It’s all in your head
I’ve been reading Stephen Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” slowly over the past few months, and it’s a fantastic read. The main premise is that the idea of the mind when formed as a “blank slate” is an antiquated and incorrect supposition. He goes on to show how the brain’s neural network actually has a certain amount of “programming” in it at birth with regards to what parts of the brain do what function. Obviously things like breathing are in there too, but some less obvious traits are present at birth also. This is not a book review of “The Blank Slate” however I do highly recommend it, and Pinker’s writing is very easy to digest.
Since I started reading this book I have had an increasing interest in what parts of our lives are driven by the brain, and what parts are more physical. I read an article recently about near-death-experiences, and how studies have shown that these experiences of moving into a light, floating away from their own bodies or some other “spiritual” experience is caused by a massive surge of electrical impulses as the body dies, or almost dies. This makes perfect sense to me, we must experience something in the last moments of our lives, and those who have teetered over the edge of death only to be revived seem able to recall what must be a very stressful and traumatic event.
This apparent “spiritual” experience was also the subject of a friend’s blog piece titled “Getting Off Your Face for Jesus” which suggests that the spiritual is a lot more about chemical reactions in the brain than anything metaphysical. I’d tend to agree with this, as the way I understand it everything we experience is by way of chemical/neural interactions in the brain, including the so called “spiritual”. The environment interacts with the body, the body interacts with the brain and the outcome is the experience.
As I have mentioned in the past, people knowingly alter their states of consciousness in order to “attain enlightenment” or contact the “other world” or “spirit world”, by means of drugs, chanting, rituals, flagellation and any number of strange practices. It would seem that this altering of the normal brain activity causes us to feel as though our experiences are beyond the body.
I have seen first-hand what happens to someone who has a brain tumor, and the way it can cause not only visions but confusions about the visions too. When the brain stops functioning how it should strange things happen. In this particular case, a loved-one of mine had a tumor in the area of the brain which is attributed to sight, and she described sometimes seeing golden light emanating from people’s skins, and at to her times seeing bugs crawling around in her peripheral vision. This was all just a symptom of the undiagnosed tumor, but to her it was as if she was experiencing hell. In her case, as a Christian, her interpretations of what was happening to her related back to her faith to a certain degree.
It is interesting that given all our experiences are interpreted by the brain, it’s our reaction as a society to separate mind from body, and spirit from mind. We can prove that experiences can be fabricated by triggering parts of the brain, and sensations can be emulated by triggering others. Why do people find it so unlikely that the brain is what allows us to experience anything and everything, and rather attribute this to a higher being? As time goes on we understand more and more about the workings of the brain and eventually will be able to explain “spiritual” experiences better.