Thursday 3 July 2008

Only connect

In a recent post I described my conflicted feelings about the issue of Tibet, as well as my brief flirtation and ultimate disillusionment with Buddhism. A propos of this, and via Butterflies and Wheels, I recently came across an article by Donald Lopez at The Immanent Frame, about the apparent connections between Buddhism and neurobiology. If you follow the links back, you reach this New York Times piece about neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor's experience of having a stroke, and her comparison of her sensations with Buddhist descriptions of the effects of meditation. And from there you can link back further to the Youtube video of Taylor talking about her experience.
The way Taylor describes her experience is extremely moving and she has a great gift for conveying sensations and emotions, but some aspects of her testimony made me feel quite uncomfortable. It also helped me to pinpoint one of the reasons why, despite my own experience of the benefits of meditation, I eventually drifted away from Buddhism. 

The integrity of Taylor's experience is unquestionable, but the interpretation she constructs around it is, I think, open to challenge. She makes a great deal of the differences, and supposed separation, between the right and left sides of the brain, controlling our immediate sensory experience of the world, and language and communication respectively. Now I'm no neuroscientist, but I do find this kind of brain science, popularised in a thousand self-help books, overly simplistic. Taylor describes her experience of the first few minutes of a stroke as like having the left, rational side of the brain switched off, and basking temporarily in the immediate, sensory world of the right brain. Moreover, she describes this in the kind of mystical language that has got some Buddhists and New Age types all excited.

I found myself wanting to challenge some of the implications that Taylor drew from her experience. She suggests that our immediate, sensory, right-brain experience is what enables us to feel at one with the world and is the source of our connexion to each other and to the world - while it's our left brain's constant, rationalising chatter that is the basis of our individuality and thus our separateness from others. From this, it's a short step to arguing (as she does) that if we all spent more time in the former mode of being (and, by implication, less time being rational and critical), we'd be better people and the world would be a more peaceful and harmonious place.

I believe this to be profoundly mistaken and dangerous. As a humanist, I would argue that it's precisely our capacity to reason, articulate and communicate that makes it possible for us to escape from the prison-house of self and make connexions with other human beings. On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that the quest for mystical oneness leads not to mutual understanding but to selfishiness and solipsism. Moreover, it can end up in an apolitical outlook that is open to all kinds of dangerous irrationalism. 

In the days when I used to browse Buddhist websites, I came across an account by a group of western Buddhists who, in the aftermath of 9/11, wanted to do something to heal the perceived rift between the west and the Arab world. They described visiting a Middle Eastern country and making contact with a group of intellectuals who seemed open to dialogue. The latter were eager to meet westerners, and wanted to know their opinions about the Arab world - its politics, history and literature. But the Buddhist group had to admit they knew nothing of these things, and had done no reading about them as preparation for their trip. Instead, following the logic of their Buddhist beliefs, they had hoped to connect with their Arab interlocutors on the basis of their 'oneness' as human beings - that is, at the level of feeling and emotion, rather than knowledge, reason and debate. Needless to say, the encounter was something of a failure, and a massive missed opportunity. 

One of the commenters on the Immanent Frame piece links to an article by Slavoj Zizek, who views western Buddhism as a contemporary opium of the people, the ideal spiritual gloss for global capitalism. Now, you can argue that Zizek is being overly reductive and make the obvious points about the complex relations of base and superstructure, but after listening to Jill Bolte Taylor and reading some of the commentary on her experience, I began to wonder if he had a point. He also has some insightful things to say about the place of Tibet in the western imagination, managing to be critical of western romanticisation of the country without falling into the trap of excusing the Chinese occupation.


Anonymous said...

Have you read (or heard of) "In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind" by Eric R. Kandel? If not, check it out:

Charting the intellectual history of the emerging biology of mind, Eric R. Kandel illuminates how behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology have converged into a powerful new science of mind. This science now provides nuanced insights into normal mental functioning and disease, and simultaneously opens pathways to more effective healing.

Driven by vibrant curiosity, Kandel’s personal quest to understand memory is threaded throughout this absorbing history. Beginning with his childhood in Nazi-occupied Vienna, In Search of Memory chronicles Kandel’s outstanding career from his initial fascination with history and psychoanalysis to his groundbreaking work on the biological process of memory, which earned him the Nobel Prize.

A deft mixture of memoir and history, modern biology and behavior, In Search of Memory traces how a brilliant scientist’s intellectual journey intersected with one of the great scientific endeavors of the twentieth century: the search for the biological basis of memory.

About the Author

Eric R. Kandel is Kavli Professor and University Professor at Columbia University and senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000. He lives in New York City.

Martin said...

No, I haven't come across Kandel's work, but I'm fascinated by the subject of memory and will definitely check it out. Thanks for the link.