Learning, Sensory Experience, and Consciousness

Max Planck Florida Institute Study Shows: Persistent Sensory Experience Is Good For The Aging Brain Jupiter, FL May 24, 2012

“Despite a long-held scientific belief that much of the wiring of the brain is fixed by the time of adolescence, a new study shows that changes in sensory experience can cause massive rewiring of the brain, even as one ages. In addition, the study found that this rewiring involves fibers that supply the primary input to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception, motor control and cognition. These findings promise to open new avenues of research on brain remodeling and aging.”

Published in the May 24, 2012 issue of Neuron, the study was conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI) and at Columbia University in New York.

“This study overturns decades-old beliefs that most of the brain is hard-wired before a critical period that ends when one is a young adult,” said MPFI neuroscientist Marcel Oberlaender, PhD, first author on the paper. “By changing the nature of sensory experience, we were able to demonstrate that the brain can rewire, even at an advanced age. This may suggest that if one stops learning and experiencing new things as one ages, a substantial amount of connections within the brain may be lost.”

http://www.maxplanckflorida.org/press.html?newsid=129

Consciousness is not only about interpreting the world around us and organizing all the data and stimulus we receive through our senses. Experience, while vitally dependent on cognition and our central nervous system, is not simply and only a phenomenon of the intellect and the body. Our biological organs and systems support our existence and are each dependent on the other. When all systems are nominally balanced there is harmony. Our brain and nervous system provide a platform for our intellectual powers and organize the relentless stream of data received from our environment.

“In the woods, a man casts off his years, and at whatsoever period of life is always a child…In these plantations of God…a perennial festival is dressed, and the visitor sees not how he could tire of it in a thousand years.” –Emerson in “Nature.”

This excerpt from Emerson struck me upon first reading as precisely my own sentiment regarding the “experience” of being in the forest while camping. Simply visiting the woods on a particular day would be uplifting in its own way, and one could get a sense of what Emerson was describing, but staying in the woods for days at a time, experiencing everything from daybreak to nightfall, participating at every moment in the daily rituals of our lives outdoors, one begins to actually “dwell” in the plantation, and a richer understanding of Emerson’s words begin to unfold.

My own interests in camping for days at a time cover everything from a temporary escape from the trials of everyday life to the pleasure provided by the natural settings, to the solace and quiet of remote areas which are absent the noise and traffic of modern living. I often spend time in contemplation of the sunrise, (a particularly sought after experience) where the stillness of early morning is so soothing as to be a sedative of the most pleasant sort, and the gradual brightening of the sky awakens and stirs the forest creatures to their daily routines almost imperceptibly increasing as the sun ascends.

Behind the tent is a sunlit path leading through a brilliant array of greenery which is immensely inviting. A nearly cloudless blue sky, dotted with an occasional floating cloud brings the day to life in a most satisfying way. Having arranged in advance for a visit which happened to coincide with a period of moderate temperatures and congenial weather, increases the pleasure ten-fold, as experience has taught me, that the adjustments for inclement weather, while necessary and appealing in their own way, alter the experience by occupying my attention and time, which I would prefer to spend reading, or writing, or just walking along a trail, or paddling in a canoe.

But beyond even these temporal concerns, with all conditions being optimal, my focus almost always ends up turning within, and from dawn to dusk, my heart and mind embrace the awareness of the natural beauty and inherent pleasure of communing directly with the natural world, unmitigated by the trappings of civilization to which we have grown accustomed, and in a way that is far easier and agreeable than it is during the course of everyday life in the modern world.

By far though, is the appeal of preparing and tending to the campfire each night, which may include gathering and chopping of the wood for consumption in that evening period, as well as the many adjustments to the supply as the night progresses. After many years of practice, I have managed to accomplish these tasks with minimal effort and attention needed to sustain the flames, which provides the maximum enjoyment of the experience, as well as ample opportunity for contemplation. I often find myself reluctant to relinquish this portion of the experience as it provides much of the solace from the concerns which normally occupy my travels. In a way, the fire evokes a fundamental connection to the ineffable which escapes me many times otherwise, and immediately upon recognition of my arrival at the doorsteps of my inner world, I feel a sense of fulfillment and reconnection to the vastness of the world of contemplation, made possible by an unrestricted pathway to the invisible. Watching the fire dance and swirl, smoke rising swiftly, illuminating the surrounding area with fluctuating shadows from the flames, the aroma of burnt timbers mingles with my thoughts as I drift into reverie.

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Increased stimulation of our sensory experience now appears to be essential to our continued growth and to the expansion of our evolving consciousness as a species. We cannot stop learning and experiencing new things and must continue to challenge ourselves by seeking out different environments and opportunities to expand our awareness. As the foundation for our awareness of possessing consciousness, neurological functioning may facilitate its unfolding, allowing it to become manifest in the physical universe of human endeavor, and provide a common platform for meaningful interaction amongst our fellow cognitive creatures, but it cannot constitute the whole of it.

Adirondack Dreams

Simply taking a slow, deep breath out in the woods in the Adirondack region of New York State is so near to a transcendent experience by itself that whenever I arrive there I feel confident in my ability to achieve an even more intense transcendent state with some effort and focus. When I was a young boy our family often visited the area in the late summer, and the appeal of the Adirondacks was very nearly mystical in my mind even then, although I clearly lacked a context within which I could describe it to myself in those terms. The sense of a divine nature to the natural setting, which I understood at the time as “being close to God,” now resonates in the same way, but with a much clearer adult context more than forty years later.

The ineffable nature of the subjective experience of consciousness, that richly-textured awareness of being, is so vividly present at such moments, that even as I experience my own personal consciousness in this extraordinary setting, I can barely contain myself to attempt to express it in words. As most people experience it, consciousness is mostly taken for granted, and contemplating its complexities and subtleties is hardly a concern, if ever. And yet, for me, the subject beckons me to explore it with such power, that whenever I am presented with the opportunity, my inclination is to spend every available moment in contemplation of its intricate nature and far-reaching implications.

Preparing to meet with the darkness at the campsite, as the light of day slowly recedes into the gentle evening air, I sit recording my thoughts on my laptop, almost imperceptibly sliding into a comfortable degree of both melancholy and relief, deep in the burrow of the pine forest, under the canopy of what Emerson described as the “plantations of God.” Already fully prepared to begin, I set the flames of the evening campfire in motion, parked my chair agreeably close to the fire, and settled in to release whatever might escape from within me.

For me, experiencing the campfire is almost the whole point of camping in the first place. I keep thinking of my ancient ancestors from the earliest days of human awareness, filled as I am in my time, with a sense of wonder and oneness with the natural world. While gazing intently into the fire, I seem to gaze beyond the present moment, across the eons of time to share the moment with them. Surely, some of the first truly important moments of conscious awareness in humans included such moments by the fire, even if the intention was to stay warm or to gain a sense of safety from night predators.

The waves of heat seen rippling through the white-hot embers at the core of the fire, and the fluid motion of the flames lapping along the edges of the arrangement of logs, evoked for me a heightened sense of the flow of the unseen which I felt all around me, and of which we generally only become aware through moments of transcendent awareness. Surrendering to the moment, I began to view the fire as a good metaphor for temporal life. The energy that is released as the wood burns is the energy of life, and as the wood is consumed by the fire, so too does life consume the body, though as it burns, it releases the most brilliant light.

For many of us, moments of transcendence are only possible to experience fleetingly. Flashes of insight, simultaneous thoughts occurring between two or more individuals, sudden awareness of impending danger, (most often followed by an instinctual decision to meet it head on or to avoid collision with it) empathy with a complete stranger, visions, hunches, and even hopes, all hint at our connection to something much greater than ourselves that also feels essential to our nature as living, sentient beings. The more we open ourselves to these moments–deliberately placing ourselves in the path of transcendence–the closer we come to perceiving our connection to the wider world of the spirit that animates us.

During one of my most recent journeys into the deep forest, I inadvertently left one of my books out at the campsite during the day and when I returned that evening, I realized that it must have rained in my absence and suddenly my concern for the transcendent was briefly interrupted by a fairly mundane temporal concern–drying out my reading material! It’s always good to be reminded, even in the deep forest, that we are also made of flesh and blood, and exist in the physical universe!

Looking Closely at Our Life On Earth and the Importance of Perspective

As the ten year mark arrives of the awful tragedy of the loss of so many lives on September 11, 2001 in America, so much is being written about it and broadcast in the 21st century media about that terrible day, that it seems almost impossible that any sort of balanced perspective might result from all the fanfare surrounding this anniversary. No one who witnessed these events, nor anyone who was directly affected by the brutality of the attack could be diminished any more than they already have been by the suffering and sense of loss that took hold ten years ago. No report of previously “unrevealed” information or interviews with any of the key figures in the tragedy can change anything that happened, or lessen our collective and individual suffering in the slightest degree.

There are no truly useful comparisons to any of the other innumerable tragedies throughout human history that can make anyone who lost loved ones or friends in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania on that day feel any less pain or somehow find solace no matter how many years have passed since those losses occurred. No matter what circumstances result in the loss of people we love, whether it is by a brutal attack by terrorists, or the relentless progress of a fatal disease, or the randomness of a freak accident, our losses throughout our lives cannot be measured in sound bytes or spectacular videos or eloquent prose.

At the very core of our humanity, complex molecules of DNA govern many of the outcomes for each human being, and are, in large part, responsible for how our lives unfold in innumerable ways, based on the endowment they provide or the deficiencies they impart as a result of the combined contributions of our parents and ancestors. There is nothing we can do as individuals to change our genetic or familial inheritance, or even the environment into which we are born. Countless successes and failures of individuals have resulted from not only our fortunate or unfortunate nature resulting from our genetic inheritance, but also from our abundant or deficient nurture from a loving and capable or sadly neglectful family circumstances. So many factors enter into the calculation of how we either flourish or fail to accomplish anything important in life, that we must acknowledge, at some point, our limitations as well as our abilities as central to our individual outcome.

Changing our perspective from the molecules of DNA, to casting our glance outward into the solar system in which our planet exists, provides an even greater view of our limitations as well as our potentials as living beings. If you follow this link by copying and pasting it into the address bar of your web browser, you will view a brief video of the passage of one year on earth from the perspective of outer space:

http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/earth-in-fast-forward/p1p58zc?rel=msn

Looking at the earth as it passes through 365 days of existence in ten seconds, apart from being enormously fascinating as an experience, humbles us by its implications of how fragile and tenuous our existence is no matter what transpires here on the surface of the earth.

I can’t help it, though, when I look closely at the moments of pure awareness as I experience my own life, pondering the moments of my own existence, in the moments of serendipitous bliss and unexpected confusion or sadness, to view the replay of tragedy such as we will experience on Sunday, as well as those which surely will come in the days ahead, seems to me to be no more or less profound or tragic than any of the others in human history, but which are, more precisely, awful in their own way, unlike any other.

Walking along the sand and surf at Moore’s Beach on the Delaware Bay on my recent camping trip, I encountered this unfortunate turtle that apparently expired on its journey, and as I walked further along, encountered the remains of what used to be a home in what is now only a memory from years past.

No comparison can be drawn, nor is any intended, by these images to the sadness which fills every crevice of our memories of that awful day in September, and my own heart suffered terribly for years after that terrible day, as my only son served his country in military duty in response to that awful attack. My only hope is that we can find a way, somehow, to put each of the layers of our lives and our tenuous existence in the vast universe, in perspective as we look back on both the tragedy of September 11, 2001, as well as the moments of joy and sorrow that accompany us all on our journey.

Spirits in the Woods

Having just returned from three days and nights in the Belleplain State Forest, the return to civilization always seems to find me rejuvenated in spirit, but also oddly melancholy. The trip was a welcome break from the relentless daily routines that sustain me as I write, and the moments of blissful silence communing with only my thoughts in contemplation, my books, and the background murmur of the natural world, filled me with a sense of being exactly where I needed to be.

A long and leisurely evening by the campfire last night was a welcome development in the grand scheme of my life these days. Struggling as I am with my place in the world generally, and attempting to express the deeper truth within me particularly, conversing about the nature of humanity and of what I feel strongly is a spiritual (non-physical) foundation for consciousness was most encouraging.

The subject of the very foundation of consciousness and its first inklings in our ancient ancestors is so compelling for me that I can barely contain myself when it comes up in conversation. It is unfortunately rare in my experience to find anyone willing to entertain such a conversation, but a recent conversation in the woods gave me some cause to think that I might be making progress in delineating my arguments and defining my theory.

My heart is still troubled by a fair number of emotional challenges, which usually accompany my writing work on consciousness. Somehow I must arrive at my destination without totally sacrificing my sense of well-being, and yet collect the essence of whatever it is that draws me so powerfully to spirits who embody that same essence within me. I am coming to understand that these kindred souls are being held up to me like a mirror, and that what I am seeing is a reflection of what lies within me.

The awesome power of the spirit touches me so profoundly at times, that social conventions seem far less important at times than getting to the bottom of what it is that makes these other living souls so compelling to me. Even as I observe the various living creatures who inhabit the forest environment–even then–I find myself powerfully connected to the life that animates them. Reading in John Horgan’s “Rational Mysticism,” he paraphrases Ken Wilbur’s notions of the overall view of the awareness that results from our access to consciousness:

“We begin life as merely physical beings, no more aware than bacteria. Even as children, we are still self-absorbed creatures. As we develop emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, we become aware of an even wider sphere of existence. Our awareness matures into an empathy for and identification with all of humanity, all of nature, and ultimately all of existence, including the eternal void from which all things come.”

At the final moments of sitting by the fire, I found myself staring deeply into the white hot bed of embers supporting the other timbers, ablaze in a nearly empty forest surrounding our campsite. Walking even a short distance away from the fire, I was struck by the total absence of light available to my all-too-human eyes. It made me reflect on how it must have been for our ancient ancestors, who not only struggled with fear of predatory animals, but also other equally frightened competing human beings who might also be lurking in the darkness. The loss of the light and warmth of the fire for me most certainly would pale in comparison to the consequences for those conscious creatures.

I sit in the deep forest by choice and build my fire for pleasure, tending to it with joy, and without even a small fraction of the fear my ancestors must have experienced. The evolution of modern consciousness, supported by the gradual rise of experience and accumulated knowledge has eliminated all but the most primal of fears for me, although I still hesitate to venture too far away from the security the fire provides. The uncertainty of what lies beyond the light of my small fire keeps me in my chair, close to the campsite, even though I have a lantern that could burn well into the night if necessary.

The moon finally rose in the early morning darkness, and I had occasion to step out of my tent during these wee hours. The moonlight filtered down through the trees, much like the sun in daylight hours, and as I walked to my destination, I was reminded of a quote from Emerson, which suggests that the light reflecting toward the earth from the moon is “mere tinsel”, except when it shines on a “necessary journey.”

As always, I am reluctant to relinquish my time in the woods, as I feel closer to my truest self when I am there.