27 May 2009
Quick! Where is Heaven?
Did you answer that question? Did you say “up”?
You aren’t the only one…
One of the primary things Swedenborg talks about with respect to reading and understanding the scriptures is the idea of a “spiritual sense” and correspondences between things spiritual and things natural.
Certainly, from the beginning this idea was probably the most intriguing to me about Swedenborg’s Writings — the notion that embedded in the words of the Bible is a deeper meaning.
And that we “detect” that meaning in some way as we read, whether we know it or not.
But how could that be? Don’t different people use “symbols” and metaphors differently? And how can reading have an impact if we don’t consciously “get” the meaning?
There are a couple of interesting lines of evidence that apply to these questions I would love to share with you.
The first relates directly to how the brain works — that mass of networked connections and associations we are building and changing with every experience we have.
What’s Up With God?
In an unique study, Brian Meier looked at how people process the “position” of God and heaven, the devil and hell, and all things belonging to those realms.
He and his colleagues had students push one of two buttons to categorize words as either belonging to a “God” category or “devil” category.
The trick here was the position of the words on the screen — either at the top or the bottom.
Students were able to more quickly categorize God-related words if they were at the top of the screen and devil-related words if they were at the bottom of the screen. They were slower to find the right category if the positions were reversed — God down and devil up.
What’s important to know here is to know that this is the same kind of effect we see and use in neuropsychological testing. For example, people are slower to be able to name a colour when it is presented in a different colour (e.g., read the word “red” when it’s printed in a blue colour). It means that there is some kind of interference with what is a deeply-associated connection.
If It’s Holy, It Must Be Up
But Meier did even more, also asking students to watch a number of images randomly go by — each image in a different location on the computer screen. Then they asked the students where each image had appeared — and what happened?…
You got it! They remembered God-related images as showing higher up and devil-related images as lower down than they originally really appeared. Which is to say, they “re-positioned” the image positions to match those deep associations we already saw.
And here’s one more bit of what they did.
If It’s Up, They Must Be Holy
They showed the students images of strangers and then asked them to give an opinion on how strongly each person believed in God. Maybe more surprisingly this time, students judged that strangers whose pictures were at the top of the screen believed more in God than people whose pictures were at the bottom of the screen!
Of course, these were all university students in a North American school, but still… It’s important to know that these associations were not tied to the students’ own degree or type of religious beliefs.
So, this is our first connection to having some kind of very strong, non-conscious association between things spiritual and a “metaphorical” association that points to our actually having these kinds of connections embedded in the ways our brains work.
“People don’t just use metaphors—they think in them,” says Meier.
Learning by Osmosis?
So, now let’s go onto the question of how reading can have an impact if we don’t consciously “get” the meaning.
This time, I can’t point to just one study — there is a whole field of investigation on what’s called “nonconscious learning“.
These studies repeatedly show that there are components of our thinking — brain activity — operating outside of our awareness. These elements are able to truly multitask, are agile, efficient, perceptive, can be quick, and capable of recognizing complex patterns of information.
For example, people can detect and use underlying patterns in information that consciously appears to them as “random”. That’s to say, they get better and better at predicting what will come next or what piece of information is most important even though they insist they don’t know and that there is no pattern to be found! In fact, in some studies, people weren’t able to identify any pattern at all even when they were paid to figure it out!
In my neurofeedback work, this is exactly what we rely on — that the brain can find the pattern in the feedback, the mirroring, it gets about its own activity without us consciously trying to “drive the bus”. And apparently native Hawaiian navigators used the same non-conscious learning to read the waves and know where they were in the ocean at all times – no equipment required!
So we can indeed learn from these kinds of “invisible” patterns without ever being aware that there even is a pattern.
Which all adds up to interesting support for Swedenborg’s claims, don’t you think?