What Really Makes Us Who We Are?

My 12-year-old recently had a science assignment: The particle theory of matter. Wow, in a flash I was transported back many years to my school days and science class. Then my mind started wondering (what is new?), as I thought about the many teeny tiny particles that make up whole objects. It’s so complicated, yet equally, very simple. I turned to my favourite friend…GOOGLE and investigated a number of concepts: complexity, duality, evolution, psychological theory etc. (I would agree with anyone thinking at this point that I need a life!!!)

The brain is a squishy organ. At face value, it doesn’t look like much and even when dissected, its amazing anatomy does not reveal the depths of its structural and functional complexity. What really makes us who we are? Is it our brain? Our body? Our thoughts? Our feelings? All? None? It’s complicated isn’t it? Yet, we are simply a human being; someone or something encapsulated into a physical self that is our body. The body, in itself is so complex and yet we function quite simply without giving much thought to the numerous processes underlying what we SIMPLY do.

Consider for a second, the human eye that has the ability to see. The eye, that is to some, merely a black dot within a coloured circle, against a white background; is in fact made up of, amongst others, a pupil, lens, vitreous humour, a retina, cones, rods and an optic nerve – all of which need to interact and be registered by the brain, to facilitate sight. So simple, yet so complex.

Humans’ complexity has been driven by evolution and the principle of survival of the fittest. Value has been assigned to physical and mental prowess and hence these have evolved and become more specialised and complicated. The nature of the western world: capitalism, consumerism and money being viewed as a measure of success, has driven the increased levels of complexity within our lives. With complexity, we have more choice and knowledge, but so too, increased levels of suffering due to stress, depression and anxiety.

I have often thought about the monks who live their simple life within a monastery and whether it is a happier existence? Perhaps it is, but would my mind that enjoys the stimulation offered by the complex theories of science, medicine, psychology, literature and business; as well as the intricacies of my feelings and the pleasure that comes with connection within my relationships, be satisfied with daily mediation, a quiet mind, a simple broth and a lack of attachments?

I think perhaps I could enjoy such simple serenity. But would that be due to my knowledge of complexity and its grappling’s? Its interesting how struggle increases our ability to enjoy peace; and pain improves compassion; and hurt enhances joy; and sickness elevates the gift of health. I suppose complexity gives value to the simple.

I have thought too, about the concept of our feelings and how they dominate our decisions. Feelings, that seem so real, so tangible, so powerful and so simple in their messages are in fact mediated by a complex array of interconnecting brain areas, neuronal circuits and the firing of neurotransmitters that then bind to receptors and induce second messenger systems. Our mind that experiences feeling states, based on a particular mind states at any given time, is a product of our brain and our many life experiences. The brain, both its structure and functioning, evolve from an interaction between our genetic template and our environmental influences. It really is complex and yet we make complex decisions based on a very simple feeling that we believe to be true in some way.

All very interesting and complicated. So now, I might simply say, duality. Life, the double-edged sword that we continue to navigate and attempt to make sense of as we journey. However, as I look up at the clouds and the beautiful sky and sip on my tea, I am reminded of how at times, I needn’t complicate the simplicity of just being.

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