Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Meditating monkeys, internal thoughts, consciousness and fearing death.

Above gem of a pic from a fascinating BBC website story about research involving brain-scanning monkeys.


Seems to me that a fuller understanding of human consciousness is helpful in getting us to look more four-square at our own mortality. So enough already with the obvious jokes such as "Never mind brass monkeys mate, I can't even find it now." These, the most northerly human-related primates, are Japanese macaques. They go for a cold meditate when it's very hot, and they look for hot springs when it's cold. They wash their food in sea-water which cleans it and may even make it taste better.

But, wonderful though these kinship points are, something else and possibly quite profound has emerged. Researchers have found, via electronic brain scanning (calm down, it's harmless and it doesn't hurt), that these chaps have what the neuroscientists call a "default mode" of brain activity. Wow.

This default mode is the bit we slide into when we're thinking about ourselves and our state of mind or bodily well-being. It is our conscious awareness of self. For example, when we're sometimes just letting our thoughts drift along thus: "I must get a new tyre, maybe I'll go to the place where there's that tasty mechanic, who looks like the bloke who..anyway, that I'll do tomorrow, ouch that ankle is still playing up, bugger it's raining and the washing's out..." etc. (The Munday mind is a murky place at best, you've gathered by now.) Or looking back with happiness or regret, or foward planning.

The other bit, when we're focusing on hurrying to get the washing in, concentrating on not dropping too many pegs, even counting them, not drifting off into daydreams about tight jeans, not noticing that the ankle hurts, not verbalising or imageing apart from the task in hand - that's the focused bit, and it shows up as a different area of activity in the brain. Our self-awareness is, as I understand and feel it, at a low state of arousal when we are lost in a task. We talk of "losing ourselves." Recently bereaved people often like to keep busy, because it dulls for a while their painful self-awareness.

You'd expect these smart monkeys to be good in that focused area, as they hunt for their sushi and wash it in seawater. But "deafault mode?" Wow again. The scientists are wondering if monkeys can wonder too, maybe look back, maybe contemplate alternative future actions not just immediate reflexes, etcetcetcetc.

Let's not be sentimental. They can't talk (i.e. their sound communications are not a fully-featured symbolic system) - no, lady, your little bow-wow can't talk to you, however sweetly he responds. But he may be more self-aware than we'd realised. The macaques may behave in a distinctly ungentlepersonly fashion sometimes. But then so do we.

Human consciousness, awareness of self, is the bit that says to us "you're going to die one day," so we have to live with the dread of death before it arrives, and somehow come to terms with it. Sometimes it makes us behave better towards each other - in the words of the nearly immortal Randy Newman, "no more arse-grabbing, back-stabbing" or it's pitchforks and trombones, not harps and angels, for you - sometimes it drives us a bit crazy - see "Staring at the Sun" by Irvin Yalom, no apologies for another plug.

And these macaques? Wish I knew. Because if consciousness is a continuum, if it has evolved gradually through a progressively complex area of organisms and to some degree is spread around the natural world more than we thought, then (and I'm not sure why) I feel comforted. Not because any other creature might have to face some awareness of its future demise, but because - just because.

Our consciousness moves through the world, the world moves through our consciousness. We make our world out of our thoughts and senses, the world makes us think and feel like we do. And we are not entirely alone in this. It's all one. Tat tvam asi. What's to fear?

My brain hurts. I may run off to an ashram.

No monkeys were hurt in the making of this blogpost.


  1. No need to get thee to an ashram just yet, GM. In our People's Park here in Redditch, much of it grazing land inhabited by the ruins of a monastery and a herd of ancient cattle, we had two swans nesting - as they do every year. This year, though, much attentive sitting led to nothing. The rangers tested the eggs, found they were barren and took them away. The swans hung around for a few days longer, then flew off. They must have made something of what had happened by process of swan-wondering; how else could they have assimilated it?

    Humans do love to split things off - they way they used to split the rational (head) from emotions (guts), then set them to war with each other.

    We can't split ourselves off from other animals quite so simply. It's only a matter of degree, surely?

  2. Surely so, thanks Charles - but sorry about what the wondering swans had perforce to wonder.

  3. Gloria,

    I wonder if consciousness is not all in the mind? Is it possible that there are various intelligences in various places in the body, and that the brain or mind or thinking machine or whatever it is aggregates these together to form a sense of being.

    In addition is it possible that we in this society ignore some signals from certain seats of intelligence that we label (if we acknowledge them at all as "gut feeling")

    I thought this article might also feed into your more general theme.

    Like the monkey. Some say it resembles me in the sauna.


  4. Hello Arkers, thanks for thoughts.

    Well, using "intelligence" metaphorically, I'd agree. We maybe do under-value responses that originate elsewhere than the brain, and I applaud any insight that helps us to see that the brain is not a separate thing from the rest of the working body.

    However, it seems to me that the term "intelligence" applies exactly and only to that o-ordinating and aggregating function you refer to. It doesn't seem likely to me that it could happen elsewhere, though ingredients, as it were, may come from all over. After all, a sound stimulates a response in our ear, even though we only put that together into a sound = my mobile going off in the middle of a quartet recital, which in turn produces a reaction (fumbling for switch, going red etc)

    But only in the brain can the intelligent co-ordinating work happen on the impulses from the ear - the brain is where the "sound" happens. You can't have one without the other, of course,and maybe its that interconnectedness we have been ignoring too much. As you once wrote, "I blame Descartes..." But I freely admit I am flying blind on this stuff, having read just enough to prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

    And if you resemble the monky in the sauna, then your sauna is clearly a place of wisdom and mindful meditation.

  5. Free Guided Meditations really help me unwind after a long day. It is the first thing that has really helped me in a long time.