Posts Tagged ‘the human brain’

SERMON: “Why I Preach!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Why I preach.

If I criticize religious belief as irrational (which I clearly do), it is for two reasons.  For one, I see little good that can come from believing things that are not true (especially when there is so much that is verifiably true to ponder with awe).  For another, I think that there is a genuine benefit to us both as individuals and as a society in seeing ourselves for the rather surprising (and challenged) evolved animals that we now know ourselves (through science) to be.  One of those benefits includes releasing ourselves from unreasonable expectations that can flow from the notion that we are striving for a God-created “perfection” (which also releases us from the false burden of “Eden’s” legacy of irreparable damage: that we were “perfect” before we screwed things up).  Though it can be a frightening and difficult transition to move from belief to such an “acceptance”, I would not propose such if I had not done it myself, having found, on the other side, a whole new world that is rich, satisfying and, well, real.

But here I have to be honest about that “other world”.  Because it is “real” it can leave one feeling a bit, well, exposed.  To borrow one popular metaphor, it leaves one without a familiar “backstop”.  (Well, at least the sort of “backstop” most of us have been used to).  But in the larger scheme of things what we are talking about is the loss of something that never was in the first place (so we lose, in fact, nothing).  We only thought it was there: a god in the sky — in some form or other — watching over us.  What we hoped for in moments of desperation was that there was someone with more strength and power out there who would nevertheless look kindly upon us and lend us a hand once in a while.  (What can be most unsettling is the realization of just how dependent we social primates are upon each other, and the sense of vulnerability that comes with such a realization.  This was the most unexpected surprise in my journey of discoveries).

I should also make clear the distinction that when I use the term “irrational” I don’t mean that it is crazy or idiotic to believe (or want to believe) in such things.  By irrational I mean any belief that is unsupported by (or denies strong contradictory) evidence.  Personally, I understand the urge to believe.  I think it’s almost impossible to be a conscious human being and not understand this.  When I heard the bone in my foot break last December, I felt an instant and instinctual urge to ask any thing that might be listening to turn back time just a couple of minutes (really, now, is that so much to ask?).  But even in that moment, I recognized that such a plea arose from deep in my animal psyche (that part of my consciousness that recognized that I was suddenly a deeply injured animal that could not run from danger if he had to).  But that deep animal part of our brains speaks in wordless bursts that are thrust up through the cognitive strata of our middle and higher brain that must then turn animal terror into actual thoughts, words and concepts.

It is this ancient animal mind that is, I think, is the deeper wellspring of our religious beliefs.

You and I are no longer the “lizards” for whom we name this deep, survival part of our brain.  But it is good that we have such concepts in our “modern” world to remind us that though we have left our lizard (or fish, or shrew or monkey) lives far in our past, we yet carry a deep and present legacy of the brains we began with.  In a very real (anatomical and cognitive) way, we are fish riding bicycles, lizards driving cars and monkeys at typewriters clacking out Hemingway novels.

So where (and why, and how) did “religion” enter the picture?  Like so many things in our prehistoric past, we can never know when a particular cultural moment occurred.  We can only guess when the first human had the first spiritual thought.  And by spiritual, I mean the first moment that we had an experience of something like ourselves existing, invisibly, outside of our physical selves.  (The “like ourselves” part is a crucial clue to the source of our divine beings, by the way).  But knowing what I do about how our brains work (and having the sense I now have of the continuum of biological life) it is not difficult at all to imagine a moment when our first ancestors began to use their first words to describe their world.  No, this is not where religion began, for an animal does not need to have verbal language to act as if there are mysterious forces at work around them (again, I return to Hannah Holmes’ example dog barking at the vacuum cleaner as an example of an animal version of believing in “god”).  We humans are different only in that we have an added layer of processing brain that has filtered these animal “beliefs” into coherent concepts that can be shared between ourselves.

And that is the key to belief: a story must be made of an experience, as a sort of “vehicle” for the transmission (and maintenance) of any belief.  This is perhaps why Richard Dawkins refers to such universally-transmittable ideas as “memes” that can move through us (and evolve and adapt) in a manner that is very similar to that of a virus.  And as far as that goes, it matters surprisingly little whether the story is true (just as it matters naught if a virus is “good” for us), it only matters that enough of us agree on the plausibility of the story to keep it in circulation.

It is, in fact, this form of human agreement that is the glue that holds us social animals together: we tend to clump together with those who have chosen to believe the same stories we do.  I think this even goes down to the level of couples who create a story of their own relationship.  At this level, who can say what is “true” or not — what matters most is the agreement.  When our stories diverge, so can our connections to others around us.  (Look what happens when an evangelical preacher starts to declare that there is no hell, or a politician stands up for an opponent who is being unfairly accused — suddenly they are ostracized as outsiders by those who only a moment before would have defended them to extreme ends).

All this to say that belief is something that has been with us for a long, long time.  And not just as humans, but even before.  So there is no reason to think that it will go away soon, or ever.  For the biology that created belief is our own biology, and from that we cannot escape.  However — and this is perhaps the most remarkable (and, I might argue, the most interesting) thing — it seems that we can use these brains of ours to escape irrational belief!  It’s worth a try, at least.  For though religion permeates the minds of humans all over the globe, there are entire worlds awaiting discovery that religion has never — and can never — know.

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: “Injured Animal” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

There are times when I catch myself moving in a way that makes me think I’m very close to a clumsy stumble.  I most often take my bipedalism for granted, but there are times that I wonder at the magic of it — how we manage all of the intricate, spit-second inputs and muscular motions that keeps us moving, standing, dancing, jumping or running.  I’m most certainly made aware of it when my toe catches something and I do one of those embarrassing trip-stumble-recover things (and then attempt to adopt a demeanor somewhat akin to a cat that has just fallen awkwardly from some perch: “What, I didn’t do that!”).  It’s at times like this that I appreciate just how fine we cut things (the truth is that my foot is probably skimming about an eighth of an inch above the ground most of the time).

In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: why waste energy lifting the foot any higher than it needs to?  As I recently heard pointed out, natural selection favors the gazelle that can just barely outrun the cheetah, not the one that leaves it miles behind.  That’s why I can look down and realize that the big bump that generally trips me up is actually a small crack in the pavement, lifted up only a fraction of an inch.  Most of the time, we judge correctly, and those times when we don’t, we’re still pretty close, and can recover our balance.  Once in a while, though, we’re going down.

When I stepped off the concrete pad down to the mostly-dirt lawn beyond (carrying my standard extra load of briefcase and gym bag) I somehow landed on the edge of my foot and kept going in a way that created a singular sharp sound of tearing that shot right into my brain.  I didn’t fall, but I stumbled, and knew I’d done something wrong.  I also knew I had only to wait a few minutes for the confirming pain from swelling in the tight compartment of flesh, bone and muscle that is the foot.

I stumbled into my studio and set down my bags, still not in severe pain, still trying to act as if what had just happened hadn’t just happened.  This was the moment when I was surprised by an urge to pray to God for deliverance, or healing, or whatever.  What I wanted most desperately to do was to roll back time to the moment before I failed to take my mode of forward locomotion seriously enough to avoid seriously injuring my foot.  I wanted to deny reality.  And in response to that desire, my brain offered me God.  Interesting.  But even in that desperate moment, my reasoning brain had to say “Thanks, but, no thanks”.

As I continued into my studio my mind raced as it double-checked all of the sensory inputs: did I really hear a distinctive tearing sound?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just a muscle injury (since the sound was neither a “snap” nor a “pop”).  A muscle tear might mean swelling and some damage, but I can live with that.  At least it won’t mean the expense and recovery time of surgery.  But how could a tearing muscle make a sound that would carry through skin and sock and leather boot?  Surely it’s not a tendon, I thought.  Wishful thinking, clearly, as my thoughts were mostly efforts to undo the undeniable reality of what I had just done.

But the queasy feeling in my abdomen gave confirmation that I had been deeply injured in some way, and I was suddenly like any other wounded animal.  My mind began racing ahead through my afternoon and the days ahead, working out the ramifications of my potential inability to move, work or care for myself.

But unlike an injured animal on the plain, I could go to a hospital.  Despite the pain, I was wrapped in a kind of euphoria as my body pumped adrenaline and endorphins into my veins.  It wasn’t until I was in the emergency room, talking to the nurse, that I felt my animal wariness drop: sensing safety and the care of others, my animal brain allowed the reality of my situation to sink in.  I could have cried.

I've dubbed it "The Velcro Booty of Shame".

An x-ray would later confirm the the broken foot, and a skilled human would advise me on how best to accommodate the healing of sundered bone (that was the sound I heard).  Pills were prescribed  and I was issued an isolating boot and crutches.

But even with all of the modern helps, I am still an animal used to walking, walking, walking.  Now every change of location requires a re-thinking.  Now the mind is looking ahead for where the challenges will be: what plans must be changed, what activities will have to be managed with new methods, or with help from others.

Being a social human, I have help available.  I have friends and family, and I am not an elk with a broken leg who is in danger of being singled out by a fanged predator.  I know from experience that it will take a while to get used to my injury (to feel out the boundaries of it by trial and error).  And, of course, it will most likely gradually improve.  We have all been sick or injured and we know the drill, even if we don’t yet know an unfamiliar injury.

As I write, my brain is trying to work around my broken foot, adjusting to the reality of it.  I still don’t want to believe I can’t just get up and walk.  When I sit for a while, and the foot doesn’t hurt, it’s easy to forget it’s a problem at all.  But then I stand up, or bump it against something, and realize with uncertain clarity that even if I had to, I couldn’t run from anything right now.  That is disturbing to the animal in me, for deep inside my animal brain persists.  (We have left little of it behind us in our evolution: we have only layered a more modern brain on top of it).

I’m still fascinated (and not a little bothered) by the part of my brain that — in the midst of madly scanning for ways out of my injury — pulled out the idea of God.  In a way, it confirms what I’ve come to understand about my human brain: it is, indeed, a believing brain (as Michael Schermer calls it in his book, reviewed this blog).  But it’s worth noting the conditions under which this nonbeliever was given that idea to consider.  We know that our brain files information and experience in a contextual way (see “Kluge” — reviewed this blog) and I’ve noticed that when something happens that demands a response, the brain simply pulls every file that it recognizes as having anything at all to do with the subject at hand.  This doesn’t mean that the brain will always (or even often) pull the “right” file off the shelf of memory.  It just grabs everything it can and throws it at the conscious mind like a badger throwing dirt as it digs after prey.  So, because I have past experience as a believer in God, that file was still on my shelf (and always will be, along with every other experience I’ve ever had).

But there was still an emotional component to the idea.  Though my rational mind dismissed it right away, my emotional brain really really wanted to use it.  Why?  Because I was afraid and desperately trying to construct a bulwark against the reality I was trying very hard to deny.

My mother called family members to pray for me.  And I was deeply relieved when the doctor told me my fracture would heal on it’s own, without surgery.  Were I a believer, I would have stood up in church (on my nevertheless broken foot) and called that a “miracle”, or an “answer to prayer”. (neither of which would have been true, but I would nevertheless have found a tide of intellectual support for the notion).

The reality is that I will always have a “believing brain”, and I will always have those past experiences of belief.  Never mind that there was no actual God to call upon in my moment of animal fear — at least no intelligence with the cosmic power to turn back time and undo the physical damage I had done to my own body.  I know enough now about neuroscience and the human mind to understand what’s going on in my brain during a crisis like this.  But that moment of rapid-fire thinking reminded me of the emotional pull of belief, a pull that so many humans give in to for comfort and hope.  I get it.  But, then, I think I always have.

I’m a physical animal in a physical world, and I took a bad step that overstressed the collection of bones and tendons in my foot, leading the weakest part of that assembly to give way first.  In pain and fear I wanted desperately to alter reality.  But I could not.  Thanks to helpful humans, I am helped in my recovery, which comes down to giving that foot as much rest as I can so that the physical process of healing can proceed all on its own.  We move, we trip, we are injured, we are helped and we heal and move on.

One of the most remarkable finds in ancient human bones (including the Neanderthals) has been the number of serious injuries that healed.  These are the kinds of injuries that would have disabled individuals for a time, a time during which they could only have survived with the help of their fellows.  For all the animals that are out there, it makes me feel very lucky, indeed, to be a human.

t.n.s.r. bob