Deepak M Ranade
The brain's various centres are each designated for a specific function. The senses take cognition of the environment. The anthropological basis of the nervous system was to facilitate an interaction with the environment, based on the individual's awareness of being separate from the environment. All senses subserve the function of underlining a sense of discreteness. Touch, taste, sound, smell and vision are instruments of discrimination. The entity that integrates these inputs and collectively coordinates them as a subject is the assumed 'identity'. The coordinated output of separateness that the senses keep generating is ego.
The brain also provides a data bank that stores previous interactions with the environment. These are categorised and stored for reference in the bandwidths of likes and dislikes. The brain helps fragment awareness into the subjective 'self' and objective 'non-self' - the observed world. This split awareness is switched on continuously and both the 'self' and the 'non-self' are vital for each other's symbiotic existence.
Our own identity relies on our ability to perceive our self as uniquely different and distanced from the environment. Various decremental states of consciousness, such as feeling drowsy, deep sleep, semi-consciousness or even an unconscious state are familiar. Therefore, it is only logical to believe in states where there is an incremental increase in the level of consciousness.
If identity was based merely on a deep-rooted sense of discreteness that the senses generate, would a person, alone in a dark, quiet room - whose brain is not being fed with sensory inputs - consider himself as non-existent? An unconscious person doesn't interact with the environment but might be assumed to possess an 'am-ness' that is partial and aware of only the 'self' without comprehending or interacting with the environment. It's a state of partial awareness.
A seizure that arises in the portions of the limbic system - phylogenetically one of the oldest group of neurons - could give rise to profound spiritual experiences. Repeated bursts of abnormal electrical activity can facilitate a new pathway within the complex network of neurons. This is called 'kindling' - where consciousness may be getting defragmented leading to an un-split awareness, without the usual fragmentary approach.
All sense organs route their inputs through the limbic system and to various designated areas. The sensation of extreme bliss generated by un-split awareness gets triggered by the limbic system and not in the frontal lobes, the seats of intelligence and logical analysis. Such experiences are hence states of altered awareness rather than conclusions arising as a result of intellectual thought processing of the brain. The experience or realisation that the am-ness of subject and object are of the same essence could be that final frontier of consciousness evolution, the attainment of state of superconsciousness.
Faith and devotion as ways to salvation rely on the dismantling of the worshipper's identity and becoming one with the worshipped. That is, perhaps inputs that serve to generate and maintain a separateness of the self are modulated or filtered within the limbic system - a state of comprehensive, unrestricted oneness.
It's a paradoxical situation of the observer becoming the observed without the mediation of sense organs, by expanding awareness to a supra-sensory level.
Realisation may well be a modulation and 'kindling' of the neural pathways leading to a perception of oneness with the entire cosmos. It would then really be more a liberation from the person rather than of the person.
The writer is a consultant neurosurgeon. firstname.lastname@example.org