One of the great abilities of the human brain is to boost itself into a higher function. No one can explain how this happens. By the time early humans discovered fire and simple tools like the wheel and lever, our brains were already the most complex structure in the universe. We then proceeded to use this structure in unprecedented ways. Somewhere in our DNA was the potential for higher mathematics, for example, even though Homo sapiens existed for 200,000 years without tapping that capacity.
The reason that we are able to accomplish huge, never-ending leaps needs to be solved. If it can, then a new era will open up for the brain. The key is not materialistic, to my mind. One needs to begin, in fact, by turning away from the brain, whose intricate workings have mesmerized researchers for three decades, ever since the development of feasible brain scans. Such advances are fascinating, but we run the risk of sitting around a radio as it plays Mozart, staring at how the transistors work while imagining that we are uncovering the secrets of music.
Once you stop staring at the brain and start exploring the music it plays – i.e., the richness of human thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations – a simple truth emerges. There is something more complex in the cosmos than the human brain: the process that makes the brain work. This process involves consciousness. It is our mind that is using the brain, not the other way around. (I would argue that the brain is a creation of the mind, a physical projection of consciousness. But that argument can be set aside for another day.) If we could understand the process that underlies the entire brain, instead of focusing in reductionist fashion on bits and pieces of brain function, doors would suddenly be flung open.
Let me suggest a beginning.
What we already know are a few fundamentals that apply to everything happening in the brain. Some functions are already confirmed by brain scans; others arise from deduction, working form observed facts to larger principles.
1. The process always involves feedback loops.
2. These feedback loops are intelligent.
3. The dynamics of the brain go in and out of balance but always favor overall balance, known as homeostasis.
4. We use our brains to evolve and develop, guided by our intentions.
5. Self-reflection pushes us forward into unknown territory.
6. Many diverse areas of the brain are coordinated simultaneously.
7. We have the capacity to monitor many levels of awareness, even though our focus is generally confined to one level (i.e., waking, sleeping, and dreaming).
8. All the qualities of the known world, such as sight, sounds, textures, and tastes, are created mysteriously by the interaction of mind and brain.
9. Mind is the origin of consciousness, not the brain.
10. Only consciousness can understand consciousness. There is no mechanical explanation that suffices, working from facts about the brain.
This list bridges two worlds, biology and philosophy. Biology is great at explaining physical processes but totally inadequate to tell us about the meaning and purpose of our subjective experience. Philosophy delves deeply into meaning but has made only tentative forays into the brain. Both worlds are needed to understand ourselves. Otherwise, we fall into the biological fallacy, which holds that humans are controlled by their brains, or the philosophical fallacy, which treats experience devoid of its physiological connection. Leaving aside countless arguments between various theories of mind and brain, the goal is clear: We want to use our brains, not have them use us.
I’d like to expand on the practical uses of the ten principles listed above – they would be merely intriguing if they remained abstractions but incredibly practical if they lead to the next phase of human evolution. That phase involves using the brain better, something that human beings excel at. We are driven to greater creativity, complexity, imaginative leaps, and unknown horizons. “Better” doesn’t mean more efficiently, the way technology improves a computer. In fact, by giving technicalities over to machines, we left more room for using our brains outside technology. In a world where every sort of calculation is done automatically, at the push of a button or the stroke of a keypad, assigning the brain a more evolved role poses the hugest challenge.
In the following posts I’ll suggest a new synthesis that takes the most basic aspects of brain function – feedback, self-reflection, homeostasis, and multi-dimensional consciousness – to show that the era of higher brain function has arrived, awaiting only how you and I choose to participate.
(To be cont.)