As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.Life is full of them.We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.Why did people believe this?Why did they do this?What started this whole process?(Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)
We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.And human beings are natural actors.
Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.Actors.We’re all actors.Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.Anarchy would erupt in the streets.We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.They begin thinking collectively.We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.Maybe we’re afraid to.Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worriesabout getting home provided a convenient excuse.My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.
Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.Scientists know this happens in nature.Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.If only we could teach Republicans to do that.In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.
Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory. Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.
One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.(And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.Who knew?So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.
Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.
Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.
I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?
This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.
Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.
Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. One of the categories for my 2018 reading challenge is a book you can read in a day. Maybe it’s just me, or creeping middle age, but books seem to be getting fatter these days. Despite the amount of time I spend reading, I’m slow at it and it’s a real struggle to find something I can actually finish on a three-hour bus ride. That’s why I thought of a play. Plays are meant to be performed in one sitting, so you should, in theory, be able to read one in a few hours. My first thought was Shakespeare, but the books of Shakespeare you can find these days all have added pages of commentary and interpretative material and the books seem to have put on weight since the Bard’s day.
So I settled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. My wife had a used copy from college days and I’d been wanting to read it for some years. Here was my excuse. Then the bus ride began. Starting Act One I was sure I had read this before. It wasn’t just an inkling, like déjà vu often is, but an overpowering sensation. Of course I could tell what was going to happen—I’ve read Hamlet a time or two—but it was more than that. The sense that I had not long ago read this very sequence of words was nothing shy of overpowering. Uncanny even. As I moved into the latter part of the act, the feeling went away. This was new territory after all.
Consciousness is mysterious. Even with all our instruments and equations and theories, we still don’t know what it is. Materialists insist it must be simply a function of the brain, but that’s certainly not what it feels like. One of the hazards of reading a lot in middle age is that some things do start to blend together in your gray matter. Research, for example, means reading many books on the same subject with repeated ideas common among them. For fiction, however, we often hold a higher standard. Uniqueness and creativity are highly valued, even if the play you’re writing is a riff off the old Bard. In the end, I was able to finish the play in a day’s reading on the bus. Staring out the window after I’d finished, I was thinking how déjà vu can be quite disorienting.
The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.
Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.
Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.
I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.
For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.
Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.