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).
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.