Whoooo Are Youoooo?

I Dare You...

I Dare You…

The neurology course I finished last month on line, through Coursera – and the Cardiac Resuscitation Science one I just finished – both touched briefly on brain phenomena which have been observed to accompany what people describe as near death experiences. By wiring up Hospice patients to study brain patterns as life ends, or monitoring brain activity in the emergency room during CPR and defibrillation, scientists have observed bursts of brain activity which accompany the last moments of life – and which also occur in those who are “brought back”.

I’m not sure where I stand with regard to the effort to explain all cognitive experiences in terms of brain physiology. On one hand, the brain is fascinating in its complexity, flexibility, capability – and in the fact that there is so much we still don’t know about how it functions. On the other hand, I am strongly drawn to a spiritual life that knows phenomena by direct, non-mental, experience. It’s an easy out to say that when we fully understand the brain, we will fully understand transcendental experiences. I am more inclined to maintain that when we fully understand the brain we will fully understand that not all phenomena of experience can be explained by physiology.

How I wish that I could inquire of my three year old Shih Tzu what his experience was when he recently flat-lined and was resuscitated with extended CPR at the vet’s during what should have been a routine, minor surgery. When I picked him up he showed only the usual post-anesthesia grogginess – and his recovery was reasonably normal for what he’d experienced. It took him a few days to regain easy movement after the bruising and soreness from chest compressions, and he slept more than usual for about a week. He now seems his normal self in most activities, but there is a slight yet noticeable change in his personality (okay, his behavior, if you prefer a more rigorous, scientific terminology).

From puppyhood a rousing, adventurous and typical “boy”, Shian Shung would tussle with all comers, chase after rabbits, try to dominate larger dogs at the food bowl and to herd the neighbor’s horses if they came too close to ‘his’ property He manifested an assertive command of his life. He accepted human affection and tolerated my ministrations to his infected eye, but would generally leave people with the impression that, catlike, he was gracing us with only a portion of his attention and that only for a limited amount of time before more pressing demands took him off into the fields or to a game with his peers. (I have four dogs and a cat, while neighbor dogs and cats – including the striped and stinky variety – regularly visit our acreage).

Since his resuscitation, Shian Shung has been seeking out human contact, wanting to spend time on laps or in the house around people. Just today, he tried to climb into the car of a new person coming to our home, rather than standing to one side as he used to do, barking to let her know she was on his turf. He is as energetic as usual, but milder and less dominating of the other dogs. And he has stopped chasing the cat. Because he has “seen the Light?” He was intubated during the CPR and did not suffer oxygen loss to the brain, so cell death in motor or instinctive behavior areas did not occur and thus cannot be invoked as a cause of his behavior change.

Personality is the subtlest of the selves by which we are known and recognized. One might say it is the aspect of oneself closest to one’s real essence, or core reality. Changes in personality do occur with changes in brain function, as often happens with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. But that does not obviate the possibility that a personality change can occur without any apparent change in brain function. The sense of self we all recognize as part of our being and project through our personality has, as it were, a life of its own. If we suffer brain damage from accident or chemical changes, we may behave differently but we retain – in almost all cases – our ‘selfness’ unaltered.

How I wish I could inquire of Shian Shung whether he recognizes his changed behavior (personality)!

I think I’m on solid ground when I project that he would not be aware that he has changed, just as we humans are rarely aware, until circumstances or another person force the point, that we have begun to respond differently than we did in the past. We think of ourselves as impatient people striving to improve until one or more situations arise which we handle with a consummate patience for which we are praised. “Oh,” we say. And look back at our behavior with some surprise, recognizing that we have indeed been patient, not only in the most recent encounter but also, upon reflection, in those of the past several months as well. The interesting question is whether we then alter our self-concept to include being patient, or continue to cling to the idea that we are impatient but ‘doing better on occasion.’

There so often is a disconnect between so-called reality, and our perceptions of it, especially when the subject of the perception is some aspect of ourselves. Humans are famous for perceiving themselves as fatter or thinner or older or uglier than reality – the consensus of others – dictates. Some of us can feel fat one minute and not-so-fat a few minutes later (when trying on new clothes for example) despite there being no change whatsoever in our actual size. How much more flexible, and divorced from reality, are our perceptions of our personalities.
So who are we, really? A body commanded by a brain to move through time and space? A mind inhabiting and directing a body to move through time and space? A Soul or Spirit temporarily linked to a mind and body and animating it within time and space? Something else altogether?

If Shian Shung could communicate with me about his death and resurrection, would he express it in terms similar to those used by people to describe their own near death experiences? Or would the fact that the canine brain differs significantly from a human brain mandate that the experience be perceived differently? I wish I knew – or do I?

Each advance in science, seeking answers to these ancient questions, seems over the course of recorded history to have only raised new versions of the same questions. Quantum physicists posit abstract entities, the descriptions of which sound a great deal like the energies that mystics have attempted to describe with terms like Soul or spirit. Neurologists use the laws of physics to describe brain function at the level of the neuron. Neuroscientists have completed experiments which purport to show that neurons are activated in support of one option in an either/or choice milliseconds before the subject becomes conscious of deciding to act. From these results, they propose that free will, like the concept of a self which is separate from brain function, is an illusion – a byproduct of brain functioning.

A contrarian argument arises – that the need to believe brain function can explain all aspects of human experience, is itself a brain-generated belief and not the ‘choice’ of a rational, scientific mind. I need to stop at this point. Taking the iterations any farther will land me in the far reaches of hypothetical thinking, and I will have come full circle once more from science to philosophy, from the brain to the Self or Soul – without knowing anything more about the inner experiences of my dog.

For now, I am content that he survived, that he is healthy, and that he enjoys time on my lap.

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2 Responses to “Whoooo Are Youoooo?”

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