I. Neuroscience and the Sacred?
It has been a few years now since the first inklings of what were to come to trouble my mind, how science and religion relate to each other, made their initial appearance. Accompanying my first few excursions into chemically induced "religious" states of consciousness were radical reappraisals of my views on religion and spirituality. The reactive position that I had held against religion, seen as both a mode of social control and a product of the imaginations of our pre-scientific ancestors, gave way to thoughtful inquiry and a reinterpretation of the original value of religion. If religion was not the arch foe of science, a leftover from the superstitious past, then perhaps, I reasoned, the core of religion, which I took to be its reports of nonordinary states, would fall under the jurisdiction of psychology and the neurosciences. Science and religion could be reconciled by way of the human brain.
My central idea was that somehow prophets, saints, shaman, mystics, etc. were individuals who had learned to change their brain-states at will, achieving psychedelic-like states without an external catalyst. The possibility that such altered states of consciousness could be a natural potential of every owner of a human nervous system also intrigued me. The host of questions spinning off from these two main principles took me from book to book in search for answers that satisfied both intellect and intuition.
Pioneers in the pursuit of a reconciliation between science and religion are few and far between, as it is easier in some respects to keep ones professional and personal beliefs in separate compartments. Any attempts at synthesis made between the two paradigms are often subject to attack from adherents of both sides, and the transgressor is deemed heretic by both alike. Among those major figures in this tradition, such as Jung and Teilard de Chardin, I recently came across a contemporary thinker of similar calibre. The Body of Myth, J. Nigro Sansonese’s first and only book as far as I know, has been one of those texts that has ‘accidentally’ come my way and proven to both confirm ideas that I had been musing over, and also lay out a veritable feast of related thoughts. In his own words, "a grand synthesis of science, consciousness, and myth—by means of yoga—is the goal of this book."
II. The Body of Myth
The uncanny similarities in the narrative structure of myths from human cultures worldwide led Carl Jung, and later Joseph Campbell to assert the existence of ‘universal archetypes’. Archetypes can be briefly defined as patterns of experiencing-responding to reality common to all human beings, which would result in apparently universal mythic structures. Both Jung and Campbell, however, experienced difficulty in expressing the ontological foundations of archetypes; Jung claimed that archetypes existed in what suspiciously sounded like a Platonic realm of Ideas existing beyond Time and Space, the collective unconscious. Campbell more concretely suggested that they were somehow rooted in human biology. While the posited archetypes had explanatory value, they fell short in providing a rigorous model that didn’t require some leap where ‘a miracle occurs.’ Given the abyss between psychology and biology, these vague notions, although intuitively appealing, failed to bridge the gap and remained speculative and unverifiable. What if myth was essentially a description of human biology? This notion is essentially what Sansonese suggests.
Broadly speaking, the centerpiece of his hypothesis is that myths are esoteric descriptions of the internal life of the body, which archaic humans were more experientially familiar than we are today.1 Such a bold statement elicits many questions that demand to be addressed. What relations could possibly be made between human biology and myth? What evidence suggest that archaic humans were any more privileged than we today are with a greater awareness of their own bodies? Or for that matter, that a knowledge of what is generally unconscious body activity is even possible? To answer these questions, the fundamental framework within which he makes his observations must be explained.
What is the sound of one hand clapping? The answer to this two thousand year old koan, according to Sansonese, is a reference to the resting voltage of the auditory nerve. The auditory nerve, which transmits sounds from the ear to the auditory centers of the brain,2 is always "hearing" even in the absence of external stimuli. Since any stimulation of the auditory nerve is a sound, it will register any stimuli regardless of whether its source is external or internal. The internal stimulations of the auditory nerve are the sounds of the vital activities of the body itself, ordinarily masked by external sounds; this almost imperceptible static is the sound of one hand clapping. Similarly, this "static" is registered in all of the cranial nerves linking the sense organs to their respective processing areas in the brain, so that one could in principle turn the senses in upon themselves, say for the auditory nerve to hear itself, and hence listen to the life of the body proceeding beneath the threshold of consciousness. The term Sansonese uses in referring to these magnified experiences of ones internal biological events is a heightened proprioception, and the prerequisite to have heightened proprioceptions is the ability to pass into sublime trance.3
Before we go any further, let’s examine these two new terms because of their importance and repeated appearance in Sansonese’s book. The formal definition of a proprioception is simply the awareness of one’s body. The body, by way of the proprioceptive system, is made known to the brain so that even if your eyes are closed, you can tell which direction your arms are pointed, whether you are upside-down or just feel the presence of your own body. This body knowledge is subject to radical enhancement. Imagine being simultaneously conscious of your breathing and heartbeat. Not too difficult if you meditate; in fact, you might not have to imagine at all. But add to the list the flow of blood through your circulatory system, the position and activity of the internal organs and glands, or even the firing of neurons within the brain itself. These would be examples of heightened proprioceptions.
In order to experience heightened proprioceptions, a person must be able to hold their attention in place, without allowing distractions to interfere. This requires the ability to concentrate, and when ones concentration has become profound, the state one has entered is sublime trance. Anyone who has practiced meditation knows how difficult this can be. When one first begins, it takes very little time for the mind to wander off, getting caught up in the constant chatter of the mind conversing to itself. "Discursive thought is the single greatest distraction from trance" asserts Sansonese, and it is also the main reason he cites that archaic humans entered trance with greater ease than contemporary humans. Discursive thought is exacerbated in a culture like our own full of "books, magazines and advertisements", not to mention computers, television and newspapers. This is not to assert a value-judgement on such things, but in the relative absence of such inflammatory stimuli for the chatter of thoughts, the inner life of the organism instead of the inner talk becomes more apparent. It is the constant flow of thoughts that masks the far more subtle background noise of the sound of one hand clapping.
How Sansonese views the evolution of human consciousness in light of his proprioception hypothesis also proves to be compelling, but still tantalizingly undeveloped. Just because pre-civilised humans had a greater sensitivity to the internal activities of their bodies does not mean that this ability was painstakingly developed in all individuals. Proto-shamans were specialists in utilizing techniques to train and expand this natural capacity for heightened proprioceptions. These techniques for cultivating heightened proprioception, as well as the mythic worldview in which the techniques were embedded, were for hundreds and possibly thousands of years transmitted by oral tradition. The invention of written language was the instrumental first step leading to the ‘voiceless speech’ of thought, and the gradual occlusion of internal body activity from awareness.
The emergence of early civilizations proved to instigate a novel role in the function of the human brain and nervous system. The pioneering neurologist Anthony Damasio, author of Descarte’s Error, points out that the brain’s original duty prior to the emergence of mind was to keep track of the goings-on in the various subsystems of the organism, and to assist in regulating all the body’s internal functions, along with keeping track of the environment in which the organism was situated. Awareness of these biological activities became more and more unconscious as the importance and complexity of social interactions in early civilizations exacerbated ‘voiceless speech’. Under such conditions, Sansonese asserts that the techniques for inducing sublime trance and heightened proprioceptions became systematized, using written language, under the guise of different esoteric religions. He gives as some examples the pre-Christian mystery cults, the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali and early Christianity with it’s emphasis on gnosis, "’divine knowledge’ of the subliminal life of the body."
The question of how our capacity to experience heightened proprioceptions came to arise in the process of evolutionary development is explained by Sansonese in one of at least two major possible ways. He suggests that given the thousands of years of low technological levels, and the innate curiosity of homo sapiens, it seems quite natural that humans would be predisposed to explore in detail the experiential inner activity of their bodies. This argument could be interpreted as assuming that heightened proprioceptions are exclusive to humanity, and a product of human self-exploration. One could also argue that heightened proprioceptions are common in nonhuman animals, and this capacity was part of our inheritance as animals ourselves. Along this line of reasoning, it was only with humanity’s acquisition of symbolic language, which allowed development and communication of the techniques for cultivating these states, that humans expanded on this inherent capacity. Ironically enough, this same ability which allowed the creation of myths and oral traditions for transmitting heightened proprioceptions eventually came to dominate and occlude them. While Sansonese doesn’t distinguish between these two possibilities, I am more in favor of the latter position. I believe this is especially so considering that the majority of one’s nervous system is committed to the regulation of internal systems, and as stated above, this was the central nervous systems original function.
What does all this have to do with myth? The role that myths played for our proprioceptively inclined forebears were akin to catechisms, "lessons prefatory to initiation." An adolescent initiate, having grown up hearing the tribal myths, would have their esoteric meaning explained during initiation. Sansonese states that the esoteric meanings that myths alluded to were descriptions of heightened proprioceptions, those most important in the practical teaching of trance craft. Since Sansonese believes the techniques of raja (royal) yoga expounded in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras to be representative of the archaic trance craft practiced by humans in prehistory and early civilizations, his interpretation of myths draws largely from the main body of techniques and goals of the yoga of sublime trance. Implicit in his argument is that the similarity of human biology, regardless of culture, would result in a general similarity in the techniques to induce trance.
Humans have a strong tendency to interpret what is unknown in light of what is known. The example most often given in reference to archaic consciousness is that our ancestors projected human forms over impersonal Nature in order to comprehend the capricious and awesome forces around them. We don’t have to go back into prehistory to realize that modern science uses known models to comprehend what is not clearly understood. One conspicuous example is the overworked ‘brain as computer’ metaphor. On the proprioceptive hypothesis, we see the same pattern of human behavior: what is proprioceptively apprehended of internal body structures/processes is projected onto external objects that bear some structural resemblance to what is propriocepted. An apt example of this projection is in the use of animals as theriomorphisms4 of the senses. Assuming archaic humans had recognized the superior sensory acuity possessed by other animals, they would naturally associate them with the various senses. Sansonese claims that many of the associations were based on proprioceptive analogy: since the horns of a ram are fused together at their base in the same way that the optic nerves are fused at the optic chiasmus, rams would be theriomorphisms for vision. Similarly, since the horns of a bull jut out from the sides like the auditory nerves, bulls would be theriomorphisms for hearing, both attributes coinciding with astrological correspondences.
The myths that Sansonese spends the most time analyzing are western in origin; Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian myths primarily for their proprioceptive significance. Because it would be virtually impossible for me to do justice to the entirety of his densely interconnected arguments, I will set to the simpler task of explaining his basic ideas that fall more within the scope of this paper before proceeding to some of the philosophical conclusions that I’ve drawn on this theme. A central idea to his hypothesis is the experientially distinct three worlds of cognition, perception and stereognosis.5 In Greek myth, this primary division is made between the three cronid brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, who cast lots over which kingdom each would hold rulership. Thus Zeus, who ends up ruling over the heavens, is an anthropomorphism for cognition, while Poseidon and Hades are connected with perception and stereognosis respectively. The entire Greek pantheon, especially the major gods and goddesses, turn out to be anthropomorphisms of propriocepted body states particular to one of the three worlds. So Hephaestus, for example, was an anthropomorphism for diaphragmatic breathing, proper to the first world of stereognosis. That this would be the case is due to a number of factors. Linguistically, Hephaestus is composed entirely of aspirates which describe the sound of breath. In myth, his being repeatedly hurled from Mount Olympus only to return again recapitulates the up-down motion of the chest during respiration, not to mention the artwork of him on Greek pottery commonly depicting him with a set of bellows. While at first sight this might seem contrived, one should remember the tendency of humans during this time period to think in terms of correspondences.
Other myths, such as the story of Jason and the Argonauts, is, in the words of Sansonese, "a myth about internal vision, involving both root gazing and breath control." The Argo is an esoteric description of the human skull and the hero Jason, whose name is also sibilant, describes deep meditative breathing.6 The harrowing passage through the clashing Cyaenean rocks into the Black sea describes the "dizzying, disorienting and often terrifying" ascent into trance by concentrated meditation upon the frontal suture, a fissure running directly down the center of ones forehead. Success in this task leads to proprioceptions of the effects of breath within the skull itself, and particularly of the optic chiasmus, esoterically represented by the Golden Fleece.
While I will curb further explanation on the specifics of his proprioceptive hypothesis of myth I’d like to mention in passing how especially fascinating I found the application of this hypothesis to the Eleusinian mysteries, and the significance of gnosis, "knowledge of the subliminal life of the body" to early and Gnostic Christianity. Besides these two exceptional topics, my main interest in his work revolved less around myth than his occasional but insightful commentaries of direct relevance to the philosophy of mind.
III. Heightened Proprioceptions in Philosophy of Mind
What I have found most gratifying has been questioning the underlying epistemological implications of Sansonese’s hypothesis, in the attempt to resolve what appears at first glance paradoxical: that the brain should be able to know itself. Like the recursive images screen within screen in video feedback, or the experience of standing between two mirrors facing each other and looking at yourself looking at yourself ad infinitum, the notion of ones brain trying to experience itself evokes the alchemical Ouroborous as a fitting metaphor.7 The question of how the brain can know itself forces one to give thought to the observer-observed dichotomy. In experiencing heightened proprioceptions of ones brain, who would be the ‘I’ observing the proprioceptions? This is especially important to explore if one does not wish to invoke a nonphysical spiritual essence who is doing the observing, which I think is unnecessary.
Before tackling such an immense question, it would be instructive to examine the indirectly stated propositions behind Sansonese’s proprioceptive hypothesis. Perhaps the most important is that all conscious experience of the world, our own bodies, and internal states like thoughts & feelings are elaborate constructs of ones brain and nervous system. When one looks at an object, say a tree, a person or a house, what one sees is a sensory representation of that object generated8 by their brain. This is not to deny that trees, persons, and houses exist but that how we experience them depends upon the kind of sensory organs we own and the complexity of our nervous systems. A human and a bee "seeing" the same flower will have two completely different sensory experiences, because bees see in infrared, while we see "visible" light. While there is a biological constraint on our being able to see in infrared because of the design of our eyes, this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that we actually see everything that is "out there".9 The gist behind this arrangement is that there is a great deal of information "out there" that never makes it above the threshold of consciousness, but is within experiential access.
It should be said that the world "out there" should not be mistaken to be solely the external world, but includes also our physical bodies and the brain activity giving rise to conscious experience. To avoid confusion on this point, let me emphasize that the experience of our own body is representational. For example, one’s body representation (or body schema) can be subject to feelings of disintegration, stretching and warping under the influence of certain drugs (or illnesses like schizophrenia), despite the fact that the actual physical body is undergoing no such change. The experience of our body schemas allows us to infer that there is a physical body "out there" of which the body schema is representative. This sheds light and possible resolution onto the whole debate over the existence of a ‘soul’ in a person’s body. Instead of conceiving of souls as non-material, it’s possible that the direct experience of the normally occluded, internal life of the body in all its awesome complexity and intricacy might have been the origin of the idea of a soul or spirit within.10
Similarly, despite appearances of solidity and stability, our sensory representations of the ‘external world’ can take on a life of their own for the same reason. Along these same lines, one can also regard all of her or his conscious experiences as indirect observations of brain-states. For example, in looking at a tree one is indirectly observing the brain activity of the visual cortex that lies behind the visual experience. Watching thoughts arise and decay while meditating is an indirect observation of the brain-states responsible for the experienced thoughts. It is in this respect that I mean that physical brain-states are also "out there", projected behind our sensory experience. There are interesting implications to this proposition, albeit speculative, that relate to why animism or panpsychism were postulated by our pre-scientific ancestors, not by logical inference11 but because of experiential knowledge.
Simply put, since our brains are alive, and given that our entire sensory experience is the product of brain activity, it is conceivable that what we experience, including inanimate objects, can appear alive. In effect, the brain’s aliveness would be, so to speak, "showing through" one’s sensory representations. It is then possible to understand how yogi adepts can say that the stone they sit upon has intrinsic aliveness or consciousness, because his sensory construct of that rock is itself alive, the product of a living brain. Before dismissing this as utter foolishness, consider the aliveness of the hallucinations reported by the person with schizophrenia. The animist who talks to the forest is, likewise, talking to his own brain, or the brain is talking to itself.
This, however, is not to say that such experiences are all in ones head. One’s brain/body receive a great deal more information than what actually becomes conscious. The shaman’s "spirit familiar" can be understood to be the brain’s way of bringing to consciousness inaccessible information of the world "out there" by way of what appears to be an independent entity, but is conceivably emergent from brain activity. Given the proprioceptive hypothesis, learning to discern brain activity behind our sensory constructs could be interpreted as seeing the "spirit" behind physical appearances, which would coincide with the goals of both the Gnostics and medieval alchemists, the redemption of spirit from the prison of matter.
Another useful example comes from a ‘thought experiment’ drawing from virtual reality. In a similar way that a futuristic VR mainframe would generate not only a virtual space but also a virtual body for the user to fully interact with the environment of cyberspace, one’s brain and nervous system create a sensory construct of the body and the external world surrounding it. The difference between the two lies in the fact that (presumably) while in cyberspace, it would be impossible to directly know the physical computer activity "out there" underlying the VR construct. Following the proprioceptive hypothesis, it is possible12 to access hidden representations of very subtle activity in the physical body and brain that is commonly regarded as outside the range of conscious inspection. What would it mean, in terms of sensory qualities, to have direct knowledge of the firing of neurons in ones brain? Or the motions of the subatomic matter that comprises ones body? Without myself having had (yet) direct experiences of my own neural underpinnings, I have discovered some partially illuminating thoughts regarding this question from an unexpected source.
It is ironic that at the same time I was entertaining these admittedly speculative ideas, I came across Paul Churchland’s brief but tantalizing essay on the prospects of an "expanded introspection".13 Certainly one of the more imaginative proponents of reductionism, Churchland speculates himself that a ‘matured’ neuroscience, one that has unravelled the Gordian Knot of the mind-body dilemma, would allow a suitably trained neuroscientist to be capable of discriminating the objective neurological states behind thoughts, emotions and other mental phenomena. He uses as an analogy the discriminatory talents of an expert wine taster. In the same way a wine connoisseur can accurately guess the age and make of a particular vintage by distinguishing subtle characteristics of taste that would remain undifferentiated to an untrained person, perhaps also future neuroscientists would be able to notice and recognize such objective knowledge as glucose levels in the frontal lobes, concentrations of dopamine, activation levels of specific brain regions, and so forth. This would undoubtedly have a profound effect on language. With such capabilities, humans could by-pass the comparatively unsophisticated verbal communication, and communicate more directly the brain-states that currently have to be turned into clumsy and easily misunderstood utterances.
What an intoxicating thought! What is even more so is that just as one has to develop an awareness of something unknown before it can be influenced, knowledge of one’s brain-states logically precedes being able to manually direct one’s own neurochemistry. Again, it seems the primary concern is who would be the controlling, or observing ‘I’? The Buddhist would say that there is no ‘I’, and I (or perhaps my brain) would be inclined to agree that an answer lies somewhere in this direction. Perhaps heightened proprioceptions of the brain would experientially validate the illusion of subject-object dichotomy. Is it possible that this is what that most overburdened word ‘enlightenment’ actually refers to? I presently have only leads as to the truth value of these statements, but I trust that persistent meditation and active intellectual inquiry will slowly bring more resolution.
IV. A Closing Thought
Assuming that mind has its source in purely physical activities of the brain/body system, then we can conceive of the whole human organism as a network of semi-autonomous, but mutually interdependent "intelligences" that are constantly altering relative to changes in the internal environment of the body. Conceptually, the leap to logical acceptance of the Buddhist’s notion regarding the illusory nature of the self is made easier by this realization: we are networks of bio-intelligences, there is no neuron/neural assembly where our sense of "I" resides, there is no unchanging self, but multiple processes interweaving. Implications: by virtue of being a bionetwork in and of ourself, we should be capable of learning to mutually influence the myriad sub-networks that comprise the entirety of our physical body. With a necessary sensitivity to inherent body wisdom, one could adjust and play with potential hormonal-endocrinal configurations, or direct the micro-activities of the immune system, like having a million nanomachines at your disposal. Pushing the envelope to its limit suggest the possible human who can change sex, body-morph, self-evolve, using hir body as if it were ones own laboratory. Transhumans, New humans.
- Barring, of course, so-called primitive cultures that are less influenced by modern society. [back to text]
- In the form of electrical spikes. [back to text]
- Called ‘samadhi’ in Buddhism. [back to text]
- def: when animal forms are used to represent traits, ideas, divinity – compare anthropomorphism. [back to text]
- The medically proper term for visceral proprioceptions. [back to text]
- Also notably because of his relation to both Sisyphus, another myth describing the up-down motion of respiration, and to his great grandfather Aeolus, god of the wind. [back to text]
- This would be the paradox of having a knowledge of the brain-states responsible for generating that knowledge of the brain-states that one is experiencing. [back to text]
- "Generated", "created" as words describing how conscious experience "emerges" from brain activity are misleading because they can be taken for an explanation. Because our language doesn’t currently contain the proper descriptive words, I will be forced to resort to these. [back to text]
- This is a useful term referring to the world as it exists beyond our sensory experience of it. Using the example of the flower, what we experience is a sensory representation of the flower. We can never experience it "in and of itself", Kant’s ding an sich, which is to say that we can never know the world "out there" except as a representation, but following the proprioceptive hypothesis, we can have far more enhanced experiences of what is "out there". [back to text]
- "Behold, the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.", Luke 17:21 [back to text]
- As has been the explanation supplied by classical anthropologists like Taylor. [back to text]
- And apparently quite difficult. [back to text]
- ‘Matter and Consciousness’, P. Churchland [back to text]