Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell’s magisterial work Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang (2011) is the latest addition to a brilliant set of books on the prehistory and history of consciousness: Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin (1949-53), Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances (1957), Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Ken Wilber’s Up From Eden (1981), Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982), Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind (1996) and Morris Berman’s The Wandering God (2000). Godhead is a splendid treatise on the nature and legacy of an “explosive” evolutionary event that occurred 40,000 years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic period (from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago). A grand multi-disciplinary meditation in 467 pages and 5 Parts and 12 Chapters on when and how and why we became human and what it has been to be human for 40 millennia, Godhead has the aura of a summa.
The neocortex emerged 200,000 years ago but its potential remained dormant until 40,000 years ago an evolutionary leap that has been called “the brain’s big bang” happened about which Griffin and Tyrrell write: “Beyond the origin of life itself, this could be Nature’s most remarkable evolutionary step” (pg 86). Godhead originally elicits the characteristics of “the brain’s big bang,” ingeniously locates “the appearance of creativity” (18), “the appearance of mental illness" (22)”and “the appearance of mysticism” (33) in “the brain’s big bang” and boldly reads the 40 millennia from then to now in terms of what has happened afterwards to “the brain’s big bang.”
The Human Context
|“That shiny mound of being, that mouse-grey parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasure dome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag”—Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, quoted in Godhead, 12.|
Until “the brain’s big bang,” proto-human consciousness was arrested and closed in the “present” without temporal and cognitive mobility and was essentially set in the “survival” mode. Griffin and Tyrrell define “the brain’s big bang” as a brave new emergence in consciousness of an efficacy that we now take for granted: “the capacity for reading context” (33) or “parallel processing” (40) or “being able to view a situation from different perspectives and put it in context” (42) which they explain thus:
"As well as concentrating on the present moment, [our ancestors] could focus on the past or the future and what was present or not present. More importantly, they could choose to draw on their past experiences to see how the present is embedded in a deeper context and, because of that, how any changes they might make could affect the future (70)."Owing to “the brain’s big bang,” the consciousness of our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors was “rapidly attaching and detaching attention from different objects and events so as to see them from different viewpoints” (30). The distinctive evolutionary merit of this capacity for “context beyond the moment” (24) was that it was a hitherto unknown experience of a “mental landscape of abstract imagination” (17) that occurred because the potential for “imagination” and “association” in the right neocortex and for “reason” and “abstraction” in the left neocortex was actualized for the first time with “balance” (17) as a mental meaning of disciplined situation within a spectrum of possibilities. This evolutionary “giant step for the mind” (70) of simultaneous and responsible stability and fluidity in time and meaning was an opening into cognitive marvels:
“Like Aladdin [our ancestors] came into possession of a magic cavern full of unlimited treasure” (20).Griffin and Tyrrell list the “treasures” of consciousness with “context beyond the moment” which is “the most productive brain state ever to have evolved” (20) or the treasures of “creativity”:
"…once our ancestors could create different scenarios in their imagination, they had the impetus to develop the complex language they needed to describe their thoughts and feelings. By talking about ideas and things not in front of them, the language of abstract thought opened up. Prior to this, the only need for language was for present-centered signalling sounds, such as warning calls that would direct others to think about whatever was going on in their current environment. But once possessed of imagination, people could plan, design, reflect, learn and pass on culture. Campfire conversations and storytelling would naturally follow, unleashing the power of creativity. The dead would be talked about too, and the realization that we must all die in our turn invaded human thought. This would naturally lead to pondering the fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and wondering if we survived death in any way (20)."“The brain’s big bang” of “context beyond the moment” in turn triggered a major interfusing consciousness called “magical thinking” (262) that thereafter became the paradigm of Upper Palaeolithic consciousness. Griffin and Tyrrell memorably distill the essence of “magical” consciousness:
"The principle underlying sympathetic magic is that a connection can be made between objects or actions that resemble each other, and that this link can form a channel that empowers human will. By seeking out invisible connections and relationships between different things so as to identify apparently essential qualities that unified them, early man manufactured a methodology around invisible forces that obeyed universal rules. Plants, animals, rocks and even entities such as fire and water were experienced as having a conscious ‘spirit’ that people can ally themselves with if they conducted the right rituals and made appropriate sacrifices. Suffering was the result of upsetting these spirits and long-dead ancestors were evoked to intercede with them on behalf of the living (262)."Upper Palaeolithic “magical” consciousness of an experience of unity and a hidden meaning was the first sign of “spiritual knowledge” (305) that would evolve as the search for “the nature of reality and human destiny” (295) through subsequent millennia to the summit of the human capacity for “direct experience” (295) of “everything” (33) as “ONE” (33) in “mysticism.”
The Upper Palaeolithic creativity of context of “the brain’s big bang” is the foundation of all that makes us “human.” Was “the brain’s big bang” the announcement of the arrival of pre-frontal cortex as the unheard of benefactor of the “human” mind?
|Cave art painting of horses at Chauvet (30,000 years ago).|
A Waking Dream
|Detail from the 46 feet sculpture of the Reclining Buddha in Parinirvana in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (12th century).|
All mammals possess the capacity for reading context. So how does this capacity qualify as “the brain’s big bang” in human evolution and as the basis of what makes us “human”?
In mammals the capacity for reading context is a precondition for their “warm-bloodedness” and is instinctively “unconscious” and aligned with “survival.” A mammal spends 80-90% of its energy to maintain a constant internal temperature and therefore does not unnecessarily waste its energy responding to every random stimuli in the environment. For example, a wild cat does not chase every leaf blown around by the wind but weighs and considers from a capacity for reading context what demands an energetic chase. Further in all mammals, any “arousal to act” (31) causes its autonomic nervous system to be aroused. Only converting an arousal into action can de-arouse the autonomic nervous system. A buildup of suppressed arousals is deleterious to a mammal.
It is at this point that the REM state (Rapid Eye Movement) or the state in which dreams occur in sleep steps in to safeguard the interior milieu: by siphoning metaphorically in dreams all the suppression of expectations accumulated during waking life. Griffin and Tyrrell write: “What we believe occurred about 40,000 years ago is that humans learnt to access the REM dream state while awake” (20). The REM state is “a powerful reality simulator in our brain” (20) and an “internal theatre” (20) where suppressed instincts in waking life are “metaphorically” fulfilled in dreamscapes that are “other” than reality whereby the integrity of our instincts are preserved. For Griffin and Tyrell, “the brain’s big bang” was a drawing out of the REM state into waking life as a brave new theatre of mind where a waking experience of “the other” or imagination happened--other times, other situations, others and abstractions (of ideas and things) that were “other” than what were tangible right in front of our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors—but anchored in “reality-checking” (22) reason. Therefore for Griffin and Tyrrell, “context beyond the moment” of “the brain’s big bang” was really “daydreaming” (20) and the REM state was involved in the actualization of the right neocortex (imagination) and the left neocortex (reason).
In mammals, “context beyond the moment” is instinctually “unconscious” and allied with “survival” while 40,000 years ago our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors began to experience “context beyond the moment” consciously and in the service of not just survival but more importantly of “meaning” that steadily increased in scale and depth of context to eventually become a mystical intuition in which we “escape space and time and become aware of the network of relationships that hold the Universe together”(35). For Griffin and Tyrrell, “mysticism is a continuation of the process of deepening the capacity for reading context that began to evolve with the appearance of early mammals some 200 million years ago (33)."
|Le Reve (“The Dream” / 1932) by Pablo Picasso|
“The brain’s big bang” of the astonishing capacity to simultaneously “attach” (33) attention to objects and events and also “detach” (33) from them “to see things in context…and review them in context” in escalating connections was not an unmixed breakthrough of “creativity.” Griffin and Tyrrell identify extreme cognitive disabilities and mental illness for which they coin the rubric “Caetextia” or “Context Blindness” (40) as originating in “the brain’s big bang.” “The capacity for reading context” is not protected from losing the “balance” (323) of “attention” and “context” that is required to be maintained. “Attention” occurs out of “reason” which is a function of the left neocortex and “context” occurs out of “imagination” which is a function of the right neocortex. Imbalance in the attention-context axis of left-brain and right-brain co-ordination causes insanity. Attention can “overdevelop” (70) into a monomaniacal and inflexible concentration unsupported by context resulting in the “left-brained caetextia” (50) of autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Conversely, context can overdevelop into a swamping flood of reckless metaphorical and associative delusions unsupported by attention to reality resulting in the “right-brained caetextia” (50) of schizophrenia. Griffin and Tyrrell speak of and follow the dark shadow of “the brain’s big bang” stretching across millennia in the form of the sorrow of suppression, oppression and persecution inflicted on men and women who have known “the great secret” (299) of “the higher impulse” (305) by leaders and movements and entire epochs crippled by cold and ruthless left-brained or grandiose and messianic right-brained caetextia.
|The execution of the Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj (852-922) who famously and heretically observed: “I am the Truth” and “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.”|
Godhead expansively dwells on the dark side of “the brain’s big bang” composed of autism and schizophrenia. But with equal or even greater appeal, Griffin and Tyrrell’s book unrolls a spectacular and elevating interpretation of the bright side of “the brain’s big bang” as the portal to the ultimate destiny of consciousness: the “Gnosis” (”knowledge” as “direct experience”) of “Godhead.” Griffin and Tyrrell make “the brain’s big bang” the origin of the loftiest experience of meaning for human consciousness: mysticism. Mysticism is the final form of “context thinking” (34) in a “process through which we become consciously aware of ever deeper networks of relationships around us” (34). The capacity for reading context of “the brain’s big bang” became progressively enriched down the millennia with a “direct experience of more and more context” (33) that laboriously led by the time of the Axial Age (800 to 200 BC) to the ultimate reading of “the interconnectedness of everything” (33) or the “ONE” (33) in “Gnosis.” “Gnosis” is the ultimate non-duality of Godhead and human consciousness in which as Meister Eckhart memorably said: “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me” (191).
|Gupta Sculpture (5th century) depicting the Dharmachakrapravartana (“Turning in Motion the Wheel of the Law”), the First Sermon of the Buddha after the Enlightenment (Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, India).|
I am Nothing
|The Astronomer (1668) by Jan Vermeer (1632-1675).|
Polishing the Mirror of the Heart
School of the Soul
|Al-Qarawiyyin (founded in 859 AD): “the house of learning in Fez [Morocco], the oldest degree-granting university in the world” (Godhead, 328).|
|The cupola of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) in New York.|
Professor A.V. Ashok
Department of English Literature
The English and Foreign Languages University
Hyderabad 500007 India 28-30
Article written November 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts