It's been over a hundred years since we have had any paradigm shifting new discoveries made by individual scientists. Even Nobels are getting awarded to Science that enjoys a strong technological backing having a group effort rather than a single man's thought process. We find these days, Bio-related fields of science are ruling supreme with exciting new findings just as Physics did during early 1900s. The eighties were the days of biotechnology. The nineties were the "Decade of the Brain." The present century started with the uncovering of the entire human genome.
Neuroscience is receiving a fillip now. Having understood the basic blue print of man (from genetic studies) and the fundamentals of the human neurological processes (from the brain studies), Scientists are now more boldly entering totally uncharted territories - like 'emotions', 'self' and 'consciousness.' Ambitious new projects are under way on either side of the Atlantic to comprehensively map the human brain. Recently The European Commission announced a program with a budget of over $ 640 million to build up infrastructure in neuroscience and the President of the USA declared a 100 million initiative for brain studies.
Dr. Semir Zeki of the University College London believes that “It is only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres — in law, morality, religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art — that we can ever hope to achieve a more proper understanding of the nature of man.”
But how do the scientists deal with abstract topics like morality, beauty, art etc.?
Dr. Steven Brown and his colleagues hold that “studies from neuroscience and evolutionary biology challenge the separation of art from non-art.” They assert that “As much as philosophers like to believe that our brains contain a specialized system for the appreciation of artworks, research suggests that our brain’s responses to a piece of cake and a piece of music are in fact quite similar.”
Prof. V. S. Ramachandran, the well known Neurologist in the USA tried to decipher the factors that define beauty. He talked of ten universal laws of art, which cut across cultural boundaries. The ten he identified were:
- Peak shift
- Perception problem
- Abhorrence of coincidence
- Repetition, rhythm and orderliness
He amplifies his idea using the famous Chola bronze figure of a graceful dancer (Fig. 1) as an example for what he means by ‘peak shift.’ He says: “There are some postures that are forbidden to a male. I can't stand like that even if I want to. But a woman can do it effortlessly. So what the artist does is he goes into an abstract space I call "posture space", and then subtracts the average male posture from the female and then exaggerates the feminine posture - and then you get elegant triple flexion - or tribhanga - pose, where the head is tilted one way, the body is tilted exactly the opposite way, and the hips again the other way. And again you don't say, ‘My God, that's anatomically inappropriate. Nobody can stand like that.’ You say, ‘My God! It's gorgeous. It's beautiful! It's a celestial goddess.’ So the image is extremely evocative and it's an example of the peak shift principle in Indian art.” He has similar rationale developed with respect to the other nine factors also.
With many musically talented people specializing in Neuroscience, we are learning much about brain’s response to music. A few years ago Neuroscientists showed in a public demo in New York that a drummer’s thinking of a particular beat could be converted into sounds of playing drums without him actually playing.
Yet some of the Neuroscientists like Dr. Bevil Conway and musicologist Alexander Rehding point out that “it is an open question whether an analysis of artworks, no matter how celebrated, will yield universal principles of beauty” and that “rational reductionist approaches to the neural basis for beauty ... may well distill out the very thing one wants to understand”.
We have to wait and see how far the big new efforts announced in 2013 go to help us in tangibly improving our understanding of the human brain and if they take us any nearer to a “soul” that many religionists swear it exists.
Whatever it may be, we have to concede that it has become almost a fad these days to add a prefix of Neuro- to all sorts of scientific fields. Thus we have these days neurotheology, neuroethics, neurocriminology, neuromagic, neuroadvertising and so on competing with the main stream fields like neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, neurology, neurophysiology etc.
Neuroscientist Molly Crocket cautions us on how brains have become “ubiquitous in modern marketing” with headlines proclaiming that ‘cheese sandwiches help with decision-making’ and ‘neuro drinks reduce stress.’
Here is the Link to her 11 min talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/molly_crockett_beware_neuro_bunk.html
A Balanced Science and Spirituality Debate:
Two non-scientist entrepreneurs who host their own regular Interviews with Non-dual Teachers and mystics and other philosophers had a rendezvous this month. The result is a pleasing, refreshing and balanced assessment of the Science and Spirituality scene that exists today.
Rick Archer is “the creator and host of Buddha at the Gas Pump, a website and YouTube channel that features an amazing collection of interviews with all sorts of interesting thinkers, spiritual teachers, and enlightenment-seeking individuals.”
Alex Tsakiris is the host of Skeptiko, which has become the #1 podcast covering the science of human consciousness. Alex is well-known within the parapsychology research communities.
Here are a few sample conversations:
Rick Archer: I’m a long-time spiritual practitioner myself. I’ve been meditating regularly since the ‘60s so I have a genuine interest in this stuff.
We’re like lenses. We’re like peepholes, if you will, which can glimpse a certain perspective on the world but obviously can’t take into account the whole thing.
If we put you and a moth and a chameleon and a bat and a cat all in the same room, each being would be seeing something completely different according to their perceptual capabilities. Now, scientists tell us that if we boil it down deeper and deeper and deeper we get down to a ground state, a quantum field, a unified field as it’s sometimes called.
Human beings have the capacity to actually consciously become aware of that field, of that ground-state of existence. It turns out when that awareness dawns, you discover that’s what you are, essentially.
Alex Tsakiris: I think we always have to remind ourselves of that, that the science news we’re reading, the science reporting that we’re getting is built on this assumption that you are this biological robot. You are your brain. So how do we make that leap and get past that?
Rick Archer: By and large the mainstream culture is probably still in a Newtonian mindset whereas 100 years ago quantum physics dawned and the mainstream culture hasn’t caught up with that. Quantum physics tells us that essentially life, as that we see as apparently material stuff, is a quantum fluctuation in a field of all possibilities.
There are those who say that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain functioning and there are those who say that consciousness actually gives rise to the whole material universe including the brain, which is an interesting thing because it’s a bootstrap process whereby consciousness creates forms which eventually can recognize consciousness. So it’s a way of consciousness playing hide-and-seek with itself.
People sometimes say, “What good is meditation because you have an experience while you’re doing it and then you’ve got to go back to your regular life?” That’s like saying, “What good is eating a meal because you’ve got to stop eating after a while?” The meal stays with you. It goes to build tissue in your body and so on. The same with a spiritual practice. It has a cumulative influence over time.
I’m not a scientist but I like the principles of science. Things should be verifiable by direct experience, not only by one person but repeatedly by other people who choose to go through the same steps that that person went through. You can come in with a skeptical attitude, and many people do, and do a certain practice and if you follow the instructions and do it regularly you’ll begin to have the kinds of experiences that others have had. You may not have believed you would but you actually do; it just happens.
The question of whether we’re entering into a new age and there could be an age of enlightenment right around the corner and all, I think we should be more open to the possibility than many people might be despite the evidence of all the dire situations in the world. History has proven time and time again that things continue to change radically.
Alex Tsakiris: When we take action do we have to be careful about the action that we take? Any thoughts on that?
Rick Archer: Some stories from The Mahabharata come to mind. There are all sorts of stories in which Lord Krishna, who’s supposed to be the embodiment of God, cajoles the Pandavas—Arjuna and his brothers—into bending ethics in order to accomplish certain things. There was a point in the battle where this elephant named Ashwatthama had been killed and Yudhishtra, the head of the Pandavas, Krishna had him call out, “Ashwatthama is dead,…..”
So the Vedic literature is full of all of these paradoxical conundrums where right and wrong is no longer and black-and-white as we would like to think it is. It stretches you to read that stuff. So yeah, I hear what you’re saying. It can take a thorn to remove a thorn. Your story about Ram Dass and the medicine is the perfect example.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s “Before enlightenment, fetch water and chop wood. After enlightenment, fetch water and chop wood.” What does that mean to you? Do you ascribe to that? How do you take that?
Rick Archer: Yeah, it just means that the relative aspects of your life are not going to necessarily undergo an obvious transformation when enlightenment dawns. You might still be working in the same job and married to the same person and raising the same kids and everything else. But there’s an inner transformation which could be quite dramatic if somebody else were able to step into your shoes and see through your eyes. They would realize that something incredibly profound had taken place but it wouldn’t necessarily be apparent on the surface.
And here is the Link for their 80 min discussions: http://batgap.com/rick-archer-alex-tsakiris/