First, it's interesting to note that the field of neuroscience and the brain has taken leaps and bounds in the last 10 to 20 years. Michael Faraday can serve as an analogy to what has been happening in that field...
Michael Faraday Faraday was a British scientist, chemist, physicist and philosopher who greatly contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. His main discoveries include that of the Magnetic Field, Electromagnetic Induction, Diamagnetism and Electrolysis. He is the man who discovered that moving a magnet near a copper wire caused electricity to flow through the wire. What an amazing discovery!!! Can you imagine working during the 1800's with primitive measuring equipment and finding somehow -- it seems almost magical -- that waving a magnet around a wire causes current to flow?? After all, that principle is the basis of all electric motors, of all electrical generators including those that power our life styles. Farardy didn't understand how magnetism created electricity. But he knew it did.
Neuroscientists are in the same boat that Faraday was in around 1862. They are making remarkable discoveries, but are not yet sure how or why or what some of their findings are telling them about the human condition. It's a very exciting time to be a neuroscientist because the technologies of PET scans and functional MRI's are teasing apart many mysteries of the brain and how its 100 billion cells interface with our genes, our neurotransmitters, our protein factors and the rest of our bodies.
It processes. It keeps us alive by overseeing important issues like breathing. Like keeping our hearts pumping blood so oxygen and fuel can be carried to every cell in our body. Our brain is made of special cells called neurons. Every neuron has an axon and a dendrite. Every thought, every action we take using our bodies, every memory, every emotion, every experience, every slice of life no matter how big or how small -- is the result of what happens within our neurons. Let's take a look ...
But what's even more incomprehensible is the fact that our brains store and communicate our greatest hopes, our fondest memories and our most potent emotions by sending some kind of tiny, almost unnoticeable, nondescript, nearly inconsequential electrical signal along the cell body. When the signal gets to the end of the cell, the cell converts that electrical signal into a chemical. That chemical, a neurotransmitter, passes the "information" in the electrical signal to the next neuron which, in turn, converts it back into an electrical signal. And so it goes. From electricity to chemical to electricity to chemical and so on and so on and so on at speeds up to nearly 400 feet per second until I just have to say "I give up! It's too complicated, too amazing to believe that all I think I am is nothing more than chemical and electrical charges running around through 100 billion cells in my brain."
Then Dr. Ratey begins to talk about brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that causes stem cells to grow into new neurons in the hippocampus so that our learning and memory capabilities can be enhanced. BDNF is a protein that promotes "plasticity" which is the creation of new neural pathways and circuits between neurons that are necessary to cement new information into memory -- just as if you are studying French and want to memorize a verb conjugation like Être -- je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous êtes , ils sont. That conjugation memory will only exist if your brain creates new neural connections to store that information.
Hey! I thought I was learning French. I didn't know it was just a bunch of neurons connecting with electricity and chemicals aided by BDNF and protein factors like IGF-1, VEGF and others that grow neurons and capillaries to feed them. I am starting to feel like an alien. In fact, thinking deeply on all those electro-chemical processes begins to convince me that my body is just an amazing robotic device powered by glucose and oxygen. At some deep level I realize that it's true: I am just a collection of little cells that have agreed to work together for a while. Those cells don't know me and I don't know them. My body has nothing to do with what I really am.
That's just what the Course teaches. We are not our bodies. Our personal minds just think we are our bodies and that our bodies house our minds. Looking at all these brain processes and realizing that they're just a bunch of electro-chemical shenanigans bubbling away really gave me a new look at what my body is. In quiet moments I feel like the intelligence that is the real, eternal "me" has mistakenly decided to imagine it's spending time inside this remarkable alien robotic body. It's as if I am seeing this body, this "friend" I've known all my life, as just a phantasmagorical imagining that's very foreign, very mechanical and in a strange way very unfamiliar. I'm using all these adjectives because I can't quite pin down the feeling; it's hard to describe. All I can say is try meditating on the fact that we're just a chemical soup that seems to live and that our intelligence is not within our body whatsoever.
Then, if you're up for a great read, get a copy of Spark or another of Dr. Ratey's books -- A User's Guide to the Brain would be a great choice. Maybe you'll begin to feel like an alien too.