Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

SERMON: “A Map of the Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case).  No sooner had the episode begun but  there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently.  I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment.  But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from.  I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.

Here is a good place to make something clear:  I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self).  Still, I have a need to “place” things.  That’s only natural.  The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.

So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain.  Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness.  This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical.  Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves.  But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat).  On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain.  So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.

That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears?  Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG  IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”.  (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”.   No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much.  But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention.  Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).

You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion.  This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”.  In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case.  This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness.  They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body.  (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us).  Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the "quirks" of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the “quirks” of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree —  the chirping birds in the upper branches?  I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is.  And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life).  But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain.  We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals.  Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).

The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score.  I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice.  But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.

I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today.  I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression.  This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”.  But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night.  It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob.  This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact.  But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear.  I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness.  After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction.  Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done).  My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic.  But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine.  I was learning to fight brain with brain.

Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness.  Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer.  The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.

The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response.  Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist.  It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.

Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”).  In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications.  (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul.  What a mess).

Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment.  This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).

And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon.  I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way.  I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand.  That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break.  In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.

As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).

In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in.  Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability.  And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man.  I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Free Will and the Modern Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob.

A recent article in The Humanist magazine about mass murderer Anders Breivik, uses his “case” to ponder the implications that our expanding knowledge of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are going to have on our ideas of how much free will (and independent) thought we really have.  This turns out to be not simply a question for individuals who commit horrendous acts, but for you and me, every day.

(To sum up the article, we may well have to reconsider our desire for the “punitive” aspects of our system of justice, and learn to content ourselves with isolating dangerous individuals from the general population).

To my mind there is always a whiff of determinism in these discussions.  For one, I am reminded of an apparent and recurring pattern of the overly-broad application of the newest scientific ideas to complex social issues.  (In this case the notion that any one of us brought up as Breivik was — with the same DNA — would have actually had the capacity to make a different choice than he did when he launched his killing spree).

The part of this idea that I personally find a bit chafing is how much it reminds me of a very human propensity to ascribe our bad choices to forces greater than ourselves.  In this case it becomes a sort of a cognitive Calvinism, where DNA (read: “nature”) and experience (read: “nurture”) stand in for God or the Devil.  Knowing the way we humans think, it is good to be wary of such ideas.  But having marked out that particular ditch to not “drive into”, we must next mark out the other:  we clearly are not as independent as we think we are, or — more precisely — not independent in quite the way that we think we are.

(This is ground that Malcolm Gladwell covers well in “Blink” — reviewed this blog — where he describes the way our conscious brain seems to dance to the tune of a deeper level of instinctual thinking).

What we are really facing here is not a confirmation (or repudiation) on any of the traditional ideas about our individual independence of thought and “free will”, but rather a challenge to see them in a more nuanced way.  The thing we will have to carefully consider, then, is the way in which we think about these questions.  And this is going to be tricky.

Common traps await us.  One is to think of us a automatons, dancing to our DNA.  Another is that we are merely reactive pawns of whoever knows how to manipulate our ancient Ice Age brains with appeals to tribalism, fear, or, well, it’s all pretty much fear and tribalism.

As individuals dealing with the idea of some sort of natural determinism, we can also end up back in the old game of trying to fool God (or fate, or DNA) by changing our mind at the last minute.  But then, some wag will always say that “God knew you were going to change your mind”.  So we can’t really outsmart our fate.  But is it really fate?

This is where we have to think differently about these sorts of things.  Why?  Because things are turning out to be different than we thought they were.  And because our reality is more complex and nuanced than we thought, we actually have to develop new ways of thinking about it that allow for more nuance and complexity.

This is why old-time religion breaks down before such a challenge.  It was built for a world full of angels, demons, temptations, sinful natures and redeeming sacrifices.  (But perhaps more importantly, a world where every individual was also somehow completely responsible for what were seen as their individual “moral” choices).  But that was a world that was imagined to exist under a sort of glass sphere that contained the entire universe in a very small space just above our heads.  These people did not know that brain disorders were caused by genetic copying errors, or that people could be killed by microscopic bacteria (or driven mad by a brain virus).  It all seemed like a mysterious existential crap shoot to them, and so they struggled to find a pattern — any pattern — to it all.  But even the best pattern-makers had to recognize that the race was not always to the swift or the battle to the strong (the “righteous person” could also suffer calamity).  And so we have constantly struggled with this idea a “good god” who could “allow” evil the world.

This is a question that vexes many.  And I don’t mean that lightly.  It is the rock that every believer in a deity has to find a way over or around, because it can never be moved.

Now I’m all for letting go of the idea of god and moving on, for the simple reason that traditional religious concepts are only going to hinder us from getting to a new (and more correct) understanding of these questions of morality, choice and consequence.

I think, in the end, that what we are going to find is that each of us begins with a certain potential for intelligence, talent, emotional capacity and ethical behavior which is going to be impossible to completely quantify.  The question of “nature” versus “nurture” will be continuously refined and perhaps become genuinely useful as a concept.  As the article in The Humanist pointed out, we may need to reconsider the punitive and rehabilitatory aspects of our judicial system, and face the fact that there are a certain number of socio- and psychopaths that will always have to be removed from the general population (but who we will not be able to punish or “fix” to our ultimate satisfaction).

In short,  I think we’re going to have to accept a new idea of ourselves as the captains of our own cognitive ships.  Already we understand that the conscious brain, long held to be the pinnacle of our consciousness (and the thing that sets us apart from the beasts) in many cases dances to the tune of the mid-brain’s impulses.  In some ways, it then seems, we come up with stories after-the-fact to explain our instinctual behavior.  So, maybe we’ll have to give a little less credence to these stories we tell about ourselves, and come up with some new ones as we begin to recognize the true limits and potentials of the organ that is the human brain.

t.n.s.r. bob

 

SERMON: “The Tinkerbell Effect” by the the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

I would venture that one of the worst possible selling points for a materialist view of life is the seemingly inevitable diminishment of the experience of magic in one’s day-to-day life.

Here’s the basic calculus that seems to accompany the contemplation of a non-magical world:  if I stop believing in magic, then magic will cease to appear, and I will then lose the the enjoyable experience of magic.

When I say “magic”, I am referring to the every-day sort of small miracle, coincidence, happenstance, kismet or surprise that creates a feeling in the chest of having experienced something just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary: You think of someone, and they walk into the restaurant; you tell God you’re in a hurry, and the lights all seem to be green; a check arrives just in time so you can pay your rent.  These are events that are common to all of us (though not so common as to lose their power to impart to us that magical sensation).

These are almost always happy events.  They are also almost universally confirmatory events.  They tell us that we are living right; on the right path; in tune with the universe.  They make us feel good.  (Even the ones that tell us we were on the “wrong path”, as these, too, confirm our own feelings about a situation).

With so much cultural support for belief in magic, how do we untie this ball of existential yarn that is incident and belief?  Where do we start?

Is this cross a sign from God or a natural feature that fits a pattern our brain is attuned to?

The obvious place to start is with the materialist’s application of Occam’s razor to the question at hand: is there simpler explanation for the event in question which does not involve magic or the intervention of invisible, divine agents?  For that, the answer is almost always an obvious “yes” (I would argue that the answer is probably always “yes”, whether or not it is obvious).  For instance, the fact is that each of us lives a life in a rather restricted geographical and social area means that our paths are fairly repetitive, and the people we know and see along those paths are hardly random (as we tend to get to know people that we have actual physical contact with).  So while the odds of running into your favorite movie star at the local market (assuming your star does not live in your city) is pretty low, the odds of running into one of your friends or neighbors at the same market is actually fairly high.  Adding in the fact that you have thought about a particular friend just before running into them could tempt you to regard such a meeting as anything but random, but both the thought and the meeting are probably rather high probability occurrences (meaning that the two happen with a frequency such that both happening in close proximity is not the small miracle we might take it to be).

So we can probably fairly easily dispense with “magic” as the cause of such chance meetings.  What is more interesting is the eagerness with which our mind frame such such events as “magical”.  And this is where neuroscience comes in, in the form of a mental bias called “confirmation bias”.  In short, this quirk in our cognition produces a selective preference in the data that we give weight to.  In the case of running into a friend after thinking about him or her, this means that we first embrace the linkage of the two events, usually exclaiming “I was just thinking about you!” (whether the thought occurred in the last minute or the last week — time is instantly conflated to “make” the connection).  The other, less obvious mark of this mental bias is the highly selective blindness to the many times we may have thought about this person in the past when they did not subsequently pop into view.

Taken together, these two traits of conflating time and ignoring counter-evidential occurrences produce the sort of confirmatory “evidence” that our happy brains just eat up!  But of course, it is not “evidence” in any meaningful sense.  The connections between thought and confirmatory event are “casual” only, not “causal”, much more a product of our brain’s pattern-constructing ability than any external reality.

I think there is a simple explanation for this that does not involve the dark tinge of self-deception or delusion.  It is this:  the firing of the brain cells that magic sets off makes us happy by releasing those happy-making chemicals in our brains.  And we like to be happy (well, many of us do).

What is tricky about being a materialist (believing that there are no super-natural phenomenon going on “out there”) is that, in practice, one ends up talking one’s own brain out of a lot of fun.  And who wants to be the party pooper (especially when you’re mostly pooping on your own party, so to speak)?

This is, I think, a real issue.  But it is also a testament to just how strongly magical belief is hard-wired into our brain (or “brains”, since that single organ is more a sort of “layer cake” of systems).  It is a reminder that belief (in some form or other) is natural to us.

But here is the funny part of this (and the part that is so obvious that we can miss it): Since the events we believe to be magical are not magical, but regular, ordinary, every day occurrences, not believing that they are magical should have absolutely no effect on whether or not these magical events occur in our lives!

I’m reminded of when I finally lost my belief in God.  There was a part of my consciousness that actually asked whether there would be joy, or laughter, or sunrises in my life after that.  That sounds silly, I know, but it points to something else in the way we humans think: we really do act as if the universe revolves around us.  What else can explain the notion that our individual beliefs have the power to act on other people or objects at a distance (and therefore have the power to make something like the sunrise cease).  Shall we call it the “Tinkerbell effect” (if we don’t clap hard enough, the fairy dies)?

It’s related to what I discussed in last week’s sermon about our expectation that the world should end when we do.

But, of course, coincidence and chance meetings will continue to happen (and the Sun will continue to rise).  After all, the only condition that will change in our life is a shift in the way that we perceive those events.  And, potentially, yes, the kind of joy that we derive from them.

The other day (as often happens when I’m at the gym) I got a song idea.  This time it hit shortly after I’d begun a walk around the block.  I had no pen, no paper, and no phone (with which I could have recorded my idea).  In earlier times, I would have asked God (or later, my “Higher Power”, or “The Universe”) to (magically) “bring me” a pen.  But I didn’t do that this time.  I pondered stepping into a store on my route and asking for one, but decided to keep on walking.  I first reasoned with my magical brain that chances were I wouldn’t find a pen as I walked, but then realized that the chances were not impossible, as I was walking a path where people worked, delivery trucks dropped off goods, etc.  Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way into my walk, I found a pen.  A red pen, smashed to pieces on the asphalt.  I leaned to pick it up, but it was destroyed.

Note the stages of that thought process:  I thought to “ask” for magic.  My brain then set up the impossibility of finding a pen by sheer “chance” (while in fact there was a fairly high probability that I would find a pen, especially since I was now actually looking for one!).  Now if I were of a spiritual mindset (with my confirmation bias still in play) I would have told you that the universe gave me what I asked for!  But why was it broken and useless, you might ask?  I could answer: because my prayer was not specific enough!  (Don’t laugh — spend any time among true believers and you will hear people shamed out of their unbelief with retorts like that!)   And there you have the complete mechanism for how we make horoscopes and psychics believable: They teach us what results to calibrate our bias to, and we go on to do all the heavy lifting.

So, one could say that magic (or God) does exist.  Not in the world as a genuine phenomenon, but in the magical way that we transform random and non-random events into proof of an invisible metaphysical reality.  To lose that magic can indeed mean to lose some of the joy it brings.  At least until we can reclaim the pleasure of happy coincidence free of the burden of magical attribution.  A quest that — given the kind so brains so may of us have — turns out to be no small challenge.
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

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: “The God Who is Always There” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On one level it is impossible to say that God does not exist, even if He exists only as an idea.  For ideas have a certain presence in our world, and when ideas are shared by so many, their presence is multiplied.  But can such an idea be multiplied to the point that it becomes a self-standing reality, independent of its cognitive creators?  No.  I don’t think so.  No more than our personalities — no matter how large — can survive our own physical death.  That is the realm of metaphysics, not measurable reality.

So what are we to say, then, to the innumerable people who have had deep “personal experiences” of God and spirit: who have felt that sense of another presence at a time of crisis, or that familiar voice in our head (that is not often a voice so much as an impression, word or idea)?  And what artist or creator has not known “inspiration”, where an idea seems to arrive fully formed from out of nowhere?

Of course none of these nearly-universal experiences comes from “out of nowhere”.  So far all of the evidence of science tells us that they come from our physical brain.  And our physical brain is certainly a “somewhere”.

Because we have a multilayered brain, it can do more than one thing at a time.  And that is precisely, in fact, what it’s doing all of the time.  We don’t have to think about making our heart beat or telling our muscles to walk or grasp any more than we have to consciously manage our breathing or digestion.  It seems to “just happen”.  But we know these automatic impulses are not “just happening” at all, but are being “directed” (or ordered) by processes in our brain.  And yet that part of our brain that performs the 24/7 management of our body is hardly what we would call “conscious”.  It is the primitive “lizard” brain responding to the input of the senses and the nerves and the chemical signals that are the literal lifeblood of our self-contained organism.  Is this, then, God?

We could call it that.  But we have yet a higher level of consciousness that operates just below the conscious brain.  This is the source of our emotions and desires and the generator of our “fight or flight” response.  This is the part that hears something, or sees something, and sets off the chain reactions of adrenaline and awareness that gets us ready to run or do battle before our conscious mind even knows what’s going on.  Is this, then, our Guardian Angel?

Given the chance, we almost always go for the God in the sky.

I keep making these comparisons between the natural processes of our brains and our conceptions of spirit and the divine for a reason: because of our long history with religion, our mental/emotional default setting is to maximize any and all possibility of God working in the world, and minimize the possibility that everything that we experience of existence has a physical, earthly and/or biochemical basis.  In short, we have a natural confirmation bias toward spiritual causality.

But here’s the deal: we have so much going on within our brain that it is incredibly easy for us to project a part of ourselves outside of ourselves.  We do it all the time, and we do it quite naturally: we externalize an internal reality.

How can we do this?  Think about it: we are capable of not just our own conscious behavior, but of observing our own behavior, and commenting on it.  We can notice our selves, almost as if we were outside of ourselves watching the things we do.  That’s how we can say “I can’t believe I just said that!”, or some such.  But beyond that, we have several layers of mind always at work below the level of consciousness.  These are also parts of our “self”.  So is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes confuse an aspect of our self for someone (or something) else?  No.  Especially if you add in the mind’s ability to identify with one part of our personality over another (meaning we will often try to make a distinction between our “true” self and an aspect of our personality or behavior that is causing us social harm).  This, I submit, is a very likely source for our ideas of the minor demons and troubling spirits that populate our religious literature and folklore.  (The major ones perhaps inspired by the more extreme manifestations of severe mental illness).

(You’ll notice, I hope, an important thing here: I am not discounting the reality of our experiences of these phenomenon.  I am only quibbling about our attribution of their actual source.)

So why is it that our first impulse is to identify any and all of these phenomenon as God?  Habit and hope.  For whatever reason, it remains much more appealing to most of us to find in everyday phenomenon evidence of an external spiritual presence.  Makes sense, actually, for animals as social as we are to not want to be alone, ever.

(There have always been those few for whom the idea of an outside presence reading their every thought is oppressive.  These are only too willing to dispense with the God idea.  But for the rest of us it’s usually problematic in some way, and it often requires some terrible experience of tragedy or disappointment to trigger a declension from faith.)

The greatest problem for the religious is not that the God that their religion is based upon doesn’t exist, but that the “God” that does exist (as a shared idea) is not the one that they suppose is actually there.  As long as the idea of God exists, however, then God, too, will exist.  But as an idea: a receptacle for our anomalous experiences of consciousness.  And those experiences will continue as long as we do.  And as far as it concerns us humans, that’s as good as eternity.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

“Blink” is a meditation on the capacity of our mind to “thin slice” reality and come to instantaneous conclusions about the intention of others (or the authenticity of a supposed ancient Greek sculpture  — to borrow a central example from the book).  It turns out that we humans do, indeed, size things up in the “blink of an eye”.  It is a central function of our mind, and yet one more operation that appears to occur on a sub-conscious level.  (Frankly, I’m beginning to think that just about all of our mind’s real work takes place at that level — the conscious part that we’re so proud of is usually the last to know!)

So if it is the case that our evolved skill at “mind reading” (the genuine kind, where we have to gauge anothers’ intentions, not the parlor trick of e.s.p.) takes place in the subterranean reaches of our unconscious, then what role does our conscious mind play?  Quite a large one, according to author Malcolm Gladwell.  For just because our mind is quick to judge, that does not mean it is always correct.

The book begins with examples of when “thin slicing” is employed (we will all recognize our own experience in these examples) then proceeds to explain the neuroscience of it before entering into the darker side of when the process fails us (there are some stunning examples from nationally-reported events that the reader will be familiar with).  The book concludes with the role that our conscious mind has in making sure that our “thin slicing” brain is more often right than wrong.  In so doing it gives us a unique (and, I think, useful) description of just what makes some of us “experts” who are able to spot a fake Greek sculpture, say, in just the “blink” of an eye, even after dozens of others have carefully tested the piece and confirmed its authenticity.

This is a highly entertaining and engaging book, filled with information of the kind that feels completely familiar the moment the shock of learning it wears off.  But it is, after all, a book about the way that we think every day of our lives, viewed from a helpful remove by an author well placed to hold up the mirror that shows us what science sees in the way we “blink”.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Led Astray” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

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).

Our brains don't always give us the correct readings.

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.

t.n.s.r. bob