It is amazing to me that our perceptions, memories, experiences and general personalities are completely beholden to this thing we call the brain. It is the mission control and data bank of all things ‘us’. It’s an enigma while at the same time we are able to read volumes of research explaining some of its mechanisms and functions. From the very measurable maps of synapses and electrical discharges to the mysteries of memory and ‘consciousness’ (ie:the awareness the mind has of itself and the world)…… it defines each of us individually. We like to believe that we have control over our brains….. but the irony here is that it is the mind itself proposing this possibility in the first place.
As I write I wonder if one shortcoming here is in using the singular word/designation of ‘brain’ to describe something so vast, limitless and immeasurable. (Maybe instead of ‘brain’ I might refer to this expanse as the Incomprehensible Landscape of Glimpses into Oneself)
1. an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity.
This definition makes it all sound so simple and clear….but alas…….
It is all quite a quandary because in order to perceive or own consciousness we need to actually use our consciousness……which is sorta like the eye looking at the eye or a tooth biting itself. Due to this provision we cannot truly look at it objectively or perhaps even delve too deeply within it. Sir Arthur Ellington, a well regarded scientist of the last century, in the end just threw up his hands. He said ‘even the best we can say, even with simple things like perception, is that something unknown is doing…..we do not know what.’
I suppose this is what interests me in people like Buddha who said ‘if consciousness has to understand itself it has to be through subjectivity’. For me…. I understand this as an invitation to go inward, not outward, for information. That the path to understanding the world around me and my own inner workings (or ‘brain’) is through the unique and subjective map (perceptions and mind translations) of me. I can research brain functionality until the endlessly… but nothing truly gets below the surface quite like personal inquiry.
The ‘brain’ seems far from a definitive object. Yes, we can measure some things….. but vast areas and functions of the brain are still relatively unknown. For instance something as commonplace as our memory…. human recall is fairly hit or miss. Neuroscientific research tells us that our brains don’t use a fixed-address system, and our memories tend to overlap, combine, and disappear for reasons no one yet fully understands.
The one thing we do know is rather vague: Memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. After that, the entire question of how memory works is up for grabs. For example, where precisely in the hippocampus (or prefrontal cortex) is my memory of reading a particular book for the first time? If I try to summon that random memory, I am likely to wind up with a blur of a half dozen indistinct recollections and no brain-scan technology able to help me bring it into better focus.
Other things like the understanding of how dreams work or ‘out of body’ experiences fall into a similar category of great mystery. Not to mention it seems apparent that modern science can’t really even ‘explain’ your ‘average’, in-the-brain consciousness. They have been able to detail neuronal firings and synaptic transmissions designating many cognitive functions but there is no true explanation or measure for things like conscious awareness, free will or the essence of experienced perceptions (like the blue hue, texture and smell of the ocean). So what is this subjective occurrence of feelings, awareness, and phenomenal experience (our’inner life’) and do we consider it significant even though it is unable to be quantified and measured?
I recently learned that science has been able to measure brain electrical activity believed to correlate with consciousness (through monitors and tests/EEGs) and applied these tests to dying patients at or near the moment of death. The studies have shown distinct end-of-life brain activity occuring in brain tissue which is metabolically dead, receiving no blood or oxygen flow. These findings have been revelatory and there have been many subsequent explanations….. but no concrete answers. How or Why conscious activity of any sort is occurring in the nearly dead brain is a ‘mystery’ to us.
We have been studying the brain since the time of the ancients. 387 BC- Plato teaches in Athens that the brain is where our mental processes take place. However Aristotle (335 BC) suggests the heart is the center of thought and declares that the heart, not the brain, is where the action is. (In fact this ancient belief becomes so popular and well received that it spawns the saying “to memorize by heart”) And in our modern era there has been great momentum and ‘breakthroughs’ in brain research and understanding, especially in the last 15 years. But even as we quench our thirst for knowledge and answers….I am not sure that the realm of the brain (this Incomprehensible Landscape) will ever have ‘an answer’ but simply provide more questions. Similar to the universe and all the continuous discoveries…..I think the more we look the more territory and questions we discover…..and more will continuously unfold. This photo below brings this comparison closer to home for me:
Our brains and consciousness cannot be neatly packaged, summed up and fully explained. I know that we sometimes seem to prefer tidy answers and definitive descriptions in order to ‘understand’…… but I am offering that it is quite possible we will neither have a complete answer to how this incomprehensible landscape of the brain functions nor will it ever be a patent for how each person may perceive and operate.
My curiosity then leads me to wonder if perhaps things like ‘knowing’ and ‘reality’ are really quite subjective and each person looking within themselves, being reflective and curious is equally important to the most comprehensive scientific brain research. Why not get curious and explore our own awareness, perceptions, emotions and thoughts through this vehicle of the mind/consciousness? Truly, I believe we are our own best ‘researcher’ on so many levels.
Ultimately, even with our incredible ability to research, locate and beautifully explain some amount of particulars, the nature of the brain/consciousness seems ever adapting, subjective and (to some degree) elusive…..
……remember…..we are the ‘eye looking at the eye’.
Thanks for reading and sharing.