To continue our exploration of the anesthesia experience, let’s now consider the recording and projecting capacities of the human brain—which all evidence reveals to be a super-sophisticated electrochemical device which plays a central role in the creation of our sensory and cognitive experience.
Much of how the human organism thinks, perceives and interacts with the surrounding environment has to do with the functioning of the brain and nervous system.
Digital or Analog?
One of the questions that scientists have and continue to explore is whether the human brain—with its multitude of neural networks—is analog or digital. Is information recorded and transmitted in digital or analog form?
While some researchers have concluded that the brain is a digital device, many scientists argue that it actually utilizes a combination of analog and digital processes: i.e. that the human brain is a digital-analog hybrid. (In seems that dendrites, in particular, function via analog-digital hybrid code.)
In any case, let’s just agree that it’s complex machinery!
Keyboard or Hard-Drive? – The Quandary of Memory
How exactly memory works remains a sticking-point among western scientists.
For our purposes here, we can remain agnostic around whether memories are stored in the brain per se (though how does something so utterly immaterial as a memory get stored in something so basically physical/material?)—or whether they are stored in a more subtle or archetypal aspect of mind that is accessed via neural processes, kind of like a keyboard is used to access the information stored on your computer’s hard-drive.
Once again, and needless to say, we’re dealing with some very sophisticated equipment, with all variety of electrochemical networks and processes that support the cameras and recording devices and movie-making capacity of the human brain.
Correlation & Causation: A Cautionary Note
A quick but important word:
There’s no denying that neural activity has certain correlations to subjective experience. But since correlation does not imply causation, it’s prudent to avoid attributing a causal relationship, in either direction.
To wit: there’s no actual proof that neural activity causes subjective experience (the materialist hypothesis/assumption). Nor is there proof of the converse: that subjective experience causes neural activity.
There’s an interesting correlation: that’s all we can legitimately claim.
Phenomenal Experience Is Constructed
In any case, our experience of the phenomenal world is an intricate construction that includes all variety of perceptual filtering and weaving together of inputs from our sensory organs, along with preexisting habits and beliefs.
In sum: objects and events—along with our assumption of space-time continuity—are cognitive/perceptual constructions. As such, they are impermanent: they shift and change, moment by moment.
And this constructed nature of sensory/cognitive experience is not necessarily a problem.
What is a problem is so-called cognitive fusion, i.e. collapsing into or losing ourselves in the constructed story so completely that we lose touch with our infinite indestructible true nature: our timeless essence.
In particular, when we’re cognitively fused with the dream-character “me”—viz. a specific human body-mind to which we attribute a separate inherent existence—then we will experience (unnecessary!) psychological suffering.
At the Movies
Like a sequence of separate frames in a movie film that create the illusion of continuity of action, when they are projected in rapid succession onto a screen—so the various “moments” of our phenomenal experience, when viewed in rapid succession, create the illusion of temporal continuity.
When we fail to notice the gaps, we define an object or event as something continuous—and from its perceived continuity infer, also, a continuity of space and time (as the background on which the movement happens).
(This metaphor works especially well if we assume the brain to be primarily or exclusively a digital device.)
Let’s now explore some common examples of perceptual discontinuities, in relation to specific aspects of our human experience. Each of these is, one could argue, significantly less extreme than the discontinuity experienced via anesthesia. We might wonder: do they, nevertheless, belong to the same general category of experience? Are they similar in kind, if not degree?
1. Time Flying
When we’re absorbed in an artistic or intellectual activity that we truly love, time often seems to “fly.” We begin the exploration at noon. Then—seemingly the very next moment—we look up at the clock and see that it is 3pm.
Because we’ve been absorbed in an activity that connects us to timelessness, time “flies” in the sense of disappears completely: Its flow, for that period, is simply not experienced, as such.
Our body-mind apparatus is not engaged in constructing the experience of time continuously passing, because we’re abiding—via our passion for the activity—in a timeless vertical dimension.
2. Great Yogis
You may be familiar with stories of great Indian or Tibetan yogis going into deep samadhis—and emerging days or weeks later with no apparent memory of the time that has elapsed.
A common spin is something like: the yogini asks her assistant to please fetch her a cup of water, from the nearby creek. The assistant leaves to get the water, and when he returns finds the yogini unresponsive, in the trance of samadhi.
Being a faithful assistant, he stays nearby until—some days or weeks later—the yogini opens her eyes and immediately asks: “Have you fetched my water yet?”
Since the yogini’s body has remained in her cave throughout the samadhi, the environment upon return is more-or-less the same as the environment was when she entered the trance. The discontinuity is revealed, instead, in the question about the water—which points to the “missing information” of the elapse of days/weeks.
3. Lights Out in Plato’s Cave
If you’ve ever gone spelunking, or taken a tour into a deep cave, where no natural light can travel—and then, at some point, experienced what it’s like when any artificial lights are turned off, you’ll know how it is to have all visual information abruptly cease.
Even if we can deduce—through memory and/or inference—that our physical eyes are, in that moment, still functional, the complete absence of light renders them useless. No matter how close we hold our hand to our eyes, we cannot see even the faintest glimmer of an outline.
For all intents and purposes, this amounts to an abrupt turning off of the body’s visual camera, and an elimination of the data it previously had provided.
4. Flotation Tanks
In a flotation tank, salt-dense water allows the body to float effortlessly; and the water and air temperature are identical to the internal temperature of the human body. As a result, the sense of body-weight—created via tactile information distinguishing the boundaries of the physical body—is basically eliminated.
Even though we know—say from memory and/or inference—that our tactile sense is functional and that our body does indeed have its skin as an at least provisional boundary; we have, in that floating moment, no direct perceptual verification of such boundaries.
5. Big Bangs
If I happen to be in the vicinity of a very loud explosion—or attend a very loud rock concert with seats right next to the speakers—I may temporarily lose my hearing.
This case is a bit different from the previous ones, since it involves actual damage to the sensory organ (the ears) that creates the experience of an abrupt absence of auditory information.
But once again I can know—from memory and/or inference—that soundwaves are still traveling through the atmosphere, and that when my ears have healed, and are once again functioning, then auditory information will again be part of my experience.
6. The Covid-19 Contribution
And the same is true for taste and smell. One of the symptoms of covid-19 (experienced by some but not all people) is a temporary loss of taste and/or smell.
In such a case, there would be an abrupt absence of olfactory and gustatory information. This aspect of human experience would suddenly go missing. And then—several days or weeks hence—once again appear.
But even after it reappeared, still there would be no way to retrieve the “missing data” within that bandwidth, i.e. all the tastes and smells that might have registered, had the nose and tongue been working properly.
Moment by moment, sensory and conceptual phenomena—or we could say, gross and subtle phenomena—arise and dissolve within the space of Awareness.
When our human body-mind is functioning within established parameters, bits of information are pieced together in a way that creates an illusion of seamless continuity, i.e. of mental, physical and worldly events flowing from one moment to another without too many big surprises. This is Maya (or Lila, when we’re fully awake to the process).
Small or even medium-sized discontinuities can be quickly stitched together via the machinery of the brain and nervous system—to maintain narrative continuity.
But large discontinuities—like that experienced via anesthesia—present a much bigger challenge. Maintaining the illusion that continuity resides in phenomena requires a less chaotic, less dramatic landscape—which unfolds with at least a modicum of fidelity to generally accepted natural laws (e.g. the laws of physics).
Phenomenal v. Noumenal Continuity
Nondual spiritual traditions tend to claim that discontinuity—small, medium or large—in phenomenal experience in no way discredits the noumenal continuity of Awareness. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The observed discontinuities in combination with our deep inner sense of continuity point to a continuity that resides not in phenomena, but rather in the core of our being: our essential nature as pure Awareness. This is not a continuity across time—but rather the non-phenomenal timeless continuity out of which space-time emerges.
The surprised jolt we experience when waking from anesthesia just betrays the depth of our habit of identification with forms, with phenomena. Our mind is disturbed by the radical discontinuity in phenomenal experience—a gap that is virtually impossible to patch up, in the usual ways.
It’s a gap that’s perhaps more similar to before and after a near-death experience—or from one lifetime to another (if you consider this a possibility). Traversing it challenges our materialist assumptions in ways that are especially difficult to evade.