This book review on The Ravenous Brain(1) in Science News mentions my age group. The author, Daniel Bor, argues that consciousness is a “chronic mental hunger.” That certainly has been my experience.
However, he also says, “During aging, the insatiable brain becomes less so. We are less ravenous for new jewels of wisdom, and our entire existence, examined through the perspective of the thousands of chunks we’ve acquired, can become routine.”
This has not been my experience so far. As much as ego would like me to believe that I am unique, observation (esp. profound sameness) tells me otherwise, so I seriously question his conclusion. I suspect he is a victim of groupthink and myths born of traditional assumptions.
In learning anything—and everything—throughout life, I’ve found it gets more intriguing as the years go by. Clearly, each year that passes allows me to plunge deeper into the most significant learning experience—life! I noticed the same thing happening to my mother in her 90’s, right up until the end. That should be generally true for everyone, barring some neurological malfunction like Alzheimer’s.
The apparent “waning consciousness” he speaks about may only be the result of an older person being less inclined to ‘put on a stylish face’. Older people have less incentive to keep up a pretense for whatever ‘social face’ they felt essential to show the world during youth. For example, grumpy old people don’t normally evolve a grumpier nature as they age; they just aren’t inclined to cover up their original nature as they once were.
One peculiarity of life I’ve noticed is the milestone aspect. For me, the milestones I’ve passed over the years were not precipitating events, but culminating moments of realization. That said, they seldom stood out as such as the time. Most of the time, at the time, I didn’t actually feel the insight to be an insightful milestone at all, just another ‘ah, I see’ moment along the way.
It is only now, looking back over the last 70 years, that I see them more for the milestones they were. Continuous ‘waking up’ feels to be an aspect of living through the years. Naturally, I never experience this sensation in my youth, so simply realizing this counts as one of those realization milestones to which I’m referring. And this brings me to one of my most significant realization milestones…
Wisdom is not passed on to the next generation.
Each person in each generation must rediscover his or her own limits of wisdom over their lifetime. When we die, we take the wisdom we ‘see’ to our grave. Sure, tangible works that arise out of living wisdom can be passed on to subsequent generations, the world’s ancient scripture being a prime example. However, the nuggets of actual wisdom we find in scripture arise from the wisdom residing in the eye of the beholder. As that eye grows in wisdom, it sees with deeper wisdom. That is the only benefit of aging I’ve found, and well worth the time.
Now, here are a few more ‘wake up’ moments that stand out…
A Review and a Clue
Waste Management: (1950) I was around ten years old, driving with my parents down from Mt Lemon, a mountain just outside Tucson, Arizona. I remember looking out over the valley plain and town below, and wondering how civilization could ever deal with the massive amount of garbage it generated. It took decades for that problem to become universally obvious. I suppose that counts as one of those, “out of the mouths of babies” prescient realizations.
Trust People to be People: In my late teens, I was living in Los Angeles sharing an apartment with a Cuban refugee. One day he asked to borrow $100 (worth more in 1962 than now!). I did without thought or concern. He never paid it back, and when I confronted him, he just shrugged it off. There I grasped the insincere ‘flaky’ side of human nature.
Argument as Gameplay: One evening, at a restaurant in Northern Thailand (1964) I fell into a serious argument with some leftwing or rightwing hot head… I can’t recall which. All of a sudden, I realized we were just playing a game with the game-object being belief instead of a ball. It has been so ever since.
Life and Death are One: (1964) I was living in Bangkok and riding to work each day on the bus. When I received word that my younger brother had died, I began intensely struggling with the nature of life and death; for the first time in my life, it was real. After some months, I realized that life and death were two sides of the same coin; they were essentially the same. ‘Buy into one, you buy into the other’, so to speak. This was one realization that I knew was profound at the time — perhaps because of all the energy I’d put into pondering life and death.
Opium is nothing: (1965) Thinking we have a problem is a virtual reality of the mind. The visceral feeling of experience is what makes it a real problem. It is not the thought, but rather the emotion that spawns the thought that gnaws at us. Emotional conflict is the ‘problem’—it is a universal animal-reality.
I realized this when I tried smoking opium in Laos. I was expecting something like a ‘cool high’. I lay there in the opium ‘den’ smoking pipe after pipe waiting for the ‘high’ that never came. Nothing! All I noticed was that I wasn’t concerned or worried about anything at all. Okay, that was mildly pleasant, but not worth paying money for, i.e., by nature, I don’t tend to worry much about anything anyway, so it was nothing I needed. I realized then that people are attracted to drugs like opium and alcohol because these take the edge off the emotional distress they feel.
Some People Hate Me: (1967) I was working as a surveyor in Vietnam. One of the American workers expressed deep dislike, even hatred, of me. I barely knew the man, which made the experience standout even more. I realized, it wasn’t me at all; it was something in him that made me a target. I symbolized something that was causing great conflict within him.
Good Manners are Relative: (1968) I stayed with the Dayak hill tribe people in Borneo. I arranged to travel with a few men from the tribe when they crossed over to the Indonesian side of Borneo. I had a hell of a time keeping up with them, slipping and sliding through the jungle; I now realize my problem was wearing shoes. Anyway, they never coddled me once, but gave me the chance to ‘man up’. Their ‘good manners’ ethics were different than I had usually encountered. I realized then how relative ethics really are. When in Rome…
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: Tokyo (1968) I’ve always been a neat-nick. That used to make me get irritated whenever I saw any despoiling of nature or disregard for the environment. One day while walking across a bridge in Tokyo, I looked down at the garbage floating in the canal. All of a sudden, what would normally look disgusting now looked beautiful.
The Buddha Effect: (1968) Before I left America, I remember seeing photos of the Kamakura Buddha in Japan and thinking it to be a huge structure. I finally made it to Japan and went down to Kamakura to see it. I couldn’t get over how small it was!
That is not all. I went down again to Kamakura a year later expecting to see the small structure I had seen the year before. This time, it was huge! Huge turned into small; small turned into huge. That experience really forced me to realize how deeply judgment is relative to previous experience. To this day, I call this all-pervasive phenomenon the ‘Buddha Effect’.
Poison or pleasure: (1968) My years in Japan were certainly a transitional time for me. I got into a poetry-producing period. Soon, I was seeing a poetic side to everything—everything! As they say, too much of a good thing can become problematic. For me, poetic insight had become a prison, locking my mind into a poetic rut, so to speak. It brings home the view, ‘one person’s pleasure can be another person’s poison’.
Conflicting Desires cause Mental Illness: (1972) While I was living in Sweden, I spent time discussing with a psychiatrist, her treatment of her patient’s psychiatric disorders. In example after example, I realized the common denominator was a kind of disconnection. The root of every example she gave seemed to rest in a conflict of desires. It all seemed to come down to, “I want this, but I want that”, or “I want this, but I fear that”. It is not desire per se, that causes us sorrow; it is the conflicting desires and fear.
Always Something Wrong: (1980’s) When I finally settled down in one place for more than a few years, I realized how ‘there is always something wrong’ was an inescapable fact of life. During the past two decades, I had not stayed anywhere long enough to notice this verity. The chaos of always packing up and moving on overshadows some recurring themes that are noticeable in a settled life. I plunged into renovating ten old houses, where each renovation often means opening up a can-of-worms. Indeed, Misfortune, yet of good fortune its resting place; Good fortune, yet of misfortune its hiding place. Accepting that this cycle is endless sure helped calm me down. Subsequently, I realized that adapting to any status quo can greatly amplify this. When we get comfortable (attached to) with any ‘standard’, it set us up for a fall. Keep as flexible as possible, both physically (yoga!) and mentally (Tao Te Ching) is my ‘stitch in time saves nine’. As chapter 72 says, When the people don’t fear power, Normally great power arrives.
Free Will is a Myth: (1990’s) If, by chance, Daniel Bor’s view that ‘during aging, the insatiable brain becomes less so‘, is true, then abandoning my belief in free will may account for my insatiable brain becoming more so, not less so. My belief in free will, both the implicit and implied, took a good decade to ‘devolve’. Ironically, abandoning all facets of my sense of free will freed up the mind greatly. My recent post, Of Free Will, I Am, offers my latest observations on this. Essentially, dropping free will is like moment-to-moment suicide following by moment-to-moment rebirth. It isn’t something that you drop and it’s finished. Rather, it’s a continuous process of dropping, dying, and rebirthing. In some ways, it is like being retuned to childhood… at least between the ears. Alas, the rest of the body ages normally.
CenterTao: (1982 to present)I am recording what observations / realizations lend themselves to being written down. My curiosity about all things appears to increase yearly. If anything, I find I need to sometimes ‘turn off’ my mind, soften the glare, and make silent space. Ironically, this only seems to invite more insight. Life is such a trip! Of course, it is; life is work! This means I’ll have to wait until I reach the end before I can truly rest.
Update: (2015) Delving deeply into the ethnographic research of the !Kung hunter-gatherers people appears to have tied up many loose cognitive ends for me. I summarized this in the, “Who are you?” series (See page 229). That rare research captures the essence of human existence that spanned our pre-civilized way of life—the old way. Rare because that primal way of life is now gone forever!
(1) The book review on The Ravenous Brain in Science News
In this dispatch from the front lines of consciousness research, neuroscientist Bor offers an introspective interpretation of what the human mind is and what it’s good for.
Consciousness, Bor argues, is a “chronic mental hunger,” the brain’s demand for more and more information about the world. This insatiable appetite has propelled humans to the moon, ushered in medical advances and compelled countless commuters to reach for sudoku puzzles.
Bor sees this hunger in action as he watches his baby daughter learn to walk. She gleefully toddles around the room and is delighted when she figures out how to step backward, her burgeoning consciousness greedily finding patterns and making connections.
At the other end of the spectrum, a waning consciousness can signal illness such as depression, anxiety disorder, chronic pain or schizophrenia. The book opens with Bor’s father experiencing a minor stroke that leaves him with limited awareness of his left side. This constricted form of consciousness changed the father’s personality, providing Bor’s initial impetus to study neuroscience.
During aging, the insatiable brain becomes less so, Bor writes. “We are less ravenous for new jewels of wisdom, and our entire existence, examined through the perspective of the thousands of chunks we’ve acquired, can become routine.” Meditation and some forms of brain training may help, he suggests, by putting the mind in a childlike state.
Bor’s knack for bolstering personal examples with laboratory studies makes this a thought-provoking read. His ideas are tantalizing, but not as definitive as he occasionally makes them seem. Scientists still have a lot of tinkering and testing to do before they are even close to understanding consciousness.