Our spiritual life

January 19, 2014

This text started as a comment to the latest post of fellow blogger Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez (here), but  despite my attempts to keep it simple it grew to a size which makes it unsuitable for a comment.

Buddha 2b

Throughout my life I was fascinated by the sacred texts of Asian cultures, the most eminent of them being the Tao De King (Dao De Jing), which I read in five English and two German translations. I also read many translations of  Buddhist and Zen-Buddhist writings.

The translations which I read were clearly shaped by the personality of the translators, but this didn’t bother me because I thought, that someone who has spent a good part of her or his life to learn an ancient Asian language must in the process have also gained a deep understanding of ancient wisdom.

The Tao De King as well as the Buddhist texts are not meant to be critically analyzed and dissected, these are inspirational texts which reach us on a level beyond the computation that goes on in the Central Executive (or Working Memory) area of our prefrontal cortex.

Like many others I have been taught by life in often very harsh lessons, that our world is much too diverse and multifarious to be understood or even fully recognized in all its beauty or ugliness by our limited senses and our even more limited cognitive capabilities.

We see, hear, feel, smell only a tiny little bit of what is going on around us and we are not able to fully comprehend even that severely abridged and abstracted information. Most of the sensory signals are ignored, discounted, thrown away and our brain only processes what it can easily recognize, categorize, understand.

One example:

Generations of philosophers and scientists based their understanding of the world on the principle of causality and the causal chain which was then extended to multi-causality and many parallel causal chains which in the end was upgraded to the notion of an infinite (or nearly infinite) number of vectors, forces, movements interconnected with each other and influencing each other.

Well, that seems a fine and adequate speculative model of the world, it is the best what scientific thinking can master right now, it only has the disadvantage that we cannot really grasp it.

It doesn’t help that nature, as we found out (or at least believe that we have found out) is a nonlinear system with amplification curves that can be exponential, logarithmic, sinusoidal, hyperbolic, elliptic, or whatever.

Scientists seek refuge in statistical mathematics and probability theory, network theory, chaos theory, knowing that their provisional and tentative approaches are not the finite answer. We have seen, that the most sophisticated computer models running on the most powerful supercomputers may generate completely false results because a tiny and as insignificant considered factor was omitted. 

Lao Tse 2

No, we don’t have the finite answers to the mysteries of the universe and we maybe never will. Who can unhesitating and completely self-assured claim that she or he fully understands quantum mechanics?

Can spirituality transcend the boundaries of cognition?

Before I end this text with a full heartedly, enthusiastic “yes.” here in a few words my definition of spirituality:

The logical thinking in our Central Executive is not the most important and most powerful function of our brain, it is by far eclipsed by pattern recognition. Millions of synaptic connections are involved in a single  process and any one of these synapses is a powerful and versatile operator which can function as a switch, an operational amplifier, a unit of boolean algebra, or a frequency filter. The synapses are channeling and transforming the flow of action potentials and they are controlled by dozens of excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitters.

The complexity of these processes is truly mind-boggling and the achieved results are mind-boggling and stunning as well. Faintest similarities between the structures of incoming sensory signals and stored memory patterns can be recognized, vague structures, symmetries, repetitions, that our conscious mind never would be able to identify, can be detected.

Intuition, creativity, fantasy, vision, spirituality are all based on the magic of pattern recognition. Utilizing pattern recognition and combining it with meditation practices that increase control over the brain and the nervous system will make you a spiritual person.

True spirituality, undiluted by superstition or religion, can become a powerful force and the guiding light in ones life, true spirituality will open your eyes, let you look through the fog, will be the compass and the map. It will be Aladdin’s ring and Aladdin’s lamp, it will keep you unhurt and will help you to navigate the rough waters of life and avoid the deadly dangers lurking everywhere.

Follow your heart, it will lead you to the hidden gate that your conscious mind never would have found.

Lao Tse 1


  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful response, Mato! As always, you are way ahead of me.

    I am especially intrigued by this idea:
    Intuition, creativity, fantasy, vision, spirituality are all based on the magic of pattern recognition. Utilizing pattern recognition and combining it with meditation practices that increase control over the brain and the nervous system will make you a spiritual person.

    Can spirituality, fantasy etc really be reduced to the simple mechanics of cognitive pattern recognition? Somehow that seems to take the magic out of it, to make it so prosaic and functional.

    To me the dimensions of consciousness that can be reached through meditation and inner journeys are incredibly interesting precisely because I don’t expect to recognize familiar patterns. I expect to be surprised, to be taught new ideas and shown new images that I could never have imagined in my ordinary waking reality.

    Perhaps this is just a question of semantics. But I would love to hear more about “pattern recognition” and spirituality/creativity, so I can begin to understand what you’re saying here….


    • I wrote in the first sentence, that I tried to keep the text simple, and I consider this to be a sensible approach if one wants just to give an overview of the issue.

      Your question is: “Can spirituality, fantasy etc really be reduced to the simple mechanics of cognitive pattern recognition?”

      My answer: There is no simple mechanics of pattern recognition, though the underlying principles maybe appear to be simple at a first glance. The principles are:

      When an association chain is ignited by a sensory signal or just by the accidental discharge of an action potential, one neuron activates another one nearby, and this one a third one, and the third one a fourth one, and so on. The chain of activations will most likely follow a path that was taken before, because synapses that are used become more receptive, nerve axons that are used are myelinated, neurons that are activated at the same time, even if it is only accidentally, will develop new connections with each other (Hebb’s principle: “cells that fire together, wire together”).

      The path that was taken before, is our memory (there is no special memory area in the brain — the whole status of the brain is our memory). This path is a memory pattern, and a newly ignited association chain following a familiar path constitutes pattern recognition.

      In many cases the association path followed will be slightly different from the existing memory pattern because the levels of neurotransmitters in the concerned brain regions are not exactly the same, neurons in the chain have been used and altered by another activation/association chain, the supporting glial cells, which have their own signaling system of calcium waves, are out of sync and direct the blood flow to other areas.

      This happens all the time but the deviations and deflections will most times not derail the process because there are millions of neurons involved and an activation/association chain is in fact rather a stampede or an avalanche of neuronal activations than a line of neurons or neuronal clusters.

      The memory pattern though will be altered, because, as I wrote before, the whole status of our brain is memory, and the deviations and deflections, significant or insignificant, will be incorporated in the memory.

      Every time we recollect memory, it changes according to our mood and our surrounding, while memory that is not recollected, slowly fades away. Psychologists knew that before.

      The mentioned details of pattern recognition explain also, why memories can be easier reclaimed in a situation that is similar to when they were created (quite a few people can type their PIN numbers at the ATM without a problem but will not remember them at home).

      Occasionally it can happen, that two nearby association chains are ignited at the same time and they will influence each other due to the fact, that newly generated neurotransmitters and the by glial cells increased blood supply will leak into surrounding areas. If one association chain takes a turn, the parallel running chain will more likely take a turn in the same direction. So the two chains can run side by side for a stretch or even melt into one.

      Activation/association chains can also influence each other via electromagnetic induction. Electromagnetic induction is another communication means inside the brain and probably far less significant than electrical pulses, neurotransmitters, and the calcium waves of the glial cells, but nobody knows for sure (I don’t subscribe to Cemi theory or Quantum brain dynamics).

      Another complicating factor is the control by the working memory areas in the frontal cortex, parietal cortex, anterior cingulate, and parts of the basal ganglia. The working memory can be perceived as a low resolution map of the brain (though that is by no means the only way to characterize it), it can redirect or stop the flow of associations, it can also force its own association chains onto the controlled brain area.

      The working memory is a low resolution map, and therefore the fine details of a memory pattern, which is consciously controlled/guided by the working memory, may be lost. This explains, why people are able the recall faint and otherwise irretrievable memories in their dreams or while hypnotized — the working memory is switched off and doesn’t get in the way.

      All this is only a small part of the story about pattern recognition, one could rightfully say, it is not even the abstract. As I wrote before, millions of synapses are involved in any single association process and as the flow of neuronal activations follow a memory path, the involved neurons interact with each other just like elements in a biological network or a social network. Every known phenomena of networks arises and all rules of network theory apply. A human brain contains about 86 billion neurons, while Facebook has 600 to 700 million active users per day.

      Can you imagine the complexity of the brains network?

      I could go on endlessly and apply network theory onto the various aspects of pattern recognition but this would probably be more than what you are willing to bear. I still have not touched molecular biology, a field which allows us to understand the inner working of neurons (for instance neurotransmitters are synthesized by the enzymatic transformation of precursors and degraded either by being broken down enzymatically, or reused by active reuptake).

      If you still are considering cognitive pattern recognition as a simple mechanical process I recommend the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson. I don’t agree with some of the in this book presented theories but I consider it as a good start if one is interested in this subject.

      I intend to occasionally write a blog post about meditation and I don’t mind continuing a discussion or answering questions, because it forces me to find understandable formulations and all text could be one day repacked into this intended blog post.


      • I hope you do write that blog post soon! Meanwhile, just a further thought. When I asked “Can spirituality, fantasy etc really be reduced to the simple mechanics of cognitive pattern recognition?” I wasn’t thinking so much about brain function or even memory. I was wondering whether you think that human consciousness is capable of entering other dimensions that are beyond the “ordinary matter” reality we are familiar with day to day. Many mystics talk about “other worlds,” “higher worlds,” “inner worlds,” “alternate realities” etc; Terrence McKenna, who I mentioned in my post, has a theory about psilocybin being a chemical portal through which human beings can access a higher galactic intelligence. The older I get, the more curious I become to understand how ordinary reality and non-ordinary reality may interpenetrate, connect and influence each other, and how human beings can be a conduit for this energetic flow. On one shoulder perches the skeptic who dismisses all this as New Age nonsense; on the other is the curious child who trusts her intuition and wants to know more. What do you think?


  2. If you are looking for “other worlds,” “higher worlds,” “inner worlds,” and “alternate realities,” and “non-ordinary reality,” this is easily achievable. You are already living in your very special reality that is yours and yours alone. Nobody else sees the world like you, because nobody has exactly the same sensory abilities, the same intellect, the same memories.

    My personal reality is very different from your personal reality, this is evident when I enthuse about the miracles and wonders of the human brain and you just shrug and rather than learn about and explore the details of our neural system want to have access to a higher galactic intelligence and enter other dimensions.

    Don’t get me wrong, nothing what I write now is meant sarcastic and I don’t judge.

    Many people create alternate realities at one point of their life because their ordinary personal reality is hard to bear. People seek rescue from the grim reality of their lives in daydreams, in watching video, in reading fiction, in playing computer games which create a virtual reality (Second Life, World of Warcraft, and similar multiplayer online worlds).

    I was always a down to earth person, probably because I grew up in dire poverty. When you stand on shaky ground it is better to keep your feet solidly on the ground. So I have my personal way to cope with life as have you and my way is as good as yours. I don’t judge and I hope you don’t either.

    Living in alternate realities can be creative and widen the horizon. What makes me cautious and prevents me from delving in other realities than my familiar personal one is the fact, that I could miss the hints of looming dangers and my response to emerging threats could be inappropriate or insufficient.

    Even at home in my familiar battle proven personal reality I have great difficulties to encrypt and rectify the incoming sensory signals. The signals are distorted and truncated by my expectations, projections, biases, prejudices, and last but not least by the limits of my sensory organs. I have to double- and triple-check, to interpolate and correct in order to come to a usable interpretation of the world around me.

    This is a painstaking process that goes one all the time, day by day, minute by minute. If I would slip into another reality my ability to analyze the flow of sensory information could be seriously compromised.

    Meditation, contemplation, yoga will alter your consciousness without impairing your ability to react to the world around you. One only has to be determined, disciplined, and unrelenting for a long time.

    Timothy Leary tried LSD as a short cut, other people use psilocybin, mescaline, PCP. All these drugs have severe side effects. Mind-body interventions like the various meditation practices, breathing exercises, Tai chi, yoga, Eutony, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, autosuggestion, Trager approach are more cumbersome than taking a pill or escaping into a fantasy world, but they are not dangerous.


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