President’s BRAIN initiative inspires debate – and direction

How can we make a map of something when we can’t even agree on its location? Maybe we should start by looking in a different direction. Photo: © iStockphoto.com/VLADGRIN

LOS ALTOS, CA, May 2, 1013 – It’s sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel.

The BRAIN Initiative (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is President Obama’s recently announced plan to create a map of what he calls “the matter between our ears.” Compared by some to the more well-known Human Genome Project, the idea is to gain a better understanding of the roughly 100 trillion connections being made between the 85 billion or so neurons roaming around inside our head.

It may take decades, even centuries, but eventually scientists hope to use this newfound knowledge to treat and even cure such debilitating conditions as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and PTSD.

The epicenter of all this activity (to use a tired but geographically appropriate analogy) can be found right here in the San Francisco Bay Area, with three members of the BRAIN Initiative working group hailing from Stanford University. But even more interesting is the fault line that’s appearing within this same neighborhood between those who use the word “brain” and those who prefer the term “mind” to describe all things mental.

“Let’s try a little experiment,” writes Sharon Begley, senior health and science correspondent at Reuters in the April 2013 issue of Mindful magazine. “Using your right index finger, point to your brain. Now using the same finger, point to your mind. Not so easy. We don’t necessarily think of our brain and mind as being exactly the same thing. One is not as easy to pinpoint, and this has led to two distinct ways we have of talking about mental activity: mind talk and brain talk.”

A neurosurgeon I know prefers the brain talk camp. The other day when we were chatting about the cause and effects of such moral sentiments as gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion, he matter-of-factly concluded that the entire process could be traced to the brain.

Another acquaintance, a psychologist at a nearby medical center, sees things in a much different light. He’s wary of the biological reductionism that characterizes the mind or consciousness as an entirely brain-based phenomenon, even suggesting that the whole of mind-body medicine is in danger of being co-opted by the neurosciences.

This presents us, of course, with an important question: How can we create a map of something when we can’t even agree on its location, let alone what to call it? Maybe we should start by looking in a different direction.

Although he’s certainly not the first to consider the concept, it was Albert Einstein who popularized the idea of a divine consciousness. “I want to know God’s thoughts,” the quote reads on ubiquitous photographs of the celebrated scientist. “The rest are details.” Whether he was referring to something that exists in addition to or in lieu of what we often refer to as the human consciousness, Einstein’s words nevertheless provide us with a compelling starting point.

Like the proverbial group of blind men trying to describe an elephant from their individual and decidedly limited perspectives, it would seem impossible for any one individual or group of individuals to grasp the nature of consciousness in its entirety. However, there are many who are finding that by gaining a deeper understanding of a presumed if not universally accepted divine whole, we’ll begin seeing its parts in a more complete light.

The encouraging news is that this approach is already yielding impressive results, with an increasing number of people experiencing significantly improved mental and physical health as a result of a broader and more spiritually focused line of inquiry.

This isn’t to say that science and spirituality – much less the terms “brain” and “mind” – can’t coexist. Only that they need to be understood in a larger context.

“Science without religion is lame,” said Einstein. “Religion without science is blind.”

Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.


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Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson has been published and featured in numerous newspapers, online publications, and radio talk programs. He speaks from years of experience in the mind-body field, especially as it relates to health. In addition, he is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California and is a self-employed Christian Science practitioner. He’s also a huge baseball fan and loves riding his bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. You can find him at www.norcalcs.org.

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