Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran [Hardcover] By: Roger Housden


Roger Housden traveled to Iran to meet with artists, writers, film makers and religious scholars who embody the long Iranian tradition of humanism, the belief in scholarship and artistry that began with the reign of Cyrus the Great. He traveled to the mountains of Kurdistan to learn from Sufis, whose version of Islam exhorts nothing but tolerance and love. From the bustle of modern Tehran to the paradise gardens of Shiraz to the spectacular mosques and ancient palaces of Isfahan, Housden met Iranians who were warm, welcoming, generous, intellectually curious, and who would recite the poetry of Hafez or Rumi at the slightest opportunity.

Saved By Beauty weaves a richly textured story of many threads. It is a deeply poetic and perceptive appreciation of a culture that has endured for over three thousand years, while it also portrays the creative and spiritual cultures within contemporary Iran that are rarely given any mention in the West. It is a suspense story that reflects on the philosophical and aesthetic questions of good and evil, truth and beauty. And finally, it is the story of a man in his sixties on a personal quest to discover if the Iran of his youthful imagination continued to exist, or whether it had been lost forever under a strict totalitarian regime. In Iran, Roger Housden was brought face to face with the reality that beauty and truth, deceit and violence, are inextricably mingled in the affairs of human life, and was forever changed.

Forty years ago, Roger Housden discovered the poetry of Rumi and Hafez, read tales of exotic Sufis, and was carried away by the music and wisdom of a culture that reached back over three thousand years, ac culture that gave us our word for paradise. Longing to see is the Iran of his imagination continued to exist, or whether it had been lost forever in the revolutionary zeal of the last thirty years, Housden sets off on a journey to discover a country filled with remarkable contradictions. “This books is a pilgrimage, a prayer, a heartfelt reminder, a poet-traveler’s window into the eternal soul of Iran.” –Jack Kornfield

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God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World ~Michael Graziano

For 20 years at Princeton University I studied how the brain processes sensory information and controls movement, but lately I’ve become interested in a more esoteric question, the big question of neuroscience: the brain basis of consciousness. There is now a conceptually simple theory that in principle can account for consciousness, that has emerged over the past 10 to 15 years, and that in my view is likely to be correct at least in its general outlines, although a great deal of scientific controversy still surrounds the topic. I wrote about this theory in my recent book, God Soul Mind Brain.

This theory of consciousness begins with something called social perception. Humans are social animals, and not surprisingly the human brain has special-purpose machinery that allows us to be socially intelligent — to reconstruct information about the contents of other people’s minds. When I interact with another person, I reconstruct what he might be thinking and feeling. I monitor what he might be aware of or what he might be attending to. All of this information forms a linked, interconnected bundle of data, an informational model of another person’s mind, computed inside my own brain. It is a perceptual model of someone else’s consciousness, and the study of the brain circuitry that computes this type of perceptual model is called social neuroscience.

Social neuroscience arguably began in the 1960s with experiments on monkeys. Monkeys are social animals, and it was discovered that neurons in a particular brain area carry information of social relevance, such as visual information about faces or about body gestures. The scientist who made these initial discoveries was Charles Gross, my long-time mentor. I worked in his lab for many years.

The findings from monkeys were picked up by many scientists and extended to the human brain, mainly by putting people in MRI scanners and measuring brain activity. It turns out that the human brain contains specific areas, mainly in the right hemisphere, but to some extent on both sides, that emphasize the task of social perception: of building an informational model of another person’s mind. Damage to these brain areas can lead to a disability in social perception.

Now I would like to draw a distinction between two items: social perception and social cognition. The terms are used differently by different scientists, and the border between them is not absolute. We understand other people’s minds at many different levels, some more cognitive and some more perceptual. But generally speaking, one might think of social cognition as more a process of intellectually figuring out what might be in someone’s mind and social perception as more intuitive, more basic.

One of the best examples to get across this distinction is ventriloquism. In ventriloquism, as an audience member looking at the puppet, you know intellectually, cognitively, that there is no conscious mind in its head. But perceptually, you fall for the illusion. That is what makes ventriloquism fun. When a good ventriloquist makes the puppet move in realistic ways, directs its gaze with good timing, makes it react to its environment in a plausible way, the effect pops out. You can’t help feeling as if consciousness, awareness, agency were emanating from the puppet. The social machinery in your brain constructs an informational model of a conscious mind that you project onto the puppet. In fact, you build two perceptual models of minds, one that you project onto the performer and the other that you project onto the puppet. Ventriloquists have worked out a set of tricks to enhance this illusion of two separate minds. That is why the puppet always has a different tone of voice and usually argues with the performer.

Ventriloquism is an exotic example, but this tendency to perceive mind in things is something we do every day. How many times have you gotten mad at your car? You know it doesn’t have a mind, but you can’t help constructing that perceptual model. We do the same thing to our TVs and to our computers. Some people talk to their plants. Children talk to their stuffed animals.

We do the same thing with respect to each other. When I meet a new person, my brain constructs an informational model of a mind, a consciousness, and attributes it to that person. That model allows me to predict the person’s behavior, at least to some extent, and to interact more effectively.

According to the theory, I do the same thing with respect to myself. I perceive consciousness in myself. My brain constructs a perceptual model of a mind that thinks this and that, feels this and that and is aware of this and that; the mind is attributed to my own location. That model provides an organized, coherent way for me to understand myself — to predict and help guide my behavior. It is not always accurate; it is woefully incomplete; but it is a useful model of myself.

This realization that consciousness is a perception is counterintuitive. We think of consciousness as something ghostly that inhabits an object. But according to this neuro-social theory, consciousness is a perception that is attributed to something. Like beauty, consciousness is in the eye of the beholder. Our brains actively paint consciousness onto ourselves and onto the objects around us.

The implications for spiritual belief are rather startling. In this theory, the spirit world is the complex, richly detailed universe of social perception, the perception of mind. We not only perceive consciousness in ourselves and in others, but we perceive it in the objects and spaces around us. Spiritualism is a fundamental mode of perception by which humans relate to the world. In this view, spiritualism is not an incorrect theory; not a misapplication of rational thought; not pseudoscience. One of the reasons why scientific rationalism has such trouble dealing with religion is that spirituality is not generally about rational thought, evidence or logical inference. At root it is a built-in tendency to construct perceptions of mind, project them around us, and then move through and interact with that perceptual world.

I find myself in the end with a theory that does not fit neatly into anyone’s political bunker. It is decidedly materialistic and atheistic. Yet according to the theory, spirits exist — deities, ghosts, souls, the consciousness of other people, one’s own consciousness — as rich perceptual simulations run on the hardware of the brain. That perceptual world has psychological reality and genuine importance to human existence.

God Soul Mind Brain
By Michael Graziano

Reviewed by By Peter Clarke
As the title suggests, this short book deals with the role of the brain in thought, consciousness and religious experience (all in 170 pages!). The main claims are that certain parts of the brain contain “specialized social hardware” and that this is responsible for: 1) the perception of other people’s intentions and emotions; 2) the illusory perception of “presences, spirits, ghosts and gods”; 3) the perception of our own conscious self. The first half of the book approaches these questions in rather general philosophical terms, and the second half focuses on brain function.

The book is an easy and interesting read, intended for those with no specialized knowledge. It has no references at all, but a short list of suggested further reading. As a neuroscientist myself, and therefore not a member of the target readership, I may be too critical, but I feel that new and controversial theses should first be debated before a specialist audience before being presented in a book with no references.

Not that all in the book is new or controversial. Indeed, the first of Graziano’s claims is certainly not. He describes with admirable clarity some of the more interesting results of systems neurophysiology over the last fifteen years, including mirror neurons, and gives standard interpretations.

His second claim that “presences, spirits, ghosts and gods” result from the illusory attribution of mind to inanimate objects is also not new, because several anthropologists have made similar proposals since the 19th C to explain the origins of animism. But in claiming that all religious experience is illusory Graziano does brook controversy. He also states with almost no argument that “There are no fundamental moral truths of the universe. Morality is not defined outside of us; it is a physiological construct of the brain.” In saying this he appears to commit the fallacy of “nothingbuttery”. All beliefs and experiences are presumably constructs of the brain, but does that make them all illusory? Puzzlingly, he also claims that he is not anti-religious and that he does not want to explain away religion, which makes me wonder if I have misunderstood him, but he writes explicitly on p50 “The spirit world … is a creation of the brain. It is a perceptual illusion”.

Graziano’s third claim seems to me the most original, and it is here that I would have most wished for a less popular approach. He claims to have no less than a solution to the problem of consciousness (including qualia)! His essential idea is that our social brain machinery, which evolved to represent the minds of others, when turned inwards creates consciousness. I don’t know whether this idea is new, but it was to me. I find it very interesting, but not yet well supported and not a solution to the problem of consciousness. Graziano recognizes the difficulty of the problem on p16: “How can awareness itself be explained as the processing of information in the brain? It turns out, however, that even this long-sought philosophical – one might say alchemical – understanding of mind falls into place rather neatly when considering the brain hardware that is tuned to social perception.” He deals with this in more detail in chapter 4 (“Explaining Consciousness”). His arguments there do not convince me that he has solved problem of consciousness, but they are interesting.

There are a few minor errors. For example, Graziano writes on p141 that “the emotional content of the hypothalamus was dicovered in the 1950s in rats”, forgetting the pioneering stimulation experiments of Walter Hess in Zurich in the 1920s and 1930s (Nobel prize in 1949), which showed in great detail the emotional role of the hypothalamus. But on the whole the science in the book is accurate.

A good book for a train journey, even if it doesn’t solve the problem of consciousness.

Biography

Michael Graziano (1967-) is a scientist and novelist. He was born in Connecticut and grew up partly on a farm in upstate New York. He is now a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and has published five novels, some under a pseudonym. His novels often take the form of parables or metaphors – fairy tales for the modern adult. He also publishes scientific books on the brain.

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