Sunday, 16 September 2012

Brains, electricity and chemicals - more silly polarisation

Our brain activity is a matter of chemical transactions - not the sort above, bottles in the chemi lab at school, but tiny amounts, tiny quantitative changes. This is obvious, I guess - we all taker mood-altering chemicals: Pinot Noir, anti-depressants, best bitter, cannabis, etcetcetcetc. Our moods are a mix of reactions in the rest of our bodies, and reactions in our brains.

And our brains run on tiny electrical currents, connecting and disconnecting neurons all the time:

(I think I've got that about right so far, should have paid more attention at school. Mind you, that's so long ago that they taught us rather more about the stuff in the first picture than the second one.)

These facts have given rise to an unhelpful set of polarisations, which we might call romantic vs scientific. The first might be caricatured thus:

"It is reductive and mechanistic to say that we are only chemical reactions and electrical connections. Romeo says of Juliet 

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

He doesn't say "Her pheromes are interacting with my hormones and I am developing reproductive urges towards her."

The second might go: "It is nonsense to ignore scientific fact. Romeo is simply disguising his wish to mate with Juliet in culturally acceptable terms, which owe nothing to reason."

Note weasel-words "only" and "simply."

This is nonsense on both sides (leaving aside the obvious fact that young man don't talk like this very often, and nowadays might well express their desires in rather earthier terms, but "RandJ" is a great play, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a lads' night out.)

The subjective reality of falling in love is every bit as powerful as the scientific explanation of what's happening. It's not either/or. The science is fascinating and rewarding to know, helps us understand our emotions and reactions to each other. To the extent that we now talk of "the right chemistry" when people get together. Shakespeare wouldn't have known what we meant.

The relevance of all this to mindfulness about mortality? It runs alongside and in some ways resembles the hopeless and useless duality of arguments between people who are close-minded about their religious beliefs, and those who are close-minded about scientific fact.

You don't have to believe in God and an afterlife to feel moments of grace, of spiritual profundity, of transcendence. You don't have to be a religious believer to acknowledge the validity of people's feelings about profound matters of life and death. You don't have to be a rigid materialist to wonder at the enlightenments that are coming from neuroscience.

I don't know what the chemical or electrical basis of compassion is, but it seems to be in short supply in our world.

"Faith, hope and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is charity."

That's so obviously true, even to one who believe, in a literal sense, only about one in a thousand of the words in the Bible.

(I'm told "charity" there is a certain kind of selfless love, and so translating it as "love" doesn't really work. Romeo's steam-heat ardour it is not; compassionate it certainly is.)

1 comment:

  1. Ah this gets the bean revving. Truly (I think) wisdom is ambivalence, combined with a disposition to marvel. Nothing looks good pinned and wriggling.