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Posts Tagged ‘brain’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

Famous Brain Scan Joke (for original see link)

Everyman went to see the doctor to get the results of his brain scan.

The doctor said: “Mr. Everyman, I have some bad news for you. First, we have discovered that your brain has two sides: the left side and the right side.”

Everyman interrupted, “Well, that’s normal, isn’t it? I thought everybody had two sides to their brain?”

The doctor replied, “That’s true, Mr. Everyman. But your brain is very unusual because on the left side there isn’t anything right, while on the right side there isn’t anything left.”

While I’m on a roll exploring the relationship between writing and reality, this other sequence from 2011 seemed worth republishing. This is the last of three posts.

Why have I changed the joke when the whole point is to poke fun at one man in particular? Well, for me the whole point is that the joke is on all of us. If Iain McGilchrist is right, and I believe he is, our society has placed almost all its faith in left brain functioning and denigrates what the right brain does as flakey and untrustworthy. And language has been almost totally commandeered by the left brain that constantly mistakes its descriptions – its maps – for reality itself, an error that is placing us all in danger. For a fuller discussion of this crucial issue see The Master and His Emissary link at the bottom of this post. To shorthand it somewhat, we increasingly tend to treat living beings as though they were machines.

Creative writing, and most especially poetry (currently perhaps the least popular art form in the West), represents one of the best ways, alongside spiritual practice, of re-establishing contact with the right side of the brain. This is the way out of the cul-de-sac we ended up in yesterday in the previous post.

To take Sir Phillip Sidney somewhat out of context:

So while pregnant with the desire to speak, helpless with the birth pangs,
Biting at my pen which disobeyed me, beating myself in anger,
My Muse said to me ‘Fool, look in your heart and write.’

So, maybe the best we can do is grope towards a better sense of reality, not just through language and not just through our senses, but also through our deepest intuitions as well.

Fay Weldon in her contrapuntal novel, Kehua, which is both a novel and a reflection on the experience of writing a novel, sheds some intriguing light on this issue:

 The sensation is that you don’t exactly write novels – you simply unfold them, or fish them up from a well, or hook them down from the sky.

In her interview on the Culture Show Hilary Mantel develops this in her different way:

It’s in invisible worlds that the writer spends her time.

In her engaging but unsettling memoir Giving up the Ghost another quote reveals in part what is unsettling but fascinating about her art (page 231):

What’s to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being.

All this makes writing seem more like a ghostly, or even ghastly form of gardening. Getting an idea is a bit like planting a seed. You tend it but it has a life of its own to some degree. You wait and watch for the shoots to appear on the surface of your mind from some deeper level. You can’t force it but you must tend them, work at it, create the right conditions as far as you can. But every piece has its own growing season though.

Hilary Mantel again:

Just because you have an idea for a story doesn’t mean you’re ready to write it. You may have to creep towards it, dwell with it, grow up with it: perhaps for half your lifetime.

(Op. cit.: page 69-70)

A friend of mine carries characters around in his head for years waiting for the right time to get them down on paper. Sometimes, I suspect, you might just wait too long. I wonder what happens to the dead who never get written into being?

In the end though, it seems to me, that this sensitivity, patience and humility in the face of the right-brain’s unseen and unpredictable processes of reality testing are far better for us as individuals and communities than the fast-fire gung-ho certainty characteristic of the left-brain’s arrogance which is so typical of both scientism and religious fundamentalism and which risks wrecking itself and many of the rest of us on the rocks of its own unrelentingly blind dogmatism.

 Related Posts

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Seven IllusionsGiven that sequences on this blog are currently dealing in one way or another with our need to find way of thinking and acting more positively, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I share at the start have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. This is the final post of the sequence.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed.

I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):

If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.

If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.

Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)

In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.

This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’

Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):

. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.

The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)

This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.

She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):

Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.

As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The veryACT manual common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’

ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):

You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.

And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):

They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.

This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.

She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):

There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.

ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.

She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):

Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.

Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.

We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):

True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself.  . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.

This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’

The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):

. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.

I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’

I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.

In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.

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Seven Illusions

Given that sequences on this blog are currently dealing in one way or another with our need to find ways of thinking and acting more positively, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I share at the start have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The final post will be published tomorrow.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s  7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed.

I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the second of three parts. The previous post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. This post focuses on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why meditation matters

Part of what relates to the importance of meditation, I’ve dealt with in a previous post, which focused on the No-Self issue so I will not revisit that here. What follows will inevitably have implications that are relevant to that issue also.

To describe our life as we perceive it, Karen uses the metaphor of a film to convey that what we experience is only a simulation and not reality. To over-identify with our character, in the Hollywood sense, is to surrender to the illusion and we can choose otherwise (429):

You have the free will of letting the Ego control you, or you can become the master and start living the movie through a totally different perspective.

She argues that (433): ‘To find yourself and to find presence, meditation is the best tool that you have.’

Even so, the task that confronts us will not be easy. Our movie role will not give up without a fight (435):

The Ego, the mind will try to prevent it, it will do anything to stop it. Of course, because the more you do it, the more IT will disappear.

She clarifies what we must do in response (437):

The challenge is to still do it under any circumstances, despite what is being said inside your head.

She shares some of her most telling insights and useful analogies here to help us see what we must do and why (531):

. . . when we are listening to the mind, we find ourselves in the past or a probable future. It is really an amazing tool, which is here to help us survive in a physical body in this three dimensional world. The problem is that we forget that it is just that, a tool, a computer. Over the years we put effort into making it strong, sharp and intelligent. Unfortunately, we overuse it and we forget to turn it off.

This is territory that Hanson and Mendius also explore from their slightly different and somewhat more academic angle. They Buddha Brainanalyse in some depth the neuropsychology of this survival tool from the perspective of brain science.

Karen is very clear about the trap that has been sprung on us by the worldly and practical success of our survival tool (535):

After a while we even forget that we are actually separate from it. This is the biggest illusion, the identification with the mind.

I might want to take issue with her terminology here, when she is discussing what she refers to as the ‘mind’ (582-89):

It is a computer, gathering, analyzing data and offering solutions. It never stops. It is restless. We made it that way. It will only exist in time, in the past or in the future, and it will always try to escape the present, because in the NOW the mind is not. . . . The main problem is that the brain takes everything the mind thinks as real. For the brain there are no differences between an actual physical danger, and your mind thinking about a fictional, imaginary danger.

This conflicts with the understanding I have developed after years of reconciling psychology with Bahá’í spirituality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that the mind is an emanation of the spirit and not a product of the brain: this fits with the idea of the brain not the mind as a transceiver, ie it both receives and generates data as the computer does. The brain therefore can be seen in this version of the model as the source of ‘static’ that interferes with our access to the mind, which is our direct link to the world of spirit. However, I don’t think this possible quibble should deter us from recognizing the value of what she then goes on to say on the back of this analogy. Her core point is none the less clear (599-600):

If the mind is only a computer, then it is there for someone to use it: you.  The mind is just a tool, but a wonderful tool. The only problem is the common mistake of identifying with that tool. . . . . You need to find yourself. You need to find where and who you are. And I will say it again: meditation is the only means through which you are going to find these answers.

This does not mean that we should devalue what she calls the mind (613-621):

First of all, it does help you take care of your body to survive in the world. . . . . Secondly, it enables us to project ourselves in time, in the past and in the future, so we can understand what went wrong and avoid the same mistakes, and we can anticipate and plan for our future. . . . . Then, the mind helps us to tap into and translate information from the spirit world, . . . . . Also, a clear, focused and pointed mind will help us achieve anything we dream of. . . . . . Last, but not least, the mind will translate into words your true being, your soul.

Also that description indicates to me that her concept of mind is closer to that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá than her original points suggested.

Nor do I want to argue with her next main point (622):

Our essence, our soul is energy and only energy. It does not communicate with language. It communicates with impressions, feelings, and intuitions.

She then moves onto a theme close to my heart (sorry if that sounds like a joke!) and one dealt with in some detail already on this blog so I won’t dwell at length on it here (625):

We are under the impression that our head says something and our heart, our inside, is trying to say something else. Believe me, in these situations, always listen to your heart. Always.

A key point comes slightly later and, though apparently simple, is in my view of profound importance, not just in terms of schooling, which is her point at the time, but for all of us throughout our lives (677): ‘we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.’ This is something crucial which it is never too late to learn.

ThriveShe emphasises that (677) children, if properly taught, ‘would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.’ And also, I would say, to gain access to other aspects of consciousness with different powers. Layard and Clark are similarly advocating the teaching of mindfulness in schools in their book Thrive, reviewed earlier on this blog Unfortunately there is little sign yet that schooling will shift from its current reinforcement of the language-bound ruminating mind any time soon.

One of the challenges of undertaking meditation is that the rewards, in terms for example of a quietness and expansion of consciousness, cannot be experienced except as a result of meditation itself, so we have to embark on an effortful discipline motivated by faith alone. She puts it succinctly (716):

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself.

Even so (722) ‘Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.’

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says essentially the same thing (Gleanings: CLIII):

Deprive not yourselves of the unfading and resplendent Light that shineth within the Lamp of Divine glory. Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. . . . O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets. . . . This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.

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The first of two posts on the subject of subpersonalities was published towards the end of last year. Now, after finishing republishing my Parliament of Selves sequence and before embarking upon a possibly overambitious sequence on the transpersonal that will include a section on subpersonalities, this poem seemed to make the perfect bridge.

For source of image see link: for the original Spanish click here.

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Skyblind v4

In the light of my latest sequence on trauma, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from 2016.

In 1995 I apparently gave a long talk to some meeting or other, after which the content of my talk was published by the BPS Psychotherapy Section. I have no memory whatsoever of giving any talk but I do remember writing the article. It seems worth publishing on this blog, with some updates in terms of the experience with Ian, a much shorter version of the original article as it complements with useful background the Approach to Psychosis sequence I republished some time back: I’ve also tried to reduce the psychobabble, though maybe not enough for everyone’s taste!  I’ve in addition included references to later research that sheds further light on, for example, neuroplasticity, emotion focused therapy, and the relationship between trauma and psychotic experiences. This is the last of five instalments.

We began this sequence of posts with a bit of theory. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t end it the same way.

Thinking thro CulturesRelativism

So, now for a discussion of the relevance to this work of relativism.

I see some value in Shweder’s description of relativism, in his mind-opening book Thinking Through Cultures and operate from within that frame of reference when I am engaged in collaborative conversation: `Relativists are committed to the view that alien idea systems, though fundamentally different from our own, display an internal coherency that can be understood but cannot be judged (page 114).’

As a result, I seek to know as much as I can about the context of another person’s thinking in order to make it intelligible, and I have generally found that sufficient information leads to coherence: other people remain unintelligible usually because I know too little about their frames of reference. As a result I too contend that individuals `can look at the “same” world and yet arrive at different understandings” (page 120). As a result I seek to `provide [a]. . charitable rendition of the ideas of others, placing those ideas in a framework that makes it easier to credit [them], not with confusion, error, or ignorance, but rather with an alternative vision of the possibilities of . . . life’ (page 121). I find this approach hard to live up to but can see no better one to use for these purposes.

Shweder provides further useful hints: `. . . since speakers always mean and convey more than they say, meaning is revealed by making explicit the relationship between the said and the unsaid’ (page 186).

He goes on (page 197):

In drawing inferences from what was said to what was unsaid, participants need to be informed, and in fact become informed, about things that were never mentioned,’

and (page 198):

. . . to construct the meaning of discourse in a communicative array, as either a participant or an observer, involves referring the explicit content of speech (what was said) to two indexed levels, the context and all the relevant prior background knowledge needed to make sense of what was said’ .

What is said (page 218) is not `isomorphic’ with `what is meant.’

I find I have to work very hard at eliciting all the necessary background information that would make an initially incomprehensible statement intelligible. Many people I work with leave me to fill in far more about their background and assumptions than I can possibly do. Perhaps they fear to say too much or perhaps they assume too much: perhaps both. The account of the work I did with Ian illustrates the truth of this I think: with hindsight I can see ways in which we might have done a better job of helping him transcend his problems: but then hindsight is always 20:20.

Trauma and Psychosis

All too often I am unable to fill in the missing pieces at all. Whenever I have managed to do so I have been struck by the link between earlier mental pain and the experience of voices. Sometimes when the person has not themself been able to provide the link the family has done so. I did not yet know what to make of those people whose lives and selves have been laid waste by demons and who yet fail to provide through their own story or the stories of their families any apparently traumatising situations.

At the time I was doing the work I have described in this sequence I had only the evidence of one article in the Schizophrenia Bulletin to suggest that trauma and psychosis were in anyway strongly linked (see Benjamin, No 1  in the reference list below). A lot more work on this has been done since.

For example an article in Schizophrenia Bulletin of 29 March 2012 (Reference 2)  Varese et al write, after examining 36 studies:

This review finds that childhood adversity and trauma substantially increases the risk of psychosis . . . . Furthermore, our findings suggest that if the adversities we examined as risk factors were entirely removed from the population (with the assumption that the pattern of the other risk factors remained unchanged), and assuming causality, the number of people with psychosis would be reduced by 33%. The association between child-hood adversity and psychosis held for the occurrence of psychotic symptoms in the general population, as well as for the development of psychotic disorder in prospective studies; the association remained significant when studies were included that corrected for possible demographic and clinical confounders. The analyses focusing on the effect of specific traumas revealed that, with the exception of parental death (although this association became significant after the exclusion of a potential outlier), all types of adversity were related to an increased risk of psychosis, indicating that exposure to adverse experiences in general increases psychosis risk, regardless of the exact nature of the exposure. This meta-analysis found no evidence that any specific type of trauma is a stronger predictor of psychosis than any other.

Mind & BrainBrain-Mind-Meaning Relationships

Even though it is something I have dealt with earlier on this blog, I cannot resist another foray into the heartland of reductionists, but for a slightly different reason from my usual one: the mind-brain relationship. Dennett, in his materialist thesis Consciousness Explained, proposes an interesting model which excludes the `soul’ (which Shweder, much to my satisfaction, includes – page 256). None the less, within his argument he summarises a position with which I find myself in almost complete agreement (page 218-219): he asks how do behaviour programmes `of millions of neural connection-strengths get installed on the brain’s computer?’

Brains, he claims, require a form of `training’, which includes the `repetitive self-stimulation’ of inner speech. The `successful installation’ of these programmes `is determined by myriad microsettings in the plasticity of the brain, which means that its functionally important features are very likely to be invisible to neuroanatomical scrutiny in spite of the extreme salience of its effects.’ He adds (page 221): `We install an organised partially pretested set of habits of mind . . . in our brains in the course of early childhood development.’

I feel that, though difficult, the modification of these `habits of mind’ can be accomplished by adults with consequent changes to the `microsettings’. One means for accomplishing such changes is collaborative conversation.

Another term that has been used is interthinking (see Mercer). Mercer feels this process can achieve remarkable results. He talks of the crucial function of language and says:

[I]t enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:

We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.

My sense is that collaborative conversation, and the interthinking it promotes, can change the wiring of the brain.

There is clear evidence that individuals can do this, working with a therapist.

For example, in The Mind & the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.”

His model involves four stages for learning to manage obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.

The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:

Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.

Mindfulness booksThis amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’

This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’

There is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’

There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’

He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work the authors spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism. that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

While OCD is not the same as the hallucinatory experiences that can, in the presence of other difficulties, lead to the label psychosis, the evidence that willed effort can change the brain surely must apply here as well. As collaborative conversation leads to deliberate and conscious behaviour change, I am sure that it will also alter the way the brain is wired.

Its efficacy depends upon the presence of various motivating or facilitating factors. It is not possible to generate an exhaustive list of these, but trust was mentioned by Ian as a key component, and, in my view, in the light of dissonance theory, the person’s involvement in collaborative conversation has to be seen by them as something they are choosing to do, not something that is forced upon them.

Some limiting factors are apparent from the backgrounds of the two examples of collaborative conversation I shared with you. For example, both people depended for their survival in the community upon a large network of professionals. Sadly, as professionals we were often pulling in different directions at the same time, were absent when we should have been present, or present when we might better have been absent, and often with well-intentioned insensitivity we encumbered our clients with our idea of help.

amygdalaFocusing on Emotion

Later work on Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT – Reference 3)) suggests ways in which that approach would have been very relevant to the difficulties experienced by the people I was working with, and would have further potentiated the efficacy of what we were doing together. Les Greenberg writes:

. . . . . the challenge of any effective psychotherapy, be it of trauma, anxiety or depression is to transform amygdala reactions so that innocuous reminders of past experience are not seen as a return of past loss, failure or trauma.

I’ve dealt with the role of the amygdala at great length elsewhere on this blog (see links for more information), so I won’t unpack it further here, except to say its main function is as an intensely powerful danger warning system.

He goes on:

Evolution however has blessed humanity with more negative basic emotions than positive ones, in order to aid survival. An important conclusion to be drawn from an evolutionary point of view is that negative emotions are often useful. Anxiety, anger, sorrows and regret are useful or they would not exist. Unpleasant feelings draw people’s attention to matters important to their well-being. However when unpleasant emotions endure even when the circumstances that evoked them have changed, or are so intense that they overwhelm, or evoke past loss or trauma they can become dysfunctional.

In Greenberg’s view insight is not enough:

Although re-appraisal or insight provides people with a new way of thinking or deeper understanding of the reasons they feel the way they do, cognitive change of this nature is unlikely to reconfigure the alarm systems of the brain, or the emotion schematic networks that have been organized from them.

He argues for a deeper process of emotional re-education:

Emotion coaching is aimed at enhancing emotion- focused coping by helping people become aware of, accept and make sense of their emotional experience. Coaching is defined in general as involving a mutually accountable relationship in which both client (trainee) and therapist (coach) collaborate actively in the creation of an educational experience for the client who is an active participant in the process. Emotion coaching entails a highly collaborative relationship involving both acceptance and change . . . . . The goals of emotion coaching are acceptance, utilization and transformation of emotional experience. This involves awareness and deepening of experience, processing of emotion as well as the generation of alternative emotional responses. In emotion coaching a safe, empathic and validating relationship is offered throughout to promote acceptance of emotional experience. An accepting, empathic relational environment provides safety leading to greater openness and provides people with the new interpersonal experience of emotional soothing and support that over time becomes internalized . . . . . In this type of relational environment people sort out their feelings, develop self-empathy and gain access to alternate resilient responses based on their internal resources. Emotion coaching is a collaborative effort to help clients use their emotions intelligently to solve problems in living by accepting emotion rather than avoiding it, utilizing both the information and response tendency information provided by it, and transforming it when it is maladaptive.

Looking back I can see how we were attempting to achieve this but were not fully aware that we were doing so. Also I was unaware of the existence of this model at the time. It was not registering on the therapeutic radar.

This is perhaps why Ian on reflection, as I mention in a previous post, did not feel the gain was worth the pain. That left me feeling uneasy, in the aftermath, about the use of the approach and alerted me to the need to forewarn people of the difficulties they might encounter, so that consent to continue would be better informed than in Ian’s case.

On balance, though, I strongly suspect that even in those early days the approach did bring significant benefits. Hopefully you would agree.

References:

1. Benjamin, Lorna (1989) Is chronicity a function of the relationship between the person and the auditory hallucination? Schizophrenia Bulletin. She observed that a high proportion of people in her study had experienced a trauma of some kind prior to the appearance of their voices.

2. Filippo Varese et al (2012) Childhood Adversities Increase the Risk of Psychosis: A Meta-analysis of Patient-Control, Prospective- and Cross-sectional Cohort Studies,  Schizophrenia Bulletin.

3. Les Greenberg (2004) Emotion–focused Therapy, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

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. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

It seems appropriate to republish this sequence from almost three years ago to follow on from the posts on narcissism.

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

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