MIT-trained artist and engineer Jeff Lieberman discusses Science and Spirituality at TEDxCambridge 2011. Here is the full transcript of the whole talk.
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Jeff Lieberman – MIT-trained artist and engineer
Three years ago was a turning point in my life because I finally had everything I thought I needed to be fulfilled, and I still had this voice in my head saying I had to do more to be happy.
The more that I looked at my own suffering deeply, the more I saw it in every single person around us. We have trouble standing in lines, we’re impatient with our own children. It’s as if we all think the future holds the promise for our fulfillment.
And I come from a scientific background, so I wanted to use that background to understand the real root and source of why there’s so much suffering. And where it’s led me has totally changed my views of the current scientific paradigm. But more importantly than that, it’s changed my views on what it means to be a human being and to be alive.
And so I want to share this theory with you, and it’s way out there. So, I ask you to have a critical, but open mind for the next 14 minutes, because you might not actually be what you think you are.
So, who am I, all right? I’m a human being, and I’m 33 years old. But if you take a microscope and look at any part of me, you see cells. And I’m a community of 50 trillion cells, doing a magic dance. And you look at any one of those cells with an even closer microscope, and you see 20 trillion atoms. And so, I’m also a community of 1,000 trillion trillion atoms.
But when you look at those atoms really up-close, they fade away, and all you see is energy. And 13.7 billion years ago, at the Big Bang, everything that we ever found in the entire universe was one infinitesimal, undifferentiated, pure energy.
All of us are energy. A human being is a very complex pattern of energy. So, I stand here as a 33-year-old, basically motionless, but when you look up-close at any single part of me, I’m moving the speed of light, and I’m the age of the universe.
So, the question for me is: I know this conceptually. Why don’t we feel it? Why do we walk around and we’re so sure that we’re a human being all the time, and we never feel like we’re energy, because it sounds awesome? And I think the reason that we don’t notice it is because we are so distracted by the human levels of our experience that we fail to notice what is always sitting beneath. And so, I want to look at those distractions.
Take five seconds, and think about something that you’re going to do tomorrow.
So, what you just did is something that, as far as we understand, no other organism in the entire universe can do. You just built an alternate reality inside your head. You just made a prediction about the future that has never happened in reality. And this powerful prediction, when you can compare alternate realities, allows you to plan for the future. And from agriculture to your retirement, this has changed the face of the planet. It’s probably the most significant, evolutionary step forward since walking upright.
So, I want to look at this tool in your head, because your mind is a thought-generating machine, to make proliferate predictions about the future, to guide and goal-orient your behavior.
What does this machine look like in all of our heads, in 2011? So, another experiment: Take ten seconds, and stop thinking. OK. Did anyone make it? Ten seconds? I make it about two, and then I start strategizing about how I’m going to stop thinking; I think about that the whole time.
All right, so what this means is you have such an evolutionarily advantageous tool that it’s become completely compulsive, but you’ve got to remember, no other organism does this at all. And the side effect of having the most evolutionarily advantageous tool in the entire universe sitting in your head is that you have no control over it. And when you have no control and you compulsively generate all these possible realities, you always compare them to where you are, to try to goal-orient your behavior, and this creates an entirely new class of human suffering. Things like jealousy and regret about something that happened in the past, and anxiety about your future, no other organism can feel.
And so, I want to understand if it’s possible to totally eliminate those sources of suffering from humanity. This is just a brief list of all those possible sources of suffering. In order to find out if it’s possible to remove those sources, we have to take a kind of scientific, experimental objective at ourselves, we have to take a look at all the layers of our own experience, and try to be as objective as possible about them. This is amazingly difficult, because we’re so emotionally involved in our own lives, and as any of you know, if you go to a movie and you’re emotionally involved, two minutes into it, you totally forget that you’re at a movie, and the lights turn on at the end, and you’re shocked back into reality.
So, this is even more difficult, because we have to look at our own movie, the movie inside our consciousness. So we’re going to do two quick experiments, and this only will give you a taste of something that takes much longer to understand the depth of.
So, the first one is your sight. From what we understand in physics, all light is a vibration of electromagnetic field. And none of those light waves intrinsically have any color. There’s just this change in frequency. But once those waves go into your eye and into your brain, you create the subjective experience of color.
Now, what this means is that you all think that you are seeing me out here, with a red shirt on, but this red only exists in your head, and so, this entire picture you’re seeing is happening inside your head, in a movie inside your consciousness. And if you remove a little bit of the attention from me directly, you can start to have some attention on yourself, noticing that you are seeing me inside your head.
So, let’s do a second experiment. It’s even more subtle than that one.
Read this sentence twice, silently to yourself.
[The voice in your head]
[“I can hear the voice in my head reading this sentence”]
OK, so it’s weird, right? But you can get this very weird, subtle perspective that you can look at your own thought process objectively. You’re actually listening to the soundtrack of thoughts inside your head, in your movie of consciousness.