The Spiritual Brain: Not what you think!

I recently read a brilliant short novel from Brandon Anderson called The Emperor's Soul. It tells the story of a woman named Shai, a thief and a Forger—a person capable of rewriting the pasts of objects in order to change their present.

As I read the Forger’s descriptions of how she duplicates and changes the appearance of things by understanding their essence, it struck me that Anderson presents some lovely ideas about the life of things that seem powerful reflections of how the brain works as well. So let's capture some of those ideas:

"All things exist in three Realms. Physical, Cognitive, Spiritual. The Physical is what we feel, what is before us. The Cognitive is how an object is viewed and it views itself. The Spiritual Realm contains an object's soul -- its essence -- as well as the ways it is connected to the things and people around it." (p53)

I love this. It's so ... Brain.

The Physical Brain: the one we see on scans, the one that surgeons operate on, the one that needs nutrition and sleep and diet and learning.

The Cognitive Brain: How we understand those scans, what we make of them, how we perceive what we see and taste and hear and smell and touch. I’d include emotions as part of “cognition”, so also how and what we feel, our motivations, our moods, and all the Stories we tell ourselves about why we feel that way.

The Spiritual Brain: To me, this is the most exciting one - the core of our “essence”. This is the one that mirrors the people and environments around us. The one that grows and changes and evolves from those connections. The one that is itself a "cell", being part of the larger community-Brains of our family, our workplace, our clubs, our countries.

(Of course, these “realms” interact with each all the time — but let’s just move on for now…)

The Spiritual Brain - Always there for you

And the Spiritual Brain is also the brain that can only emerge from the actions and existence of the other levels. This is Emergence in the physics sense of the word, where the interacting components of networks within networks create something new and entirely unexpected -- just as the qualities of water "emerge" from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen - no one could predict wetness and the other qualities of bodies of water just from knowing its parts. And the same is true of us: Our Essence is what emerges from the interacting components of networks within networks within our brain, between our brain and our other body networks, between our brain and everything it comes into contact with over and over.

"A person was like a dense forest thicket, overgrown with a twisting mess of vines, weeds, shrubs, saplings, and flowers. No person was one single emotion; no person had only one desire. They had many, and usually those desires conflicted with one another like two rosebushes fighting for the same path of ground." (p83)

This perspective reminds of a conversation with someone I was coaching. We talked about how her brain is always trying to be helpful, to do its best for her. On the one hand, she has learned to be exquisitely sensitive to other people's needs and to try to meet those needs to be safe. On the other hand, she gets angry when she feels pushed to do what they want. These are the two sides of the protection: one to keep her “safe”, the other to flag to her when she needs to put up a barrier, a boundary so as to do what's best for her, not just for the other person. From the tangled thicket of the brain connections, comes 2 opposing desires - 2 ways to be safe - and it felt like a fight to her until we talked about acknowledging both and finding ways to have them collaborate to create a happy middle way.

Using your Spiritual Brain to travel your Life’s Path

"Perhaps he had been looking for that branching point in his life where he had stepped down the wrong path.

He hadn't understood. There was rarely an obvious branching point in a person's life. People changed slowly, over time. You didn't take one step, then find yourself in a completely new location. You first took a little step off a path to avoid some rocks. For a while, you walked beside the path, but then you wandered out a little way to step on softer soil. Then you stopped paying attention as you drifted farther and farther away. Finally, you found yourself in the wrong city, wondering why the signs on the roadway hadn't led you better." (p98)

This one may not always be true. There may be times when some small (or not so small) decision point changes everything, even when we don't expect that.

But more often than not, this is what happens. A small decision here, another there, and gradually our trajectory changes. And yet, we can't predict what any particular decision might lead to down the road. All we can do is try to take each step in a preferred direction for now -- or at the most, for the near future. Without paying attention to our near-term steps, we can end up wandering from the path to a different city, where we never wanted or intended to end up.

This reminds me of another brilliant book I was reading at the same time - The Biology of Desire by Marc Lewis -- that shows multiple examples of people taking a small step in an unintended direction, then another, then a bit more off their preferred path....until they end up in a place they never wanted to be: addicted to a drug, in a prison, alone with all their relationships in shambles, etc.

But if they went searching for "the" place where everything went awry, it would be impossible to point to. Is it the the first time they used any drug? The first time they used the drug they got addicted to? The kind of childhood or adolescence they experienced that left them vulnerable to wanting an escape? A trauma that led to the first prescribed painkiller?

There typically is no one place they can point to with confidence and surety and say "that's it, that's where it all went awry."

Another quote, this time from the The Biology of Desire:

“In fact, real choice is not a one-shot deal. It is not a moment in time or a fork in the road. Rather self-control thrives, as does addiction, when new mental habits are fashioned, and rehearsed, and strengthened by ongoing self-reinforcement. Choice may indeed be an antidote to compulsion, but it is also an evolving skill, fueled by desire…” (p138)

So how do we change?

“Then I took the soul a few steps further, strengthening some memories, weakening others. I embedded deep within [the Emperor] triggers that will cause him to react in a specific way to the assassination and his recovery.

This isn’t changing his soul. This isn’t making him a different person. It is merely nudging him toward a certain path, much as a con man on the street will strongly nudge his mark to pick a certain card. It is him. The him that could have been.

Who knows? Perhaps it is the him that would have been.


…the transformation would be slow. Over a period of years…Tiny inclinations buried deep within the interactions of his seals [brain networks?] would nudge him toward excellence …” (p 165-166)

We can create our own transformations a nudge at a time as well. How can we organize our daily activities, our environments, our interactions to nudge us in one direction over another?

What can we reflect on that will strengthen memories that move us in a preferred direction or how can we “re-vision” memories that pull us back to a place and way of being we don’t want to be?

I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts and ideas on how you might Forge your own future…