© Dr. Chris Schriner 2005
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 6, 2005


This is a story told by psychologist Robert Ornstein: "A psychiatrist I know received an emergency telephone call from the San Mateo...Police Department: 'This is Officer Thomas. Your patient Alfred R. is standing at the edge of a cliff...and he is threatening to jump off....' My friend ran to his car and drove up the hill.

"There was Alfred on the ledge.... My friend tried asking Alfred if he knew what this would do to his mother.... Think how this will affect your kids - it will hurt them for their whole lives! But... [nothing the psychiatrist] said seemed to have any effect.

"Finally, [he] walked away, ...hoping that a police prevent the suicide....

"But the expert never arrived, and Alfred didn't jump.

"What happened was this: Another police officer, on patrol, pulled his car up to the site, unaware of the drama. He took out his power bullhorn and blared ... 'Who's the [blankety-blank or expletive deleted] who left that Pontiac station wagon double-parked out there in the middle of the road? I almost hit it. Move it now, whoever you are.' Alfred down at once from his perch, dutifully shuffled out to his car, parked it precisely on the side of the road and then went off, without a word, in the policeman's car, to Stanford Hospital.

"It's easier than we might imagine to make radical shifts in our mental state.... These kinds of shifts can happen because our minds incorporate different reactions and different selves. Alfred...had worked out...all...the answers with respect to the momentous step he was taking to end his life.... But he had rehearsed within one mind only, the one concerned with his life and future. He didn't realize that his other minds have their own priorities, and some don't care too much about life crises. So his suicidal resolution...was...moved out of place by the automatic shifting of his mind, which replaced the suicidal fanatic with a simple reflexive law-abiding citizen (Robert Ornstein, The Evolution of Consciousness, pp. 79-80).


In the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures, Genesis 1:27 says that we were created in the image of God. That doesn't mean God looks like us physically or walks on two feet. But something about us is godlike, and I think this special "something" is located in the human brain.

Here at Mission Peak, we want you to use your brain. We won't tell you to stop thinking, for fear that you might question church doctrine. Unitarian Universalists are welcome to discover new truth and to go forward with the freedom that new knowledge gives you. And we do not set up a phony fight between science and spirituality. Anything science discovers can be meaningful to a mystic - and mystics can teach scientists some lessons.

Speaking of spirituality and science, one of you recently told me about an organization called World Pantheism. "Pan-theism" comes from Greek words meaning "all" and "God," and some pantheists say that all of the universe is God in disguise. What seems to be the natural world is actually a supernatural being. But World Pantheists do not believe in the supernatural. They say the natural universe is so wonderful that we should treat the whole cosmos as sacred. If you search on the web you'll see that many World Pantheists are UUs.

Today I am beginning a series on science and spirituality, and this series has three main messages. Today I want to convince you that your brain is amazing. Two weeks from now I will show how understanding the brain helps us cope with everyday life. And in the third sermon I will speculate about how brain science might revolutionize religion.

We need to celebrate the cerebrum because usually we take it for granted. Most of the time we are busy dealing with the physical world outside of us and the inner world of thoughts and feelings. But in addition to the outer world of things and the inner world of experience there is a third reality, a hidden reality, the three-pound package of nerve tissue inside our heads. The brain functions faithfully and invisibly, coping with cars and cats and toasters and rainstorms. The only time we notice it is when it lets us down, when the checkbook won't balance or we can't find the car keys. Otherwise we just ignore it. The brain is like Rodney Dangerfield - it "just don't get no respect." By the way, my wife Jo Ann tells me she saw Mr. Dangerfield's tombstone, and it reads, "There goes the neighborhood!"

So let's get better acquainted with the brain. First, here is the way Robert Ornstein explains how to imagine the size and structure of your own brain: "Press your fingers on both sides of your head beneath the earlobes. Between those fingers is the oldest part of the brain - the brain stem - which is largely concerned with basic systems of life support. Next, imagine a small area in the center of your head. That is the limbic system which governs emotions and regulates the internal workings of the body. Then make two fists and join them at the heel of the hand. This represents the shape of the brain and it's divided into two hemispheres, each about the size of one fist. The middle fingers will represent the area where the brain controls movement, and the index finger corresponds to the area where the brain receives sensory information. Now imagine your hands covered with thick grey gloves. This is the cortex.... the last part of the brain to evolve [which makes possible] human activities such as language and art" (Ornstein, cassette tape, The Amazing Brain, partly paraphrased).

Two fists plus a pair of gloves isn't much stuff, and it's easy to underestimate what happens within the cranium because it all takes place within a few inches of space. But don't be deceived by the brain's smallness. Remember how much data can be written on a computer chip.

Even a single nerve cell is quite complicated. When we think of cells, we tend to think of simple shapes, like bricks or stones. But look at the cover of your order of service. You'll see that neurons look more like bushes or trees, with luxuriant branches and tendrils projecting from the cell body. One day I drove through the countryside noticing trees with all shorts of shapes, realizing that every one of these lovely organisms looks roughly similar to individual neurons. So next time you're in a forest or a garden, imagine that you're looking at your own inner "garden."

If you want details about the internal structure and functioning of the neuron, there are many books you can read, including one called The Three Pound Universe (by Judith Hooper & Dick Teresi). It's out of print but available on Amazon. But remember that most of these books are quite simplified. When they refer to channels and pumps and receptors, they are talking in almost cartoon-like fashion. George Johnson notes that these terms are more like metaphors than like literal descriptions of molecular processes. He says that the nerve cell is so complex that "faithfully simulating a single neuron would take an entire supercomputer" (Johnson, In the Palaces of Memory, p. 99). Stop for a moment and absorb that idea. Just one of your nerve cells is as complicated as a computer. And you have roughly 100 billion of them. Can you begin to sense the wonder of what's in your head? This is YOU that I am talking about, this miracle.

Furthermore, the basic building block of your brain power is not the individual nerve cell. It's the connections between the cells. And now it really gets complicated. Since there are roughly 100 billion neurons in a brain, and since the average neuron enjoys 3000 linkups with other neurons, the typical brain contains at least one hundred trillion of these connections.

You have probably heard that our neurons are dying all the time. (Actually science now knows that they fly out your ears when you're not looking .) But fortunately, new connections between nerve cells are formed every minute, and in two weeks I'll talk about how we can partly compensate for the loss of neurons by increasing the number of new connections (and by putting cotton in our ears to hold them in ).

Suppose you started counting the links between neurons in your brain, one connection every second, twenty-four hours a day. At the end of a year you would have counted around thirty million. But to count all of the interconnections would take you between three and four million years.

And that's just the beginning! We've been talking about how many connections there are in your brain at this instant. But these connections are changing all the time. How many possible sets of interconnections could your brain have? How many ways could your brain be arranged? The philosopher Owen Flanagan offered an estimate about the number of possible ways that different neurons could be linked to each other. He came up with a large number, and of course, it's best to write large numbers by using exponents, like ten to the twentieth power instead of writing a 1 and 20 zeroes. Flanagan conservatively concludes that the number of possible sets of connections in the average brain would be ten to the one hundred trillionth power (Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered, p. 37).

That is an unbelievably huge number! By comparison, the total number of particles in the entire universe - electrons, protons, neutrons, the whole shootin' match - is perhaps ten to the eighty-seventh power! But that three pound organ between your ears can be wired up in ten to the one hundred trillionth different configurations. Can you see why each person is unique? Can you see why we might have amazing abilities? As one neurologist said, "100 trillion different connections - hell, you can do anything with that. That's more than enough to contain a soul." (Judith Hooper & Dick Teresi, The Three Pound Universe, pp. 30-31).

No wonder when we investigate our consciousness it seems as if we are dealing with magic and miracles. And the miracle of the brain matches the miracle of human experience. Doesn't it seem magical that something made of flesh and blood could be aware of itself, could know its own elaborate and meaningful life story from birth to death and perhaps beyond? You are a moving stack of molecules that appreciates beauty, that notices irony and feels surprise, that is capable of cruelty and compassion - a hundred pounds or so of physical and chemical processes that knows agony and ecstasy, and can even identify with another person's pain and happiness, as when we share joys and sorrows during our service. Perhaps these are some of the qualities which led that ancient Hebrew writer to speak of being fashioned in God's image.

It may sound as if I'm saying that the body and brain is all there is to us, that we do not also have an immortal soul. Some UUs think we have a non-physical soul, and some do not. But my point is that even if we do have a soul that survives the death of the body, that soul has to work through the brain. I say this because whenever something goes wrong with the brain, it changes the way we are. It alters our ability to think, to feel, to plan, or to remember. Soul or no soul, we need to understand the universe inside our heads.

So we're learning about the brain's complexity. We're also learning about the way it is organized. I won't go into detail about that, except to say that the mind is less unified than we once thought. It's actually a system of systems. Each of us has a left brain system and a right brain system, and lots of other systems as well.

Some of these systems are older than others, which is part of the reason our behavior is sometimes so primitive. Robert Ornstein says, "A brain is actually built like a ramshackle house, built first at one time for a small family, then added onto over several generations of growth. The original structure remains basically intact, but some of its functions are moved somewhere else in the house, as when a new and modern kitchen is built, and the old one remains, but is now a pantry. So it is with the lower original structures of the human brain - the old rooms. The lower part of the human brain is strikingly similar in appearance to the entire brain of reptiles, but the functions are no longer the same .... [He also says:] The brain is not like a sleek modern house, with each cubic foot well organized. It is actually chaotic... We'd often like to think that we live exclusively in that modern rationally designed part of the house, but this is an illusion" (Cassette tape, The Amazing Brain).

Ornstein says that the brain is organized into squadrons of simpletons, legions of little units working inside of us (The Evolution of Consciousness, p. 2). Each individual unit is stupid, but working together they often are smart.

Sometimes these squadrons clash with each other, which results in oddities like optical illusions. Look at the grid design below. Do you notice that there seem to be shadowy tones at the intersections between the blocks of the grid?

But if you try looking directly at one of those shadows, the darn thing disappears! This results from a contradiction between the group of neurons that are activated when we look directly at an object, and those that get turned on by what we are seeing indirectly, through our peripheral vision. The cells that help us see straight ahead don't detect the illusory shadows, so when we're looking right at an intersection of the grid, there are no shadows. But the cells that monitor the design from an indirect angle do in some sense "think" that there are shadows in the intersections, and this generates the puzzling effect that you experience.

[Pulling out squishy rubber brain toy:] So let's say, here is your brain. Most of the time the squadrons of simpletons play nice together, but sometimes one squadron pulls this way and the other pulls that way, and suddenly [squeezing the brain, which makes a sound:] SQUISSH!! Has that happened to you?

That's what we saw in the story in the earlier reading. The man on the cliff had made up his mind to end it all - or rather, he had made up part of his mind. But when he suddenly heard an announcement ordering him to move his car, another part of his brain woke up and took over. As Ornstein says, "...our emotions seem to have minds of their own. Why did I run away? Why did I move from my resolve not to get angry? Why did I act seductively? The biological reason is now clear and simple: Emotional reactions have a different neural network than conscious, reasoned responses" (Robert Ornstein, The Evolution of Consciousness, p. 80).

On November 20 I'll talk about how the battle between different parts of the brain gets us into trouble and what we can do about that. And don't forget that Dan Forbush's talk next week will also focus on spirituality and neuroscience.

My main message today is that the brain is a very big place in a very small space. So this week I hope you will remember what a miracle you are. Watch your mind as it effortlessly conjures everyday magic. Without even trying, you are aware of yourself as a creature that endures through time. You can chuckle at jokes and feel your spine tingle while hearing Beethoven. You have a rich inner life, with pain and pleasure, a sense of justice, empathy, and compassion. And to top it all off you have the ability to know about all of these things, and even to reflect upon your place in the vastness of space and time. We are not gods in any literal sense, but I can see why an ancient Hebrew writer thought of us as godlike. Please, cherish and care for the fragile magic that flows through your three-pound universe.

Back to Top