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A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Is the Mind outside the Brain?

 
How we represent our world

The generally accepted wisdom is that our brain creates our mind, making our mind a product of our brain. It says that the neural activity in our brain generates all our thoughts, emotions and everything we would see as mind. This way of seeing the relationship between the brain and the mind has held us back from examining alternative ways our brain and mind might be connected.

When we perceive things in the real world, we assume that what we perceive is really there. We see a chair, an apple, or a candle and automatically assume they are real. Other people look at the same objects and also see a chair, an apple and a candle, adding to our sense that they are real.

 The candle gives off light, heat and, if we listen carefully, sounds. Whatever actually is there in the real world reflects or sends out waves of energy at different frequencies. Our ears can pick up the sound waves, our eyes the light waves and our skin can sense the warmth of the candle. What we perceive is the waves of energy coming from the object. We do not perceive the object itself.

 Next, when the waves of energy from the object reach us, they are translated into electrical signals to be sent along the neural pathways to the brain. The impulses are then sent to various places in the brain to be processed. The messages from the eye, for example, are transferred to different parts of the brain with some parts focusing on recognising colour, others shape, others edges etc. Our perceptions are then cross referenced with our memories, linked to our values and a myriad of other factors within the mind. Somehow, all this information is then combined to create a coherent representation of whatever is out there in the real world. We therefore never perceive the outside world directly “as it is”. Everything we perceive in our world, all the objects, all the people, and all the places can only ever be representations we create within ourselves of the outside world.

We can say then that we cannot directly know anything about what is outside our body. We can only ever be aware of the signals our own body generates and sends to the brain in response to what happens in the outside world.

 If everything we perceive from outside our body is only a representation of a reality “out there”, then our perceptions of our own body are also still only representations. If we feel pain, itchiness, a nervous stomach, or a sense of joy, we are not perceiving our body as it is, but rather through a representation our mind has created of our body based on the electrical signals generated within the body and interpreted in the brain. We are so attached to perceiving our body and its sensations as being who we are, that we assume they are real, indeed more real than what is outside us. After all, what could be more me than my own heartbeat; yet even this is just a representation. That also means that our physical brain, as we are able to perceive, it is only a representation of itself.

This means there is no real difference between what is inside us and what is outside us.  Everything we perceive, no matter whether it comes from inside us or outside is just electrical messages that we interpret. While we believe we have a clear sense of ourselves in our body and what is outside, for the brain there is no difference between the messages received from the outside world and those received from inside the body. They are all just electrical signals.

Once we have perceived the world and created our representation of ourselves and the world outside, we must then interact with it. The representation we make of the outside world must be a very close match to the outside world.  When we move our arm out to reach for an object, the representation of our arm must match our arm in the real world. The object we reach out to must be where our representation of it is. Then the representation of our arm can reach out to the representation of the object and touch it just at the point where the real arm meets the object in the real world. We therefore project our representational world outward to overlap with the real world so we can interact effectively in it. 

The brain chooses what to perceive

Another aspect to consider is the in influence of our interpretations on how we perceive our world. The brain uses a large amount of energy to fulfill its functions. At rest, around 15% of our blood is sent to the brain. That means anything we can do to reduce the amount of energy being used by the brain reduces the amount of food we must provided for ourselves and leaves more energy for other critical tasks. 

The brain therefore selectively chooses what to take notice of so it can economise on its energy use. It looks for patterns that allow it to take “short cuts”. For example, objects that are nearer tend to appear larger and objects that are far away tend to be smaller. An object that grows bigger in the visual field is likely to be moving towards us and vice versa.  It is a very useful “rule of thumb”, which saves an enormous amount of processing and is correct almost all of the time.  We have a whole raft of such  rules of thumb we use as best guesses so we can react effectively to a rapidly changing world. Our brain creates the world it expects from the data it chooses. It generally works very well, but sometimes the brain’s assumptions are not warranted. Occasionally, those best guesses do not match the outside reality and we misperceive the world. This forms the basis of optical illusions.  

It is more important that the way we perceive is functional than it is accurate. For example, if a ball is thrown to us, when the ball has reached point A, it will take time for us to gather all the information and form the representation of the ball coming towards us. That means that by the time we have a perception of the ball a point A, it has moved to a closer point, say point B. That gap would make it virtually impossible to catch the ball, so the mind uses a trick. It calculates where it thinks the ball will be by the time it has been processed (point B) and the ball is placed there in the representation of the situation. 

The way we perceive our world depends on the apparatus we have for perceiving the world. That includes our eyes, ears, tongue, nose and skin and the brain for bringing it al together. This apparatus has evolved over the millennia using natural selection to evolve the modes of sensing that work best. Other creatures have developed different ways of sensing our world that are just as valid, but create a very different perception of the world. Bees see ultra violet light we cannot see. Dogs hear high pitched whistles we cannot see and bats and dolphins use radar. They live in the same world as us but they experience it very differently. Even amongst humans we have people who are colour blind or other reasons they perceive the world very differently from us. Our perceptual apparatus evolved as a result of environmental forces over endless millennia, but equally our perception of the world has evolved due to the nature of our apparatus, because the apparatus changes the way we perceive our world. Each affects the other in a strange dance. We are constructed by our environment while at the same time, we construct our environment.

We have thoughts and emotions about all our experiences that influences how we perceive and interpret our world. We make decisions on what is safe and what is dangerous, what is pleasant and what is not and make so many other distinctions that influence what information from the outside world we choose to pay attention to. We are drawn towards what is pleasant and repelled by what is unpleasant.  These thoughts and emotions affect our perception of the world we live in.

What we experience depends on what we choose to put into our awareness. We pay particular attention to the parts of our world that are more critical to us. For the Inuit people of the arctic, being able to distinguish the many different types of snow and ice is vital for survival and so they have many words to describe these types of snow and ice. Indigenous people living near the equator do not have the need for such distinctions and so only have words covering all types of snow and ice.   

We tend to notice that which reinforces our existing perceptual and belief systems, so we see the world through the glasses of our belief systems. We notice what reinforces our existing world view and tend to deny, distort or ignore whatever contradicts with the world as we see it. It is not just a matter of perceiving what is there. We are very much making it up as we go. This is why we struggle with new situations we have not previously encountered. 

Communication with others

If we are to communicate with the other people we share our environment, the way we conceptualise and make sense of the world must be sufficiently aligned to the ways the others do or we will not make sense to each other. We must come to a set of shared understandings about the world and what it is like. Through our interactions we evolve language, customs, and rules. This is the beginnings of culture. This too creates circular evolution. As individuals interacting we create culture, but once it is formed the culture then creates us, especially as we bring up new generations within the culture. Culture also affects how we see our environment and how we interact with it, while the environment continues to affect culture. We start to see that we cannot see ourselves just as separate beings in an external world, but take cognizance of our interconnectedness in a seamless unitary flow of experience.

The brain is not separate from our body. We tend to see our brain as separate from the rest of our nervous system, but it is actually all one continuous system. The nerves in our toes are as much of our whole nervous system as the nerves in our brain. The brain controls the endocrine system releasing different hormones into the body that have an enormous impact on our behaviour.  

All the systems of the body are so heavily interconnected that it is hard to see any of them as separate. We cannot really talk about the brain without talking about the circulatory system and the respiratory systems or the endocrine system or the tegumentary system. We are a whole system of interconnected systems that appear separate on first glance, but a closer examination reveals that we are far more.

Humans use tools. They extend us out into the world. A hammer extends the length of our arm and allows us to exert a greater force out in the world. When we hit something with the hammer we feel it through our hand. The hammer becomes a part of who we are blurring the boundary between us and the outside world. Now with a computer, we can easily send an email to the other side of the world extending our self conceptually right across the globe.

We hop into a car. It also becomes an extension of who we are. We control it the same as we control our hand. Other objects we “own” similarly become extensions of our self. Our house, our music collection, our clothes, and even our town and our country are a part of us.  If somebody does something to something we “own”, we feel as though it has been done to us. This way we extend ourselves far beyond our skin and our minds extends our sense of self far into the outside world.

We also extend that to other people with my wife, my family, my friend and my employees. This is particularly potent because the other people in our world respond to us and we respond to them.  

We define our identity by comparing ourselves to the outside world. We notice that in comparison to others that we are perhaps tall, intelligent, athletic, and creative. This external information is the basis of our internal sense of self and who we think we are. We must also ascribe an identity onto all the creatures and objects in the same way. The world defines us and we define our world.

When another person does something, the same neurons light up in our brain as would have if we have actually done that thing ourselves. It also happen if we imagine doing something. The same neurons fire as if we had actually done it, but not as strongly. Our brain cannot easily tell the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. The brain can create its own reality that it perceives as being just as real as the world outside. When we imagine and event or replay an event in our lives, we truly do relive the event because the brain responds in the same way. 

We have a sense of empathy because we can mirror the world of others. Culture links us so we can feel what others feel. If we see distress on someone’s face, we feel distress. We link it to our feelings of distress. This is accurate enough for us to enter each other’s world. What we present to the world creates a “dialogue” which may be verbal or non-verbal entwining our being into a bigger sense of being so we overlap in to each other. 

As we interact with others, we respond to each other second by second. We do not know how the other person will react to our actions. The exact course of a conversation cannot be predicted and thus does not exist until it happens. Neither participant knows how it will run and must respond in the moment.  All our human interactions exist as a type of dance, where we again overlap into each other and may form a synergy where the parts interact to form a new emergent whole; a conversation that could not have been previously predicted. Life becomes a dance in which we do not have ultimate control, but do have influence and a vital part to play in the whole. “You are a child of the universe 
no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”[1] 

If the mind is not restricted to the brain and some form of intelligence permeates the universe in which we live, then many things that have been automatically assumed to be impossible may be a natural consequence of the existence of this decentralized mind.  It would not be unreasonable for individual minds to be connected and therefore enable communication directly between minds without the need for verbal or other commonly used modes of communication. If minds extend beyond the brain then maybe death need not necessarily see the end of mind. It would explain esp, communication with the dead, synchronicity and other such manifestations of the paranormal.

Carl Jung talks of the collective unconscious as a great pool of consciousness we all share filled with extremely potent symbols and archetypes that guide much of our lives.

Immanuel Kant came to the conclusion that consciousness creates mind as a way of experiencing itself. Ervin Laslzo talks of the quantum vacuum, which is a field from which everything is created and to which everything returns. He proposes that this field is actually conscious in itself and is thus the ground of all being. Our human brain has evolved to the point where it can link into this great universal consciousness and experience it in time and space through our lives. We become this strange mix of being separate beings living our individual lives, while at the same time we are all one intensely interacting synergistic experience. 

Over the millennia many wisdom traditions have described our world in a similar way. Both the Hindu and Buddhists describe the world we live in as an illusion created by the mind and that our true nature is pure consciousness. In the Christian tradition we have statements like “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11) and the existence of a “body of Christ” that is Christ in the world that all people may become a part, which can be understood in a new light with this understanding of the nature of reality.

We now have a whole new vision of how the world fits together that fundamentally challenges the way we thought the world is. The new vision is an exciting vision that enables us to see ourselves, those about us and the world in a whole new vibrant, interconnected and synergistic whole that lends a whole new dignity to being alive and being human and behoves us to take responsibility for our place in creation. 


[1]from Desiderata by Max Ehrmann

 

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