New science meets old wisdom – Part two

Retreat Magic

Please warmly welcome Donald Hoffman, Wolf Singer and Swami Paramahamsa Prajnanananda.

Donald, you are a professor at the University of California and your field is visual intelligence and perception. You wrote a book with the subtitle “How we Create What We See“, which is interesting because I thought we receive what we see. Maybe you would like to share with us your background and your research?

DH: Very good. I would like to do that with some graphics.

It turns out that half of your brain’s cortex is engaged in vision. When you just open your eyes and look around at the world, you are using about 50 billion neurons and tens of trillions of synapses just to look at the room around you, the table and the people. This is a bit of a surprise, that you would use half of your highest processing power just to do vision.

Most of us think of vision as being like a camera. There is a 3-D world out there, that exists whether you see it or not, and when you open your eyes you may think that you take a snapshot of what is out there. What modern cognitive science has shown us is that that is not the case.

Vision is not like a camera. It is more like a process of creation. You are a reality creator. You create all the depth, colours, motions, objects and shapes that you see. It is such an outrageous claim that I have to show you some examples:

I am going low-tech on purpose. (Puts slide on OHP to show a picture of two tables, differently positioned, appearing to be of different shapes]

This tabletop and that tabletop – do they have the same dimensions, or different? They look completely different but I will show you that they are identical.

[Places overlay on screen that matches both tabletops when re-positioned].

You can check this acetate – it does not stretch! This is an illusion produced by Roger Shepherd at Stanford.

Another example.

[Image of several small discs with lines on them. There are three straight lines on each disc, meeting at the centre of the disc]

These are some discs with cut-outs.

[Places an overlay on the screen containing more discs with lines. When aligned, the lines create the outline of a cube, seen across all the discs. The meeting points of the lines on the discs are revealed to be the corners of the cube]

Now, do you see a cube? Clearly, by the way, I am presenting it, you are constructing the cube. The cube was not there until you put it on the screen.

If you look at the cube, sometimes you will see it with corner A in front, and sometimes you might see it flip and corner B comes in front. So you can actually create two cubes. The edges of the cube [i.e. not visible on the discs] are your creation, and you can even see more cubes if you view the discs as holes and you look through the holes, behind which you can see the cubes.

All of a sudden you get new cubes, and there is an A and a B there as well, So you create all the 3-D shapes that you see there.

You create all the colours that you see. You create depth, and shapes, and even those edges.

[Shows a new slide, with two arrangements of short lines with spaces between]

On the left are just blue lines. On the right, I have added some black lines around the blue lines, but do you see something else? The blue seems to glow. Your visual system is creating that blue and it is painting it between the blue lines.

[Adds an overlay with more lines, matching the previously shown lines]

As soon as it lines up, it’s as though a light turns on and you start to paint the blue. If I just mis-align it a little bit, it stops completely, but now we can just turn it back on again.

By the way, now that you know that there is no blue between the lines, can you see it that way? No. So your visual system has rules by which it creates what you see, but those rules do not listen to everything that your cognitive mind has to say. This has deep meaning for our emotional lives, where we also create realities, and our emotional rules are sometimes impervious to what we intellectualize.

Another example – this is from Dale Purves’s Lab at Duke University.

[Slide showing a large “Rubik’s cube” with, on one face, a brown square, surrounded by other coloured and white squares, and, on another face, an orange square shown in bright light whereas all the other squares are in dull light]

The brown square and the orange square – same colour or different? It is not too hard to imagine, but they are in fact identical inks as far as my printer can get them.

[Overlay added of a mask that only allows the two squares in question to be seen. The two colours are the same.]

We think of colour as an objective property of the external world – objects have their colours whether you see them or not. What we have found out in cognitive science is that you paint all the colours on the objects, and you have created those objects in the first place.

Now that you know that they are the same inks, can you see them as the same colour? [With the mask removed. He shrugs his shoulders]

It is very profound. There are rules by which we create our visual worlds, and our worlds of touch and taste, and those rules dictate what we are going to experience.

We also create all the shades of grey that we see.

[Slide showing two juxtaposed grey shapes. The upper one appears to be a darker grey than the lower one. He places a finger across the join between the shapes, and they now appear to be the same shade]

The top and the bottom – the same shade of grey or different? My magic finger shows that they are exactly the same shade of grey. Take it away, and once again they look to be very different shades of grey.

The visual system creates even the raw shades of grey that we see.

[Slide showing a chequer board with an apparent shadow across part of it. One labelled square is in the shadow, the other is not]

A or B – the same shade of grey or different? You know the story. It is hard to imagine, but there you can see that A and B [an overlay mask only allows the two squares to be seen] – are exactly the same.

So once again we are creating the shades of grey.

[Slide showing eight moons – four against a dark background, four against a light background]

The white moons and the black moons – same shade of grey or different? They are identical, pixel for pixel, but you interpret one as white and the other as black. [This is proved by a mask overlay]

[He now shows two projected photos that appear to be of the same image, flashing quickly between one and the other. The picture is of a man and a woman in conversation. Behind them, a bar runs across the picture, but at different levels in the two pictures. This is the only difference. The picture is captioned “Change Blindness”]

We Create What We See, but We Only Create Where We Attend

I am showing two images, but the images have a big difference. Can you see the difference? If you can, please raise your hand without saying anything. [A few hands go up, and then a few more] By the way, there is no correlation between IQ and the time it takes to …!

OK, the bar is going up and down – how could you miss it? Vision is not a camera. Vision is a creative process – you create where you attend.

Another example:

[The same as before, the photo is of troops boarding a plane. The difference is that one of the plane’s engines is missing on one of the photos. The hands start to go up]

This one’s a little harder. It took me over a minute. Let’s say that you would not want to leave home without this part!

So, we create what we see, but we create really only where we attend.

Symbolic Representations of Reality

I have a theory about vision to explain all this, which is that we should think of visual perception as being like a user interface. We usually think of vision as being useful because it is true, or trying to be true most of the time. I propose that vision is useful because it is never true, and it does not even try to be true.

The example is as follows. [Shows slide]. This is a screen-shot from my Macintosh window interface. Suppose that there is some big and important paper that you have been writing, your thesis for example. It is blue, roughly rectangular, and in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Does that mean that the file in the computer is blue, or rectangular, or in the lower right-hand corner of the computer? That’s silly.

The user interface is useful because it does not resemble what it represents. This icon does not resemble the file. Why it is useful is because the file is too complicated. It is millions of bits, diodes and resistors, and magnetic fields on the disk. Reality is too complicated.

Our visual systems, right now, when they give us a 3-D world of space and time, with objects and colours and motions, are giving us a really simple, stupid, user interface for a particular humble species trying to make it through the day. We take space and time as the final reality, when in fact it is a little trick by homo sapiens to try to stay alive long enough to reproduce. It is a different point of view.

Take Symbols Seriously, but Not Literally

One objection you might have is that you could say to me that if that train coming down the track is just a symbol of your user interface, you might as well just step in front of it, and then when you have gone we will know that it was more than just a user interface symbol. I won’t step in front of the train for the same reason that I would not drag my thesis icon to the trash – not because I think this thesis icon literally resembles the thesis; I do not. I do not take my symbols literally, but I do take them seriously. If I take that symbol to the trash I will lose a year of work, so there is a distinction between taking our symbols seriously, which we should, and taking them literally, which is a silly mistake.

Vision is not a passive camera. Instead, we create all that we see. If I had more time, I would tell you that we create everything that we touch – even that [tapping the table] is your creation.

Vision is a user interface. Even space and time are your creation. You can see that this gives plenty of room for spirituality.

The brain is one of the symbols of our user interface. This is where it gets very controversial and may lead to further discussion – since the brain is just a symbol of an interface, the brain has no causal powers. The brain causes none of my behaviour – I hope that that will lead to all sorts of discussion.

I would also claim that consciousness is fundamental.

TJ: Thank you.

Wolf Singer, you are Director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. Maybe you can share your insights on what your perception of the brain is and how reality is created?

WS: I feel a little bit like the outlaw, and in a minute you will see why. But I will give you arguments to appease me.

I think that much of what brain research has to tell us nowadays is felt by many to be an attack on our narcissistic self. This is because it provides explanations for processes that we have been considering as purely mental, psychological and spiritual.

Before I continue to present you with the arguments that some of us resent as attacks on our dignity, I would like to formulate an epistemic caveat. With this caveat you can probably counter-argue anything that I am going to say in the following.

The argument goes as follows: it is obvious, at least a neurobiologist would say so, that all we can perceive, imagine, understand and comprehend about the world, depends on the functional architecture of our brains – that is to say, on the way in which neurons are connected to each other. These are the only degrees of freedom in the brain. We know very well how neurons function. In the brain there is no distinction between software and hardware, between microprocessors and storage devices. A brain is a highly interconnected system of cells that create complex spatio-temporal patterns. The way in which these cells are interconnected is at the same time the program according to which the brain works and it is the memory of the brain. All the knowledge that is stored in the brain is in this functional connectivity.

Where does this functional connectivity come from? It does of course come from an evolutionary process. It is shaped by evolution and then by early imprinting. Human brains develop from birth to age 20, and during that time the genetically pre-structured architecture of the connections is refined, moulded and shaped according to experience. There is some fine-tuning going on under the influence of experience from birth to adulthood.

You have just seen a wonderful demonstration that what we perceive is interpretation and reconstruction. Neuroscientists, psycho-physicists as well, would agree nowadays that all perception is reconstruction and interpretation, on the basis of a huge body of a priori knowledge about the world.

Where is this knowledge? Of course, it resides in the functional architecture of the brain. Now, if the brain is specified as being evolutionary, if the architecture is determined to a large extent by the genes and then by this self-organizing process through which the genes interact with their environment – this is granted, you end up with an architecture that is full of knowledge. This is evolutionary knowledge and developmentally acquired knowledge – knowledge acquired by experience. This determines how we perceive the world. As you can see, we do it in a very idiosyncratic way.

This cognitive organ is the result of an evolutionary process that operated in the mesoscopic domain of the world between millimetres and centimetres. This is where life has evolved. Life has not evolved at the quantum scale, neither has it evolved at the astrophysical scale. It is thus a very, very narrow segment of the world to which our brains have adapted and hence also our cognitive abilities. We are quite comfortable in this mesoscopic world, where objects tend to be solid, the laws of classical physics apply, and we are all able to have a consensus on what we perceive, because we all have the same genetic outfit and have been raised in more or less the same physical world.

However, we already realize that we have extreme difficulties in imagining processes that we extrapolate from our primary experiences into the very small, quantum world, or into the very large, cosmos. We have no intuition for that, and it may even be that the way in which we reason is adapted to this mesoscopic world, and therefore may not have generality.

So, with these arguments in mind, you can throw everything I am going to say now into the wastepaper basket, because you can argue, “what you are telling us is the product of your reasoning, which is the reasoning of a very constrained cognitive system that has adapted to a very narrow range of this world, and it has obviously no right to assume generality”.

You can do this, but you can also take the scientific position, which is to use Occam’s razor to find the most plausible explanation for the phenomena you observe, and that is what scientists do. They try to erect a building of arguments, based on observation, that is coherent in itself. They do not claim that this is by any means the absolute truth, they just say that what we observe can be explained in one way or another.

The dogmas that the neurobiologists nowadays put forward are advanced for what is, I think, a very good reason. When we look into evolution, we see the nerve cells of molecules and snails and we discover that the nerve cells we have in our brains are of exactly the same kind – the same molecules, the same signaling and construction machinery – there is no difference between them. We just have many, many more of them.

Expansion through Synergy

The big difference is that by increasing the number of nerve cells you can increase complexity, and by increasing complexity you can increase the space in which a system can evolve. Our brain is a highly non-linear, dynamic, complex system in technical terms.

Reality is All In The Mind

These systems have properties that are very different from machines, and this is why neurobiologists do not feel bad about the following statement. We are forced to propose, from clinical observations, from these evolutionary arguments, from data coming out of modern imaging technologies, that all functions that we are aware of, including consciousness, are the consequence of neural interactions, and do not precede them.

Within the construct of neuroscientific theories, there is no space for an ontological dualism. It is inconceivable for a neurobiologists that there be something outside, any immaterial substance or whatever, that influences the functions of the brain so that the brain executes whatever this something, whatever it is, wants or projects into the brain.

Vice versa, if this something were actually there, for a neurobiologist it would be difficult to imagine why it becomes blind when I close my eyes. If it is there, it needs my nervous system in order to see, to perceive, to reason; and this is why we think there is an enormously tight correlation between local disturbances in the brain and the loss of certain functions.

Co-Creation is Our Reality

Somebody used the metaphor of a receiver. Of course, if you take a few tubes out of a receiver it will no longer be able to receive certain radio stations, but if one adheres to this ontological dualism one has to explain much more difficult questions than we have to explain if we stay in this emergent monist framework. One would have to explain how an immaterial something can interact with a material substrate in order to get this substrate to do what it wants. This requires exchange of energy, and if this immaterial thing is really immaterial it cannot have energy.

There is a causation problem that is not solvable within the framework of current science, so why bother, if we think we can explain so many things, such as the marvelous things that I am going to talk to you about, on the basis of the functioning of the nervous system?

As I said initially, the nervous system is not just a stupid machine that operates like clockwork. It is a highly complex, non-linear, dynamic system that is in addition, if you consider humanity, part of a society of brains that interact and are part of a cultural evolution. We are all connected to each other through education, with the long history that human beings have with respect to their social and cultural embedding.

Necessary Illusions

Given that, even though there are a lot of explanatory gaps nowadays, we can explain, for example, all of the illusions that were shown earlier. They have a neuro-biological basis and we can find good reasons why we have these perceptions. This is part of evolutionary adaptation, because the brain has not been shaped by evolution in order to acquire absolute truth in the Kantian sense. It is a machine that must keep you alive until you reproduce, which is a completely different requirement, and therefore some of these illusions just make life easier – it is easier to make these inferences and to evaluate relations rather than absolute values. There are many virtues resulting from that.

I think we have no problem in explaining perception in all other senses in much the same way. Much is known about that. We know where it happens, but there are still explanatory gaps. We know how sensory stimuli are transected into motor patterns.

An End to Indecision

To some extent we have started to understand how decisions are reached, and here comes the bad news – it looks as if, when we have to decide, we cannot do otherwise, as it is decided in the very moment that we reach a decision. Every decision has a long history of activity. What decides is the concept of activity patterns that are a competing process in the brain until the most plausible, most stable state wins, and this is the decision.

Granted, there is some noise that could have switched the decision a little bit at the last moment, but fortunately it does not do it too much, because if you could decide on a random basis we would not be alive.

There is a long prehistory of every decision, and modern imaging technology allows us to see activity sometimes fifteen seconds before a subject becomes aware of the fact, say, that he has decided to move the right hand. The experimenter can say that the subject is going to move his right hand before he has even become aware that he has reached that decision. It takes some time before that coherent state gets into the platform of consciousness. We call it the workspace of consciousness.

These are messages that we do not like too much. But it is helpful if you only get a little impression of the mind-blowing, marvellous complexity of this system and the performances it is capable of.

Somebody mentioned the trillions of cells that make a body and co-operate so you can live as a whole organism. The same is true of the brain. There are up to ten or eleven billion neurons there each having 10-20,000 connections to any other neuron. This network, due to evolutionary wisdom, is stable, most of the time, giving rise to coherent behaviour

Another illusion that we have, because we have no feeling for what is going on in our brain, is that somewhere in our brain there is a centre where everything comes together, where decisions are reached, plans are made, where the self constitutes itself, and consciousness has its seat. There is none of this. There is no such centre in the brain. The brain is distributed, from the very beginning to the very end. There are millions and trillions of neurons that are interconnected, and the connectivity is of the type of a small world network, very like the Internet.

The Activity of Consciousness

To perceive something like the bottle you can see here, the whole visual system gets active. Millions and billions of neurons, distributed over the brain, are responsible for different functions. There is no centre anywhere where the perception that we consciously perceive could be localized. It is a widespread spatio-temporal pattern – even worse, it is a pattern that changes all the time and is a trajectory in the high dimensional state space. This is the neuronal correlate of a perception. Ultimately it will turn out that this will be the neuronal correlate of consciousness – we can discuss it later.

The Ever Evolving Brain

This is a very uneasy interpretation of what we think we are, because there is no centre in the brain that is like the head of a company, the CEO giving directions, reaching decisions, steering everything. It is all self-organizing, and what we are and what comes out in our functions are emergent properties of these extremely complex widespread spatio-temporal patterns which cannot be seen or reduced in dimensionality to something we can touch or grasp. One can find mathematical descriptions for them – vectors, numbers, high-dimensional, unimaginable constructs, if you like. This is what happens in our brain.

Now, because the brain is not clockwork, neurobiologists have no problem in ascribing something like creativity, for example, to the brain. In such systems, the formerly unbound can be bound and then you have something new. This is a creative act. This system is not determined forever to evolve in a certain trajectory, so even though the local processes obey the natural laws and are deterministic and probabilistic to some extent, it is not predictable where a particular brain will move in the next five minutes. It depends on the embedding, so we are open to the future because of this non-linearity.

We can be creative, we are open to the future, we are responsible for what we do, because we are the agent. Our brain, together with the body, is the agent – there is nobody else who can be responsible, it is only us. Taken together, this does not harm our dignity. It rather makes us marvel more and more at this world because we cannot comprehend in its entirety what it has brought forth. After all, this is an assembly of trillions and trillions of molecules that have self-organized into ordered states that are what we are. I think we all have reasons to be very proud of that. The pity is that we are finite.

Neurobiologists would have to come to the conclusion that, differently to what Rupert Sheldrake said, when the brain decomposes it falls into dust. Everything that this brain has inherited from evolution in terms of functional architectural structure, i.e. knowledge, everything that this brain has experienced during its lifetime, is gone and is gone irreversibly. It will have no continuation anywhere. This is what a neurobiologist has to say nowadays, and will say as long as there is no convincing evidence to the contrary. So far there is nothing we can see of that kind, and if it is seen too much, it sometimes leads to the diagnosis of a disease.

In A Boundless Universe, We Define Our Own Limits

This is applying Occam’s razor. If you take my initial argument, you will see that there is enough space for the unknown, for what is beyond the limits of the knowable, where belief systems have their place, where belief is required, and therefore I think that scientific explanations as closed constructs are orthogonal to belief systems. “Orthogonal” means that they do not touch each other, they live in different ontological dimensions, so it would be useless to ask a scientist to prove or disprove a religious belief, as much as it would be useless to go the other way round. We are working on our own ground, we define our limits, we know what we cannot know. We know that our knowledge has to have limits, but we are not even able to say where they are, because we see them moving but we do not know what is beyond.

Creativity and Feeling Bridge Separation Between Science and Spirituality

So, I think scientists can be reductionists and at the same time believers – there is no damage at all. Maybe our constructs of spiritual entities have to be more abstract than if we did not know what we know. That is the only difference. Thank you very much for your attention.

WS: Perhaps I can make a final comment, which I think is very important. It is of course possible that there is a class of phenomena that is characterized by the fact that they are not reproducible. If the world is a trajectory, this is even likely. Now if there is such a phenomenon, science will never be able to grasp it because we need at least one repetition. So this gives you another degree of freedom.

Swami, would you like to comment on this discussion, or maybe you would like to give your perspective on spirituality, practice and science?

The topic is new science meeting old wisdom. If the scientists are older and are meeting a younger person like me, it sounds like a paradox!

There were two people who believed two different faiths. One believed that God was in the West, so he started his journey westward to meet God. The other believed that God was in the East, so he moved eastward. We know this Earth is round, and we know what happened – they met each other.

Now when they meet, there is the question of whether they will greet each other or decide to go their own way. If I understood the topic correctly, let the new scientists meet the people with old wisdom, to greet you, to hug you with love.

Science has done tremendous good for humankind, by removing blind belief, helping us to fight against human suffering, improving medicine and health care, and promoting agricultural production which has increased for a growing population. Science has helped us to understand a lot at the same time. Spirituality has helped us to live a life of peace, a life of love, a life of harmony.

Separation Between Science and Spirituality, A Non-Question?

So both have made a contribution towards human life, to make our lives better. To me, coming from a country, India, which we believe has the oldest living culture and civilization, there is no conflict between science and spirituality. Rather, there is welcoming and all-embracing love.

Science is exploring more and more. When I was listening to the previous session and the speaker was talking about heredity and genetics, and the environment, I was remembering my teacher who said that human evolution is based on heredity, environment and culture. Heredity, according to the scientists, is genetics. To my teacher, heredity is divinity, the love that we have all inherited.

Environment, to the scientists, let it be. In tissue culture, they put a cell in a special solution, to observe how the cell is growing. The environment where we live, our society, culture or humanity at large, this environment is nothing but God’s love. The plant produces a flower out of love. The mother looks at her baby out of love. This is all the environment of love.

We heard about evolution, how this Universe is evolving, and about important scientific ideas evolving. God is evolutionary, humans sometimes behave in ways that are revolutionary. Instead of speaking against each other, let us bridge the gap and bring more love, unity and harmony, which is potentially in each one of us.

Science can be complementary to spirituality and spirituality can be complementary to science, just like our two hands. If the topic is new science meeting old wisdom, the oldest wisdom is love. Creation started out of love. Creation evolves out of love, whether it is a scientists doing experiments in a laboratory, or a mother taking care of her baby, or a teacher teaching about spirituality, it is all done out of love.

There is no creation without love, and no existence without love. Where there is love there is no distance, no difference, no conflict. In love, in a loving atmosphere, whether in humanity, creation on this Earth, or individually in our own lives, there will be more peace, harmony and love.

To me, science is keeping the eyes open. As we have seen with the optical illusions, we perceive through our own notions or creativity. The spiritualist will say, “close your eyes”. The scientist will explore outside to find what reality is. The spiritual person, with eyes closed or half open, finding the same reality, will ask “what is the truth behind this?”

Truth is one, truth is not two. We can speak in many different languages. Scientists will talk in terms of genes or DNA or neurons. A spiritual person will speak in another language, depending on one’s own spiritual tradition, but the essential thing is that, to discover truth, truth is within us. We should explore it, whether we have eyes open or eyes closed, go eastward or westward, we are all meeting with love.

TJ: Thank you, all of you.