As I've mentioned in the past, a neat aspect about authoring a book in online segments in blog form like this is that I can respond quickly to the feedback I get from readers. It helps me a great deal to get reader feedback as it is important to me to know how my material and approaches are being received and it helps as well for me to understand what needs further or better clarification and where readers might be having trouble with the concepts.
As such, I had some questions and points raised following the previous post on "zombie programs", the autonomously running subconscious brain programs that run most of our conscious lives.
Essentially, the questions and points came down to "are we really just zombies with no free will?" (There was a decidedly disheartened and not very enthused tone to this question)
These are excellent questions, and questions that are much, much on the minds of philosophers to neuroscientists the world over and have been for many, many years.
Regular readers of my posts related to the brain, brain evolution, my post in my other blog on "Dopamine the Bus Driver", how individual brains develop and how our brains create our individual perceptions of reality may have picked up that I don't have a lot of belief (if any) in the concept of "free will". And I don't. I used to defend to the death the notion that we had free will but the evidence just overwhelmed that position; both my personal evidence when my mind would go on radically wild out of my conscious control "voyages" (I have written about some of these extensively elsewhere) despite heroic efforts to master more control over it (and we may see that I am getting there anyway, but in time) plus all the evidence that neuroscience and neuroscientists have uncovered in recent years (it has been said that more has been discovered about the human brain in the last five years than all of prior history combined).
I have been humbled repeatedly - literally brought to my knees - about where my mind would take me at times (these were very horrendous "inner voyages", I can assure you) and despite having some conscious awareness that I needed to somehow control or stop them, I was utterly powerless to do so. Sometimes I had no conscious awareness at all - my body was just taken over by something else. And each time after I came out the other side, I'd think "what the hell was that all about and where the hell did it come from?!!". Then I'd analyze it through the lens of neuroscience and go off in search of what may have been at the root of that particular experience.
So on a personal experience level there's that. (1)
But then there's all the mountains of evidence of how the brain operates subconsciously to produce what you consciously experience (which I tried as briefly and as concisely and clearly as I could to outline in that previous post on "zombie programs"). In the beginning of my neuroscience adventure, I really, really looked for evidence of free will. I felt I desperately needed free will to gain control over this wild and wacky mind of mine. But I just could not find any evidence and instead found all evidence pointing to the conclusion that we have very little "say" in what goes on "under the hoods" of our brains and that in fact our brains pretty much "run our ships" with little input from "the captain" (AKA: you or me).
I also study people a lot in the real world. I talk to a lot of people. And I have all these clever little lines of questions and conversation to sort of "plumb their depths" and subsequently observe their behaviour matching that to what they'd previously said or their stated beliefs and so on. I then match this to the enormous volumes I've read on human behaviour and cognitive psychology, etc.
And I'm sorry to report that I saw no evidence anywhere that we are in "free will" control over our lives, IE; what we say, do and decide.
But, I've found, when people are hit with this realization - and I've gotten some pretty intense and distressed feedback on this from readers (2) - it can create a real Existential Crisis.
And the last thing I want to create in a blog designed to help people right their mental health ships is create more problems. But then again, I think I have come to the conclusion that at least a little existential questioning of our selves may be a Good Thing. Existential questions about one's life may actually be a root of What's Going On in one's life to create chronically distressed and depressed moods and states. It could well be the root of what's going on. So maybe it's not a Bad Thing to be faced with this question of one's own free will or lack of it.
But so that you don't melt down into an existential crisis or - worse - veer off into all kinds of dark nihilistic "fuck it, I'm just a zombie, I don't fucking care anymore" directions, we'd better address this here and now.
Now it's true that we humans - like all animal species with brains built along similar lines to us (and our brains are remarkably similar to all mammal brains - that's why they're used to such great effect in neuroscientific research) - all operate more or less completely autonomously.
Now, there are two things I want you to understand about the human brain before we freak out about all this. One is that free will or not, the human brain is the most advanced "survival mechanism" in the known universe and in the four billion year history of evolution. Trust me on this one: it is - even yours - an extremely good survival machine. I could wax on forever over all the unfathomably impressive and powerful systems it has evolved to guide your fanny through life. Your brain is very well equipped to guide you through life (all occasional appearances to the contrary notwithstanding).
Plus - PLUS - my friends, we humans have an ace up our evolutionary sleeves: we have this spiffy thing called consciousness. No other creature on earth enjoys (nor is tortured by, mind you) consciousness on the levels that we humans have.
It is consciousness where we can make more "free" choices about where our lives may or may not lead. Or even how our very brains themselves operate. Or what we deeply believe and so on.
If there is free will, it is to be found and exercised in our fancy evolutionary advanced consciousness.
Now I'm going to leave a more complete description of what consciousness is and how it works and why for a separate future piece but for now I will tell you that it is in understanding consciousness (and how it works and why) that is where the rubber meets the road in gaining more mastery over your selves and over that 3 pound blob of tofu like substance between your ears that drives you so batty.
In the previous post I likened our consciousness to the screen and speakers of your computer - those represent what you "see" (and hear) or are "aware of" at any one time out of all what your computer (along with its Internet connection) could present at any one time. And that is what our consciousness does - it is what we are being made aware of by our brains out of all the ginormous (and almost astronomical) amounts of incoming sensory data (that coming in through our five senses and the gut-mind axis) and that crazy amount of stuff our own brains store and may need to feed up to us for attention (you'll recall from the previous post the million or possibly millions of gigabytes of data that your brain holds).
I also mentioned that the cognitive neuroscientist Bernard Baars (2) likened our consciousness to a "plate", a sort of working plate; what we can put there and work on at any one time. So if we think of our consciousness as a plate and our brain as the biggest restaurant buffet in the universe, our consciousness is the plate on which we can serve up from that vastly huge and varied buffet at any one time.
I also mentioned that I posited that a lot of mental breakdowns are to do with a) those "zombie program" autonomous brain systems malfunctioning or not cooperating properly and they're flooding our conscious experience (or the computer screens or plates of our analogies) with some really wrong stuff (from dangerously dark thoughts and thoughts of harm or suicide to delusional thoughts to hallucinations and so on) or are overfilling it and we melt down from overwhelm (or quite possibly combinations thereof).
Hands up those of you who have experienced that? Yeah, okay, I don't think I'm going to be able to count all those hands. You can put them down now.
So, to cut to the chase, how do we better control what our brains present to our conscious experience (or computer screen or "working plate")?
This is not a new conundrum, my friends. Probably not long after humans began to evolve our advanced consciousness (and with it the ability to experience inner thoughts and dialogues), people began to notice that a lot of crazy shit could show up in their conscious minds. Not only that, they noticed - within themselves and others - that what popped up into their consciousness could make them (or others) do a whole lot of crazy shit - a lot of it probably going against the "norms" of whatever tribe or group or culture they belonged to. And thus began all kinds of methods being cooked up by group elders or seers or shamans or "high priests" and what have you to control what went on in our conscious experiences. And thus arose practically all religions because believing in, praying to and "following the directions" of a god and religious tenets and dogma actually can - for many people - deal with this issue of wayward and wacky human conscious experience.
But I'm not one of them.
Another method, however, discovered and developed some 2,500 years ago and which has been compiling a very impressive track record ever since is - ta da!
The word meditation can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To many it'll conjure up vague images of hippie like new agers in wild coloured tie-dyed shirts and so on. Or maybe it conjures up images of some Hindu guru sitting in the lotus position on some craggy mountaintop somewhere (the subject of no shortage of western comic images). Or perhaps of weird looking bald men and women in saffron coloured robes sitting around chanting. Or maybe the Dali Lama.
All of which may trigger a reaction along the lines of "That weirdo shit isn't for me. Screw that".
Which, you know, fair enough. That would have been me not all that long ago.
But, as you know, I study a lot of neuroscience. And if you study neuroscience as broadly and as open minded enough as I do, you will be bound to come across the amount of research done on meditation and its power to change and transform the human brain. No, I did not say mind nor did I mean the mind, I said - and meant - the brain. And by change and transform the brain, I mean its very structure, its connections, the brain waves that help coordinate cognitive activity and actual core brain systems. Change the brain, thus change the mind.
Hey, like I have often said, I just go by the evidence and there is absolutely no shortage of evidence for the power of meditation on the brain. Not only that, but the power of meditation to put you more in the driver's seat of your consciousness experience. I actually originally intended to present a good deal of that evidence in this introductory post but I see that - in typical Bradonian style - that I have prattled on a good deal too long already. But I feel it's really important for readers to deeply understand why I recommend meditation so highly and why I think it's essential for you to accept the use of it to get your mind in better shape and to learn to take better control over your brain and thus who and what you are and thus your life.
So I'm going to start off by putting the concept of meditation in a different light. Let's go back to our computer screen (and speakers) metaphor for consciousness. Now imagine you've lost control of what's on the screen - all kinds of pages are popping up, annoying pop up ads, all kinds of assaults of strange sounds through the speakers, you can't focus on anything, it's all running glacially slow, screen freezes, crashes, the whole works. And try as you might, you can't seem to control it. It's as if your keyboard and mouse have no control over the screen at all. If you can imagine how much that'd mess up how you use your computer and your online life, hey, welcome to my world. My real flesh and blood world, that is.
So I want you to think of meditation as a way of gaining control over what's on that screen, of how to get into the guts of your computer and reprogram and deal with what's going on that's messing up what you're experiencing on your computer screen and speakers - AKA: our conscious experience. Of how to gain control over your keyboard and mouse and how to use them again to control what's "on your screen" (and speakers).
By this, I mean gain more conscious control over all those subconscious programs running amok and messing up your conscious experience (and driving you batty).
Now this is a process. It takes time. But if you bear with me through this series on meditation, neuroplasticity and my other Positive Difference Making Fundamentals, we will get you there.
So to begin, I'm going to introduce you to some very very simple and easy ways to start off meditating. No weird poses involved. No weird "emptying your mind" stuff. No cosmic experiences or anything like that.
I'm going to give you two little exercises to start off with. I don't want you to go any further than these to start, just these (for those already more "on board" with meditation, feel free to skip these. These are for those who really struggle with and are intimidated by the concept of meditation).
One, I want you to take a timer and set it for twenty seconds. Done? Okay.
Now, I want you to close your eyes and breathe out. Good, now open your eyes again. Now, I want you to count to four very slowly. Now I need you to really focus on counting out each number - one - two - three - four. Nice and slow and really focusing in your mind on each number as you count them. Again; one - two - three - four.
Now I want you to close your eyes, exhale and then draw in a new breath. But as you draw your breath in, I want you to count - one - two - three - four, really focusing on each number and nothing else.
Now draw in a breath, close your eyes and exhale but as you do so count again - one - two - three - four.
Okay, so let's give it a whirl. Start your timer. Now close your eyes and breathe in and focus on counting - one - two - three - four, breathe out - one - two - three - four, breathe in - one - two - three - four, breathe out -one -two - three - four, breathe in - one - two - three - four. Ding-ding-ding-ding - time's up!
Good work! You freaking meditated!
So just go ahead and play around practicing with that. Don't worry about thoughts or blocking them out or anything like that. Just focus as much as you can on counting each number. Focus only on each number as you count on it. Do it for twenty seconds, then thirty and see how many seconds you can work your way up to. If you get past twenty seconds, that's awesome. If you don't, that's okay. We're just here to learn the basics and practice.
Okay, I'm going to give you a slightly more advanced one if you want to move up a bit.
For this one I want you to sit in a chair. Make yourself comfortable. Now pick a spot somewhere, any spot - a book on your shelf, a leaf on a houseplant (a personal favourite of mine) or anything you like, as long as it's just a single spot. Now I want you to put your hands on the arms of the chair or crossed on your lap. Okay?
Now I want you to set your timer for twenty seconds again. Now fix your gaze on the spot you picked and do the same as we practiced above - breathe in - one - two - three - four, breathe out - one - two - three - four. As you do this I want you to try keep your gaze focused on that one spot. If your eyes want to wander a bit - and it's quite natural for them to do so, that's what they're designed to do - that is quite okay, just bring them gently back to your fixed spot again and continue to focus on breathing in and out while counting one through four. Your hands will be tempted to wander as well, and if they do, just put them gently back where you had them.
Okay, now start your timer and while focusing on that spot and keeping your hands still as well as you can, do the breathing and counting exercise.
Ding-ding-ding, time's up! Excellent!
That's it! You freaking well meditated! Okay, you're not ready to supplant the Dali Lama as a meditation expert any time soon but you did it!
And to start with, that's all we're going to do - that simple focusing on counting and breathing and doing so while keeping your eyes fixed on a specific spot as well as you can. Again, you can play around with trying for longer periods of time.
I taught this simple method to a Taming the Polar Bears student, a fifty year old woman, who'd sworn up and down that she was the most ADD person on earth, always had been and that no way on earth she could do this. But she did. She totally did.
I'm going to draw this to a close for now, but these simple little steps here are going to take you on the way for learning how to gain some level of mastery over your consciousness. And this in turn is going to get you on the road to being a stronger, more in control "captain" of that ship of yours that's currently being run by all those amok "zombie programs".
Until the next time.
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(1) Though these experiences were "personal", it is certainly not hard to find others with similar experiences among those with a psychiatric condition and those among the general population (and I'll be getting to examples of this when we further explore the brain's subconscious functions and how they direct our behaviours).
(2) - Not to worry, I was able to talk them through it. I do not and will not let people flounder like that.