Welcome to my brain. It often underperforms and I’m a bundle of silly contradictions. I was a quick study and got good grades, yet the starter marriage lasted 10 years because I’m a slow learner in other ways. It has taken a very long time to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I still don’t have a label to put on that idea, but as a psychology student, I now have a helpful metaphor. I want to be a neuron. I want good ideas to flow through me as cleanly as electrical impulses along an axon. The technical term for that process is called an action potential, which reminds me that gathering knowledge is pointless unless it produces a result.
Each connection between two neurons is called a synapse and some neurons have more than others. I’ve been soaking up information for almost half a century. Every book I’ve read, every conversation with another person represents the flow of information from one neuron to another in a “brain” that ultimately spans the globe. You may have noticed that there are a large number of unhelpful bits of information zooming around the world, like: “you suck if you don’t buy this stuff you don’t need.” People with better ideas, like “how to save the biosphere” and “be excellent to each other” need to be able to reach more people and send new and improved action potentials around the world. The growth of social media makes this more do-able than I could have conjured up in my wildest dreams as a high school student. My goal is to explore the neural metaphor and figure out how I can use it to make the world a better place beyond anything we think possible today.
I want to begin by passing along some data from two other sources. The first is this short (1:49) monologue from the beginning of the film Antz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIv-FUarVWU An ant voiced by Woody Allen rambles to the conclusion that he is insignificant. I love that clip. I could relate to the little critter’s frustration and I laughed at his hubris even as I recognized it in myself. I thought I got it, but later input made me realize that my understanding was incomplete.
The first time I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, I found it difficult, but I knew I would go back to it. When I started reading Tolle’s next book, I found it was time to re-read The Power of Now and this time I got it. Tolle’s ideas are brilliant, but challenging in a way that you cannot crack with intellectual effort. What helped me understand my “ego” as Tolle defines it, was that life had kicked me in the teeth hard enough that I was on the ground. I was such a bundle of internalized pain that I had to let go of my unhelpful mental constructions just as you might let go of the barrel of a curling iron you didn’t realize was plugged in. What Tolle patiently explains is difficult to grasp. You are not your thoughts, your emotions, your pain, your most brilliant ideas, or even your dearest memories. You are consciousness.
We need to let go of unhelpful ‘knowledge’ in order to understand things more fully. For example, you are a person with your own unique DNA and think of yourself as a single, discrete, sentient being. However, although you have control of your consciousness, you are actually more like a colony or world, because your intestinal tract contains billions of tiny micro-organisms who depend on you for survival and without which you could not long survive. Food isn’t just fuel, it is also information. Perhaps this is why your gut contains more neurons than your brain.
We don’t think of bacteria as having consciousness, but our standard medical model of consciousness is very limited. If you’re sleeping or in a coma, you are unconscious, if you’re awake you are conscious, like an on/off switch. We are beginning to understand that there are different levels of consciousness. If I were to tweet a picture of a chocolate donut, what level of consciousness would I be expressing? What is your level of consciousness while you sit on your sofa watching a talk show or a football game or surf funny cat memes on the internet? What is your level of consciousness when you are removing a splinter from your finger or digesting a TED talk?
What kind of a neuron do you want to be? When you see an image of screaming, excited sports fans, don’t you wonder what would happen if they got that excited about something that really matters? War happens, but whose consciousness is really being expressed in that context? What if all that sports fan energy could connect online and create a counter-movement to restore balance against the destructive force of unrestrained corporate greed? What kind of action potentials could we generate? People in the millions are beginning to appreciate what a game-changer the internet really is. To those who say you can’t beat the system my response is this: we’re already creating a new system.
If you look around you’ll see action beginning to blossom all over the world in places like Egypt, Turkey and Brazil. The March against Monsanto, 350.org, Grow Food Not Lawns and Occupy Love all reflect an increase in the level of our consciousness as a species. The education and emancipation of women is an important part of a much larger shift that is underway. In the world I want to be part of, we will create a way to bring all our best ideas together and share the responsibility to implement solutions to the most frightening problems we face as a species. There are millions of ways to do this. We don’t need to pick one or argue about which will work. There are enough of us to support all of these efforts simultaneously. The democracy we have lost will bear little resemblance to the one that we have yet to create.
The neurons in our bodies perform thousands of operations per second in order to keep us alive, mostly beneath our conscious awareness. If we pay no attention to what we eat we end up with diseased bodies. However, if we direct our attention we can intentionally eat brocolli, dance, and climb mountains. On a global level, we can save the world if that is our intention, but first we need to direct our attention in the right direction. Honey Boo Boo isn’t helping.