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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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