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The Brain and Beyond

by Marilyn Schlitz

Scientists from across the world fill the meeting hall at the Bial Conference in Porto, Portugal. Movement toward scientific precision around mind and brain defines this exceptional gathering. Tables, graphs, data – all transport the participants toward deeper engagement with a sense of proof; every day we experience greater mastery over the mysteries of consciousness. One after another, scientists representing many disciplines map our inner and outer worlds. Through the lens of objectivity, these thoughtful scholars attempt to explain the nature of consciousness. We are making the unconscious sensible through brain scans, physiological monitoring, statistics, and rational discourse.

I’m compelled by unfolding discoveries that challenge our understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of comprehending – both consciously and unconsciously. And yet there is so much more to ponder. On and off, a pattern emerges for me – even though I’m completely jet lagged and sleep deprived. Our brains explain our being, but only partially. Feelings are reduced to emotional pathways in our cortex, experience accounted for (but not completely) by neuronal pathways. The binding of left and right hemispheres gives the illusion of wholeness – but there are more questions that propel the inquiry.

There is great promise here—of course there is. And yet the reductionist approach remains ominously incomplete. I find myself asking: If we are moving toward greater mastery over consciousness, why are we imploding as a species? Why so much sadness, depression, and loneliness in the face of increasing insight and intellectual prowess? How can we as scientists embrace meaning, responsibility, and empathy in order to improve the human condition? Can we look beyond control over the world to an awareness of the need to develop greater accountability for our behavior? Will the impulse to discover our inner workings lead to greater humility – or are we destined to a hubris that divorces us from our common humanity and the complex web of life?

Such questions are not the result of this gathering – or any other. They are a response to the times we are living in…and our collective quest for truth. They are vital questions for the future of science and civilization. Informed by the noetic aspects of life, I am convinced that we can engage in deeper and deeper exploration. Such perspective is vital to a balanced approach that links head and heart, science and spirituality.

These are the thoughts that rummage through my head as I move to sleep after full and expansive days on a journey into the mysteries of consciousness. I am grateful to colleagues and friends for their dedication. I look forward to seeing where dreams can lead.

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