The last commentary I published was in the April/May 2009 issue. My intent was to present an evidence-based argument countering the generally accepted model that the human brain has only a limited amount of energy. I presented the first half of the argument and promised the second half, Part Two, in the June/July issue, but that didn’t happen. Completion of that column was delayed, then nearly abandoned – but not for lack of interest or evidence on the subject, nor had my passion for the elucidation of knowledge been diminished. Instead, I had become frustrated with my own self-limiting guidelines for presenting science-based arguments. During the past four months, those constraints have been righteously challenged and that story forms the basis of this column.
My dear friend, Anna Cheung, had told me many stories about her pilgrimage into Tibet and spoke highly of her guide – author, scholar and explorer Ian Baker, of whom I was unfamiliar. As is my research style, I purchased every book I could find written by him including The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise. This 544-page tome tells the story of Ian’s treks into Tibet’s Tsangpo region to locate a fabled and mysterious sacred paradise. My original intent was not so much to read it front to back, but to scan sections of the book for the purpose of gaining insights into the author. Needless to say, before long I was reading every word, completely drawn into the adventure as if I were actually there myself, walking along beside the others.
One passage in particular gave me great pause. It was a chronicled discussion between team members that had occurred after a rather challenging foray through some dense tropical leech-infested rainforest. The expounder of the memorable comments was Dr. Oy Kanjamavanit, a naturalist of royal Thai descent. She had earned her Ph.D. at the University of London, had pioneered work in habitat preservation for her country’s tiger population, was a popularizer of natural sciences, and was now focused on the study of plants. Like Ian, Oy was impassioned by the possibility of finding a secret land between Tibet and India – one she had read about when very young – and was also eager for discovery.
The specific passage in the book related to observations and speculations about one of the other members of their entourage, the joyous and mystical Llama Kawa Tulku. It seemed to his fellow travelers that whenever he was trekking with the group, the weather behaved uncharacteristically pleasantly, but when Tulku would temporarily leave the group, the weather conditions went back to the norm – unbearable. Some members of the team insisted that they believed only in science and that the weather conditions correlate with Tulku’s presence were merely coincidence. Another commented on science in general, stating, “There are many levels of science: The science of observing natural phenomena and the science of controlling natural phenomena.”
Oy’s perspective broadened the scope of the conversation by reminding everyone that science might try to define what life really is, but its definitions change decade to decade because scientists never really produce anything more than working hypotheses: “If we limit ourselves only to what we can perceive or prove, we rob reality of all its magic,” she said. “Science is sometimes like a blind person claiming there’s nothing there, or like someone who is deaf claiming that music does not exist. Just because something can’t be proved does not mean it doesn’t exist.”
When asked if she was speaking of perceived reality – the gap between what we imagine to be real and what actually is real – Oy replied, “You mean between what we know to be true intuitively and what can be empirically measured? Empirical knowledge is only one kind of knowledge. It’s not truth. Even with microscopes, what we see with our eyes is only a narrow spectrum of light between red and violet. We only see five percent of the real world. Most remains hidden.”
Her words were music to my ears. It is almost unheard of for scientists to speak in such terms. For the most part, western educated scientists tend to operate under the presumption that everything is close to being known. An excellent case in point is contained in the preface of the recent work, Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, in which physicist Michio Kaku takes his readers through a cursory review of what scientists once thought impossible (but eventually became true). Dr. Kaku then completely contradicts himself by stating, “Today the fundamental laws of physics are basically understood.”
In the west, such statements are unfortunately common and stem from an underlying philosophy that is presumptive, arrogant and incorrect. If only those sincere scientists could be educated to consider how much still remains overlooked, I am certain they would not be so quick to make such egregious statements. Oy’s assertion was certainly not new information for me, but in that context, she captured my attention, and in doing so, helped me to rethink my previously conservative approach to this column.
The work of having to extract bits and pieces of logic within what is all too often a very closed and unreasonable western science framework, has been not only frustrating, but also – well – boring. Allowing Oy’s clear-minded, albeit “eastern” perspective to seep in was like being given permission by some distant but kindred academic colleague to legitimately go outside the lines of the west’s scientifically acceptable coloring book. Her words caught me up into a wondrous moment and reminded me that there are no coloring book police when it comes to writing about the future of science.
So, what about Part Two of the discourse on energy and the brain, you ask? Are the brain’s energy resources, as stated by Dr. Gregory Berns, limited? No. Does scientific evidence exist to support this disagreement? Yes. Why would an esteemed scientist like Dr. Berns state that the brain’s energy resources are limited? Because he is looking at the problem exclusively from the information available to him within neuroeconomics and does not yet consider data on human bioelectricity or neurological evidence from those who can intentionally alter their brainwave activity, like Buddhist monks and others. Once researchers in his field broaden their scope to include data collected from spiritual adepts who are capable of regenerating the brain’s energy source, then and only then will researchers begin to break new ground. The end.
There is not just one way to look at the world, but many. Science is only one and an underdeveloped one it is. What we do know for sure is that many current scientific assumptions will fall away and those in the future will be considered outrageous by today’s standards. Keeping that in mind while contemplating those future potentials will not be boring.
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