a Buddhist mummy?

Read and learn is one of my precepts.  Earthsky.org reports a story this morning about a statue from around 1100 in China that was analyzed in Europe with a CT scan.  Inside the statue was the mummy of a monk who died while meditating and was later transformed through layers of fabric and enamel into a statue.  Here is a link to the story with pictures.


It turns out several Buddhist monk mummies are known, most from Japan.  I lived in Japan in my youth and never heard of them.  They evidently die while meditating as they are buried in a chamber.  Imagine this abbot not in nature but in a burial chamber.  Some time after his death, the chamber might be opened and the mummified body kept for religious display.


Seems bizarre but keeping ancestors in some desiccated form or another, e.g., bones, ashes, skull, has been part of our culture for a long time.  The Celts, as a way of sanctifying a building, would bury a live animal in its walls; the more important the building, the more important the animal.  There are stories about humans being buried alive in buildings, important ones like a church, in Europe well into the Christian era.  Evidently some of the Buddhist mummies have been dated from the early 20th Century.

Meditation is a powerful act.  Sogyal Rinpoche in his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, provides spiritual guidance and examples about meditation and dying from his tradition.  One story is about a group of monks on a long arduous journey.  One of the elders becomes ill and they must pause even though the journey is important.  The elder goes deep into his meditative trance and is mistaken for dead but his leader recognizes the trance, brings him out of it, and then helps him die for real through different meditative steps.  A monk visiting Savannah a few years ago did not sleep for 2 weeks. By day he led his fellows in making a sand mandala and by night he chanted outside their house on a dock by a creek.  Vital processes become different when meditating.  The process of dying is also experienced quite differently than under Western traditions.  Wow, humanity is really something else, eh?

beyond our ken

Here’s story about archeological discovery of buildings purportedly used for divination: http://www.livescience.com/49871-ancient-shrines-discovered.html

The researchers here focus on several buildings from 3300 years ago at Gegharot in Armenia. Inside were objects thought to be used for divination: bowls for drinking wine (of course), incense burners, bones with magical markings, round multi-colored stones in their own bowl, a small mill for grinding wheat but no oven, stamps to imprint shapes in the dough or whatever and more. All these things are known to have been used by the ancients to understand and foretell events. The archeologists think this site was used for about a century by some newly organized polity; these were rising and falling with frequency in the area at that time. For another reference, this is around the time Julian Jaynes said the gods from our right hemisphere stopped talking and human consciousness took form. But, such methods of divination most certainly had been used for a long time and continue to be used today either as superstitious actions or by true believers (think astrology, Tarot, and myriad other practices in cultures not fully informed by scientific attitudes. Not a bad thing, just saying).

Humanity seems to include a proclivity for sensing that there is more out there than the apparent universe. The Tao lies behind the 10,000 things of our cluttered reality. My Celtic ancestors looked to what lay behind the north wind as an unseen power shaping events, the corona borealis (Northern Crown) its landmark, the wheel of fate manifested in the moon and the castle of the white goddess, Arianrhod. Ancient peoples buried their dead with supplies for travel, the Norse even put the elite in boats to help speed them on their journey. As Scully and Mulder found in the X-files, ‘the truth is out there’. From this spiritual sense or impulse or seed grows religious culture and organization but also a quest for truth. This seems a basic facet of humanity no matter what is out there.

I have finally finished Joseph’s Neuroscience text, a long compendium of clinical and research findings. He stayed pretty close to reporting data and only occasionally veered into more speculative thoughts about mentality. Consciousness figured in not so much but he did talk about structures serving awake, dream, sentience, etc. Still somehow our biological roots have produced as a part of our consciousness the sense of something beyond our ken.

Joseph does tell a story I have never heard before about H.M. (Henry Molaison who died in 2008) the famous patient who had both hippocampi removed to control otherwise intractable seizures. He was studied for years by Brenda Milner and colleagues because of the effect on his memory and consciousness.


As I have noted before, the hippocampus receives multi-modal information and through its detection of old and new information, constructs situational gestalts for guidance. Its removal left H.M. with severe anterograde amnesia, i.e., he could remember nothing of new experience, only what had happened long ago.   He retained some cognitive abilities and could still remember spatial locations, even new ones, and learn new motor skills, but he had difficulty remembering who Brenda Milner was even though he saw her many times over the years. If you met him, walked out of the room and returned, he would not remember he had just talked with you. In the inverse of the saying, “He never met a stranger,” H.M. always met a stranger.

Joseph relates a story showing that H.M. did realize that things were happening outside of his ken on a very practical basis. He was aware of his disability and apologized for it. He said one time, “Right now, I’m wondering—have I done or said anything amiss? You see, at this moment everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before? That’s what worries me. It’s like waking from a dream. I just don’t remember . . . every day is alone in itself, whatever enjoyment I’ve had, and whatever sorrow I’ve had . . . I just don’t remember.” (Joseph, p. 406) H.M. had no new autobiographical memories after surgery; he was lost in some ablated existential moment. He did still worry, experience sadness and happiness, but no continuity of his life. I take this as a metaphor of sorts for the human condition. We do not consciously experience what goes on before birth or after death (the great discontinuities), we do not know what will happen except under scientifically engineered circumstances, and so we wonder and try to discern what is out there beyond our ken, and then another proclivity often comes in, our talent for making it up (and some saying they divined it). Travel on.

dried neurons?

So periodically I fulminate against the notion of the brain’s hard wiring like in my post last year on the movie Transcendence or just a few weeks ago about variant views of empathy. In the effort to be more balanced I want to discuss more about the chemical side of the MEMBRAIN. I have been thinking as I have read various things, especially Joseph’s Neuroscience text, about cephalization, the evolutionary trend in which neuronal structures and processes increasingly congregate in the head, i.e., into a brain.   I once had a ‘discussion’ with a friend who insisted that if you pushed a knife through a lobster’s shell just behind the eyes, it would feel no pain once thrown into the pot because the brain would be severed from the spinal cord. It mattered little to him that lobsters do not have a brain and spinal cord but lines of ganglia. They do have a head ganglion that is larger in order to process visual information and coordinate movements to gather in food or grab objects with their claws but otherwise the ganglia operate relatively independently. I suspect they do feel some version of pain maybe in one ganglion or several when confronted with aversive stimuli such as high temperature or another lobster clipping a leg or claw off, but I know it is not pain as a centralized emotion such we ‘cephalized’ creatures feel.  Sharks were in at the beginning of the cephalization movement some 420 million years ago.


With cephalization comes a more complicated MEMBRAIN and a greater interiority, i.e., the mind within the MEMBRAIN greater on the inside than outside. The MEMBRAIN functions, then, of passing information in and out and keeping information in and out, correspondingly grow more complicated. Yes, the neurons, dendrites and axons are organized wire-like into different systems or circuits, and intra-neuron communication is via evoked potentials, thus we can measure the electrical activity of the brain, e.g., EEGs. However, inter-neuron communication is via chemicals, i.e., neurotransmitters, and there are many and they are important to way the MEMBRAIN works.

Structure of Neurotransmitters

For one example, take passing information in through various channels. Different circuits in the perceptual system operate with different neurotransmitters as I learned from Panksepp and Joseph. Parallel processing using these different neurotransmitters works to select and sharpen different percepts and inhibit others. For example, per Panksepp, norepinephrine helps to elevate a particular signal over the surrounding noise, acetylcholine promotes arousal and attention to sensory channels, and serotonin modulates input to keep sensory information clear as it is integrated across modalities. Then we have dopamine that mediates motivation and stimulus valence.

Likewise, per Joseph, on the output side, the same neurotransmitters as on the sensory side organize and carry out motor commands to muscles but other neurotransmitters, GABA and glutamate, modulate the signals outward bound so that muscle contractions are graded and coordinated. Also on the output side dopamine is important in maintaining clarity of signal and inhibition of unintended movements. For example, in Parkinson’s disease, low dopamine translates into unwanted tremors that interfere with intentional actions.

All so complicated and I have not gone into my usual riff on hormonal influences, such as oxytocin on social caring behaviors. We have much to learn on many levels here and I find that exciting. I hope you now understand why I react so to the overuse of the “hard wired” metaphor for our brains, and why I propose we call computer circuits “dried neurons”. Travel on.

Locked in syndrome

I saw a national news report last week about Martin Pistorius. At age 12 he came home sick from school and quickly grew worse, lapsing into a coma that lasted for some 3 years. The doctors were not sure what was going on but given his condition, did not expect him to live. They also told the family he could not see, hear or feel anything. Diagnostic details are lacking. Then he slowly ‘woke’ up—he was conscious but could not move or control movements like eyeblinks, so no one knew he was present. After some time a therapist noticed some “glimmer” in his eyes and this led eventually to the discovery that he was conscious, just “locked in”. Over more time he recovered some motor control over eye blinks and even his arms/hands, so that he could then use a computer to communicate. He eventually became a computer programmer and married a friend of his sister’s and wrote a book about his experience, Ghost Boy.

I am curious about this and have put his book on my reading list. His MEMBRAIN essentially shut down, all channels closed, nothing in or out, yet his brain maintained his vegetative functions so he continued living, and then the channels in (at least vision and hearing) came back and then in a very limited way some channels out returned. I went online to find out more but there is not much out there. I did find reference to ‘locked in syndrome’, a rare and usually fatal condition believed to be from some brain infection, but Martin Pistorius weathered this viral storm and came back. Wow!

Many questions now arise. His connectome seems to have survived essentially intact; he remembers events and people except when he was in the deepest coma and he retains his identity, but is there some amnesia for some events? He seems quite able to learn and grow. How can this be? His muscles atrophied and neurons also do not do well without stimulation but his brain, despite its comatose level of functioning, kept on. I wonder what his pre- and post IQ were (but probably no record). When he was emerging from the coma, was he sentient but unconscious for awhile, as in highway hypnosis or the claustrum study reported here a month or two back? Did he dream during any of this time? Diurnal/sleep cycles? Did he perceive without any emotional response at some time? Did he experience frustration arising from intentions being formulated but without the capability of implementation? Questions about what caused this or how he weathered it are probably pretty unanswerable at this point but still remain.

What I can figure out is that part of his brainstem was affected, most certainly the pons which enervates the brain for arousal and conscious processing. Maybe also the thalamus which acts as a processing center between the brainstem/lower midbrain perceptual input and the cortex was also affected. Other brainstem centers, e.g., medulla, concerned with vegetative functions certainly were relatively unaffected.


The hypothalamus was probably unaffected as it is involved in maintaining vegetative homeostasis. As he recovered, the pons and thalamus came back to function, but anterior motor systems remain impaired either through damage to the basal ganglia which coordinate movements or motor neuron damage similar to ALS, a sort of high level atrophy.


Finally he has recovered some motor control over his head, eyes, arms and hands. I recently learned through my reading of Joseph’s Neuroscience text that two different systems serve high level sensorimotor functions. One system works to maintain the body’s position in space and then to guide movement through the environment. Mr. Pistorius can navigate as he moves in his wheelchair, so his movement disorder is more similar to motor neuron syndrome such as ALS. The second system works to perceive objects that are within reach and then to guide his arms and hands through touch and vision as they perform skilled movements. Fortunately this system and the lower level motor neurons for his hands/arms seem mostly intact.

So a devastating brain illness affecting MEMBRAIN functions but keeping the soma alive though with muscle atrophy, and then recovery of the connectome holding the identity and psychology of one person, such as personality, memory, etc. and partial recovery of motoric abilities, fine motor better than much gross motor functions. He and his family deal with tragedy and then triumph through a perceptive therapist and computer technology permitting him to communicate from the interior of his MEMBRAIN. His book should be a very interesting read.

more voices east and west

A brief post following up from the last couple about east-west cultural differences and hearing voices:  Science News on 1/24/15 had a story showing that culture affects how voices as heard by schizophrenics are different between eastern and western cultures.  Remember from last post these cultures differ in how they treat the self, west as self-important and east as self-relevant.  Many of the voices heard in the west (USA) were hostile and some were hallucinatory commands to hurt oneself or others.  Many of these voices heard in the east (India & Ghana) were more sensible and likable, often someone familiar and from their past offering advice and commanding them to do chores.  The subjects mostly endorsed being religious so that was not a difference (though the religions were no doubt different).  It also seems that in the east communicating with spirits and ghosts is more accepted and commonplace while in the west, at least officially in psychiatric circles, this is not.

The article mentions that research has shown that schizophrenia is more severe and longer lasting in the west than in the east and that is in part explained by cultural differences.  Certainly the western view, focusing on self-worth rather than self-relevance, would seem to make stigma a more potent force and contribute more to the isolation and ostracism many of those with mental illness (and other differences) experience.  Sometimes progress is double-edged.  Psychiatric medications revolutionized treatment beginning in the 60s and permitted more to live in the community but while mental health patients, providers and advocates work to mitigate against stigma, I will say that quite often seems like spitting into the wind.  Parity in insurance coverage has been mandated (a major advance) but is still resisted.  If you examine state budgets, funding mental health treatment is the last to be increased and first to be cut.  Most increases come after huge and public tragedies; most decreases come the next budget cycle.  The money does matter but the lack of caring and active rejection matter more.  And our cultures do affect how our brains function for better or worse.