My son has been watching a BBC series on the incredible nature of the human brain. He has a personal interest in the subject and discussion is inevitable. The more he learns, the more excited he has become about the unfathomable potential of that least understood of organs. Although many things have changed since his brain injury, he is, he assures me, still blessed with residual awesomeness.
This is no mere boast… he has a point. Though damaged, his brain seems capable of bypassing damage in a number of different ways, either finding new mechanisms to replace the unrepairable or finding new routes for the messages transmitted. Drawing upon one illustration given in the documentary, my son explained that the brain could be likened to a city where, if one road was destroyed, another could be found… a very basic example. Extending it, he suggested that the economy of a city does not rest within one single section of the city, but relies on input from the whole…and perhaps it is that which allows a personality to survive intact when areas of the brain are destroyed, even if the ability to express that personality may be impaired.
We talked about it in more personal terms, using his double-vision and continually bouncing sight as an example. Were these a temporary affliction you would, as he did initially, find looking at anything hard work…let alone focussing. You would, with the continual bouncing, feel something akin to constant motion-sickness. You would certainly not be able to, say, follow a line of text in a book…or pick up a crumb. Which one of the wavering, bouncing double images is it, after all? And exactly where? Yet, gradually the brain flexes its capabilities and although the physical problem itself persists and occasionally make its presence noticed, a functional adaptation occurs.
What is happening here is that although the physical problems have not changed, the brain has learned to interpret reality in a new and hitherto untried manner, taking the wobbling sensory input and creating a perception of normality. Perceptual adaptation is something we are all familiar with; the image of the world that reaches the retina on the back of our eyes is upside down when it gets there… it is the brain that turns it the right way up for us. Experiments with lenses that turn the image the right way up before it hits the brain have shown that although we would at first then see the world upside down, the healthy brain quickly re-adapts and creates yet another version of reality, turning our perception the right way up again.
By the time we got to this point in the conversation, my son had already raised his eyebrows. He was waiting for the inevitable speculative comparison between the capacity of the brain to create a perception of physical reality and what is fondly called the ‘nerkish’ view of such things, where visualisation and meditation are used to enhance and create a non-physical reality. Just as the brain can, through its interpretation of the world, permit the body to interact with solid objects… like picking up a crumb you should not be able to locate… so can the mind allow interaction with a non-physical reality… even if we call it only imagination.
Imagination, however, is more than a mere toy for daydreams, but is the starting point of innovation, creativity and those ideas and inventions which, in their turn, also impact the physical world.
Just from this small example it can be seen that the boundaries of perception are not fixed. Nor are they the same for everyone. The senses are more…or less…acute in each of us, with some able to hear higher or lower ranges of sound, perceive colour in different ways, even, under certain conditions, see the normally invisible infra-red light. So the term ‘invisible’ no longer applies as science has found that we are capable of seeing it.
Most people would say that if a thing is invisible it cannot be seen, yet until recently this was thought to be the case for infra-red light. As we can see it, it can no longer be scientifically classed as invisible, so a new frame must be defined. Not so long ago, stating that you can see invisible things would have had you burned at the stake! The advances in knowledge have widened the arena of reality with each new discovery and more and more we are seeing phenomena that were once firmly classed as magic come into everyday life.
The capturing of a digital image… the ability to speak instantaneously not only across worlds but from the space above them… to watch moving pictures in your hand, create ice in a box… the applications of such magic are endless… and readily accepted for their commercial value.
So science extends its boundaries through knowledge, just as those who take the same journey from a different direction seek to extend the boundaries of perception through understanding. Much of what is dismissed as ‘supernatural’, ‘occult’ or ‘mere imagination’ may have a true presence in our accepted version of reality… but like infra-red light, the abilities to transcend ‘normality’ have yet to be proven by science and are thus rendered acceptable. For now.
If you imagine the vast expanse of scientifically accepted reality, with all the scientifically defined invisible elements that it contains, stretching like a vast line across the sky, how much does our human perception occupy of that line? We know that dogs have a far more acute sense of smell, cats can see in the dark, bats navigate by sonar… each species occupies a slightly different place along that line, and each individual creature…including us…will perceive their own unique version of reality,created through their personal interpretation of sensory and non-sensory input; a reality that can only be shared with others through a consensus that works by drawing a median line of averages in the sand.
Much of what we consider to be supernatural is, I believe, just the natural that is outside the average range of perception and therefore truly unseen by most and therefore has not been officially recognised and understood. It may be that the capacity of the brain to create its own reality accounts for some of the phenomena, yet others are simply waiting for knowledge to bring answers as the tools of scientific perception are honed. Nature is bigger than our current knowledge… the universe holds wonders we can barely conceive, let alone perceive at this point in our journey. The difference between physical science and esoteric science lies only in the level of proof deemed acceptable. Scientists demand reproducible and concrete evidence… the esoteric student accepts the experience and may feel no need to question the ‘how’ or the ‘why’; the subjective change in perception may be enough. Both need results within their own terms of perception. The gulf between the two perspectives is not all that wide after all, but while one seeks to make sense of the outer and physical world, the other seeks to understand the inner.
“All very well,” said my son. “But you know, the robes, the chanting, the incense…” I thought of the churches and temples of the world’s faiths and smiled… the robes, incense and chanting don’t seem to have done too badly over the millennia. After all, they serve only as the window-dressing of the mind. In themselves they mean nothing, but used with intent they become a tool that helps to engage a heightened perception and therefore a greater awareness, not of some nebulous and supernatural vision, but of the very natural nature of the universe we call home. And that is a truly awesome place.