Split brain with one half atheist and one half theist

Here’s a fascinating snippet from neurologist VS Ramachandran, talking about a split-brain patient. The patient’s right brain believed in God, but the more rational left brain was atheist.

Ramachandran points to the obvious theological problem of what, in the Christian view, happens to such a person after they die; does the right brain go to heaven and the left to hell?

But more interesting to me with split brain studies is how they reveal the fictional nature of the self. Split brain patients clearly cannot have one self, since the two parts of the brain function independently and cannot communicate directly with each other, and yet people with split brains have a sense of a unitary self. I

n my book, I show how the left brain of split-brain patients tries to explain away (and thus take the credit for) actions that the right brain has initiated. It seems to me that it’s this “plagiarism” that constitutes the sense of a unitary self. The left brain is, I believe, unaware that it’s a plagiarist — it’s simply deluded. In part, I suspect that stream-entry, which involves the loss of the belief in a unitary self, involves the left brain finally “getting” that it doesn’t run the whole show that we call “the self.” It comes to realize that it’s simply observing, labeling (and often taking the credit for) actions initiated outside of conscious awareness.

Our iPhones, Our Selves

There’s an interesting post in the NYT today, arguing that we could think of our electronic devices as extensions of our minds.

Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?

The article uses very similar analytical strategies to those I employ in Living as a River: We start off with a casual and habitual assumption that electronic devices are outside the skull, and are therefore not part of the cognitive process. And we probe that assumption: so we imagine those devices implanted in the brain, functioning to augment our thinking processes, and see how that changes our perspectives.

I have a very free-flowing sense of how cognition takes place, so I have no problem with seeing my iPhone as part of my cognitive apparatus. What most interests me, however, is how our gadgets can become part of the self. This is a rather different concern from the argument above, because it’s not to do with how things work, but with what we identify with. And it seems to me that people nowadays (myself included) have a hard job separating their selves from their gadgets. To give an example, it used to be that when people went on a Buddhist retreat, they’d simply cut themselves off from the outside world for a weekend, or week, or whatever length of time they were away. They’d leave the retreat center office phone number as an emergency contact, but wouldn’t plan to make phone calls. Now an increasing number of people check email, text, and make phone calls on retreat. They can’t imagine not doing this.

The thought of being without a gadget can be like the thought of an amputation. Fear is involved. I’ve seen people almost in a state of panic at the thought of sending their iPhone away for a couple of days to have a cracked screen fixed. Our sense of a functioning self is now dependent upon the presence of an electronic device and, more importantly, the constant flow of information that comes through it. We need the reassurance of email, phone calls, text messages, Twitter and Facebook, that we still exist. We feel anxious: we check Facebook. It doesn’t really address the root cause of our anxiety, but it’ll do for noe.

None of this is new. We’ve been attached in the past to television, mail, and even telegrams, but none of those had the frequency of today’s media, or the same reach (even just a few years ago you could be on a mountain top and be sure of a lack of contact with the outside world. As the ability to stay in touch has expanded, so has our attachment to information, and so has our fear of being cut off.

So I argue that our sense of self includes our electronic devices. Whether or not we see them as part of our cognitive apparatus, we see them as part of our selves, or at least treat them as part of ourselves. That too, is not new (we’ve always defined ourselves and each other by means of possessions) but somehow the umbilical cord of neurotic emotion seems to have been getting shorter.

So we’re seeing our iPhones etc as parts of our selves, and that doesn’t seem to be a good thing. In fact, it seems to be adding to our suffering. One of the central teachings of Buddhism is, in fact, that we’re constantly trying to identify something as the self, and that this inevitably leads to suffering. The medium here is new, but the psychodynamic is now.

Iroquois wisdom

Talking to Jeff Ferrannini of Planetary Spirit radio yesterday, I was blown away by a passage he read out, which he said was a Hopi Prophecy.

There was one part to the quotation Jeff read out which does actually seem to be Hopi (I’ll post that elsewhere). But when I researched this teaching it turned out that what I’ve quoted above was (according to an article written in Yoga Journal in 1999 by Gary Gach — who I happen to know) from an elderly Iroquois man called “Uncle John,” and passed on by ChoQosh Auh-Ho-Oh, a Chumash teacher, at a Y2K conference in Oakland, California, in February 1998.

Here’s the part of the quote that astonished me, because it’s so close to the message of Living as a River.
On the web you’ll find this all together as one quotation, but it’s actually the words of several people, and I talked to ChuQosh Auh-Ho-Oh, the conduit for all of these words, to find out who said what. I must thank Matthew for helping to track down ChoQosh’s phone number.

[Uncle John] There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.

[The following is an addition by ChoQosh] And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

[Back to Uncle John] ChoQosh, be sure to tell your people: At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a screeching halt.

[This bit is Uncle John] The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!

[This is Philip Deer, a Muscogee Creek Elder] Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

[This is ChuQuosh quoting Marianne Williamson] We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Later: I heard the “Iroquois Uncle John” version of the story on a Prophecy Keepers’ Radio interview with ChoQosh Auh-Ho-Oh. It’s on this page: if you want to hear just that, skip to the third segment of the show, and then scrub forward to about 9:45. But she’s a fascinating speaker, and if you have the time I’d suggest listening to more of the program.

Living as a River on Geek Force Five

Recently Bodhipaksa was interviewed by E. Christopher Clark, author of All He Left Behind and the creative force behind Geek Force Five — a blog of pop culture commentary and criticism.

Chris started by asking about Living as a River and skeptical Buddhism, but then veered into a discussion of the role of mysticism in the TV dramas, Lost and Battlestar Galactica — passions the two men share in abundance.

Here’s a link to the article.

Also, do check out the rest of Geek Force Five, as well as Chris’s personal blog.

As always, you can buy Living as a River from Amazon, of course, but there are links to other outlets here.