The Reboot

It lied to me.  My computer.  Don’t get me wrong; I know all about trying to save face.  I also know my laptop pretty well by now.  It was running slow, taking lots of time to think over fairly simple requests.  A lull in my frantic mental activity led to the opportunity for me to initiate a reboot.  When it winked open its electronic eye my screen told me it had restarted to install an update.  Untrue.  I had told it to restart.  I gave the shutdown order to help with the obvious sluggishness that suggested to this Luddite brain of mine that my silicon friend was working on an update.  There’s no arguing with it, however.  In its mechanical mind, it decide to do the restart itself.  I was merely a bystander.

Technology and I argue often.  Like JC says, though, authority always wins.  I should know my place by now.  I’ve read enough about neuroscience (with thanks to those who write for a general audience) to know that this is incredibly human behavior.  We are creatures of story, and if our brains can’t figure out why we’ve done something they will make up an answer.  We have trouble believing that we just don’t know.  I suppose that will always be a difference between artificial intelligence and the real thing.  Our way of thinking is often pseudo-rational.  We evolved to get by but machines have been designed intelligently.  That often makes me wonder about the “intelligent design” crowd—they admit evolution, but with God driving it.  Why’d our brains, in such circumstances, evolve the capacity for story instead of for fact?

As my regular readers know, I enjoy fiction.  Fiction is the epitome of the story-crafting art.  Some analysts suggest our entire mental process involves construing the story of ourselves.  Those who articulate it well are rewarded with the sobriquet of “author.”  The rest of us, however, aren’t exactly amateurs either.  Our brains are making up reasons for what we do, even when we do irrational things (perhaps like reading this blog sometimes).  Stories give our lives a sense of continuity, of history.  What originally developed as a way of remembering important facts—good food sources, places to avoid because predators lurk there—became histories.  Stories.  And when the facts don’t align, we interpolate.  It seems that my laptop was doing the same thing.  Perhaps it’s time to reboot.

Evangelical Angst

Unless you know what it’s like to face life with no real prospects beyond making it to Heaven when you die, you can’t understand evangelical angst. That last phrase might seem odd to you. Aren’t evangelicals uber-smiley, happy people angry over the way society’s going? Yes and no. Many of them were raised (or converted into) a faith that holds out no hope for this world and that constantly reinforces the idea that what we like is bad. Having grown up in that world, I knew what it was like to be hoodwinked by an evangelist. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was famous. He came to my small town and packed a local Methodist Church. During his rambling, long sermon, he had us afraid for Hell burning under our feet. Grateful that we’d just managed to avoid it, he announced there would be three collections that night: the first was your normal tithe. The second time the plates came around you were to empty your pockets and purses of all change. The third time, you were to contribute to his private jet. If you gave over a thousand dollars your name would be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Almost as if nothing has changed in the decades since then, a Washington Post story expresses amazement that evangelist Jesse Duplantis is asking his followers for a fourth private jet. Uncomprehending, the world doesn’t show much curiosity as to why otherwise intelligent people would give to what is so obviously a scam. Or why such people would vote for Trump. The academic world doesn’t understand evangelical angst. As I sat in that audience that night, a poor kid from a poverty-level family, I fervently wished I had more money to give. Until he asked for his plane. My young doubts crept in, for I had more angst than most other evangelicals I knew. Was this really the Gospel?

Later I saw him on television. His personal mansion had literal streets of gold. Jesus, he said, wanted us to get ready for Heaven right here on earth. Did this turn his followers against him? Decidedly not. In fact, he may have believed it himself. You see, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have the evolved capacity to hold and dismiss reason simultaneously, for strong emotional stimuli. Sex, for example, or music. Or religion. These can motivate people beyond the realm of logic, and they often do. Evangelical angst says you’re not buying a scam artist a jet to spread the Gospel, it says your trying to avoid Hell. Rational or not. And that, it seems to me, is more than adequate ground for evangelical angst.

Gods and Rods

DramaGiftedChildThe human mind is an unsolved mystery. Oh, we know a lot about the brain, and advances in neuroscience have been startlingly swift. The mind, which is not the same as the brain, still eludes us. I took enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve declared it a minor, but being a minor I didn’t know enough to do so. Like many people from what used to be called broken homes, I wondered what made me think and act the way I did. I still do. Psychology shed some light on that, and although antipathy towards one’s parents has become a bad joke among those who belittle the science of the mind, there can be little doubt that there are patterns. Our youngest days, although we can’t remember them, make us who we become. I know my youngest days were difficult. I know they are with me still. I can’t remember them, but there are witnesses.

One of my readers suggested The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, to me. I was hesitant at first since I’m not gifted. My career has taught me that, if nothing else. Gifts are valuable, right? But the subtitle won me over: The Search for the True Self. Life has been that indeed. Miller, who is deceased, argued in this little book that unless the damage done early in life is recognized and mourned, it will lead to depression. This isn’t easy reading. It’s so easy to damage a child. Although most of us pretend differently, there are an awful lot of our species walking around with very deep, but invisible, scars. Just when I’m ready to dismiss the thesis, Miller provides examples. Examples in which I recognize something I wish wasn’t there. Consciousness can be a curse as much as a blessing. We don’t know where it comes from, or even what it is. It can drive you crazy, though.

Religion often prescribes child-rearing techniques. Many of us have the Bible to blame for being spanked as children. Larger, powerful adults violating the weak and controllable. Just because they can. Psychologically this is wickedness. I’ve read memoirs of children spanked excessively because the religion of the parents recommended it. Those who read Miller carefully will see that her case is well made. Perhaps one will dispute the conclusions, but the facts are there. Our childhood is necessary for our adulthood. And things that are impossible to see cause us to do things we don’t understand. Any religion that suggests beating a child is the path of righteousness has its directions utterly confused.

Dream Time

DreamingLike most people, I seldom remember my dreams. When I do, or when only the powerful feeling remains, I know that they are very emotional events. Something is always going on, and my attention is riveted. I recently read J. Allan Hobson’s Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep. It must be intimidating, I have to note right away, for a neuroscientist to write a book. Our understanding is changing so rapidly that even academic treatments become a kind of ephemera. Published over a decade ago, it shows its age. Even I’m aware that changes in brain science have occurred and perceptions have changed somewhat since then. What struck me most, however, is Hobson’s absolute confidence that mind is a function of the brain, and that dreams are merely the madness we experience when we sleep. The madness I don’t mind so much. The materialism, however, I think is largely wrong.

Consciousness remains a great unknown. There is disagreement around whether it is emergent—coming from the brain, or receptive—perceived by the brain. Or perhaps something completely different. One of the greatest human foibles is to claim that we understand anything completely. I’ve always been amazed—knowing that the world involves much more than just sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch—that some scientists are so quick to write off complex experience as “merely” activity in the brain. Some animals, for example, seem to perceive magnetic fields. Others use navigation devices we simply don’t comprehend. They may experience senses we don’t even have. And yet, we happily claim that we’ve gotten this one nailed down. Dreams are only activities in the brain when we sleep.

Only? How can any dreamer say that this is only chemical reaction in our heads? The experience of dreaming is, implicitly, so much more than just random thoughts. Hobson does a good job describing how dreams are a form of madness, a psychosis when the reasoning part of our brains are inhibited. Fair enough, but who can experience madness and think it completely material? Our minds are more complex, it seems to me, than we give them credit for being. Hobson begins the book by noting that dreams used to be within the purview of religion. Since has now claimed them. We have an entire universe in our skulls, and yet we insist that although we don’t understand it, we can be certain that it is nothing but material. My dreams continue to suggest a different reality.

Musical Mind

BrainOnMusicMusic is perhaps the most natural of human arts.  We are all, as Daniel J. Levitin says, expert listeners from an early age.  This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a fascinating study of neuroscience and music.  I began exploring this connection about a decade ago when studies on religion and neuroscience were only just beginning to appear.  Music, although closely related to religion in many ways, does not bear the stigma of “belief” and although music programs are often tragically cut from school budgets, we all value music because not to do so makes us less-than-human.  Levitin shows clearly how music accompanies the most important parts of our lives and how it forms and develops the brain.
 
Music is somewhat easier to define than religion.  Those who decry the humanities, I suggest, should be locked away with no access to music for a few years to see if they change their tune.  I suspect they would.  We need music, and music’s impact on the brain is an analog to that of religion.  More studies of religion and the brain have begun to appear, and one gets the sense that materialists are a little bit angry and disappointed that religion hasn’t disappeared the way that it was predicted to have done by now.  That’s because being human is more than being molecules and chemical reactions. It involves what we call the humanities.
 
Our brains are our gateways to all of human experience.  They are complex in ways that computer designers emulate, but there’s a messy something about biology that straightforward mechanics seems to have trouble replicating.  Our brains are part of one large, organic whole that encompasses life on this little planet.  While studying the brain to understand it is indeed a good idea, calling it a meat computer is not.  While software may be coded to compose music, of one thing we can be sure. Computers can’t enjoy music.  It takes a brain to appreciate music, and the brain that appreciates music is mere synaptic connections away from seeing why religion is still important.

Brains and Selves

TellTaleBrainThe Tell-Tale Brain is an ambitious, yet humble attempt to find the self. V. S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist with considerable psychology experience who is well equipped to take on, as the subtitle puts it, A Neuroscientist ‘s Quest for What Makes Us Human. The book will take you to some very strange places. And although he’s a scientist, Ramachandran keeps an admirably open mind. Right at the start he notes that he sees no reason for using “merely”s and “only”s when discussing brains and their realities. In fact, he knows that scientists aren’t qualified to answer the question of whether there is a god. Having grown up Hindu, he used to pray to many gods. A true scientist has no need to belittle beliefs. Belief, as Ramachandran demonstrates, is far more complex than most pundits would suggest. This is based on his close study of the brain and those to whom it has been less than kind.

Already in the first several pages it becomes clear that Ramachandran finds religion a useful trope. It illustrates something we all know. That doesn’t mean he (or you) has (have) to accept it, but we all recognize it. Studying how the brain works, in this book, means looking at patients with various disorders, most of which have tongue-twisting names, that are inherently fascinating. Phantom limbs, people who see the colors of numbers or feel the emotions of fabrics, or who can’t recognize their own mothers—all of these things really happen in the brains of intelligent people. For them these are reality. For Ramachandran, they can frequently be chased down to a neurological cause. And sometimes people even really think they’re God. One of the treasures of this book is to experience the non-normativity of western culture. The use of Indian art and religion as illustrations of what humans believe is refreshing.

Anyone who fears the loss of self take warning; we may not be who we think we are. Brain studies show that, in certain circumstances, brains can contain more than one self. Memories can be fabricated and the continuity that we call our life stories may well contain a healthy dose of fiction. Experiments on brains can change who we think we are. Descartes would, perhaps, go insane. Ramachandran doesn’t claim to have figured out the self, or consciousness. He may have ruled out some options, though. At the end of the book, however, he reintroduces the concept with which he started: science and religion. Quoting Darwin he shows that the main mind behind evolutionary theory refused to make an absolute declaration about the divine. Humility, it seems, may be just as effective in making converts as a Bible in hand. And to figure that out will take some brain power.

Forest of the Subconscious

The mind is not the brain. This isn’t mystical mumbo-jumbo (although there’s nothing wrong with mystical mumbo-jumbo either). We’ve been bombarded with the message that we are meat machines for many years now. Those who have studied physics and plumbed its depths often tell us that if we had all the bits of information involved, we could figure out anything. Our minds are our brains and it is merely electro-chemical signals that form a kind of operating system for this biological computer. The idea that we have a separate mind, we are told, is an illusion. Interestingly, studies of the subconscious mind raise significant questions regarding this interpretation. The subconscious, it is generally acknowledged, was discovered by Sigmund Freud. Prior to Freud many people did things and didn’t know why. Now we know, despite debates about the details, that we have to consider the subconscious mind as well as the more familiar conscious one.

I’ve been on a Through the Wormhole kick lately. Since we don’t have television, I have to watch the episodes after they air, but at least I have the option of doing this when I have some time. I recently watched the subconscious episode. The truly amazing takeaway from this was that our minds often, daily, in fact, operate on a level that we know nothing about. There are ways of tapping into the subconscious mind—meditating, as I mentioned earlier this week, is one way. Others are more scientific. Stimulating areas of the brain with small amounts of electricity can enhance abilities that we never knew we had. In fact, we might even be able to enact a Matrix-like download of information. I think I may have swallowed the blue pill after all.

DSCN2021

Call it a gut-level reaction, but I have always had a strong resistance to the idea that we are mere automatons. Consciousness, which, increasingly we’re discovering, involves a dose of subconsciousness, doesn’t feel at all like a we’re programmed. Theologically, I always objected to the strange notion of predestination. It made no sense, theologically, or experientially. One very wise professor once told our class, “If you want to test this, tell your spouse that you’ve got her or him completely figured out. They will do something you don’t expect.” Our minds are perhaps the most miraculous parts of human beings. The concept that we are merely following the pre-determined laws of physics makes no sense unless we believe in a literal Hell that we’ve made of this world. Are we programmed to self-destruct? I believe not. Whether in my conscious mind or in the true mind that lies underneath it.