By John Kroeker, Heart Rhythm Meditation guide, neuroscientist, inventor
A good, chewy, lifelong question, that unfolds like a flower. By brain we casually mean the ‘wetware’, but that is already complicated. We have many parts to our brain: we have our brain-brain, and then we have the autonomic nervous system, the newly-denoted enteric, or gut system, including all our commensal microbes, our endocrine and perhaps our intelligent immune system. So not just one brain, but many systems. Certainly the complete set of phenomena we call our body.
And then the mind, what is that? Is it the symbolic stream of thoughts, or the “Community of Mind” coined by AI pioneer Marvin Minsky? Everyone is infatuated with “deep learning” recently, which is based on neural networks, which, put simply are purely large sets of interconnected weights, and boil down a thousand suspicions without symbolic processing. We forget that much of our mind and so-called thought process is non-symbolic and yet very important— it is the great original neural net.
The Great Original Neural Network — the human neural network— we tend to call intuition, or judgement or gut feel, or skills, or motor learning, or “just knowing”. But this is all part of mind certainly. Where does that creative-impulse come from?
Consciousness is an even slipperier word. Is it self-awareness? Is you say to yourself, “I am me, I am here.”, well for that moment you are certainly self-aware We go through most of each day with little of that sort of self-awareness. We have body-awareness most of the time (two kinds: proprioception, awareness of position and so on, and awareness of internal state). We are intensely socially aware and concerned with how we viewed by others. We are otherwise usually absorbed in a task, and not so aware outside the task.
If you meditate, you discover deeper levels of the basic self-awareness, as well as broader and deeper awareness of self, leading to a redefinition of self. Well that makes things complicated!
Now for the links. There are lots we know about the brain and the body, but it is a tiny part of what we need to know to say how the brain functions. The equations that may govern the function of even a single neuron rival those of quantum mechanics. And in fact, part of these cells is so small that quantum mechanics plays a role. We have lots of theories about learning and memory, but so far no more than clues as to how we do this in the human brain.
The human mind is not a computer, at least not a digital one. See Roger Penrose in Shadows of the Mind for a good proof of that. Penrose is an impressive guy— he knows his physics (he is famous for that), and when he suggests there may be undiscovered quantum effects in the brain, perhaps we should take note.
As for consciousness, you will have to decide based on your experience. I will attest that you can grow your consciousness, and that it is an experience that seems parallel to the modern notion mind as described above, rather than growing out of mind. Note the lengthy discussions of the independence of meditation from the flow of thoughts in Quora answers. Is meditation-consciousness rooted in some coherent quantum functioning of the physical brain?
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