Consciousness and the Story-telling Brain

There is a particularly juicy bit in the latest issue of Parabola, embedded in “Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain?” by Chris Carter.  Ferdinand Schiller was in Oxford philosopher in 1891 when Riddles of the Sphinx was published, authored by a “Troglodyte” (or cave-dweller). This cave-dweller turned out to be the learned Schiller, who likened himself to the man in Plato’s Republic who glimpses the truth beyond the cave but finds that his fellow cave dwellers cannot believe him.

In his book Schiller proposes that the material brain is a receiver, not the creator of consciousness—that it is “admirably calculated machinery for regulating limiting and restraining the consciousness which it encases.”  The simpler the brain, the more limited the level of consciousness that we can receive.  A squirrel has a more limited, more squirrely capacity to hold consciousness than a human but the function is the same in both cases:  the material brain is not what produces consciousness but what limits it, what confines its intensity.

This was a radical concept in Schiller’s day and it still is our day.  It is also an idea that makes near-death experience conceivable. It is also the idea—or the taste of inkling– that makes many people spiritual seekers of some sort or another. At some point or other, in nature or sitting in meditation or in the solitude of prayer, many people have at least a fleeting experience of receiving consciousness, of being filled by an impression of beauty or stillness or God’s presence, something they do not create.

Lately I’ve been thinking of this in relationship to the way the brain works.  Apparently, there is growing scientific interest in something that most of us know instinctively:  we are born to receive information by way of stories.  In dreams, in ancient myths and folktales, even in child’s play, we practice solving life’s thorniest challenges by way of stories.  Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal stresses the point: Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly – to survive to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story – comic, tragic, romantic – is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some costs, what he or she desires.”

Beneath all the wild variety of stories that have been told, there is this common structure—this common expectation.  We human have brains that are designed to like and remember stories.  We like beginnings, middles, ends.  The spiritual path becomes journey, a quest, a drama, a passion.  And consciousness—full, deathless Consciousness—is the endlessly satisfying ending. The world’s religious traditions impart wisdom not just by means of rituals or symbols but through stories.

What’s interesting to consider however, is that our human brains makes stories out of propositions that aren’t even intended to be stories.   In earliest teachings of the Buddha, there are many lists—for example The Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment.  The seven factors are meant to be a progression, not a static list.  And it is full of implied drama and struggle.  The first factor is mindfulness– the sky or the ground of awareness, the moment we realize there is something to be known, to be sought.  In the midst of pure, bare knowing, interest appears. Our attention is drawn to some aspect of being present in particular: the sensation of sitting here, or the breathing, or a particular sound or thought.  Interest or investigation brings a burst of energy– blossoms into delight into joy. William Blake said “Energy is pure delight.”  As contradictory as it may seem, joy or rapture can lead on to the quiet factors, to tranquility concentration, equanimity.  In our culture, we think of rapture as heedless, hair-blowing-back state, but think of people paying rapt attention. Think of a monk or nun in meditation and prayer.

How strange it is to reflect on that we seek to awaken to higher consciousness in these bodies, with these brains.  To know there is no escape but through our human experience.

8 thoughts on “Consciousness and the Story-telling Brain

  1. Hi Tracy. You wrote

    “This was a radical concept in Schiller’s day and it still is our day”

    Relativity of being as I understand it, is an ancient concept always understood by a minority just as it is now.

    Here is an ancient depiction of the “Great Chain of Being” from 1579.

    Unfortunately, in some past relationships I have had, certain stories I invented were remembered and not to my advantage.

    Yes there are stories and there are stories

    1. Hi Nick, Thank you for being short and sweet–if bittersweet. You are right. There are stories that imprison us and stories that liberate. And the idea or perception that we are the receivers not the creators of conciousness has always been with us.

  2. Tracy, it’s hard for a broad shouldered Aries male to be short and sweet. That is why I still hold the idea of the unification of science and spirituality in such high regard. Many dismiss it in short and sweet platitudes. Yet their unification is vital IMO if humanity is to survive its rapid technological advances.

    Albert Einstein wrote:

    “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

    “Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”

    Simone Weil wrote:

    “I believe that one identical thought is to be found–expressed very precisely and with only slight differences of modality– in. . .Pythagoras, Plato, and the Greek Stoics. . .in the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita; in the Chinese Taoist writings and. . .Buddhism. . .in the dogmas of the Christian faith and in the writings of the greatest Christian mystics. . .I believe that this thought is the truth, and that it today requires a modern and Western form of expression. That is to say, it should be expressed through the only approximately good thing we can call our own, namely science. This is all the less difficult because it is itself the origin of science.” Simone Weil….Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life, Random House, 1976, p. 488 ***********

    Many New Agers frown upon thought and many drawn to the literal mind of science frown upon spiritual contemplation. Yet regardless of all this resistance there are the oddballs such as the above who do not see science and spirtuality in opposition but rather that they advance each other in the pursuit of truth which is their common stated objective. So I support the oddballs as necessary for humanity regardless of those who insist on supporting an artificial division between complimentary human attributes.

  3. Serendipity?

    Brains, consciousness and traditional stories are the subjects of The Institute for Cultural Research’s three most recent monographs:

    Professor Firth’s Consciousness, will and responsibility is especially relevant in demonstrating how we construct our own reality through misperceptions that just might be un-skewed by the apposite story, such as the old one about the two caterpillars looking up at a butterfly passing by overhead. “You’ll never get me up in one of those things!” one declares to the other.

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