Blog Posts

22
Feb

Who Are We?

Listening to Andre Fenton talk about his pioneering work on how the brain stores and extracts information, my mind—untrained in meditation and sorely unfocused!—trailed off into the incredible notion that science seems to support: I’m not really just me and you’re not really you

Speaking not just of our brains but of our entire bodies, Lewis Thomas wrote in the classic “Lives of a Cell”: “A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are shared, rented, occupied.”

Evidently, meditation, which Andre makes an excellent case for, is just the process to bring that idea to light. Neuroscientist Sam Harris describes how in deep meditation the feeling that there is a self thinking the thoughts disappears. “This experience of selflessness is interesting for two reasons,” Harris says, “It makes perfect sense from a neurological perspective, as there is no privileged place for the self to occupy the brain.”

Dr. Cliff Pickover

And he adds, tantalizingly, “The loss of self can be utterly liberating.”

“What does it mean that your brain has nothing in common with the brain you had a few years ago?” physicist Clifford Pickover asks. “If you are something other than the collection of atoms making up your body, what are you? You are not so much your atoms as you are the pattern in which your atoms are arranged. Some of the atomic patterns in your brain code memories. People are persistent space-time tangles. It’s quite possible that you have an atom of Jesus of Nazareth coursing through your body. Gilgamesh, the historical king who ruled the city of Uruk, is part of your brain or tendons or heart. An atom in your retina may one day be in the tears of a happy lunar princess a hundred years from now.”

Who are we, where can we draw boundaries?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Andre, the man who as a boy loved Hardy Boys mysteries, who grew up to become a very different kind of detective, sheds some light on that little mystery too.

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Sherry Austin

    Sherry Austin was nine years old when she admitted, during a class discussion, that evolution was possible. After school a bunch of bullies arrived on bikes at her house to beat her up if she didn’t recant. She didn’t. Forty years later, she had published three books of fiction and was traveling regionally giving a talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council on literary nonfiction about science when a neurodegenerative illness put a stop to that. These days, along with (and sometimes in spite of!) her comic alter-ego Trixie Goforth, she works what’s left of her brain to share her wonder about the natural world revealed to us by science. She values the work of scientists more than she can say. And you can find out more about Sherry at her website.