Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Left Brain, Right Brain -- Doubt and Opening the Heart

English: Dada guru
Image via Wikipedia
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to have no sense of "depth" to reality beyond the general appearance of phenomena? This depth is sometimes referred to spirituality, or a sense of the numinous, or by some similar terminology, including cosmic awareness or mysticism or transcendent consciousness.

Those who work in the religion of psychology, a field I confess to not being well acquainted with, have as I understand it tried to come up with scales and measures based on self-reporting and self-scoring of experiences which are associated culturally with transcendent phenomena, including what are known as peak experiences, and the effects of those who have such experiences. Ralph Hood at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and his M-scale come to mind.

There are also students of the brain such as Andrew Newberg who have tried to identify the neurological structures and processes related to such experiences, not to mention the accounts of trained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor and her shift in consciousness after having a stroke. Dr. Taylor's stroke impaired activity on the left side of her brain, in particular the areas that discriminate and label experience as a part of our capacity for language.

While none of the work or insights by these and other researchers has come to any firm conclusions about the nature of the spiritual experience, and while the left-brain vs. right-brain dichotomy may be over-generalized, over-exploited, and potentially misleading, there does seem to be evidence for distinct ways of shaping conscious experience corresponding to neural process and structure.

And this does match some accounts by contemplatives and mystics about the nature of transcendent consciousness. Not only does this have the potential to validate the experiences of such spiritually oriented people as healthy brain function rather than delusion, it may also help shed light on why some people seem to have difficulty in recognizing, generating, or maintaining such states.

First, let me say that this has nothing to do with whether the claims about the nature of reality, or God, or anything else put forward by those with transcendent experiences are anything other than subjective interpretations of brain function or whether they point to some larger world.

On the other hand, it is also the case that we cannot assume that a properly functioning brain gives us an accurate view of reality whether we are talking about left-brain perception, right-brain perception, or otherwise. Current models of brain function suggest that human brains filter and sort information arising internally or externally to the brain itself by both searching for data that fits anticipated patterns as well as manipulating that data to fit anticipated patterns. These patterns may have their roots in evolutionary biology, socialization into a particular culture, and individual experiences and desires.

This kind of illusion by "properly functioning" brains includes things such as seeing faces in everything or hearing voices in static, a phenomenon labeled pareidolia,  as well as the inverted mask or hollow face illusion, available for viewing below, in which the brain appears to find the odds of a face being "inside out" so unlikely that it corrects for this and forces the conscious mind to see it as if the inside of the mask were actually facing out.

If we assume the cultural and personal biases can similarly distort and massage what we consciously perceive, then we have to ask not only how beliefs about the validity of spirituality and religion might shape our perceptions but also how beliefs about the invalidity of these categories of experience might do the same. It turns out that people with specific forms of brain dis-function are the only ones who can see the inside of the mask as hollow, because the rational part of our brains find the other possibility too improbable.

Given the overlap between the experiences of someone like Dr. Taylor and the teachings of mystics and contemplatives, it makes it worthwhile to wonder what the world looks like when some of these discriminating/rationalizing functions are relaxed, suppressed, or impaired and what truth or added understanding of reality might be available in such a state. Click below to hear Dr. Taylor talking about her own experience.

Second, let me confess that I am one of those people who have trouble relating to this perspective, who comes out on personality tests as a bit more intuitive than sensing and a bit more feeling than thinking and who has some creative talent and desire, yet who nonetheless does not relate to the sense of the numinous or have an appreciating of the depth of perception or awareness associated with spirituality. On that measure, I rank pretty low.

That means I am not a woo-wooey flake who wants to try to somehow justify or rationalize my otherwise ineffable and ecstatic flights of wonder and fantasy. Rather, I am on the outside looking in at such phenomena and really curious about what I might be missing out on and what relevance it might have for myself and for humanity at large. I am at a loss to explain why anyone wouldn't be curious about a new chance to get outside of old barriers and assumptions and try on a new perspective.

The question for those who are in fact intrigued by such possibilities becomes, "How does one make such a shift?"  Other than potentially illicit and dangerous hallucinogens or suffering some kind of brain damage, that is.

That takes us back to those who have been describing various practices to enable such shifts in consciousness for thousands of years and includes practices such as meditation and contemplation, of which there are a variety of types (chanting/mantra recitation, visualization, focused attention on some natural rhythm or key spots in the body, and spending time in wilder parts of nature, to name a few). Yet these and other practices seem to fall flat or to be extremely challenging for some.

This is especially true given the language sometimes used to advise and encourage spiritual seekers. The notions of the heart and the soul, for example, may in fact be referring to states that are right-brain dominant. The neuroplasticity of the brain, that is, its capacity to build new neural pathways or strengthen existing ones, may be limited by many factors including the strength of already established dominant circuits or pathways. For those with little or no experience tapping into the kind of conscious awareness implied by the euphemisms of spiritual experience, the instructions and encouragement they receive may sound vague and unclear.

It may also be possible to distinguish then between spiritual people and non-spiritual people regardless of whether these individuals claim a religious affiliation or practice. While spiritual people, those who have a greater capacity for or more familiarity with these right-brain experiences, could be more inclined to seek out religion, this needn't be the case, while some number of those who may identify as religious in fact have little or right-brain experiences of transcendence or deep interconnectedness and instead process their understanding of religion through a primarily discriminating/analyzing form of consciousness.

It is said that non-religious people need "faith", which can mean different things in its usage. For some with a left-brain bent, the meaning would be closer to an intellectual assent to a series of propositions. For someone leaning the other way, it would resemble more of a deep trusting which is freed from specific ideas and the need for certainty.

Perhaps non-spiritual people don't need faith. Mayne they need doubt--doubt that their views about the likely reality or the nature of some greater consciousness or purpose are correct. Doubt that all the answers can be reasoned out or that anything worth knowing or experiencing must be treated with suspicion and scrutinized according to some standard of measurement. Doubt that they have to have the answers at all, that they must do something or be something in order to earn or find acceptance and peace with who they are.

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  1. doubt and faith, to me, are intertwined... if one "Knows" then there is no room for "belief" or "faith"... that isn't to say, however, that reason and religion are anti-thetical. the desire for certainty is certainly strong... but sometimes it is even more the desire for structure, even if/when the structure that makes the most "sense" is chaos... as an aside, i do think that some of the power of mystical experiences arises from them often being untethered from language and our conscious, self-reflective thinking... i enjoy you posts -- keep mulling and musing (and i will do the same...)

  2. I wouldn't suggest reason and religion are antithetical. I am using religion to refer to structured elements such as myths and rituals which communicate a culture's response to existential anxiety. When it veers too far into the left-brain approach and is coupled to urgent primitive fears and desires, it becomes highly black and white, exclusive, and idolatrous. The symbols and metaphors becomes objects of affiliation with a tribal identity. Thus it can become mixed up with creating and enforcing norms, religious law, and politics. When it becomes too left-brained and without such a coupling, it can swerve into dry academic process and ideation. Speculation, rumination, and logical proofs invade, which have their uses, but which can never actually address the very fundamental issues underlying all of their rhetoric. (There is a new installment of the 'God as a Buddhist Concept' series on 'Emptiness' ready that is written and scheduled to come out this weekend that expands on this latter point.)

    When religion doesn't neglect or forget the right brain insight, but instead uses its symbolic activities (ritual, art, dance, music, etc) to open door to the mythical realm, to reveal what might be colorfully referred to as the sacred timelessness and boundless expanse within ordinary time and space, then it has a different character altogether. It is like the Zen saying that Zen practice and teachings are as a finger pointing to the moon. I suspect that when many people say they are "spiritual but not religious", it is because they are put off in some way by left-brain dominant religious expression.

    And yes, I didn't take the time to clarify it, but I agree doubt and faith are intertwined. That's why "knowing" in the left-brain sense can be so problematic. It leaves no room for doubt, and without doubt, there can be no faith. Faith is not certainty, and yet this is what we are socialized and trained to strive for and to value above all else when it comes to understanding and knowing.


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