When my daughter, Amanda was little, there was a Sesame Street segment that we loved to watch together. It featured children from all over the world singing a line from the song, My Name is You (“We All Sing with the Same Voice”). We both used to watch transfixed as one child after another sang their own name in smiling harmony. Additionally, when we would go out to play in the park, Amanda would become mesmerized by the other kids there, watching them endlessly with avid interest. It was almost as if she recognized herself within them.
What brings these memories to mind is a scientific study I recently came across on something called heterotopagnosia (hetero- tōp- äg- ŉōzh (ē)a). This condition is caused by accidental or deliberate brain lesions to the left portion of the parietal lobe. If you have this neurological predicament and I ask you to point to my arm, even though you fully understand my request, you will automatically point to your own arm. If I ask you to point to my leg, you will immediately point to your own leg. But if I ask you to point to the leg of a person in an illustration or a photograph, you will point correctly. Likewise if I ask you to point to the arm of a doll or mannequin, you will do so easily. Strange, isn’t it? When asked to describe his experience, one of the patients in this study said, “I couldn’t place you outside myself. You were in me.”
It’s almost as if the growth of that part of the brain, when it’s working “properly,” serves to automatically manufacture an artificial distinction between “I and Thou.” My sense is that because it will be many years before children have their own temporo-parieto-occipital (TPO) junctions fully wired and connected up, that is how young children experience other people, especially other children. It’s as if other children are “in” them.
Weakening T-P-O Connections
This seemingly natural neurological development, apparently works to produce the reification of others as separate from ourselves. Many spiritual traditions teach that such a perception is an illusion, a rather convincing one at that. But even though it seems that way, other people really aren’t separate from us, and some of us are able to sustain a kind of dusty, vague recollection of that Unity consciousness.
The lack of deep development of such consciousness, one that fuels and motivates compassionate action in the world, I personally feel lies at the root of much human suffering. Perhaps if Incognito Johnson or Bernie Madoff had early instruction that worked to diminish the strong T-P-O connections in their own brains, they would not have perpetrated the recent massive frauds they did. With socially appropriate T-P-O connections might corporate executives be loathe to exploit the world’s citizenry and its resources and their own companies? Would politicians abhor the very idea of going to war? Might they govern the world with the deep realization that by harming others or the environment, such actions deeply damage some real and essential pieces of themselves?
First People living here in America before they were invaded, raised and educated their children in ways that apparently did not develop “Separation Brain.” First People recognized the sacredness of their connection to other living beings as well as to Mother Earth. As contemporary parents we can do much to restore in our own children this sense of connection to others and to the world. We can both model and instruct. The Golden Rule shows up in every major world religion I suspect, for exactly this purpose – the recognition that other people in the world are not really separate from us. Nor are we separate from the planet. When looked at under an electron microscope, the billion neural connections made by the 100,000 cells in brain tissue the size of a grain of sand looks a lot like the root system of the earth’s trees. I don’t think it’s an accident that the macro and the micro reflect our deepest connections.
We Are the World
There are many spiritual and psychological practices we, as parents and people, can use to help us loosen the hold our Separation Brains have on us. Various contemplative practices can serve as a beginning basis. Scientific research reported here has repeatedly indicated that teaching and modeling Random Acts of Kindness and other creative altruistic possibilities is enormously beneficial for the human brain. Anything we can think of that provides us and our children with the deep realizations that My Name is You truly implies, I would suggest be wholeheartedly and joyously put into service. This compelling video quite wonderfully captures a transition many of us may feel called to make: What About Me? In any case, it’s well worth watching.
Young kids inherently get this connection, and by dispelling the illusion of separation as it begins growing in the brain early on, might we ultimately provide great service to the planet and everything living upon it?