Thursday, April 17, 2014


The most recent neuroresearch has been so startling but so convincing that philosophers, writers, and speculators have been stampeding to catch up.  I love Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing, but it DOES give me a twinge to see her out there exploring what I thought was MY “wilderness.”  (“Living with a Wild God.”)  It’s worse that I will probably agree with her, once I catch up with the book.  Though I do NOT believe in personalizing some unknown singularity/unity/force.  But there’s no sense in hiding my cards now.

This is what’s in my hand at the moment.  First, a growing understanding of brain structure and function that came out of trying to understand what was going on with my brother and father when they had traumatic damage to their prefrontal lobe cortex that left them seemingly functional, but somehow empty.  

Second, an endorsed appreciation of the importance of the bodily sensorium, the raw intake of the WHOLE body which may in the end amount to a hundred different senses, not even counting the combined/blended senses like smell/taste.  (You know they’ve added a sense to taste?  Umami -- “yumminess.”)  The muscles are recording and sending, internal organs are recording and sending, gamma rays are shooting through us -- all this stuff goes on and we don’t even know we’re recording it: day length, for instance, and yet all creatures react to the sum and interaction of this information.

Third, the brain is not a bowl of jello.  Substructures, arranged in order of evolution, and specialized cells, imperceptible until recently, make a network with specialized organelles that connect through threads and by varying the chemicals in solution throughout the brain and into the blood.  We grow neurons, we form new nodes, we destroy old ones, in response to the sensorium which underlies and orders thinking through the use of sense memory, just as the Method acting coaches said.  We “grow” an internal world which is like a theatre with many different sets, depending on whether the action is opera, mystery, political speech, or intimacy.  

Some sophisticated “explainers” will teach the main structure of the brain by using a fist as a mnemonic device.  

Fist for a Brain
  1. Extend both arms with palms open facing down and lock your thumbs. 
  2. Curl your fingers to make two fists. 
  3. Turn your fists inward and connect your hands until the knuckles
  4. Cross over your thumbs. 
  5. While the fists are touching, pull both toward your chest until you
    are looking down on your knuckles. This is the approximate size of your brain! Not as big as you thought? Most brains are 2% of your total body weight, about 3 pounds and the size of a small grapefruit. It’s not the size that matters, and they do not get larger with a larger person. What matters is the numbers of connections in neurons, and the number of deep crevasses or folds in the brain structure. Those connections form when stimuli result in learning. The thumbs are the front and are crossed to remind us that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. The knuckles and outside part of the hands represent the cerebrum, or thinking part of the brain. 
  6. Spread your palms apart and keep your knuckles touching. Look at the tips of your fingers, which represent the limbic system or emotional area. Note how this area is buried deep within the brain, and how the fingers are mirror imaged. This reminds us that most of the structures of the limbic system are duplicated in each hemisphere. 
  7. The wrists are the brainstem where vital body functions (such as body temperature, heart beat, blood pressure) are controlled. Rotating your hands shows how the brain can move on top of the spinal column, which is represented by your forearms. 

Here’s another version on video with a little different detail.  This is Daniel Siegel’s main schtick, the basis for “Mindsight.”  It’s a good gig.  And he added something new that I’ve never resolved, which is community.

Fourth:  Behind the forehead are cells that specialize in empathy: knowing how other people feel.  It’s a sense that is unconscious -- you can’t taste it or feel it -- but it is the loss of that sense that crippled and hollowed my father and brother.  Besides the connectome in the skull responding/comprising the various mind-modes of the brain, we need also to be able to connect to the other people around us -- a community connectome.  THIS is the basis of audiences and congregations, choirs and orchestras, dance troupes and athletic teams, even writers and their readers.

Some of our groups, like our families and lovers, reach deep into us.  Some groups are pretty impersonal -- riding the bus.  Some are chosen (friends), and some are imposed (boot camp).  Teachers, preachers, judges and lovers -- all propose for us a relational connectome.  How to act, esp. in regard to others.  What our social obligations might be.  Ways to survive.  Some people are gregarious and need to be in the midst of community; others are introverts who need a lot of time alone.

I feel privileged to write alone in a small town with few real-life interactions in person.  I’m also privileged to have the kind of education that makes my print people (like email) very close, very vivid, very different from each other.  So I write to them when I write this blog.  They would shock each other and actively avoid each other in person.  

Once (when considering the ministry but wondering whether I weren’t just reacting to the UU community and the PNWD’s exceptionally charismatic set of ministers in the Seventies) I was working with a counselor and we were discussing how very different people can be from each other and yet seem so intimate and meaningful to just oneself.  She said she once threw a party for all her closest friends.  They were so different from each other that they all got into a terrible row.  What I had in common with her was an appreciation of every sort of friend -- what perplexed us was that they refused to value anyone not like themselves.  This dynamic goes lethal.  

When I was a little Presbyterian, I went happily off to St. Andrews with my classmate.  Then I invited her to come to my church, but it was forbidden.  When I was a big retired UU minister, a couple was killed in a car accident.  The Methodist minister and I attended the funeral mass of the one who was Catholic.  The priest for the other person couldn’t attend the funeral for the one who was Methodist.  Hardened boundaries between the two denominations have plagued the Blackfeet for centuries.

My original UU minister, Alan Deale, used to tell a joke about a Methodist church and a Catholic church that were next door to each other.  They felt ecumenical about it and often cooperated to do good deeds.  When the Catholics had a fund drive for a new roof, the Methodists kicked in a generous donation.  Then the Methodists became prosperous enough and were growing fast enough to build a new church, but they didn’t have enough for a new lot, so they would have to demolish the old church.  They began fund-raising and went to the Catholics.  The old priest said,  “The church rules stipulate that I can’t ever help a Protestant church grow.  But I could help destroy one.”  Then he handed over a generous check for demolishing the old church building.  His name might have been Francis.

Clear away the outdated rules and fences, the institutional underbrush, so we can see the thalweg.  The point is that these religious bodies recognized that they were part of the same community, that they had connection which is a kind of communion, that they respected their differences, and they could even hear each other’s religious music when the windows were open.

Human brains start with the molecules of the world; develop sensoria;  then form thought patterns moving through nodes in the connectome of the brain; enact actions and ideas; share in community.  You know that little child’s hand-game?  “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  It’s the next step in the brain-as-a-fist metaphor.  In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a kid doing it.

Where’s the next step after that?  Hands UP!  Twinkle, twinkle, little star.  Cosmic connection.  Maybe Ehrenreich is already there.  Take my hand.

On a predawn walk in Lone Pine, California, Ehrenreich recalls, she encountered “something alive” which she describes as nothing short of a “cataclysmic experience” when “the world flamed into life.”
No visual hallucination, no prophetic voices; rather, the world opened up and was “rushing out to” her. Ehrenreich writes: “Something poured into me and I poured out into it…. a furious encounter with a living substance.” 


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