Brain Chauvinism: Do Thoughts Exist?

I have been reading “Beyond Words” by Carl Safina, one of many wonderful books out there on animal cognition. I highly recommend it on many levels to anybody and everybody, but it is particularly relevant to Zen practitioners, and I’ll tell you why. It forces the question: what is intelligence, at its most basic level? Is intelligence defined by having a brain or some semblance of free will? It is easy for us to relate to elephants in mourning as a sympathetic show of an emotional intelligence, a clear cognition and awareness, in a very different species, one we have not shared an ancestor with for tens and tens of millions of years, and so has evolved very complex brains quite independently of how our evolutionary path. The same goes for dolphins and wolves. Apes are of course our cousins, so maybe we are less surprised at their brainpower.

But what about living beings that aren’t mammals, that aren’t even vertebrates? We can easily see the intelligence of an octopus when it solves problems without a vertebrate brain. What about plants? There are a couple of books I have enjoyed on plant intelligence: “What a Plant Knows” by Daniel Chamovitz and “Brilliant Green” by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. There is clearly a kind of group mind cognition in social insects. Is there bacterial or protist intelligence? Certainly there is a staggeringly complex integration of a range of stimuli and response requiring a balancing act of inputs and outputs even in single celled organisms.

Why should a brain be necessary for awareness? After all, one can argue our bodies and brains are made of cells, and that these cells employ mechanisms that respond to input signals with responses that are not substantially different from the mechanisms used by single cell organisms. All such cellular mechanisms involve energy stimuli resulting in energy responses, as conditioned by biology and interactions with different energy inputs (colloquially called the “past” or “experience” or “the environment”).

Is free will needed for intelligence? It may be that our apparent free will is only a story we tell ourselves about these stimuli and responses as a survival mechanism. Maybe that’s part of why we developed language, to dress up our stories about our cognition, our responses, to better assuage us that we have some privilege, some substance that we don’t really have! It was once suggested to me the only free will we have may be the free will of attention, of, in Buddhist parlance, of waking up.

The view of some scientists is that the complexity of brains allows for ”emergent phenomena” like “true” cognition and awareness. That is certainly the case for awareness and cognition as we experience it with our brains, or insects or elephants and dolphins experience with their very different brains, but maybe that’s only because we are brain chauvinists. I am not convinced it is essential that there be brains involved for cognition, for awareness to occur. Do you have any idea of the complexity of signals, fluctuations of energy in molecules, changes in cell membrane electrical potential, the generation of new molecules and molecular conformations, required to get a paramecium or E. coli to move in response to light or nutrients, or for a plant to turn to the sun or release chemicals that signal danger to other plants? Are these really acting any differently than brains in a fundamental or substantial way? Clearly these behaviors of bacteria and roses are complex emergent phenomena.

Whether you buy the awareness and intelligence of the staph infecting your ingrown toenail, we have another prejudice besides brain chauvinism that is closer to home. It is the belief in the need for words to embody or create our thoughts, that the words in our heads are thoughts. Actually they are just our explanations, our stories about our responses to the energy state we find ourselves in at any given moment. That is why the title of the book “Beyond words” is so apt. Our mammalian cousins, with intelligence so much like our intelligence, do not use words to craft complex thoughts, communications and emotions.

Studies in human cognition show that much of what we interpret as our thoughts occurs well after the thought registers as brain activity. We dress up our brain’s perceptions and our brain’s responses with words, almost as an afterthought, as it were, to explain to ourselves, really to justify to ourselves, what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

Words are a supplement, a special skill we have, but it doesn’t mean that they always serve us well. Look at what we have used this tool for: greed and anger and the resulting hate and violence. Compassion and caring and anger and fear don’t require words. Look at our animal cousins! It may be that our word-filled brains are a failed evolutionary experiment. Perhaps we big-brained wordy mammals, as a corner of the universe unfolding, have unfolded in an evolutionary dead end. The universe is not sentimental. Mind will persist with our without hairless monkeys on the third rock from the sun.

Perhaps awareness is the true nature of being, foundational in a way that brains are not.

Minimally it behooves us as citizens of earth to open our minds to the minds of our living cousins. Perhaps more to the point we should understand the words in our heads are not our thoughts, just the story we tell ourselves about them. We need not attach to them and give them power over us.

I am not even sure that most of what we think of, or maybe any of what we think of, as thoughts has any substance at all. When is a thought a thought? When the MRI or EEG says so, when enough cell membranes depolarize in a specific pattern, before you are conscious of it, or when it becomes words in your head? Why is any of that “thought” other than we defined it that way out of convenience or arrogance? Out of a neurotic need to justify and reassure ourselves to ourselves?

If you are walking and take the next step without instructing yourself to do so with words, is that less of a thought than when you take it with words about that step in your head? What about the next breath you take? You can use words about breathing and you can control the rate and depth of your breathing, but you don’t have to. You will take a next breath either way. Is one breath more a thought than the other just because you clothed it in words and altered it?

Yasutani Roshi says in the book “The Three Pillars of Zen” that it’s all “makyo.” Makyo is a Japanese word used for hallucinations or other manifest delusional processes that are released during intense meditation. They can be frank sensory hallucinations, emotions, or complex delusional worlds we conjure up. They can be positive or negative. Indeed, then, perhaps the whole of samsara, the manifest universe, is makyo as Yasutani suggests. Perhaps all thoughts, all experience, all existence that occurs in the world of the six senses, are makyo as Yasutani Roshi suggests.

The complexity of our brains, the words that appear in our heads, is just a set of chemical reactions, of the energy fluctuations that form the substance of our perceived reality, the universe, even of awareness itself. But awareness doesn’t need our “big boy words.” We are brain and thought addicts. That is not only true for intellectuals and nerds. What we define as a thought is the brain chauvinistic tip of the iceberg of a vast web of energy transformations. Do we really need to privilege thoughts over awareness, or is that the essence of delusion? do we need to believe our stories about our thoughts?

What do you think?

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