Spirit of Consciousness, Part 2

Ape Vs Human BrainIn Part 1 I talked about the development of the brain in animals and in humans, and noted that while differences between human brains and the brains of the great apes are clear, they’re not as drastic as one might expect given the huge leap in intelligence that human consciousness represents.  Research shows that the difference between our brains and the brains of the Great Apes have more to do with inner connectivity and higher efficiency in processing in human brains than ape brains are capable of.

For example a recently published paper on Albert Einstein’s brain showed that the corpus collosum, the pathway between the brain’s two hemispheres, was better developed than most.  The same was true of the frontal cortex and particularly the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the frontal cortex, which is an area most associated with uniquely human cognitive abilities like imagination, problem-solving, complex planning, and other aspects of human intelligence.  Einstein may have had an advantage over other humans in this regard, but the point is that the brains of our closest ape relatives don’t have some of this functionality at all, or if they do it is nowhere near as well developed as it is in human brains.  Our mental processing power is comparable to a computer running on integrated circuits rather than on vacuum tubes or mechanical mechanisms.

This unique quality of intelligence gives humans the ability to think about what we think about.  We can examine our own thoughts, we can follow chains of speculative ideas that we ourselves are creating entirely within our own minds.  We can examine the patterns of our thoughts and actions as if we were operating in two or more levels of consciousness simultaneously.  One level is reading these words, another is thinking about them or reacting to them, a third might be a barely perceived thread off in the corner somewhere figuring out how or where or even if such an idea fits in to the way you see things.

In this post I want to edge a little closer to the question of how this capacity gives us a doorway to Spirit.   For that I’ll need to return to Jean Piajet, whose work on childhood development included the concept of the schema as a functional product of the developing conscious mind.

A schema is a mental map that we have of the world.  It represents our conception of what the world is composed of, how the pieces fit together, what makes them go, and how they affect us personally.  The sense of what the world means to us is a product of our internal schemas.  Our minds begin constructing the schema in our earliest infancy, and as we mature the schema grows more and more complex as we incorporate knowledge.

As adults, this schema reflects the core of who we are as individual human beings.

This concept of schema has been around since Immanuel Kant, who used the term “schemata” to refer to pure concepts of understanding.  Kant was using the term in reference to fundamental categories (“conditions of thought”) and the one element all such categories have in common, which is their connection to time.  (e.g. see http://hume.ucdavis.edu/mattey/kant/SCHEMA.HTM)

Piaget used the term ‘schema’ to refer to the organization of knowledge and understanding in the developing mind.  It can refer to the whole of our understanding of the world at a given moment, or it can be used to refer to individual categories of understanding.

When we were newborn infants we had a handful of instincts such as grasping, orienting to faces, and putting things in our mouths. Combined with mom’s motherly instincts we established a bond with our primary caregiver, and thus we established our first worldview.  This is how the world works: I cry and I smile, I wave my arms and make cute noises, and I get food, attention, and a diaper change. Life is good.

The first few years of our lives is when we develop the core of our internal schema, our mental maps of reality. Soon our feelings and emotions are no longer reacting directly to stimuli, but are reacting to our schema’s interpretation of our experience. It is our internal schema that tells us what both internal stimuli (thoughts, daydreams) and external stimuli (interactions with the physical world) actually mean to us.

It is the schema that generates emotions.  External stimuli like an interaction with your boss, hearing something on the radio, reading something, etc. can all generate emotions and trigger imaginitive chains of thought that feed those emotions.  Likewise a daydream or an idea can trigger emotions and subsequent thought chains that can set off powerful feelings or spawn additional imaginative daydreams.

Emotion and the imagination can reinforce beliefs about reality that are at the core of the schema. One of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to keep an eye out for thought trains that generate unwanted emotions, since at their root may be a belief that developed in early childhood that may not be useful or appropriate to you as an adult.

The development of every individual personality is the development of our schema, and it is largely done by us, as individuals, within the constraints of the environment, family situation, and genetic predispositions we were born into.  It is through our schema that the world finds meaning, and it is meaning that we create, whether we’re aware of doing so or not.

Throughout the day our minds repeatedly experience a near instantaneous sequence that goes like this:  (1) Our senses perceive some event or encounter some new information; (2) our schema tries to fit this information in to our understanding of things; (3) we react to the event or information based on what our schema tells us it means to us.  Often this comes in the form of lightning-quick mental verbalizations, which are occasionally overdramatic or out of proportion to the event that triggered them, but nevertheless reflect some deep meaning or belief about the event.

I once had a boss who was open about being obsessive-compulsive.  He was a good boss and treated his team well, but he once said that if he missed any detail in our plan or schedule that “he would die.”  Beliefs like this are sometimes ingrained in us (or accepted by us) at an early age, such that despite our knowledge that of course we won’t really die, the drive behind the urge to get everything exactly right is nevertheless as irresistably urgent as if the belief were indeed true.

This illustrates another thing about the schema.  That lightning-quick mental verbalization, “I’ll die”, is a core belief that is sitting right out in the open in the conscious mind, not hiding in some dark corner of a submerged unconscious vault where it has be to rooted out by extraordinary means.  Such beliefs aren’t hiding from anything, if a particular situation triggers such a belief and all of its associated feelings and emotions, it will happily pop out and flash itself at you and trigger all those same emotions right now the same as it did back when the innapropriate belief and feelings were associated in the first place.

Each of us having our own personal schemas is what makes us free and independent actors on life’s stage.  It can mean that the same information reaching two at the same time can have entirely different meaning to each of them.  Let’s say you and your friend watch a game in which your favorite sports team competes against your friend’s favorite team.  You both get identical information from the world of objective events, you both watch the same game sitting right next to each other, but by the end of the game you and your friend are in entirely different states of mind.

The difference between your states of mind has everything to do with interior reality.  The external world is identical to both of you, but each of your feelings, emotions, drives and impulses come from within, and follow a rationale that is unique to each of you.

There is more to say on this but I’ll stop here for now.  It is the presence of this schema in each individual that not only distinguishes us from one another, but distinguishes humanity from all other life and has given us the intellectual capacity to dominate all other life forms.

But the schema will never show up on a brain scan.  It is a virtual construct, a thing of our own creation.  And to telegraph where I’m headed with the series of posts, I am meandering toward an age-old debate about consciousness itself: do our brains create consciousness, or do they tap into a consciousness that pervades three-dimensional reality, and turn it to our individual ends?  That will probably take a few more posts, including at least one more on NDEs.

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