Dear Brain Trust:
Most of you know I am currently at a conference on neurology, learning and spirituality called “The Heart of the Brain” taking place at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian retreat and conference center about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. On Saturday afternoon I hiked a few miles on the Continental Divide Trail, until the next several hundred yards involved a near-vertical climb—seemed like a good place to loop back toward the old dining hall. To say the place is beautiful makes me think I use the word too often, emptying the adjective of sufficient power to contain what I am stammering to convey; the same could be said pertaining to what, these past few days, I’ve witnessed concerning the brain—beautiful.
Since Friday morning, the lecture hall has been a steady read of FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans and significantly more conversation about neurochemical interaction than I care to digest, but what I have gained from the lectures has been that sense of awe one feels standing at the foot of a mesa. Both the geologic wonder and the organ that comprehends its majesty contain discernable granular elements, but all attempts to extrapolate the whole from an exhaustive catalog of its parts return woefully inadequate.
On close inspection, the brain appears to access a limited repertoire of responses which function in sympathy to environment and memory; but suggesting that an understanding of these base dynamics is sufficient to unraveling the brain’s complexity is as absurd as suggesting that the works of Auguste Renoir and Georgia O’Keeffe are pretty much the same because they both used canvas and paint, or the compositions of Beethoven and Stokowski are identical because they both employ musical notes. The undeniable differences between artists and composers, whether nuanced or grand, is made possible by the grand and nuanced expressions formed in the brains they hold in common. The same organ located behind the eyes reading this musing.
Geology helps us discern the type of rocks which build a mesa, archaeology helps us map its history, but we do not talk about comprehending a mountain range or understanding a canyon. The fullness of the world around and the deepness of the world within lie beyond the grasp of human comprehension; I believe that is how God intended it to be. No matter how accurate our words, how refined our instruments, how rehearsed or elegant our arts, we will only penetrate another layer of complexity, uncover an additional dimension of beauty.
So, for the past few days, I have stood in awe of God’s creation, gazing at stars with distances I cannot comprehend, gasping at sunrises with color I could not recreate, gawking at cliffs revealing breathtaking strata of contrast and pondering the beauty of the human brain.
Looking forward to coming back home to share how little I know, I remain,