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The real world

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Jim OpinionBy Jim Powers

No, I’m not talking about the MTV series featuring a bunch of hyper-sexualized young adults thrown into an upscale house with cameras in every room that invited the world to watch what happened (big surprise, huh?). My focus is the 3D world, the one we walk around in, which still exists when we turn off our computers and smart phones, and the meaning of “reality” in the 21st century.

Modern neuroscience, through the use of very sophisticated imaging techniques, is now able to look into the brain in real time, while it is thinking, imagining and solving problems. Neuroscientists have constructed many experiments, confirmed hundreds of times, that reveal some interesting things about the brain, the nature of consciousness and the concept of self. You can find interesting reading about this on the Internet. An exhaustive account is well beyond the scope of this column.

Scientists have observed through this research that when faced with a specific task, areas of the brain register activity up to several seconds before the thought to initiate the activity appears in consciousness. When a subject was asked to tap any numbered square in a stream of numbered squares scrolling across a computer monitor, the brain registered the decision to select a particular square before the thought to select that square appeared in the subject’s consciousness…before she was aware of making a decision to select that particular square.

The simple take on this is that thoughts appear in our consciousness from an area of our brain that we have no direct access to. They simply appear, persist for a while, we either act on them or not, then they disappear. And while this research and these conclusions involve some very high-tech tools, this knowledge has actually been around over 2,000 years. Understanding this concept is one of the primary points of meditation.

Don’t worry, I’m not going all metaphysical here. Meditation, in what has become known in the West as Mindfulness Meditation, but is an outgrowth of Vipassana, or Insight Mediation, is used in business, in education, and by many individuals to increase the ability to focus on tasks. As we are barraged with an ever-increasing stream of information, we are all looking for ways to manage our ability to pay attention to what needs to be done. Meditation practice has been a solution for many people.

The short explanation of Mindfulness Meditation is pretty simple. Sit in a quiet place, eyes open or closed, and concentrate on your breath.  While that sounds simple, it is initially very difficult for most people, who quickly discover that their mind is very busy. It is constantly thinking. Thoughts pop into consciousness over which there seems to be no control. Many people can’t get beyond one breath before they discover their mind is thinking about the grocery list, the angry words they said to someone five years ago, or thoughts that seem to make no sense to them at all. “Monkey Mind” the Buddhists call it.

The goal is that every time the mind strays from concentrating on the breath, and as soon as you notice it has strayed, you pull concentration back to the breath. Eventually, and for some people it takes a long time, you will be able to stay with the breath longer and longer, and the distracting thoughts will decrease. The side effect of this practice that most people are looking for is that your ability to focus on a specific task increases.

The other thing that happens is that, by watching your thoughts so intently, you come to the realization that thoughts appear in the mind, persist for a time, and disappear. If you have a thought, but do not grasp onto that thought, it will vanish as mysteriously as it appeared. Which is exactly what the high-tech tools of neuroscience appear to confirm.

This column, though, isn’t an attempt to convince you to meditate.  When you see directly that your days are made up of a constantly moving stream of thoughts, some of which you act on, and many which you wisely don’t, you can begin to understand the real implications of the unlimited information that we are subjected to each day. We see thousands of images, and hear hundreds of messages in commercials, music, movies and TV each day. 

Many of these images and messages are created by entities that are using the findings of the most cutting-edge neuroscience to influence our thinking. They understand that we are a stream of thoughts constantly passing almost unexamined through our minds, and that if they can inject their own message into that stream, among the thousands of other messages that we have no time to process objectively, that we are likely to assume their thoughts are, in fact, our thoughts…our desires, and that we will act on them.

The result is familiar. We buy stuff we can’t afford; we accept ideas that are inconsistent with our core values, we make life choices that decrease rather than increase happiness, we vote for people whose stated goals are inconsistent with our own beliefs or aspirations. This is not a new problem, of course. What is new is the overwhelming amount of information we are forced to process every day, and our resulting failure to make time to edit the good from the bad.

I believe this is one of the biggest existential threats of the 21st century: that we will get so caught up in our rhetoric that we fail to grasp reality.

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