Neurons and the Numinous

The revolution in neuroscience is leading to a new golden age of knowledge about learning.  What is learning?  Well, fundamentally, it’s changing your brain.  But is that the same thing as changing your mind?

I’ve been giving some thought to that distinction lately, provoked by two books that have come out recently.  The first I’ve name-checked a couple of times already and am preparing to review in full here soon – Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski’s Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens.

The second is a little more off-beat, but I think is a very good companion piece.  Michael Pollan, author of some of the best writing about food and its social import, recently published a bold new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Adiction, Depression, and Trancendance.  I promise that even if you have not a single scintilla of interest in chemical enhancements that you’ll enjoy the journey and pick up some scientifically-sound insights about the mind and brain along the way.

What struck me was that Oakely and Pollan both spend a good deal of time establishing the importance of the brain’s default mode network.  Basically, the brain has two gears – one is when you’re in “focused mode” (when using task positive networks) and the other for when you, you know, space out.


Oakley and Sejnowski use the term “diffuse mode” to describe either a neural resting state or a form of the default mode network.  The brain needs to go into diffuse mode periodically during the learning process.  Switching between modes gives our brains a chance to integrate what we’re learning into a bigger narrative.

This is where Pollan comes in.  He identifies our DMN with our ego – the part of ourselves that is telling back to us the story of our lives.  As we get older, this can lead us into ruts – forcing experiences and learning into a story that may or may not be working for us anymore.  We need the DMN to learn, yes, but what if our ego is a sort of old wineskin?

Oakley and Sejnowski encourage us that through conscious effort, using task positive networks, we can always change our neural pathways and our brains themselves.  Pollan reminds us of the importance of the framework into which we incorporate our learning.

It seems like Carl Jung is having a (well-deserved) moment again.  Pollan gives him a shout-out at the very beginning of the book, and I think this quote sums up his quest well:

Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an “experience of the numinous” to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.

Engaging in ego-trancending experiences is one way to ensure that our learning does more than shape our brains.  These experiences can include travel, service to others, time in nature, creating or appreciating art, or even worship.  Engaging in these experiences gives this secret, internal process of learning a telos – when we change our minds, we can change the world.

I’ll close with a famous poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose verses, if imbided in the mornings with coffee, will set you on a numinous path for the day:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.