Richard G. Petty, MD

You Are Divine

Sai Baba 1.jpg

“Man is divine. But he is not aware of his own divinity. He mistakenly thinks he is this little body. but he is not this body. Man is something infinite, immutable, eternal.”   

–Sathya Sai Baba (Indian Spiritual Teacher, c.1926-2011)   

Dolphins Have Names

It seems that not a day goes by without new research breaking down the barriers between humans and many of the other species that share our planet. I have reported on the burgeoning research into emotional expression in animals. No surprise to anyone who spends much time interacting with them, but a shock to some of my more conservative colleagues. Within the last ten years I have spoken to countless psychologists clinging to the notion that animals are just bundles of reflexes designed to protect them and allow them to reproduce.

The evidence for complex communication patterns in dolphin has long fascinated me. This was triggered in part by the work of the late John Lilly. One of my mentors in neurology was firmly of the opinion that it was impossible because they did not have the right neurological machinery. It seems that he was wrong. There is an extraordinary new report picked up by the BBC and the National Geographic  from a team of scientists based at St Andrews University in Scotland: the same place that Prince William attended for four years. In a three-year-study  of wild dolphins, conducted in Sarasota Bay off Florida’s west coast and funded by the Royal Society of London, they found that dolphins communicate like humans by calling each other by "name.” Using whistles, these mammals are able to recognize themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities. They have labels for each other just as we do.

This is important not just because of the implication that they have evolved some of the same abilities that we have, but because it likely means that they have a sense of self and of identity and that they able to differentiate each other as individuals.

I was talking about these findings with She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she pointed out that our horses appear to be able to do the same thing: if you watch them closely they have different calls for attracting each other’s attention, and these calls are different when they are at home or when they are in competition. Two of the horses are constantly going to competitions together, and after they have done well, they have a new repertoire of sounds with which they communicate with each other, and yet others with which they communicate with other horses. For people not used to being around these animals, they always assume that we are simply anthropomorphizing. But I don’t think so: it really seems that they call to each other in a precise and predictable way after they have done their jobs well. We have often said that they are bragging: perhaps we’re not so far from the truth.

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Multiple Selves

There is a most interesting report from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This study relates back to some of my previous posts about meditation and hyperfocus. I think that we’ve all had the experience of losing ourselves in any activity: playing a game, watching a movie, sex or an enthralling novel. The researchers showed that during intense sensory tasks, the introspective self-related functions of the brain shut down. The experimental subjects were asked to look at pictures or listen to music. For sensory processing, the subjects were asked to answer yes/no questions about the items. To study introspection, the subjects were asked to indicate whether emotionally they felt strongly or neutrally about the image or musical passage. While they were doing all this, their brains were being scanned using functional MRI (fMRI).

As expected, regions of the brain activated during sensory processing or self-reflective introspection were quite distinct and segregated. Sensory processing activated the sensory cortex and related structures, while introspection activated the prefrontal cortex. But the important finding was that activity in the self-related prefrontal cortex was damped down during intense sensory processing. What this seems to indicate, is that the self-related cortex isn’t involved in the awareness of perceptions, but is involved in allowing us to reflect upon perceptions, to judge their importance to us, and to allow us to report our experiences to the outside world.

I have a quibble with something that they say at the end of the paper: “Thus, the term “losing yourself” receives here a clear neuronal correlate. This theme has a tantalizing echoing in Eastern philosophies such as Zen teachings, which emphasize the need to enter into a “mindless,” selfless mental state to achieve a true sense of reality.”

As interesting as the study is, I think that these comments betray a rather one-dimensional view of the “self.” There are clearly many aspects to the “self:”

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Psychological: the Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious Selves
  • Relational: (Have a look back at my post form March 15th
  • Subtle
  • Spiritual

My 35-year experience and understanding of the Eastern traditions is not of simply switching off one or other of these “selves,” but of bringing full mindful attention to everything that is going on. I just came across a brief piece by Professor Charles Tart , in which he is saying something very similar, and points out, with characteristic wit, that the Eastern mindfulness teachings don’t require us to enter into a “mindless” state to find reality. After all, if you are belabored about the head and shoulders with a stout cudgel, that should also achieve that aim!

So we return to a theme on which I’ve been expounding for some time now: these studies are fascinating and interesting, but they only deal with one part of the human experience. Let me refer you back to Ken Wilber for his important views on this issue, and the long section in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, that discusses this in considerable detail. The neurological findings represent correspondences and not causes.

Another blogger, Neurocritic, picked up an amusing error in a report of this study in New Scientist . Well spotted!

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