The Brain and Reality

Ever wonder what an ant or a bat experiences as reality?   The bat is blind, but uses sonar to give it a map of the world that works very well for flying, feeding and surviving.  How does the world feel — what kind of world does that bad experience?  We can imagine the sonar map being turned into a visual map because, as visual creatures, that’s what we relate to.  The bat, however, cannot even imagine the sense of sight, any more than we could imagine a new sense that would suddenly reveal to us facets of this reality that we cannot perceive.  To the bat, the world is not a visible one.

Meanwhile an ant or a fly experiences a tiny section of reality, but one that no doubt seems to be reality as it can only be.  An ant crawling along Sasha and Malia Obama’s swingset at the White House, and having a famous first daughter show mercy by moving the ant away rather than squishing it, experiences nothing special.  The ant doesn’t even conceive of or perceive reality that way.  Whether flying in the oval office or in the room of a south side Chicago crack dealer, the fly is oblivious to what us would be major differences in reality.

Simply, we get the reality our brain is able to give us.   Limited by the brain, most people (and no doubt animals) assume that they experience the reality that matters.   True, we know there are subatomic particles and things too tiny to see, and that we are on a speck of dust in the universe.  But we can build instruments try to to uncover the secrets of that which we cannot see, and assume that this is enough.  Anything outside our brains capacity to perceive or imagine is by definition irrelevant.

Yet if a bat or an ant or a fly can have existences so limited that they could be utterly oblivious to the great forces of history around them, might not our brain also have limits?  Just as the fly wouldn’t notice the limits — they would be outside its conceptual and perceptual capacity — we might not notice ours.   Any imagination of something outside our brain’s limits is created by the brain — and thus takes the form of things we can comprehend.

Scientists, for instance, have become convinced that our theories of the universe cannot function unless they postulate some form of “dark matter,” which may make up over three fourths of mass in the universe.  Yet what could this be like?  We can’t conceive of it, our instruments only notice its impact by noting a disconnect between our evidence and our theories about the cosmos.  Quantum mechanics postulates processes and situations that are completely at odds with our understanding of how the world works.  Quantum tunnelling, non-locality, the simulatenous nature of all space-time, paradoxes galore…we don’t know what to do with them.   To take them seriously simply leads us to see the world as far more bizarre than we’ve imagined.  Many physicists don’t want to have science used for such rampant speculation, so they take they view ‘shut up and calculate.’  Don’t worry about the implications of the theory; it works, so use it!

In a post last September, I wrote on whether or not the universe is a hologram, pointing to research in both physics and on the brain.  The brain seems to have capacities that are inexplicable, and we seem to be only conscious of part of what the brain can do.   Moreover, once you open up to theories from quantum physics and other “out there” ideas, it’s not impossible to see the brain as part of a larger unit, a kind of collective soul if you will.  All of this sounds weird given that we perceive reality as distinct units with us as distinct individuals.  But that’s what the brain gives us for our world.   If we have a collective linked nature, it is to our experience what sight is to the bat’s.   It’s not in the realm of our experience.

This kind of thinking, of course, is not new.  Over 2500 years ago Plato’s Allegory of the Cave posited similar ideas — if you spent your life in a cave and never experienced true reality, you’d consider the cave to be reality as it is.  Bishop Berkeley considered material reality a “persuasive illusion;” all we have is interpretations of experience.   But with modern studies of the brain, it becomes increasingly clear that we are creatures in world with distinct limits on how we can perceive and interpret this world.   We wear blinders, we see only a small sliver of reality, with no way of knowing how indicative that which we perceive is of the whole.

And, of course, that works.  Just as the bat doesn’t need to see the color red, or an ant doesn’t care about whose house it occupies, we can live our lives and go about existence without having to think about what may be outside that which our brains allow us to perceive.   Most of us do.

Yet I doubt the bat can truly reflect on the possibility of its limits.   Even dogs, which science says can use reason (it appears a number of animals are capable of using reason — that human arrogance is being pushed aside), probably don’t have our mental capacity to question our understandings of the world in which we find ourselves.   The brain tells us what bits about reality we need to know to operate as humans ; it might also contain secrets about the reality beyond us that for whatever reason we are unable to access (except, perhaps, through instinct).   Perhaps the difference between us and ants is matched by the difference between us and other entities, who can perceive our acts, but of whom we are generally oblivious.

To discover this, we might explore dreams, meditations, and other ways to stretch our brain’s experience.   Some have used psychadelic drugs to do this, but frankly, that would scare the hell out of me so I stay far away from those.   I find it comforting to realize that the brain is setting these limits.  It frees me from thinking I need to correctly figure out the world; that capacity is beyond me.  It allows me to focus instead on doing what seems to work in the world, and then considering how that might be reflected in a greater reality.

What works in the world is what brings happiness.  Greed, envy, anger, and hate do not work, they may bring success, but rarely do they get associated with joy.  Forgiveness, love, tolerance, community, family and even temperment seem to work much better.   Perhaps those hold a key to figuring out what’s on the other side.  And who knows — scientists say we only use about ten percent of our brain or less, maybe we do have the capacity to experience reality more fully.   For me, that’s enough to keep learning and exploring that part of existence as well.   Moreover, it’s playful.  By going with what seems to work rather than needing to know precisely what’s true, one avoids dogma and instead can have fun with ideas and possibilities.

  1. #1 by henitsirk on April 5, 2009 - 04:02

    I think the key is that we are not limited by our sense perceptions. In a book about health and illness, an anthroposophical doctor wrote a nice metaphor for the relationship between our thoughts and our brain: it’s like a musician and a piano. You wouldn’t say that the piano is playing the music, but that the musician is using the piano to create the music. Similarly our brains do not create our thoughts (or our sense perceptions) — our higher selves use our brains to create our thoughts and perceptions.

    As you said, the bat or the ant simply accepts what is given through their perceptions. A human can have what Rudolf Steiner called “sense-free perceptions”, through thinking. He felt that thinking was evidence, so to speak, of the reality of the spiritual world, because it is totally nonmaterial.

    This post also reminds me of one of my favorite movies,Mindwalk, with Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston, and John Heard. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Lots of talk about the nature of reality, quantum physics, etc. But visually lovely and with nice interpersonal dialog.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on April 5, 2009 - 12:59

    I will go to netflix and find that movie — I’d never heard of it before. Sam Waterson is, I believe, in *The Killing Fields,* a film I’ve shown in class (it’s amazing how many people have never heard of the Cambodian genocide).

    The link between illness and the brain is strong — some of the research indicates that attitude is one of the strongest factors in health and overcoming illness. The relationship between our higher selves and the brain is an interesting concept. To me it sort of merges…there is a part of me outside of my material self, and the brain is sort of the connection. Clearly our bodies are tools to function in the material world, so the idea that we “use” our brain makes sense.

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on April 6, 2009 - 14:34

    While the thought that only humans can reason may be arrogant, I believe that humans are the only animal capable of overcoming animalistic instincts and determining a sense of morality.

    The brain operates on two different planes. One is conciousness, the other is subconciousness. We are fully aware of our concious mind, albeit we may not fully understand how even the obvious side of our brain works. While it is our concious brain that allows us to perform tasks, our creativity is often rooted in the subconcious brain. We may conciously see a problem that we are trying to figure out, and sometimes it is merely in need of a concious application from what we may already know, however, in the event of what we do not know at the moment, our subconcious brain will often try to work out the problem behind the scenes (in our sleep, meditation, etc), in order to provide us with a concious thought later on, on how to solve the problem we have been concentrating on. Sometimes, instinct comes into play here, other times it is a more compicated chain of thoughts that lead us to where we need to go after analyzing all the information that comes into our feeble little minds I speak for myself only here about the feeble-mindedness! 🙂

    Instinct use to be described often times as the little voices in our head as our ‘god(s)’ telling us what to do….like the fight or flight question. Some however conjecture that it is merely our subconcious, under serious stress forcing an immediate reaction into our concious mind, to ensure our continued survival.

    I personally do not believe there is a limit to what our brain can conceive or perceive. I believe that we allow our concious minds to go into a state of tunnel vision, often evaluating what we know, and our own refusal to keep an open mind to accept anything different, whether it be by ego, or a concious block being set upon our subconcious to dismiss it as nothing more than mental hallucinations to be dismissed as nonsense. I might go as far as saying this is committing intellectual heresy, of which I find myself guilty of many times, mostly out of laziness, and my unwillingness to force myself to concentrate on studies or other information long enough to gleen what might be useful information in determining how I see things.
    Once, a long time ago, I believe in the 1800s, some real smart guy made the decree that everything that could be invented had already been invented. And since that point, we have seen a massive explosion of inventions that make the man’s statement that of a fool’s.
    In gauging what the brain is capable of conceiving or perceiving I believe is typicaly limited the the person making such a statement. You hav some people in this world we might call stupid, others that we notice as average, and other we see as smart. And then of course you have great minds ahead of their time, like Einstein.
    A question was once posed: How much more could Einstein have accomplished and shown us, if he had access to our technology today? Or would the use of easy technology made him lazy to a point to not wirte our pages upon pages of equations to figure out a single formula, and in turn, ended up as another “ordinary” person like you or I? Maybe the time he lived in was perfect for the conditions required for Einstein to develop his intellect and analytical skills tot he level they were at for that day?

  4. #4 by henitsirk on April 6, 2009 - 15:15

    Mike said, “A question was once posed: How much more could Einstein have accomplished and shown us, if he had access to our technology today? Or would the use of easy technology made him lazy to a point to not wirte our pages upon pages of equations to figure out a single formula, and in turn, ended up as another “ordinary” person like you or I?”

    I think this is an important question. I look at Laura Ingalls (Scott encourages that in me, you know!) who did so much memorization in school, diagramming sentences, and doing long division in her head. These things are not that difficult, but we just don’t do them any more and so they seem to be amazing mental feats. “Ordinary” means different things depending on our expectations.

    Seems like much of our technology has taken the place of our own mental efforts. I rarely memorize new phone numbers any more, because the phone remembers them for me. Can I memorize phone numbers, or long poems for that matter? Of course. But it becomes harder and harder the longer I don’t exercise that “mental muscle”.

    Sometimes I think having a good memory is a large part of what we consider “smart”. I remember being admired at work for being so good at the various computer tasks — simply because I didn’t need extensive cheat sheets and could figure out new functions based on what I already knew. To me it was nothing — just simple learning and retaining. But for others even that was difficult.

  5. #5 by Mike Lovell on April 6, 2009 - 15:25

    When I was growing up and they introduced the “required school supplies” to include a scientific calculator in the 5th grade. Well, being so poor my parents bought me a pair of $6 plastic shoes for gym class at a local general store, an $85 texas instruments scientific calculator was out of the question. While my classmates were quickly punching numbers into their fancy machine, my poor self was running through #2 pencils scratching everything out on paper. It helped me in the long run, knowing just how the formulas worked. And yet, in high school, somehow trigononemtry and calculus just went right over my head. So a girl did my math daily work for me, and i did all her chemistry labs. (i was more inclined toward blowing things up experimentally, hence the military career for a short time, than figuring out math equations I’d never again use in my life).

    Now in my line of work, security, I have so many addresses, names, key numbers, alarm codes and the like memorized, some of my junior counterparts assume I’m smart. I have to remind them, I’ve been doing it for 5+ years, with constant repetition, so its just a case memorizing what I am always using, which isn’t necessarily smarts, as much as it is a lack of short-term memory loss!

  6. #6 by henitsirk on April 6, 2009 - 15:37

    Mike, you just reminded me, funny enough, of how technology helped me have better mental acuity! When I was a kid I had a little calculator toy — essentially it gave you long division, addition to three places, etc. “hard” math questions, and you punched in the answer. I forgot all about that little thing, but I used to play with it for hours. Maybe I can’t blame technology for dimming my brain functions after all 🙂

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on April 6, 2009 - 15:39

    Also, Einstein made his most important discoveries early, and seems to have been wrong about quantum mechanics as he failed to find the grand unified theory. I think if Einstein lived to day, his creative spark would benefit less from technology than the state of the field of theoretical physics today (which, of course, comes in part from how technology allows us to gather more data).

    It may be true that the brain can conceive of everything, but it’s also possible that limiting perception to three physical dimension, a forward unraveling of time, and a focus on material (i.e., condensed energy) is if not limiting, at least defining how we perceive the world. We perceive a small band of electromagnetic energy, we can’t know what might be outside our perceptual capacities (except, of course, that we can perceive the impact it has, if any, on the material world).

    I refuse to use a calculator in all but the most extreme conditions. I do not want to lose my ability to quickly do basic calculations. It’s also interesting that before the printing press, people had amazing memories of oral traditions. You had to memorize because you couldn’t write things down. The book was the high tech device that changed how we think.

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