sold is the notion that parts of our “self” are actually existing outside of our own heads and bodies.
(My “psychic” told me that my physical body could not contain the full dimension of my spirit. Now this wasn’t that hard for me to swallow, as I’d spent fifteen years of my life as an Evangelical Christian. Of course it helps that I live in a society surrounded by support for the notion of the “spiritual”. You can’t swing a cat without running into someone talking about “spiritual things”)
Now this is not just a question of semantics. In fact, I think it’s more a question of conception than words, though words matter (clearly, or else there’d be no point in marketing such a variety of names for the levels of human consciousness).
As I described in an earlier sermon, it was while reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” (reviewed on this blog) that I finally realized that I had been imagining a part of my own consciousness as being external to my physical self for the last 35 years of my life. Once I had that realization, I had the very singular experience of feeling my “spirit” re-enter my body. (For the first time in my adult life, there was no-one and no-thing outside of myself listening in on my thoughts).
Now no actual “spirit” re-entered my body. That would be ridiculous (but surprisingly easy) to believe. So what actually happened? I think that I simply stopped projecting a part of my own mind outside of itself.
If this sounds odd, take a moment to speak out loud to whatever god or spirit or higher self you speak (or pray) to. Where is that other party in the conversation physically located? Where do you sense him (or her) to be? Floating around you? In Heaven? Next to you?
Ask the average person that question, and I’d bet a nickel most would prove to be actively imagining a part of themselves out in the ether somewhere (in some diffuse way).
We humans are magical thinkers. There can be no serious doubt about that fact. Just look around at the crazy shit humans believe. At any given time, one out of five Americans is believing something stupid. One week one in five don’t believe Osama bin Laden is really dead. Another week it was that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery. The same percentage thinks aliens are flying through our skies at night, crashing once in a while. So why wouldn’t most people believe in angels and demons, gods and devils? It comes pretty naturally to us.
We have God in our brain. We also have our inner dog (or cat — take your pick). We have our inner “critic” as well (or “the committee” as some folks call it). We also have the faithful, non-verbal part of our brain that memorizes frequently-needed physical motions, so that we can learn to play the piano, chop an onion, hoist a baby onto our hips, or have sex in a way that propagates the species. We also have a level of thinking that allows us to analyze our thoughts — looking for errors and false connections. And that part of our brain can use the tools of reason to manipulate the middle-managers in our brain into correcting (or at least patching over) detrimental connections, bad file storage, and un-helpful reflexes (this is what therapy and counseling are all about).
That’s a lot to fit into a skull, but then, we humans have evolved huge, calorie-burning brains to handle the challenges of managing our three-in-one brain, of coordinating the myriad synapsis that fire off in each multi-layered social interaction. I can just imagine the frantic communication channels that are buzzing in there as the highly rational, modern brain figures out how to talk to the middle-aged, transitional (dog?) brain that has to find a way to make sure the deep, wet, survival brain is on board with blood to the muscles, energy to the cells, and oxygen to the brain so that the whole circus parade resident inside our skulls can manage tasks such as ordering our steak medium rare at a restaurant.
God brain. Dog brain. Love brain. Beauty brain. Rage brain. Chew-off-my-own-limb-to-save-my-life-brain. Chew-off-your-arm-to-protect-my-child-brain. Sugar/alcohol/drug brain (MORE!MORE!MORE!) It’s all in there.
I expect we’ve personified parts of our consciousness in order to be able to hold these parts of our self in a manageable, conceptual framework. Makes sense. So it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether we call a part God or dog (up to a certain point, at least, as I do think we’d be better of losing the habit of externalizing the God part — maybe fewer people would do mean things under the false belief that “God told them to do it”).
For me, for now, I might try out talking to my “selves” on the level they operate at. I’ll talk to god-bob like, well, god. And dog-bob like dog. Who knows who else is lurking in there (though I expect there’s a limit to the levels of consciousness amenable to carrying on a conversation). Again, I’m putting a conceptual template on top of a slightly amorphous reality as a sort of practical “bob’s brain” management tool.
In time I expect brain science will progress to a point where new names for the multiple levels of our consciousness will enter the popular lexicon. Which means I’d better get my seminars and books going before someone finds a better set of names than the ones I’m selling…