An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of December 22, 2013
Issued from Frio Canyon Nature Education Center in northern Uvalde County,
southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

WINTER SOLSTICE

Yesterday, December 21, was 2013's Winter Solstice. The ruins at Chichén Itzá, Stonehenge, Egypt's Temple of Karnak, New Zealand's Aotearoa Stonehenge and many others are oriented with respect to the Sun during solstices, so we know how profoundly important solstices were to our ancestors.

But, now also we know you don't have to pray to the gods to ensure that days grow longer. No rituals or human sacrifices are needed. It's all a matter of the Earth's tilt on its axis as it orbits the Sun once a year. The whole thing is as inevitable and commonplace as an object in sunlight casting its shadow where it's supposed to.

This week news came from an epilepsy study that accidentally revealed something new about the human brain, an insight I've been thinking about during the Solstice. The research found that a certain part of the brain is responsible for a person's perseverance. Stimulate that brain region and you feel like fighting on no matter the challenge; no stimulation, and maybe you want to give up. The study is at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/12/the-will-to-persevere/.

In fact, several discoveries have been made like this. We've all seen photos of brains with specific points lighting up when the brain owner felt love, envy, happiness, or was thinking of spiritual matters. And people's brains certainly can be manipulated with chemicals to change our feelings, whether its beta-blockers mellowing us out, marijuana spacing us out, or caffeine making us alert. Suicide and aggression are associated with changes in serotonin; psychosis and addiction with dopamine; anxiety and mood disorders with norepinephrine. Susumu Tonegawa at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics even manipulated individual neurons in mice brains thereby inserting "false memories."

So, what does the Winter Solstice have to do with these studies suggesting that our thoughts and feelings may not issue from our unique souls acting freely, but rather as a consequence of hormone levels and how our neurons interact?

The connection is that with both the Solstice and the domain from which human desires, fears and spirituality arise, what at first seems magical now turns out to be commonplace, even mechanical. But, in both cases, that's OK.

For, when we visualize the Sun and the Earth's orbit and rotation in vast empty space, it's clear that even if the Solstice's special effects merely result from basic physics, still it's all majestically beautiful, profoundly mysterious if only because it exists, and worthy of reverential reflection.

It's the same with us humans discovering that our thinking, feeling and behaving are at least partly, maybe mostly, or even entirely governed by our genes and other prosaic and manipulable features of our bodily electrochemistry.

Just the fact that we are here, and especially that right now we are philosophizing about our own condition, and finding beauty and mysteries worthy of reverential reflection... is a worthy spiritual insight to meditate on during this Winter Solstice. Facebook Icon