We Who Carry Our Brains
Neural Plasticity and Process Theology
Please see also:
Whitehead and Mind-Brain Relations by John B. Cobb, Jr.
The Remarkable Story of Simon Lewis
I Love Your Right Hemisphere
Can Relations Improve After Death?
Where is God in Mental Illness?
How are good ideas inspired? Take the idea that our brains are creative and adaptive, helping us respond to changes in our lives. Or the idea that God -- the lure toward creative transformation in our universe -- is adaptive, too, perpetually adjusting to each new situation we face, always in a spirit of love. Take the idea that our brain and its plasticity is one place where we meet God.
These are questions that emerge in my own mind as I listen to the talk above. I am grateful as always to www.ted.com for providing providing inspiration. What follows is a process or Whiteheadian response to the Ted Talk given a neuroscientist named Michael Merzeniger.
He is professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-founder and chief scientific advisor of a global brain therapy company called Posit Science.
Dr. Merzenich's talk is on brain plasticity. He is hopeful that, with help from brain science, we can partially rescue older citizens from some of the worst aspects of senility: e.g. from loss of immediate memory and the loss of capacities for motor control. He is also hopeful that techniques discovered through brain science can help people who suffer from acquired or genetically-induced impairments: autism, cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, and Parkinson's Disease. His own impulse to help others is a good expression of what we process thinkers mean by cooperating with the lure of creative transformation.
A Foot on Earth, a Foot in Heaven
For my part, I first started thinking about the brain many years ago, when the mother of a very close friend of mine showed signs of Alzheimer's disease. I had known her all my life; she was one of the most vibrant people I'd ever met. She was a mentor to me.
In her later years, I watched her lose her capacity for memory and what we might call "intelligence." She could not remember my name or her son's name. She could not brush her teeth or eat. People said that she had already died and that only her body was alive.
And yet, when I saw her at the end of her life, I sensed a kind of sparkle somewhere deep within her. Her son did, too. As he put it to me: "I think my mother has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven."
I think he was right. Professor Merzenich speaks of human beings as the people who "carry their brains." My friend's mother had carried her brain for many years, and quite successfully. But now she was letting go of her brain, and her brain was letting go of her, too. I trusted then, as I trust now, that the God of creative transformation was sharing in her experience and those of her loved ones, which means that God, too, knows what it is like to forget. And I trusted that the very God who shares in forgetting responds with fresh possibilities for living in the now.
What happens after we die?
I also wondered where she was going as her brain dies to her. Perhaps she was simply dissolving into nothingness. Or perhaps she was in transition into another realm of existence where her journey could continue. Perhaps she was putting a foot in heaven.
Some of us process thinkers believe this is the case. We believe that a person, even if emerging out of brain activity in some way, can gain a degree of independence from that activity and survive the death of the brain. A leading process philosopher of our time -- Dr. David Ray Griffin -- believes that, on rational grounds, it is more likely that there is some kind of continuing journey, than that there is not. I'll say more about this at the end of this reflection.
We Who Carry Our Brains
But for now I want to speak to those of us whose minds are firmly planted in our brains, and who are left behind by those who depart. We call ourselves "minds" or "persons" or "souls." The particular phrases don't matter so much to me, so please choose the term that makes most sense to you. When I say we I mean the ones -- you and I -- who enjoy and suffer the experiences that our brains make possible; who have a sense of being persons who look out at the world from a subjective perspective and respond in some way; the ones whose hearts can be broken when loved ones suffer. We are the persons who have first-person experience.
We learn from Professor Merzenich that our brains are constructed to us adapt to new situations. They are, in his words, "constructed for change." In this sense they are gifts to us: they confer upon us abilities to do things tomorrow we cannot do today. They are one way that we receive God's grace. Not the only way, but one way. God's grace is not supernatural. It is the presence of fresh possibilities in our lives, moment by moment, that enable us to respond in creative ways to the situation at hand. Are brains are receptors for these possibilities.
Brains as Orchestras
Professor Merzenich refers to our brains as "machines." Perhaps brains are small computers in the skull. But we Whiteheadians prefer organic metaphors to mechanistic metaphors. We think that the brain is more like a living organism than a machine, and that the neurons in our brain have a kind of unconscious sentience of their own, inasmuch as they are forever responding to other neurons in the brain and altering their behavior accordingly. Their synaptic activity, as seen from the outside, is unconscious but subjective response, as lived from the inside. Neurons are living, too.
If there is wisdom in this idea, then it might be plausible to think of the brain as orchestra with a billion musicians, who have their own specialties, and who collectively play a certain kind of music, sometimes harmonic and sometimes cacaphonic. This music is our brain activity.
Most of the music that our brains play is unconscious to us, and much of it occurs during sleep. This unconscious activity is tremendously important to our lives. If the brain is an orchestra, it is playing much of its music without our conscious cooperation, and we best be grateful for that fact. Unconscious activity can be grace, too. It, too, can be a place where fresh possibilities become available. This is one reason why, in so many religious traditions, dreams and their interpretation play such an important role.
Still, during our waking hours, we seem to conduct the orchestra. We decide to raise our arms and then we raise them. We decide to look in a certain direction and we look. All with help from our brains. Perhaps we are members of the orchestra who, for a time, step outside the pit and do some orchestrating of our own, but then, during sleep, return to the orchestra. Or perhaps, as Buddhists and Hindus say, we come from previous lives (reincarnation). It's hard to say, and the matter need not be definitively settled. Wise people can have different views.
What is clear, though, is that, in daily life, our thoughts and feelings affect our brain chemistry and our brain chemistry affects our thoughts and feeling. There is two-way causation between mind and brain. The conductor conducts the orchestra, and the orchestra conducts the conductor. Some people speak of this two-way causation as top-down (mind to brain) and bottom-up (brain to mind).
What is also interesting, in light of what we learn from Dr. Merzenich, is that we and our brains are plastic. The brain's "plasticity" lies in the fact that it can adapt to new situations in ways that were not pre-programmed by the past, and our own "plasticity" means that we can do the same. Process theology is famous for saying that the future is open even for God, which means that God knows what is possible in the future, but not what is actual until it becomes actualized. In a sense God is "plastic," too. Divine plasticity lies in a capacity to respond to each and every situation in a fresh way, adapting to the circumstances at hand, like a Buddhist Bodhisattva.
Faith in God is trust in the availability of fresh possibilities: trust in plasticity. Some people this might seem demeaning of God, but for process theologians it is high praise. The freedom of God lies in God's deep flexibility. Without flexibility God could not adapt to new situations in a loving way. Without plasticity God would be rigid and fixed, incapable of love and unresponsive to the needs of the world.
Selves in Process
Of course we are plastic, too, and part of this plasticity is our change over time. From the perspective of process philosophy our very selves are becoming over time, and different at every moment. The "selves" that we were as infants are not the "selves" that we were when we were six years old, and the "selves" that we are today are not the "selves" that we were when we were six. We are co-evolving along with our brains, sometimes happily and sometimes painfully.
And when our brains eventually cease acting, a dramatic event occurs in our own lives. The "selves" that we were in our past become memories and we face death. The death of our brain activity and the death of the old, brain-connected self. We must let go.
In truth we have been needing to let go all of our lives. We can remember, but never completely retain, the people we once were. A death and resurrection has been occuring since the day we were born. Even after our brain dies, is resurrection possible?
A Continuing Journey
I have said that, for some process theologians, the answer is "Yes, it might." Here they are influenced by the cosmology of Whitehead. As a mathematician he knew that there can be non-three-dimensional realms of existence, with geometries of their own, and that there is no reason in principle to deny that they, too, are habitats for concrescing subjects of one sort or another. Do these other worlds really exist, or are they merely figments of the imagination? For Whitehead this was an empirical question not a metaphysical question. Those of us who think in a Whiteheadian mode are willing to listen to evidence for and against non-three-dimensional worlds.
In this listening some of us have been influenced by a fellow Whiteheadian, the philosopher David Ray Griffin, who took very careful look at mutiple forms of evidence for and against what psychologists call parapsychological experiences: telepathy (feeling the feelings of others across long distances), remembering past lives, and out-of-body experiences.
Dr. Griffin began his own studies as a skeptic, but ended up concluding that the weight of evidence for such experiences was much greater than the weight against them. His book, Parapsychology, Philosophy, & Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, succeeded in making the case, at least for me and many other Whiteheadians, that some kind of continuing journey after death is not only possible but probable.
In reading Griffin's book, we began to realize that we were postmodern: not in the sense of rejecting traditiion, but rather in the sense of rejecting the modern prejudice against traditional points of view.
The vast majority of humans on our planet have believed that we live in a multi-planed universe. We find the idea in Buddhist and Hindu perspectives, in Native Americans and Muslim perspectives, in traditional African and traditional Christian points of view -- all of them propose that we live in a universe of many dimensions, of which three-dimensional space is but one. Cognizant of these traditions, Griffin's book helped us realize that the modern, western, prejudice against experience beyond the brain is indeed a prejudice. True postmodernism does not lie in rejecting tradition, but in finding creative ways of combining tradition with the wisdom of science, including neuroscience.
For Griffin, postmodernism also involves recognizing that there is something living -- something like experience -- even in the depths of matter. This, too, takes us back to many more traditional points of view, where there is no dichotomy between matter and mind, because there is something like mind in matter itself.
Mind in Matter
This is where the philosophy of Whitehead proves helpful for many people. He solves the problem of "mind" and "matter" by encouraging us to think in fresh ways about what we mean by matter. For Whitehead matter does not consist of mere inert stuff, but rather of momentary pulsations of living energy. Matter consists of energy-events.
At the level of the brain these energy-events are the quanta of energy that constitute the atoms and molecules in the neurons of the brain. We can imagine them as synaptic happenings.
While each energy-event in the brain has its location, it is nevertheless influenced by all the other energy-events in the brain, and it comes into its own existence as a response to those energy-events. This response is not entirely pre-determined by those past events, which means that it contains a small bit of non-conscious plasticity -- adaptability -- in its response. In short, there is something like mind in matter.
The person who carries the brain likewise consists of momentary happenings which succeed one another in a linear fashion, influenced but not entirely determined by prececessor events. These happenings are the person's own subjective experiences: the person's awareness and decisions and feelings. They are the dominant occasions of experience which receive influence from all parts of the brain and initiate responses. They are the mind who carries the brain and who is also carried by the brain.
Thus the energy-events within the depths of a neuron and the experiences which form the life of a person are on an ontological continuum. The building blocks of the mind and the brain are momentary and creative happenings with mind-like properties. And somehow, carrying it all, is a deep Mind who encompassed the universe with a tender care that nothing be lost.
Matter in Mind
From a process perspective there is mind in matter, but also matter in mind, including the deep Mind. Even the mind who carries the universe -- the spirit of creative transformation -- is mattered by all that exists. Whitehead envisons God as a receptacle for all happenings.
I go back to my friend's mother. I wonder if her sparkle is not even now contained within the deep Mind, perhaps sparkling even more. But at the every least it is remembered, forever, in the memory of the deep Mind: remembered for who she was at every moment of her life. Where did she go? I don't know. But does she matter. I am pretty sure she does. To Something. Someone. Somewhere. Forever.