I went to a disappointing lecture last night. It was another one of those things I didn’t really have time to do; I should have used the hour and a half in Starbucks reading peer-reviewed papers on the value, or not, of reading aloud to young children: pdfs pulled magically into my little white plastic box through the combined juju of the Starbucks-card free WiFi and the electronic subscriptions of the Mina Rees Library of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. But my pal Dixie had posted (on Facebook, a pattern here?) that she was on her way to hear a neuroscientist talk about God, and (further seductions of that telecom sidestreet) my pal Robin, going as well, found me a ticket.
I’d actually heard of the guy. I have this other friend, Ariel. I think he’s 21 now, which would be odd because he could buy me a drink and I tend to think of him as two or three days old when I brought him a tiny Big Bird in the hospital. Ariel is one of the three or four brightest frum (look it up) people I know, and at his parents’ seder, he was telling me about this professor he’d heard about at Penn who’d found God in the brain. Literally. SPECT scans and the whole nine yards. I went to alibris and bought the fellow’s book, cheap, but I haven’t read it.
Now I won’t. Brought it along to his lecture, but all he really had to say was, you meditate on the oneness of all things and the parts of your brain that take things apart cognitively take themselves a rest, and like Dixie said, duh.
Dixie said she’d hoped to hear something more interesting, like where is the soul with respect to the brain. She said, he kept saying God, but he didn’t talk about God; he talked about thinking about God, not even that, but the idea of God. She’d wanted the juju.
I’m not a soul type myself, and I can’t say what I was hoping for, but what I heard was nothing more than square one of my interest in brains: Everything we experience, we experience thanks to a pile of goop in our skulls. So of course something happens in some lobe when you pray. You’re thinking. aren’tcha?
Then three hours reading in Starbucks, then home to bed, and sometime between then and now, another experience, for which only the chemoelectric activity upstairs can take credit. I dreamed of a little girl, the daughter of friends, 8 or 9, and (with her parents’ permission, even in the dream) we were hanging out here and there in interesting places in New York. Along the way, she had her first sip of wine and enjoyed it, met a boy a year or two older and snuggled up, first childishly then with a hint of what was to come, then she’d had enough and we two headed home to the familiar, less exciting, but safe. In the dream, I was so happy to watch and talk with her. It wasn’t, upon reflection, Freudian pleasure, inherent caveman drive for raw experience. It was simple, suffusive happiness, content, the feeling of being ungodly fortunate to witness and be in some tiny facilitating way a participant in her joy.
When I woke, I thought: Now where is that in the brain? I can easily imagine bits and pieces of memory semirandomly wandering tracts of white matter leaving traces of vague narrative, but that’s just narrative. How does some other part of the brain hear the story (feel the story!) and feel plain good about the story, when there’s nothing but chemoelectric activity upstairs to take credit?
Unless there is, ut oh, a soul.