By David Robertson
– Publisher of A Perennial Follower, where this post originally appeared.
Right off the bat, I should strongly emphasise that I’m far from being an expert on neuroscience, I wouldn’t even call myself a layman on the subject. But in my humble defence I’ve just read a book on the subject over the last few days – “The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman”, as well as read some other stuff here and there.
I strongly recommend the book as a simple introduction to neuroscience, accessible to anyone who has interest in the topic (and this is coming from someone who frequently gets confused by all the medical and biological jargon!)
Throughout the entire book, there are constant insights and mind-blowing information about the nature of the brain and how it functions.
David Eagleman kept surprising me in the book too, which I found rather refreshing. Instead of presenting the book as absolute fact and attacking anything opposing the current scientific consensus, he was incredibly humble in his claims. He was always open to other explanations, and admitted potential limitations and gaps in current research – a sign of a true man of science. I think this may be partly due to his quite open-minded worldview, which has been labelled possibilianism. This position is essentially a middle ground between atheism and traditional theism that doesn’t commit to certainty one way or the other, but instead chooses to explore multiple possibilities and theories that current science may not be capable of yet.
A simple example of this attitude was in his brief gloss over the free will debate, where he concluded that even though there are signs that we don’t have free will, we’re still a long way off from truly knowing if we have it or not.
So onto some of the stuff covered in the book and how this relates to the findings of those who have followed mystical traditions across time.
The brain is the single most complex thing in the universe (yet discovered). Each brain, in essence, is it’s own universe. Each neuron, (the cell that transmits information gathered from the outside by emitting electrochemical signals) has ten thousand connections to other neurons. And each string of connections creates an aspect of your experience, or helps facilitate a function of the body. The brain has ten trillion connections, more than a thousand times the amount of stars in our galaxy.
Here’s an idea of the amount of information in the brain: there is more of it stored in a single fully developed brain than in all of the data on the internet combined. Truly mind boggling and incomprehensible.
This seeming limitlessness of the mind reminds me of what Buddhists have frequently said across the centuries – the mind is like the open sky. Though the context is a little bit different, Buddhists talk about the limitless potentiality of immediate awareness and consciousness after all the foggy aspects of our mind (like desires, harmful thoughts and feelings and the like) have been cleared away.
Still, I think Buddhists have been onto something about the mind and the brain’s potential. Neuroscience seems to give leeway to this.
Moreover, the Pure Consciousness Experience, one of the types of mystical experience reported, is said to be one where the regular limitations of the mind, namely the sense of being an individual self, are dissolved and one “elevates” into a state of pure, unlimited consciousness. The truly incomprehensible complexity of the brain seems to grant the possibility that such expansive states of being exist on a scientific level.
One of the insights that I was somewhat aware of, largely due to some of my studies in science and spirituality, but was nevertheless still nice to be confirmed by a more mainstream scientist was that the world of our senses is ultimately an illusion.
The world that is projected in front of us, is all contained within the dark chamber of our brain. Really what is in front of us is just energy and matter, and it is our brain that puts on a show through interpreting these signals via electrochemical signals gathered from sensory organs.
*You don’t see, hear and smell through your eyes, ears and nose. These things just collect the information and your brain interprets and projects it. Reality, according to neuroscience, is rather senseless but the brain over millions of years has created this beautiful, detailed cosmos for us to enjoy and experience. An intricate play that the mind has created before us to veil whatever reality actually is.
To me, this immediately reminded me of the sayings of countless mystics, particularly in Eastern traditions, but also somewhat present in Christianity and Sufism (Islamic mysticism), perhaps no more directly stated than in Vedanta (a Hindu mystical tradition), that the reality we perceive is an illusion, a veil behind what reality actually is. This is known as maya, where the mind creates a subjective experience that hinders one from seeing the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, underneath it all.
The metaphysics of Mahayana Buddhism also hold very similar ideas to the “magic show” that is created before our eyes preventing us from seeing reality as it is. Which to the secular neuroscientist is just different concentrations of matter and energy, but to the mystic is something more: the ultimate unifying Principle known as God.
Modern findings in neuroscience are also, in some degree, verifying something that mystics have intuitively and experientially known for millennia – the interdependence and interconnection of all things, the oneness of the universe.
As an earlier post of mine shows, mystics from all traditions constantly emphasise and talk about all reality being part of God, nothing is truly separate. This has been well documented in nature, particularly in ecological studies where removing one aspect of any given environment (a fly for example) would have some sort of detrimental effect to the whole eco-system, throwing the whole thing out of balance until it is able to readjust itself over time. Everything forms part of a unified whole.
The workings of the brain are no different. One brain isn’t in a vacuum, separate from the rest of the brains of the world. We live in enormous networks and collectively, in the words of Eagleman, we are really just one part of a giant mega-organism. Our brain is like one node in this diverse, infinitely complex web we call humanity. And our brains strongly influence the brains of others and vice-versa, so much so that the physical make-up of the brain changes.
I can think of one anecdotal example of my own that highlights this. Over time, as my relationship has developed and transformed with my now fiance, I’ve noticed that both of us have become more like one another in many ways – using words borrowed from her that I’d never used, mimicking her behaviour subconsciously like subtle facial expressions, even feeling what the other is feeling whether its joy or sadness or even queasiness from being a little carsick. And I’m sure many long-standing relationships (not just romantic ones) are quite like this.
In essence, the circuitry of our brains are shaped and influenced by the factors around us like culture, friends, family and so on. All this appears to verify claims of the mystics that we are not really separate, individual selves, an independent bag of skin in a hostile cosmos, but really we are different parts of a whole.
Sometimes when I pick up a new book, particularly something that may challenge deeply cherished beliefs of mine, I get a small feeling of nervous excitement, but I think it’s something we should do if we want to expand our horizons and deepen and strengthen our own perspectives on the world.
In the world of neuroscience, I believe the insights of mysticism and mystical experiences have something important to say about the nature of the mind, consciousness and the brain. And it’s important for researchers in the field to look into this ancient phenomena seriously.
It appears that this is well underway too, a quick Google of “neuroscience and mysticism” will bring a wealth of articles, books and research on this topic, which are providing insights into the structure of the mind and brain.
Given that many findings in neuroscience, psychology and quantum physics seem to have parallels in the writings of ancient mystics, perhaps it is time to rethink or at least delve into different base assumptions of the universe than that of the philosophical position of natural materialism which science has traditionally held.
David Robertson is the Publisher of Perennial Follower, perennialfollower.wordpress.com