Saturday, December 12, 2009

RE-ENGINEERING YOUR 'self'

HEARTY WELCOME:
[I am happy to welcome Sivavasanta, Katie and Dr. Kirk Crist to our Blog. It is particualry noteworthy that Katie Davis chose to join us. She herself is a Non-Dualism teacher who spontaneously realized the Oneness of Brahman in 1986.  We look forward to their active participations/contributions.]


BODY ILLUSION, BRAIN PLASTICITY, MEDITATION AND LIBERATION:

"Re-engineering your 'self'" was the title of a Talk I gave a year ago. I sent a copy of about 40 supporting ppt slides to Jerry Katz at that time. He was quite appreciative of the material. I thank him very much for the encouragement.

The principal argument of my presentation was as follows:

Our usual sense of 'self' is quite fragile and illusory. Neuroscience as yet does not know how this sense of self is generated. Certain gateway nodes of neuronal networks in our brain processing autobiographical information can be understood to be the correlates of 'self'. But no specific part of the brain contains a spot for 'self'. It was proposed by me that if a particular gateway node represents the 'self' node, there could be another gateway node which represents the feel of Oneness, obliterating all perceived boundaries between 'me' and 'the other'. We could call it the "Universal Self" node.

For example, Dr. Jill B. Taylor, a neuroscientist graphically described her experience of losing the sense of individuating 'self' when the left hemisphere of her brain was non-functional (due to an hemorrhage) in 1996. She felt a universal Oneness when the right hemisphere of the brain alone was functioning.

Recent developments in Neuroscience have shown that our brain is not like a fixed pre-programmed printed circuit board. The neural connections are not rigid but highly labile. This is called by neuroscientists as the "plasticity of brain." In view of this, it is suggested that we can retrain our brain to process the perceptions to go through the Universal Self node instead of the usual self node gateway. Dr. Greg Goode would describe it as "Standing as Awareness."

Direct Path Advaitins tell us clearly that the 'collapse of the sense of separate self' is enlightenment. Many of them describe it as re-orientating, or a shift in, the way we perceive (i.e. without a 'me' as perceiver). This would obviously involve (i) a clear understanding of the percepts (= what is perceived) , (ii) be thoroughly convinced that the percepts to be no more than mere thoughts, sensations and perceptions in our brain (and not to be any solid objects to be 'existing' out there) and (iii) finally retraining the brain through practice in this worldview. Therefore, the re-engineering involved is to manage a shift from the 'self' gateway node to the "Universal Self" node.

Even traditional Vedanta advocates Shravana (Gaining Knowledge), Manana (Reflection on what is learnt) and Nidhidhyasana (constant contemplation and remembering), corresponding to the three steps spelt out in the above para.

Bhagavad-Gita too lays considerable emphasis on Practice (abhyaasa) and giving up a claim of  'ownership (of possessions) and doership (agency for actions)' - i.e. vairaagya  (Chapter VI Sloka 35; VIII-8; XII-9).

Practice evidently takes advantage of the plasticity of the brain.

Neuroscientific Findings:

We all experience our body to be part of ourselves. It is a fundamental aspect of self-awareness. But this sense of self can be easily altered by manipulating our perceptions. It is illustrated by the "Rubber Hand Illusion." In this experiment we feel that 'a rubber hand is our own, when our corresponding real hand is hidden, and both the rubber hand and the real hand are touched synchronously for a few seconds by a friend. Not only that, our brain starts disowning our own real hand. The body temperature in the real hand drops down! Can you believe it!!

Such perceptual phenomenon does not happen just for a limb. It can happen to your entire body as proved by Swedish scientists a year ago.

See the video : http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=rawY2VzN4-c

You feel the body of another person or of a mannequin standing in front of you as your body. Sort of "Parakaaya pravesha" (entering some other's body)!

Videos of the studies along with the virtual reality studies being carried out by Prof. Mel Slater are available at:

http://www.bodyinmind.com.au/mel-slater-on-inducing-illusory-ownership-of-a-virtual-body/

Meditation:

Various forms of meditation have been found to be quite efficient tools in bringing about a change in the texture and structure of the brain. Dr. P. B. Reiner reports on the work at Stanford and MIT in November 2009 as follows:

"Regular deep meditation changes the brain in positive ways. This type of meditation seems to be associated with gamma waves, the electromagnetic rhythm of neurons firing very rapidly in harmony.

Neuroscientists have pinpointed the cells responsible for producing these gamma rhythms and demonstrated a technology that can induce the brain-wave pattern in mice... In the future it might be possible to use this technology to reproduce some of the beneficial effects of meditation."

The Stanford and MIT scientists further say: "...it is worth remembering that both deep-brain stimulation, whereby implanted electrodes act as a kind of pacemaker in the brain, and transcranial magnetic stimulation, in which powerful magnetic fields are transmitted through the skull to affect brain activity, are rapidly moving from the lab to the clinic. Both these techniques represent relatively crude forms of brain stimulation."

Carnegie Mellon University scientists Timothy Keller and Marcel Just have uncovered in December 2009 the first evidence that intensive instruction to improve reading skills in young children causes the brain to physically rewire itself.

Dr. E. Phelps and her colleagues reported in Dec 2009 Nature, "A drug free, non-invasive method for semi-permanently blocking the return of fear memories in humans" by training their brains. These works are still in development stage. Yet their research is significant towards erasure of fear memories.

A video of their work can be seen at:

http://www.nature.com/nature/videoarchive/memory/

In this context, we may note that Bhagavad-Gita says that surmounting fears is an important step towards ‘liberation’.

(This Blog is actually Posted on 12 Dec 2009).

3 comments:

Trey said...

I found this blog very interesting. It brings to mind some of the brain issues I have experienced. I was diagnosed with epilepsy after having a grand mal seizure at 30 years of age. For a year or so prior I had been having what I was referring to as "revelation spells" where I would have an intense sensation that everything made perfect sense. My thoughts would continue but I became the witness of the thoughts and could never remember what they were after the spell ended. They only lasted a minute or two, but were later determined to be partial complex seizures after my grand mal seizure (which started with that same sensation).

I found out that the seizure activity was originating from the left temporal lobe of my brain, which has been referred to as the "God Spot" by some researchers studying the brains of praying nuns and meditation monks.

During my search for treatments I tried Neurofeedback, where electtobes are attached to your head while you watch something on TV. In one case it was a video game like thing with a plane flying through a tunnel. Getting the brain to increase the level of certain waves (I can't remember whether it was beta or something else), made the plane fly better.

It has been a very fascinating experience and all of my research led me to the path to enlightenment. A large part of me believes that enligthenment might well be the cure for brain related disorders such as epilepsy. Though I only did Neurofeedback for a brief while, I believe that it, combined with virtual reality technology, will assist people in discovering enlightenment much more quickly that those who have spent years seeking.

Peace,
Trey

ramesam said...

Thank you Trey for the kind comment about the Blog Post and sharing your own experience and thoughts.

Temporal Lobe epilepsy is known for centuries and it is even dubbed as "the sacred disease" way back, since perhaps the days of Hippocrates. It does in the initial stages give raise to sort of epiphanic moments usually preceded by some churning like feeling in the stomach. There are several cases described in the literature where it appears to the person that "the scene around is transfigured in an instant. He/she feels weightless, an angel on the wing, soaring through a landscape fraught with significance, a sacred text which for those moments only could be read with fluent clarity...." A Neurologist, however, finds some misfiring in the neurons as the cause.

Dr. A. Zeman, Neurologist in UK talks of the story of one Dave who had such sacred moments of experience, but thanks to his wife, things were diagnosed correctly in time. Dave changed his profession and took up a career as a priest, which was also close to his heart.

While undoubtedly Neurofeedback may help in the matter, it is also equally important to be sure that no unwanted pathological reasons are getting aggravated in the meanwhile. I came to know of a doctor, himself a Neurosurgeon, who dedicated his life in the service of humanity in an Ashram in India. He had experiences of deep silence and he felt for many months that it was the result of his rapid progress in meditative practices under the tautalage of the Guru. A casual brain scan revealed a small lump in the fore brain which had to be excised surgically. After the surgery, the epiphanies were gone and of course, he is still working in the Ashram hospital.

Though we have to go a long way in neuroscientific studies, it is, however, clear that many of the emotions, feelings, experiences do work in an electromagentic and chemical environment. As Deep Brain Stimulation and Transcranial magnetic therapies indicate, one can alter these fields to affect the state of brain. We have to only wait and see what the future developments will be!

Thanks again and regards,
ramesam

ramesam said...

I received through private e-mail three very interesting Questions from a young reader of the Blog. I give below his questions and my brief response to him.

Q 1: Does the so called ‘self’ gateway node really create an experiential feeling of ‘self’ OR a new operand called “Forgetfulness” acts on attributeless “Awareness” at that node making Awareness forget that It is actually an undivided, unlimited Everything?

ramesam: It is undoubtedly farfetched to make any definitive statement on the way the neuronal networks function because these studies are in a preliminary stage. As per the work of Prof. Tsien and a few others, there appears to be a hierarchy of networks synchronously firing information from different parts of the brain when a particular ‘object’ is cognized. When thoughts about ‘self’ related information is processed, one finds more activity in ventral medial prefrontal cortex and also precuneus. These areas of the brain are supposed to contain self related or autobiographical info (e.g. I am so and so; I am an engineer etc.). So a gateway node of the nested neuronal circuits comprising these locations can only contribute the info contained within them (by higher intensity/frequency of firing). This node then functions as a gatekeeper only allowing info related to ‘self’ to pass through.

If you propose that they may selectively erase info (hence result in forgetting), you are up against two difficulties. One is that they cannot suppress the neural circuits in the billions of neurons in the rest of the brain. Secondly, you will have to assume the presence of a priori imprinting of certain circuits with info about Awareness only within a few neurons. Therefore, there cannot be an entity called “forgetfulness” which newly comes and imposes itself on the system.

When you refer to "fogetfulness", perhaps you are referring to the Advaitic explanation saying that Awareness ‘forgetting’ Itself, becomes the I-thought. Here ‘forgetting’ is used only in a figurative sense. Awareness neither forgets nor remembers anything. It is immutable. This explanation is only made under a false premise to answer a question raised within a false domain (i.e. ignorance).

Q: How does one “feel” the Infinite Awareness at the “Universal Self” gateway node?

ramesam: I agree “feel” is a wrong word. But this is a weakness we have to live with because we have to use language to express something inexpressible. What I mean is that there will be no sense of a separate ‘self’. No ‘entity’ remains to give raise to thoughts like I see, I act, etc. with a separate identification of 'me'. That particular brain where this is happening, loses the consciousness of individuating boundaries, only an experience of Universal Oneness remains without an experiencer (e.g. something like 'LaLa Land' that Jill described in her experience).

Q: Can the neuronal firing (pulses) reflect Infinite Awareness at all?

ramesam: I also do not know. That is the reason I am curious about the brain scans of Jivanmuktas.

Further, as I explained under the comment section of the previous Blog Post, one may not find a definitive ‘positive presence’ of a Marker for Universal Self or Brahman or Awareness. It is perhaps the “absence” of ceratin traits within the brain of a Jivanmukta (compared to the brain of an ajnani) that may stand out as Markers in the brain of a Jivanmukta.

Thank you again for your very interesting and searching queries,
ramesam