Transcending Our Brain Created Reality: A New Call to Lift Nature’s Veil
September 22, 2012
By BERNARDO KASTRUP, Ph.D.
The study of non-ordinary states of consciousness is quickly becoming an established area of scientific and philosophical inquiry. Yet, all the enthusiasm about finding out what these non-ordinary states are somehow obfuscates much bigger, important, and urgent questions: What as-of-yet unknown aspects of reality do they give us access to? And what significance do those hold for the human adventure in space-time?
In this article, I’d like to make a call-to-arms of sorts: A call for a structured, systematic, and rational inquiry into nature through non-ordinary states of consciousness, next to the now established investigation of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
What Can We Really Know?
Our Western civilisation is justifiably proud of its cultural, social, scientific, and technological achievements. Western values now pervade nearly all cultures on Earth, and Western-created technology has become an integral part of human activity. We look back at our historical past with the patronising attitude of an adult looking at a child: We have absolutely no doubt that we now know a lot more than we knew then and smile, full of hubris, at the naiveté of our ancestors. Unlike them, we now understand what nature is all about; we know who we are and what is going on; we even acquired a large measure of control, through our Faustian technology, of the forces and mechanisms underlying nature. The present is seen as the highest point ever reached in the historical mountain humanity has been climbing for about two hundred thousand years. Kings of the hill, we see ourselves.
But are we, really? Do we really know what is going on? Or have we been caught in an invisible web of self-referential epistemic trappings?
Allow me to explain what I mean here. The currently accepted view in neuroscience is that the ordinary, waking reality we experience every day is in fact a brain-constructed ‘hallucination’ analogous in nearly every way to a dream. Indeed, the same neuronal mechanisms underlie our experience of dreams and of waking reality.
The difference between the waking hallucination you live your daily life in, on the one hand, and your dreamed-up hallucination during sleep, on the other hand, is merely this: The former is believed to be modulated by electromagnetic signals emanating from a supposed external reality that we can never have direct access to, for we’re irremediably locked into our brain-generated hallucination.1 It is this abstract, assumed external reality that, supposedly, explains why our waking experiences seem to be shared with other individuals, while our nightly dreams are highly individual and idiosyncratic.
There is, in my view, a better hypothesis to explain this synchronisation of our experiences during waking states, without the need to postulate an entire, forever inaccessible, external universe.2 But this is beyond the scope of this article, whose conclusions should hold anyway, whichever hypothesis is true. What I want to stress here is that, whichever the case, what we experience in our lives every day is not reality as such, but a kind of brain-constructed ‘copy’ of reality. The original is supposedly an amorphous, colourless, soundless, tasteless realm of abstract energy fields.
The question, of course, is whether we have any reason to believe that the copy is perfect. Assuming that Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct in its more essential aspects, we have to ask ourselves whether evolution would have favoured a brain that created a complete internal copy of reality, capturing in it all aspects of relevance for our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of nature. Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves whether evolution would have favoured a brain that, whatever part of reality it did capture in its internal copy, copied them without significant distortions that could throw us completely off track as far as putting together an accurate worldview. The answer to both questions is no.
Evolution favours physical survival, not per se the accuracy or completeness of internal representations. It is reasonable to think that some matching between our brain-generated copy of reality and reality itself is favourable for survival of the physical body: If a tiger is approaching you, it is useful to see the actual tiger, and not some other non-modulated, dream-like hallucination. But most people, scientists included, far overestimate the survival usefulness of accurate, complete internal representations.
My own research on artificial neuronal networks shows that, very often, it is useful precisely to distort certain parts, and cut out other parts, of the external stimuli when creating an internal representation of reality in an artificial nervous system.3 Complete information is often confusing, drowning out the small parts that really matter.
Undistorted information is often hard to act upon in a timely manner, due to the subtlety of its nuances. Therefore, these artificial nervous systems perform much more efficiently – and would stand a much better chance of survival if they had to compete in an ecosystem – when their own internal copy of reality is largely incomplete and distorted.
As such, this is what evolution would have favoured and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the copy of reality you and I live in comes even close to what is really going on. We’re intrinsically limited to watching an edited and biased version of the film we’re trying to make sense of.
Even the scientific instruments that broaden the scope of our sensory perception – like microscopes that allow us to see beyond the smallest features our eyes can discern, or infrared and ultraviolet light sensors that detect frequency ranges beyond the colours we can see – are fundamentally limited to our narrow and distorted window into reality: They are constructed with materials and methods that are themselves constrained to the edited copy of reality in our brains.
As such, all Western science and philosophy, ancient and modern, from Greek atomism to quantum mechanics, from Democritus and Aristotle to Bohr and Popper, have been and are fundamentally limited to the partial and distorted copy of reality in our brains. Western science is thus, from a certain point-of-view, a house of cards built on shaky foundations: The scientific worldview is the result of an internal model of reality whose unreliability is an inescapable implication of that very model; a self-referential epistemic contradiction.
For all we know, we may be locked in a small room trying to explain the entire universe outside by looking through a peephole on the door; availing ourselves only of its limited and distorted images. This, ironically enough, may be the situation we find ourselves in while naively celebrating our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.
Is there another alternative, or should we resign ourselves to the hopelessness of our ambition to understand reality? There is evidence to suggest that another alternative indeed exists. And, in that case, a new way to structure our inquiry into nature may offer unfathomable new possibilities.
Looking Beyond the Veil
Solid evidence has been accumulating that our minds cannot be explained solely by brain activity; the mind seems to transcend the brain.4 Yet, it is undeniable that the brain plays a significant role in our perceptions and behaviour, as, for instance, the effects of alcoholic drinks make plain and clear.
In an earlier article in this magazine,5 I elaborated upon an alternative hypothesis for explaining the relationship between the mind and the brain; a hypothesis that, since the publication of that article, has gained increased scientific momentum: Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of nature, not depending on any material structure for its existence. The function of the body-brain system is to localise and restrict conscious perception to the space-time locus of the physical body. As such, the brain modulates and limits conscious perception, this being why, in ordinary states of consciousness, mental states correlate so well with brain states.
As we’ve seen in the discussion above, such restriction and modulation of conscious perception – that is, the filtering and distortion of the copy of reality in our brains – can have a significant survival advantage, which explains why the brain evolved to perform such counterintuitive tasks.
Now, because the brain works as a kind of filter of mind, restricting and distorting our view of reality for survival purposes, bypassing certain brain mechanisms could conceivably give one access to a broader, cleaner, crisper, and more reliable view of nature. Historically, most, if not all, methods for achieving non-ordinary states of consciousness seem to do precisely that: To enable expanded perception and understanding by reducing brain activity.
The pattern here is so clear that it is surprising our culture seems to remain largely oblivious to it. For instance, many traditional Yogic breathing practices, as well as the more modern method of Holotropic Breathwork, reduce brain activity through the constriction of blood vessels that results from hyperventilation (which is precisely why you to get dizzy and ultimately faint when breathing too fast). Military pilots undergoing G-force induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) – which forces blood out of the brain, thereby reducing its activity – are known to report transcendent narratives similar to near-death experiences. Teenagers worldwide play a dangerous, potentially fatal game involving partial strangulation in order to ‘trip’ without drugs.
Even psychedelic substances, which have always been assumed to produce ‘hallucinations’ by stimulating brain activity, have recently been shown to actually reduce brain activity.6 At least two Nobel Prize laureates – Francis Crick and Kary Mullis – have attributed their prize-winning insights to such non-ordinary states of consciousness; a powerful corroboration for the notion that such states broaden understanding and increase insight, despite reduced brain activity. Even more subtle methods, like meditation, ritual prayer, and sensory deprivation (think of isolation tanks) are likely associated to decreased brain activity.
The pattern here is as clear as it is ancient: Specific reductions in brain activity seem to consistently lead to a broadened and crisper perception and understanding of reality. The hypothesis that the brain is a mechanism to constrain and localise mind is entirely consistent with this: Reduction of brain activity impairs the filter/localisation mechanism, allowing one to temporarily and partially escape its entrapment and come closer to perceiving reality as it truly is.
A tantalising possibility suggests itself, one that has been lost to Western culture perhaps since the extinction of the Eleusinian mysteries: An unfathomably broader and more authentic inquiry into the true nature of reality can be achieved through an expansion of the investigator’s own state of consciousness. That true inquiry involves not only the transcendence of physical limitations through the use of instrumentation, but – and more fundamentally – a transcendence of one’s own brain-based mental filters. To see and understand reality for what it truly is – to see the original, not the flawed copy – we need to temporarily escape the limitations imposed on us by biology and culture.
A New Kind of Inquiry
In my more hopeful moments, I envision the emergence of a ‘New Kind of Inquiry’ (NKI); one based fundamentally on the use of non-ordinary states of consciousness to access transcendent, yet natural ‘landscapes’ otherwise unavailable to our ordinarily filtered perceptions and cognition.
Even though the use of such non-ordinary states is ancient, it has historically been restricted mostly to religious purposes and otherwise (semi-)dogmatic agendas. More recently – namely, in the 20th century – it has partly freed itself from such agendas, but become then a vehicle for purely personal, idiosyncratic insight. While valuable to the individual, the broader cultural impact of these personal insights has been extremely limited: Our culture is still dominated by the subjective belief-systems underlying the current scientific paradigm, which irrationally rejects the value of non-ordinary states.
In the meantime, Western civilisation edges ever closer to a point of irreversible unsustainability, both environmentally and psychologically. To change the culture and safeguard a healthy and sane future, we need more than isolated, personal transcendence. Many of us, for fear of being foolish, need permission to allow our belief systems to change; permission that can only be gained through the institutionalised, collective validation of new hypotheses and worldviews.
An effective NKI with contemporary appeal, capable of leading to a major paradigm shift in our modern relationship to reality, requires complete freedom from dogma and traditional symbolisms due to the baggage they carry. But such effective NKI must also entail more than personal, idiosyncratic excursions into transcendent landscapes if it is to have true cultural impact.
As a first step in that direction, I envision an institutionalised NKI think-tank whose initial charter would be the study, creation, and refinement of methods for the achievement of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Even though countless such methods have traditionally been available, no systematic, structured, modern scientific study has been done for the very practical purpose of increasing their effectiveness (and safety). With modern scientific knowledge, we should be able to achieve a degree of success in enabling non-ordinary states of consciousness that traditional cultures could only dream of.
For instance, while psychedelics have the advantage of nearly always delivering an unambiguous effect at sufficient doses, they are notoriously hard to control and the insights resulting from their use very difficult to interpret. In contrast, while meditation has historically proven to be the most fruitful method for the achievement of unfathomable but clear insights about the nature of reality, it is notoriously difficult to master to a point where truly transcendent, unambiguous experiences can be achieved. Could we synthesise the strengths of all these methods? Could new and more effective ones be invented, based on more modern technologies like, for instance, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)? The ultimate goal here would be the iterative refinement of a safe, reliable, effective, robust, best-in-class method for enabling any educated and healthy individual to pursue the exploration of landscapes otherwise unavailable to ordinary cognition.
And here is where the second step of this vision comes in. Another, and more important, goal of the NKI think-tank would be to put the best-in-class method discussed above to practical and systematic use. Instead of adventurous individuals pursuing idiosyncratic exploration in isolation, without structure or suitable preparation, and unable to contribute their insights to a growing and coherent body of knowledge, the idea here is to organise structured and coordinated expeditions into transcendence involving various individuals; to have them collect data and compare notes upon returning; to build up and progressively refine compound maps based on reports from various explorers and their different perspectives; to find commonalities and consistencies, document them, and thereby reduce the unreliability of personal interpretations.
The NKI think-tank would attempt to derive rational, coherent models for describing the underlying nature of reality; models that would take into account a broader set of data than that available to ordinary perception; models based on more than just the distorted and limited view through the peephole. Its explorers wouldn’t be random: They would be selected based on a broad skill-set. Like medieval explorers – who were selected based on their seamanship, as well as cartography, astronomy, and natural history skills – explorers in the staff of the NKI think-tank would be required to have a balanced skill-set encompassing knowledge of history, philosophy of science, epistemology, modern physics, neuroscience, psychology, mathematics, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the arts. Contemporary ‘renaissance men and women’, is what we’re talking about here.
The think-tank would provide the entire infrastructure necessary for their voyages into transcendence: meditation spaces, isolation tanks, brain entrainment and TMS equipment, appropriate medical staff and facilities in case psychoactive substances would be used, etc. It would also host facilities required for journey preparation, as well as consolidation of results: Well-stocked libraries and network infrastructure for scholarly research; discussion rooms where explorers could debate and compare notes and ideas; conference facilities; data-processing facilities to enable the building of computer models inspired by transcendent insights; laboratory facilities for testing some of these models empirically; gardens for pondering, integration, and recuperation; etc.
The NKI think-tank would also have its own publishing infrastructure: periodicals, book imprints, podcasts, video production facilities, websites, and all that is necessary for the dissemination of its results and ideas. Its independence from the currently established academic and commercial channels would initially be paramount, since the subjective values and belief systems underlying the current scientific paradigm, as discussed by Thomas Kuhn,7 would render these channels non-conducive to new, paradigm-breaking hypotheses.
Through the respectability it would build up over time, the qualification of its staff, the quality of its results, as well as its communication and out-reach efforts, the NKI think-tank would insert itself powerfully into the collective mindset of the culture. It would give legitimacy to the New Kind of Inquiry it would embody and represent. It would broaden the horizons of civilisation through the generation of coherent, appealing hypotheses regarding the nature of reality and of our condition within it, free from tradition and dogma. It would give many intelligent, educated, and perhaps influential individuals permission – as well as a little more latitude – to seriously entertain worldviews that would otherwise be considered taboo. The NKI think-tank would become a significant catalyst for a shift of paradigm in the way our civilisation relates to reality and, as a bonus, re-introduce hope and meaning into the mainstream cultural dialogue.
This is my dream for a New Kind of Inquiry. As a vision that aims at stimulating the imagination, it would be silly to restrict such a dream based on practical limitations or notions about what is ‘realistic’ to accomplish at this time. Therefore, I may have allowed myself to get a little carried away above. Still, I do believe that something along those lines is urgent and essential to the progress of our worldview as a civilisation. It may be essential even to our very physical or psychological survival.
Our current materialistic worldview is self-contradictory, self-limiting, reduces humanity to a mere accident of probabilities, empties life of all meaning and telos, and manages to make no distinction between intellectual garbage and transcendent insight. Such is an unsustainable state of affairs; it translates itself into intellectual polarisation, alienation, and hysteria, all of which are plain to see in today’s society.
A breakthrough is required, something I believe the collective unconscious is ‘cognizant’ of and which, therefore, becomes inevitable. With this article, I hope to have helped shape a mental image of how the breakthrough could begin to take place; a first of many steps required for the attainment of our true freedom.
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