Thursday, November 12, 2009

The mind, the brain, and Being

After two weeks of intensive work in China, I return to my home turf... which is decidedly less urban. Now that I am back here, we will see what can be done about some more practical attention in this space.

As readers know, philosophical and technical questions are discussed here, as well as actual personal observation, practice, and matters of more immediate interest to those who wish to work in a new way to connect the mind and the body.

Of course the latter type of discussion is more interesting to some, but there are times when it's necessary to grapple with intellectual questions. We cannot afford to allow our work to be nothing but "touchy--feely" material, that is, emotional/body work. The intellect must be applied, in a practical and immediate way, to elucidate questions related to Gurdjieff theory. Not in a complex, obscure manner, but in a way that is simple and practical enough for the average Joe to get the gist of it.

So here is an article of that nature.

During the trip, I had occasion to ponder some questions about the mind, its relationship to the brain, and some particular parts of the brain. In order to discuss this, we are going to have to ramble around a little bit. Hopefully you will bear with me.

One of the perceptions of modern science is that the brain is the place where the mind originates. That is, the mind, intelligence, awareness, whatever you wish to call it, arises from the brain and cannot exist without it. Red is not red without a brain; wind is not wind, the stars are not stars.

In this decidedly reductionist worldview, it's difficult for us to imagine a universe without intelligence. In fact, there cannot be one, because in such a world view there is no universe without intelligence. That is to say, if there are no brains to receive impressions, nothing actually exists. This premise has actually been argued by some leading theorists. There is an ever present and all-too-common danger with our modern, hyperintelligent scientists: they become so incredibly smart that they reach a peak, turn a corner, and plunge back downward into stupidity without even noticing it.

Building on the complex cosmologies and perspectives of the Gurdjieff work, and speaking from my own personal experience, I will offer a rather different hypothesis: the brain is not a place where the mind arises: it is a receiving mechanism for the mind.

The nervous systems of animals, and all biological life, can be compared to radios. All of them receive molecular and vibrational "waves" from their surroundings. If we consider a radio, I believe we can all agree: even if there is no radio to receive radio waves and play the music in them, the radio waves still exist, and the information in them is still real. We can, in fact, detect and measure the waves without the radio. There are probably even devices that could extract the information in the waves, though they might not play it in audio format the way radio does.

So the universe, the color red, and the wind, do exist independent of the brain and other neurological systems. One might argue that neurological systems impose arbitrary subjective interpretations of all of these phenomena on the impressions that they receive, but I don't think the interpretations are arbitrary at all. There is a remarkable consistency to them across a broad range of organisms. The organisms all exploit the properties of the environment they inhabit in similar ways, in the same way that many different radios with various receiving capabilities all function in a similar manner. There is, in other words, a commonality to the enterprise that is very strictly imposed by the constraints of chemistry and physics.

So we come once again to one of the key questions in philosophy, that is, does the existence of everything that is depend on the mind, or would it be here, even if there was no mind to perceive it?

The human brain and other neurological systems are not generators, they are receivers. They do not generate the universe. They perceive it. As such, the universe and everything in it exists a priori, and the arising of organisms, and consequent neurological complexes, to sense it is a dependent consequence. If organisms are receivers, then the mind exists before the organisms do; they are simply tools which mind adopts in order to express itself.

This idea exhibits some interesting parallels with Buddhism and other religious practices which I will leave it to the reader to ponder further.

The Gurdjieff system is unabashed in its insistence that everything is material; as such, we might suggest that Mr. Gurdjieff was perhaps the very first spiritual teacher in any century who insisted that there was an absolute scientific basis to the development of what is called, in various religious practices, "the soul," "enlightenment," and so on. The expression of what he called higher mind -- that is, a receiver with the capacity to receive far more impressions of mind than what are usually received -- is entirely dependent on the restructuring of both the chemistry and the neural anatomy of man.

Those who are familiar with with P. D Ouspensky's discussion of the chemical factory in "In Search Of The Miraculous" will be well familiar with the idea that Gurdjieff said man's inner chemistry must change if he wishes to develop his inner Being. The idea that the brain itself needs to physically change is one that we don't encounter there.

Yet, it is incontrovertibly true, and the study of one particular structure in the brain tells us a very good deal about what some of the aims of Gurdjieff's work were.

In 2004 or so, Scientific American published an article on the function of the cerebellum, a structure in the brain which has been receiving far more attention in recent years.

The cerebellum is often referred to as the "primitive" or "reptilian" part of the brain, that is, the oldest part of the brain. It's frustrating to see the oldest structures in organisms as being called "primitive" by scientists and biologists. It's not only frustrating, it's patently stupid. The oldest structures in organisms of any kind are the most advanced structures, because evolution has been acting on them for the longest period of time, optimizing their ability to perform. Any structure that has recently arisen has been less fully tested and, we can be certain, will not perform as well as more ancient structures that have been tested through millions of years of evolution. So let's not call the cerebellum a "primitive" part of the brain at all. It is, more than likely, the most advanced structure in the brain. And this is a suggestion that is being borne out by a great deal of recent research. You might say that study of the cerebellum has been... well... blowing scientist's minds.

The cerebellum has more nerve cells than all the rest of the brain combined. In other words, this rather small part of the brain has more capacity to work than any other part. Secondly, its response times are remarkably quick. Third, it is connected to the cerebral cortex -- the part that gives us our higher thinking functions -- by something like 40 million nerve fibers. So it has an incredible capacity to process and pass on information. Connections to parts of the brain that regulate emotion are also highly developed.

After I read the article on the cerebellum (a bit more on that in just a moment) I passed it on to the late Paul Reynard, who was one of the most important figures in the teaching of the Gurdjieff Movements during the late 20th century. I gave it to him because the implications that connected the development of the cerebellum to the Gurdjieff movements were unmistakable.

And, as I suspected, he was utterly fascinated by it.

The cerebellum, you see, is the center of motor development in the brain, and it contains complex perceptive and timing mechanisms that must, by default, be deeply involved in the execution of any physical exercises such as the Movements. There can be no doubt that one of the principal brain structures the Movements are designed to stimulate and affect is the cerebellum.

The first main point of the article made is that the "primitive" cerebellum has the capability of learning. That is to say, it is been recognized that the cerebellum has a rich ability to form new neural pathways, and that, in fact, it may well grow new neurons during the course of a human's lifetime, in response to novel stimuli. This discovery contradicted the idea (by now an outdated one, to be sure) that new neurons don't form after a human being is fully grown. So this brain structure is flexible, creative, and capable of growth.

A second point the article made is that the cerebellum has an extraordinarily dense set of nerve fibers connecting to the parts of the brain that are known to regulate emotion. As such, the development of a greater and more sensitive capacity in the cerebellum would almost certainly have an effect on the emotional state of man.

Gurdjieff's Movements, unlike the slow movements of tai chi and yoga, are demanding physical exercises executed at what are sometimes lightning speeds. They are ideally designed to stimulate the cerebellum by putting intense demand on it. And, although it is not at all obvious (at least most of the time) to those who engage in these exercises, it's quite clear that the formation of new pathways in this part of the brain may well enhance the emotional capacity and sensitivity of those who participate in them over long periods of time.

The Movements, of course, are also performed in accompaniment to music, another element that is nearly absent from practices such as tai chi and yoga, but which is definitely known to stimulate the emotional center.

As such, when we study the known physiological characteristics of the brain, the known role of the cerebellum, and we consider one of the core aims of the Gurdjieff work -- the incorporation of emotional center into the life in a new way -- we suddenly see how utterly sophisticated The Movements are when taken from a completely new point of view, that is, the material work that they engage in in the stimulation and development of a part which is generally neglected in life. The work of the cerebellum, one might argue, is habitual, but when it is actively and deliberately stimulated, remarkable new things can take place.

Here we have stumbled across a "secret" purpose of the Movements. It is never about "doing the Movements right;" of course, if we do "do the Movements right," we see beautiful dances, and an organic satisfaction arises, but the very act of the effort -- of simply engaging in the practice -- is quite literally capable of causing physiological changes in the brain of those who engage in it. Those who practice movements may never be consciously aware of the effect they are having, at least not in the sense that they "know" what the "results" will be. Nonetheless, the activity is setting the stage, laying the groundwork, for the development of a new capacity of sensation, of a new capacity for emotion.

Readers interested in further exploration of the place of emotion in this work are invited to read the suite of essays on the subject on my page at

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

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