Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"The brain can think, and the eyes can see." "Nonsense!"

I came across an article in The New York Times a couple of days ago that summarizes research that demonstrates, empirically, exactly how our brains lure us into causal loops, making us believe that we are seeing something real going on outside of ourselves. The article is entitled, “Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop,” and here is the first paragraph.

If after a few months’ exposure to our David Lynch economy, in which housing markets spontaneously combust, coworkers mysteriously disappear and the stifled moans of dying 401K plans can be heard through the floorboards, you have the awful sensation that your body’s stress response has taken on a self-replicating and ultimately self-defeating life of its own, congratulations. You are very perceptive. It has. Researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that promote its sinister persistence. (Natalie Angier, "Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop, " Science, p. 18-19, August 18, 2009)

The researchers discovered that highly-stressed rats actually underwent physical changes in their brains’ neural circuitry.

On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed. “Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.” (Brain, p. 18)

Just now, much to my surprise, a voice came into my mind, shouting, “Nonsense! The brain cannot think, and the eyes cannot see!” That’s a familiar voice, it is the plucky Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Just after entering the rabbit-hole, she found herself only a little startled seeing the Cheshire Cat, astride a branch. She even stood up to the nasty Queen who looked at her and said, “Off with her head.” “Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent. Her “decidedly” echoes my certainty that the images our brains present to us are no more real than Alice’s bizarre adventures down the rabbit-hole.

It is for this reason that Jesus begins His Workbook of A Course in Miracles with this Lesson, Nothing I see means anything. In the Text He refers to the brain’s illusory interpretations.

The brain interprets to the body, of which it is a part. But what it says you cannot understand. Yet you have listened to it. And long and hard you tried to understand its messages.T-22.l.2:9-11

You cannot understand the brain’s interpretations because they are not real.

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.

Herein, lies the peace of God.

That which is real cannot be seen because it is invisible, intangible—Truth, Love, Joy, Peace.

That which is unreal is visible, tangible—the brain, the body, the eyes and the images they make. This is our human conditioning. Our father was a liar from the beginning.

Children are born into the world through pain and in pain. Their growth is attended by suffering, and they learn of sorrow and separation and death. Their minds seem to be trapped in their brain, and its powers to decline if their bodies are hurt. T-13.In.2:4-6

Children, like Alice, fall into a rabbit-hole, an illusion, a dream.

For the content of individual illusions differs greatly. Yet they have one thing in common, they are all insane. They are made of sights that are not seen, and sounds that are not heard. They make up a private world that cannot be shared. For they are meaningful only to their maker, and so they have no meaning at all. In this world their maker moves alone, for only he perceives them. T-13.V.1:4-9

The problem is that we forget the fall, and we become entranced by the images our eyes see and the sounds the ears hear, not realizing that there is another way of seeing, seeing through the eyes of Christ.

We are on a mission here to learn to see truly, to see with vision, and we cannot do this alone because we are constantly deceived by seeing through blind eyes. And we are not alone. The Holy Spirit will guide us to see through the brain’s sleeping eyes, so that we can recognize the vision of Christ. It is a matter of remembering and forgetting; forgetting, i.e., relinquishing the sights and sounds projected by our brains, and remembering to see with the eyes of Christ. This is an awakening to the real and letting go the unreal. T-12.Vl.4

The researchers studying the brains of the stressed rats were joyously surprised to learn that the changes in behavior and brains could be reversed. That is, although, the induced stress caused particular sections of the brain to shrivel, they found that pampering the rats particular parts of the brain “resprouted.”

But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the bar. Atrophied synaptic connections in the decisive regions of the prefrontal cortex resprouted, while the overgrown dendritic vines of the habit-prone sensorimotor striatum retreated. (Brain, p. 19)

The "resprouting" of the atrophied synaptic connections is, of course, looked on as favorable, and this is a real temptation while looking through eyes that cannot see. We tend to see dualities, e.g., a stressful, or non-stressful situation, sad or happy, good or bad, and we try to find a solution more favorable rather than less favorable, forgetting that we are looking at completely illusory situations, dream-figures of our own making, characters at the bottom of a rabbit-hole.

So, it always comes down to the basics. When I see an image and respond to it stressfully, or non-stressfully, for that matter, I ask for help to remember that it is not so, it is not real, it is a dream, and ask to see through the images with vision, with the eyes of Christ, thereby, experiencing truth and love and peace.

At the end of Alice in Wonderland, we discover what we may have suspected all along—Alice Liddel, the young girl Charles Dodgson based his story on, was dreaming all the time. She finds herself in her sister’s lap, dreaming that cards are fluttering down all around her, and she wakes up discovering her sister brushing leaves off of her face.

Here is the way I expressed it in the last section of a poem in blank verse I once wrote about Alice, entitled The Wonder of Alice.

At this the whole pack of cards rose up in
the air, and came flying down on Alice

Liddel, lying on her sister’s soft lap;
she was gently brushing away some dead

leaves that had come fluttering down from the

trees upon her face. So Alice got up
and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well
she might, what a curious, wonderful dream.

If you wish to read the poem in its entirety, please click here.