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Coffee & Wisdom 02.71: Embodied Cognition Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This week we have been looking at the idea of embodied cognition, why the Western world has been slow to coming to this realization, looking a little bit at the theology and the science that has been part of that, and the philosophy. Then looking at where other parts of the world where these ideas have been part of the water, cultural water for many years. And what I’m contrasting here is “I think therefore I am” as a way of exploring cognition, and “I am because we are” as a way of exploring cognition. As I mentioned yesterday, one of the persistent ideas in the Western world, or questions, has been, could we save Hitler’s brain? Yes, this is a silly 19 late 50s, early 60s movie Sci-Fi about this kind of idea. But it very much comes out of a Western idea of how the body really doesn’t matter. It’s all about that gray tissue up there. Could we save it and then would we have the same person if we put that brain in a different body? This has been around for a long time and it has been explored more or less scientifically back in the 1960s that we did have a Robert Ettinger who came up with the idea for cryonics. He is long dead, but maybe not because his body has been preserved at his institute. In the mid 60s, he wrote a book called The Prospect of Immortality when he founded the Cryonics Institute. Still around today, you can still pay to have yourself frozen to see if somehow later in time you might be thawed out and exist again in the body that you had when you died. So how about that? Again, pseudoscience to some extent, some science involved. But it’s also not true that Walt Disney had his body cryogenically preserved and that it is under Disneyland in California. No, that’s an urban myth, but some people do leave their bodies to the Cryonics Institute. All of this idea really comes from a Western philosophical idea that we usually call Descartian dualism, the mind/body split that has been explored so much in the Western world. As I mentioned yesterday, really, Rene Descartes was merely summarizing and building on an idea that goes all the way back to Plato and becomes very much embedded in early Christianity and then, therefore, is spread over Europe and then Europe’s colonies as they colonized the world. Cogito, ergo sum, “I think therefore I am” is the famous part of that. But it is a little more complicated. Dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum. “I doubt, therefore I think, I think therefore I am.” So the essence of thinking is doubt, according to Descartes. That very much has been a driver within the scientific world since that time. Now the Protestant Reformation, as I mentioned yesterday, with its inherent ideas of nationalism and theology and individualism, eventually this idea of the autonomous self gets built into what last week we were calling classic liberalism, and it does eventually become part of Roman Catholicism as well. Pope John Paul II wrote, “transcendent dignity of the human person as the visible image of the invisible God.” Really, that is exactly what those reformation Protestants were saying a long time ago. But it has now become part of Roman Catholic doctrine as well. This is in a encyclical called Centesimus Annus, “The 100th Year,” that came out in 1991. And it was a reflection on Rerum Novarum, “Of New Things,” by Pope Leo XIII back in 1891 when he began to try to think about how Roman Catholicism could embrace the workers’ movements of the time that were happening all over Europe and the many European colonies. Again, “transcendent dignity of the human person as the visible image of the invisible God.” This is very much a Roman Catholic theological idea, but it’s almost exactly the same thing that Luther would have said back in the 1500s, that the individual matters because the individual is the one that has the relationship to the divine. Now, one of the interesting things that has occurred in Christianity, in certainly Europe too, but especially here in the United States where we have, as we’ve discussed many times, much more of a buyer’s market of religion, that now six in ten Christians and “nones,” (those are people who have no particular religious tradition, they claim to be “none of the above,”) …six in ten Christians and “nones” hold at least one New Age belief. One of the reasons, I argue, for this is that the body mind dualism that has become very much a part of our disenchantment within the Western way of thinking has led many people to say, well, there’s got to be more than that. Where is it? And of course, New Age ideas are very much formulated to talk about exactly that. We have talked with Coffee and Wisdom quite a bit about the late 19th century flowering of these ideas that eventually become of what we call New Age in the 1950s in California. Well, one of the big things that’s going on now, and I would again argue that the body/mind distinction and dualism is exactly why this is popular. Look at 2005 when the yoga industry was generating a little bit over five billion dollars a year. And the projected latest figures that I could find in which now the revenue is well over 50 billion dollars, that is 2005 to 2020, the yoga industry has absolutely exploded. And I would argue, again, it’s because it is a way of cognitively embodying the self that Western traditions don’t do very well. Although last week I was talking about stoicism as one method that did do that, but it was edited out over time by the developing Christian church. One of the leaders in this as a neuroscience researcher, Amishi Jha. She says, “Emotional function and cognitive function aren’t unrelated to each other. They’re completely intertwined.” Emotional function, cognitive function, your emotions and your reason, your brain are intimately connected, as is your brain and your body. She is a researcher in cognitive neuroscience. She specializes in stress, memory and mindfulness. You too can be a subscriber to her YouTube channel. Here she is chatting with the Dalai Lama about mindfulness. She is one of the lead researchers in the Western tradition of how to do mindfulness without the religious baggage or overlay that often is done. And the Dalai Lama is greatly interested in science and the mindfulness industry as it develops out of traditional sorts of Buddhism. She has this to say: What Brain Science Tells Us About How to Win the Battle Against False Narratives and Divisiveness. You can do a little Web search on this and find this article. She says that we have cognitive biases in our human brains that automatically set us up to fail in terms of false narratives and therefore the divisiveness in U.S. Politics, for example. So she says this. “The brain has a truth bias. The moment you understand something you read or hear, your brain believes it’s true. This is why the moment just after is so critical. This is when your brain does the cognitive work of assessing if new information should be “un-believed.” Now, this is new research and it’s very interesting when you begin to think about it. We believe she’s claiming, we automatically believe something that we hear and we only then apply our reason to decide if that isn’t true after the fact. We are believing machines that automatically believe when we hear and understand something and only after do we begin to edit those thoughts into what may be more rational, with critical thinking. Also, she says, “The brain has a novelty bias: Attention is captured by novel, surprising, fear-inducing information delivered on your social media feeds and generated in your mind. Novelty’s ballistic and automatic pull on your attention can happen without your awareness over and over again.” Headline Today: Johnson and Johnson Vaccine causes Blood Clots. Well, how often does it, etc.. No, we just like the novelty of hearing that. “The brain has a confirmation bias: What you believe narrows your attention. Information that aligns with what you already believe is overprivileged and disconfirming information goes virtually unnoticed.” So we can take that Johnson and Johnson example. We immediately believe it when we hear it. Maybe we hear it by listening to National Public Radio, which we trust, or maybe we hear it on some other less trustworthy channel. But we do hear it. Automatically, she says, we believe it. And then only then do we begin to disbelieve according to critical methods. But the novelty also of that information is going to hit you, and then it’s going to hit your confirmation bias. If you’re already against vaccines, ding, ding, that’s a big one. If you are already thinking vaccines are a great idea, you’re going to put it in a slightly different place. So our brains automatically lead us then to particular ways of thinking that can only be counteracted by critical thinking. Lest you think that mindfulness is just one of those, again, New Age California ideas, she has been working with the U.S. Military on mindfulness. I won’t go into this study, but you can definitely look it up online and discover the ideas of how mindfulness help soldiers in combat to focus and stay focused on what they’re doing, rather than becoming fearful and scatterbrained in the moment of violence. And she applied this research. She did this research on Marines who were dispatched into combat zones. And mindfulness, according to this research, does help even in the most violent of circumstances. So what is it? Well, Mind Full vs Mindful is one way of looking at it. Your mind, naturally, is full of all kinds of information, especially nowadays with social media and all the things, the ding’s and the bells, etc.. So our minds are full as we walk around. How do we clear those? Again, we have to apply cognitive reason baffles to turn off all of that needless information that goes on so that we can stay focused on one thing. You can see a great TED Talk by Amishi Jha. This is a write-up for that particular TED Talk that she does. The writer says this: “I think therefore I am distracted. If Descartes were writing today, this is what his famous aphorism might have become. We’re living in an age of distraction, battered by our own customized waterfall of notifications, alerts, texts, videos, bingeable TV and more. It’s not surprising our minds often feel like a jumble. But it turns out we’re not at the mercy of our runaway minds. Amishi Jha’s (TED Talk: How to Tame Your Wandering Mind.)” You too can do a little web search on that. She offered: “Specific exercises that we can do… (in order to) …get our brain back under control.” Again, scientifically based neuroscience that has been tested in various situations, including battlefield situations. So what does she say on this TED Talk, which I very much encourage you to watch. Well, first off, and this is as ancient as it gets, the Daoists we’re talking about this at about 5000 before the Common Era, is Focus on the breath. Our breath is one of the things that is in our bodies that we do have some mental control over. You can do very little in terms of controlling your heartbeat, some, but not very much. But you can do a lot in terms of controlling your breath. So first off, Focus on the breath, in some ways. There are lots of meditative techniques for that if you begin looking around. Then, Mindful walking. I’ll talk about this in the next slide, But Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist priest, is the one who really introduced this to the Western world as a way of really focusing up, if you’re one of those fidgety people who just can’t sit there like a lot of Buddhist practices are. Then Mentally scanning your body for sensations. Use your brain to get control of your brain and say, where does it hurt? Where am I feeling anxious? How does that feel? And mentally scan your body for sensations and you can see why that would be a cognitively embodying practice. Then within your thought system itself, this is again, ancient Buddhist thinking, Name your thoughts. So as your thought goes by, say that’s “planning” or that’s “worrying” or that’s “judging,” etc.. That’s worrying about the past, that’s trying to fix the future. Name it as you go along so that you can see what your thoughts are really doing. And she says people generally start to see benefits when they practice for about 15 minutes a day, five days a week for around four weeks. I said I would mention a little bit more, because mindful walking isn’t as intuitive as the other ones. So this is basically the way to do it. Start walking around a small room or outdoors in a very slow and steady pace. A bounded space generally is best for that. And most people walk in circles when they do this to pay attention to your steps, notice the sensations on your heel and foot as you walk. Most people do this barefoot. Thich Nhat Hanh certainly does, but also it can be done in stocking feet as well. Shoes a little more difficult. And three, stay in the moment. Look at your feet to become even more aware of your walk and focus on your breath. That’s why you want to go in circles so you don’t walk off into something, to reduce a little bit of the danger. But mindful walking is very good for people who are a little bit fidgety and can’t sit very long. Tomorrow I do want to talk a little bit about yoga, the American style of yoga, which is all about embodiment, it’s really not what yoga is all about in its ancient Hindu roots. I do want to look at a book called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient look at how yoga can work. And as we will see, actually the positions is only one kind of yoga, but it is the one that has become very popular here in the U.S. because, again, we lack this embodiment idea in the Western world and a lot of people are feeling the effects of not being in their bodies, of somehow being a brain in a jar. So we’ll look at that again tomorrow. Thanks for listening today. Our theme for the month of April at First Unitarian Society is Becoming and I’ll see you back here tomorrow. Thank you.

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