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Coffee & Wisdom 02.89: Fire Together, Wire Together Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about “Story Science”.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is Coffee and Wisdom Summer Edition. A.M. Central Time Live. And then it goes to our channel, Din of Conversation. This week, I want to look at “Fire Together, Wire Together,” a rather famous now little phrase that’s coming out of neuroscience. You’ve read at this point about neural pathways. It’s quite the cutting edge of science these days, although it’s not as new as sometimes we might think. Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field studying the nervous system. And, just to remind you from high school, a neuron is a specialized cell transmitting nerve impulses; a nerve cell. That’s the Oxford Dictionary. Now, the multidisciplinary field of neuroscience is the reason it is so cutting edge these days. The idea of neuroscience is very old (fairly old), but the technology we use to do brain imaging continues to improve over time. The originator of neuroscience is Santiago Ramon y Cajale, 1852 – 1934. He won a Nobel Prize for his work in Physiology back in 1906, a Spanish scientist. So it is a fairly old field, but again it’s the technology that is now making these things new. These are drawings that Cajale made all those years ago. Some of these are still used in textbooks today. He had a very firm idea of what was going on, even though he did not have any way of doing the brain imaging that we are able to do with the machinery that we nowadays have.

But an amazing guy, and a Nobel Prize for his work in 1906. You’ve seen the pictures at this point. They’re in all the glossy magazines and online. Neuroscience taking brain imaging, and finding out where these neuron pathways fire. Where in the brain does this come from and that come from? You can have a little neuron that tells you who Marilyn Monroe is, for example, and they can find that by triggering it in and experimentation. It’s pretty amazing work, and it is all very recent due to all of this wonderful color technology that we now have. If you want to read up on neuroscience and a little bit – a popularizer of neuroscience (although he is a neuroscientist, a serious one) – but he does try to write to people like me who are interested but don’t know science all that well. It’s Christof Koch. Here he is interviewing the Dalai Lama, and he’s very famous at this point for his experimental work with Buddhist monks. And a couple of his books, an older one, “The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread But Can’t Be Computed” and “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.” That’s his newest book. I’m reading that one now, and it’s a fascinating book – “Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist,” because he believes “reductionists” in this terminology are those who think that the brain function is completely materialistic.

There is no spirit world. There’s no extra sensory anything at all. Is this mass that we do see the brain? And the mind is a creation of the brain through neural neurons and through chemical reactions. So he’s a reductionist, but he is a romantic reductionist. And we will talk a little bit more about that on Thursday. So one of the questions that neuroscience is finally getting at is a question that’s been going on for many years, and becomes more important as we get more and more data out there. And that is, “what is information?” This particular book was written by a scientist, Robert Logan. It’s a very cutting edge idea, because if we can figure out what information is, how that information is conceptualized, then somebody may just figure out how to do artificial intelligence. The way this pyramid in his book works is, he says, we’ve got lots of data. If you smell your coffee, it’s what comes across the computer screen. But that’s very, very quick, it’s down and dirty. There’s lots of it, and it doesn’t have all that much meaning except for those who turn it into “up the pyramid” information, and then the information. What is information? We are able to use that in various ways. The idea here, then, is that from information we build into knowledge. And this is the one that the old philosophers already knew about, we didn’t have to have computers to figure this out, that somehow human beings conceptualize information into knowledge and the knowledge concepts, then go into math equations, similes, words, et cetera.

And then ultimately what we might call “wisdom.” What they’re calling here “applied knowledge.” So information is data processed into concepts – and the concepts are communicated through symbols and usually words or equations is how usually we get those symbols across. Information is data processed into concepts. And the concepts then can be communicated in various ways, technologies that we humans have created over the millennia, actually. Well, then what’s knowledge? Knowledge is a subjective experience – an interaction with concepts. Then wisdom is the ability to synthesize the subjective experience of knowledge into communication and action. I know this seems like it’s fairly complicated, but it’s very important to realize how we’re able to do this, and really what it means. And neuroscience is now unlocking ideas that we’ve been arguing about for about two or three thousand years now. So we’ve got data, lots of stuff around us. We’ve got information that’s processed into some kind of “communicatable” knowledge. But then that knowledge (and this is where this definition changes a little bit). Knowledge, then, is experienced information. It is a subjective response. For example, I can sit in a classroom where they’re talking about neuroscience and guess what? That will be lots of information, but I will gain very little knowledge from it because I don’t understand science very well.

So over my head, we talk about that as a simile. Well, yes, it’s like it’s going over your head. But, then those people who can catch that knowledge and make it a subjective reality then are able to apply it further into what we call applied knowledge or wisdom. Now, I will come back to that because it is a very, I think, central concept for lots of things that we talk about, especially philosophy and religion. So what’s the most efficient way of turning concepts into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom? And the answer there is story. We understand stories in ways that we don’t understand other things. And stories communicate information to us in such a way that we say, “Aha – now I understand that.” This, again, is cutting edge in terms of what neuroscience is able to tell us about this very old problem. Now, a practitioner of Story Science (and yes, there is a thing now called Story Science) is Angus Fletcher. He has dual degrees in neuroscience and in literature. His research employs a mix of laboratory experiment in neuroscience, literary history and rhetorical theory to explore the psychological effects – cognitive, behavioral and therapeutic – of different narrative technologies. So, that’s some new language here – Story Science. It’s a study, it’s a thing. And then, Narrative Technologies. That’s how we tell stories in order to communicate that information, those concepts to go up the ladder into knowledge and then into wisdom.

He works for a particular think tank called “Project Narrative.” Project Narrative is one of Ohio State’s secret gems. This is a blurb on the back of his book: “It’s the world’s leading think tank for studying stories which are perhaps the most powerful things we humans have ever invented. Stories power almost everything we do: our politics, our businesses, our daily lives. So what’s the secret to that power? Nobody really knows. But at Project Narrative we’ve gone further than anyone else into cracking the mystery.” And the book that I’ve been reading recently is his book called “Wonder Works: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature,” by Angus Fletcher. Fascinating book. And again, using neuroscience in a way that tells us how the psychology, the neurons function when we are listening to stories. And he’s breaking those down into 20 different ways that he thinks stories work. He says this part of our big insight is that we treat a story as more than just the story itself. We treat it as a shared creation with the audience. Shared creation because information, remember, can go over your head. But the actual subjective knowledge part of it doesn’t go over your head. You have a subjective experience with that story, OK? It’s more than just the story itself. We treat it as a shared creation with the audience. So to understand how stories work, we don’t just study storytellers.

We also explore what’s going on in your mind when you hear or read a story. There you go. A science of storytelling. Well, how are we doing this? Well, this is just a headline out of the Atlantic Monthly: “Neuroscience has a lot to learn from Buddhism. A scientist and a monk compare notes on meditation, therapy, and their effects on the brain.” You can see lots of photos like these two online. Serious practitioners of Buddhist meditation are the perfect way to look at how the brain can be affected by long term meditation. These people have meditated for years and hours and hours and hours, and they have actually changed how their brains function. And those can now be measured so that we say, “Oh, well, what is the feeling, the mystical feeling? What is a feeling of joy? What is a feeling of gratitude?” And we can begin tracing those and how they work in the neurons of our brains. One of the older books at this point about this is by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, a PhD and an M.D., working on the ideas of neuroscience. And they called their book “The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – Buddha’s Brain”. This is a book that’s readily available. You can find used copies in a lot of places. And that’s one of the earliest of the books that were really seriously taking this idea to heart, and saying: how can we create or look at religious experience from a neuroscience viewpoint?

The blurb on the book says this: “Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and other great teachers were all born with a brain built essentially like anyone else’s. Then they use their minds to change their brains in ways that changed history. With the new breakthroughs in neuroscience, combined with insights from thousands of years of contemplative practice, you, too, can shape your own brain for greater happiness, love and wisdom.” Again, this is an early book. It’s over ten years old at this point, and nowadays we usually call this mindfulness. But that is a term that has really developed in the last five or six years or so. And really, earlier concerns were with Buddhism because it’s the most consistent way of actually working with the mind in the meditative practices. Shantideva, for example – here’s some wisdom for you – and this is a couple of thousand years old. “All joy in this world comes from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in this world comes from wanting only oneself to be happy.” So there you go. Wisdom about not being egotistical and selfish. And these are the teachings, then, that – how do we deal with those, and what do we feel like, and how does our brain look when we are thinking about those things? So a psychologist and a research physician team up to find the secrets of Buddha’s brain. Now this is where the term “neurons that fire together wire together” –

this is the book that it comes from. This little phrase has now become kind of famous. But “mental states become neural traits” is how they phrase it. “Day after day, your mind is building your brain. This is what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” That’s a term I would never understand without seeing it here. But the idea is pretty simple, and that is – our minds are these neural pathways in our brains. And we can work on our minds and how our minds work by getting those neurons that that wire together to fire together and develop habits of gratitude and a mystical experience. Feelings of wholeness and that kind of thing. We can develop a Buddha’s brain by thinking about how we wire together the neurons as we go along. So they go on to say, “Every time you take in the good, you build a little bit of neural structure. Doing this a few times a day – for months and even years – will gradually change your brain, and how you feel and act, in far-reaching ways.” Yes, even Homer Simpson can become a Buddha if he dedicates himself to thinking in these ways long enough. They go on to say, “It’s a remarkable fact that the people who have gone the very deepest into the mind – the sages and saints of every religious tradition – all say essentially the same thing: your fundamental nature is pure, conscious, peaceful, radiant, loving and wise,

and it is joined in mysterious ways with the ultimate underpinnings of reality, by whatever name we give.” And yes, on Coffee and Wisdom, we’ve talked about giving it names like “Ultimate Purpose,” and “Ultimate Concern,” and “God,” et cetera. But the claim here is that religious feelings, the wisdom of religion and philosophy, are neural traits that can be communicated and that can be learned as habits. And yes – you, too, can have Buddha’s brain. So a couple of ideas that we will be going over again on Thursday to think it through. Again, “Buddha’s Brain” – the Practical Neuroscience of Recreating the Neural Pathways That Can Lead to a More Full Life and “Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.” How story creates knowledge and ultimately wisdom within our neural pathways, and how those techniques can be used when we’re looking at this not just from a creative poetry-writing kind of thing, but rather from the idea of neuroscience itself. Coffee and Wisdom is now on Tuesdays and Thursdays here in the summertime. And, the theme we are dealing with – in case you can’t figure it out – this month at First Unitarian Society, is “story.” A story of how we tell them and what they mean. And I’ll be back on Thursday morning to talk a little bit more about Buddha’s brain and how stories affect our minds. Thank you.

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