27 Apr 2009

I Won’t Believe It Until I See It…

Posted in Regeneration, The Brain at 23:36 by Dr. Shue

I won’t believe it until I see it myself.

A common phrase.

How many times have you said this yourself? Or at least acted as if it’s true? Or known others who insist on it?

Yet,  Mike Gladish, in his 19 April Easter sermon, broght up an interesting point…

Is believing about seeing? Or is seeing about believing?

Before we go any further, I’d like you to do a short attention exercise. In a moment, I’m going to send you over to a link with a very short video (maybe 30sec). As you watch  this video, please count the number of passes made by the white team. Then come back with your answer. There will be a test. NO cheating — watch it only once, then come back here.

Count the passes of the white team.

So, how many did you count? I won’t give away the answer right here where you could be cheating, but don’t forget how many you counted.

Now onto our topic.

If We Don’t Believe it, Can We See It?

Among other (probably more important) points, Mike wrote about the different Biblical accounts of who saw the risen Lord and how they failed to recognize Him until he said something to them that connected with who they were or who He had been to them (emphasis added):

“THIS incident [failing to recognize the Lord until He broke bread with them] shows more
clearly than ever that a certain kind of perception was required – not to see
the Lord in His glorified body, but to recognize who He was. So it is obvious that His
body was real and solid enough, and their natural senses were not deceived, but still, the quality
of the Man they met did not register until something highly significant in their lives took place
And this was His symbolic act of breaking bread.”

And this is exactly the problem, from a psychological point of view, with the “I won’t believe it until I see it” demand.

Unless we are prepared (the research calls it “primed”) to perceive something, we may entirely miss it. We just aren’t equipped to include it in our perceptions — it doesn’t mean anything to us, we don’t have a context for it — any number of things can interfere with our reception.

If we refuse to believe something we haven’t “seen”, we may never see it…

We might miss it entirely.

We might “see” it, but interpret it entirely differently.

We might “see” it, but see it quite differently as we embed what we see in our own history of experiences. (“It was a lovely shy smile!” vs “No, it was definitely a  smirk!”)

What’s Happening in our Brain when we’re “looking”?

Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City has done research looking at what happens in the brain when we are “paying attention”. Interestingly, he has found that there are two quite different things happening.

One, there are brain cells that actively focus on what you are attending to (which is based on what you know, what you think you’re doing, your life experiences, etc.). They enhance your ability to focus on specifics (e.g., the basketball passes of the white team; scriptural debate).

Two, and just as important, are brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain.

Dr. Alonso summarizes his finding this way:

“And that is a very new idea…. When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

So let’s just take a break and see how you did in your own attention test:

Intense Focus:  White team passes = 14 (last time I tred to count 😉

And what did your actively suppressing brain cells suppress? How about the person in a gorilla suit that walks through the middle of the game, stands for a moment, then walks out the other side?

If you didn’t cheat and watch it twice or fail to try to count the white passes AND had a high-enough speed internet connection to prevent pauses ;-), then you probably missed the gorilla. (I did.)

I suggest this is probably exactly the same problem the apostles had. They were so focused on their daily lives and on what they “knew” was possible (and impossible), that they missed the gorilla in the game. (No disrespect intended.)

And the same can be true of us if we depend too heavily on our senses to discover “what’s true“.

We might well be right about the number of passes, but miss the most important and interesting parts of the whole Game of Life.

What does all this Have to do Spiritual Regeneration?

Swedenborg has a juicy (to me as a neuropsychologist anyway 😉 passage in the Arcana Caelestia where he describes how our “memory-knowledges and truths” (i.e., what I understand as meaning what we have learned and what we think we know) are formed. In this passage, he is describing what happens to Joseph’s brothers when they finally recognize him as their brother – they’re all in a “commotion”:

“By commotion is meant a new disposition and setting in order of truths in the natural, concerning which setting in order be it known that the order in which memory-knowledges and truths are arranged in [our] memory is unknown to [us], but when it pleases the Lord it is known to angels. For it is a wonderful order. They cohere as in little bundles, and the little bundles themselves cohere together, and this according to the connection of things which [we have understood]. These coherences are more wonderful than anyone can ever believe. … The memory-knowledges and truths are arranged into these bundles solely by [a person’s] loves–into infernal forms by the loves of self and of the world, but into heavenly forms by love toward the neighbor and love to God. Wherefore while [we are] being regenerated, and conjunction is being effected of the good of the internal person with the truths of the external, a commotion takes place among the truths, for they then undergo a different arrangement.”

This is a lovely description of how our brains organize our knowledge, feeling, and experiences. Swedenborg refers to “bundles” that “cohere”; I might describe them as collecting like thoughts on a mind map, with physical links between related ideas and feelings and sensations. The further away the link from the topic of focus, the weaker the connection. (We even talk about the ability of these networks to connect with one another as “coherence” – how about that?)

We can’t see these networks for any one thought, but the whole brain is organized by networks of connections – like the internet, actually.

And he is quite right that Change requires and creates changes in the networks, which can be quite anxiety-provoking ( a point he makes a bit further on in the passage). And the real trick is that in order to learn anything New or link it Differently  in the network structure, it must be attached to something already there and activated.

So think of the disciples walking and talking with the Lord all day, oblivious to who He was. Because…well…it couldn’t be Him, now could it? (No reason to activate the Jesus network once He had died, you see — it was closely connected to the Death network, which is not linked to walking and talking.) They could debate and discuss scripture with the man they met (active focus), but not see Him for Who He was (actively suppressing).

But when He broke bread for them at dinner, it activated the whole Last Supper network, a very emotionally powerful network that definitely included Him. (And incidentally, the emotion would have decreased their ability to actively suppress.) And voila! They recognized Him.

So when we read and study and listen, we need to be actively connecting these ideas to what we already know — searching for how this new information fits – makes sense – with where we’ve already been and what we’ve already experienced, yet balanced with being open to new ideas and information and not getting overfocused on what we think we know.

To read more about our foibles of attention, you might enjoy Specialis Revelio: It’s Not Magic, It’s Neuroscience

1 Comment »

  1. […] actually start to see what we believe. (Which takes me back to another recent post on just that […]

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