Friday July 13, 2007
Regular readers of thinkBuddha.org will be relieved to hear that a few days ago, I got myself a new brain. About time too, I hear you say. I have actually coveted a second brain for a long time, and so was delighted when I opened the box that Elee gave me as a present after my PhD exam, and found a little pink cauliflower nestled inside. I’m still keeping my old brain for day-to-day use, but the new one will come in handy for special occasions.
The reason I have long yearned for a second brain is that, although I am very interested in the things that the brain does and spend a not inconsiderable amount of time reading about all these things, for whatever reason, my own brain simply doesn’t seem to want to retain the information. What I needed, I realised some time ago, was a brain that I could get my hands on, that I could take apart and put back together again, a brain that I could poke at. Hence the second brain, plastic, colour-coded and easy to take dismantle so that I can get to know the brain’s architecture in greater depth. This autumn, I’m teaching a course in consciousness (what is it? do we have it? how much of it do we have? what difference does it make?), so having a second brain on hand will be useful for this.
For me, finding out about the brain is a part of the same broad process of inquiry to which meditation also belongs. In one sense, they are both processes of making friends with your own head. What strikes me more and more is the gulf between what we think is going on with our own heads, and what actually is going on, and through meditation and reading about the way that the brain works, I have come to be a bit more sceptical about my everyday folk psychology. This is not to say that I subscribe to the view that somehow Buddhism will one day be vindicated by science, as in the entertaining headline on the Buddhist Channel three or four days ago: Meditation tests prove Buddhists right ! It is not about proving Buddhism or Buddhists right. After all, there is much about Buddhism – at least in many of its traditional incarnations – that is almost certainly wrong, and also a great deal, perhaps (although this is not necessarily the same thing) that we could well do without.
So it is not because any of tribal, religious or mystical commitments that I still believe that meditation has much to say about the brain. It is because of this long and baffling process through which, in meditating, I have come to suspect that the world view that the brain generates and in which we spend most of our days is – whatever its survival value – a bizarre fiction. And begin to unravel this fiction is a fascinating business.
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