We are the Path

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that has been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
This is not her story.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

 

Douglas Adams has shared a diagnosis I tend to agree with. It seems to me that the ecological crisis is a reflection of the fact that most people are basically miserable. Deep down inside they seem to think that this whole life-thing is a rip off. We behave as though our disappointments outweigh our gratitude. To not put too fine a point on it, as a species we are acting as if we were suicidally depressed. There is very little contentment, we are suffering a plague of poverty mentality that spends most every thought worrying we don’t have enough and scheming how we are going to get more. Being afraid to embrace our nakedness we coat ourselves with character armors and go to battle with one another, with the earth, with life itself.

Too dramatic? Ask yourself when was the last time you truly felt safe, secure, loved and appreciated, happy just to be, happy with things just the way they are, able to let tomorrow take care of itself? When was the last time you spent a day playing by a riverside, in a forest or on a mountain? Do you spend time exquisitely aware of the multitude of means by which the whole of this biosphere – all these countless sentient beings – are working to provide for you, sustain you, teach you and inspire you?

This widespread ailment of poverty mentality is sad., sad but not tragic since what is made by human beings can be unmade by human beings. It is not a cosmic law that insists that we run breathless every day in manic desperation to try and earn a glimmer of security from which we might gain a small taste of joy. Biological imperatives and social conformities need not ultimately define who we are. Awash in an environmental assault on contentment in an attempt to sell you stuff; it is still possible to remain unhooked. It just takes some skill in working with the equipment evolution has designed for us.

For the last few months we have been exploring this biological equipment, inquiring into how it is being used to process awareness within our species. This equipment is the real material we are given to work with as each and every one of us navigates the choices which make up our lives. Each and every one of us are participating equally in the manifestation of our species and its extended phenotypes – including the cars and power plants that just delivered the hottest month on record and the funny money systems currently groaning under the weight of central bank shenanigans.

One of the many things a contemplative learns is how there is a bodily component to every thought and feeling. The biological systems we have been examining these last few weeks offer a scientific ground for why. The kink in the neck or the throbbing in the temple, tenseness of the jaw or flexibility of of the spine are all going to be accompanied by mental impressions as well. Typically there is too much distraction from the external world to notice these physiological correlates but in the quite of a contemplative session the connections become more obvious.

The image of the human being as a stick figure was discussed back in April. This childhood artifact is almost all head with very little body. It was said that this “stick figure impoverishment” is how many of us spend most of our self-aware time, all wrapped up in our own heads. Yet we have seen that the flotsam of thoughts and feelings that we are conscious of rides on a deep set of roots reaching into the whole of the nervous system. In reality our thinking is not the isolated, ethereal, disconnected thing it seems to be but is actually a fundamental reflection of causes and conditions. Thinking provides another angle on the same single reality that is the relationship of container and contained, awareness and its environment.

With training people are able to occupy the present moment ever more completely. When the mind is not distracted by plans and worries on the one hand or day dreams and fantasies on the other, it can experience a relaxed focus on the present moment. There are countless details of the present moment that can serve as gates into a fuller experience. There is a texture to the atmosphere and the shapes of things edged sharp or smooth carry an emotional tone, there is a type of color beyond color that tints the flesh of other human beings and an echo within the sounds of the world, to mention a few as I would try to wrap words around them.

Don’t settle for just the skull’s contents. Claim the brain stem, spinal column and wing-like weavings of its nerve cords as part of your inheritance as well. This is what is moving through space and time. This is the vehicle you are and the path you will traverse.

The discussions of the last few months have been providing contextual background for the topic of compassion which we will be taking up in the next cycle of posts. The contextual material began by examining our desire to know the future, a desire more than a few investors are experiencing rather acutely this week as the Dow Jones and the S&P are on track for their worse monthly loses in six years. We then took up the question of what tomorrow in our land might actually look like if we allow ourselves to be guided by the idea that techno-utopia or apocalyptic scenarios. A question that has grown weightier throughout the course of the summer as drought and wildfires broke records, racial violence flared and Caesar posturing among the presidential candidates reached new lows.

The importance and purity of intention and the difficulty of thinking about the big issues of our time were then addressed before launching into a series of posts about evolution. Our examination of evolution, both collectively in adaptations and individually in the studies of evo-devo, has been to supply us with a minimum common understanding. There were detours into a few of the contingent biological and physiological details of how evolutionary factors have played out and the resulting systems that were fashioned.

We looked at the role of cooperation in addition to competition in the game of survival of the fittest and found there is more than a little evidence to indicate our capitalist, winner take all, devil take the hindmost, interpretation of Darwin is nothing more than a caricature of the complexities involved in the real biospheric relationships among species and their environments. After examining the evolution of thought and feeling we turned our attention to the manipulation of these by the sophisticated advertising and PR industries living vampire-like off the collective mind.

This opened the way for a discussion of the mind and the brain. Learning about how there are functional parts and pieces in our mental lives illustrated how contemplative work might proceed. It also brought up the question about how all these parts and pieces might work together which was answered by illustrating the power of connections to implement logic around embodied information. As a sort of summary of the whole cycle, last week took up the important role of the spinal column in our human form and our yogic traditions.

Some familiarity with the details of evolution, cognitive science and neuroscience seem helpful for anyone engaged in contemplative practices or concerned about the ecological unraveling. Without this shared context discussions that recommend the development of compassion can sound like no more than a new twist on the old time gospel hour; preachy, stuffy and full of ethical morality. It is my hope that this whole misunderstanding can be avoided by positioning our upcoming discussion squarely in a realm more akin to the aeons of deep time and the vastness of deep space or at the very least within the matrix of mystery we humans actually are; the matrix of DNA, biology, planetary formation and consciousness that define us.

Yes, we are concerned with the development of character and yes, thoughts and feelings do not just arise out of nowhere. Now we will begin contemplating what it means that the thoughts and feelings of other sentient beings are just as real to them as yours are to you.

This post started with a quote from Douglas Adams and I would like to close it with a comment from another Adams, Patch Adams. In a conversation concerning his work with children badly burned by bombs in war zones Patch said, “You know, there is no high as high as truly helping someone.” In his eye was reflected both the pain and the twinkle he is well known for.

We are setting our sights on destroying an illusion, the illusion that we are an ego in isolation. We will be working on trading in our poverty mentality for the inconceivable wealth of the inner riches of clear light awareness.

It Takes Backbone

Contemplatives are learning to control paying attention. We are explicitly working with the plasticity of the nervous system by training over long periods of time. This dedication to the practice takes a certain backbone if the effort is going to be sustained. It is particularly the case for Westerners since we lack an appreciation for the value of altered states of mind.

It takes backbone to believe in the value of altered states. In the West aside from the mystical traditions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam the only other widespread recognition that the experiences of the human mind include powerful altered states is found in psychiatry and the underground drug culture. This inner-world poverty might be the single largest difference between Eastern and Western cultures. Where Hinduism and Buddhism have molded people’s sensibilities it is common knowledge that the human mind has access to states that are our of the ordinary.

It could well be that this is relevant to our ecological crisis as well. No reverence for the inside has lead to no reverence for the outside.

In the trainings of our various practices we become familiar with an overflowing of compassion for all beings along side the insights into the nature of our interdependent reality. An inner space is slowly built up and a willingness to let go into emptiness (not nothingness!) is strengthened. Unlike the typical results of drug use, this program of practice is explicitly aiming to enrich the rest of our day to day encounters and everyday consciousness with an unassailable sense of peace, gratitude and joy. It is not how high you can go that determines your skill but like a shaman, it is how effective you can be in bringing back a boon for your community of beings that really matters.

Virtue is our guide until we leave the shores of duality. Nurturing our desire for good, for ourselves and others, is the path. Not a virtue rooted in fixed commandments backed up by threats but a moment by moment appraisal of what is the most wholesome choice – sometimes that choice is full of mischievousness.

Our colloquial ‘they have real backbone’ captures something about the need for practitioners to develop character. Talking about the development of character might sound like that old fashion quality of a more innocent time when men wanted to be gentlemen and woman wanted to be ladies. No doubt some readers are rolling their eyes with visions of Victorian morals and hypocrisy dancing in their heads. Character is the summation of choices made over a lifetime. Are you considered dependable or do you change with every breeze? Would people describe you as honest or shifty? A source of safety or danger? Do you celebrate the good whenever possible or bemoan the bad endlessly? These are the types of things that color your way of being in the world. They are the result of how you have chosen to use your nervous system over the many years of your life.

Character is also one of those targets the mass media has reshaped and continually redefines as uncool. After all, those people that take seriously a set of values other than consumerism’s offerings are the stated enemy of the advertising industry. It is not a coincidence that for the most part in the media all fathers are buffoons, all the elderly cute, harmless and clueless, while all the real action is always taking place among the teenagers and young adults. City folk are better than country folk, just as the rich are better than the poor and the CEO is almost god compared to his minions… the whole list of stereotypes is long, well known and as pervasive as the air you breathe. Individuation takes work as only serious contemplations can stand against these headwinds.

The skillful use of awareness involves much more than just thinking the right thoughts. It is a uniquely monotheistic trait to care more about whether or not someone holds to the correct dogma than whether or not they act in an upright manner. On the other hand contemplatives by their practice are declaring that just being a decent human being is not sufficient in itself to allow for living the good life. They are willing to forgo second hand reports and hand-me down salvations for the quest into the depths of being.

That quest has been a major preoccupation for most of humanity for most of its long, long tenure on this planet. The sterility of current Western traditions is an exception. Carl Jung was among the most articulate in pointing out that there are numerous similarities across time and cultures when it comes to the symbols and messages involved in the dreams and rituals of our species. The Australian aborigines and the Hasidic Kabbalist join the yogis and yoginis, for example, in recognizing sacred trees, mandalas, alchemical operations, sacred unions and many, many other of the motifs of mythology and fairy tales.

It is not hard to understand that many of these shared symbolisms arise because part of their source is the structure of the human body which is shared across the cultures and the aeons. One of the perennial symbolisms obviously rooted in body awareness is the set of chakras or energy centers that are located along the spinal column. Dogmatists will insist the Hindu map differs from the Buddhist and both differ from the Kabbalist yet they would be missing the more relevant point; they all recognize that the human body includes a number of functional areas aligned along the spine.

nadisModern science has dubbed the stomach ‘a second brain‘ in recognition that it includes a collection of nerve tissues second only to the brain itself. We all know how our stomach can become queasy or, as we say, get butterflies. Sometimes we will lose our appetites and other times eat more than we should. A good, hard cry is accompanied by a heaving and hollowness in the stomach region. Of course people did not need science to tell them that there is a second brain center in our bodies, after all, we have been saying we have a gut instinct or that our gut tells us this or that for a very long time.

The stomach is a good second brain to discuss in polite company but it is worth mentioning that a bit lower on the body there is another area people often say seems to have a mind of its own as well.

What the chakra map is indicating, to those who are exposed to it, is that there are other awareness centers of the human body in addition to the stomach and sexual regions. Our physiology is constructed around a tube that runs from mouth to anus. Each of these places where the external and internal worlds meet is an additional chakra. The region of the beating heart and oscillating lungs is another. Looking at the human skull we find that four of the five senses are located there, not to mention the brain, which makes it another natural nexus.

The tube we are: our gender parts are tubes, reflecting the alimentary canal / intestinal tube the overall body plan uses. The spine’s central column is the tube most intimately related to the workings of the nervous system and so consciousness or awareness. One form of yoga talks about the Kundalini as a force that arises from the root chakra to enter the spinal column and rise to the brain during the moment of enlightenment or samadhi. It is not hard to see how the reptilian brain’s lust is here being lifted to the centers where self-awareness can occur. When the shadowy roots of our psyche within its physiological matrix become illuminated all the tubes are made transparent in a clear light. Tradition refers to this as omniscience, illumination, and big ‘E’ Enlightenment.

Why all this attention to the spine? Introspection and dissection reveal that the carrier of awareness, the nervous system, runs its whole length. From each vertebrae a pair of nerve tissues protrude from the right and left hand sides. In each of those there is a front nerve cord and a back nerve cord. The front cord processes sensory signals, it is the input channel whereas the back cord process motor signals as the output channel. These pairs of nerve cords extend from each vertebrae to specific targets throughout the whole body. There is not a part of the body that is not included within this net of communications where signals to and from the brain and central nervous system are endlessly being exchanged.

SpinalNervesThe yogas move awareness from isolation in the head’s abstractions and thought-whirling down into the sensory gates and physiological sense. Ultimately there is a bliss available to the trained; basically there is an orgasm of the organs and an orgasm of the mind which reflects them. Just as in love making the barrier between the lovers dissolves and becomes permeable so in the non-dual states the boundaries dissolve between inside and outside, sacred and profane, high and low, light and dark and all the other tools of the conceptual mind.

These maps, the yogic chakras and the scientific neurophysiology, are exploring the territory that is literally our vehicle for navigating time and space. Consciousness permeates the vehicle which provides a ladder or set of nested emergences structuring potential states of mind. DNA dreams and equations, comedy and poetry, quiet contemplations and ecstatic shivers – it’s all within reach. It is said all of us will know all of it, that eventually we will experience all that there is to be experienced in its essential nature just through the processes of being born, living and dying.

It is also said that it is the altruistic that is unsurpassable. This role of compassion and the aspiration for all sentient beings to enjoy happiness is much more than just a sweet sentiment. It is a powerful factor within the realms of consciousness, it is said to be the opener of the gates and the summum bonum of personal evolution. Science has just started to look at its effects on the nervous systems of contemplative practitioners. We are now in a position to begin to appreciate the results.

One of my tradition’s Dohas or teaching songs states:

“All awareness, is awareness emptiness
far beyond, what thoughts can know…”

The ego is threatened by non-conceptual awarenesses. It not at its beck and call but the truth is that the mind and the other nervous system nexuses are not cut off from one another and we are so much more than just the ego. The sexual center, like the emotional center of the gut, the wisdom center of the heart and lung regions and the creative expressions of the throat center are all integrated within the “mind’s” awareness. The contemplative path includes the element of the correct view which concerns itself with conceptual thoughts (i.e. interdependent origination) yet the path reaches beyond what conceptual mind alone can ever know. This is not as mysterious as it might at first sound. Another line from the same Doha:

“Every feeling is bliss and emptiness
Far beyond what words can show…”

It is hard to understand how every feeling is bliss. But isn’t it true that every feeling is far beyond what words can show? The contemplative is training to first be comfortable with this fact and then to grow ever more skillful in living with it.

Making Connections

“No, intelligence does not come from a special kind of spirit or matter or energy but from a different commodity, information. Information is a correlation between two things that is produced by a lawful process (as opposed to coming about by sheer chance). We say that the rings of a stump carry information about the age of the tree because their number correlates with the tree’s age (the older the tree, the more rings it has), and the correlation is not a coincidence but is caused by the way trees grow. Correlation is a mathematical and logical concept; it is not defined in terms of the stuff that the correlated entities are made of.
Information is nothing special; it is found wherever causes leave effects. What is special is information processing.”
How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (italics in original)

 

Information provides a middle way of understanding human intelligence. It does not rely on a ghost in the machine nor on a special form of fantasy matter that secretes mind. Information theory recognizes that all information needs to be embodied in some configuration of matter, which removes the ghost that has haunted Western philosophy, religion and science for centuries. Information theory recognizes that the particular configuration of materials is able to act as a symbol; its physical representation also carries meaning, that ethereal spook, by representing a true correlation between real states of affairs.

A symbol can stand for something, like the age of a tree, yet also has additional physical characteristics e.g. absorbs water and reflects light. Now here is the trick, the key piece of the explanatory power of the information theory of mind: imagine we build a machine that is sensitive to the physical characteristics of the symbol. A clever arrangement of light sensors, levers, maybe a magnet or two, and a pen could produce a contraption that makes a mark for every tree ring it encounters. It “reads” the arrangement of matter in one place and “writes” the results into another chunk of matter. Cause and effect is happening in this chain of events being executed by this dumb machine.

In special step two we decide to interpret the output in terms of the input, we count the pen marks and interpret them as the age of the tree stump. Subtle isn’t it? Those marks were not directly caused by the growth of any tree yet they carry an informational correlation. Take the same contraption and scan another nearby, smaller stump. Again marks are made. If we now compare the first and second set of marks we discover the age the original tree was when the second, smaller tree was planted. Our contraption is a kind of rational machine capable of drawing true conclusions from true premises.

No need for special matter or energy, nothing but the correct arrangement of parts, none of which are overtly rational or intelligent in themselves. The symbol unites the ability of carrying information with the ability to cause things to happen according to that information. In this case the rings correlate with the age of the tree and they trigger the beam of the light scanner. In the case of a neuron the action potential carries information, in that it is either firing or not, and the physical side might be that it terminates in a skeletal muscle cell and causes behavior.

When the output also contains information we have an information processor. In the case of our contraption the marks embody the age of the tree. Alan Turing designed a machine as a thought experiment that could produce correspondences between inputs and outputs. He was able to prove that any algorithm can be implemented on one of these Turing machines. These rational machines are of course ubiquitous today when we have computers everywhere. It is not at all hard for us to understand it is possible to build a machine that can take input symbols, operate on them and produce output symbols that “mean” something to us.

This pedestrian demonstration of the power of symbols we find in our computing devices is worth contemplating in light of the metaphysical puzzles that seem to obscure our ability to understand consciousness. How can the immaterial interact with the material? One camp insists only the material world is real and consciousness is a kind of illusion. The other camp insists only mind can be primarily real since it is what we most centrally experience and cannot conceivably interact with anything that is not mind. The symbol stands with a foot in both camps.

Not surprising for anyone familiar with the history of ideas that it was not long before the computer metaphor was being applied to the workings of the brain. In Rome where aqueducts represented cutting edge technology the mind and body were full of fluid-like humors. When electricity and steam were the cutting edge of mechanical engineering it was easy for Freud and others to liken the workings of body and mind to pressures building up, where good people had to keep a lid on it or else they might blow their top. With computers as the latest technology its metaphors were applied, likely with no more staying power then their intellectual predecessors.

The computational theory of mind is not postulating that the human brain works like a computer, which is a mistake numerous early researchers made, but that the human brain is capable of performing computations. The computations being referred to are not just the mathematical operations of addition, subtraction, differentiation, integration and the rest but also logical operations such as greater than or lesser than.

How can a brain do it? The brain is mostly a vastly complex collection of neurons whose defining characteristic is their ability to make connections with other cells, including other neurons. These connections are made through the synapses by using neurotransmitters. This is a subject worth exploring in detail for contemplatives but for today’s purpose suffice it to say that the neuron is capable of making a basic choice between firing or not firing a signal to its partner neuron. This is somewhat similar to the ones and zeros we hear about in computer science where an element in an electronic circuit can be either on, represented as 1 or off which is represented as 0.

In one common arrangement of neuronal connections there are a number of input neurons feeding their signals into a single target neuron. The target neuron is capable of summing these many inputs and only if their input strength reaches a particular level will that target neuron fire its signal in turn. The target signal will then become one input for the next target neuron in the chain in the same way.

It is said that the target neuron integrates the synaptic signals. This is like the summation behind the integration found in the Calculus; animal nervous systems embody an integration capability.

To understand the power of connections in this context it might help to take a moment to look at the simplified logic circuits of the computer’s CPU. The basic neuron toolbox consists of signals that can either fire or not which is determine by the types of input signals they receive. These functional building blocks are also sufficient to sketch rational symbol manipulations into silicon.

The design of the computer’s CPU has taught us about the ability electrical circuits to act as logical operators. In both computer science and logic these operators consist of AND, OR, and NOT (the XOR and NAND gates need not concern us here). A truth table is used to illustrate the results of these operators where the 1 stands for on and the 0 for off. The logic circuits only acquire the ability to act due to the results of the integration of the input signals.

TruthTablesNOT: If the input signal is 1 the output signal is 0, if input is 0 then output is 1. In words; if input is on then signal off, if input is off then signal on.

AND: If and only if both input signal A is 1 and input signal B is 1 then output is 1. In words; if A and B are on then signal on but if only A or only B is on or neither A nor B are on, then signal off. AND gates can have more than two input signals.

OR: If and only if input signal A is 1 or input signal B is 1 but not both, then the output is 1. In words; if A is on or B is on but not both A and B is on, then signal on. OR gates can have more than two input signals.

This is probably elementary to many but it illustrates a very important point. These circuits are so simple they can be wired up on a breadboard in a few minutes yet they are implementing logical operations. Let that sink in. These wires, configured in these ways are capable of some form of “thinking” or “intelligence.” More accurately, they are capable of properly manipulating information symbols, with properly being defined as the way human logic proceeds in valid thinking.

Nervous systems are implementing something along the lines of these types of circuits. Using the building blocks of logic they are capable of effectively implementing If – Then – Else logic in order to control behavior.

Evolution favored the use of the nervous system throughout the animal kingdom because it enhances the repertoire of possible responses to the environment. Remember Pavlov’s dog that Skinner took as the paradigm of all learning? Pavlov starved the dog and then rang a bell each of the few times he fed it. Eventually the dog would salivate as soon as it heard the bell, whether or not food was forthcoming. These facts were explained as an association having been formed between the auditory signal of the bell and the anticipated relief of starvation. What more could be expected from a ‘dumb animal’?

Instead of a fixed set of responses like the older, behaviorist theory of associations between stimulus and response – the definition of crazy is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome – the new paradigm recognizes the same associational behaviors as “multivariate, nonstationary time series analysis (predicting events will occur, based on their history of occurrences).” (Pinker 1997) It is not that we humans are lucky enough to have souls and animals are somehow animated bricks. It is that the mind-matter symbol manipulations are shared by all sentient beings with the differences being the number of connections available and how they are structured, not a difference of kind.

The new model finds a place for beliefs and desires which the behaviorists tossed out. When we watch an insect or an eagle it is not hard to describe their behavior in terms of belief and desire: the eagle wanted to eat and believed the field it is scanning would turn up a meal. The behaviorists objected to the use of belief and desire in a so-called scientific psychology because they could not be seen nor measured. Before an understanding of symbols it was not clear how meaning, the contents of beliefs and desires, could be the cause or result of anything. Now we can understand how a chain of symbols might work. The physical properties of the symbol cause processing whose output is another symbol with further processing of its physical properties until the target is a muscle cell and behavior results. Or run the chain the other way as a sensory input arrives in the nervous system transduced from its original physical form – light, sound, heat, pressure, frequency – it starts the symbol chain that might end up in a thought, ‘my, the sunset is gorgeous tonight.’

Patterns matter. The same alphabet can be found in every book written in English. It is the pattern of letters and the words they make that turns one book into Shakespeare and another into Newton. It is the same thing in the nervous system where the pattern of how the neurons are connected creates an enormous space of potential information processing procedures. “Minute differences in the details of the connections may cause similarly looking brain patches to implement very different programs.” (Pinker 1997)

The rule for the nervous system connections seems to be, use it or lose it. Connections that are used frequently grow stronger while connections used rarely will atrophy. We know now that the brain is highly plastic, it is constantly creating and destroying connections as well as adjusting the electrochemical signals the neurons are exchanging. On one level this is what our contemplative training is all about. Strengthening our skills with shamatha and vipassana meditation is reworking our minds, literally.

Brainy

The brain is undoubtedly the most complex form of matter in the known universe. When one considers the abilities of this three pound wonder it becomes even more fascinating. After all, here the mystery of consciousness and matter comes to a head, if you will excuse the pun. Do you remember This is Water recommended in Our Kitchen Table Conversation? One fish swimming by asks another ‘how’s the water?’ to which the fish replies, ‘what is water?’ How easy it is for us to become completely oblivious to whatever our environments habitually present to us. Consciousness is in the center of our every experience and it is exactly like that. Unless you are involved in a contemplative practice chances are good you have no regular time set aside to try and get to know the human mind on its own terms. Isn’t it rather strange that you have intimate access to this most complex manifestation in the entire known universe, yet typically find yourself too busy to spend any real quality time with it?

We use consciousness to accomplish the million and one tasks and chores of our daily lives. We use it to lie, cheat and steal on our way towards getting ahead at any cost. We use it to create stories and art and all the other artifacts of culture, not to mention the buildings and roads, electrical lines and water delivery services, food supplies and all the other factors our physical survival requires.

Poor brain. Used and abused then blamed for every manner of ills without first getting to know it hardly at all. If it were a sexual partner, well, the word for such encounters is not flattering. Or to use Martin Buber’s useful terms; instead of an I and Thou relationship with our own minds we deal with things as if it were I and It.

Perhaps we are overlooking something of great importance in our hurry to pursue our own agendas at the expense of a more vast view. There is a balance between personal and cosmic that when found, provides a space in which life can be enjoyed; we can feel comforted, safe, creative, loved and loving. We can come to experience directly that consciousness is like the contents and the environment it finds itself in is the container and they are fundamentally congruent, like a lock and key. Part of each extends back through billions of years of evolutionary time, a reality that can become our ticket into the vaster inheritance that is ours for the asking. Another approach is to appeal to your proper self-interest and point out that that the quality of your whole life will depend directly on the quality of your consciousness. The types of thoughts and feelings that dominate your days and nights will determine, more than any other factor, whether your life is basically a happy one or otherwise.

I have already addressed how this is not the same as the New Age teaching that your mind creates your reality. This is more along the lines of the Stoic comprehension of the role of the mind in the human experience.

These poetic words are offered in the hope that they inspire a desire to learn more about the brain and consciousness. A craftsman is willing to spend years learning the proper use of a tool, which is why it is said that it is a poor craftsman that blames his tools. It is also true that the skilled craftsman knows there is a right tool for the job. Skill in living seems to consist in selecting the right cognitive tool for the job at hand. We all laugh at the nerd who applies Calculus and probability theory to affairs of the heart, yet we don’t blink an eye when quarterly business ethics are used to weigh the value of all potential future human generations. Applying the endless growth paradigm of economics (and cancer) to the ecological features of our planetary life is like the unskilled craftsman who owns only a hammer. You know the old saw – everything looks like a nail.

Perhaps knowing something about the workings of the human brain can aid those of us struggling with the issues of our times. With a little of the right kind of knowledge we can exponentially become more skilled in helping both ourselves and others through life’s more challenging moments. And ultimately there is that balance that was mentioned as a goal worth working towards; one less selfish, angry, confused, dangerous person in the world.

News Flash: There are multiple modules in the brain.

The brain, as it is understood by current neuroscience, consists not of a single, amorphous mass but a number of highly differentiated modules, each functionally unique; a set of information processing tools. To the untrained eye a brain looks to consist of all the same material, ‘mental Spam’ to use Steven Pinker’s colorful phrase, but to the neuroanatomist there are striking differences that were first noted in ancient times. The cellular architectures are diagrammed in a convenient anatomical reference which has remained valid a century after Korbinian Brodmann’s studies were first published in 1909. These are not the functional modules, just the cellular distinctions, although later research did find a few are closely correlated. Those are highlighted in the version of the graphic reproduced below. For those of us without a need for detailed neuroanatomical knowledge, this mapping provides a simple way to be familiar with what varieties of cellular structure are involved in brain physiology and how they are laid out.

Brodmann_AreasThe neuron is at the heart of the whole nervous system, brain included. It is critical to understand the role of neuron connections to appreciate why modern cognitive science is so sure information processing is a valid operational model of what it is that is happening at the cellular level when awareness arises within us. In Descartes Error Damasio makes the point about what is known as local circuits this way: The average neuron has about 1,000 synapses (though some can have five or six times as many). In the adult brain there are more than ten billion neurons and maybe ten trillion synapses. Select a few neurons and you will find that they are only connected to a few others, that is, even though the thousand synapses of an individual neuron sounds large, in the context of the total number of synapses in the brain, the work of neurons chained together is highly localized. Each makes connections with only relatively few others.

When we examine the brain perhaps the most obvious neuronal characteristic is the separation of the grey and white areas as seen in this cross sectional photo:

Brain_Anatomy_White_and_Grey_MatterThe grey matter is mostly the collection of neuron’s cell bodies and the white matter a collection of the neuron’s axions that emanate from the cell bodies. The grey color is due to the close packing of the cell bodies and the white is due to the myelin sheaths coating each nerve fiber, each bundle of axions. The grey matter can be found structured as a layer cake or in a bundled collection like nuts in a bowl. The layer structure is called a cortex, the bundle a nucleus.

There are a number of such nuclei scattered throughout the human brain both large and small. The amygdala, which was mentioned in an earlier post as a brain region related to emotional processing, is an example of one of the larger nuclei. It is found in the center of each temporal lobe. The thalamus is an example of the smaller nuclei; it is formed as a collection of smaller nuclei.

It is the cerebral cortex that has gained the lion’s share of attention in modern brain studies. It is this layer, only about three millimeters thick, which covers the cerebral hemispheres. The deep fissures that give the brain its crumpled appearance are part of the cerebrum. The cerebral cortex layer covers those fissures as well. Another cortex is the cerebellar cortex which envelopes the whole cerebellum. Damasio (1999) explains the higher order cortices “make up the ocean of cerebral cortex around the islands of early sensory cortices and motor cortices”, islands which can be seen in the Brodmann diagram above.

With these terms we can lay out the levels of neural architecture as it is found in the brain. This hierarchy of complexities with emergent properties at each level will look familiar to students of the system sciences. It is a model found throughout nature from biological systems to ecosystems. This is the model as it is applied to neuroscience. The following is from Damasio (1994):

Neurons
Local Circuits
Subcortical Nuclei
Cortical Region
Systems
Systems of Systems

What we have discovered is that the localized nature of neuron communications requires and explains the brain specializations. Such specialization, Damasio explains, “is a consequence of the place occupied by assemblies of sparsely connected neurons within a large-scale system.”

This post has covered a lot of ground. The take away points are that the brain is known to have the following, often counter-intuitive properties:

It is not amorphous.
It is organized in modules.
Its neuron connections though high in number are mostly a local phenomenon.
It is constructed as a super-system of systems.

Cognitive neuroscience is a detailed field of study with fascinations awaiting the student at every turn. One volume I found approachable is Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience by Bernard Baars and Nicole Gage. The first edition can be found at reasonable prices. Another reference I came across while doing research for this post is a set of videos on Neurology.

One of the first default ideas most of us bring to the study of the brain that needs to be jettisoned right from the start is the tendency to think in term of things instead of processes. This is a more general problem appearing whenever systems analysis is rejected in favor of a simpler, yet incomplete, static analysis of events. When applied to the brain, the static approach would like to pigeonhole certain brain features in overly simplistic terms. We already looked at the triune brain model as one overly simple model not quite capable of carrying the explanatory burden that was once asked of it. The right-brain, left-brain model that made the rounds through pop psychology and self-help books not long ago is another.

The Buddhist conception that there are not simple cause and effect relations in our interdependent reality but only causes and conditions in multiple, inseparable combinations serves us well in this area of study, as in so many others. It is a corrective to over simplification.

In the 1990’s when fMRI brain imaging was just getting started it was common to read about discoveries of specialized brain areas as if they embodied simple cause and effect relations. The same thing happened with the early advances in genetics when we used to read about a gene for this or a gene for that. The genetic communications turned out to be not at all as simple as that and the same thing was discovered in the brain sciences.

While this post has been at pains to point out the mass of material in the brain is not uniform, it is none-the-less remarkably similar across the bulk of the brain mass and even across species. How can the same basic nerve structures be representing skills as varied as spinning a web, tuning a bird call and designing the Hubble Space Telescope? Neural connections, it turns out, hold the difference that makes a difference. They embody the processes. They just might also hold the solution to the puzzle about how ethereal thought interacts with the material world. We will take this up next week.