Indigenize!

Rekindle Your Wild Joy and sense of deep Belonging through spiritual ecopsychology and the arts, incl. bioregional awareness, animistic perspectives, strategies for simple living, & low/no-tech DIY fun.

Brain Deposed as Seat of Consciousness July 28, 2013

brain in jar by fuuka.warosu.org

These days, most people take it for granted that the seat of consciousness is of course in the brain. “Brain dead” means the person as a whole is dead. The rest of the body is either servant to the brain, as in delivering enough oxygen for optimal functioning, or sort of an addendum.

Witness the many “B” science-fiction movies featuring future societies in which the most wealthy and powerful have done away with the body and just live in an intellectually pure state as a brain in a jar.

SF head in jar

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Star Trek brains in jarsStar Trek episode

Donovan's Brain still

Donovan’s Brain, a 1953 B-grade movie based on the book by Curt Siomak. An evil millionaire gets his brain preserved in a vat, after which he develops mental powers that allow him to control those around him in even more inventive ways than before. (The movie co-stars the future Nancy Reagan, then Nancy Davis.)

Madmen of Mandoras

Madmen of Mandoras, example of the “Evil Genius” TV trope

In addition, you might notice how the brain is now discussed in computer terms: hardware (its physical structures such as the hippocampus) and software (the info, processing, data and other functioning, provided by the workings of the hardware). This is not new. You can see examples across recent history where a metaphor of the most current technology gets used to describe the workings of ourselves and/or the universe. In earlier days it was clocks; now it’s computers. Watch for this: it’s fascinating.

So we’re now considered to be made up of hardware and software, with the most important workings all centered in the brain. The rest of the fleshy self is just supportive frosting. Breathe deep to keep your brain oxygenated. We care for the body because we want optimal brain functioning.

But in earlier days, people thought quite differently about the seat of consciousness.

Folks in Shakespeare’s Britain thought the soul, or at least its most passionate part, mainly resides in the liver.

Many other cultures also find the seat of our selves to be not in the brain but in the heart. For example, the ancient Egyptians thought so little of the brain that when mummifying a body to preserve it for the deceased’s use in the afterlife, they tossed the brain away along with all of the other internal organs – with the notable exception of the heart.

And when C.J. Jung worked with people of the Pueblo nations, Hopi elder Ochwiay Biano (Mountain Lake, also a.k.a. Antonio Mirabal) informed him that in his view, white people were not only uneasy and restless, they were crazy mad. Why? Because “they say that they think with their heads. ‘We think here,’ he said, indicating his heart” (Jung 1973, p.247-8). Jung noted ways in which modern culture, construing the gift of knowledge as cognition alone, has deleterious side effects. He interpreted the ‘uneasy restlessness’ spoken of by Biano to mean Euro-Americans’ “insatiable lust to lord it in every land” (1933, p.213).  After his encounters opened his mind to other worldviews, Jung observed how, sadly, “Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth” (p.252).

In the history of philosophical thought about such matters, Rene Descartes was the one to finally limit consciousness to the brain alone. But he didn’t mean it in the same way we do today – it seems to me that what he was describing was less of a noun and more of a verb. According to A.C. Harwood (1964), Descartes was describing a shift from participatory consciousness (seated in the heart) to a spectator consciousness, whereby a person could witness events that s/he didn’t consider herself really part of; “looking at a world outside us to which we feel we do not essentially belong.” The spectator consciousness is, at least in its first manifestations, bound to the brain. (BTW, Harwood’s main argument is that Shakespeare first illustrates this new view in Hamlet. But I digress.)

By seating consciousness solely in the brain, we have become spectators instead of participants in an animate universe, and our people have thereby been robbed of many dimensions of relationship.  This is a wholly unnecessary diminishment, caused only by our thinking.

Fortunately, it is now being overturned.

Planaria decapitation

Photograph by Michael Levin and Tal Shomrat, Tufts University

Remember planaria flatworms? You likely tortured some in high school biology class by cutting them up and watching them go on regardless.  Well, it turns out that work with planaria happens in actual research too. Tufts University scientists Tal Shomrat and Michael Levin decapitated one (seen on left in the picture above), and then allowed its head to regrow (far right). And according to their study, planaria can retain functional memory up to two weeks after their heads have been cut off!!   Who needs a brain?  :-p

From their Abstract:

We show that worms exhibit environmental familiarization, and that this memory persists for at least 14 days – long enough for the brain to regenerate. We further show that trained, decapitated planaria exhibit evidence of memory retrieval in a savings paradigm after regenerating a new head.

For easier consumption of the same ideas, here’s National Geographic writer Carrie Arnold describing the study:

Off With Their Heads

After the team verified that the worms had memorized where to find food, they chopped off the worms’ heads and let them regrow, which took two weeks.

Then the team showed the worms with the regrown heads where to find food, essentially a refresher course of their light training before decapitation.

Subsequent experiments showed that the worms remembered where the light spot was, that it was safe, and that food could be found there. The worms’ memories were just as accurate as those worms who had never lost their heads.

Memory Beyond the Brain

The obvious question remains: How can a worm remember things after losing its head?

“We have no idea,” Levin admitted. “What we do know is that memory can be stored outside the brain—presumably in other body cells—so that [memories] can get imprinted onto the new brain as it regenerates.”

Researchers have long confined their investigations of memory and learning to the brain, Levin said, but these results may encourage them to look elsewhere.

Somatic psychologists have long known that the brain alone is highly overrated. With this new knowledge, seems to me that it would be a good idea to go out now, and honor our bods in relationship with the rest of the world. Let’s use our intuitive and somatic knowing without embarrassment; the kind that makes the hairs on the back of our necks prickle when someone is looking at us. It’s real. Let’s start to enjoy more of the full range of our “thinking.”

Hey, I just got a wild idea. You know how we’re told we use only a small percent of our brains? Perhaps the reason is that much of our thinking is actually not located there!!! I’ve gotta go now: gonna go dust out the other rooms of my inner house.

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To read more:

National Geographic article:  http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/16/decapitated-worms-regrow-heads-keep-old-memories/

Original research abstract in the Journal for Experimental Biology: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/early/2013/06/27/jeb.087809.abstract

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References

  • Arnold, Carrie (2013, July 16).  Decapitated worms grow new memories. National Geographic,  Weird and Wild. Accessed at http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/16/decapitated-worms-regrow-heads-keep-old-memories/
  • Elias, Jonathan. Egyptian mummification: Recent findings based on CT scan data from Egyptian mummies (Ptolemaic period). Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, accessed 7-28-13 at http://www.amscresearch.com/id2.html
  • Harwood, A.C. (1964) Shakespeare’s Prophetic Mind. Rudolf Steiner Press.
  • Jung, Carl Gustav. (1933). Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Jung, C.G. (1973) Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
  • Shomrat, Tal, & Levin, Michael (2013, August).  An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planaria and its persistence through head regeneration.  Journal for Experimental Biology 216 (16). 
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19 Responses to “Brain Deposed as Seat of Consciousness”

  1. sandoak Says:

    Thinking with the head is a limited and limiting experience. I’m reminded of what someone (maybe John O’Donohue?) said about the soul: we think our soul resides in our body, but actually our body resides in our soul. It isn’t just that thinking with the heart is more connected, it’s that our independence of thought is illusory. Our thinking occurs within the consciousness of other beings around us. When the Buddha was enlightened under the bodhi tree, the tree’s enlightenment contributed to his. I know there’s a different quality to the “knowing” that comes in conscious communion with other beings. I don’t know how the brain or other parts of the body are involved. I like that the flatworms are offering clues. Thanks for this post.

    • Tina Fields Says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with your take on the illusion of the autonomous individual, Sandoak. The resonance field set up by the beings surrounding us is not yet recognized enough by current scientific thinking, imo, but will be in future. Thanks for bringing this in.

  2. Andrey Vinogradov (Facebook link) Says:

    I wish I was a worm, said Mary Antoinette…

  3. Jim Marcolina (Facebook link) Says:

    ‘Cause people are exactly like worms…

    • Francis Jervis (Facebook link) Says:

      Jim, of course. You’ve seen all the 160-year-old guys running around since they did that work on nematodes, right?

      • Jim Marcolina (Facebook link) Says:

        Yep, had lunch with one yesterday. Stuck me with the check, too, stupid struldbrug.

  4. Shawn McGillivray (Facebook link) Says:

    The nervous system controls memory. Perhaps in worms the decentralized aspect of the nerves respond more effectively than with normal higher evolutionary type centralized nerve functions.

    • Tina Fields Says:

      Perhaps it does in us too. Witness Peter Levine’s work, or Wm Reich – about how trauma can be held in the body, even when the mind has no recollection of the events.

  5. Terry Spivey (Facebook link) Says:

    Was that at the Lorena Bobbitt Institute of Decapitated Worm Studies? I heard that she kicked it around on the ground a couple of times but it still didn’t know where it came from.

  6. Alan Lucien (Facebook link) Says:

    Wow, that just might be the bit of knowledge that will allow us to recover from the zombie apocalypse!

  7. Virginia Grace Abraham (Facebook link) Says:

    Body=subconscious, no less pertinent, perhaps more.

    • Tina Fields Says:

      Well put, Virginia. I completely agree.

      • Tina Fields Says:

        …actually, I partially agree. I find body knowledge to be quite conscious a lot of the time – it’s just that we’re no longer trained to pay attention.

        • Geoff Berry Says:

          yup, that’d be my take too Tina. As you mentioned, we are trained poorly to think with our full capacities; somatic, emotive, soulful … it all helps to create the range of perception we end up recognising as “thought”.

          • Tina Fields Says:

            Well put, Geoff. Both “thought” and “mind” are often too narrowly defined, and by seeing them that way, we narrow our possibilities and our fun.

  8. The overall potential of the actualized Nervous System. Constant e/afferent communication with capacitive Muscle Memory and obligatory autonomic responses. The Machination of “Soul” or realization of a Kinetic Consciousness that is most evident in the hair raising DeJa Vu of the neck and spine. A by-product of predation within our primitive brain. The reactionary fight/flight response that needs no processing at all and remains evident today. The subtlety of nuanced body language and changes within our environments that culminate in a “knowing” of sorts. It need not be a deluded notion of the external.
    For me it’s the sensation, tactile contact, sound, texture and voluminous nature of sight that produces my “knowing”. Beautiful are all experiences, it’s the perceived attributes that can be difficult and sometimes overwhelming.

    Imagine the Brain in a jar without sensation? I’m terrified! Jarred for what purpose? Arachnia and the tale of the Super A.I. with bio components? Human brains as processors for the musing of Chaotica in the fifth dimension. Where oh where is Capt. Proton and his side kick?

    Y’know, I miss Voyager!

    Thanks Tina,

    Thank you thank you

  9. Tina,
    May I ask you about your feelings on the subject of “Neutrality” within Social structures? I came across an article that called for an elevated volume within the bi-sexual community. Upon reflection, I thought the Author ill-advised in that conclusion. I say this to say, in my observation, that now is a time of passive nuance in conversation regarding Neutrality in Identity. I’ve been reading a great deal and even had the courage to view News outlets ( Horrifying really ). If you focus within a small community such as the Hopi, who revere the “Spider Woman” yet, remain an actualized male dominated Society. You can upon brief analysis assume a Stark Contrast in comparison to Society at large. However, when compared within a focused framework a likeness can be extruded that in many ways speaks to Matriarchal supposition and continued male dominated more’s/folkways. With this understanding neutrality takes on a different role within the frame ( for us the Constitution ). Many spoke of Love in marriage during the recent Culture War and I was more than confused by many of my peers. I just can’t conceive of an argument for Liberty to choose, being construed or somehow usurped by what (yes hopefully people will marry for love) is a continued state of delusion. Here is where my difficulty arises and I believe Bi, Transgendered and Women are usurped in the same way. Let’s accept that people get married for a multitude of reasons when they are at Liberty to do so.
    Many had conversations regarding the underlying transition secondary to the effect of the decision on attitudes. Or acceptance and perceived roles within relationships (the husband/wife arguments that truly in some cases are not conversations). The answer right or wrong came down to a position of neutrality that for myself was easily simplified by Spouse. I reached the same kind of conclusion after reading the article regarding the Bi community. I mean if you apply a critical process to the idea of Liberty and our Constitution within the context of what we are told is applied as Gender Neutral, the supposition works. That is it speaks to everybody in the form of at Liberty to choose. Yet, we linger in a definitive conversation that clarifies this Neutrality. Which in the end takes some back down the path of Matriarchal delusion within the nuanced and often misguided perceptions of what is defined as absolute. I am hopeful for other LGBT people like myself to recognize this Individual Liberty as foundation to choice and safety. I believe as well that a clear definitive pathway can be traversed for Neutrality that is both transitional and empowering. It is truly amazing that Corporations have started implementing a neutral position on Gender without the need for pressure or direction.

    I apologize for this onslaught of sorts. I’ve come so far in my personal battles and have been freed in so many ways. Maya Angelou told us we were all caged birds and inevitably would be caged again. I never knew her, yet I continue to Love her words and presence to this day. I realize without proper context perception and what is perceived can make cages of experiences. Maybe that is why I found your site or maybe it was just a landing of sorts.
    In either case I am grateful and any insight you might want to share will always be appreciated.

    My writing is an atrocity and my thoughts are as scrambled as morning eggs. Maybe somehow between now and my composition course, I can get it together.

    Thank you

  10. Can you believe I finished writing the above note to you and found an article based upon a decision by the Joint Chiefs to favor Gender Neutrality within the Armed forces. Neutrality, we shall see.

    Thanks Tina


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