“Understand that the body is merely the foam of a wave, the shadow of a shadow.” — Buddha
Eric Kandel, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons in 2000, in his book, “In Search of Memory,” emphasized the “biology of mind,” by reminding us that:
“Each mental function in the brain–from the simplest reflex to the most creative acts in language, music, and art–is carried out by specialized neural circuits in different regions of the brain…the cellular mechanisms of learning and memory reside not in the special properties of the neuron itself, but in the connections it receives and makes with other cells in the neural circuit to which it belongs.”
He announces at the outset that his personal quest to understand memory “…has intersected with one of the greatest scientific endeavors–the attempt to understand mind in cellular and molecular biological terms.” Amazingly, on page 149, he still acknowledged that he “…learned from experience that there are many situations in which one cannot decide on the basis of cold facts alone, because facts are often insufficient. One ultimately has to trust one’s unconscious, one’s instincts, one’s creative urge.”
The more I learn about brain physiology and the complex interactions amongst the microscopic neural substrates, and the subsequent results of such interactions, the more it seems to me that all of it points toward a synthesis–or symbiosis–of many functions that ultimately provides us with the means to achieve an awareness of our subjective experience.
The complex physiology of brain functions; the interdependence of multiple neural networks; the coordination and integration of numerous brain regions–all these and more as-yet-undetected or poorly-understood components of cognitive function, when operating at a minimally functional level, allow the perception of our subjective experience of our existence to enter conscious awareness. What we describe as “the perception of subjective experience,” is the result of these “components of cognitive function,” operating at least at a minimally optimal level. However, while all varieties of perception–the perception of light by the eye; of scents by the nose; of sound by the ear; of taste by the tongue; and of touch by the skin–require each relative sensory system to be sufficiently functional, those systems do not “create” the light, the scent, the sound, the taste or the touch. Perception, while essential to experience, does not “create” experience, but rather, it facilitates our awareness of the experience.
This is one of the main reasons that attempting to define the subjective experience of consciousness as the result of brain physiology alone misses the mark in my opinion. A much more likely explanation for the “what it’s like” experience of our existence could come from broadening our views to include a recognition that the Universe and every temporal aspect and condition of that existence might well be a manifest expression of some form of cosmically inclusive and fundamentally inherent force like electromagnetism or gravity. The precise nature of this force, while elusive and profoundly complex, may well be a phenomenon which is expressed by and which becomes visible and tangible as the Universe. It is due to our cognitive abilities as humans with a highly complex brain and central nervous system that we are able to enjoy experience and to express our awareness of it. It is much more likely in my view that human consciousness is a consciousness that is not produced BY us, but rather one of which we are aware and that is made manifest THROUGH us.
Our extraordinary brains allow us to quickly process an astonishing array of sensory and cognitive data, and to integrate both conscious experience and unconscious contents, through which we gain access to an expanded awareness. Knowing we exist, being able to think, and being able to express our awareness of existing and thinking, through our higher cognitive functions, provides us with a conduit for consciousness–a transcendent link between the tangible and the intangible. The life that we know as sentient beings may well be like the foam of a wave. The fragility of the foam is only a harbinger of the force of the ocean tides, which are brought to life through a much greater force beyond the earth itself. We do not experience the pull of the moon’s gravity directly, but we are, nonetheless, existent within a universe which includes that gravity–a shadow of a shadow.