Posts Tagged ‘Human Brain’

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Angry Badger in my Head” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I’m in the middle of a big project.  It’s one of those deals where I am applying my experience in a wide range of past projects to a new one that has it’s own particular challenges, many of which I can clearly see are made up of steep, unavoidable learning curves.  The project also involves the participation of a good number of other people, all of whom I must rely on, and trust that they will come through.

There is money involved, which is an easy trigger for anxiety in my monkey brain.  And reputation, which is vitally important to us social mammals.

Sweating and stressing as I build a set for a film project.

As I write this, I’m at the ragged edge of exhaustion, enhanced, in no small part, by the four days of spotty sleep brought on by my brain’s response to stress.

Our brains are pretty interesting things.

It was some years ago when I first experienced the rather impressive energy my mind and body were capable of producing for days on end (when the situation called for it).  It was probably when I was making sets for the opera.  I became a sort of carpenter-berzerker, working early until late, and getting up and doing it again, and again, and again.  (The week after the set was done, I would crash and have to take some time to get myself back in working order).

I became rather proud and impressed that one part of my self could so clearly heed the call of my conscious brain and pass the word on down to my body and off we would go.  The only downside is that once kicked into such a high gear, my mind doesn’t really know how to turn itself off.  It seems to just switch on and like some angry badger will not let go until the great task is dead, dead, dead.

Of course, depending on your worldview, one might think of this as God’s spirit helping us along, or one’s “higher-self” coming to our aid in a pinch.  The reality is, of course, that this is just how our brains and bodies react to stress.  There is some trigger that gets tripped when we feel the threat of a potential disaster should the challenge confronting us overcome us instead of us conquering it.  Eat or be eaten.

A fair share of our time in life is taken up with the pursuit of some sort of conceptual framework which we can apply to life (including the way our brains actually work).  It makes sense: we are born squalling and helpless into a world none of us has ever seen before (despite the claims of reincarnation).  We are living, breathing beings for whom knowledge of our world is vital — our very survival depends upon it.  So it is also very natural to us (and, again, vital) to learn from those of our kind who have more experience than we do.

I think if we each reflected on our life we could easily recall those moments when someone else was there with a word of instruction or advice at the right time, and also recall the tremendous sense of relief and gratitude that accompanied those occasions (okay, maybe not when the instruction was a rebuke from mom or dad).  Of course, we often find out later that we’ve been given the wrong advice, or incorrect (or at least incomplete) information.  But sometimes the accuracy of what we pick up is not as important as the encouragement that is part and parcel of someone sharing their experience with us.

This is how I became a Christian when I was 14.  In response to my own curiosity, my older brother let me take a “Bridge to Life” tract from the stack he had by his bed.  As he was busy trying to finish a paper for school, he sent me off with this over-the-shoulder matter-of-fact remark: “Read it, and then say the prayer at the end before you go to bed”.

I went to my room, and read the tract that introduced me, for the first time it seemed, to the concept of sin and salvation through Christ.  When I got to the prayer at the end, I remembered his instruction to say it before I went to bed.  But I was about to go to a high school football game, and reasoned that in case something “happened” while there (jumped by a gang of thugs, or some such), maybe I’d be better off to say it now.  So I did.

This began my spiritual journey, and over time I attended meetings and studies and churches and learned what it really meant to be a Christian.  And, being the kind of person I am (with the kind of mind I have), I took it seriously for some long stretches of 15 years of my life, finding myself, at last, smuggling Christian literature behind the iron curtain as a “Summer” missionary.  But that’s another story.

In time I came to realize that Christianity was not the “truth” I had been told it was.  I had been given bad advice.  I felt foolish.  How could I have fallen for all of that?  (Well, it turns out that was not the last thing I would “fall” for before the spell of belief was finally broken).

I don’t feel so foolish about believing what I did (when I did) now.  I’ve come to understand that we are believers by nature.  I also understand how profoundly social we are, so that when my own brother tells me Jesus is Lord, and there is a Holy Spirit and a God the Father, I am naturally going to give his words some weight.  I had no reason to doubt him, and I also have no reason to blame him, for he was a believer too.

So as I observe this evolved computing/sensing/thinking electrified fleshy organ in my skull at work, I see it now for the biological organ that it is, and less as a conduit to anything higher than my own consciousness.  The human mind is amazing, but not in the sense of it being anything close to perfect.  Oh no. It is like everything else in life (and, actually, like everyONE else in life): a complex organism doing the best it can with what natural selection and evolution have given it.  Our minds, like our bodies, are the sum total of millions of years of random changes, enough of which were beneficial to our survival (or at least not dangerous to it) to allow it to survive until it became “us”.  It was not built from scratch from a brilliant new design.  Nope, it was built upon the first cells that generated their own little electrical impulses.

It is an amazing story — this tale of how we came to be — scads more interesting that any reductionist religious fable we humans have invented to give us that much-needed conceptual framework we so eagerly search for.

And though I aggressively stand up to anyone trying to impose their religious beliefs on others, I don’t hate religion or religious believers.  For in the bigger scheme of things, we are all babes in the woods trying to find our way in the very short time we have to figure it all out.  My brain is what it is: both ancient and modern; hard-wired and plastic; wonderful and clunky.  It’s the only brain I’m gonna have, in the only life I’m gonna live.  I’m doing the best I can to do the best I can with it.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds” By Kevin Dutton, Phd.

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

FROM THE WEBSITE: DR. KEVIN DUTTON is a psychologist and research fellow at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. His work has been published in journals that include Scientific American Mind, Journal of Experimental Psychology, and Cognition and Emotion.

Reading too much about the neuroscience of the human animal can, I think, be a bit  like learning a little too much about how sausage is made.  I mean, it’s better to know how things work (and how things are made), but it can sure put you off your favorite food for a while.

Having tempted you with THAT introduction, I nonetheless can recommend “Split Second Persuasion”, which is really a neuroscience book tarted up as a sort of guide book for would-be master persuaders out there.  The author takes situations we are all familiar with (the person in a tense situation that has said just the right thing to defuse things, the smooth talker that has talked us out of something) and takes us to the root of what is happening inside our brains.

The author is an English psychologist, and he references a boat-load of studies and brain scans that paint a pretty clear picture of not only how our brains work when it comes to “persuasion”, but where the frontiers of this sort of research are right now (which inevitably points to where it might be taking us in the near future).

It’s a highly readable book  — seasoned with judicious sprinklings of wit — that includes some experiments on the reader (as well as one of the best descriptions and explanations of psychopathy I’ve yet to run across).

If you have any interest at all in just how it is that your own brain makes its own “sausage” when subject to “persuasion”, you’ll enjoy this book.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

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

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

I was chatting with a friend of mine last night, and she described the new project she was working on like this: “…it’s right at the edge of my capabilities… which is exciting and exhausting and terrifying at the same time.”  Natural selection has shaped our brains into organs of a power unknown to any other animal on earth.  Even so, we have our limitations, and it is those limitations that occupy a part of my brain today.

Christopher Hitchens has a great quote about the state of human knowledge at this point in history: “We know less and less about more and more”.  Of course we know what he’s driving at: each new discovery adds to our knowledge, even as that same discovery reveals how little we know about the brand new set of questions that we hadn’t even known needed to be asked!  Of late I’ve been feeling as if my own accelerated consumption of scientific knowledge (in the form of the many books and articles I’ve been reading) has run me up against a sort of wall, as if my brain was straining against the bony case that contains it.  In short, I’ve hit the edge of my capacity for learning and understanding.

It reminds me of my early experiences of getting outside of my “head” and becoming more engaged with my emotions.  (This was taking place in my late twenties, during what I now call my “therapy” years).  I had assumed that the only hindrance to connecting emotionally with other people was my own inability to “get out of my head” and be “out there” with my feelings.  Imagine my surprise the first time I was able to venture beyond my own emotional walls and ran smack-dab into somebody elses’!  (It turns out it wasn’t just my limitations that were in play).

There are two sides to this most recent discovery of my own brain limitations: one is a certain satisfaction that I’m running my mental equipment to its full capacity (I’m getting my money’s worth, as it were); the other is a confrontation with the reality of the limitations of the human mind.

We often speak as if the human mind were a marvel of limitless possibilities.  New Age ideas would have us thinking that — if only we could focus our powers — we could physically project our bodies across space.  Religions and various belief systems would have us believe we can know the mind of God, or intercede through spiritual (or mental) means into individual lives and natural events on the other side of the globe.  Thus we elevate our view of our minds into a one of a super natural supercomputer that — were it not for the distractions of sin or doubt — would have us flying through space or walking through walls if we’d only tap into its power.  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I find it far more credible to believe that there is nothing about the mind or our consciousness that is anything other than activity produced by the very physical processes of our body and brain.

On the other hand, our brains our pretty damn amazing when viewed in their natural context.  The fact that I can talk to myself out loud, and through that act engage a different area of my brain (and thereby another level of my consciousness) that often (but not always) produces an actual result is pretty cool (and very helpful in my life).  (That this natural phenomena has been externalized for thousands of years and used as the rickety support for endless ideas of an omnipotent and omniscient God is much less amazing.  One of the limitations of our large, creative brain is that it will believe all sorts of silly things).

Regrettably (but understandably) not all brains are equally curious or even interested in going beyond the most basic functions we require of them.

Over coffee a research psychologist told me of her studies of infants in novel situations, in which she was able to measure the uptick in adrenalin in the infants.  The infants fell, she said, into three groups: One whose adrenalin levels did not rise much at all, and who were therefore disinterested in whatever new situation confronted them; another group whose adrenalin levels spiked very high and were therefore uncomfortable or frightened of the change in their environment; and a third group whose adrenalin levels rose quickly to a level that indicated they were actually excited by the challenge before them, and were therefore deeply engaged in it.

This bit of data sticks with me and helps, I think, to explain the different kinds of people we are and the different world views we encounter among our fellow hominins.  Not all of us are curious.  Not all of us like to be challenged.

I grew up with the popular (still popular, I might add) notion that each of us only uses a small percentage of our brain (which brings us back to the implication that we carry an unlimited capacity “up there”).  But brain researchers today will tell you that’s simply not true.  We pretty much use the whole thing.  (In fact parts we don’t use begin to atrophy from an early age, with the brain’s development quickly zeroing in on the parts we’re using the most as we wire our individual brains according to our own needs).  This, of course, is only reasonable.  The earlier claim of “only using a small part” was based (I suspect) on early research that has been supplanted by new discovery.  And we must add to that the fact that natural selection is not very likely to allow the continuation of a very expensive (in terms of resources) organ that we only use a third of!

I know so much more about the world, the universe and our own evolution than I did six months ago.  I know I do.  I must, having taken in so much information.  But I feel like I know so much less than I should.  My mind feels so very small and limited compared to the vastness around and within me that I was previously blind to.  In short, if we think our minds are limitless, it’s probably because we haven’t pushed them to their limits.

All is not lost, however.  For there is a reason my brain can only take me so far into conceiving the vastness of the cosmos or the intricacies of biology or atomic structure: it’s not what my brain was evolved for.  It’s pretty amazing that there is one species of mammals — one branch of primates — that can compose a symphony, fly a helicopter and discover it’s own genetic structure.  By and large we are a curious species, and the quest for understanding seems to be as natural to us as music and art.  To me the point of living is not to know everything (which is baldly impossible anyway), but to know enough to make the most of my time of living among my fellows.  Although I’m certain I’m borderline between the frightened and the curious babies in the experiments above, I’ve turned out to be a person who finds pleasure in understanding.  For that is the purpose of study — to understand.  So though today my brain may feel sore and tired, it will recover.  Tomorrow or the next day there’ll be something else I’ll become aware of that I’ll want to understand, and off we’ll go again on a merry and challenging chase.  Not as a substitute for living life, but as a nourishment for my emotional engagement with my own body and mind, my fellow creatures and the world around me.  All of those things that make me very happy to have (and to stretch) the mind that I have — limits and all.

Bob Bless.

t.n.s.r. bob