Sunday, December 11, 2016


Discussions on the “think” websites keep circling around the problem presented by neurology research, which really boils down to the resisted idea that what distinguishes humans is some kind of mystical imperceptible quality.  Sometimes this causes a collision between the spiritual and the moral, particularly among screenwriters and introspective essayists.  The kernel is the wish that one’s fate were determined by one’s virtue.  Good things should happen to good people.  Good people do good things.


Does spirituality make people aware of others, desiring to help them, willing to forgive them?  As the Great Sparrow puts it in “Game of Thrones” is there a Mother Force in the universe that pulls us all into love and renewal?   Or can a Manichaean mystical force also be destruction?  In the hands of the Great Sparrow it is grinding punishment, which he attributes to the Father, and which evokes apocalyptic resistance from others.  Spirituality is usually portrayed as a pastel hot-tub sort of quality, harmless and evasive, but not in the hands of Jonathan Pryce as the moral Big Bird who pretends to be meek.  So can one still call him “spiritual” or is that just part of his flimflam?

That’s only one way to consider the problem.  These are attributes defined by human beings, who perceive events in several ways that have evolved over millennia, so that we have several “kinds” of brains.

The most basic is the reptilian basic tetrapod/fish brain which is survival-based and absolutely concrete.  Abstracts like spirituality or morality are literally inconceivable.  Eat or be eaten.  As evolution unrolls its story, this does not go away, but co-exists with everything afterwards.  Survival remains a driving force: the morality of it is always there.  Bad things are bad because they are more likely than not to cause your demise.

Many of the limits of survival are automated, which means they are subconscious: breathing, heartbeat, regulation of glucose, salt, water, and a host of other things proceed through a complex of structures — some in layered wraparound sheets and some in “lumps” which are mostly in the limbic part of the brain.  If these things get out of whack or are poisoned or stifled some way, they can make a person hallucinate, which means they are out of contact with reality in a way that threatens survival.  

If spirituality means being in contact with something unseen in a concrete factual world, it is a possible threat.  Visions can be positive or negative in terms of emotional valence, but the consequences remain in the real world and can be either salvific or dangerous.  If you are being burned at the stake but your brain is telling you you’re ascending to outer space, that’s a good thing.  Isn’t it?  But does that make the hallucinator a good person?  Are their bodies surviving?

In the Aeon essay by Nina Strohminger, linked below, she makes the claim that the self is moral, that identity is determined by one’s choices, whether positive or negative.  Obviously that identity is partly genetic, partly experienced memory, and partly culture so it’s really too complex to use in this discussion, but it’s interesting.

Both spirituality and morality are abstracts conceived, formed and guided in the pre-frontal cortex of humans which is the part of the brain that can be separated surgically while allowing survival physically, but not in terms of personality/identity.  This is called lobotomy.  

The center of the forehead in very primitive animals is the location of the pineal gland or “third eye” because it mediates light to whatever response is linked: sleep, for instance.  But in mythology, it is seen as access to seeing the unseen, the spiritual, the mystical.  The “Three-eyed Raven” in “Game of Thrones” picks up this idea.  The forehead seems not to be a window to the prefrontal cortex behind it.  But a blow to the forehead that damages tissue under it will change identity by diminishing what is called “executive function.”  Decisions, judgment, choices.

The pineal gland in humans is buried deeply into the center of the brain.  There don’t seem to be ANY glands in the prefrontal cortex.  That tissue is described as “granular” meaning something like cell-by-cell.  Researchers are now claiming that these neuron cells can be as many as two hundred different types, each with its own sensitivity — far more than the five senses and entirely without obvious organs like ears or noses.
“ if you count all the types and subtypes in the entire nervous system, the answer is at least in the hundreds. One great resource for exploring the cellular diversity of the nervous system is, a database of digitally reconstructed neurons that you can browse by species, brain region and cell type. Check out the Cell Types page and you'll encounter descriptive names like cone cell, climbing fiber, crab-like, medium spiny cell, pyramidal cell, chandelier cell and tripolar cell—each of which boasts a unique structure. 3D models of these neurons pop into view when you mouse over the file names of different reconstructions.

Gordon Shepherd of Yale University pointed me to the Neuroscience Lexicon, a database that he and his colleagues are building. Take a look for yourself at their current list of types of neurons.” 

The sensitivity and sorting among these various kinds of pre-frontal individual cells are what produce both spirituality and morality.  They are capable of depicting the abstract: what is not there but what can be thought of as potential, maybe something that never existed before.  The fact that both spirituality and morality are events in the prefrontal cortex means that they are uniquely human.  Maybe exclusively human.

They could be perceptible, measurable in terms of what is going on cell-by-cell electrochemically, but also imperceptible in terms of the abstract concepts they can imagine and gather into principles or even felt responses.  We DO respond to spiritual and moral abstracts, but the response to either might be either emotional or an actual intervention in reality.

So something that doesn’t exist, an abstract, can become something real in the factual world.  That seems quite dangerous, certainly transformative.  Please think good thoughts.  If your prefrontal cortex can figure out which ones are “good.”

No comments: