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.

Schoolyard Mentality

Imagine your mental self as this geodesic jungle gym. Your mental scope is the circle this thing traces on the ground. The individual ideas, as discreet bits of information, are represented by the coloured vertices where bars cross. The bars represent your understanding, which is the functional relationship of one bit of knowledge to another. Knowledge without Understanding isn’t much. If you just put bits of information into a computer, it isn’t a living, thinking person; if there is a functional adaptability, where ideas can be used in conjunction to accomplish new ways of thinking, then learning can be accomplished, then you’ve got real intelligence.

In Catholic school kids are taught that The Holy Trinity is made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three individual pieces of information form a triangle, or concept called The Holy Trinity, which can be represented by any one of the triangles making up the dome.

As kids grow into their mental life, ideally their dome grows and remains strong. Many schools do a great job of supplying kids with a lot of specific and practical knowledge. This is great because adults who speak well and are proficient in math are more effective members of society. But those links of understanding aren’t always fostered in school. For instance, coming out of grade eight I wouldn’t have been able to relate quantum physics to religion because I wasn’t aware that I could consciously form a link between disparate pieces of knowledge. Plus I didn’t know what quantum physics was.

As the mental sphere grows it’s important to maintain and enhance both our knowledge and our understanding so that learning proceeds on a solid foundation. So lessons are repeated to us. We are conditioned by repetition. We are also conditioned by shock; when a severe psychological event happens, emotional attachments can imprint themselves onto our subconscious memory. But the easy way to make someone remember is repetition. It’s repetition. It’s repetition. Watch Fox News for six hours if you want to see what I mean. Actually no, don’t. Don’t.

And through repetition our knowledge becomes ossified. We know things. And we know that we know these things. When Black Sabbath is playing, I know I like them, so I’m mentally prepared to enjoy them. But there are some times that I hear them that aren’t as sweet and engaging as other times. It’s easy to disregard those different experiences because a faulty logic has conditioned our thinking.

Binary logic, imagined as black and white, left and right, would say I like Black Sabbath and I don’t not like Black Sabbath. Therefore when Wheels of Confusion comes on, I listen and enjoy (you should too). But this is terribly reductive because it doesn’t consider the nuance and shades of enjoyment that I actually experience. Rather than being only true or only false, ideas can be sometimes true, or sometimes false, or sometimes true but meaningless or true but meaningful, or false and meaningless, or partially true and partially false, or true only in certain circumstances, etc., etc.. Binary thinking is what makes that geodesic jungle gym such a deathtrap.

I would argue that the most profound subject of study has been omitted from the curriculum of most schools. Children are taught mathematics, geography, history, biology and so forth, but they aren’t given lessons in Self Knowledge. Looking into oneself teaches about the realities that make up our individual worlds. Although it isn’t made up of discreet, rational bits of knowledge, the rewards of Self Knowledge in everyday life encompass all of experience. Fortunately this isn’t the case across the board. Props to The David Lynch Foundation.

Once during a deep inward look I saw my mental self as this geodesic jungle gym of doom and realized the form of it had been imposed upon me. It was completely inflexible! And the reason you don’t see those domes in schoolyards any more is because apparently kids can’t be trusted not to smash their bodies on it.

I realized that the word is not the thing. Words just stand for things; the word “Jim” isn’t the man “Jim”, nor is the phrase “turkey sandwich” an actual turkey sandwich. That grey area where a thing becomes information that is coded as a word is very mysterious, and it’s hard to say just how the process works. Sure, dictionaries define words, but they can’t show you every conceivable usage. You can’t find Raymond Chandler’s similes in any dictionary.

So if certain facts in my life didn’t jive with others, maybe I wasn’t thinking flexibly enough. By reading books from different eras, seeing movies from different cultures, and generally trying new things, we contemplate ideas from angles we never would have come to on our own. Neuroplasticity seems to be all the rage right now, and I understand why. It’s a challenge to think outside our comfort zones, but shedding beliefs is liberating. These days I view my mind like a basketball net.

It’s the same basic structure; points of information are still connected by understanding, but now I can fold and twist it around and make interesting new connections. And the individual pieces of information, the vertices, can be shifted around, turned on any axis, and generally reconsidered.

I tend not to get angry at other people’s points-of-view because I can change my perspective a bit to understand how they can think the way they do. I’m not saying I’m totally empathetic to people. Far from it. But being upset isn’t productive. I live a much more satisfying life when nasty interactions can come and go like a three-point swish leaving my mental composure intact.

Plus, nobody’s ever cracked a bone on mesh cloth. Although with enough tensile strength and velocity, who knows…anything is possible.