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Making Nonsense of Reality

I've been working these past few weeks on writing a proposal for a television series about the human brain, and it's been interesting seeing how much of neruoscience relates directly to my study and practice of Buddhism.  One thing in particular that is kind of incredible to grasp is that we have absolutely no real sense of reality.  Our brains are basically three pound storytelling machines, taking in sensory input and deciding how to process it based on a potent mix of chemicals, neural wiring, and past experience.  

We have no direct contact with reality.  Our only contact with reality is the information coming in from our senses, and that's just a stream of electrical impulses that the brain interprets as sound, scent, audio, or visual based on where the neurons enter the brain. Even that is subject to reinterpretation - the brain can choose to connect smell to sight, sight to sound, touch to sight.  

Essentially (and over-simply), from a neurochemical standpoint, the brain is always just a split second behind what's really happening "out there", creating a constant stream of memory, thought, response, reaction based on a story it is creating from all these inherently meaningless inputs.  Even memory is simply a chemical reaction, a sensation that triggers a chemical response from our limbic system (emotion) that forces the neurochemicals "containing" the experience through the brain enough times that they eventually concretize into a rough (or totally inaccurate) representation of some moment  our brain deems meaningful based on the emotion attached to the sensory event.

I can't help but notice that Buddhist practice offers an opportunity to try to have more direct contact with reality by teaching me how to recognize what is "memory, thought, and story" and what is the closest thing to direct, present moment sensation that it is possible to experience.  Because by definition my brain is going to create a story that's all about "me" with "me" in the starring role, Buddhist practice is a nice opportunity to try to find a moment without "me" in the spotlight.

There's growing research indicating the benefits of regular meditation practice (see Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation) and I have my own anecdotal, self-observed sensation of finding "space" between my thoughts that has a compassionate, non-grasping quality.  So although sitting on your cushion for meditation and being wired in a lab for neuroscience research might seem miles apart, at the intersection there seems to be an interesting way to make more sense of reality.

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