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S1E3: Experiencing Reality – One Brain, Many Selves

Last updated on 2020-10-03

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Espiritualidad y Ciencia
Espiritualidad y Ciencia
S1E3: Experiencing Reality - One Brain, Many Selves

So far we have taken the first steps towards understanding the true nature of reality, by using a couple of very simple but illustrative examples. We live in a world in which we not only perceive reality through our senses, but where we also create reality through our actions. This reality is simply what we known as culture. Wikipedia’s definition of Culture is “the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of those groups of individuals”.

This simply means that culture is that collective mental construction that gives context and meaning to the physical reality that we experience. If the brain of a human being is like a computer, then the mind becomes the operating system and the culture would be like the office suite with which we work. The Office of Life! Following this analogy, we can add that human relationships become the networks that these computers form.

Look how interesting: Through technology we have built a replica of our cognitive system to use as an extension of our own capabilities and even today, our scientists and engineers are working to endow that technology with the ability to think: the famous Artificial Intelligence. Is it then a coincidence that the biblical text speaks of a creator who created man in his image and likeness? In that same story, the serpent tells Adam that if he tastes the tree of knowledge, he can become like God.

Well, it is possible that here some believing listeners are already getting off the bus because apparently I have just hinted that humanity is following the instructions of the devil and pretending to become Gods. Well, yes, I think there is no doubt that human beings have chosen for a long time, happily so, to eat more of the tree of knowledge than from the tree of blind faith. However, as you will hear when I discuss the true origins of the Bible, it is quite possible that the famous serpent of the Bible was originally an ally of humans trying to free us from the bondage of the gods. To get us out of the cave, if you will.

But let’s go back to my analogy of human culture with computing. It may have sounded a bit strange that the mind is the operating system, so let me explain this: The mind is not something physical but a phenomenon that emerges from consciousness and encompasses the cognitive characteristics of thought including imagination, perception, thought, judgments, language and memory. It also covers non-cognitive aspects such as emotions, like fear and love.

You may have noticed that I really like referencing cinema, so at this point it is worth bringing up the 2015 Pixar animated film “Inside Out”. In that film, the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, is represented as 5 characters that inhabit her head: Joy, Sadness, Disgust and Anger. We have already seen that these characters are part of the non-cognitive part of the mind, but the story had to be simplified so as not to get entangled. The fact is that Riley in the end seems to be actually a puppet managed by those 5 characters in her mind. In fact, in the movie, the emotions have a joystick control board and everything to manage the girl’s actions.

One of the things that I love about Pixar is that in their films they have dared to propose deep and controversial themes that children’s films usually shy away from. In this case, in addition to showing how sadness is an emotion as valuable as the others, and necessary for an emotional balance, Inside Out touched on a subject that until now was taboo in popular culture: The myth of the inner self. Within Riley there is no Inner Being that is the real Riley. At first it would seem that Joy was the most important emotion but then it becomes clear that each one adds an important part of who Riley is. Other characters appear in the girl’s mind such as dreams, fears and even an imaginary friend, but Riley’s soul or an Inner Being is nowhere to be found.

There is no soul? Oops, I feel like somebody else got off the bus with this statement, but don’t worry that later on I propose a solution to this conflict.

For now let’s go back to the movie. Obviously, it is an artistic representation of the mind, but what most people do not know is that behind it there is real science. In a New York Times article, Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, both University of California psychology professors, tell how the film’s director sought them out for their scientific help in portraying a girl’s mind in an animated film.

These professors, are also scientific researchers who have specialized for several decades, in the study of the mind. They were fully involved in the project and from their collaboration came the scientific support for the story of Inside Out.

The movie is largely based on modern theories of the workings of the mind, which correspond more accurately to clinical observations. Since Aristotle until Freud, emotions were regarded as something like reflexes hardwired in the brain, however, modern research shows that emotions are an individual experience that is formed from the beginning of brain development and that can be trained, adapted, and transformed. So in the movie, Joy learns to let sadness do its thing to allow Riley express her frustrations and reconnect with her parents.

Current neuroscience tells us that our mind is not split between an instinctive part, a conscious self and a superego that represents moral values. No, what we interpret as I, the center of our consciousness is actually the sum of the consciousness of many different parts of our brain.

This theory is supported by many neurological experiments and observations around the world, but an interesting piece of evidence comes from a somewhat creepy study that began in the 1960’s on a dozen epilepsy patients who underwent radical surgery.

It turns out that epilepsy is like a storm that happens in the brain when for some reason the electrical activity of neurons is synchronized and an overload occurs that causes the patient to lose consciousness and fall to the floor convulsing. Thanks to computed tomography, it has been found that these brain electrical storms spread from one hemisphere of the brain to the other and that is when the patient loses consciousness.

It was then that the neurosurgeon Roger Wolcott Sperry developed a technique to divide the connection between the two sides of the neocortex, in an area called the corpus callosum. It was then believed, that each hemisphere of the brain controlled different systems and processes of the body and the mind, but there was not much information about the relationship between those two halves. So some patients who suffered from the most violent seizures and who met certain conditions were chosen to undergo surgical therapy.

The immediate result was a resounding success as all the patients who were operated on, stopped suffering from those terrible seizures. The best thing was that all their mental and physical functions and abilities seemed to have remained intact.

Either way, Dr. Sperry and his colleagues closely followed these patients and began to systematically document their observations.

These observations clarified many doubts that were there about the functioning of the brain. One of the things that they discovered was that one of the most common understandings of the brain is not true: that each hemisphere controlls different things, speech for example in the left hemisphere and visual spatial processing in the right, or that the left hemisphere it is logical-mathematical and the right hemisphere is creative-artistic. Well, the split brain experiments showed that both hemispheres are almost equally competent for most things.

This would partially debunk the analogy I made of the human brain as a computer. Because the computer has parts dedicated exclusively to certain tasks: The hard disk stores information, the processor computes, the video card projects images, etc.. The split brain studies showed that the brain is more like a network of interconnected computers that share information and workload among them. If a connection is cut, even if it is the most important, the remaining networks continue to operate at full speed.

Now, the unsettling part of the study came when participants were presented with an image covering half of their visual field and then presented the same image covering the other half. When they saw the image for the second time, they did not recognize it as the same as the one in the first part of the experiment, it was as though they were seeing it for the first time.

Participants could not give a description of the image that was presented to them on the left side of the visual field. Or they did not perceive the image, it seemed to them like a flash. They could, however, identify the objects in a non-verbal manner, by pointing out with their left hand at a similar image or selecting an object that was in the image, from a group of other objects. This curiously only worked with right-handed participants.

If they were presented with two symbols simultaneously, one on each side of the visual field (for example, a dollar sign on the left and a question mark on the right) and the participant was asked to draw with their left hand what they had seen (without him being able to see what his hand was doing), the patient drew the symbol of the left visual field (that is, the dollar sign). If asked to say aloud what they had just drawn, the participant would say by name, the symbol of the corresponding visual field (ie a question mark).

There were other experiments like blindly handing them a different object in each hand and then asking them to search for the two items, also blindly, in a drawer full of many objects. Each hand, independently, searched for the object it had touched and even if it touched the object the other hand was looking for, it would release it and keep searching.

The results of these studies, which also earned Dr. Roger Sperry the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1981, seem to confirm the theory that consciousness is not a cohesive unit that inhabits, either physically in the brain or spiritually in the the soul, but is the sum of sub-levels of consciousness that in any case are manifested in different parts of the brain.

Perhaps the ancient sages of India were closer. They identified 4 parts of the mind: Vinha Anha – Consciousness, which is formed from the separate consciousness of 6 senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and thoughs. The second part of the mind for the connoisseurs of the Buddhist path of Dhamma was known as Sanha Ara – Perception, which is responsible for recognizing the meaning of what has arisen in the senses or in the mind and transferring it to the third part that was called Vedha Ara – Sensation. This part would be the one that is responsible for providing a pleasant or unpleasant sensation according to the meaning defined by Sanha Ara. The last part Sank Ara that is responsible for the reaction of the mind, the internal action that leads us to seek more pleasant sensations and reject the unpleasant ones. Sank Ara in Buddhism is the origin of all suffering: attachment or rejection, because it becomes the seed of the actions that drive us to stay on the wheel of karma.

But I am not going to delve into this teaching yet because for now we continue to analyze reality from the point of view of science to see how we face it from a spiritual point of view.

I referred to the Dhamma because I wanted to show that there is ancient wisdom that is actually closer to the current scientific knowledge than our previous secular understanding. This is not a coincidence or divine revelation, though, but the result of centuries of observation, analysis and experimentation.

I promised that I would give propose a way to reconcile these factual observations of a consciousness divided into many parts with a Spiritual principle of the Being. For this I am going to rely on a concept of the American theoretical physicist Sean Carroll called the “emergent properties ”. What Carroll tells us is that systems have characteristics that do not exist in the parts that make them up. For example, biology is a phenomenon that emerges from chemistry and chemistry is a phenomenon that emerges from physics. Life as such does not exist in the proteins and amino acids that our cells are made of, but cells do experience life. Now cells do not have consciousness, but when they form a living human organism, then consciousness emerges.

And when consciousness emerges, then society, love, money, and many other things arise. These may not exist on the level of physical reality but do exist in the operating system of the mind.

So, knowing that human consciousness is not one but many, does not take away the right to think of ourselves as individual beings, but it does oblige us to contemplate consciousness as a phenomenon of many levels, perhaps even levels higher than that of the individual. Can it be said that there is a collective, Social, Planetary and Maybe even Universal consciousness?

Well, I leave it here for you to think about the possibilities. For now I say goodbye. Do not forget to subscribe to the podcast through my page, send me your comments or questions and see you in the next episode.

Have a good journey and a nice breeze,


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