At the end of Part – 7 we made a reference to the tricks that our mind plays on us.
I think I can safely bet that all of us (unless you are yourself a magician) wonder how a magician or trickster pulls off a trick fooling us right in front of our eyes. Magicians and tricksters take full advantage of the fact that beyond the radar of our ability to consciously detect things, our brain and mind do many things unknown to us. By a sleight of hand or carrying out an elaborate illusion, they hack into our brains with their skill.
Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde and her husband Dr. Stephen Macknik, Neuroscientists at Barrows Institute in USA have been studying the magician’s tricks for the last few years. From their work and the research of many other scientists, we are understanding much better about the way our cognitive mechanisms work in showing us the objective world we “think” we see out there.
You may be knowing that as much as a fifth of the energy we get from the food we eat is consumed by the brain alone, though it weighs only 2% of our body weight. The rest of the 98% of the body will have to make do with the remaining balance of the energy. Our brain (which bears the footprint of the mind), is the most energy expensive organ in our body in spite of the fact that it adopts many shortcuts to economize on the energy use. It saves energy by cutting down the time required for processing information. It even switches off itself (in some parts) for some hours in a day. We call that ‘sleep.’
Our brain often does not wait to get full information about anything before it instructs other organs to take an action. It acquired the ability to fill the gaps in information and also the technique of processing data using partial or incomplete information. This ability helps to reach a decision quickly about an action to be taken. The ability of the mind to fill gaps in information has proved itself as a great survival tool for the body-organism.
Maybe an example will elucidate the concept better. Suppose you are going along a mountain track in a forest (as the ancient primitive man must have done) during dim sunlight. You hear a rustle and notice a few brown and yellow patches in a nearby bush.
The mind immediately imagines the shape of a wild animal connecting all the color patches and alerts the leg muscles to run to save your life. No harm is done even if the mental imagination of a tiger or lion later on proves to be a mistake. But what if the mind did not have this capacity? You would have merely seen a few disconnected color patches through the bush, even if a wild brute were to be actually hiding there. And even before you know what the color patches are, the animal could have pounced on you and made you its dinner.
We see many colors in nature – the brown earth, the blue sky, the green leaves, multi-colored flowers, animals in many variegated hues and so on. But these colors do not really exist out there! Objects in nature do not possess rigidly fixed colors. What color an object shows depends on a number of factors like the type of light illuminating the object, the context, intensity of the light etc. and also the type photo detectors in the eye of the animal. Consequently, the colors that we see of an object, say a flower or a tomato, are not the same that an insect or a dog sees them. The colors appear to those animals differently.
The colors an animal sees are a survival mechanism in evolution. The colors help the body-organism in locating its food and mate. The colors also protect it (through camouflage) from predators and in perpetuating its species (by attracting a partner).
The case of shapes too is also about the same! We see shapes according to our imagination but not based on what actually exists. It is impossible for you not to see the Ehrenstein’s disks as we have already noted earlier in Part – 4. A few curved lines appear tantalizingly as a male or female body, though they are some meaningless scribbles on a piece of paper.
Our brain often confabulates a story to give a meaning and /or continuity. In fact our sense of ‘self’ is no more than such a confabulation, as established by Neuroscientists. We have many hilarious examples narrated by Neurologist Oliver Sacks in several of his books about the way our brain concocts such stories. There was even a story of a man who mistook his hat to be his wife!
We think that all of us see the same one world. It is nothing but a belief. The following example, from Yogavasishta illustrates the point.
“There was an intense battle going on all through the day. The soldiers were all tense and terribly tired. As the night fell, they retired to their combat shelters for food and rest. During the night in their sleep, every one of the soldiers were dreaming about the war. In every soldier’s dream, there was an army fighting. The fact is that each soldier was viewing his private dream-army. But when he wakes up, he tells his friends, “I dreamt of OUR ARMY fighting.” It was not “OUR ARMY” that he saw in his dream. It was some dream army, maybe similar to his army. But the soldiers do not notice the difference. It is the same thing with the world seen by all the people. Hence, elders state that this awake world is like a long dream.”
Talking of Yogavasishta, it tells us about the fascinating story of Sage Gadhi and how he was frustrated in distinguishing what was reality and what was a fanciful imagination shown by his mind. This story forms the bulk of the 5th Chapter Upasama.
We will take a brief look at the bewilderment of Gadhi in our next Post.
(To continue …. Part – 10).