This essay riffs off the concluding lecture, Reality and Beyond, in Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg’s Great Courses lecture series The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience.
Previous installments in this series:
Who’s More Logical? Atheists or Believers?
Religious Believers and Atheists Have More In Common Than They Think
In Defense of Magical Thinking
What if Magical Thinking is the Key to Spiritual Development?
What Do We Label “Real,” and Why?
Let’s compare two states of consciousness everyone has experienced — Wide awake, focused attention, and fast asleep, dreaming.
In his lecture Reality and Beyond, Dr. Andrew Newberg described a study in which subjects where shown a short video of a group of people tossing colored balls back and forth. Each test subject was assigned one ball to follow, say the red ball. Their job was to count how many times that particular ball passed from one person to another in the group.
At the midpoint of the video, a man in a gorilla suite entered the scene, waved his arms wildly over his head, then loped off camera.
A significant percentage of test subjects did not see the gorilla. When told about it afterward, they were skeptical. They couldn’t believe they would miss something so obvious. When the video was played again, they expressed shock. Some said it had to be a trick, that it could not be the same video.
Then Dr. Newberg related a recurring childhood dream in which he is being chased by a dinosaur. Though he knew full well, even as a kid, that dinosaurs were extinct, and he had dreamed the same dream many times, his dreaming brain never once doubted the present-moment reality of the experience. The terror he felt was real. His racing heart was real. As an adult, that dream remains as real and emotionally impactful a childhood memory as his happiest Christmas.
Our culture, as a rule, teaches us that what we experience when we are wide awake and paying attention is “real.” What we experience in other states of consciousness are “not real.” They are illusions, delusions, hallucinations, dreams.
But it’s clearly not that cut and dried.
All Experience Is Subjective
One of the brain’s most critical tasks is filtering out the lion’s share of what our senses perceive about the world around us. By doing so it prevents overwhelm and allows us to function “normally.” When the test subjects failed to see the gorilla in the video described above, their brains were not malfunctioning. They were filtering as designed.
The dreaming brain is not malfunctioning, either. It is working as designed, weaving a subjectively real, 3D “world” from selected contents of our associative thoughts and feelings, from memory, from the contents of our personal subconscious, and even the human Collective Unconscious.
If we narrow the definition of “real” to mean only those material objects outside our heads that are “objectively” the same for everyone, the colored ball study is still a problem. The gorilla was a material object outside the test subjects’ heads, but many didn’t see him. There are lots of “objectively real” things in the world that we never subjectively experience as real. In fact, most of what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch in the course of an average day falls into this category.
Plus, while the content of our dreams are personal and unique, the fact of dreaming is “objective” in our narrowed sense of “real.” We all dream. My dog dreams. What we dream very often shapes our waking actions as powerfully as anything “outside our heads” (have you ever dreamed romantically of someone you never thought of that way before, and woke up thinking, “Well, maybe?”).
So, why do we label one subjective state created by our brains “real,” and others “unreal?”
Is there a better way to think about reality?
Objective Reality VS Human Reality
According to Dr. Newberg, our subjective experience of reality is “braided,” in real time, from the output of three core functions of our brains.
The first strand in the braid is our brain’s perceptual function. What data are we taking in through our five senses? What portion of that data is reaching consciousness? If we are asleep and dreaming, what activity is going on in the various sensory lobes of our brains that feed what we see, hear, feel, etc. in the dream?
Strand two is our brain’s causal function. This is the process by which our brains determine how things we observe are related. We are constantly making judgments (often incorrectly) as to what caused what. Billy is crying. What did Jimmy do to him? The TV won’t come on. Is the TV broken? Is the remote battery dead?
When we are awake, we almost never ask ourselves, “Is my brain malfunctioning? Is the TV on and I just don’t see it? Did I only imagine that I pressed the ‘on’ button?” We trust our experience to be rooted in the real, and ourselves to know what’s what. If we are confronted with evidence to the contrary, like with the colored ball study, we balk. I didn’t see a gorilla. That can’t be the same video. Somebody’s playing a trick.
By action of the same causal function, whatever takes place in our dreams makes perfect sense. We don’t question our ability to fly or breathe underwater for exactly the same reason we don’t question our sanity when the TV stays dark. We trust our experience to be rooted in the real, and ourselves to know what’s what.
The third strand is our emotional function. How do we feel about what we’re experiencing?
If I’m awake and you say you’re in love with me, my experience is going to be very different depending on whether I feel the same way about you, or maybe I like you but feel your expression of ardor complicates our relationship, or I have reason to fear you. One objective occurrence, but three wildly differing subjective experiences.
While sleeping, I may dream myself surrounded by clouds. But am I flying blissfully like Superman or plummeting in horror to my death?
Awake, asleep, or anywhere in between, we really can’t know “objective reality.” We can only know “human reality.”
We can only ever really encounter and understand that segment of reality that falls within the range our human brains are capable of experiencing and processing.
Now, that said, I think the human brain is capable of experiencing and processing a much broader spectrum of reality than most of us give it credit for.
Strands and Sliders
I’m probably pushing now considerably beyond the boundaries of Dr. Newberg’s lectures, but this is my final essay in this series, so pushing boundaries seems appropriate.
I hypothesize that the experience of reality allowed to us by our brains works a little bit (maybe a lot) the way a program like Photoshop manipulates a photograph. Graphics software has sliders for things like color, brightness, contrast, transparency, blur, angle, distance, saturation, and temperature. A picture can be made to look very different, depending on how you adjust the sliders, and how all of those individual adjustments interact with one another.
Now think about your brain. Imagine all the points at which your braided perceptual, causal and emotional functions intersect and intertwine with external reality, internal reality, and one another, rolling and shifting and changing as you move through your waking day or dreaming night.
Now imagine, in addition to those three primary “reality strands,” we have sliding controls with labels like “total isolation” on one end and “the oneness of all things” on the other. One adjusts levels of “meaninglessness” and “significance.” Maybe there are buttons for “God VS No-God,” and beneath that, “Authoritarian VS Benevolent,” and “Critical VS Distant.” Or even “Self VS Other” or “Self VS No-Self.”
My point is that, from the perspective of human reality (the only perspective that is ever actually available to us), every possible combinations of those strands and settings IS REAL. Some offer a more pleasant life experience than others, but there is no slider on the human control board that can take us “beyond human reality.”
For the possessor of a human brain, all experience is human experience. All reality is human reality.
The Hand at the Controls
Consider human reality as a spectrum. On one end is Adolf Hitler, isolated, angry, fearful, filled with hate, hungry for the godlike power to rule the world with an iron fist. On the other end is Buddha, loved by millions, joyful, fearless, filled with compassion, and hungry for no power beyond self-control.
Both were real human beings. They surely experienced reality in radically different ways, but they both had human brains, and so they both exemplify very real human possibilities.
Each of us is capable of the debased evil of a Hitler.
Each of us is capable of the enlightened compassion of a Buddha.
What makes the difference in our personal experience of human reality is who controls our sliders.
For most of us, the answer is our upbringing, education, churches, jobs, media, politics, culture. Lots of forces outside our own wills vie to control how we will experience reality, and consequently, how we’ll live our lives, who we’ll follow, what we’ll live and die for.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The hand at the controls of our brains can be our own.
The Art of the Real
If I could tell you exactly, step by step, how that’s done, I’d be enlightened already, and I’m not. But I will share a personal experience that I think sheds some light on this process.
As described in a previous essay, I was a loud and proud atheist from the ages of 16 to 24. Like many, maybe most atheists, I looked to science as the explainer of all things. I was an avid “armchair physicist,” meaning that I was not any kind of scientists myself, but I was well read in the popular writings of people like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, and could hold my own in nerdy conversation at parties.
In the summer of my 24th year, I had a spontaneous mystical experience whose content is not important to this essay. What matters here is that, in that vision’s aftermath, I found my attention powerfully drawn to the study of evolution. I read every book in my neighborhood library on the topic, then moved on to the bookstore. I couldn’t get enough.
Please note that by “mystical experience” I do not mean “religious experience.” There was little or no traditional religiosity to the vision at all. It was more like something out of a science fiction novel — and, in fact, it was in reaction to that experience that I discovered the novels of Philip K. Dick, and wound up becoming a science fiction writer myself.
The point is, I was not power-reading books on evolution with the thought of finding God there.
But that’s pretty much what happened.
One Evening, I was closing the covers on my second reading of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (yeah, that Richard Dawkins, which I think makes the story all the more ironically entertaining). I could feel the thought gears turning in my brain. I was on the verge of “getting something” I was desperate to understand, something I think the vision had been driving me toward.
Two “revelations” fell, one right after the other:
First, I finally understood evolution. It became crystal clear in my mind that time was the key. That, given thousands of thousands of years to unfold (try wrapping your brain around just how long a period of time that really is, especially compared to the brief lifespan of most animals, so probably trillions of generations), tiny random mutations in genetic coding might very well result in the diversity of life we see on planet earth today, with no supernatural god, design, or plan required. Though I’d labeled myself an atheist for close to a decade, I realized that I had, to that point, taken the scientific explanation of how we all got here “on faith.” Now I knew it for myself. I could feel the blind, mechanical truth of evolution pressing on my lungs, like dry sand sifting down into an hourglass.
Then, instantly, just like that (snaps fingers), with the exact feeling of a fragrant spring breeze blasting in through an open window (it was winter, and no windows were open), this thought blew in and swept those heavy sands away:
Of course, God isn’t necessary. But God is elegant…
Juxtaposed to my newfound understanding of biological evolution was the image of a canvas filling with paint. God was an artist, and all of this — not just life on earth, but everything visible in the whole vast universe, and all the things we can’t see, too — were brushstrokes and blends, colors primary and tertiary, galaxies flung like glitter by the one mind grand enough to appreciate the beauty of the whole cosmic picture…
Now here’s the important part. I knew right then, in that moment, that both of these images, dry sand in an hourglass and God painting the universe, were just thoughts in my head. I had no sense I was receiving divine revelation from God, or Richard Dawkins, or anybody. I was thinking this stuff, thinking really hard, on purpose, myself. Under the pressure of my intense study of biological evolution, my brain had produced two near-simultaneous, equally compelling, yet contradictory, responses.
God does not exist. Reality is purposeless and mechanical.
God is an artist, and reality is God’s creative expression.
I knew I couldn’t accept both of these thoughts, nor could I move forward until I had chosen between them. I understood that neither statement was probably true, in any literal sense. But the choice remained before me like an irreconcilable bifurcation in the timeline.
Choose your path. Pick your life. One or the other. The clock is ticking.
I pictured what my life might look like at the ages of 30, 40, 60, 90, if I followed Path A, if I followed Path B.
One path seemed certain, but sad. The other a tad frivolous, but ultimately joyful.
One eliminated the need for magic in the universe. The other infused magic into everything.
I very consciously rested my hand on the “God VS No-God” slider in my brain, and rammed it Godward.
My final takeaway from Dr. Andrew Newberg’s Great Courses lecture series The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience is that, while it certainly looks like our brains are the only tool at our disposal for succeeding in our spiritual quests, wisely understood and skillfully managed, they’re the only tool we’ll ever need.
This is an excerpt from In Defense of Magical Thinking: Essays in Defiance of Conformity to Reason:
Do arrogant Twitter atheists make your blood boil? When Richard Dawkins, the Amazing Randi, or Bill Nye the Science Guy smugly tell you how stupid you are for believing in God, or psychic powers, or ghosts, or the afterlife, or even your own immortal soul, do you want to just reach through the screen and strangle them?
You’re going to love this book.