The brain and reality
One of the advantages offered by current technological progress is the understanding of brain functioning in relation to the acquisition and interpretation of data and stimuli coming from the external environment. Already at the beginning of the last century the development of the movie technique had shown how it was possible to delude the brain on the perception of movement, showing it a series of 24 (or more) static images in each second: the static fixity of each frame (slightly different from the others) was processed by the brain and interpreted by the mind as continuous dynamic fluidity. But the cinema, taking up the theater legacy and extending it with the technical tools at its disposal, has had an enormous success even in the task of arousing feelings and emotions independent of real world events. The tuning of brain activity on these imaginary dimensions may be more or less perfect, depending on individual characteristics, but the elaboration of the imaginative experience has always been a feature of brain activity, starting from the dream world.
In ancient times the poetic narrative, at first verbal and then written, had the function of arousing intense emotions and feelings in the audience, also due to the strong impact of words on the brain functioning. Then, in almost all cultures, there was a need to stage – in one form or another – certain narratives of events, so that the audience could be more intensely (and realistically) involved. This tendency to the cultural staging has then increasingly developed, imposing itself in ceremonies and collective events, through poses, behaviors, rituals, costumes and scenographies which, evidently, stimulate in the brain emotional psychic reactions that involve more or less intensely the Ego. The theatrical staging is particularly effective in ceremonies linked to historical tradition, such as the crowning of a king or queen, or certain military parades, and in religious ones: the brain shows itself to be particularly sensitive to certain symbols, which stimulate complex psychic reactions, very engaging from an emotional and sentimental point of view.
We are faced with a psychic phenomenon, in which the Ego can be intensely involved, that once again shows the autonomy of the psyche with respect to the environmental conditions that determine our perception of ordinary reality. It is true that the stimuli coming from the environment tend to prevail over the illusions of the fiction: I can be immersed in a fantastic dream (produced by my brain), but the sudden noise of a thunder in the real world awakens me abruptly. The experimentation of the imaginary requires free time – with respect to the commitments and needs of reality – and suitable environmental conditions: in any case the brain, as an instrument that determines the psychic experience, is arranged to receiving and processing stimuli and data that simulate those coming from the real world. As we have seen in the pages dedicated to particular dream experiences, in the case of lucid and conscious dreams, the conscious Ego can experience a state of non-ordinary reality that is indistinguishable from the ordinary reality of the waking condition. It is a temporary mental reality, created or tuned exclusively through brain activity. These experiences, however, are not common, and in most cases occur, without it being possible to control them at will.
On this page of the section on non-ordinary states of consciousness, some examples of psychic experiences determined by the ingestion of psychoactive substances have been reported: these are intense experiences, both under an emotional profile and a spiritual and existential one, which carry the Ego into a far dimension from that of ordinary reality. This experience of virtual reality, fully subjective, is exhausted in the relationship between the conscious Ego, as the user, and the drugged brain, as the generator of the experienced psychic events (images, sounds, emotions, thoughts, feelings, etc.). ): some external stimuli, coming from the environment, can be present, but can also lack at all, and in any case they are not interpreted according to the schemes used in the ordinary state of consciousness. If we believe that the conscious Ego is nothing but a form of self-representation of the brain, and that its choices are determined exclusively by the connections established between neural networks, this extraordinary capacity of the brain to be at the same time generator and user of a subjective virtual reality is surprising, given that it is impossible to understand either what it originated from or what its purpose is. Besides, in this perspective the same can be said about human life.
Something analogous also occurs for certain experiences in critical conditions, such as NDEs (see the section dedicated to them), if we want to interpret them exclusively as generated by brain activity: this would be a game of deception, in virtue of which some parts of the brain would stage an illusory representation for the benefit of other parts of the brain – even without there being any request to do so – generating a virtual reality devoid of meaning and completely separate from ordinary reality. Would the brain want to self-delude, in this way, that it does not have to die? Indeed, it almost always shows that it does not want to return to human life at all! Therefore, in the case in which we wanted to attribute all the mental activity – including the self-awareness of the Ego, its will, its desire to experiment and to know and its reactions towards psychic experiences – to the brain activity alone, we should necessarily personalize the brain, that is, to attribute to it all the complexity, the conflict and the mystery of our own existence: we could then be able to create a computer with consciousness, self-awareness and decision-making autonomy, but lacking information about its functioning.
Non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as those induced by psychoactive substances or those that can occur in critical conditions, show how the observation and study of brain activity on the physical plane cannot in itself provide information on the corresponding mental states consciously experienced by the Ego, unless the Ego itself directly communicates what it is experiencing, in order to establish a correlation between the mental state and the physical state of neural networks. At present this type of experimentation can be performed in a very limited number of cases, and it is not said that there is a constant biunivocal correspondence between the two states. It must be recognized that the study of the human brain, in relation to the mental activity experienced by the conscious Ego, presents enormous difficulties: it is a reality of which we take note, without being able to understand why these two aspects – that of the physical brain functioning and that of the mental experience of the conscious Ego – must be so intimately linked. In any case, we should be more cautious in considering mental activity as nothing more than a reflection of the cerebral one, subordinate to the latter.
Technological virtual reality
In this period, a form of virtual reality is being perfected and spreading which, using suitable equipment, transmits visual, auditory and sometimes even tactile signals to the brain, which simulate a three-dimensional world in a very effective way. If we consider the technical progress of the last decades in the field of computers, we can hypothesize that this form of virtual reality will improve more and more, until it will appear indistinguishable from ordinary reality. In this way it will be possible to get all sorts of emotions at a cheap price, even taking extreme risks, knowing that our body will not really be damaged. This kind of experiences offers us an interesting point of view regarding the functioning of the brain and its reactions to the environmental stimuli that hit it: as long as the conscious Ego agrees to be subordinated to brain activity, the perception of reality will be determined by the brain functioning. And since brains function in networks, interconnected with each other, transmitting data, information and operating programs, we can realize that even human life – whose reality is rarely questioned – is a form of virtual reality in which the conscious Ego has been ensnared: if it likes this game, it can play it to the end, but if he doesn't like it, it should find a way out.
We must carefully consider the fact that even pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, are elements of the game determined by the brain functioning. The mechanisms of this functioning can today be explained with a certain precision (for example through the production of dopamine in the circuit formed by areas of the cortex, basal ganglia and thalamus, which gives us the sensation of pleasure), but does not tell us what did originate pleasure as a sensation consciously perceived by the Ego. To deepen our technological knowledge of the functioning of the brain as a tool for receiving virtual reality, we must first of all give up the outdated, naive and macroscopic vision according to which the brain is considered as an organ: it is a set of complex circuits that interconnect neural systems with specific functions very different from each other, integrated into a global architecture essential for the functioning of the whole: something analogous to what happens in computers designed by humans, but made with living matter.
The realization and improvement of this complex computer, whose evolution is still ongoing, is a process that has taken tens or hundreds of millions of years. A particularly interesting aspect of this process – at least from the point of view of the conscious Ego – is given precisely by the association between certain programmed states of functioning of the brain circuits and the corresponding mental experiences that involve the conscious Ego. It should be emphasized that many other states of brain activity are operative while remaining unconscious, that is, they carry out their tasks without involving the conscious Ego.
Ultimately, the whole human cognitive process follows two directions: on the one hand, the conscious Ego seeks to know itself through direct experiments on its own mental activity, neglecting the physical instrumental component that determines this activity; on the other hand, the brain is considered as the instrument that seeks to physically know itself and its functioning, investigating an objective reality, in relation to which it considers itself both as a subject and as an object, while neglecting the necessary mental activity – in terms of intelligence, inventiveness, reasoning skills, intuition, etc. – to allow this process to occur. Each of these two positions considers the mind/brain dualism as something unnecessary, nay regrettable, because it questions the certainties offered by a monist view of reality: by recognizing this dualism, in fact, both physical and mental reality present aspects of relativity that lead to considering them as virtual, not absolute.
The discovery of brain complexity
The brain works, both in humans and in other animals, but it cannot, does not know how, or does not want, to offer the conscious Ego direct information about its functioning. The very fact that much of the brain activity remains unconscious shows how the brain is able to make the organism function even in the absence of a conscious Ego. In states of somnambulism, or in certain conditions of hypnosis, the control of the body's activities is entrusted to the brain, without the Ego having any consciousness and memory of what is happening. Neuroscience shows how conscious mental activity, the sense of individual identity and Ego's self-awareness are determined by the functioning of particular areas of the cerebral cortex, yet the conscious Ego must study the brain as a complex system belonging to the external physical world: only mental activity can be known by the Ego through direct inner experience.
It so happens that the study of the brain by the conscious Ego is interpreted – by many people – as the brain's study of the brain itself, based on the hypothesis that every form of mental activity, and the same existence of the Ego, are exclusively a product of brain activity. In this perspective, the brain becomes simultaneously the subject and object of the cognitive investigation: this is possible thanks to the simultaneous existence of a large number of interconnected brains. The fact that the brain is a complex system, made up of many components – some of which are evolutionarily ancient, others more recent – that interact on the basis of billions and billions of possible electrochemical interconnections between neurons, intensified or inhibited by neurotransmitters, is for the Ego is a surprising and at the same time disconcerting discovery. For example, fear is perceived by the Ego as an emotion, or a series of emotions, in which it is intensely involved: in the amygdala, one of the components of the brain system, a series of reactions is triggered in response to certain environmental stimuli perceived, rightly or wrongly, as threats to the integrity and the very existence of the organism. In those brains in which the amygdala is missing, or its functioning is compromised, the Ego has no fear, and can put its body in conditions of even serious risk, keeping in a state of indifferent tranquility.
It has also been hypothesized that those who practice high-risk extreme sports, such as free solo, experience less fear due to a reduction in amygdala activity compared to a standard (not to say normal) brain. As for the standardization of the brain, it is not clear on what criteria it can be based, given that every brain, in its complexity, works in its own way: it is possible to collect statistical data on the way in which brains react to certain stimuli, but remains still a long way to go before we can establish a standard model of brain functioning. The changes that the brain goes through with age and, ultimately, with death, should not be forgotten. We must also not underestimate the mental aspect of the interest in the brain functioning: no animal shows that it wants to study how its brain works, and in the whole history of humanity only recently, and only in our culture, have been made available the technological resources – starting from the microscope – and the biochemical knowledge that have made possible a more in-depth study of this complex system. Interest in the brain still develops in the context of the mental activity of the conscious Ego, certainly connected to brain activity, but not reducible to the mere physical functioning of neural circuits. Also about the brain, the importance of software must be recognized alongside the hardware.
The human brain, or at least that part of it which makes cognitive mental activity possible by the conscious Ego, constitutes the instrument by which the mind sets its roots and carries out its own experiments and programs within the physical world. This process can be examined through the study of the functioning and evolution of the physical instruments through which it operates (hardware), but always keeps in itself the immaterial aspect of the information (software), which is transmitted from a physical support to another. In fact, each brain works for a limited time, until it deteriorates and dissolves, but the mental programs are transferred by cultural transmission to new brains that process them further, implementing a plan of programmatic development that advances from generation to generation. It is appropriate that the deepening of knowledge on the hardware functioning does not prevent the recognition of the importance of software – constituted by conscious mental activity – even to the point of denying its existence: the mind is a reality in itself, not physical, which in the case of mankind manifests through the human psyche.
In recognizing – correctly – the analogical correlation between each mental state and the corresponding functional state of the brain, we take a step forward in the knowledge of our way of functioning. But if we identify the mind with the brain, considering the latter as the only significant aspect of a reality that is instead intrinsically dualistic, we annul our cognitive progress in the name of a simplifying monism that tends towards mechanism. Unfortunately, this way of looking at things is today quite common in our mass culture, which favors the role of human automata. We should never forget the lesson of informatics, which always associates a non-physical element (the amount of information) with a physical support that – although necessary in our physical dimension – does not represent the significant factor of the process: the human brain has been developed over time by something that acts on the matter and in the matter and that – in its temporal evolution – we could indicate as the Mind. Everything that surrounds us can be considered, under the information standpoint, as a manifestation of the Mind that acts by transforming matter over time.
The fact that over time the activity of the brain has begun to tune a mental activity centered on a center of evaluation, decision and control that perceives itself as the conscious Ego, is in itself significant of a particular cognitive need by the Mind, which is carried out by increasing information (knowledge) as time passes. The user of knowledge always remains the conscious Ego, which cannot be identified with the brain as a whole, but possibly only with those areas of the cortex that make possible the perception of mental experience by an active subject, capable of feeling, evaluating and deciding, within the possibilities offered by the brain functioning. In its complexity, the brain is an instrument as wonderful as it is imperfect, individually subject to risks of malfunction of any kind, due to genetic, traumatic, infectious or degenerative causes. Even in suffering the consequences of these anomalies, the conscious Ego in some cases represents itself as an autonomous and separate entity with respect to the components of the brain system from which it originated.
Every conscious Ego must necessarily experience human life based on the resources offered by the brain that determines its existence, being able at most to count on assistance from other brains that connect to its own. But in evaluating the mental experience it is important to consider what it can represent at its best in terms of perceptive, emotional and cognitive intelligence, without letting us misled by the functional problems of individual brains. When the brain is able to function to the best of its ability, mental activity and brain activity proceed in parallel in a harmonious dance, recognizing each other: the brain devotes part of its resources and its energies to sustain the mind, allowing it to manifest in the physical world, while the mind recognizes in the brain the necessary support for the evolution of the conscious Ego in the course of human life. Thus, if it is true that the mental experience is continuously determined by the functioning of the brain, it is equally true that that part of the brain that results in the sense of identity of the conscious Ego is influenced by the reactions of the Ego to psychic experiences.
The fulcrum of this process of union between the brain activity and the mental experience in which the Ego is involved is represented by consciousness, which in itself is not an instrument of knowledge, but only of perception. On the other hand, the Ego can use the intellectual resources at its disposal only to those products of mental activity – and therefore of brain activity – of which it becomes conscious. On this site we have repeatedly highlighted the limits of the human psyche and the ability of the psychic tunings individually experienced to deceive and entangle the Ego, preventing it from reaching a correct knowledge of the complexity of both the physical and mental world. This is not a defect of consciousness, which carries out, so to speak, only a messenger role. If anything, it would be a lack of information, intelligence and the ability to correctly process data (reasoning).
In this perspective, every conscious Ego lives (it is forced to live) with the brain that destiny has given it, and that it tries to control with the limited means at its disposal, almost always deceived by the psychic perceptions determined by the sane brain functioning. In the case of brain hardware problems – not uncommon, given the complexity of the nervous system – the only hope for the conscious Ego to be able to come out of the often dramatic condition in which it can find itself is entrusted to the social system, that is, to the knowledge acquired by others brains about brain functioning. In some cases the therapies work, in others not: investigating a living brain is always complicated, and the interventions needed to repair it involve many risks. As we see, the human condition of the conscious Ego as a sentient being imprisoned in the functioning of its own brain can be very difficult, to the point of going beyond the limits of endurance, precisely because of the alienity and complexity of the physical system with respect to mental experiences that depends on it.
The search for mental reality
In many human lives – probably for the most part – the mental experience of the conscious Ego is determined and conditioned throughout life by the brain functioning, which is reflected in our personal history, based on the quality of the brain and its organism as a whole, and to the environmental conditions in which the organism finds itself, also due to the choices made by the individual. Under these conditions, if the brain has anatomical or functional defects, the mental experience will be affected in a manner consistent with the virtual reality determined by the brain: that is, not providing direct information and data on the real brain condition, but processing thoughts, fantasies, desires, obsessions, etc., which will involve the conscious Ego in the virtual experience of life to which it must be subject. The conscious Ego, as it acquires experience in the course of human life, realizes that – if it cannot directly intervene on the functioning of its brain – it can nevertheless interact, at least within certain limits, with the products of mental activity, progressively getting rid of the influence and control they have over it, and acquiring instead a certain decision-making power with regard to the activation of mental states. Through this process, the conscious Ego indirectly influences the functioning of its own brain.
It is not my intention to defend the dualism between mind and brain as if they were two completely separate entities: within a dualistic vision, I would possibly refer to the difference between the spirit and the mind/brain system, but for now I will only consider the mental activity in the light of current scientific knowledge. If some substantial novelty does not occur in the current setting of research on the brain functioning by neurosciences, on the physical plane (the organization of the brain and its functioning) the conscious Ego will be considered as the result of the coordinated activity of some areas of the cerebral cortex. Still considering a brain in good condition from an organic point of view, mental activity – as perceived by the conscious Ego, even in its illusory and conflicting aspects – would still be indicative of the functional conditions that occur within the brain system as a whole. If the Ego feels itself a prisoner of certain psychic tunings from which it would like to free itself without success, or if the Ego suffers from a physical or psychic pain that it would like to remove, the conflict and suffering can be traced back to the functioning of the brain system, but they immediately lose meaning if the prevalence of the conscious Ego is not recognized with respect to any other component of the system: it is the Ego that feels, it is the Ego that perceives, it is the Ego that suffers or enjoys. If you delete the Ego, the system can work in any way and with any consequence, without there being any entity interested in such functioning.
The reason why the conscious Ego engages mental activity in the study of the brain and its functioning must be sought in the desire to resolve – in whole or in part – the problems in which the Ego is involved by psychic activity during its life: if our mind did not present problems, conflicts and sufferings that involve the conscious Ego, we would live in a state of complete bliss, probably at all indifferent to the functioning of the physical support that makes our existence possible, or interested to the brain only for a pleasant curiosity. Therefore the mental aspect and the involvement of the conscious Ego always remain in the foreground for the understanding of the dynamic process that is at the basis of the increase of knowledge by mankind as a whole. The conscious Ego of a well-functioning brain is not a mere epiphenomenon, but responds to a precise need of a higher mental order (informatics), interconnected with other creative aspects of the life on this planet, also determined by informative evolution of transformation processes.
Always in the context of mental activity, it is understandable how the Ego wonders about its destiny, once informed of the fact that its brain will undergo an inevitable dissolution. About this issue, the human mind has elaborated and elaborates – through brain activity – all sorts of more or less imaginative perspectives on the possible continuation of the existence of the conscious Ego in the afterlife (that is, in another dimension, different from the physical one of this life) or on its definitive annihilation at the time of death (or even before, in case of irreversible coma). When the Ego accepts one or the other of these mental elaborations, it gives it a license of mental reality – so to speak – and feels more calm (or resigned) about its future destiny. Currently, cognitive advances in the field of neuroscience lead many people to believe – mentally – that this is a matter entirely internal to the brain itself, and therefore with the dissolution of the brain the conscious Ego and every mental question relating to its destiny will also fade away. In this perspective, at the moment of death there will be no conscious Ego capable of experiencing anything. Although this too is a mental elaboration determined by the activation of complex neural networks, various experimental data deriving from the study of the functioning of the brain can make it more convincing, for the Ego, than other hypotheses. In a sense, it is as if a part of the brain – the one that determines the self-awareness of the Ego – would say: «I'm disappointed, but I have to surrender to the evidence, because things are just like that».
But it can sometimes happen that the conscious Ego does not want to admit the temporal limits of its existence, does not want to surrender to the evidence, although recognizing the dependence of the mind on the brain functioning. A well-known neuroscientist, David Eagleman, in his 2015 book The Brain - The Story of You, despite having no doubt that the conscious Ego is produced by brain activity, at a certain point explicitly states that our lives are driven by forces that are beyond our capacity for understanding and control. In fact, by recognizing its dependence on the brain functioning, the conscious Ego admits that it is at the mercy of an instrument whose functioning it does not know, which it has not helped to design, and which – consequently – it is not able to control. If instead we consider the brain as the instrument through which the Mind projects itself into the physical dimension, determining the mental activity of the conscious Ego, the condition of the Ego becomes less precarious given that it can use its own mental activity to reconnect with the Mind: the brain can function as a transceiver.
The Mind can also exercise its creative activity on the systems of physical reality. The conscious Ego directly exercises this faculty within the physical world through mental activity, which allows it to design and implement increasingly complex technological systems, starting from the materials found in nature and increasing its knowledge of the laws of this physical world. But in some cases the Mind intervenes directly on the systems of the physical world, in an irregular and unpredictable way, without the Ego being able to explain how these phenomena can happen in the context of natural laws. Just when the conscious Ego directs its mental activity towards the study of the brain functioning, a cognitive short circuit occurs, so to speak, since the physical dimension of the instrument prevails, deforming the mental activity up to transmitting to consciousness the (misleading) information that the brain wants to know itself. The risk is to lose the orientation in the complexity of processes developed by forces that – as Eagleman states – are beyond our ability to understand and control. Therefore our activity of research and increase of knowledge must always refer to the faculties of the human mind, even though in its most brilliant and evolved manifestations.
In conclusion, the conscious Ego can surrender to the destiny of the brain from which it originated, or can engage to create a connection between its own mind and the universal Mind, with the help of an alien entity – the spirit – which can sustain the human experience of the Ego once the brain has definitively ended its activity. It may be objected that this kind of mental reality has a virtual character and is intrinsically subjective (as indeed is every experience of the conscious Ego). This is certainly the case, if we look at the mind from the point of view of the physical dimension in which we are in this life. But at the end of human life it may happen that the conscious Ego is transferred to a completely different dimension, in which the constraints of the physical dimension are no longer operational. A series of clues coming from communications and mediumistic phenomena support the hypothesis of a mental reality that becomes substantial reality in the otherworldly dimensions, from which even the physical reality of our universe appears as a creative manifestation of a cosmic Mind. Therefore, the opportunity offered to our mind, already in the course of human life, to explore – through brain activity – the manifestations of the mental reality that best accord with the experience matured by the conscious Ego during our human life, should not be neglected or derided as a useless and illusory consolatory activity.