My Brain Is Not My Brain, & Neither Is Yours

Let’s just set aside any attempt to ease the reader into the deeper regions of the mindgarten and instead dive headlong into perhaps the strangest and yet most reasonable notion.

Your brain is not your brain.

As is often true of elegant scientific equations, this simple statement is actually the result of at least a dozen or so graffiti-covered bar napkins.   But what in England’s green and pleasant land is it supposed to mean?  Come… follow me.  Just a little further.  At mindgarten, we leave at the end of our journeys and arrive at the beginnings, unpacking our things along the way.
meaning-of-life
Human beings, especially in the west, are heavily conditioned to seeing themselves as unique individuals.  On a physical level, this is quite true.  In fact, the differences in your body chemistry may be so different from mine that we cannot swap organs and blood, or even take the same medicines.

But psychologically, is there any measurable difference?

That’s actually sort of a trick question.

The notion that anything can be measured at all in the psychological realm is of course a physical impossibility.  Yet each of us, every day, are taking virtual rulers and measurements against that fragmented funhouse of mirrors we call ourselves.  Our images of ourselves that is.  Comparing ourselves to others.  Our careers.  Our possessions.  Our positions.  Our tastes.  Our patriotism.  Our ideas, values, philosophies and political perspectives.  And we see this as a perfectly normal and natural human activity.

In this regard, we are all exactly the same.   We are all engaged in this activity of psychological measurement.  It doesn’t matter what we try to measure, or how.  It only matters that we measure.

In science, we also measure.  But in science we like to measure real things. Physical matter, that is.  In fact, trying to measure anything else isn’t viewed as science at all.  For the longest time we’ve been very confident that when we measure the physical world using the scientific method we take away something approximating an objective result. These days scientists are not so sure.

As it turns out, even in science, what we try to measure is influenced by the presence of the observer, the person trying to record the measurement, thus calling into question the very notion of a privileged perspective from which true objectivity is possible. And if science is beginning to lose its grip on the physical world, what hope is there for us humans placing rulers up against shadows and phantoms?

The point of all this is, if there is one, is that psychologically speaking, none of us are as real as we think, even though we may be very convinced that we have a self that is real and unique, psychologically. To stave off any doubts, we’ve adopted the language of material progress in describing our psychological selves as ascending to and attaining higher levels of consciousness, or becoming better people, or evolving, or being spiritually guided by the astrology entry in the local paper.  But is that identity real in the same way that a tree is real?

Trees have evolved over millions of years.  So have human beings.  But the movement of thought in the human brain does not evolve.  It’s the same as it has been for as long as humankind has thought and worried and wondered.  Like a goldfish swimming in a fish bowl, we retrace our own well-worn thoughts and associations, or our familial and cultural affirmations, an activity which exerts no influence whatsoever on the evolution of our physical brains and bodies.   If anything, it is an activity that generates loneliness, stress, anxiety, fear, hope, jealousy, anger, guilt, and so on.  All of which are much more likely to have a deleterious effect on our physical bodies than an evolutionary one.

As the project called civilization shows stronger signs that it may have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque, we are seeing evidence of this in the form of reduced life expectancy and higher rates of suicide.

When it comes down to it, no matter how hard we may strive on an individual level to assert ourselves and ‘make the world a better place’, the reality may be that we’re just along for a fantastic cosmic ride, waiting for the human story in the larger sense to unfold. And none of us are in charge or in control of this process which began several billion years ago.   Not even the financial, political and military elite really know what to do besides double down on the existing discredited world views.

Ummm…  ok… but what does all of this have to do with brains and how mine doesn’t belong to me?  Just a little further dear traveler.  Keep apace.  We’re making good time.

The medium is the message

A guy named Marshall McLuhan was famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”.  Some fifty years later he’s largely been forgotten, but this phrase continues to resonate for many people.

What it means, at least what seems true enough, is that the physical characteristics of any medium and the manner in which it operates is far more consequential in its influence over our lives than any content that might be delivered through that medium.

Television, for instance, is a medium.  Radio and printed text are also mediums.  Twitter is a medium limited to just 140 characters per communication.  That influences how we write (on Twitter).   Television is a medium characterized by one-way communication.   Mediums shape and convey information in a specific format, each with its own strengths and weaknesses and intentions.   The very nature and structure of the physical technology is the totality of the message.   No matter what is broadcast over TV, the nature of television remains the same.

Things they didn’t teach us in biology class

Let’s for a moment entertain the notion that our biology is also a medium. The medium in this case is electrochemically charged living tissue in the form of human beings. Biology is a medium far more complex and sophisticated than any ever devised by a human being.  In fact, the human brain is literally the most complex object in the universe that is currently known to us, and the way it works is still barely understood.

One of the more recent developments in biology concerns new insights into the function of human memory.  The popular assumption since time immemorial, and one still advanced by many who study such matters, is that all memory is stored locally in the brain.   But today there are good reasons for biologists to question this long-held belief.

For instance… in experiments where mice learned to complete a maze in the United States, mice in Britain learned the same maze faster; consistently.  This may seem rather incredible, but brace yourself.  This was even true when selecting for the least intelligent mice in the second group, suggesting that brain intelligence is not a particularly dominant factor.  Now strap yourself in extra tight.  This phenomena was also observed in slime molds; an organism that doesn’t even possess a proper brain; and non-biological crystals.   When a crystal is grown for the first time in one part of the world, it becomes easier to grow the same crystal elsewhere.  It is as if the fabric of the universe itself retains information once it’s experienced, like a kind of universal memory.

The results suggest that a great deal of information may not be stored locally, but in an element not bound by the limitations of time and space.   The boundaries between your brain and those of others may not be so securely firewalled as we once assumed they were. The brain,  like a magnet with gravitational fields emanating from it, may have the capacity to extend beyond the boundaries of the physical organ.  And this phenomenon may not be special to human beings, but a byproduct of simply being alive; a biological manifestation of the same laws which apply to light and energy.

If one can accept this, and indeed it approaches the miraculous, then it’s not much of a stretch to view the human brain as a kind of neutral transceiver; a medium, like television, but with a many-to-many architecture, like the internet.  And if we are a medium in that regard, let’s apply MacLuhan’s observations and entertain the notion that the content of your local mind is of little consequence in the grand scheme of things.  It’s the brain itself and its very structure and function that is the star of the show.  Not your brain, or my brain, but THE brain. It is as much a concrescing floret at the bleeding edge of a very long biological journey as a dynamic tool for keeping us individually alive.  And who knows the true nature of the content expressed therein?

 

The Death-Based Economy

I am not an economist. There are nevertheless observations to be made about the way the human economy works which appear rather plain, and yet never arise in conversation among mainstream economists.  In fact, it is only recently in the face of the glaring problems of climate change and income inequality that the field of economics has stepped forward to admit that MAYBE they were wrong about exponential growth, after all.

Armed with little more than a pair of eyes and common sense, many of us already understood this.  There is the natural world of trees and forests and animals and seas and bees, and then there is the conceptual human economy with its compound interest rates, hedges and derivatives; and it seems that never the twain shall meet.  (actually, they do meet in an idea called natural capital; but this article is not about that).

The Wall: The Worms

Even a casual observer might conclude that most of the fiat wealth being generated and accumulated today is born of activities and products that are not exactly essential to human survival and happiness.  Having achieved an unprecedented level of creature comfort, we still find ourselves unsatisfied and wanting more.  It is a slavish pursuit chained to the narratives of history, evolution, progress, and linear time, which are still among our most sacred cultural cows.  But it’s becoming quite obvious that these perennial devotions are driving us down a road to nowhere.   Every attempt to clamp down on uncertainty and more rigidly inscribe our future in stone leads us further away from the dream of mutually-assured protection.

On one level it makes perfect sense.  This is what happens when you construct a society , however consciously or unconsciously, on conceptual models that fail to accurately describe the reality in which they are being applied.  Any conflicts that exist between them will eventually reveal themselves in the form of systemic failures.  And that is happening to us all, right now.   Wars of aggression, racketeering, intellectual property battles, copyright claims, trademark infringements, patent infringements, food scarcity, propaganda, subliminal marketing, cutthroat competition, worker subjugation, wage theft, cybercrime, racial injustice, exploitation, price-fixing, cartels, price-gouging, organized crime, monopolies, cronyism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, lobbying, corporate externalities, protectionism, trade deals, no-bid contracts, closed door meetings, tax havens, and political kickbacks.  It is a dark irony that all these individual pursuits of security are precisely what is driving us toward a world in which we are all becoming biologically ever more vulnerable.

And sitting quietly by like a lace backdrop to all this human travail, is that insufferably beguiling mystery we call nature.

That picture may be the real crux of our condition, especially in the west.  At some point we turned our back on the real world of nature and entered a mostly symbolic one. Except of course that just about everything significant we’ve ever invented and claimed for our own in pursuit of security, from fire, to the wheel to air flight and medicine, already had an analog in nature.  We just decided not to acknowledge this on our balance sheets and in our patents.

We’ve been able to get away with it because we’ve been treating mother earth as something that should be seen and not heard.  If nature were given a voice in the legal system, our entire civilization might be indicted for mass infringement.  Instead, she is now trying us in the court of survival.

Monkey On Our Back

There is perhaps no more perfect metaphor for our situation than this.   In full view of a monkey, a banana (or other treat) is placed inside the hollow of a tree (or anthill) whose opening is a size smaller than the monkey’s closed fist.  The monkey immediately moves to get the banana when the coast is clear, easily slipping his extended hand into the hole, only to find that once it closes around the treat, it can no longer be removed from the opening without losing a grip on it.  The perplexed monkey, shot through with fear and adrenaline, will sooner be killed by a predator than let go.

Why, in spite of our intellectual understanding of our impact on the environment, do we not act swiftly and decisively in response?  Is it because like the monkey, our brains lack the capacity to clearly perceive the reality of the problem?  Is it because we are absorbed in individual acts of self-interest?

When we end each fiscal year with a net loss in trees and species and arctic sea ice, in all seriousness, where is the value in the trillions of paper profits?   Is there in fact, any value in it at all?   As hard as it is to believe, the answer appears to be no.  No net value.  Makes one wonder what all the striving and fighting is for, doesn’t it?

You see, if life as represented in the interdependencies of nature is the only working model we have for a sustainable economy, and it is without doubt, then any economy that is not designed to be absolutely subordinate to nature and its limits must inevitably derive its profits from death and decay.   With one glance at the world today, the fact of this reality should be made clear.

The modern human economic enterprise promulgated by the western world is therefore a fraud; a process of entropy, not real growth.  It is a process of converting real natural wealth (the forests, seas, mineral resources, animal herds, etc) into the people that theoretical human growth economies thrive on. It then turns those people into profits through subjugation and exploitation.  Not a second thought is given to plying innocent minds with propaganda aimed at selling crappy food, violent toys, and keeping hordes of disenfranchised young people rolling off the assembly line of American culture and into wars of aggression for profit.  And this trend only intensifies with our wholesale destruction of the natural world.  We live in a death-based economy.

And so, the ultimate tragedy is that the great piles of wealth resulting from all this exploitation and death isn’t real.  It has been converted from a dynamic, living, actual state to a static, dead, and conceptual one, largely with our flag-waving support.   And it is far from being solely a modern phenomenon.  History is littered with civilizations destroyed not by militant neighbors and terrorists, immigrants and ideologies, but by the destruction of natural environments.  Ask the people of Easter Island what the value of their statues are on the open market.   There are none left to offer their opinions.

The process of converting a living planet into static wealth is of course a process of killing it for profit, power and prestige.  Perhaps that fact even lurks somewhere in the English idiom “making a killing”.  After all… to make a killing is to make a lot of money in a very short time, with very little effort.   And fittingly, it even implies an immoral criminal element.  One of the easiest ways to make a killing is to extract it directly from nature and claim it for yourself.  It’s the trap of least resistance.

The conversion of wealth from an actual to a conceptual state is as deplorably easy as shooting elephants from a helicopter and watching them fall to the ground, or disposing toxic waste by dumping it into a river and allowing it to destroy habitat downstream for miles.   To leverage entropy is to simply release the order nature has worked hard to build up in various forms over millennia. It’s the low hanging fruit of human progress.

In stark contrast, the biosphere follows a model of wealth-building that is radically different from the bubble of economic theory we live in.  It’s an immeasurably multidimensional model that is hardly a model at all, really, but reality itself.   The story of life is a miraculous tale of simple chemistry embarking on a long and unlikely journey toward greater and greater states of complex order and connectedness.  The very opposite of entropy.  Biological life is the only anti-entropic force in the known universe.  It takes millions of years to generate the amount of stored and living wealth represented by nature,  but it only takes an instant to release it, as simply as felling a tree with an axe.

Obviously, there is a piper to pay for all the freeloading we’ve been doing.  The longer we persist in generating static wealth through killing, the more the price of converting our static wealth back into ecosystem will exceed the monetary value extracted from it in the first place.   Put another way, it takes much more energy to move a boulder up a hill than it does to roll it down.  Yes, nature has it’s own form of compound interest, you might say, and it’s not generated with the touch of a button on a computer screen.  It has real physical consequences, and the ultimate cost for default.

This appears to be the root of our predicament.  If we stepped back a few paces and approached our problems as a matter of physics and energy, using the example of nature as a model, we might find ourselves with a dispassionate transpersonal ground for clear action.   We might learn to marry our economic system directly to nature’s model of sustainability, and move from a degenerative death-based economy, to a net regenerative economy of life. Yes, that steady-state economy may end up moving at a much slower pace, but what would that matter to a species simply interested in sticking around for the long haul?

Of course, it won’t happen so long as the heart and mind remain a closed fist.

 

 

 

The Beautiful Dream

The dream begins with a partial closing of canopy overhead.  I can still see the dappled light of day, and so can the understory plants and grasses; yet we all remain protected from the harshest sun and wind.

There is moisture in the soil, fueling a smoldering biofire under foot.  We can smell it.  It smells like the earth.

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There is food overhead, at eye-level, slightly below, inside and outside of direct vision, and below the surface.   Everything a human could need.  A kaleidoscope of green, with bits of bright color peeking out from here and there like playful children.    Birds come to take a brief inventory.  For a moment, cats are  placed on high alert, then return to catmint.

I am clothed, but don’t need to be.  I am warm and beyond the sight of others.  I feel protected.  More protected than at any time in my adult life.

Mind is fully occupied by life welling up around; active in alertness, without a thought.

Leaf litter gently yields to undirected travel.

There is a kiosk.  It contains information about the garden: the plant species, the common and scientific names, images at various stages of growth with emphasis on what it looks like right now, how to identify it, what lookalikes there are, nutritional information, history of cultivation, a map showing the areas of the forest garden it can be found in, what parts are edible and what role it plays, how to harvest and prepare it for eating.

There is also information on tending the garden. Most needs are accounted for passively in the very design, but sensors are active throughout, causing instructions to appear on displays for providing water, mulch, compost, organic liquid fertilizers, worm castings, etc.  Stations are positioned conveniently nearby for providing those needs.   Anyone can participate.  Everyone is encouraged to. People who pass through this garden will take food and leave nutrients.  They are sustained, and in turn sustain.  The wealth of the garden increases naturally year after year.

In the evening, visitors are invited to gather in a spacious light-filled room for dinner.  It is not required, but most everyone does. All of the seasonal produce from the garden is represented in some form or other, and it’s all prepared with great affection.  Some of the cooks are here for an extended stay.  Others are passing through and lending a hand, learning along the way.  The guests nod and smile in appreciation as they recommend and pass vessels of food to each other, but are otherwise mostly silent.  It’s not against any rule to speak.  It has simply become largely unnecessary.  All minds have become quieted in the mutual security the design of the world now affords them.

Beyond this place are countless more such forest gardens positioned across the earth; each with its own magical blend of regional species.  There is a silent mag-lev train, powered by solar, connecting them all. It is designed to require little maintenance.  It does not require fare.

If you prefer to walk, there are also paths to travel on foot.  Many do.

My life is traveling from garden to garden, getting to know all of creation, tasting every species of plant that I can, observing every animal that makes its presence known, and lending time to the maintenance of each garden as I go.

The edges bustle with a few critical industries.  There are exquisite clothes and shoes, public access to the internet, medical service providers for everything from headaches to brain-activated prosthetic limbs.  And many others.  The most often needed products and services are closest to the forest dwellings.  All goods and services are provided without cost.

One may encounter musicians and other performers now and then, but mostly, the culture no longer actively seeks entertainment.  Still, a young minstrel playing an instrument with love may draw an impromptu gathering the same way a songbird may draw the eye and ear for a time.  There is no money to offer, and gifts abound all around.  Sometimes, a deeply touched heart may make a special offering with a found element from nature or other small object  crafted by hand, as a show of appreciation.   People are rarely seen carrying anything, other than their youngest children.

Men and women of action still take to the hills for climbing, hiking, swimming, and sometimes sports like skiing and biking.  Some extreme sports such as wing-suit flying and sky-diving also remain, with a scattering of participants.

Visual art has become mostly unnecessary in the exuberance of nature, except for information design, and the forms and surfaces of architecture and garden.   Some still paint themselves with vibrant patterns expressing oneness with nature, emotions, or other states of mind, in the traditions of African, Native American, and Amazonian tribes.  Others produce forms that fold back into the fabric of nature over time.  Art is almost never stored with attempts at artificial preservation, except to commemorate the period known as history.   To preserve that which naturally wishes to pass away is seen as a losing battle with the inexorable forces of entropy, and something akin to idolatry.   There are no advertisements for the eye to see.  There are in fact very few static images to see at all.  Even immersive video games have fallen out of favor with the youth.    People have lost their taste for illusion.  It was shed along with the irresistible compulsion to escape from a violent and unpleasant world.