An important principle of psychology is that of saltatory conduction through the nervous system. Saltatory conduction is not particularly difficult to understand and in the United Kingdom it is probably taught as part of the A-level or even GCSE curriculum. The basic idea is that when sense receptors are stimulated, electrochemical impulses travel via the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system (CNS). The central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord, receives these electrochemical messages and transforms them into coherent information that can be acted upon.
Recently, we (along with our friend and co-author Professor Mark Griffiths) had a paper accepted for publication in the American Psychological Association Division 36 journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (see further reading list below) where we used saltatory conduction as one form (amongst many others) of evidence to support our claim that reality exists in a fundamentally different manner than contemporary psychological and scientific opinion might lead us to believe. The paper is entitled ‘Buddhist Emptiness Theory: Implications for Psychology’ and it should be published in the next week or so. In our paper, we state that “without exception, an individual’s sense of movement, touch, taste, pain, pleasure, sight, sound, and so forth is based upon a mental impression formulated by the CNS. In other words, the CNS transforms electrochemical information into a ‘working’ three-dimensional image or movie.” We then went on to explain that although there is the impression of living in and moving through a physical world, in truth, there is never any movement and life is experienced solely as the mental projection of the CNS.
If we accept that the principle of saltatory conduction is valid (we should accept it because it can be scientifically observed and proven), then we also have to accept that in actual fact, we have never truly touched an object, smelt a smell, seen a sight, heard a sound, or tasted a flavour. When we look at a tree, what we see is the brain’s interpretation of electrochemical signals that were transmitted by sensory receptors in the eyes. We don’t ‘directly see’ the tree and if we tried to touch it, then once again all that we would feel is the brain’s interpretation – based on input from electrochemical signals – of what it believes the tree feels like.
The implications of what we are saying here and of what we asserted in our abovementioned peer-reviewed paper are potentially far-reaching. If the evidence and logical reasoning we presented is robust, then it means that human beings experience and interact with the world exclusively at the level of the mind. In other words, we exist at the centre of the universe and both we and the universe make part of our mental projection. In fact, the notion of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ become null and void because if it is accepted that existence unfolds exclusively at the level of the mind, then how can we talk about near and far, centre or periphery, large or small, etc.?
Consider the analogy of a dream in which the dreamer can be under the impression that they are coming or going, experiencing pleasure or pain, are safe or are in danger. However, in truth, the dreamer doesn’t go anywhere because the dream is unfolding within the expanse of the mind. The dreamer has the impression of movement and this can be very convincing – so much so that individuals can wake up screaming if, for example, they were dreaming of falling off a cliff. But just because something is convincing doesn’t mean that our understanding of it is correct. For example, at one time scientists (and the church) were convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. However, it subsequently transpired that, as had been proposed by (the much persecuted) Galileo all along, the earth revolves around the sun.
We also discussed (this time in a more light-hearted manner) the notion of reality existing at the level of mind and in a manner similar to a dream in a paper entitled ‘Dream or Reality?’ that was published in Philosophy Now (see further reading list below). The paper features a discussion between a professor and a student who are trying to establish whether they are awake or dreaming. The key point of the paper is that there are no logical grounds for asserting that there exists a difference between the manner in which waking reality and dream reality function.
We think it is marvellous that in some basic psychological and biological processes such as saltatory conduction, there exists evidence that could help to fundamentally change scientific thought concerning the fundamental properties of the mind, matter and universe. Maybe in the future scientists will use terms such as ‘mind particles’ or ‘mind-like properties’ when referring to certain qualities of the universe or to the true mode in which everything exists.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Chan, W. S. (2008). Psychological attachment, no-self and Chan Buddhist mind therapy. Contemporary Buddhism, 9, 253-264. doi: 10.1080/14639940802556586
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54
Soeng, M. (1995). Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality. Cumberland: Primary Point Press.
Vogel, H. (2009). Nervous System: Cambridge Illustrated Surgical Pathology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.