Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Brain Science and Non-Duality

One of my first spiritual teachers had to have a leg amputated. While he was recovering, he told a wizened elderly nurse who was near retirement how his "phantom limb" felt cold. The nurse brought him a heated blanket and put it over where the missing leg would have been. In minutes, the coldness of the missing limb was gone. It goes to show that the mind is a mysterious instrument that is far more perceptive, perhaps, than the brain and the central nervous system.

Similarly on the audio-recording of Wayne Dyer's "There Is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem," Dr. Dyer describes an experiment in which an act of kindness was performed for one group of individuals, the act was witnessed by another group and a third group acted as a control. Seratonin levels of all individuals were recorded both before and after the experiment, and not surprisingly the seratonin levels in the group that received the act of kindness went up markedly. (Seratonin is one of the "feel good" neurotransmitters in our brains that tells us all is well with us and the world.) More interestingly, seratonin levels also jumped in the witnessing group but not in the control group.

The experiment made sense to me. After all, who doesn't feel good when they witness a spontaneous act of kindness? It is why we make saints of the Mother Theresas of the world.

Now, however, in a riveting lecture delivered by renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachadran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, Ramachadran gives a satisfactorily plausible explanation of these phenomena. In describing how  "mirror neurons" in the human neo-cortex work, Ramachadran accounts not only for how human civilization and culture has been able to 'evolve' in the astoundingly short evolutionary time-frame they have, but also how humans have developed their capacity for empathy.

Further, and perhaps most interestingly, Ramachadran relates these latest findings in neuroanatomny back to what ancient Eastern wisdom teachings and psychologies have expounded for thousands of years. It is possible, he says, "to absolve the barrier between you and other human beings."

"There is no real independent self aloof from other beings, inspecting the world and inspecting other people," he observes. "You are, in fact, connected not just by Facebook and by the Internet, you are actually quite literally connected by your neurons, and there are whole chains of neurons connected around this room talking to each other. And, there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else's consciousness."

"And this is not just mumbo-jumbo philosophy, it emerges from our basic understanding of neuroscience," Ramanatha points out.

"For the longest time, " Ramachnadra concludes, "people have regarded sciences and the humanities as being distinct. C. P. Snow spoke of the 'two cultures' - sciences on the one hand and humanities on the other - and never the twain shall meet. So I'm saying that the mirror neuron system lies at the interface, allowing you to think about issues like consciousness, representation of self, what separates you from other human beings, what allows you to empathize with other human beings, and also even things like the emergence of civilization and culture, which is unique to human beings."

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