Some Thoughts on Mind – From Sam Harris’ Talk at the GAC

Posted by on April 20, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 7 comments

This is a continuation from my previous blogs “Some Thoughts About Death – From Sam Harris’ Talk at the GAC” and “Some Thoughts About The Present – From Sam Harris’ Talk at the GAC“.

The third part of Sam Harris’ talk was about the mind, and how everything we experience is a product of the mind. I’ve written at length about the mind being all and everything before, but it is worth revisiting.

Before I start, I just want to say in this piece I will use the word “brain” to describe the organ itself and its chemical processes, and “mind” to describe the experience and our consciousness.

Every part of your daily experience is interpreted by the mind, and delivered to your consciousness by the very same mind. Your brain not only takes in all the information you receive, but takes that information, deciphers it and delivers you it’s interpretations on the fly. When you see anything, be it a red balloon or a scruffy dog, it is your mind’s interpretation you are experiencing, not the actual balloon or dog. If you pat the dog, and see that it’s happy, it’s not the dog or it’s happiness you are experiencing, rather our brain and mind’s reaction to the stimuli experienced. This may seem overly bleak to some, but let me continue.

When you meet a friend on the street and give them a hug, the embrace brings with it a group of sensations and stimuli which the brain delivers to the mind, and the outcome is the experience we perceive; the feeling of warmth and the comfort of the embrace, the texture of your friend’s clothes, their smell, and also the emotional feelings of well-being, and any memories that may be attached to past dealings with your friend.

Pain and suffering occur in the brain too, only because these are reactions to the body’s natural defence system and its aversion to pain for the reasons of self-preservation, we often think of them as external to the brain, as if the apparent source of discomfort is the actual site of the pain. In fact the pain is in your brain, your body sending signals to the brain, your brain deciphers it, and sends this to our conscious mind in the form of pain seemingly coming from the site of the injury, illness or cancer.

Some would say this brings up the idea of the mind/body duality, that the mind controls the body, and the body reacts to the mind’s whims, but of course the brain and body are part of one system; the brain cannot exist without the body, and the body is useless without the brain. (As it stands we have not been able to make a fully functioning “brain in a jar” or disembodied mind, and I’m not going to discount possibility. If this were possible, what kinds of questions would this raise? Would a fully functioning brain without any external input contain a mind?)

Memories and ideas of the future are brought about by the brain as current thoughts, not some disembodied future/past thought dragged up from the lower reaches of our brains. The reactions we have to painful past memories and the trepidation or excitement we feel about our futures are happening in the present. Given this, the idea of past and future dissolve, in an abstract sense, into part of what is happening now. Everything we experience is happening to us now, including past and future. (I covered this in part 2 of this blog piece).

What Harris bravely attempted to show in his talk was that there is a way to alter our perceptions of our own consciousness, and become acutely aware of what the body is, and a way to focus our minds on the fact that what we are experiencing in the “now” is everything we are. What is difficult is to consciously realise this. What is contentious is the standpoint taken by people of the skeptical and critical thinking crowds, which was most of the audience, as we tend to see anything “metaphysical” as non-existent, or at very least unprovable. Convincing a room of 4000 atheists and skeptics that mindful meditation is something worth considering was a big task, but Harris manages to spring this on everybody, and quite successfully too.

After pointing out the fact that the brain is the cause of every feeling or sensation we encounter in life, Harris guided the audience into a state of relaxation and awareness, where the lines between the physicality of our bodies and the mind became somewhat blurred. I am familiar with this kind of thing, having practiced very similar meditation techniques as a young man. Most of what I experienced was tied into some new-age spirituality, full of chakras, reiki and crystal gazing, not unlike the kind of “woo” pedaled by the likes of Deepak Chopra. It’s because of this I’m sure that many atheists and skeptics are wary of any kind of meditation, or anything appearing to be “metaphysical”.

What Harris did was not, however, metaphysical, but a physical process. Slowing the breathing and concentrating on the physical sensations around you can increase calmness and help to manage stress. Some studies have suggested it actually increases a sense of well-being, and also helps alleviate pain or at least assists in the management of chronic pain. Other studies have shown meditation can improve attention and self regulation. I have no doubt that at least some of these claims and studies pan out since we can control our minds’ and bodies’ activities by simply practicing a few simple techniques. But the problem lies in how to measure and conduct a study into the efficacy of meditation, as many of these techniques could occupy the same realm as “the placebo effect”, and there may also be many different ways to arrive at the desired effect.

Meditation, like the placebo, is still not fully understood, but this is not what Harris’ experiment on the 4000 GAC attendees was intended to do. The intention of showing us this technique was to highlight the fact that everything is in the mind. By using these simple techniques and by relaxing, the lines between our physical and mental selves begin to dissolve. It highlighted what he was saying, that all our experiences are mediated by the brain, all our perceptions and cognitions are the product of the brain and mind. And it helped give a real sense of “now” as opposed to the preoccupations we have with past and future.

Sorry for being overly wordy with these 3 pieces, but I thinkI have a conclusion for you.

Harris’ talk was definitely confronting to many of the attendees of the GAC, including myself. The parts about death and mind were nothing new to me for the most part, but the illustration of a kind of presence of mind in the “now” he showed was eye-opening; I’m still not sold on meditation for the control and management of pain as anything but a glorified placebo, but what if the processes in it could be harnessed and utilised on demand? I think the biggest thing I took away from the presentation is a notion of what it means to live in the “now”, to appreciate what and where we are right at this moment, to know that what we are experiencing is all we can ever experience, and that we can let go of the past and future, at least occasionally.

There is no sense in letting go of our memories, or fighting to maintain a planet we can live on in the future, because that too is a reality of our lives, of our minds and of our brains. We still need to maintain the fight against climate change denial, we still need to stop the pedophiles preying on our young, we still need to fight for the rights of women in the face of sexual discrimination. But couldn’t we all do with a little clarity of mind while doing this? Maybe Harris has part of the answer here.

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7 Comments

  1. Sam was the boss! Loved his talk, and your blog took me right back there. One stand out message was that the constantly ruminating brain makes us hostage to our thoughts, and hence the mindfulness meditation gives us relief by allowing us the respite of existing in the moment.

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  2. That is some “heavy” stuff…thanks for giving me something to really think about.  I think that Harris could be onto something though.  I was very intrigued by his book “Free Will” where he talks along some of the same themes in the mind/brain relationship.  Like you, I am not necessarily sold on the idea of meditation as particularly useful in some areas.  However, I do think we need to appreciate the world around us in the “now” and that as you point out, “a little clarity of mind” is a good thing.  I am very interested to learn more on these topics. 

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  3. Oops, I posted by accident, saying only “well”, haha!
    There is pretty much no doubt that stress influences many physiological processes, and that it is detrimental to well being. Any attempt to reduce stress is worthwhile the try. For some. meditation can do that, just learning to relax is important, in my opinion. However, for some reason, Sam Harris has the opposite effect on my mind, he drives me a bit crazy :-)

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    •  @AdrianaHeguy Out of curiosity, what about Harris drives you crazy?

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      •  @reasonbeingblog Long story, but in a nutshell, I think he jumps to conclusions too much, as a scientist, I prefer other scientists that do not have that bad habit, in my opinion. For example, he says things like science can determine what is right and what is wrong, and paints himself into a corner, instead of saying that science can certainly inform moral decisions. I saw him do that when he presented The Moral Landscape here in New York City; I was disappointed by his talk. It was a bit petty and triumphalist, in my view.  And he really irritated me with his Islamophobia, in the past. Just my opinion.
        Aside from that, I like him just fine :-)

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        •  @AdrianaHeguy I can see where you are coming from.  I recently read Free Will and while I enjoyed it and found it thought provoking, I felt the did not provide adequate evidence for his claims.  I can also see what you describe as his Islamophobia.  Initially, I felt the same way when I started reading The End of Faith, but felt by the end that he was not picking on Islam, but rather really felt that it posed a large threat to the world.  I also think he made a convincing argument for that.

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        •  @reasonbeingblog I did not finish The End of Faith but from an American perspective the largest threat to the world are the Christian fundamentalists who push the right-wing politicians to extreme position that in the long run, like the anti-science positions with respect to climate change, can possibly kill a larger number of people worldwide. But I did not mean to derail Martin’s blog or start a controversy.

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