July 26, 2012
. . . . . . . .
The other day I posted a brief essay (of sorts) that continued my investigation into this notion that many of us have about our ‘self’… For over five years now I have been fortunate (or, some may say, unfortunate) enough to stumble upon many ‘seemingly’ unusual and/or socially counter-intuitive views to many Westernised ways or styles of thinking about things… These alternatives, being anything but wrong, from my perspective, have pushed my boat out way beyond what much of Western psychology and philosophy has ‘reasonably’ presumed about the universe in which we live… As well as how we, as sentient beings, relate to it. These ideas have – to say the least – drastically challenged my own personalised philosophies and ideas about what reality might actually be, as well as how I choose to live my life… Not to mention they have changed the way I think about nearly everything I thought I knew anything about i.e. social etiquette, certain scientific knowledge, logical reasoning, etc… doing so to the point that most of the certainties that I had stubbornly held on to over the years have now shown themselves to be – on the whole – nothing more than delusions that are about just as uncertain and biased towards their (or even my) own ends as Russell’s and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” might have been theirs when set aside Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems”.
Be it known… It has certainly never been my intention to undermine any of our Westernised ways of thinking, or any of our socially acceptable habits of being and/or notions of perceiving the world around us. Rather, my aim has always been to challenge any dogmatic certainties that we might have held cradled a bit to close to our psyches (much like Linus’ security/comfort blanket in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips) and/or any overly cherished ‘certainties‘ that we may harbour in our ever-changing mind-streams while going about our busy daily lives on the surface of this planet… A jewel of a planet that ‘floats’ – almost miraculously – in an inky black void amidst a cornucopia of never ending universal changes (stars and galaxies being born and then die). Certainly the universe around us never rests for one second. It always resides in a continual state of unending change. Nothing… And I mean nothing, ever remains the same for very long, let alone for ever. So why should we hold on to any certainties… ? Or live clinging to securities that one day the universe will snatch away from us?
Within this state of perpetual change there lies the natural ebb and flow of chaotic patterns that intermingle, interrelate and feedback upon each other, allowing more complex systems to evolve and/or arise within the non-linear tapestry of atomic inter-reactivity, instability and the resulting conjoined possibilities. These biological frames of living matter (that we call our bodies) are a testament to this natural arising of life and, as such, I have searched both high and low to formulate a clearer sort of reasoning/understanding (at least for my ‘self‘) so as to better understand/perceive the natural order of things (regardless of what the generalised consensus might be), as well as to be able to better to relate to this experience of being a so-called ‘living’ entity.
I am humbled to say that, during this search, I have found many other philosophies and understandings that closely relate to my own, all with minor variations that procure a sort of diversity and, yet, still point towards a sort of perennial philosophy. From these various ‘schools of thought’ I have learnt many pertinent things, as well as been afforded a chance to develop and attune further my own understanding and attitude toward life. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his cryptic lecture “Analogy As The Core Of Cognition“, I continually found my ‘self’ observing a type of affine universal self-similarity between these various ways of thinking… Something that kept reminding me of what some have kept calling “God’s Thumb Print“… Which has allowed me to see a part of the infinite whole and realise that it is all interrelated and interconnected to everything… And it was this interrelatedness that eventually brought me into contact with some highly perceptive and well developed philosophies concerning the natural order of things, the mind and how we perceive things, as seen in “Taoism” and “Buddhism”.
For me, Buddhism has been the most fascinating of all the philosophies that I have learnt about. It’s central doctrines all highlight the most important – and sometimes much overlooked – aspects of living i.e. everything changes – nothing stays the same (impermanence), everything is interconnected to everything else – we are interdependent to everything else (interdependence), mind is all pervasive – our states of mind have a very powerful effect on the way in which we perceive the world around us i.e. the power of mind can do some very ‘supernatural’ things, like changing the shape of the brain, affecting the subtle energy channels within the body to produce highly unusual results and, not least, Thích Quảng Đức, who was the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death without any display of pain or suffering at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 in protest to the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government… As well as developing awareness, especially to our states of mind as they arise and subside, which is the key to finding a balanced and holistic way of living, one that propagates the most well being for all and one’s ‘self’.
As such, I still come back to Buddhism everyday to find new (though they are, in actual fact, near on 2,600 years old) and highly relevant teachings (and/or parallels) about how to understand and relate to this experience of living for positive effect. Many of the Buddhist philosophies that I have learnt about very much mirror some of the scientific philosophies that have recently surface (or have been re-discovered) and, as such, I find a great source of wisdom and inspiration within its bountiful depths. As a sort of testament to Buddhism’s universal usefulness there seems to be a sort of general acceptance within the NHS that Buddhist techniques can actually help people, especially when dealing with much of the anxiety and depression we find in the modern world. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the NHS – here in the UK – now offers mindfulness training, which really seems to helping people cultivate and develop better awareness in their lives, surroundings and ways of being… But, despite this adoption of Buddhist practises by the UK’s health service, a lot of the most important parts to mindfulness training seem to have been skirted over and simply ignored…
Why is this? Well… For starters, many of the eminent Masters who have practised meditation and mindfulness for many “lifetimes” (reincarnation being a subject that I will broach in a coming post) just don’t seem to be included in the scientific equation… No doubt some already are being included, but many are not… Though more importantly, the NHS are not contacting those who are properly educated in mindfulness to seek their advise on how best to implement a course that teaches mindfulness. Perhaps the ‘solid’ scientific background that seems to confidently back-up modern medicine with facts and figures just doesn’t hold the Karmapa or Dali Lama in high regard as contemporaries who were formally trained in their own self-accredited universities of reason and knowledge and, thus, lack the relevant degrees to substantiate passing on their knowledge and wisdom to those in modern Westernised academia… ? Or maybe the deliberate shrouding of many Buddhist practises by the monks and Lamas themselves only adds to the stigma of religious mysticism that already surrounds Buddhism here in the West… ? Either way, the only way to dispel this somewhat ignorant (maybe even arrogant) outlook that the West has about Buddhism is to mention that, what many people fail to understand is, both the Karmapa and Dali Lama have trained harder and longer in these ancient techniques of mindfulness and awareness than any graduate or PhD would or could have done in their respective fields over the course of their lives, making them by far the foremost teachers in their unique disciplines of mindfulness and awareness training. Neither is Buddhism a religion in the traditional sense… Rather, I would say that it is a highly developed philosophy and science of mind, one that has been crafted from years of practise, whereby each exponent has experimented with many techniques until those that work (in developing mindfulness) are recorded and practised diligently by further lineages, all that directly stem back to the Gautama Buddha.
Until this is clearly grasped by many of us, for me, the NHS beginning to train people in mindfulness without proper guidance is a bit like a novice (who has no formal training in the subject) teaching student something that they are not really qualified to teach. Imagine someone – who has no formal training in science whatsoever – however they note that quantum physics actually shows us a lot about the way in which the world works around us (on a mechanical level) – and, yet, then goes on to ignore most of the relevant details behind it, only using snippets of information that seem to suite their own ends i.e. like showing the Double-Slit Experiment and then stating to a student that this clearly demonstrates the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena, and then awarding them a degree. Okay… But what happened to the rest of the data that those researching and studying quantum physical events in proper academia have discovered over many years of research, all of which helps the student develop a deeply penetrating idea that leads to a more coherent and complete picture of the whole of quantum mechanics, so that they can continue the complicated and arduous research at the cutting edge of discovery to help as many others as is possible? For sure, people have to start somewhere… But I strongly feel that they should start as they mean to go on i.e. learn from the people who know what they are talking about.
On a less critical note… At least the NHS is beginning to realise that the mind is a powerful tool that can help heal itself without the need for medical or pharmacological intervention most of the time. Perhaps this will be akin to modern medicine taking the first steps in a philosophy where the patient might well be better and more equipped to treat themselves rather than a doctor (in many instances), especially if given the right teachings and practises to perform… ?
As part of this lifetime journey with Buddhism, I will continue to write entries in this website about what I find and discover along the way. Certainly there is no other aim to this practise other that to arrange and present my thoughts to another who might be interested in reading about what I have to say. As such, I must stress that, while I do my best to make sure that the information provided within these pages is as correct and accurate (from my own perspective) as can be, I am nonetheless a novice. And, so, I would never use anything that I have written here as fact without checking it out for yourself and finding what you really think and feel about it first. Most who have been following the entries in this website for sometime already know my wariness of anything procuring ultimate fact or certainty. As Lord Byron was once noted to have said, “If I be a fool, it is, at least, that I be a doubting one; for I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom…” And as Einstein once said about mathematics, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” As such, I find myself resigned to a continual modification of what I think I know, turning it continually around so as to be able to view it from every possible angle in order to see whether there are any gaps in it… And, as I trawl through the mountains of research that comes my way, I find snippets that offer a ‘possible’ insight, or fit, for some of those gaps… Still, there will always be gaps… Just like with the length of Britain’s coastline being dependent on its length, so too will there be gaps in our understanding that will always somehow leave the puzzle of consciousness, at least for myself, never quite answered entirely… Slightly clearer it may seem than what most of us originally started with… But never complete. Only direct experience will bring about completion.
So, until total, completely pure, immersive and direct experience is achieved, one that can transcend dualistic thought altogether… I continue with my conceptualised trains of thought and make the following offering that might shed a tiny bit of light on how and why the notion of a “self” could come about, one that perhaps evolved (and was naturally selected for) over time in the cellular infrastructure of our brains.
Just the other month, as I was thinking about some of the other unusual aspects about the ‘self’ (of which I will write more about in future posts), while painting the BIG green doors outside, I came across the following New Scientist article that was stuck to the bottom of my paint can, covered in gently arcing streaks of sticky green paint. It was the word “consciousness” that caught my eye… So, prising it gently from the base of the tin, the article’s front page slowly began to reveal itself. Once it was free from the can’s underside, most of the article was still obscured by vibrant rounded strips of summery Buckingham Green, most of which obscured enough of the article to make it unreadable. Thus I took it to the kitchen table and gently wiped it clean with a spirit soaked rag. As the thick streaks of paint slowly spread across the page, covering some of the clean text, the whole became more legible… The green was becoming so thinned that anything printed underneath could now be clearly seen. Once I could read most of the text, I set it aside in the bright heat of the sun and left its wet, soft pulp to dry into a manageable form as I painted another coat of green onto the old barn’s doors.
Not too long after finishing the last over coat, the page was ready to finger… And so I set about to my usual morning ritual of having a cup of tea in the cool morning breeze while taking cover under the waning shade of the granary’s hulking form, as I set about reading the somewhat shabby pea green, but now legible, article that had been rescued from certain doom… And this is what I read…
. . . . . . . .
Are These The Brain Cells That Give Us Consciousness?
The brainiest creatures share a secret – an odd kind of brain cell involved in emotions and empathy that may have accidentally made us conscious
THE origin of consciousness has to be one of the biggest mysteries of all time, occupying philosophers and scientists for generations. So it is strange to think that a little-known neuroscientist called Constantin von Economo might have unearthed an important clue nearly 90 years ago.
When he peered down the lens of his microscope in 1926, von Economo saw a handful of brain cells that were long, spindly and much larger than those around them. In fact, they looked so out of place that at first he thought they were a sign of some kind of disease. But the more brains he looked at, the more of these peculiar cells he found – and always in the same two small areas that evolved to process smells and flavours.
Von Economo briefly pondered what these “rod and corkscrew cells”, as he called them, might be doing, but without the technology to delve much deeper he soon moved on to more promising lines of enquiry.
Little more was said about these neurons until nearly 80 years later when, Esther Nimchinsky and Patrick Hof at Mount Sinai University in New York also stumbled across clusters of these strange-looking neurons. Now, after more than a decade of functional imaging and post-mortem studies, we are beginning to piece together their story. Certain lines of evidence hint that they may help build the rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships.
Many other big-brained, social animals also seem to share these cells, in the same spots as the human brain. A greater understanding of the way these paths converged could therefore tell us much about the evolution of the mind.
Admittedly, to the untrained eye these giant brain cells, now known as von Economo neurons (VENs), don’t look particularly exciting. But to a neuroscientist they stand out like a sore thumb. For one thing, VENs are at least 50 per cent, and sometimes up to 200 per cent, larger than typical human neurons. And while most neurons have a pyramid-shaped body with a finely branched tree of connections called dendrites at each end of the cell, VENs have a longer, spindly cell body with a single projection at each end with very few branches (see diagram below). Perhaps they escaped attention for so long because they are so rare, making up just 1 per cent of the neurons in the two small areas of the human brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex.
Their location in those regions suggests that VENs may be a central part of our mental machinery, since the ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of our inner lives. Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain or simply the voice of someone we love. When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief. For John Allman, a neuroanatomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, this adds up to a kind of “social monitoring network” that keeps track of social cues and allows us to alter our behaviour accordingly (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1225, p 59).
The two brain areas also seem to play a key role in the “salience” network, which keeps a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and directs our attention to the most pressing events, as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes (Brain Structure and Function, DOI: 10.1007/s00429-012-0382-9).
What’s more, both regions are active when a person recognises their reflection in the mirror, suggesting that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self – a key component of consciousness. “It is the sense of self at every possible level – so the sense of identity, this is me, and the sense of identity of others and how you understand others. That goes to the concept of empathy and theory of mind,” says Hof.
To Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, it all amounts to a continually updated sense of “how I feel now”: the ACC and FI take inputs from the body and tie them together with social cues, thoughts and emotions to quickly and efficiently alter our behaviour (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 10, p 59).
This constantly shifting picture of how we feel may contribute to the way we perceive the passage of time. When something emotionally important is happening, Craig proposes, there is more to process, and because of this time seems to speed up. Conversely, when less is going on we update our view of the world less frequently, so time seems to pass more slowly.
VENs are probably important in all this, though we can only infer their role through circumstantial evidence. That’s because locating these cells, and then measuring their activity in a living brain hasn’t yet been possible. But their unusual appearance is a signal that they probably aren’t just sitting there doing nothing. “They stand out anatomically,” says Allman, “And a general proposition is that anything that’s so distinctive looking must have a distinct function.”
In the brain, big usually means fast, so Allman suggests that VENs could be acting as a fast relay system – a kind of social superhighway – which allows the gist of the situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively on the hop, a crucial survival skill in a social species like ours. “That’s what all of civilisation is based on: our ability to communicate socially, efficiently,” adds Craig.
A particularly distressing form of dementia that can strike people as early as their 30s supports this idea. People who develop fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease, when the main symptom is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy and self-control. “They don’t have normal empathic responses to situations that would normally make you disgusted or sad,” says Hof. “You can show them horrible pictures of an accident and they just don’t blink. They will say ‘oh, yes, it’s an accident’.”
Post-mortem examinations of the brains of people with autism also bolster the idea that VENs lie at the heart of our emotions and empathy. According to one recent study, people with autism may fall into two groups: some have too few VENs, perhaps meaning that they don’t have the necessary wiring to process social cues, while others have far too many (Acta Neuropathologica, vol 118, p 673). The latter group would seem to fit with one recent theory of autism, which proposes that the symptoms may arise from an over-wiring of the brain. Perhaps having too many VENs makes emotional systems fire too intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed, as many say they do.
Another recent study found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes. The researchers suggest that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness (PLoS One, vol 6, p e20936).
VENs in other animals provide some clues, too. When these neurons were first identified, there was the glimmer of hope that we might have found one of the key evolutionary changes, unique to humankind, that could explain our social intelligence. But the earliest studies put paid to that kind of thinking, when VENs turned up in chimpanzees and gorillas. In recent years, they have also been found in elephants and some whales and dolphins.
Like us, many of these species live in big social groups and show signs of the same kind of advanced behaviour associated with VENs in people. Elephants, for instance, display something that looks a lot like empathy: they work together to help injured, lost or trapped elephants, for example. They even seem to show signs of grief at elephant “graveyards” (Biology Letters, vol 2, p 26). What’s more, many of these species can recognise themselves in the mirror, which is usually taken as a rudimentary measure of consciousness. When researchers daub paint on an elephant’s face, for instance, it will notice the mark in the mirror and try to feel the spot with its trunk. This has led Allman and others to speculate that von Economo neurons might be a vital adaptation in large brains for keeping track of social situations – and that the sense of self may be a consequence of this ability.
Yet VENs also crop up in manatees, hippos and giraffes – not renowned for their busy social lives. The cells have also been spotted in macaques, which don’t reliably pass the mirror test, although they are social animals. Although this seems to put a major spanner in the works for those who claim that the cells are crucial for advanced cognition, it could also be that these creatures are showing the precursors of the finely tuned cells found in highly social species. “I think that there are homologues of VENs in all mammals,” says Allman. “That’s not to say they’re shaped the same way but they are located in an analogous bit of cortex and they are expressing the same genes.”
It would make sense, after all, that whales and primates might both have recycled, and refined, older machinery present in a common ancestor rather than independently evolving the same mechanism. Much more research is needed, however, to work out the anatomical differences and the functions of these cells in the different animals.
That work might even help us understand how these neurons evolved in the first place. Allman already has some ideas about where they came from. Our VENs reside in a region of the brain that evolved to integrate taste and smell, so he suggests that many of the traits now associated with the FI evolved from the simple act of deciding whether food is good to eat or likely to make your ill. When reaching that decision, he says, the quicker the “gut” reaction kicks in the better. And if you can detect this process in others, so much the better.
“One of the important functions that seems to reside in the FI has to do with empathy,” he says. “My take on this is that empathy arose in the context of shared food – it’s very important to observe if members of your social group are becoming ill as a result of eating something.” The basic feeding circuity, including the rudimentary VENs, may then have been co-opted by some species to work in other situations that involve a decision, like working out if a person is trustworthy or to be avoided. “So when we have a feeling, whether it be about a foodstuff or situation or another person, I think that engages the circuitry in the fronto-insular cortex and the VENS are one of the outputs of that circuitry,” says Allman.
Allman’s genetics work suggests he may be on to something. His team found that VENs in one part of the FI are expressing the genes for hormones that regulate appetite. There are also a lot of studies showing links between smell and taste and the feelings of strong emotions. Our physical reaction to something we find morally disgusting, for example, is more or less identical to our reaction to a bitter taste, suggesting they may share common brain wiring (Science, vol 323, p 1222). Other work has shown that judging a morally questionable act, such as theft, while smelling something disgusting leads to harsher moral judgements (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096). What’s more, Allman points out that our language is loaded with analogies – we might find an experience “delicious”, say, or a person “nauseating”. This is no accident, he says.
However, it is only in highly social animals that VENs live exclusively in the scent and taste regions. In the others, like giraffes and hippos, VENs seem to be sprinkled all over the brain. Allman, however, points out that these findings may be a red herring, since without understanding the genes they express, or their function, we can’t even be sure how closely these cells relate to human VENs. They may even be a different kind of cell that just looks similar.
Based on the evidence so far, however, Hof thinks that the ancestral VENs would have been more widespread, as seen in the hippo brain, and that over the course of evolution they then migrated to the ACC and FI in some animals, but not others – though he admits to having no idea why that might be. He suspects the pressures that shaped the primate brain may have been very different to those that drove the evolution of whales and dolphins.
Craig has hit upon one possibility that would seem to fit all of these big-brained animals. He points out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. A system that continually monitors the environment and the people or animals in it would therefore be an asset, allowing you to adapt quickly to a situation to save as much energy as possible. “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the body but the sensory inputs from the brain,” Craig says. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. “Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilisation and that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”
If he’s right – and there is a long way to go before we can be sure – it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might have been a big, and very successful accident.
This article has been edited since it was first posted
Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK
. . . . . . . .
To find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.
OR to learn a bit more about the author, please visit her LinkedIn profile page by clicking here.
July 18, 2012
. . . . . . . .
The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
. . . . . . . .
While the first part of this exposé on the notion of a ‘self’ discussed how the idea of my own individual ‘self,’ as a distinct and separate entity that (at least in the present social context of most Western understanding) seems to be independently existent aside from everything else outside of it, might – in actual fact – only be an illusory conceptualisation that had been derived from our use of language and fragmented academic understandings (about what we are and what we are not) that aim to separate the world into definable and distinctly measurable/quantifiable parts… Part 2 will focus on the idea of how our senses (which I will parallel with the idea lying behind a particular optical illusion) form the notion of a “self”… When viewed in this way, it poses the question of whether the notion of our “selves” is actually merely just an illusion and, thus, begets whether or not we should be bypassing all and any certainty that we may have that the “self” actually does exist as a separate and independent entity from everything else. Just as a mirage in a desert can fool the thirsty person who perceives it to be a real body of water… Running forward without ever reaching it to quench their thirst… So to can the notion of a ‘self’ be seen as a type of mirage that causes us to function in such a way that is not in line with the true nature of reality.
Certainly we can all – to varying degrees – perceive the world around us using these bio-molecular bodies that we all have come into (I will not doubt this point here, as Descartes did, mainly because other philosophers have adequately covered the ground of this seemingly futile question well enough for me for the moment). Through these bodies, we find our “selves” in near proximity to all that we immediately experience going on around us. It is as though we are continually immersed in all the activity that is directly going on around us, seeing it only from the locality of our own body’s perspective. This is because we perceive all the things/objects/events in our lives via our senses i.e. sight with eyes, hearing through our ears, tasting with our tongues, scents through our noses, touching with our bodies… And as each of our senses are derived from and associated with the various organs we just described, all of which are directly attached to our bodies, is it any wonder that rarely do we see things from the perspective of another body? Our perceptions don’t just easily re-tune into what another person is seeing from their seemingly separate bodily perspective. Thus, on the whole, “I” tend to perceive the world around me exactly as though my very body were the central hub from which all interaction with the outside surrounding world happened. And it is because of this proximity to everything around us that “I” mostly always feel to be embedded right in the middle of ‘my’ body.
So… Is it really any wonder that we perceive our “selves” to be separate independent entities that exist separately from one another, and/or as separately from everything else going on around us? Still… Despite the obvious answer to this question, I would nonetheless like to further expound on the seemingly absurd notion that the “self”, appearing to be independent of everything else around it, actually isn’t… And I aim to make my point by means of drawing a parallel between a well-known optical illusion and the idea of the senses forming an illusion of “self.”
By doing this, I hope not to disprove that the “self” exists at all… Rather my aim is to help us re-equate the notion of our “self” into a softer and more gentle fit for the present world around us i.e. as a designated notion of how our body – along with its feelings, emotions, thoughts, opinions, desires, etc… – can be described as an entity that is different from another’s for the purpose of describing our experiences separately.
. . . . . . . .
As some of you may already know… I have a tendency to call myself a Buddhist most of the time… Though I dare say that I have quite a bit of trouble walking the path of one nearly all the time. Still, I do my best, and on the whole, whenever some free-time presents itself, I enjoy reading as much as I can about the subject and how it relates back to some of the thoughts that I have while reading about scientific modes of inquiry into what consciousness might actually be.
As it happened, yesterday I was reading about how our consciousness is apparently connected to the world that we perceive around us via a website called the “Mind Lab.” On it, I came across four beautifully presented sessions that aim to investigate and demonstrate how our brain perceives everyday phenomena, as well as how there are in fact clear limits to what and how we can perceive these daily phenomena. While these limits might not be easily noticed by many of us, they nonetheless exist and very much influence the way in which we perceive and understand the world around us.
For the purposes of this entry, I would like to focus on the last session of the “Mind Lab” website, where we are presented with a well known illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle (see diagram immediately below). The Kanizsa Triangle was named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa who first described its effect.
When you look at the above image your brain creates contours (outlines) of a triangle, even though one does not actually exist. In reality it is simply an illusion created by the the wedges and angles that exist in the image. To further this, on the “Mind Lab” website, in the session on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input”, we are told that:
“The brain sometimes perceives shapes and colours even in situations where there is no corresponding sensory input coming from the outside world.”
“For example (in the image directly above), you should see the missing sections of these dark disks as the sides of a square that is brighter than its surroundings, and even be able to see the vague contour lines of a square that doesn’t actually exist.
“When the brain sees an image like this, it interprets depth relationships to perceive that ‘there is a square set on top of four black disks.’”
The article on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input” then goes on to say, “these non-existent subjective contours can also occur with colour.” We are then presented with two more diagrams that illustrate illusions of this type and, are conclusively, lead to believe “that these subjective contours and colours are constructed by the brain to compensate for missing sensory information.”
Through out the rest of the piece we are presented with various examples that show us how our brain and mind automatically interpret things about the world around us, thus making assumptions about things that appear to be there when, in fact, they are not.
While reading through this section of the “Mind Lab” website, it dawned on me that the “self” came across as something very similar to the points (or disks) seen in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion that suggested to the brain/mind that there was a triangle present. But rather than graphical points in a diagram, when I began looking at what the “self” was, these points became points of a nexus of experiential phenomena that suggested the presence of a contained “self” – or an “I” – that resided in geographical proximity to each other, at the centre of a distinct and seemingly separate body i.e. our physical body.
. . . . . . . .
In order to make my point clearer, I would like to elaborate on a Buddhist idea that I recently came across called the “Five Skandhas” relating to the nature of compounded reality.
It should be noted here that Buddhism is not a religion in the classical sense i.e. it does not have a centralised omnipotent or omnipresent God or series of Gods that can be worshiped or appeased. Rather, Buddhism is based around the teachings of one man, a man who became the Gautama Buddha, or an enlightened being. And, as one does when ones achieves perfect realisation (so I’m told), he became perfectly aware of the true nature of reality and of all compounded phenomena that give rise to experience and karma.
No doubt, as the Buddha himself stated on several occasions, he was only ever truly just a man… A man who had strived to understand the world around him as best as he could in order to help all beings achieve a state of non-suffering, or Nirvana… And in doing so, he had severed all ties to the Karmic patterns of being that had kept him locked into daily routines of unenlightened activity so as to help other beings achieve the ultimate state of realisation that he had attained. Thus, rather than achieving enlightenment through supernatural means, he had merely learnt many helpful techniques from all the learned masters he had met during his lifetime (and previous lives). Then, along with much diligence, he had practised all these techniques with immeasurable devotion until he became a fully enlightened being.
I suppose I find strong parallels between how the Gautama Buddha learnt these techniques of liberation from all the Karmic patterns of his own making, as well as of those of other learned masters, AND how scientific methods of inquiry looking into phenomena so as to figure out how all the facets of the bigger picture fit into together and work around one another… Just as the Buddha strove to see things clearly and perfectly, without any dis-figuration or misunderstanding, in order to crystallise them into a naturally formed primordial experience devoid of any need for description or intellectualism, so too does science strive to see things clearly and perfectly without dis-figuration or misunderstanding (although without loosing the need for description or intellectualism). Perhaps this is why an eminent Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, wrote in his book, entitled “The Joy Of Living”, Buddhism “is a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way…” While looking into the idea of what the “self” was, it was this particular quote that encouraged me to see the parallel between the concept behind an optical illusion (the Kanizsa Triangle) and the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”
Bearing this in mind… The Buddhist idea that I would like to have a look at to illustrate my point about how similar certain ‘optical’ illusions are to the notion of “non-self” is the principle of the ‘skandhas.’ The skandhas (which is Sanskrit) are any of five types of phenomena that serve as objects of ‘clinging’ and bases for a sense of ‘self.’ The historical Buddha often spoke of the “Five Skandhas,” also called the “Five Aggregates” or the “Five Heaps,” and taught that nothing among them is really ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as ‘I’ is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas (just in the same way that the points and angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion ‘suggest’ the presence of a triangle).
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he began with the first Truth, life is ‘dukkha.’ This is often translated as ‘life is suffering,’ or ‘stressful’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ But it is also well documented in Buddhism that the Buddha also used the word to mean ‘impermanent’ and ‘conditioned.’ To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. The Buddha taught that the skandhas were dukkha.
The component parts of the skandhas work together in such a seamless way that they create the sense of a single ‘self,’ or a notion of ‘I’ (much like the points and angles do in the Kanizsa Triangle when our body observes it). Despite this single sense of an isolated ‘self,’ the Buddha taught that there is no ‘self’ occupying the skandhas (much like there is actually no triangle present in the Kanizsa Triangle). Thus, in Buddhism, developing a deep understanding the skandhas is extremely helpful to seeing through the illusion of ‘self.’
Please note that, while the explanation provided here is very basic, it is suitable to demonstrate how the five senses come together to produce a sense of ‘I’ and/or ‘self.’ Also, it should be noted that the various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas somewhat differently from one another, so if you were to read more about them you may find that the teachings of one school don’t exactly match the teachings of another.
In a moment I’ll discuss how the Six Organs/Senses or Faculties relate to the Five Skandas. But before I do this, I would like to individually list the Six Organs/Senses, along with their corresponding objects, so that we might get a clearer view of what they are exactly in Buddhist terms.
The Six Sense Organs or Faculties are:
The Six Corresponding Objects to the Sense Organs are (respectively):
1. Visible form
5. Tangible things
6. Thoughts and ideas
Next I will discuss the Five Skandas and how they relate to the Six Sense Organs or Faculties.
1. The First Skandha: Form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties listed above (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things).
Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can’t see what’s on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
2. The Second Skandha: Sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism.
Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
3. The Third Skandha: Perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna.
The word “samjna” means “knowledge that puts together.” It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience(s) with shoes.
When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It’s “some kind of tool with a red handle,” for example, putting the new thing in the categories “tool” and “red.” Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize a machine as a car because we see them regularly on the roads around us.
4. The Fourth Skandha: Mental Formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggregate of mental formations. How are actions “mental” formations? As is stated in the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samsara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
5. The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object.
It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us in the West, this is a very different way to think about “consciousness.”
It is also important to remember that vijnana is not “special” or “above” the other skandhas. It is not the “self.” It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a ‘self…’ This is much like Kalu Rinpoche discusses in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” when he discusses tendrel in relation to what actually makes the sound of a bell.
As a buffer to this idea… I’d like to highlight an exert from a book that I have been reading, entitled “No Self, No Problem.”
We identify with our body made of flesh, bones, and other components and therefore we believe that we are material, substantial, and concrete. This understanding has become so embedded in our belief system that we rarely question it. The results of that are the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness, and death. We acquire these conditions simply out of believing that we are this physical body. We always pay a high price when we believe false ideas. This perception is not just held individually; it is held dearly by the collective mind of society and has been for many generations. That is why it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche. Our normal, everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity and then strengthened and enforced by the language we use.
At a very early age we are indoctrinated into this notion of self as the body. For example when we see a small child we say, “He is beautiful. I love his hair. she has the cutest eyes.” Through thoughts and comments such as these we are planting the seeds of this mistaken identity. Of course there is nothing wrong with giving compliments. It is much better than criticism. However it is still a form of misconception. The truth is that, independent of any characteristics, a child is inherently beautiful the moment she is born. So we are are all beautiful.
We are living in an age when people are disconnected from their true identity and this false perception is validated from every angle. Everyone is craving a perfect body and seeking it in others. For example, when you go to the grocery store you see magazines displaying pictures of men and women in a perfect and idealized youthful form. It is very difficult to resist these messages. They come from everywhere, all aspects of society, and they validate this sense of mistaken identity. They validate the sense that this body is who we really are. Given the tendency to establish a perfect idealized standard, many people suffer from pride, narcissism, arrogance, shame, guilt, and self-hatred because of their relationship with their body and their ability or inability to reflect this perfect standard.
Every moment when we wake up and look into the mirror there is a voice in our mind that is constantly judging us and others according to this standard. Have you ever noticed that? Our mind is always judging: “Oh, another wrinkle. She is too fat. He is strange looking. She is beautiful. He is handsome.” These judgements not only create a stumbling block on our spiritual path, they also create clouds of negativity in our consciousness and keep us firmly chained in the prison of duality.
But there is no need to hold onto this. There is the possibility of transcending this identification with our body in each and every moment. It is only when we drop all of these judgements that we will recognize that everyone is divine in their uniqueness. Egoic mind is always comparing self with others because it believes itself to be a separate entity and it uses the body as the divine line between self and others.
We are nonmaterial. We are insubstantial. We are not like a tale that eventually breaks down. The very essence of who we are goes beyond the conditions of decay and impermanence. Yes, our body is impermanent but our true nature is not impermanent. Our true nature is deathless and divine, transcending all imperfections. Because of this we are all equal, we are all one. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. When someone manifests their true nature, they live out of love, kindness, and joy. They inflict less pain on others. When we meditate, sooner or later we discover that this is not just abstract theory. This corresponds to the truth, to reality.
by Anam Thubten
I hope that here you can now begin to see how the notion of a ‘self’ might comes about, as well as how it relates to an illusionary triangle that is suggested in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion. Just as the three disks and three angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion sit within proximity to each other in the diagram to suggest a triangle, so too do the six sense organs join together by way of the body via the 5 skandhas to produce a notion of a “self” or “I.”
I should highlight here that I am in no way suggesting that our “self” does not actually exist… Neither am I saying that it is certainly and independently existent of everything else. Rather I am suggesting that, in a relative sense, the “self” is related to many interdependent phenomena and, so, it should be obvious how the notion of our “self” is not independently existing away from everything/anything else around us i.e. the understanding that we are independent entities is actually a flawed perspective… In reality, everything is interconnected to everything else in a long chain-mail of causes and effects.
When we truly begin to understand this perspective, all the separate aspects of “self” and “other” merge into a unifying whole. What exactly happens at this point is somewhat beyond me as, while I can fairly clearly grasp the conceptual idea lying behind the negation of a certain and independent ‘self’, I find it possibly to be one of the hardest and most problematic notions to actually embrace into my being and way of living… I presume this is because ‘I’ am riddled with all sorts socially accepted forms of memetic vagaries and ideals, all of which relate very strongly and concisely to my living in a highly capitalist and consumerist society, the roots of which appear to be so deeply entrenched in my being that it somewhat reminds me of how I clear out the flower beds around my home from all the “creeping buttercup” that comes back each year… Every effort made to remove this invasive and vivacious plant from my garden’s boarders – even if almost all of the tiny/minuscule roots are removed (and, trust me, removing them all is near on an impossible task) – so as to prevent it strangling the other flowers that lie in the beds, is only as good as partially doing the job that is needed… Just one small part of a root left unwittingly in the bed ensures that the “buttercup” will come back the following year. In many ways, in order to take a decent go at negating my ‘self-ish’ tendencies, I would need to totally remove my ‘Being’ from the daily bombardment of advertising and business that I am presently immersed in, as well as taking solace away from usual social engagements and enactments, all of which would be much like one removing all the contaminated soil in and around the surrounding area to get rid of every last piece of the overbearing buttercup. No doubt it is a problem to develop a more attune sense of ‘self’ in a culture that ubiquitously embraces the ‘self’ as a justified and certain way of understanding and being.
Perhaps the only answer is to remove myself further from this culture’s pervasive and ‘self-ish’ embrace on my psyche? Or perhaps I should find a master to help me progress beyond this point at which I find myself stuck… And allow me to let go of my polarised views of what is right or wrong and so embrace all that simply is as it is… ? As emptiness… ?
. . . . . . . .
To find out more about Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s book, from Rinpoche himself, please click here.
July 17, 2012
Don’t let a thread fall without noticing it.
Don’t rake dry brown leaves carelessly.
Think of how difficult it was
For something to take this existence.
. . .
Frugality is lauded in almost every culture. Nearly all of us have been taught to conserve and save. Those who do not waste and yet do not become misers are most admirable.
We can be aware of conservation everyday. We should think whether what we discard can be reused or recycled. We should consider whether our expenditures are really necessary. We should be aware if we are wasting our time and efforts on frivolous activities. We should not abuse our environment with garbage, pollutants, and recreational activities.
Conservation is impossible without a sound understanding of the wholeness of cycles. Unless we remember how precious something is, how much effort it took for it to come into being, we will not value it. Unless we think about its proper transformation into its next phase – we will not know our relation to it. Everything lives or does in its own time. We too are part of the same cycels, only we have the option of contemplating and acting within that context. To do so with grace and awareness is the essence of one who follows Tao.
. . .
by Deng Ming Dao