Monday, June 23, 2008

The importance of being earnest.

Some years ago, I was just starting my research career in the brain sciences. I was attending a series of international conferences in Iizuka city in the southern island of Kyushu. Iizuka had its days when it prospered from coal mining. The coal mining boom was by then long gone. After years of economic decline, Iizuka still had the remnant glamour which had become all the more poignant by the workings of time. Walking through small passages, you would encounter charming restaurants, shops, infusing one with anticipations of things to come. As night fell the heat would become mild, and I could go on walking for a long time. Finding a comfortable restaurant, I would enter and order a set menu and a glass of beer.

There was one particular restaurant that I found my love in and would frequent within the constraints of time. It was one of these small places with no particular features to mention. There were several chairs and tables, and a tatami seating area. The dishes would be displayed on the counter. If you point to the large dishes with your favorite cuisine, they would put small portions of it on your eating dish. Men would have their meal after working hours, drinking beer and watching the baseball. It was that kind of a relaxed, no nonsense place.

On one evening of the conference, I strolled into a pub on the main street. It was a place with an exquisite charm, with bottles of Corona beer displayed on the window, with a woody interior overall. Once in the pub, I found myself face to face with two other researchers from the meeting. Both of them were much more senior than I was. Consequently, I became the listener. I attended to what they said with great interest, drinking from my bottle of Corona.

I remember to this day what they were discussing on that evening.

"When we study the brain, we should never forget that we are actually dealing with a whole human being."
"It is no joke."
"Joys, sorrows, all emotions arise from the brain."
"Everything in life is in the brain."
"We should never let this slip from our minds."

These words left a strong impression on me, all the more so as the academic conference I was attending was about neuro-fuzzy systems, in a heavily technically oriented approach. I might have been realizing by that time that what I intuitively felt to be important mysteries about the brain was different from what was normally researched in the academic circles in the conventional sense. In any case, the words of my newly found mentors left a heavy mark on my mind. I was getting comfortably intoxicated from bottles of Corona, but my mind remained alert.
Everything in life is in the brain.

This doctrine is an important one. The significance of the brain is different from that of other organs that constitute the human body. At the end of the day, what we feel and think are nothing more than the results of the neural firings in the brain.

What are humans beings?

If a brain scientist would like to answer this question, he or she would have to tackle the really hard problem of how on earth mental phenomena arise as a result of the activities in the materialistic brain. Research in the field of the brain sciences needs to go beyond the physical, informational, or biological approach. It should be accompanied by a spirit to close on the essence of the human existence, and a "high mental temperature". Otherwise, scientific investigations in this field would not leave a deep mark on the world view of the general public. The intellectual curiosity of scientists would also be not stimulated in the true sense, it science keeps avoiding tackling the origins of human spirituality.

To be really earnest both in the emotional and intellectual sense is the key. I realized in my youth that in any fields of human activities, a work which inspires people and keep being read for a long time to eventually become a classic is one which the author has worked on in real earnest.

(Translated Excerpt from the original Japanese text of Ken Mogi's "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998). Translation by the author.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Secular memories

Things that ever happened in my life remains as the connection pattern between neurons in my brain.
On the first day of my elementary school, I recall the sunbeam was reflected in a white impression on the long and straight road that lead to the school premises. On the very first class room meeting, I was at my desk with my newly found classmates, with my cheek on my hand, looking at nothing, absent-minded. Ms Arai, teacher of our class, took notice and remarked "are you now bored, my little one?"

Parents were requested to remain at school after the entrance ceremony on that day. My mother was at the back of the classroom, too, and laughed with the other parents. I brushed in shame.

There was a large sweet acorn tree near the front gate of the school. When I was in the second year, there was a "boom" of acorn eating among us. As we left the school in the after hours, we would compete to find good ones, and would eat them on the way, with the school satchels cozily on our backs. At break times, we would play "hand baseball", in which we used our hand as the hitting bat. I remember quite well that the balls were green.

Each remembrance constitutes a "page" in my life, a part of the richness of my humble personal history. All those memories are encoded as patterns of connectivity between neurons. There would be memories long forgotten, but secretly stored in the cortical network pattern. I might happen to remember them sometime, or would never recall them. In any case, when the physical presence of my brain disintegrates, the rich storage of memory of my life would be lost forever. Memories are integral constituents of my existence. The "self" critically depends on these memories. The removal of them would leave a "self" as a transparent "core", vibrating poignantly in the great nothingness of the universe.

In "In my life", the Beatles sing thus.

There are places I'll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

These words are simple. It is as if a middle aged man is reflecting on his own life late at night, with a glass of whisky in his hand. Freed from the admittedly difficult assessment of what life means, he would recall past events in his life ; that was then, then was that.

The lyrics of "In my life" are elementary. It reflects the significant fact that an ordinary human being would reflect on his own mortal existence on this earth in such a manner. In the past, such ideas as god, heaven, hell, afterlife, and reincarnations have been regular features of the genre when one would ponder one's own life. These concepts would not find their places in the mannerisms of modern times. That the sentimental musings of an ordinary human being on his own life have become secular is one of the most important features of human spirituality today. For the modern human, how he actually lives in "this world" is all that there is, with nothing to be added or subtracted.

(Translated Excerpt from the original Japanese text of Ken Mogi's "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998). Translation by the author.)