Consider for a moment the brain of a bee - the size of a grain of salt. It can detect the minutest changes in light, sound, smell and touch; delicately and accurately integrate the actions of many muscles; regulate the functioning of its body's many organs so as to preserve the optimum conditions for life. Such brains learn from experience, and find ways to relate information to others of its species. The bee's brain keeps a constant track of time and it functions as an accurate guidance system: compensating for wind direction, it correlates the rapid beating of four tiny wings, and lands the little body delicately at the center of a waving flower.
The bee's brain contains a mere 900 neurons. What, then, can we expect from our own brains, ten million times the size, and many billion times as complex? Where we differ most from other animals is our more highly developed use of language and therefore our capacity to learn new ideas not only from our own experience but from that of others, our ability to reason and argue, our unique sense of time continuum, and our greater ability to adapt the environment to our own needs.
A human being has the faculty of self-consciousness, in the sense of being aware of his own experiences and of himself as a conscious being. With this awareness of his own conscious processes comes freedom of choice and the ability to make deliberate actions. Man is also an intelligent being: he can modify instinctive behavior in the light of previous experience.
Intelligence and self-consciousness together, give humans the unique capacity to progress and evolve within their own lifetimes. The smallest development in physical evolution takes many lifetimes, but mental evolution is much faster: an individual's nervous system is continually changing, adapting to the environment, and re-programming itself, throughout life. Our minds have become the spearhead of evolution, and the degree to which we progress depends upon the degree to which we make use of this most incredible product of nature - the degree to which we use our intelligence and our consciousness to the full.
Nestling inside the bony fortress of the cranium, the brain is the best protected organ of the body, and it enjoys the highest priority when blood, oxygen and nutrients are distributed. The brain is sheathed in several layers of a tough membrane tissue, and it is suspended in a circulating fluid mechanism: it actually floats inside a shock-proof vault. The intricate web of nerves that constitutes the human nervous system weighs only three and a half pounds, yet it is probably the most complex system in the universe.
The more that is learned about the human brain, the more its capacities and potentials are found to go beyond earlier speculations. The twelve billion or so neurons, or nerve cells, of your brain interlock in such a way as to make it potentially a phenomenal information processor. Each neurone has hundreds or, with mental development, even thousands of branching extensions that connect it to other neurons, and each connection plays a part in the transmission of signals throughout your brain and body. Your thought processes involve an incredibly complex pattern of electro-chemical signals, flitting rapidly about this biological computer of awesome capabilities.
As a processor of information the brain is extraordinarily fast. It can, for instance, receive the visual image of a person's face in a few hundredths of a second; analyze its many details in a quarter of a second. Then, in less than a second, it can synthesize all the information into a single whole: by creating a conscious three-dimensional full-color experience of the face, recognizing this face out of thousands of others recorded in memory - even though the face may never have been seen before in this position, with this lighting, in these surroundings, or with this expression on it - and recalling from memory details about the person and numerous ideas, associations and images associated with the person.
At the same time the brain will be interpreting the expression on the face and other body language; possibly projecting ideas into the other person's mind (assuming their thoughts); generating emotional feelings towards the person with appropriate hormonal production depending on fight, flight, relaxation or sexual responses; deciding on courses of action from a range of possibilities that may conflict with each other or with reality; possibly suppressing ideas or memories that are uncomfortable or conflict with currently held decisions or beliefs; and possibly starting intricate combinations of muscle movements throughout the body, resulting in an out-stretched hand, a smile and complex vibrations of the vocal chords (full of subtle intonations).
While all the foregoing occurs, the brain will be analyzing and digesting other sensual data; it will monitor and adjust the body to keep it in balance or moving smoothly; and it will be continually checking on several hundred internal physiological parameters, such as the temperature and chemical constitution of the blood, compensating for any deviations from the normal so as to maintain the body in its optimum state of functioning. The brain continues in this way, perceiving, remembering, monitoring, and integrating a huge number of different functions every second of every day of our lives. Yet even with all of this work-load, we barely scratch the mental potential of the brain.
In terms of its complexity and versatility, the human brain far surpasses any computer on earth. Computers, it is true, may be very fast at mathematical calculations and step-by-step processes, but only in an inflexible, pre-programmed way, and these represent only a small part of the brain's capabilities. The whole of the world's telephone system is equivalent to only about one gram of your brain - a piece the size of a pea! Whereas the brain can recognize a face in much less than a second, there is no computing network in the world that could do the same.
The functional structure of the brain
The brain does not, of course, merely work in isolation within your skull; it communicates through nerve pathways that go to the muscles, sensory and internal organs, and every other part of your body. Activities going on in your brain can affect every single cell in your body, directly or indirectly, because of the extensive nerve network lacing through all of your body tissues. For example, the blood vessels dilate and constrict in response to the steady stream of pulse signals originating in the lower centers of the brain. And, of course, your brain receives an enormous number of pulses every second from the many sensor nerves that originate in the tissue of your muscles and organs. This is how your brain makes sense of what's happening all over your body and responds with the necessary regulatory signals. This interactive relationship between the processes of your brain and the other functions of your body, forms the basis for psychosomatic disease or health. It is also the mechanism that facilitates biofeedback, in which mental processes produce a biological response that is in turn 'fed back' by the biofeedback device, through one or more of the sensory perception channels of the brain, giving the brain instantaneous information about its functioning. The following diagram illustrates the basic architecture of the brain:
There are three levels of operation involving the nervous system. These are: the spinal cord, the basal region of the brain, and the cerebral cortex. At the lowest level, the spinal cord itself, some primitive processes go on in the form of reflex activities. These include the patella knee jerk, which the physician tests with a little hammer, and automatic withdrawal reactions to sharp pain or to touching something unbearably hot or cold.
At the basal region of the brain, the spinal cord enlarges to the brain stem, just before it merges with the cerebral cortex. At this mid-brain level, the autonomic, or involuntary, functions are controlled by certain specialized structures, such as the limbic system. Originating here are the signals that control heart rate, breathing, hunger, thirst, sexual drives, sleep and wakefulness, functions of liver, kidneys and other organs, blood pressure, dilation and constriction of the eyes, and the general level of activity of the entire nervous system. This area also produces a number of hormones, or chemical messenger substances. These include the growth hormone, others that activate the adrenal glands to make them secrete the excitation hormone known as adrenaline, and others that stimulate the thyroid gland to produce thyroxin, which controls the overall pace of the body's cellular combustion processes, i.e. metabolism.
On top of the brain stem is the thalamus, a large region containing many nuclei, some relaying information from the sensory organs to the cortex, others relaying information from one area of the cortex to another, and interacting with the reticular formation (see below) and the limbic system.
Tucked just below the cortex, or upper part of the brain, is a small organ called the cerebellum. The cerebellum takes care of the habitual motor functions, such as balance and coordination, walking, routine hand and arm movements, control of the vocal apparatus, eye movements, and other well-learned motor processes, or skills, such as a tennis serve, operating a typewriter, or driving a car. Some of these processes require the cerebellum to operate in conjunction with higher level thinking centers, while others are handled almost exclusively. Note how strange it seems if you try to control a habitual process, such as getting out of your chair, by conscious thought.
The brain has a built-in neural tendency to structure its operations in the form of stored 'programs' covering operations at all levels up to and including abstract reasoning. Becoming aware of these programs and consciously developing new and improved programs, is one of the concerns of The Insight Project, as we will discuss later. When learning new skills and improved behavior patterns it is necessary to practice and over-learn the processes involved, so that new programs controlling the skill become incorporated at this most practical level of the brain. Intellectual understanding alone cannot achieve this integration. Over-learned skills are necessary because of the immense number of operations that the brain has to perform simultaneously, as described above. If these were all performed consciously, nothing would get done! In the situation of a counseling session, without over-learned skills, distractions caused by the stress of performance and the reactivation that occurs, would result in basic metering mistakes and omissions.
The brain has a built-in neural tendency to structure its operations in the form of stored 'programs' covering operations at all levels up to and including abstract reasoning.
At this level of the brain, the basal region, in the brain stem, we also find the Reticular Activating System (RAS), an area that is enormously important because of its role in arousal and awareness. Our ability to think and perceive, even our power to respond to stimuli with anything beyond a mere reflex, is due to the brain cortex, but the cortex cannot function unless it is in an aroused state - awake. The brain cortex cannot wake itself up; what awakens the cortex from sleep and keeps it awake is the RAS. The RAS is also invoked in order to switch from perception of things outside us, to perception of things within our inner world. The RAS regulates and controls all our muscular activity and all our sensory perceptions; the cortex and RAS operate in a feedback mode, the purpose of which is to maintain an optimum level of arousal.
Sensations that reach the brain cortex are fed back to the RAS, and when the level of activity becomes too high, the RAS sends inhibitory signals to the cortex to reduce the excitation. Anxiety states occur when the inhibitory function of the RAS fails to keep cortical activity within comfortable limits. On the other hand, in a sensory deprivation situation, where the level of stimulation reaching the RAS via the cortex is too low, the RAS sends stimulating signals to the cortex to maintain alertness, frequently resulting in hallucinations. It is the RAS that switches on the cortex during sleep to produce vivid dreams. It is also responsible, during dreaming sleep, for inhibiting the activity of the whole spinal cord, so that the person does not literally enact the dream and possibly endanger himself. It is the function of biofeedback to facilitate cooperation between the cortex and the RAS, in order to achieve self-regulation.
The brain can receive, classify and respond to sensory information without such data penetrating into consciousness. However, if a repeated stimulus finally results in conscious awareness, this is because the RAS has been activated. This is the capacity of the brain for selective attention: when reading a book, especially if it is sufficiently interesting, the reader will be oblivious to surrounding distractions. This duality of perception is necessary to man's survival. Consciousness is a limited capacity system and needs to be used to maximum advantage. Limiting inflow of data would be detrimental, but what is needed is a variable restriction on what enters into consciousness. To achieve this, at the Preconscious stage of the perceptual process, the brain detects the meaning of the incoming information and then initiates an appropriate change in the level of its sensitivity from the RAS level. In this way, important, meaningful data are more likely than trivial information to achieve conscious representation.
That the RAS can be trained is clear. Mother will awake on hearing her baby while father sleeps on. Father, in the country, will awake when he hears the dog bark, but on a visit to town he soon learns to ignore a dog's bark while he is sleeping. Many functions have a completely automatic program - if one wishes to move an arm, there is no need to decide which muscles to use.
However, we can run almost all our life 'on automatic'; our reactions to other people and particular situations are very often controlled by a program, the existence of which we are completely unaware. Such habits based on fixed beliefs may well be irrational: ungrounded in reality, inappropriate and self-defeating. Such a program or reaction had been imprinted in a rather traumatic situation, or may have been installed by a process of repetitive conditioning, but we go on responding the same old way, though the present situation may be significantly different. This is the price we risk paying for the advantages of a variable threshold to consciousness. Psychotherapy helps us to look at these old habits and to learn why we make a particular response or have a particular reaction, so that new, more appropriate programs may be consciously installed.
The RAS and the limbic system work closely together. The top part of the brain stem contains the RAS that then merges into the mid-brain limbic system: a collection of associated structures that play an important role in emotion and motivation. The central part of the limbic system is the hippocampus, which processes incoming information from short-term to long-term memory, and is therefore vital to learning. The limbic system seems to be responsible for many of the strange phenomena of altered states of consciousness, such as loss of body boundaries, feelings of floating or flying and strange visual experiences such as sensations of white light.
At each end of the hippocampus is the amygdala, and above is the hypothalamus. The amygdala and hypothalamus between them can generate sex drive, hunger, thirst, rage and euphoria. The hypothalamus is largely responsible for homeostasis, ensuring that all the various parameters of body functioning are in balance. It continually monitors the blood: if there is too little or too much carbon dioxide, it reduces or increases breathing; if blood sugar is low, it makes you feel hungry; if your temperature is too low or too high, it initiates shivering or sweating; if the blood is too salty, it makes you feel thirsty; and so on. The hypothalamus directs these responses through the autonomic nervous system of the body, as well as triggering cortical arousal through the RAS. Two especially important responses are the fight-or-flight response, which is accompanied by a decrease in skin resistance (as indicated by a fall on the GSR Meter); and the relaxation response, which is accompanied by an increase in resistance (a rise on the GSR Meter).
A survival function of the amygdala is in detecting danger or emotion associated with incoming stimuli. Past experiences were stamped within the brain as being dangerous or emotionally significant. If the amygdala detects incoming stimuli that match these stamps, then it will alert us to potential danger before sending the stimuli on to the appropriate processing center. The amygdala learns its repertoire during childhood and this is supplemented at later times of physical or emotional trauma. Le Doux suggests that it is the amygdala that lays down and 'records' unconscious memory, whilst it is the hippocampus that 'records' conscious memory. It appears that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - in which present circumstances cause a person to be forcefully reminded of a past painful incident and to suffer extreme emotional disturbance - is mediated by the amygdala. The painful memories were imprinted at the highest states of arousal, with increased levels of stress hormones and neurotransmitters. The sufferer will typically experience only fragments of the experience ("flashbacks"), but with the full force of the original emotion. The trigger of these flashbacks can be practically anything connected with the original event: an accent, a sound, a picture, etc. and the response is almost immediate. This can be demonstrated by the 'instant' reaction of a GSR needle incomparison to the slow and delayed response to normal cognitive thoughts originating from the cerebral hemispheres. (More information about the amygdala here.)
A mismatch between expectations and reality can cause a general activation of physiological and cognitive processes: an emotional reaction. One set of emotions seems to result from activation of the sympathetic programs of the autonomic nervous system, similar to the effect of feeling cold. This activation of the fight-flight response leads to general tenseness, especially of the muscles that tend to support the body (the so-called anti-gravity muscles). The typical pattern is tenseness of the knees, an erect body, clenched hands and jaws. The heart rate rises, the blood vessels constrict and there is a rise in blood pressure. In terms of emotions, these are often the symptoms of rage, hate or anger.
Another set of emotions appears to have symptoms that are almost the complete opposite. It results from activation of the parasympathetic programs of the autonomic nervous system, similar to the effect of feeling warm. This relaxation response causes a slowing down of the heart rate, dilation of blood vessels and a reduction of blood pressure. The limbs tend to bend. In terms of emotions, these are often the symptoms of pleasurable states - of satisfaction from love-making, for example, or the removal of environmental threat.
The distinctions we feel among the states are the result of cognitive factors, causing us to interpret the resulting body states appropriately to the contextual circumstances. That cognitive factors play an important role in the manipulation of emotional behavior does not mean that we are necessarily consciously aware of our cognitions. When we become angered or threatened by someone's remarks or actions, our logic may tell us there is nothing to be concerned about, while our internal responses may tell us differently. We can, then, have a large discrepancy between our rationalizations of our behavior and the actual behavior. Cognition and emotion are intimately intermingled with one another, as the cortex interacts with the limbic system via the RAS. We actively interpret the environment, we synthesize information in order to decide if our expectations match or conflict with perceived reality, and this leads to specific emotional responses controlling behavior.
The third level of brain functioning, then, is within the cerebral cortex, which carries out a set of basic functions: it receives and organizes incoming messages from the five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing and kinesthetic); it cognitively manipulates that data along with similar data previously stored in the form of memories, comparing the sensory analysis with an internal model of the world that provides the expectations that are so important for emotion, and it predicts the future if things continue along in the same way; and finally, as a result of this comparison, it relates to the basal region to send out appropriate hormones into the biochemical structure of the body, it sends motor commands to the various muscles of the body, and it changes the neural activation of brain structures. This cognitive process may be rational, grounded in reality - or irrational, incorporating uninspected habitual patterns, resulting in distorted thinking.
Even at the level of the cortex there are many operations proceeding of which one is not consciously aware, and there is a close interplay between abstract thoughts (on a conscious, Subconscious or unconscious level) and basic bodily functions. For example, the stress reaction, or 'fight or flight' mobilization of your entire body with 'nervous' adrenaline, can happen in response to a situation such as being late for an appointment, directed by thoughts that are both conscious and below consciousness. Or alternatively, you may be explaining a complex idea to another person by forming it in your mind, finding words to express it, operating your speech apparatus, making facial expressions and illustrative hand gestures, observing the other person's reactions for cues you can analyze to decide how well you're getting the idea across, and experiencing the emotional 'tone' of the whole situation. Thinking is really a whole-brain function, and indeed a whole-body function.
The various functions of the cortex are not scattered randomly about within it, but are arranged in a well-defined pattern. For instance, all the signals coming from your retinas go to an area at the rear of your brain, at the base of the skull. This process can be measured using heat electrodes, which detect the minute change in temperature on the surface of the skull adjacent to the occipital lobes, when changes of arousal occur at light is shone into the eyes. Using the EEG, one can detect whether the light is shone from the left or right visual field. Signals from the other sense channels go to their own characteristic regions
Physical damage to any particular region of the brain will affect the stored patterns and functions normally carried out by that region. For example, a stroke (blockage of a blood vessel supplying some region of the brain's tissue) will deny oxygen to that particular portion of tissue, causing it to die. Destruction of the motor area for speech, will leave the person capable of forming thoughts properly but utterly unable to speak. Conversely, destruction of the verbal processing center, will leave the person able to articulate clearly, but the speech will be a semantic jumble devoid of meaning. Damage to the frontal region just behind the forehead, which can be caused by advanced alcoholism or heavy drug use, diminishes the capacity for abstract thought, such as developing the concept of a future action, forming an intention, carrying out a logical sequence of actions, or making judgments about the propriety of one's behavior.
The brain stores its memories in ways that are somehow distributed across relatively large regions of the cortex. Experiments with brain-damaged patients have shown that particular memories become dimmer and less distinct, but they do not vanish abruptly with the loss of small regions of brain tissue. One prevailing theory holds that memory may be stored in the brain along holographic principles: individual memories are not stored at specific synapses but are distributed throughout the whole-brain network of interconnecting pathways, in such a way that any section of that network contains the basic pattern of the memory, whilst the whole network reproduces the high definition picture. The fact that different areas of the brain are linked by thousands of parallel pathways provides a basis for the neurological equivalent of the holographic laser's coherent activity: the patterns of rhythmic electrical activity of the brain are consolidated by chemical changes, so an experience becomes permanently encoded. Any one memory would be encoded as a pattern of chemical changes over trillions of synapses, and each synapse would be involved in billions of different memories.
This brings out another important distinction between the human brain and a computer. If one tiny connection in a computer is damaged, the whole informational content may be distorted or lost for good. Both photographic holograms and distributed memory, however, are very resistant to damage. Holograms are information fields, and information (scalar) fields may be accessed and communicated in ways that are only recently becoming understood, that are not limited by space-time materialization. In short, they have a 'life of their own' and this may provide an explanation for psychic phenomena, experiences out-of-the-body and past life recall. In other words, the brain is but an interface between the non-material scalar information-field or mind. In turn it is the spiritual viewpoint that implicitly creates this mind.
The scalar fields are similarly holographic in nature, therefore any individual mind has potential access to the infinite mind of the universe, and given the appropriate coherent 'laser-beam' brain wavelengths this information can be accessed through the brain interface. Hemispheric synchronization is a pre-requisite to this. This corresponds to Jung's 'collective consciousness' and indeed the hypotheses would go beyond the human race to include the scalar fields of all species and orders of classification, at all times and places: the Universal Mind. In this way the Being has access to all knowledge and is indeed creating this information.
The interested reader may investigate the writings of David Bohm, Karl Pribram, Tom Bearden, Rupert Sheldrake, Michael Hutchison and Michael Talbot to discover the amazing breakthroughs in scientific research that have occurred in recent years, which de-mystify the subject of metaphysics. The aspects of case that relate to Man's spiritual nature are handled in full on The Insight Project course.
Note: This page contains text and a figure from pages 17-25 of the book "Brain Power: Learn to Improve Your Thinking Skills" by Dr. Karl Albrecht, San Diego, to whom I am indebted.