March 9, 2010
This morning, I read the latest post up at Ann Seeker’s blog, where she’s been summarizing her experience of reading David Appelbaum’s book The Stop. I bookmarked the article for later reading because I thought it was interesting. In it, she says:
He is talking about an awareness of a “movement of energy” that takes place before our “our inner activities” take form. These activities or functions are our thoughts, desires, judgments, self-will, etc. These are functions that take on forms and we perceive them. But prior to the taking of form, there is a movement of energy and this can be perceived as well. He says, “This is the Life of our life, that which is a source for particular undertakings of functional life. Perception thus takes note of how percipient energy enters life on our ordinary level, how it animates forms of life, and how it remains distinct from these forms.”
The idea that there is an action of energy already in motion that our conscious mind responds too, which we experience as making a decision ties in with some of the early stages of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, as outlined in Practical Insight Meditation by Mahasi Sayadaw:
With further progress in meditation, the conscious state of an intention is evident before a bodily movement occurs. The meditator first notices that intention. Though also at the start of his practice, he does notice “intending, intending” (for instance, to bend an arm), he cannot notice that state of consciousness directly. Now, at this more advanced stage, he clearly notices the consciousness consisting of the intention to bend. So he notices first the conscious state of an intention to make a bodily movement; then he notices the particular bodily movement.
Which to me is basically saying that though we think the body is moving because we are thinking about moving and moving the body, there is a subtle mistake here in that first the intention to move arises on its own, in response to conditions, and then our body moves accordingly. I’m slowly reading through this book, though not very quickly as I’m trying to assimilate each stage before moving on to the next one. As my meditation practice lately has been slacking, I can’t say I’ve made much progress. Plus, the Burmese Vipassana seems to be at odds with my Zazen, so I’m still working out how to proceed there. But the book does come highly recommended, so if anyone is interested in starting a meditation practice, I’d offer it as a clear and easy-to-read guide to Vipassana.
Anyway, the really interesting thing happened when Max posted a comment today linking back to an old post at Tim Boucher’s blog, where Tim discusses Aldous Huxley’s take on the brain as behaving as a sort of reductive-valve:
(tie that in with my last post on Dr Dan Siegal’s definition of mind…) Tim goes on to say:
Huxley explains that our mind has powers of perception and concentration that we cannot even begin to imagine. But our main business is to survive at all costs. To make survival possible, all of our mind’s capabilities must be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain.
Some researchers are studying this effect. They believe that this reducing-valve effect may be very similar to the jamming equipment used to block out offensive radio broadcasts. The brain constantly produces a kind of static, cutting down our perception and reducing our mental activity.
This static can actually be seen. When you close your eyes, you see all sorts of random pictures flashing through your mind. It is impossible to concentrate on any one of them for more than an instant, and each image is obscured by a host of others superimposed over it.
That static is what is toned down through meditation. See Kenneth Folk’s handy little flash graphic here.
and then Tim goes on to say:
Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception” talks about a “reducing” valve in the brain that limits the amount of sensory stimulus that brain allows to be processed. This reducing value, in part, may be the thalamus. In schizophrenia, that reducing valve is more open than it should be; thus a person with schizophrenia receives too much stimulus and their brain has a hard time interpreting the inputted sensory stimulus. This may result in the positive symptoms (hallucinations and psychoses) we see in schizophrenia. When sensory overload occurs, some brain functions may shut down resulting in the negative symptoms (poverty of speech, withdrawl).
So if anything, following this breadcrumb trail of information that seems to have been thrown my way today, it seems that the experience of schizophrenia might be fairly likened to being enlightened too early, to having the connection to Mind-At-Large opened before we’re ready to handle the loads on information that pours at/through us. I can see this creating a sort of feedback loop, where the mental program of consciousness, our sense of self determination that somehow seems to float above what’s actually going on inside our brain (as shown by the Mahasi Sayadaw quote above) is pushed away from the center of existence where it usually rests, resulting both in the positive and negative symptoms mentioned above.
I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting at here, but it all seems to point to something. I do know one thing though: it’s not really about schizophrenia.
One other thing this brings to mind is this short little movie (which won a shit-ton of awards). Watch it, it’s heartwrenchingly beautiful:
I’d originally found this film over at Imagining the 10th Dimension, where Rob had posted it a few weeks after he made his own post about schizophrenia and the effect of time on the brain (except remember, this isn’t actually about schizophrenia). From Rob’s post, where he is quoting a New Scientist magazine article:
Schizophrenia certainly seems to affect people’s perception of time. If someone with schizophrenia is shown a flash of light and a sound separated by 1/10th of a second, they typically have trouble discerning which came first. Such people also estimate the passing of time less accurately than most others. Now a flurry of studies has shown that if you upset the internal clocks of healthy people, you can create some of the symptoms and delusions associated with schizophrenia.
In one experiment, healthy volunteers learned to play a video game in which they had to steer a plane around obstacles. Once people became used to the game, the researchers modified it to insert a 0.2-second delay in the plane’s response to volunteers moving the computer mouse. After the modification, the players’ performance initially worsened; but in time their brains compensated for the delay, to the extent that they actually perceived the movement of the mouse and the movement of the aircraft to take place simultaneously.
But the subjects’ strangest experience occurred then the experimenters removed the delay and set the timing back to normal. Suddenly, the players were perceiving the plane to be moving before they consciously steered it with the mouse (Psychological Science, vol 12, p 532). That’s uncannily similar to how people with schizophrenia describe feelings that they are somehow being controlled by another being.
Rob goes on to explain his opinion on the subject:
Fascinating! I found this particularly interesting to think about within the context of recent studies that show people can form their decisions to do one thing or another well before they are consciously aware of their decision: in Is Creativity a Quantum Process we briefly looked at some articles (like this one from the Wall Street Journal) discussing the recently published work of psychologist Joydeep Bhattacharya of London’s Goldsmith College. Amazingly, Dr. Bhattacharya’s brainwave monitoring experiments revealed evidence that people can have arrived at a solution to a problem as much as 8 seconds before their conscious minds become aware of it!
There have been arguments proposing that results such as these demonstrate that our free will is an illusion, because the neuro-chemical activity that forms our decisions may be some inevitable “behind the scenes” process which we interpret as our free will by the time we consciously feel ourselves choosing (and persons familiar with this project will know that I strongly disagree with any conclusions that free will doesn’t exist).
I tend to agree with Rob on this, that just because our free will might not be quick and immediate as we think it is, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Its just that our consciousness is not exactly in touch with the core process at work in our being. Becoming aware of these process, it seems would both destroy the feeling that we were somehow separate from them, but also give our free will a better, more holistic expression.
Our brain is a perfectly reflecting gem, and its always perfectly reflecting. We just have to clear out the conscious static (caused by our mind’s very real and correct desire to survive) so as to get in touch with that place inside our self where the truth of what is, is focused. Zap, moon in a dew drop indeed.