Sometimes I write to convey. Right now, I’m writing to develop. This morning, I listened to an interview of V.S. Ramachandran, the famous neuroscientist and professor at UC San Diego. If you’ve ever heard of the mirror box in treating phantom limb pain, he created that.
In his interview on Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu, he shared how he came to create the mirror box. While sitting and chatting with an amputee, he asked the amputee to reach out for a cup with the phantom arm. The amputee did so.
Then, out of curiosity, Professor Ramachandran took away the cup from the phantom limb. The amputee said, “Ouch. I was holding that. You ripped it from my hand.” Question. How could the professor have triggered pain in a limb that didn’t even exist?
In the interview, Professor Ramachandran then discussed the significance of vision in affecting the brain, mood, and pain.
CONTEXT SUGGESTS MEANING
Context is to meaning what definition is to purpose. By meaning, I don’t just mean interpretation, but meaningfulness.
In Man’s Search for Meaning (1991), psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, asserts that rather than asking, “What does life mean?”, we ask, “What does life ask of me? What is it asking of me right now?” Maybe we are the ones being questioned by life.
When I told people that I majored in philosophy, I frequently got the question, “So… what’s the meaning of life?” To which I’d respond, “Have you tried looking in the dictionary?” The pun, or equivocation, goes that the dictionary gives meaning as in definition, not meaning as in purpose.
A biology textbook gives a better definition of life: survival and reproduction. Living things survive and reproduce, but that doesn’t necessitate the purpose of human life. Maybe for someone, if he chooses his life to mean that. A human being may choose.
The ways in which we express survival and reproduction – growing, falling in love, raising children, succeeding, leading – we generally find meaningful. Definition suggests purpose. Definition creates the context in which we make decisions, in which we move.
There’s a type of invertebrate called a sea squirt that looks like a giant straw. It gathers on the sea floor with other sea squirts to form this soft coral-looking squishy plant-like thing. Early in its life cycle, it possesses a simple nervous system, which it uses to move through the sea to decide on a place to permanently plant itself.
Once planted, it dissolves its own brain. Comparative anatomy reveals that the more diverse the movement, the more diverse the nervous system. It seems the brain arose in many ways for movement, to move life toward more life, to move it toward survival and reproduction.
When we deliberately move towards something, we make that decision in light of other decisions. Those other decisions, the opportunity costs, represent the context within which we live.
SEEING SUGGESTS CONTEXT
We only choose the decisions that we see as decisions in the first place. Teleporting to my desk at work may count as an option in some future world, but not in the world I find myself now; therefore, I don’t reasonably see it as a potential decision.
Of course, it’s also possible for me to hallucinate things that don’t exist and believe them as decisions I may choose.
But there also exist new, more powerful ways of seeing the world that remain hidden from me because of how I’m seeing the world now.
What I see (as well as perception in general) depends partly on what I choose to see and partly on what my brain automatically does.
Right now, the surface of my eyeballs that receive light from the world contain veins, arteries, and capillaries. My eyeballs see a cracked window, but I don’t experience the cracks because my brain automatically adjusts. The rods that interpret color, given their location, should only present me with color vision in a three-foot circle about arm’s distance from my face. The natural saccades of the eyes should present a shaky view of the world. The eyes and other sense organs process perception at slightly different speeds, but I don’t experience the lag… and on and on.
Does my brain sometimes automatically interpret incorrectly? Sometimes. Like when I’m dreaming and when I’m convinced that the dream is real. Or when standing on top of a high point and perceiving that the world is flat; it’s not easy for the common senses to perceive the world as round.
After I bought my Toyota RAV4, I all of sudden noticed all the many other people also driving a Toyota RAV4. They’ve been there, but now the area of my brain called the reticular activation system (RAS) stopped filtering out the perception of Toyota RAV4s. It had now become meaningful information.
WE CAN CHOOSE WHAT WE SEE
What about choice? We can choose to see differently. A couple easy ways to begin to see differently is to ask questions unfiltered. Just start getting curious and start asking questions that don’t initially (or probably won’t ever) make sense.
I heard Seth Godin say once that you can’t be curious and angry at the same time. He was talking about empathizing and emotional connection, but I think it also applies when frustrated at other pursuits.
Here’s one way to ask off-the-wall questions. I got this from a philosophy of science textbook. Look at the question, “Why did Eve eat the apple?”
Why Eve (subject) as opposed to Alex, Bob, Charlie, David or President Trump? Why eat (verb) as opposed to bake, deep fry, discard or microwave? Why the apple (object) as opposed to the banana, orange, pizza or doner kebab? Why satisfy her curiosity (indirect object) as opposed to testing her hypothesis on the crunchiness of apples, to taking one for the team or spicing up her usual diet of fig leaves?
Another way is to just move the body around differently. Sometimes just taking on a different pose triggers a feeling connected to that pose, which then changes thinking.