The brain and the psyche
The cultural influence of our knowledge on the brain
For many centuries and in all cultures, brain activity has always been managed indirectly by the conscious Ego through the psychic experiences in which it was involved, the interpretation of signals from the world and the body, the evaluations and choices (emotional or rational), and the intentional control on behavior and actions to be performed. Although the knowledge of the brain as a seat of thought and as a control center of physiological functions had already been part of the cultural heritage of some human groups since ancien times, up until a relatively recent period the most widespread cultural programs transmitted the information of a soul – considered as the seat of psychic experience – distinct from the body. The recent discoveries on the functioning of the brain's neural networks – which have gone side by side with the development of informatics and technological knowledge thanks to which it has been possible to make our computers – have led to a revolution in cultural programs (or at least in those widespread in the most educated layers of our society), as a result of which to brain activity is attributed the main – if not exclusive – role in determining our psychic experiences and the very possibility of existence of the conscious Ego.
These new cultural programs are spread above all by means of a good popularizing information, which highlights the fundamental importance of the brain in determining every aspect of human experience. However, scientists and mind philosophers are much more cautious in evaluating the analogies between the brain and technological computers, because the aspects of the functioning of neural networks known to us are not such as to justify the emergence of qualities such as consciousness, attention, intent, knowledge, creative intelligence. Furthermore, the fact remains that for many centuries psychic experience has imposed itself on the conscious Ego in an autonomous and immediate way, without showing any information relating to the processes by which it was elaborated by the brain's neural circuits. We are therefore led to believe that the brain works, at least for the part that involves consciousness, as a tuner of psychic experiences, and that the conscious Ego is the beholder of the performances transmitted by the psyche. As for the process by which the signals that determine psychic experiences (once tuned by the brain) are originated, produced and transmitted, we have no other information than that deriving from psychic representations of an intuitive and imaginary nature, also acquired through channels of mediumistic tuning.
A further element of investigation in the evaluation of the interactions between the conscious Ego, the psyche's manifestations and the brain functioning, is constituted by the substantial divergences with which different cultures have elaborated the processes of activation of neural networks by signals and stimuli coming from the environment and our body. Our current culture, for example, exerts an intense pressure – through educational programs and media messages – so that the neural circuits are constantly and automatically activated, as far as possible, by reacting to stimuli from our environment. This process of transmission and activation of cultural programs means that the conscious Ego is almost always relegated to a subordinate and passive condition – as a simple recipient of sensory perceptions and emotional psychic experiences –, given that the continuous and strong signals that the brain receives stimulate a frenetic activity of the neural circuits, which leaves very little space and energy to the reflexive elaboration of consciousness and to the evolution of the Ego. In these circumstances the Ego, even when it may seem to be the master of its own destiny and determined to act to get what it wants, is still controlled by collective instances that influence and drive the way the brain works and the use of the available mental energies.
On the other hand, in other cultures some techniques have been developed, such as those of yoga and meditation, which aim to deactivate the reactive automatisms by which neural circuits are triggered by signals and stimuli coming from the environment and from our own body, privileging an inner mental activity concentrated on an energetic entity which constitutes the core of the conscious Ego. What can be obtained through these techniques is not a state of passive quiet, a condition of standby or shutdown of the brain, but a particular harmonious functioning of the neural networks, in full attunement with each other, which results in elaborate non-ordinary psychic experiences. But what I would like to highlight is how both these ways of functioning of the brain, even before turning into cultural programs, were initially determined – in some single humans – by a transcendent entity that directed their intent in one or the other direction. It is therefore incorrect to consider the brain's neural circuits as automatisms activated exclusively by signals and stimuli coming from the environment, since the conscious Ego can also be considered an equally effective reality in mentally driving the brain functioning.
The social function of the brain and the Ego
Once we have understood the essential role of the brain as a device through which basic operational programs (the so-called instincts), and the cultural programs transmitted by the social environment, determine the psychic experiences involving the Ego, we are interested in examining the system by which – in today's complex societies – the cultural programs that determine the functioning of a person in relation to her/his social role are elaborated and transmitted. It is a field of investigation that should be within the competence of disciplines such as sociology and psychology, but which nevertheless – as we shall see – presents some unfathomable aspects, which escape objective evaluation criteria. The social role of humans has never been defined, as one might naively think, on the basis of a contract that each individual consciously signs, but is based on the effectiveness of programs developed by some people – on the basis of instances, the need and urgency of which is felt – which then spread successfully within a society. This diffusion is always determined by the psychic reactions of the individuals involved (people, subjects, or citizens, let's call them as we want): even in those cases where, throughout history, the diffusion of cultural programs has been imposed by force, the success of the diffusion was determined by the psychic reaction (for example, the fear of losing one's life) of the subjects to whom the program was imposed, which was well kept in mind by those who elaborated the program.
Throughout history, and within the various cultures, these programs have been continually reworked, so that they can be codified and transmitted to the brain of every new member of a society. The purpose of these programs is to prepare the brain to play a social role, anesthetizing, as far as possible, the conscious Ego, or in any case deceiving it through psychic dynamics (essentially of an emotional nature) based on the pleasure/pain polarity, to which it is naturally predisposed. The higher the number of the already programmed members of a society, the greater the conditioning power exerted on each new brain, even before the Ego can become conscious of its existential condition. In today's complex societies, made up of many millions of individuals, conditioning programs have a good game in shaping the functioning of the brain, so that everyone – depending on their available resources – play their role in the social system. These roles are not only those which are considered as positive, as aimed at the proper functioning and progress of a society: the actions of the members of a criminal organization, conditioned by the programs spread in certain milieu, are also aimed at pursuing social objectives.
Obviously, this does not mean wanting to put on the same level activities aimed at the so-called common good, or in any case of recognized and accepted social relevance, and criminal activities: in any case, and in similar circumstances, we inclined to believe that the choice between joining a positive social program or a program involving illegal or criminal activities is entrusted to a person's free will. But it is right to point out that this alleged free will almost always depends on the brain functioning, also on the basis of the previously acquired programs, given that almost always the conscious Ego is not sufficiently evolved to be able to guide the choice when it has to be done. Usually individual destiny forces people to make important choices, in a phase of life in which the Ego is still completely identified with the psychic dynamics in which it is involved, so that later can find itself imprisoned in roles from which it would like to get free, without success. In practice, the reason why certain evaluations prevail over certain others – especially during the youth, when the experience of life is still very limited – must be sought in the limited processing capacity of the brain circuits, which translates into psychic experiences of elementary level, in which the Ego remains ensnared.
Thus a programmatic elaboration has consolidated and spread in our culture, by virtue of which the individual brains must be valued and used according to the social role they can play: in certain aspects it is a process that shows analogies with that through which, hundreds of millions of years ago, the colonies of single-celled organisms were transformed into multicellular organisms in which the individual cells, performing different and specialized roles, were no longer able to survive autonomously. What role can an entity like the conscious Ego play in this context? Not infrequently that of a party pooper who must be neutralized, anesthetized, deluded and deceived as long as possible. In fact, the social system has as its aim that of developing and progressing through the use of energies provided by human capital, which renews itself by replacing the old members, now useless, with the new ones. Instead the conscious Ego, when it reaches a sufficient level of evolution, feels the need to use the mental resources at its disposal also to solve the riddle of its existence, which it feels cannot be limited to the temporal dimension of human life.
The current complex societies, having to face the problems of difficult (or maybe impossible) solution, generated by the constant increase in the number of living humans, by the management of the planet's resources, environmental conditions and any kind of catastrophes that can hit them, are not able to develop advanced programs that can meet the needs of the conscious Ego, which must be satisfied either with the heated soup of now obsolete programs represented by traditional religions, or with the distractions – based on the functioning of the brain circuits that determine rewarding and pleasant sensations and emotions – considered as «the best you can get from life». The spread of drugs and sexual activities of every kind, which cultural programs can no longer control, are a typical example of this critical condition. In any case, the brain functioning is increasingly aimed at performing the tasks required by our social role and at processing stimuli from the environment, selected from a wide range of possibilities, regardless of whether the conscious Ego feels more or less satisfied or happy with its condition.
In fact, the mental states determined by the brain functioning, and the consequent psychic experiences, can in themselves be gratifying and rewarding for the conscious Ego, which – while it is involved in them – does not ask, so to speak, for anything better. The dynamics of desire and its fulfillment, as experienced in the course of human life, has an enormous power of involvement for the Ego, which in many cases seems almost predisposed to wanting to live the experience of life in function of the emotional fulfillment that can be obtained from the occurrence of particular events and, above all, from the psychic dynamics aroused by such events. But when the conscious Ego tries to control, through its body's behavior, the environmental circumstances that determine the events and the same mental states that involve it, so that they conform to its own desires, it can face difficulties and failures, which are perceived as negative psychic dynamics. Furthermore, the functioning of the body and brain can determine states of pain and suffering in which the Ego is involved, this time against its will, giving rise to the desire to get rid of them, to the point that, in certain circumstances, it is willing to completely give up the experience of life. Finally, even in the case of an overall positive balance of life in terms of the fulfillment of its desires, the Ego must face the final phase of life, with the consequent deterioration of physical resources and mental faculties, and the inevitable experience of death.
The Ego tries to know itself
Through mental activity (determined by the brain functioning) the conscious Ego can know many things about the world in which it lives, its own body, the social dynamics and the psychic experiences in which it is directly involved, or which it attributes to others. However, at some point in life it may realize that it is unable to find a mirror in which to reflect itself, so as to have an immediate and direct image of its own form and substance. The neural circuits of the brain can acquire and process clear and immediate images of our body, reflected by a mirror, so that for a good part of life we are led to identify ourselves with our body, which in any case represents the almost exclusive way in which others perceive us (the only exceptions being represented by perceptions of spirits and ghosts). Indeed, we can have the perception of our existence as a subject who experiences the psychic dynamics that consciousness transmits to us, or as an elaborator of ideas, or implementer of deliberate decisions and actions whose execution is entrusted by us to our body; however, we lack a reliable information on what the conscious Ego really is. The perception that we have of our Ego is usually bleary, smoky, so much so that some people come to doubt the very existence of a conscious Ego, and consider the Ego's self-perception as an illusory epiphenomenon, due to the functioning of some brain circuits.
To get to know itself better, the Ego tries to use the mind as a mirror in which to reflect itself, putting the brain in a position to isolate itself, as far as possible, from the stimuli coming from the external environment. This practice – to which, in its various forms, we can refer with the term meditation – is now adopted by many people on the basis of the instructions received from a teacher, in the context of the adhesion to a certain discipline (for example, yoga): in practice we are dealing, also in this case, with the acquisition of a culturally transmitted instruction program, which tends to make the brain, and therefore the mind, work in a certain way. But even in the absence of environmental stimuli, our brain circuits are so accustomed to being operational, based on the programs that – since our childhood – condition our mental activity, that the conscious Ego continues to be involved in psychic experiences of all kinds: memories, fantasies, thoughts, worries, desires and expectations go on filling our mind, without the Ego being able to interrupt this psychic flow, especially when the order to quiet the mind comes from a programmatic instruction.
After all, even during sleep, when the influence of external stimuli is minimal, brain activity does not stop: however, in the periods of deep sleep our consciousness is deactivated, and therefore only the neural circuits corresponding to unconscious functions are working, while in dream periods the dream consciousness is activated, which is connected to our consciousness of the waking state only for those dreams that fall, at least temporarily, within our memory's range. But to return to meditation, its purpose is to make the mind clear like a mirror, so that it can be oriented towards the conscious Ego to reflect its image: to be effective, meditation must therefore be preceded by a cognitive path through which the Ego becomes aware of its own nature, emancipating from its identification with the psychic dynamics in which it is continuously involved. As normal mental activity subsides through the practice of meditation, some conceptual and imaginative representations of the nature of the Ego begin to emerge, on which attention – that is, consciousness itself – should be focused, in a form of perceptual contemplation without any judgment.
Just to give an example, the Ego could show itself as an embryonic form of living energy, enclosed in a protective casing, something similar to the shell of an egg by which psychic experiences, transmitted through consciousness, are amortized so as not to damage the embryo. Each of these imaginative visualizations must, so to speak, be cultivated with care, and at the same time with detachment, until they transform into a different experience. The important thing is that, in the concentration of the meditative experience, the Ego can keep its mind firm on its goal, which is to reflect its very essence. Whenever the Ego perceives and sees an image of itself, it does not judge it, but identifies itself – almost as if our body were wearing a new dress – to feel if it is at ease with it. At some point this happens, and the Ego can see its true essence reflected in the mirror of the mind. Like all the psychic experiences that we become aware of during our life, this too is determined – most likely – by the brain functioning, as evidenced by some experiences of this kind induced by the ingestion of psychoactive substances, such as those reported on the page to them dedicated.
Experiences of this kind, however, lead us to reflect on the functioning of the brain, which can no longer be considered only as a biological computer, even if sui generis: in fact the psychic experiences thus elaborated are not determined by signals coming from outside, and not even by the Ego's intent aimed at stimulating our creative intelligence to achieve a certain goal. We could then say that the brain has the potential to reveal to the conscious Ego, through a certain type of psychic experience determined by an autonomous mental activity, attunements that cannot be attributed to the normal reality of the natural and social environment that surrounds us. There is, as it were, an autonomous program contained perhaps in all brains, and perhaps only in some of them, which is transmitted to the conscious Ego in the course of life, only when and if the Ego is able to receive it. What is certain is that in most human brains this program is never activated, although it may sometimes become automatically active in the proximity of death, or in other particular critical circumstances. Here we recall once again those extraordinary psychic experiences represented by NDEs, some of which are reported in the section devoted to them: even if we do not want to consider them as an irrefutable proof of the survival of the conscious Ego to the body's death, we cannot deny their feature of autonomous mental experiences, determined by a program that auto-activates itself in the brain, creating a reality – perceived and felt in the same way, or even better, than our ordinary reality – in which the conscious Ego is fully immersed.
Boundary psychic experiences
As I have several times pointed out, the intrinsically and exclusively subjective nature of these experiences makes it impossible to frame them in the context of objective reality, even if the quality of the conscious Ego's involvement can be such that they are perceived as real, or even more intensely real than the objective reality we perceive in the waking state. In the section on non-ordinary states of consciousness, several examples of dreams – in particular lucid dreams and conscious dreams – and out of the body experiences (OBEs) were given, which share with NDEs the character of a psychic reality, subjective but equally significant for the conscious Ego, whose autonomous processing by particular brain circuits (if we think that to be the only cause) casts a new light on the functioning of the brain as a processor of psychic experiences that we could define as boundary. We then find ourselves facing the enigma of being able to understand how it is possible that a biological processor – such as the brain tends to be considered by some experts in the field of the philosophy of mind – can independently create such complex performances for the benefit of the conscious Ego, which is the spectator. It would be as if our home TV or computer were beginning to show us some very interesting programs, not received by cable or antenna, and not even entered by us, but autonomously created by them. On the other hand, this is what happens every night when we dream, even if ordinary dreams are not so clear and coherent, and the dream consciousness does not have the intensity of that of the waking state.
The fact remains that, for these and other particularly significant psychic experiences, the brain seems to behave like a receiving tuner device, which allows to transfer information from a source, from which it is transmitted, to a recipient who receives it. Too little we still know about the brain's functioning, how conscious experience is determined, and how the coded signals are transformed into psychic experiences, to be able to say that this hypothesis is certainly true. However our perception of the inner life shows us the conscious Ego as the recipient of the psychic experiences, and the brain as an instrument through which signals of an electrochemical nature are translated into psychic experiences, which can be interpreted by the conscious Ego. If we want to refer to the example of the technological computer, the information encoded and transmitted internally in terms of electric signals must be converted, through a monitor and speakers, into visual and auditory signals interpretable by a human operator: only the presence of a human operator external to the computer, and endowed with its own autonomous intelligence, gives a sense to the processing that transforms – for instance – the bits of binary information into letters or numbers displayed on the monitor.
As we have seen, part of the information processed by the brain is determined by signals coming from the environment, acquired in the same way that a videocamera acquires the images it records, and another part is processed autonomously, based on the functioning of cultural programs transmitted to the brain by connections with other brains, through coded communication tools. But we must also take into account these border psychic experiences, as well as some particularly significant cases of intense creative experiences, to recognize that sometimes brain activity seems to put the conscious Ego directly into communication with a source of information that does not belong to the normal real dimension of our life. In these cases, it is completely misleading to want to reduce these experiences to the brain activity that determines them: any psychic experience that involves the conscious Ego in the course of life can be attributed to brain activity, but this fact does not change the profound meaning that certain experiences may have for the conscious Ego. For example, if someone commits suicide for a love disappointment, she/he does so because that psychic experience is so intense that it causes them to destroy their brain, that is, the same instrument that determined it, by processing external events and internal programs.
The fundamental problem always remains that of how the conscious Ego reacts to the psychic experiences that involve it, not only in those cases in which these experiences appear to be stable, ordinary and routine, but above all when changes in environmental conditions, or inner events that activate particular mental states, determine completely new and unexpected psychic experiences, which can also derange the Ego's equilibrium. In this respect, the Ego's condition is particularly vulnerable, whether some psychic experiences afflict it with feelings of guilt, remorse and inadequacy for the actions performed – or even for those that it has not been able to perform – in the course of life, or whether other psychic experiences cause it to feel confident, determined and successful in managing life situations, and capable to get what it wants. Some people have the possibility and the ability to experience – almost at will – the whole range of psychic tunings that go from one extreme to the other, from a state of intense satisfaction for the Ego's existential condition to a state of complete inadequacy towards an ideal of life that they will never be able to achieve. The advantage of these people is that they can notice, before and better than others, how the conscious Ego is conditioned and subjected by the psychic experiences that involve it.
The information on the brain functioning enables the conscious Ego to reflect on the instrument through which it can experience the psychic dynamics belonging to that wide range that constitutes the human psyche. Boundary psychic experiences, however, allow us to guess the possibility of experiencing psychic dynamics of a completely different kind, in order to tune which we may assume that a suitable instrument is needed, which is capable of performing – in another dimension – the same function that the brain carries out in this dimension. Once human life is over, the conscious Ego should be put in a position to use this new tuner, finding itself – so to say – inserted inside it, a bit like we are connected with our brain during this life. In this transition, the continuity of the existence of the conscious Ego – which, be careful, cannot coincide with the continuity of our human personality, which was guaranteed by the brain functioning – can be given by the recorded memories of its own earthly life, which the Ego can transfer, through its own memory, to the new tuner instrument, or that could be recorded separately, in a dedicated archive, to be later recovered when necessary by the Ego. The apparently imaginative – or sci-fi – character of this hypothesis is attenuated by the fact that the experience it provides does not in any way differ from the existential experience of our human life. The coincidence would be perfect if we assumed that, with the transfer into the new tuning device, every memory of our human life would be lost.
Psychic reactions to paranormal events
Wonder, incredulity or its opposite, that is, the need to believe, are psychic reactions that are stimulated by particular events, such as those defined as paranormal or mediumistic. If we think that all psychic dynamics are determined by brain activity, these too are no exception: when these phenomena occur, our brain processes the information coming from the environment, compares it with other information, based on the cultural programs received, and the neural circuits activate those psychic reactions which the conscious Ego ascribes to wonder, mystery or the sacred, or to deception, cheating and magic tricks. As always, the conscious Ego can only experience the psychic reactions elaborated and tuned through its own brain, but in the case of paranormal events the subjectivity of the psychic experience may not be sufficiente to explain the objectivity of something that should not happen.
Usually we are inclined to feel wonder and admiration towards those human beings – and therefore those brains – who in one or the other field of activity, creativity or thought, show that they are capable of performances that are highly superior to the norm, which surprise and fascinate us. The cultural orientation currently prevailing attributes in any case these exceptional performances to the functioning of the brain, which thus proves to possess extraordinary skills of improvement in one or the other activity, probably also on the basis of a genetic predisposition particularly suitable for a certain type of development. However, we do not yet have enough information and knowledge on the brain functioning, to understand how these processes manage to produce the results that we can see: we can only recognize the importance of constant training, made possible by those particular resources of determination and will, which the conscious Ego must have in all these cases. So, at least for now, the theory that every exceptional performance must be traced back only to the brain functioning remains a widespread and shared hypothesis rather than an ascertained and validated knowledge: which does not imply that in the future there will be no confirmation in this sense.
But when we consider paranormal or mediumistic physical events, it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to attribute them to the activity of the medium's brain, considered as a mere physical instrument. However extraordinary and out of the norm the resources of certain neuronal circuits of a medium's brain can be considered, it is not possible to understand how they can transform a mental energy capable of processing information, and therefore of limited power, into a physical energy capable of exerting consistent forces, which cause the levitation of bodies weighing even tens of kilos. It seems rather, in light of the experiments conducted by William Crawford, Filippo Bottazzi and others (for which please refer to this page and to the pages on psychical research in Italy), that the mental activity of the medium manages to activate the structures of a amoeboid body, of an unknown nature and of normally invisible plasma matter, obtained through the transformation of the matter of the medium's physical body caused by the intervention of unknown entities. As imaginative and unacceptable to our reason it may seem, this explanation is still the one that most intelligently adapts to the facts reported by the specialized literature, some of which are also dealt with on this site (for example, in the pages devoted to the history of an Italian medium).
In these cases, in which there is an interference between elements belonging to another dimension, which normally should remain separate from the physical one, and the latter dimension to which we – with our body – belong, and to whose laws we are subject, the brain shows its limits in the processing of signals and information coming from the environment, and can only attempt, with difficulty, to ascertain and record the objective reality of the events, while the same psychic dynamics that involve the conscious Ego present elements irreconcilable with the cultural programs on which our cognitive activities are based. From a cultural point of view, there is a widespread tendency to deny the possibility that these events may occur, precisely because of the random, occasional, uncertain and therefore difficult to verify, nature of the phenomena themselves. It may be that the sense of security offered to us by the evolution of our scientific knowledge over the past three centuries feels threatened by the recurrence of elements and energies belonging to a dimension whose portals of connection with ours were believed to have been definitively closed and sealed. Symptomatic, from this point of view, is what Jung reports – assuming that it is true – in the chapter on Freud in the book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, edited by Aniela Jaffé (1961). During a conversation in Vienna in 1910, Freud said: «My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark». When Jung asked him, «A bulkwark – against what?» Freud replied: «Against the black tide of mud... of occultism». Here we have an example of the strange tricks that the psyche can play, even in people of remarkable intelligence.
Another psychic reaction that is frequently found among those who recognize the reality of paranormal phenomena, is given by the need to study them within a scientific cognitive framework, with the hope of being able to discover, sooner or later, new laws and energies that can be reconciled in some way with the natural laws we already know. Between the end of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century, this trend was prevalent among scientists interested in paranormal events, given that the expectations and enthusiasm – ascribable to reactions of psychic origin – aroused by the many scientific discoveries of that time, nourished the hope of being able to trace back the natural causes of these phenomena, and eventually to be able to put them under our control. But the anomalies present in the paranormal events, and above all the presence of important clues that led to the presumption of the essential participation of intelligent entities of an alien nature in the production of these phenomena, made so that the optimistic hopes of that era were gradually abandoned. Even the attribution of these phenomena to particular and uncommon unconscious mental resources, particularly widespread in the last century, has not produced significant results in terms of knowledge, especially because the current scientific orientation requires that mental activity be traced back to brain functioning.
To conclude this page, we can only take note – once again – of the weirdness of the human condition, for which the conscious Ego, that is, the very core of our existence in this life, in an attempt to know the functioning of the psyche through the manifestations of the latter and the events determined by it, is forced to resort to the solutions proposed by the psyche itself, through the brain activity, in the hope that – sooner or later – something satisfactory and reliable will emerge. However, through the commitment in this activity of research and evaluation of the proposed solutions, the Ego follows an evolutionary path that leads it to detach itself more and more from the involvement in the psychic dynamics and from the more or less intense conditioning due to the prevailing cultural programs, to direct its attention and mental resources towards its own authentic essence, without having to rely on one of the normal elaborations by the brain's neural circuits.