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The Brain Without Wires (Part 2)

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In popular understanding blind people are said to develop more acute senses in other areas, but recent research indicates that the brain may actually be able to substitute one sense for another. In the previous post the Brain Port device invented by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita enables blind subjects to "see" by receiving pictures on their tongues. This substitution of touch for sight activates the visual cortex in their brains, so it's not a trick of mind over matter. Mind is altering matter.

I was suddenly reminded of an article from the acclaimed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, which told of how sighted people manage to adapt to the sudden onset of blindness. The adaptations cover the whole gamut, since some people simply resign themselves to being sightless. But Sacks cites two who didn't. One man took up roofing. He specialized in extremely complex roofs with multiple gables and steep pitches, which he would climb on to at night, much to the consternation of neighbors. The other person I recall developed a skill for designing intricate gear boxes whose multiple layers of machinery he saw only in his mind's eye.

This gives us a clue that sensory substitution has always been a latent power of the brain. But that supposition needs to be pushed away from gray matter into the realm of consciousness. Brains don't adapt to disability automatically. They respond to a person's will and desire. That is, they obey our intention. The mind must first want the brain to change. This is fairly obvious through a simple example. If you take an unwilling subject and place him on a tight rope, he'll fall off. But if the person wants to learn to walk a tight rope, he will gradually develop that skill. The unwilling subject will fall off no matter how many times he's put on the tight rope; the willing person will get better over time. The connection between intent and brain adaptation seems pretty undeniable.

The deeper issue is how far this connection can go. A world of possibilities opens up, and we may discover many more therapies based on Bach-y-Rita's lead. But my curiosity is drawn toward enlightenment. Neurology has already shown that the brain scans of advanced Buddhist monks are very different from the norm, showing general activity in the prefrontal cortex rather than the specialized activity that comes about from doing one task or having one thought at a time. This global change came about after years of meditation, and it suggests that the altered perception experienced in higher spiritual states is the opposite of what Western observers supposed. The popular view among Western doctors has been that the Saint Theresas and Bernadettes of this world suffered from brain lesions, epilepsy, or some other malady that fooled them into thinking that they were near to God.

Now we can surmise that they wanted to be near to God in the first place, and their intention translated itself into new brain functioning. It seems undeniable that consciousness can't change unless the brain does, yet mysteriously, it's the invisible desire of the mind that alters the material landscape of the brain, not vice versa. Skeptics can argue all they want about how brain disease and genetic predisposition play a powerful role in certain cases. That's true; nobody disputes the fact. But it's equally indisputable that a complete picture of human awareness is only in its infancy. Equating epilepsy and saintly experiences was arrogant and insulting from the start. To say that the brain is the mind, or that the mind is only a figment of the imagination (many neurologists and philosophers can be found who hold both these views) is completely untenable. Until the argument is resolved, the best course for each of us is to assume that our brains can adapt freely to our vision of life, and that the promise of enlightenment, a matter of faith for many centuries, will soon be a matter of fact.


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