The Mystery of the Brain: Findings of Modern Neuroscience


advertisement - learn more

Who am I? It’s a powerful mantra and the centerpiece of many peoples’ search for meaning. From a scientific perspective we are often pointed to our biology –and specifically to the apparent source of the persistent “voice in the head” –the brain.

Unfortunately, we have presumptions about ourselves that are only partially true if at all, and the way we frame our self-inquiry is also important. For example, what if instead of calling our brain and spinal cord our “nervous system” we instead referred to them as an “Awareness System?” Might that not deepen the level of our inquiry? Because our brain can also seem to “malfunction,” I’ve tried to read what I can about what neuroscientists believe about our nature, and see how it resonates with my experience. Here are some of my favorite writers on the subject:

In some ways, as a computer guy, I was looking for the “user manual” for my mind. One of the first books I turned to was Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind by Joe Dispenza, who was featured in the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” Like many neuroscientists, Dispenza shows how much conditioning first affects our beliefs and then our outlook and ultimately our reality –and how so much of what we think of as “us” is habitual.

However, unlike many he seems to believe in the ability or volition of the human being to change bad habits –whether into “other habits” or through what one might call free choice —by reprogramming the mind as one might a computer. Dispenza’s most compelling example to me, involved a depressed patient where he did what George Costanza once did on Seinfeld, he consciously “did the opposite” of what he would ordinarily do in various situations.

Dispenza describes how such reprogramming can occur when the observer “decides” to take chances (as I did when adopting my cat) and how such new experiences reprogram perceptions of the Self. According to Dispenza, in such instances where one leaves a “comfort zone” the brain literally forges new connections via new neural networks, thereby bypassing the “time worn grooves” of habitual automatic responses and creating now potential choices and OUTCOMES.

Perhaps this also resonates with the way Anthony Robbins talks about “taking action” to reprogram one’s habitual negative beliefs, which Robbins also refers to as an inner mental “technology.”

But this brings us back to “who am I” really?  Who is the “one” that first can notice this conditioning and even make choices to change it?  From somewhere, seemingly “inside the brain” but perhaps from another source, this mysterious energy emerges…

Just as Dispenza discusses “reprogramming” your habitual tendencies, in I Am A Strange Loop, another prominent neuroscientist Douglas Richard Hofstadter follows a mathematical and computer model to dig down into where and what the individual “Self” may be.

In his follow-up to a Pulitzer prize winning best-seller , Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter examines the unique qualities of a mind that expresses itself in language, along with the inevitable gaps and paradoxes that result in believing too much in the logic of our spoken and written descriptions of “what is real.” As a mathematician, neuroscientist and philosopher Hofstadter begins with the primacy of number because whatever symbols you use to represent “number,” has certain truths that persist along with it.

A great linguistic and logical paradox is expressed in:

“The sentence ’This sentence has ten words’ has ten words.” – (I Am A Strange Loop, page 140)

Since the underlying sentence has 10 words it seems to be true but upon “reflection” its “truth” is paradoxical because the “inner sentence” has only four words. So where is truth to be found? Linguistically or in thought? To Hofstadter this paradoxical aspect of language is an obvious manifestation of the inevitable abstraction that results from mind–which only simulates nature on a very powerful level—by analogy it seems to mirror our own inner mental workings—but it cannot “explain” nature.  As Hofstadter suggests a “truer” representation of nature is mathematical – like the Fibonacci sequence or an infinite sequence of numbers or a function like pi.   Language can only explain characteristics. This points to the famous statement by Krishnamurti that once you identify a bird by name you cease seeing it forever.

Language, like our inner “I,” is looped and imperfect—with the inherent limitation of needing to be expressed in words, and consequently reducing the perfection of the absolute it describes (mathematical certainty; number) to what our limited minds can comprehend—fragmented, imperfect analogies to reality. Hofstadter goes through every complex nook and cranny of Gödel’s work to basically argue that the only way to comprehend consciousness is through “story” –or by analogy –and just as the linguistic descriptions of mathematical absolutes fall short, so too does story or analogy never completely “explain” or “describe” the true “nature” of consciousness.

Ultimately he settles on one aspect of language as the pointer to reality and meaning—analogy; so keep in mind our issue with the “metaphor” that is the relationship of hardware to software. Hofstadter’s sense of what is “animate” comes down to the existence of the self-sustaining loops that blow our minds –like the placement of two mirrors facing each other or his example of a video feedback loop of a camera facing a monitor.

He writes:

“…an entity is animate [alive?] to the degree that such a loopy “I” pattern comes into existence, since this pattern’s existence is by no means an all-or-nothing affair. Thus, to the extent that there is an “I” pattern in a given substrate, there is animacy, and where there is no such pattern, the entity is inanimate.” (page 360)

Hofstadter contends that as systems evolve, for example cells organized into organs like the heart and eventually the brain, when feedback loops manifest as “selves”—at this point organic molecules become animate or “alive.” He still assumes, however, that such organization happened by evolution randomly, even if this occurred according to nature’s patterns like the Fibonacci sequence.

fibonacci_phyllotaxis

But let’s look at a specific instance of a loop, “Next i” in computer programming – where the variable “I” (pun intended) takes on additional values as the program executes.

“In a loop structure, the program asks a question, and if the answer requires an action, it is performed and the original question is asked again until the answer is such that the action is no longer required. For example, a program written to compute a company’s weekly payroll for each individual employee will begin by computing the wages of one employee and continue performing that action in a loop until there are no more employee wages to be computed, and only then will the program move on to its next action. Each pass through the loop is called an iteration. [i]  Loops constitute one of the most basic and powerful programming concepts.” (Webopedia)

Both our minds and computers apparently operate in this way to calculate outcomes, among other things. But the ultimate loop is – where did the INTELLIGENCE come from to discover, if not originally write, manifest or “compile” the program itself?  From an inanimate object?  That seems unlikely.

So let’s dig deeper. Pink Floyd said, “there’s someone in my head and it’s not me.” This line is quoted in the beginning of a fascinating book by neuroscientist David Eagleman –Incognito:  The Secret Life of the Brain

Eagleman in many ways echoes the work of Eckhart Tolle when he points to the latest brain research that says that there is not one part of the physical self that contains the “I”; indeed he explains that the brain is such a complex entity that its many networks are like a “democracy of committees” which coordinate behavior by consensus and make choices in ways we don’t fully understand.

Eagleman, can’t locate a single physical area of the brain that is “in charge.” And he compares the various networks of the brain and their “subroutines” (patterns of conditioned behavior) to political parties that ultimately lead to behavior based on conflict and compromise. Eagleman writes:

“But we do not find parts of the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead every part of the brain is densely connected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore ‘free.’” (Page 166)

Eagleman uses examples of people with impaired or injured brains and also celebrities like Mel Gibson, who was “not himself” when drunk, and turned into a raging anti-Semite, and was conciliatory when sober. The one area where this has far reaching ramifications is the law, and Eagleman suggests a legal system based not on blame, which he considers an outmoded concept, but rather on the prospects for modifiability—if we know a criminal will not repeat (act of passion) or can be rehabilitated (behavior modified) then one course of action can be taken, otherwise he suggests that the person obviously must be separated from society.

Eagleman compares the achievements in neuroscience to those in astronomy which challenged conventional beliefs about the earth at the center of the universe—in the case of the brain the notion of the single responsible and cohesive Self is exposed as a vast oversimplification. Again he writes,

“In the same way that the cosmos is much larger than we ever imagined, we ourselves are something greater than we had intuited by introspection. We’re now getting the first glimpse of the vastness of inner space. .. What a perplexing masterpiece the brain is, and how lucky we are to be in a generation that has the technology and the will to turn our attention to it. It is the most wondrous thing in the universe, and it is us.”

I find this language both inspiring and a bit daunting—it is always humbling to confront the reality of the vastness of what we don’t know (yet) – and in fact may never know. Eagleman says that in the traditional view of perception, information from the outside world pours into the senses, works its way through the brain, and makes itself consciously seen, heard and felt. But many scientists are coming to think that sensory input may merely revise ongoing internal activity in the brain – that there is a vast inner life going on of which we are unconscious of.

He notes, for example, that sensory input is superfluous for perception: when your eyes are closed during dreaming, you still enjoy a rich and visual experience. The awake state may be essentially the same as the dreaming state, only partially anchored by external stimuli. In this view, your conscious life is an awake dream. And this also means, of course, that your entire notion of the smooth passage of time is merely a construction of the brain.

This resonates with many spiritual traditions and the entire notion of awakening…  Perhaps awakening is a “re-cognition” of the true relationship of one’s tiny “self” to the vast Self of which the brain is tuned into. (You can find out more about Eagleman in his article for Discover: Ten Mysteries of the Brain)

In his book Self Comes to MindAntonio Damasio states that this miraculous harmonious functioning which results in a sense of self emerges for evolutionary reasons—for the same reason that a microbe will gravitate toward nourishment and away from toxins—for “homeostasis” or basically to maintain its being—it is programmed to survive.

On the human level, with the development of advanced brains, this is merely far more complex, but Damasio asserts that the concept of a Self is merely the result of when this newly evolved brain bonded with the organic systems from the previous eons, forming one new complete extremely complex system = the Mind/Body or what we call “human.”

Just as Eagleman talked about the various neural networks as political parties, Damasio sees the “Autobiographical Self” as the conductor of a symphony that does not exist until the orchestra begins to play [harmoniously]. Of course if there is disharmony, then we have a malfunction –or in computer terms –a conflict between programs. And this potential for harmony and “orchestration” of neural systems is the result of the underlying nature of life itself – he says,

“Managing and safekeeping life is the fundamental premise of biological value.” (Self Comes to Mind, page 25)

“Consciousness came into being because of biological value, as contributor to more effective value management. [natural selection] But consciousness did not invent biological value or the process of valuation. Eventually, in human minds, consciousness revealed biological value and allowed the development of new ways and means of managing it.” (Self Comes to Mind, page 28)

In other words, what we deem as our unique intelligence and more significantly who we are is a tiny part of a far higher intelligence (that preceded the development of our own brains) enabling us finally to notice our “selves” and begin to comprehend nature itself, all for our continued survival? But of course, this comprehension is bounded by our sensory capacity and is very limited. One can wonder what sense of self a whale or dolphin may have in a “world” created by sound and ocean, and with a larger brain than our own.

So who are “we” individually? Basically we are a collection of stories that come together out of experiences formed electrically through the firing of neural networks and stored in the soft tissue of the brain’s “hard drives” or what we call memory. According to neuroscientists like Damasio, the Self “emerges” from a level of cognitive complexity that yields consciousness –similar to the critical mass attained in a computer network –such as the Internet. Having now experienced the reality of how inanimate systems (like the Internet) can mimic our own inner mental functioning and even defeat us at Jeopardy, can we now open up to the possibility that our own fascination with our own “uniqueness” as sentient beings is a fantasy?

As Eagleman suggests, just as our egocentric cosmology of the earth being the center of the universe has now given way to the reality that we exist on the periphery of an average galaxy literally in the middle of nowhere, so too maybe we need to come to terms with the fact that what we deem to be us, and what we think is “conscious,” is a mere tip of an enormous iceberg of sensory capacity of which we are just barely aware.

So perhaps the next “Copernican Revolution” is the recognition that our brain is basically a receiver of higher energies, and that the relationship of our mind to a far greater Being/Mind is the necessary next stage of discovery for what we deem to be science.

advertisement - learn more

More From 'Discover'

CE provides a space for free thinkers to explore and discuss new, alternative information and ideas. The goal? Question everything, think differently, spread love and live a joy filled life.

  1. Ellis

    Interesting topic. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the not too distant future the topics of neuroscience and quantum physics cross paths; I will not be surprised to see that man’s efforts to create quantum computing (by recording information at the quantum level) turns out to be another intimation of what nature has already created.

  2. passenger

    I would ask, why can’t it be both?

    That is, why can’t an individual have a personalized, intimate and extraordinary existence while also being part of a greater whole? Why would the collective consciousness/collective evolution of a species have to be in conflict with individual existence?

    Every bee is unique yet they all live a different life for the attainment of the same goal. They all behave in the same general manner and act according to the limits that they have. Every bee is there to support all the others yet they lead their own lives. Not every bee , or any bee, has the exact same life experience that any other has.

    And so every bee is unique. They all serve the hive but they do not follow the same winds and visit the same flowers. They live as individuals but survive as a whole. Their collective unconsciousness and actions drive them to something that may not be beneficial for the one but is for the greater good.
    What makes us any different?

  3. passenger

    I would ask, why can’t it be both? Why not both an individual mind and a collective consciousness?

    That is, why can’t an individual have a personalized, intimate and extraordinary existence while also being part of a greater whole? Why would the collective consciousness/collective evolution of a species have to be in conflict with individual existence?

    Every bee is unique yet they all live a different life for the attainment of the same goal. They all behave in the same general manner and act according to the limits that they have. Every bee is there to support all the others yet they lead their own lives. Not every bee has the exact same life experience that any other has yet they all are acting together.

    And so every bee is unique. They all serve the hive but they do not follow the same winds and visit the same flowers. They live as individuals but survive as a whole. Their collective unconsciousness and actions drive them to something that may not be beneficial for the one but is for a greater good.

    What makes us any different?

  4. Jules A. Lalonde

    I think it is worth at least noting on this post that Most Neuroscientists including Dr. Damassio would disagree with your statement

    “that our brain is basically a receiver of higher energies, and that the relationship of our mind to a far greater Being/Mind is the necessary next stage of discovery for what we deem to be science.”

    I have before me the fifth edition of “Principles of Neural Science”, a 1600 page academic compilation of current neuroscience knowledge publish in 2013. Not only does your statement absent from the textbook but it conflicts with everything currently known.

    In fact the book begins with

    “Men ought to know that from the Brain, and from the Brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant” attributed to Hypocrates.

    Although not all wisdom of the ages can stand up to current scientific inquiry, this one certainly has.

    • Thanks, Jules! For enlightening these readers to the “truth!”

      This article, along with the comments, are seriously…WRONG!

      LSD, and other psycho-altering drugs, “may” have their place in neuroscience, but as a “way” to a “higher level of consciousness”…NO WAY!

    • Jules, thanks. I think the main point or thread was that nowhere in the brain has a center of Self from which these emotions you mention arise been isolated. Therefore perhaps another possible perspective would see the brain as more of a receiver or conveyance? My intent is simply to open the reader to such possibilities which I do believe the current findings described in the article point to. From a nondual perspective it is interesting to note that the paragraph you cite compares the ugly/beautiful, bad/good, etc. What does this? Is it an isolated physical part of the brain? None has been found; rather this self as Damassio says emerges as the conductor of the orchestra through the activity of the entire network, or portions energized through interaction with the environment. It is my humble belief that as sciences merge (neurobiology with quantum physics) the movement of intelligent energy through systems like the brain in nonmaterial fashion will become more widely accepted and understood. But that is just my opinion. Thanks for your comment.

      • Jules A. Lalonde

        “Emergence” in Neuroscience means something different than the common understanding of something caused from something else and is taken from Complexity research in which complex systems under certain variables will exhibit properties or behaviour that “emerges” but is far more than simply the sum of the parts in the system.

        Just because the property of the “self” does not appear to have an origin in any particular section of the brain does not mean that it is not the result of the complex system making up the brain and in fact as stated earlier the current body of knowledge supports that it is definitely created by the brain.

        When we study other complex systems like the weather, or markets or fluid dynamics, complex behaviour or properties can emerge from relatively simple systems. Where does the hurricane reside in space before it can be described as a hurricane? Did it come from the universal mind with the air serving as a conduit or transmitter? Or is it more likely that the specific variables of air pressures, temperatures ect. under certain conditions are ripe for the “emergence” of the Hurricane. This is how we are able to predict such events even though no body can point to a specific sections of sky and say this is where hurricanes come from?

        In my humble opinion, a misinterpretation of a few studies of quantum mechanics combined with a misunderstanding of neuroscience will not lead to what you suggest. Just because it is difficult to understand quantum mechanics does not mean that it supports your views.

        For those who wish to review the facts a couple great books to review might be Dr. Victor Stenger’s “Quantum Gods” where a respected particle physicist explains how mystics others sharing your belief are actually using a misunderstanding of quantum mechanics to support there claims and another great book to get you up to speed on the nature of the self is Dr. Bruce Hood’s “the Self illusion”.

        Science does provide other possibilities that have much more support than the idea of humans serving simply as an antenna to external consciousness. If you read more of the work of the scientists you are quoting, you may come to similar conclusions as the vast majority of scientists studying the matter and stop looking for magical links that observation has failed to support.

        All the best!

    • antoon soetens

      To Jules A. Lalonde

      One should not look for evidence of how brains work ( impossible task, thus publications have no value ) , but one should look for what is good and what is bad for the brains .

      What is certain is :
      1. drugs , pesticides , chemical: vitamins and nutritional supplements,.. are bad for the brains and the whole biological system , the side effects are proof .
      2. If the animals, especially dolphins, orcas, whales possess a higher level of communication, +…, than humans can also possess.
      3. But what happens man is treated in a wrong way and especially the last 70 years ( drugs + food… ) . This allows the brains do not develop as planned by their DNA .
      4. With my healing method we are on the right path , the recovery of bio – computer is the base . After seven years of application, I + others own many more possibilities psychically and mentally. Send signals to thousands of miles and received signals are proof . One feels in another world , but that is not done in one year , nature needs first to recover : organs and systems .
      As my invention is a revolution, by his simplicity: I avoid the “intellectual discussions” that no one understands. I proof my theory with empirical evidence. ( logicalwayhealing.com )
      One try to boycott my work and life, perhaps the proof that I am right.

  5. antoon soetens

    Good article , good overview and demonstrates the complexity of the brains , billions of neurons, … controlled by bio – computers.
    But scientists do not know the totality and properties, not even from 1 neuron.
    One can compare it with the complexity of the universe ” one can look but not touch ”
    Internal neurological research and internal intervention with drugs is totally illogical .

    The idea of the President Obama to bring a ” brains map” is an impossible task . It is not because they see something they know something . Never will we discover the secrets of the properties of brains, nature protects itself to for come manipulation. More even every brain is different thus only a personalized treatment can bring the solution.

    However, nature has provided that one can recover the faulty functioning of the brains.
    The solution is my invention of 2007. ” Healing made simple ”
    By external treatment with an organic product (plant) and in the right places, one recovers a disorder of neurons + all mental illnesses . This all takes place by osmosis effect: the bio – computers select the necessary products , therefore , anyone get a personalized treatment: world scoop.
    More after the recovery, you qualities increase according to the values of your DNA : world scoop.

    Hearing voices , ” there is another person in me ” , dyslexia , ADHD ,… memory disorder and all mental disorders , can be cured and prevented .
    Especially ” there is another person in me” must be treated immediately , if it goes to the negative direction, this avoids social dramas .
    For dyslexia, ADHD,.. neuron disorders, the bio-computer put the neurons back to the right place. Only your bio-computer knows how to do it !

    To cure a disease: mental or physical , one must not be a scientist but be logical , therefore everyone can heal themselves.
    Medicine is rewritten.
    For more details see http://www.logicalwayhealing.com or http://www.mypersonalhealthbook.com

    • Thanks Antoon… Your point about a brain maps is interesting; I doubt it can be a static objective map. For example, taking a schematic of a motherboard would provide no insight whatsoever to the workings of software within the computer. To me, mind=software.

      • antoon soetens

        “Your point about a brain maps is interesting; I doubt it can be a static objective map.”
        “to me, mind=software”

        So, the idea of President Obama is an impossible task and you confirm “to me, mind= software” or better : mind = mystery software : we will never understand, but we can make it better according to my invention.

  6. Great Article…I LIKE IT!

    This falls in line with, David St. Claire’s, “Lessons In Instant ESP” and Ingo Swann’s book, “PENETRATION: The Question Of Extraterrestrial And Human Telepathy”, both of which delve into that of a higher level of consciousness that of which seems to be the next step for “mankind.” The ONLY thing holding us back at the moment is our “ignorance!”

    “WE” must adopt the “…teachings of Jesus Christ…” in order to progress the human race to this next level…PERIOD! He set the “model” of “love” for one another that must be present in the heart & minds of everyone before this enlightenment may take place.

    NO! This is NOT “religious-based!” If you cannot understand the difference, then please, don’t make a “negative” comment as it Will simply show your…”ignorance!”

    • passenger

      Yeah. Can’t resist the temptation to show my “ignorance” here and make a “negative” comment.
      (Sorry, but these sorts of ” I going to say this and don’t you dare challenge me” statements always raise my ire)

      You get to define the terms here? You get to establish the limits of what is right and wrong? You get to be judge of what is good and bad, what is true and what is false? Really?

      You think you are proclaiming the truth and freeing people but in reality you are the kind of person that is the worst enemy of enlightenment. People can find salvation only under your terms and conditions? People can find hope but only if they accept your “model” of a “higher level of consciousness” that includes accepting the “teachings of Jesus Christ”.

      Yeah, “be change”. Just as long as we accept your self sanctified version of it.

      • WOW! Didn’t realize my “comment” made such an “impact” on you! Hmmm…??? Maybe I should run for President?

        In no way did I say “YOU” should accept anything I said…now did I?

        Nope…you simply read that into what I had “commented” on!

        Obviously, you didn’t understand what I had written…whatsoever!

        AT LEAST you accepted the FACT that you are just as “IGNORANT” as “I”…lol

        Just for the “heck of it”…What exactly is WRONG with the “…teachings of Jesus Christ?”

        Their “His” teachings…NOT MINE!

        btw…His teachings are NOT tied to any “religion!”

        • Anthony

          Um… although I’m not sure if you were quoting or paraphrasing since your grammar is atrocious, you indeed did say:

          “WE” must adopt the “…teachings of Jesus Christ…” in order to progress the human race to this next level…PERIOD! He set the “model” of “love” for one another that must be present in the heart & minds of everyone before this enlightenment may take place.

    • Bobby – thanks for your comment. I think what you are alluding to is the original Christianity hinted at by teachers like Gurdjieff and Jacob Needleman which formed the source for much eastern spirituality and perhaps came from ancient civilizations – Atlantis is a possibility?

      • “Atlantis?” Yep! The prophecy AND teachings of Jesus Christ pre-date the oldest civilizations known and DO go back to that of Atlantis purportedly said to have existed more than a million years ago…which, I DO believe!

        The prophecy of the return of a Messiah (I know Him to be Jesus Christ) is as old as Atlantis itself

  7. Pingback: I “like” this! | just2bwise

  8. Anthony

    This article, coincidentally, is extremely relevant to my recent contemplation. Very interesting, indeed. Thanks!

    The “far greater Being/Mind” is what Jung conceived as the collective unconscious, which our individual, conscious minds not only relate to but emerge from.”

    P.S. CE really needs an editor lol

    • Thanks Anthony and the others again for your comments. I know the mention of Jesus can be a trigger. I recommend a book by Jacob Needleman – “Lost Christianity” which may be of interest to some of you. I also salute Anthony for invoking the work of Carl Jung because it is precisely the arbitrary differentiation of an individual mind (self) and a collective consciousness (or unconscious) that the article is trying address. Does this differentiation exist in Nature, or is it purely a human abstraction or construction?

Leave a Reply

CE Appreciation Month

Featured TEDx Talk

TEDx - Agents of Change
Connect, Inspire, Chat & Share!
advertisement - learn more
CE Radio - Listen now!
Amazers
Subscribe to CE Magazine Monthly For Exclusive Content!
The Mind Unleashed
advertisement - learn more

We Recommend

www.truththeory.com

Trending Now

ocean-energy-3x4

This Energy Device Could End The Need For Fossil Fuels & Nuclear Power

What if there was a device we could implement in the very near future that could end the need for fossil fuels? Given we are in a time where our climate and ecosystem is breaking down as a result of…