Why do I need you? Because I’m linked into the human network along with you. You unplug one unit and the others are all impacted. Like the old Christmas lights when one light in the string doesn’t work the connection is lost to all the others. This is the topic of the fifth episode of the PBS documentary on the brain led by Baylor University professor Dr. David Eagleman.
The only way to understand the individual, Eagleman tells us, is to better understand the connectedness of society. In this way the show moves from its title The Brain: The Story of You to expand to the rest of humanity’s brains. You can’t make full sense of your brain without the context of the entire human neural network. “Our brains are so fundamentally wired to interact,” Eagleman says, “that it’s not always clear where each of us begins and ends.”
If you think this sounds a little like the Eastern religious perspective then I would agree. In previous episodes there has been a negation of personhood, and now we see an emphasis on reality being found in understanding the interconnectedness of all of human life. This seems to me not dissimilar to atheistic neuroscientist Sam Harris whose last book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion focused on the value of meditation to transcend the false notion of personhood.
It’s interesting that both Eagleman and Harris turn to the East for dealing with the illusion of the self. In Eastern Pantheistic Monism the idea of self is illusory, and all is a part of the divine. Salvation is found in moving behind the mirage of being something distinct. Though Eagleman is not advocating Eastern Pantheistic Monism, consider his final statement on the program:
Our species is more than just 7 billion individuals spread out across the planet. We’re something more like a signal vast super organism. Because what your friends know and love as you is really a neural network embedded in a far larger web of other neural networks. In this age of digital connection we desperately need to understand the links between humans. If we want our civilizations to have a bright future we need to understand how human brains interact the dangers and the opportunities because there is no denying the truth that’s sketched into our neural circuitry: we need each other.
In the next and final episode, Eagleman says he will discuss how we might be able to separate the mind from the body, and how in time we may be able to survive death. But if we are not real individuals it is curious to me what exactly might be preserved after the body has died. And if there is no soul, no immaterial self, then in the end the best we can hope for is to save our minds, but it seems unclear what that would be and what that might mean.
Here’s some quick links to my summary and brief response to each episode: