Exploring the Li of Consciousness

Rhythms of the Brain

By György Buzsáki

New York: Oxford University Press.  2006.

György Buzsáki’s book is viewed by the academic press as a “must read,” particularly for “neuroscientists looking to get an up-to-date and challenging exposition of many of the big questions.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I view it somewhat differently.  I see Rhythms of the Brain as one of the increasing number of modern scientific descriptions of the authenticity and power of the classical Chinese concept of the li.

Now what could a book on the brain by a leading neuroscientist possibly have to do with traditional Chinese thought?  Readers of this blog will know that “the li” is a Neo-Confucian concept of the dynamic organizing principles of nature.  In traditional Chinese thought, Nature is composed of two interrelated principles: ch’i, which we can loosely translate as matter/energy; and li, which are the organizing dynamics by which the ch’i is manifested.  There’s no ch’i without li, and there’s no li without ch’i.

Now let’s fast forward a thousand years to Buzsáki’s book.  The physical composition – the ch’i – of the brain is staggering on its own account.  Buzsáki tells us how the human brain has about “100 billion neurons with an estimated 200 trillion contacts between them.”  But what makes the brain even more amazing is how it can organize these trillions of connections to cause us to think and feel, to be aware of the world and of ourselves, to be able to sit here and read these words.  That’s where the rhythms of the brain – the li of consciousness – play their part.

Think about it this way: the moment someone dies, their brain still exists, but there’s no longer a mind.  If you freeze their brain instantaneously, you could theoretically trace every one of those 200 trillion contacts.  But all you’d be looking at would be a complicated tangle of protoplasm.  The ch’i would still be there, but the dynamic, pulsing rhythms, the li, would be gone.

Buzsáki’s book is all about the li of the human brain: the rhythms that form the complex, self-organized fractal patterns that come together to create the emergent phenomenon of consciousness.  Buzsáki’s analysis utilizes the crucial concept of the brain as a complex adaptive system exhibiting a “nonlinear relationship between constituent components.”  As such, the rules that apply to self-organized systems elsewhere in the universe – in cells, ant colonies, fish swarms, global climate, (to name but a few) – also apply to the brain’s functioning.  Some of the results of this, in the brain as in the other systems, are that “very small perturbations can cause large effects or no effect at all” and that “despite the appearance of tranquility and stability over long periods, perpetual change is a defining feature.”

Buzsáki’s analysis emphasizes the distinguishing characteristic of such systems: emergence of a higher level of organization through “reciprocal causality,” which he describes as follows:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.

Buzsáki explains how this dynamic leads to that special combination of flexibility and robustness that our minds possess, whereby we seem to experience both stability and continual change at the same time.  Brain dynamics, he states, are in “a state of ‘self-organized criticality.’”  As such, the dynamics of the cerebral cortex display “metastability,” whereby in some cases the smallest perturbation can cause a major shift in the patterns of neuronal firing, and in other cases that firing can return to its previous patterns even after receiving large perturbations.

Buzsáki notes that such self-organized systems generally demonstrate a power law distribution, which leads to the inevitability of “rare but extremely large events.”  Here, he sees an exception to the general rule in the case of the normal brain, arguing that “such unusually large events never occur” because the balancing “dynamics of excitation and inhibition guard against such unexpected events.”  However, I wonder if that’s the case.  I know that, usually, when Buzsáki and other neuroscientists are considering these uniquely synchronized events, they’re thinking of the pathological synchrony of, for example, an epileptic seizure.  But what if they consider a highly infrequent synchrony between different brain systems that usually remain asynchronous?  Most of us have experienced rare moments in our lives where the normal balancing metastable dynamics are suddenly blown away.  For each of us, these moments will be totally unique, but in typical cases they might take the form a feeling of spiritual transcendence, of extreme love or anguish, a moment of enlightenment or of utter despair.  In many cases, these experiences can have such high valence that they can shift the previously metastable patterns of our brain into a new attractor manifold.  In more common parlance, these moments can profoundly affect our values and behavior for the rest of our lives.  I believe that this is an area that could profitably be explored by the methodology Buzsáki lays out in his book.

More generally, in examining the implications of the brain’s power law dynamics, Buzsáki ventures into the parallels between brain dynamics and other externally generated patterns exhibiting the same power-law distributions, such as music.  Buzsáki speculates that

Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns.

This speculation has in fact been empirically supported by physicists Hsü & Hsü who have identified a scale-independent fractal geometry in the music of Bach and Mozart.[1] But I wonder if the implications go much farther than this.  Supposing it’s the power law distribution itself that resonates with the brain, rather than the fact that “it is another brain that generates these patterns”?  In this case, might we consider the rhythms of the brain as a fundamental source of esthetic appreciation?  Do we, in fact, find nature so beautiful because at a foundational level, the self-organizing complexity of the brain responds to the analogous patterning that it perceives around it?

Tropical mollusk shell: an example of the intrinsic beauty of self-organized systems

Beauty is traditionally defined as “unity-in-variety,” as “that mysterious unity that the parts have with the whole.”[2] This description sounds remarkably similar to the self-organized reciprocal causality of complex adaptive systems referred to above.  In an interesting analysis, biologists Solé & Goodwin describe Hans Meinhardt’s research on tropical mollusk shells, demonstrating the generic order intrinsic in natural patterns.  The pigment patterns in mollusks, they tell us, “provide one of the most beautiful and convincing demonstrations of constraint arising from intrinsic self-organizing principles of biological pattern formation.”[3] Could this perceived beauty in fact be a case of the human mind, an emergent product of self-organized dynamics, recognizing an external manifestation of those very same dynamics?

Over a thousand years ago, Chang-Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucian movement, made a famous statement that resounded with future generations of philosophers:  “What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.”[4] Could it be that Chang-Tsai and György Buzsáki are in fact exploring the same reality, a thousand years apart?


[1] Hsu, K. J., and Hsu, A. (1991). “Self-similarity of the “1/f noise” called music.” PNAS, 88(April 1991), 3507-3509.

[2] Garcia-Rivera, A., Graves, M., and Neumann, C. (2009). “Beauty in the Living World.” Zygon, 44(2:June 2009), 243-263.

[3] Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

[4] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

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