The Millennium Games
Canadian Psychological Association, copyright 1981
The brain science is clear that my eyes are not cameras recording the glittering spectacle of you. Nor are you some sort of mirror that allows me to glimpse some part of my “true” self. Seeing you, I am, at least in that moment, at your mercy to be beautiful or ugly, brilliant or stupid, a mouse to manipulate, or an image of God.
This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.
Look at the drawing in the middle and think about what you see. Is it a human? Or a mouse? Perplexing, isn’t it? If you first shift your eyes to the image on the left, you see a mouse in the middle. If you first shift your eyes to the right, you see a human in the middle. And if you look right at it you can see it one way or the other — but not both at the same time. So what is it, really?
One undeniable fact is that when we see such a collection of lines we can’t help but attempt to create a coherent picture. We humans are what MIT theologian Anne Foerst calls homo narrandus (see previous article), the storytelling animal. And the pictures we see — the stories we create — depend on what we have seen before. If we have seen only mice, we’ll see a mouse in the middle. If we’ve seen only humans, we’ll see a human in the middle. If we’ve seen both sides, we can see either one — but not both at the same time. Our minds don’t do that. At any particular moment, we get to — and have got to — choose.
Now let’s stretch, mix, and mash this into a millennium-sized metaphor. (And as we do, remember that while games like these have so often led to tears, we are just playing here.)
Imagine that the image on the left is not just any mouse. It’s Doogie, the new genetically altered Princetonian smart mouse that runs mazes so fast that it may one day get into Harvard. The drawing on the right is the Imago Dei, the image of God. The middle image is you and me. Now here’s the question: Do you see yourself as a further souped-up version of Doogie? Or as an imperfect image of God? What about both? At the same time?
Confusing, isn’t it? And the game is just beginning. But before we push to the next levels, let’s back up.
The last decade was declared by President Bush the Decade of the Brain, and one thing that explosion of research has shown is that our three pounds of neural cauliflower, like the rest of our bodies, keeps changing and even growing. We don’t have some fixed number of brain cells that, like light bulbs, gradually burn out. Instead, we generate new lights. Perhaps more importantly, the connections among these lights change constantly, and it is the connections that matter. Think of the story of “who we are” as every string of Christmas lights ever made all tangled up, twinkling and flashing and changing colors. One loose bulb somewhere may take out a whole section, but shake it a bit and at least a part mysteriously comes back again — and then the whole thing may look different. In his brilliant new book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness, neurologist Antonio Damasio describes the “ceaseless process of building up and tearing down” that goes on within the brain. He says that it is “fabulous indeed, amazing for certain, that you are you and I am me.”
And that’s only the beginning. The brain science is clear that my eyes are not cameras recording the glittering spectacle of you. Nor are you some sort of mirror that allows me to glimpse some part of my “true” self. Instead, the tangled mass of Christmas lights that is you and that is me are intertwined. Not just friends and enemies, but every person who catches our eye plays for that moment a leading role in the story of who we are. There is no single story for homo narrandus. I cannot be “myself.” Seeing you, I am, at least in that moment, at your mercy to be beautiful or ugly, brilliant or stupid, a mouse to manipulate, or an image of God.
A Titillating Phantom
Some of the best illustrations of just how elusive our “selves” really are come from the study of phantom limbs, the sensations of real arms or legs that often linger after amputation. Phantom limbs can ache and itch. They can seem to move. But that, too, is just the beginning. University of California San Diego brain scientist V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., finds that phantom limbs are generated by the string of lights in the brain that once controlled the missing limb. Without a real arm or leg to provide the feedback to maintain its string of lights in the brain, that string often gets cross-wired to something else.
One profoundly titillating example from Ramachandran’s recent book Phantoms in the Brain is the story of a fellow who lost a foot and gained a phantom. According to Ramachandran, the part of the brain that controls the foot is close to the area that controls the genitals, so it was not unprecedented that this man’s brain got cross-wired in such a way that his experience of orgasms expanded into his phantom foot. But what does it say about our bodies if we can lose a large chunk and have that experience grow larger?
The list of seemingly self-altering revelations goes on. Thanks to better imaging techniques, researchers are beginning to see in real time what parts of the brain are involved during particular sensations, and they can create sensations — even seemingly mystical sensations — by directly stimulating parts of the brain. Want to experience oneness with the universe? Zap here! Reports Canadian neuropsychologist Michael Persinger. Want to explain the difference between a saint and a shiftless, good-for-nothing creep? Squish here! suggests Damasio.
Meanwhile, the computer wizards who first allowed us to wander in Virtual Reality are upping the ante with “Augmented Reality,” hi-tech rose-colored glasses that may, among other things, allow your partner to peer into your office and see it as spotlessly clean and organized without your lifting a finger to pick up the mess. And let’s not forget Doogie. Says Joe Z. Tsien, the neurobiologist at Princeton who created the smart mouse, the DNA sequence of the mouse gene that was manipulated is 98 % identical to that of humans. In other words, drugs and/or gene therapy may soon make people smarter, too.
What’s the point of all this? Even people who see themselves as souped-up mice, mere accidents in the chaos of evolution, live in a remarkably rich world. One such person is University of Hawaii physicist Victor Stenger. Says Stenger, “I get angry when I hear that science is ‘dehumanizing.’ That’s just nonsense! Because of science, life is no longer nasty, brutish, and short.” Stenger, who recently helped discover the mass of a particle called a neutrino, says that he had to struggle to free himself of what he considered the “chains” of his religious upbringing. And he’s fighting back. His book The Unconscious Quantum argues that there is no design to the universe — and no need for a designer. To make his point he’s developed a free, web-based universe-creation game to illustrate how any monkey could have created ours (www.phys.hawaii.eclu/vjs/www/monkey.html).
But, one wonders, aren’t a bunch of monkey-made universes dehumanizing? Not at all, replies Stenger. “They are more vast and amazing than any conceived by traditional religion.”
At the same time, those who see themselves created in the image of God — as being profoundly and ultimately connected to something infinitely greater than themselves — hardly seem shattered either by the Decade of the Brain or the designing powers of web-based monkeys. Of course, many believers choose not to lift their eyes from their own sacred texts. But plenty of others are constantly and diligently scouting the perimeters of their faith. When the Bishop of Oxford heard that a specific part of the brain seems to be tied to spiritual experience, he declared it evidence that we have “antennae for God.”
Others look to their own experience of the sacred and quietly chuckle at the science, believing that what these scientists are really doing is gradually pulling back the illusion of materialism. Russell Targ (www.espresearch.com) is a legally blind laser physicist who pioneered research into psychic “remote viewing,” a path that has led him over the years to writing a book about the Ten Commandments and then to the certainty of mystical connections. In his latest book with psychic healer Jane Katra, The Heart of the Mind: How to Experience God Without Belief (New World Library), he argues that one day soon scientists will realize what has been obvious to the mystics of all times — that we are all the same thing, all one.
The most exciting current attempt to referee these various images of who we are is the serious prayer research circling our nation’s medical journals. In the late eighties, cardiologist Randolph Byrd published the first major study of intercessory prayer in the Southern Journal of Medicine. Working with 393 heart patients at San Francisco General Hospital, Byrd found that the patients who were prayed for did about 11% better than those who were not prayed for. In 1997 psychiatrist Elisabeth Targ, M.D. (Russell’s daughter), at California Pacific Medical Center, published a study in the Western Journal of Medicine of AIDS patients that showed similar results using a variety of healers rather than prayer groups. Last October, William Harris, Ph.D., a researcher at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, published a 990-patient replication of Byrd’s study duplicating those results in the Annals of Internal Medicine. As we go to press, we’re waiting for Harvard’s Herbert Benson, the grandfather of mind/body research, to release his findings on his 1800-patient prayer study.
On a more mundane level is Rupert Sheldrake’s explanation for major life questions like: Why does the cat always disappear when you plan to take her to the vet? The answer, Sheldrake writes in his latest book, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (Crown), is that pets can sense your plans as soon as you make them. Sheldrake, a former Cambridge biochemist, has a raft of statistical data (see www.sheldrake.org) as well as a fascinating TV clip of a dog that appears to know almost instantaneously when its owner decides to come home.
All this raises an even bigger question, of course: If we are indeed tapping into some higher consciousness, why do we generally have no clue when the dog will come home?
None of this is likely to be settled any time soon. Acclaimed science writer John Horgan, author of the fine new best-seller The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation, points out in glorious detail that we still don’t even know whether Freud was right or not. He argues that when you look at the details of things like brain imaging, it all becomes “a bit of a mirage.”
Ultimately, the point may be that homo narrandus isn’t anything that you or I or anyone will ever pin down. MIT robot-builder Cynthia Breazeal, who created Kismet, the emotionally responsive robot at the Artificial Intelligence Lab, points out that it currently takes a supercomputer to model a single human neuron, and we each have a few billion neurons. “If you want to be awestruck by humans,” she says, “just try to build one.”
Or play with the one you’ve got.
The Phantom You
It is a strange thought (and a stranger thing to practice) but with the right kind of stimulation, the image of your face and body that has been constructed over a lifetime can negated in just a few seconds. How? Try these simple brain games from Dr. V.S. Ramachandran's recent book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (William Morrow). The games don't work for everyone, but when they do they graphically illustrate what Ramachandran says is the most important principle underlying all perception: that the "mechanisms of perception are mainly involved in extracting statistical correlations from the world to create a model that is temporarily useful." In other words, our reality is at all times our best guess — the stories we create about the world around us. Go ahead. Try them.
Level 1: Requirements: A chair, two friends, and a blindfold.
Sit in a chair, blindfolded, and ask one friend (call her Julie) to sit in another chair facing you. Have the other (Mina) stand on your right side. Give her the following instructions:
"Take my right hand and guide my index finger to Julie's nose. Move my hand in a rhythmic manner so that my index finger repeatedly strokes and taps her nose in a random sequence. At the same time use your left hand to stroke my nose with the same rhythm and timing. The stroking and tapping of my nose and Julie's nose should be in perfect synchrony."
After about 30 or 40 seconds, if you're lucky, you will develop the uncanny illusion that you are touching your nose out there or that your nose has been dislocated and stretched out about three feet in front of your face. The more random and unpredictable the stroking sequence, the more striking the illusion will be.
Level 2: Requirements: One friend, a dummy hand, a table, and a cardboard barrier.
Go to a Halloween store and buy a dummy hand. Then construct a two-foot by two -foot cardboard wall and place it on the table in front of you. Put your right hand behind the cardboard so that you cannot see it. Put the dummy in front of the cardboard so that you can see it clearly. Next have your friend stroke identical locations on both your right hand and the dummy hand synchronously while you look at the dummy. Within seconds, you'll feel the stroking sensation arising from the dummy hand. The experience is uncanny, because you know perfectly well that you're looking at a disembodied rubber hand, but this doesn't prevent your brain from assigning sensations to it.
Level 3: Requirements: A friend, a table.
Sit at the table and hide your left hand under it. Ask your friend to tap and stroke the table surface with her right hand (as you watch) and then use her left hand simultaneously to stroke and tap your left hand, which is hidden from view. It is absolutely critical that you not see the movements of her left hand, as this will ruin the effect (use a piece of cardboard if necessary). After a minute or so you will experience the taps and strokes as emerging from the table surface even though your conscious minds knows perfectly well that this is logically absurd. In this game, the sheer statistical improbability of the two sequences of taps and strokes — one seen on the table surface and one felt on the hand — lead the brain to conclude the table is now part of your body.