Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Endorphin Rush of Contemplation

What can be made of a process whereby the human mind automatically seeks it's own interpretation of various perceptions, even those which would logically be determined as being totally meaningless? The Rorschach inkblot test for example is a psychological test in which a subject's perceptions of nothing more than simple inkblots are analyzed by a trained psychologist in an attempt to better understand the inner workings of the subject's mind. This same phenomenon of the mind's ability to create something out of nothing can be also witnessed almost any time a human brain is confronted with a challenge to it's ability to comprehend something regardless of whether the sensory input is visual such as with an inkblot or something much more complex.

A certain level of expectation would seem to be a major factor in how much time and effort will be willingly spent in any attempt to "comprehend the incomprehensible" with again the inkblot test being but the most simple of examples. While the attending psychologist is fully aware that the ink blots being shown have no inherent design other than to draw an inference from the test subject, there remains for the test subject some doubt for his own mind to work with, perhaps in thinking that a trick is being played to test his ability to recognize the "picture". An active mind naturally carries a strong desire and/or expectation to find the "answer" to such a puzzle as opposed to abandoning a project as futile or meaningless (which in this case it actually is) but what is the motive for doing so?

Perhaps one motivation factor involved with this special type of creativity is the human brain's ability to "reward" itself with a pleasurable release of endorphins upon achieving a satisfactory conclusion to the effort at hand. Endorphin literally means "a morphine-like substance originating from within the body" which gives both relief from pain and a sense of well-being. To regularly seek such a natural reward is apparently programed within the DNA of both man and animals with the drive for sex perhaps being the most easily recognized of endorphin driven "instincts", but could it also be that along with the development of cognition, evolution has put humans into a cycle of endorphin driven mental "exercises" having the potential to drive cognitive abilities ever further?

So how do humans feel upon reading a story or some scripture or poetry wherein is found some new meaning or insight? The experience could be described as that of pleasure, and albeit most often more subtle than sex it nevertheless represents the same system of reward being given by the brain. Some natural and artifical substances can mimic or release endorphins and can enhance the human characteristic of seeking important meaning even in things mundane. Used as recreational drugs, these substances have the potential to turn an otherwise boring evening into a truly religious experience but for some reason the authorities have made most of them illegal, perhaps because given the choice many humans would do nothing else.

The power of suggestion, amplified? Will your future be like, "Your Jedi mind tricks will not work on me" - Jabba the Hutt (strong minded) or "These are not the droids we're looking for" Storm Trooper (weak minded)? Could the science fictional "Jedi mind trick" actually be made to work by manipulating a release of endorphins to generate a feeling of wellbeing and trust? These are nothing less than powerful drugs which have already been generated within a person's body which are ever ready and waiting for release. Watch out for that wave of the telekinetic hand!  Of course a little flattery or even flirtation can also sometimes do wonders.

On the road to Nirvana?

Will the Illustrious One hear me a little longer? Silently the Buddha nodded his consent... according to your teachings, this unity and logical consequence of all things is broken in one place... that is your doctrine of rising above the world, of salvation... not to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge... its goal is salvation from suffering... nothing else... you have done so by your own seeking... you have learned nothing through teachings...nobody finds salvation through teachings... this clear, worthy instruction does not contain... the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced. - Siddhartha (H. Hesse)

The "unity and logical consequence of all things" pretty well sums up a maximum overdose of cognitive exercises for a human brain, and perhaps we are back to trying to "comprehend the incomprehensible", the difference being only that in the first case (the ink blots) there was nothing real while with "all things" being considered we know for sure that there is something which in scientific circles is called the "Theory of Everything", the holy grail of science. How would finding such make you "feel"?

Heisse in the above passage supposes that the Buddah offers as the ultimate goal for his followers a "salvation from suffering" (nothing else) which can apparently sometimes be found through lengthy contemplation of "the unity of all things" which (at least to this one) is a truly impossible puzzle. As it happens, the apparent purpose of our natural endorphins is to "ease suffering" as well as to "reward actions deemed good". Yes, Virginia, Nirvana would seem to be the ultimate natural high, but are there other paths, other destinations offering the same reward? I suspect this mystic was right with, "All paths are the same: they lead nowhere." --Don Juan

"Salvation from suffering" derived from contemplation of how everything ties together? My current thought is that human activity is primarly endorphin driven, that the internal, eternal, infernal natural morphine juice drives us to the point of addiction whether it’s for sex, internet games or even religious ferver. It gives reward, a sense of wellbeing, freedom from suffering and so much more. But the secret to success with contemplation lies in the journey, the effort, the striving moreso than actually reaching the intended goal. It's not for "knowledge" that we contemplate, it's for the reward that tells us the lie that we've reached the goal, even the most impossible ones.

I’m trying to compose a synopsis of these thoughts but it keeps trying to include more and more material.. "everything" - I’m falling into the very "trap" upon which I hope to report... working and waiting for the eureka rush. Surrender brain, or I’ll strain you and starve you until you give me what I want! Ahh, there is is.. I AM one with the universe.. for a little while. It was great, let me tell you... ah, that’s the rub, it’s only to be experienced, not explained or taught. Good luck getting yours.

Next, "The Endorphin Rush of Scientific Discovery".