I would like to talk for a bit about the relationship we each have with the world around us – how we experience and engage the world the world around us. More to the point, I will talk about the ways out brains engage in some of the more habit forming elements and various aspects of our cultural framework that support that. Our brain is a bit like our interlocutor with the world. Barring deeper philosophical inquiries into the ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are, where consciousness actually resides, and so on, our brains are, for all intents and purposes, the prism through which we witness and experience our lives, taking in the actions, movements, lights and sounds, the things we judge to be good or bad and so on, and through numerous intricate processes it makes sense of this mélange.
Before we get started, I would like to offer a couple of caveats to you, dear reader. We will be talking about brains and some specific processes and how they relates to the paths we choose in the world but I should be clear that what we know of the brain and it’s functioning is actually somewhat hazy. We understand that different parts of the brain light up in relation to various thought processes and physical activities. We can trace different neurochemical pathways and observe various electrochemical impulses that seem to relate to activities, functions, types of memory, and so on. We know that there are chemical responses when certain things happen or don’t happen to us. Sometimes it seems the best we’re able to do when it comes to knowing how the brain works relative to our identity is simply pointing out these relationships – that some parts of the brain seem to govern some functions while other parts seem to govern other functions. It is very difficult to actually trace memories, cognitive functions, and various other aspects of our identity. We can’t point to a spot and say: that synaptic pathway is you memory of the shirt you wore that one day in 3rd grade. Where are all the memories of shirts we wore? Or of 3rd grade? These are very abstract ideas compared to the actual neurological functioning of our brain.
At any given moment, there are a numerous processes going on in the brain – a multitude of synaptic pathways firing, chemical responses being triggered, etc. – and singling out any one or two as we will do inevitably ignores other important – and quite relevant aspects – aspects of the cognitive functions. Yet, those facets that we hold up for examination – comparing and contrasting – that we have explored through study and research – often help provide answers to some of the questions of how and why we respond to the world the way we do. So, here, I talk only about a thin slice as it pertains to a particular aspect of our lives. It is an important aspect and a relevant slice. But it is a slice none-the-less.
That said, I would also like to add that, while I’m talking about brains as if I know something, I am (surprise!) not a brain surgeon.
My own chosen path is “Artist” and my chosen art form is painting. One aspect of the way I work is that I often find myself piecing together seemingly disparate elements to create a unified whole. I tend to look at other parts of life in a similar manner: social, political, or economic structures, art, movies, music, architecture, magazines, advertising, and so on – all of these echoes of our human impulses and urges – and finding the places where the threads of one disparate element weaves with the others. Even the seemingly most opposite of facets of the systems we’ve created stem from the basic human experience. We could talk about font choices for business and ancient control mechanisms used by the dominant socio-political structures. We can discuss religious systems and psychological urges towards control. We could explore color theory and sexual impulses. I think about the homeless person on the street, the not-so-homeless person taking a vacation on the beach, the slope of a skyscraper, the Cape Code-style houses that pepper Newport Beach relative to the SoCal style that peppers Venice Beach, and so on.
So many different facets… So many pieces of this human existence: wars and celebrations and births and deaths. It just goes on and on. We can’t pick any one thread and not have it branch outwards – in multiple directions in time and space – into ten thousand more occurrences seemingly ad infinitum. In this way, I often just sift through it all, seeing how things fit into arcs and patterns and, invariably coming to the conclusion that, ultimately, it – all of it – is one unified whole – this life, this planet, this universe, inside and out. We live our lives trying to make some sense of that – creating world view relative to a mutable identity we establish to move through it with.
For many people, the end-all be-all dominant structure- the umbrella of all things – beyond governments and economics, is religion. Their chosen religion gives them a belief system that imbues their lives with meaning as well as a basic end goal. It gives them a sense of where they are going, where they have come from, and a basic litmus test for right and wrong. When we read the descriptions of God’s love, the passion of Jesus, the pure lands of the Buddhas, Mohammed’s heaven, or whatever the spiritual belief, they all have this in common: they are trying to imagine and share the most beautiful thing possible (even if it is someone else’s painting of that picture), using it to inspire its adherents to a more fulfilling life.
On the other hand, ‘most beautiful external thing’ finds it’s counter or foil in ideas like karma, original sin, hell, and other various ways of saying “we humans have fallible human minds that just keep chugging along doing good and bad and here is why…” This not-so-beautiful thing is usually seen as a diversion from that most beautiful thing and we are taught various ways to atone for our inevitable diversions.
I think that we can understand it much more succinctly and less abstractly than that – this sense of the beautiful and how we relate to it – and, in so doing, we can find a most beautiful thing in the here and now that offers a greater sense of present tense well-being than future post-death rewards.
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