Change Your Brain – Pt. 1

One of the most exciting areas of modern science is the study of neuroplasticity. Neurologists and behaviorists have known for decades that most behaviors are learned through repetition. Synapses fire between neurons when the brain is working, and after enough repetition these neurons form relatively permanent bonds.

In recent years scientists have been showing us that brain training is not just reserved for psychologists, behaviorists, or neurologists. Meaningful change is available for everyone. Neuroplasticity is for the end-user, meaning those of us who have brains.

When we think of changes we would like to make in our lives, few of us choose things that are impossible. I doubt serious people get depressed because they cannot levitate themselves or read minds clearly. Most often the changes we would like to see are practical – we want more money, a change in career, or to be happier.

Real changes like this are achievable, and the answers to our problems are often obvious. Work hard and ask for a raise, find a better job, stop sweating the small stuff. But we are all creatures of habit and often lasting changes like these can seem unattainable. The reason these changes seem unattainable is because our neurons are simply not used to firing in the particular way we want. This means that even conceiving of life as we would like it to be is a challenge to our existing thought patterns.

If we agree that behaviors are learned through training, reiteration, and neurological fortification, why should any realistic change be out of reach? Being unfamiliar with something is a lame excuse not to try it and we all know it. If we want change we should be willing to challenge the things we value, to reassess things we find distasteful, and to search out ideas we haven’t even heard of.

These three books challenged my beliefs and enriched my mind.

"The Sacred and the Profane"1. The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is a Romanian scholar who takes an academic approach to spiritual problems. He has written profoundly on yoga, shamanism, mythology and philosophy. The Sacred and the Profane is a study of holiness, giving new language to concepts I previously only intuited. With incredible scholarship Eliade relates the idea of the “sacred” with time, space, and psychology in a way that simply makes sense. The approach to the sacerdotal is likened to erecting a pillar in space. This pillar is obviously not literal, but extends away from the world toward our conception of the “holy”. This justifies the idea of holy places and non-temporal states of being while placing them firmly in our secular world. I would recommend this book to atheists and materialists.

 

"The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"2. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This groundbreaking work posits that early man actually spoke with the gods, as most ancient literature asserts. It asks why early literature is replete with references to the gods, why most theurgic speech comes in metered form, and why this is much less common now. The thesis is that the human brain was different back then – that the right and left hemispheres of the brain were more distantly connected because the corpus callosum had not yet solidified as a bridging structure between the lobes – and that the so-called dialogue with gods was actually the two hemispheres of the brain communicating with each other. This sounds far out, but this long essay puts forward a fascinating argument that sheds new light on ancient history. What this means if true is that our conception of human consciousness as something that has gradually evolved since the time of the neanderthal is wrong, and that human consciousness as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon on earth. This is the kind of book that, while you read it, your eyebrows raise higher and higher. Since I have heard nothing like this theory anywhere else, I recommend this book to anyone.

 

"Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer"3. Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer by Dr. John Lilly

Using computer language, this beautiful, bizarre little manual describes the behavioral patterns of our body-brain complex (the biocomputer), and implies how we might reprogram our software (ideas and behavioral patterns) to achieve personal change. The language can seem tough to wrap one’s head around at first, but there’s nothing quite like learning a new jargon to get those synapses firing in new ways. The book also talks about metaprograms, which are the subconscious routines that set the table for behavioral programs. For example, I will be less likely to appreciate hip-hop (program) if I am subconsciously racist against black people (metaprogram). Once the learning curve of language is mounted this book reads like a slender, elegant volume of instructions on creating new behaviors. Recommended for wordy sad-sacks.

A Short Case for Yoga

THE FALSE BINARY

We all have moments where we’re ‘in our heads’, oblivious to the world around us. And we all have moments where we’re fully so fully engaged in a physical task that we’re not consciously thinking. Our language has separate words for both mind and body, and so we perceive them as two distinct items. But they are connected by yet another remarkable structure: the central nervous system (CNS). As essential to a square as four sides, the body, mind, and action of the CNS are integrated parts of a whole, living being.

So what are they?

1) I am a mind. I perceive the world and think. I can think conceptually and abstractly, I can think about specific sense impressions, and I can imagine new things. I practice induction and deduction and can grasp universal concepts such as mathematics and Euclidean geometry, and I can apply these ideas to the physical world around me through the medium of my body.

2) I am a body. I have mass and physical extension in dimensions perceivable by my mind. I am a collection of organs and fluids. I am a skeleton. I can operate machinery, apply force to objects, and use my own physical geometry to accomplish an innumerable amount of physical tasks.

3) I am a central nervous system. The word spirit is put here often and that’s fine because it represents the breath of action between body and mind. At any rate, the CNS mediates between the mind and body in continuous feedback loops, sending out actions and taking in impressions. Electricity runs our brains and fires through synapses. This interaction is somewhat mysteriously represented as our consciousness.

The brain, which is the base of the central nervous system, is part of the body. Scientists look at the brain and see correlations between activities in the brain and activities in behavior and consciousness. In Western philosophy, this proves that the brain causes consciousness. But the fact that a neuron fires in my brain doesn’t explain the phenomena of consciousness. Why should, and more importantly, how does a neuron firing represent itself as the smell of coffee or the sight of another person?

In Eastern religious philosophy, consciousness is primary, and dictates to the brain what action to take. But this argument has no empirical evidence to support it, unless you consider the Radical Empiricism of William James, a favorite of mine. Either way, there is nothing objectively measurable to confirm the hypothesis.

Modern Western thought doesn’t think the mind/body connection very mysterious these days. The central nervous system mediates between the mind and the body, so what? But how it operates is more magical than anything dreamt up in fantasy fiction. Think about it: I simply will the synapses to fire in my brain, tell them to send a signal through my nervous system, into my shoulder, arm, wrist and hand, to lift a glass of Laphroaig single malt scotch to my mouth. The scotch is smokey and beautiful. And I don’t even have to will my stomach to digest it or my liver to siphon out all that lovely alcohol. Now that is a spirit I can believe in. Ahhhh..Digression.

If you look around though, it’s obvious that not everyone has figured the whole mind/body thing out. This is because the issue is not as simple as naming it. When you see people carrying around a lot of extra weight, or slouching with bad posture, what is to blame? Does their mind will their body to slouch? Are they effectively slouching mentally? Or are they physically unable to walk tall? Or is their central nervous system not controlling things properly? Something isn’t right. In order to have our mind/body/spirit in best working order, we need some way to integrate them all into a unified whole, with all parts complimentary to each other.

If there was some way to plug into the mind and draw it down to invigorate the CNS to exalt the body to it’s optimal working order, then obviously we would be as healthy and effective as possible for our circumstances. Well it turns out that technology has been around for over five thousand years.

SOFT TECHNOLOGIES

When we think of the word ‘technology’ we often think of physical things. A phone and a car are examples of technology, but technology has other forms. At some point in ancient history, something like a man or woman realized it could use physical objects as tools. Soon everyone was doing it and it made things easier. The use of hand tools is arguably the first soft technology.

When they realized they were more effective in groups and they wanted a way to communicate with each other, language was laboured into existence. Now they could use their brains together like never before; they were on the fast track to technological advancement. Communicating with each other would only improve their effectiveness as a group and further accelerate their advance as a species.

At some point before 3000 B.C., a soft technology was developed to synergize the individual. It aimed to unify the mind and body into a whole, so they called it “unity”. Today we call it “yoga”.

YOGA

Here is the deal: there is no mystery about it. Yoga is a series of exercises that systematically integrate your mind and body while fine-tuning your central nervous system. Using breath, you train your mind to will energy and consciousness through your nervous system which you extend and stretch and hold in a series of postures. Breath is the physical vehicle whereby attention and energy is brought to every part of the body, all of which require regular use to maintain optimal health. And as they say on television: exercise is important.

But at the same time, the experience of actually doing yoga can be as mysterious and magical or rational and logical as you want it to be. The rational arguments for yoga make perfect sense. The mystical arguments for yoga…well, dissolve yourself into the process and see for yourself. Keep in mind that you’ll be using your body, mind, and spirit in new integrated ways to produce new, enhanced types of experience.

There are different kinds of yoga, from pure, still meditation, to vigorous physical activity, and obviously doing a range of these things is best. Some people find satisfaction in physical yogas, and do only those, but that is only half the battle. On the other hand some people are satisfied with raj yoga or meditation and don’t bother with the physical. Remember, the key is integration and unity, so the practice should become ongoing in different ways. After all, the mind and body are two parts of a whole. As I work down into the body and up into the mind, I become more attuned to each, and more aware of the connection between the two.

Maybe most importantly, yoga brings about self-awareness. You become more conscious of breathing well, and more conscious of energy flow. You start to pay attention to what you eating, and how much, and how you’re digesting everything. You raise your physical and mental capacities by integrating them and become more aware of cause and effect between them.

There are probably millions of pages on yoga out there, but like anything practical, the proof is in the experience. If being a more integrated and effective person is something worth working for, yoga just might be for you.