President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) seeks to decipher how the brain’s circuitry produces thought and behavior. This is interesting on several levels. Certainly, ongoing scientific corroboration of what we have long suspected at an intuitive level is very useful. (thank you little mouse… sorry!)
Two recent Science News’ articles looked into this initiative. The following paragraph in Brain Shot caught my eye.
Ambitious goals: While the BRAIN Initiative’s objectives are hard to express in concrete terms, the project is full of visionary promise. “The ultimate goal is to understand who we are,” says Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. “How is it that our brain is able to look out into the world and see things? How is it that we are able to make decisions? How is it that we’re able to coordinate enormous amounts of knowledge?”
I suspect such questions are only fully answerable in the subjective experience of noticing how one thinks and feels. Indeed, isn’t this how humanity has always sensed the subtler side of the human experience? Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are a pithy and down to earth way to understand ourselves. Others have concurred with Buddha’s viewpoint in various ways, before and after, e.g., Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Christ, even Genesis. The problem we face in understanding ourselves is often an innate unwillingness to hear what really stands in our way. We want to have it both ways — and naturally so, I might add.
Chapter 65’s candid observations ‘not to enlighten, but to fool’ challenged me for a long time. It seems so much at odds with humanity’s other spiritual aspirations. It is easy to interpret it as a deliberate attempt by the ‘ancients’ to avoid enlightening the people, but rather to intentionally hoodwink them, as D.C. Lau puts it. The common belief that we humans possess free will would suggest this to be a deliberate act on their part, i.e., these ancients chose to fool us, we assume. Why would they ever want to do that?
My breakthrough on this came when I finally realized, or better, really faced up to the fact that we only understand what we know. This is really a hard pill to swallow — at least as hard as the fact that our mistaken sense of free will is an inevitable consequence of the illusion of self. Seen in this light, the ancients didn’t fool anyone deliberately. People fool themselves by misunderstanding the message. That would be the natural outcome of only being able to understand truly what we already know intuitively. In other words, we interpret what we hear in accord with our own deeply held needs and fears. The ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder. If the eye is fearful, the ‘truth’ it sees counterbalances that fear in some way.
Therefore, I’d imagine that we can only understand “how our brain is able to look out into the world and see things and make decisions” to the extent that we are comfortable with the facts we find. As usual, our needs and fears will invariably color our interpretation of the facts and any conclusions we make. Understanding begins within… as flaky as it seems.
Cataloging the connections
The next article, Cataloging the connections, caught my eye as well.
The brain possesses a similar diversity of scale: two hemispheres of convoluted gray matter, each with four regional lobes, traversed by superhighways of white matter fibers communicating with billions of individual cells. So some brain maps focus on outlining anatomical areas, others track the white matter wiring, still others divide the gray matter into tiny parcels and record their activity during different mental tasks. But eventually, scientists want to map everything. Their ultimate goal is a catalog of all the connections between all the brain’s cells and regions, a master map known as the connectome.
It’s a formidable task, comparable to identifying every building in the country and then tracing the routes of all the people and cars that travel among them. Yet mapping all those connections promises a huge potential payoff, many researchers say, and it will be essential to pursuing the even grander goals articulated by President Obama for understanding how the brain thinks and learns (SN: 5/4/13, p. 22).
Knowing the layout of every leaf on a tree, the biology of every cell of every leaf, and so on, will not truly tell you about the tree. One must ‘become’ a tree to understand a tree, which no doubt sounds impossible. It all depends on what we mean by ‘become’. Setting that aside, knowing all the facts and figures certainly doesn’t hurt, and can truly enhance the experience, especially if the ‘becoming’ condition is met. However, without some ‘becoming’, knowledge is relatively blind. Chapter 15 and 49 speak to this somewhat:
How does the wise person exist, all under heaven, breathing in?
Becoming all under heaven, simple and natural his intention.
All the multitude explain with their knowledge;
The wise person, each and every child.… Chapter 49