The human brain is an unfathomable mystery. The American astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson described it perfectly when he wrote, “Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.”
It certainly came as a surprise (at least to scientists) when eLife published a study last month revealing that the capacity of the human brain is at least ten times greater than previously thought.
As reported in The Guardian, researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies discovered that “one synapse (the brain connection that is responsible for storing memories) can hold the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets full of text, 13.3 years of HD-TV recordings, or 4.7 billion books.” That’s just a single synapse—and the human brain is filled with 100 trillion synapses!
As Salk professor and coauthor Terry Sejnowski said, “The discovery is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience.”
The word “infinite” is defined as “limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate.” Certainly, the universe is so large it is impossible to imagine, and now, we see, the capacity of the human brain is also in that category.
Just hearing about this infinite capacity of the human brain reminded me of the moment I first glimpsed the concept of infinity as a child. I was six years old, sitting on the front porch of our home while staring at the cover of a new coloring book. The illustration on the cover showed a girl with a ponytail holding a coloring book, which had the exact same cover as the very coloring book I was holding. I stared at the illustration, and in my mind I imagined that the tiny coloring book the girl was holding also contained an illustration of the girl holding an even tinier version of the coloring book, and inside that tinier version there was an even tinier cover with a girl holding a coloring book . . . well, you get the picture. I saw these embedded versions of coloring books within coloring books stretching before me in space, until they disappeared into a point so small that it could not be seen at all. I remember feeling a surge of bliss as my mind expanded beyond its six-year-old boundaries and grew very, very quiet. I didn’t have a word for it, but I had sensed the infinite. My guess is that something like this happens to everyone once in a while—it’s a universal experience. Maslow called these “peak experiences.”
I encountered infinity a second time in seventh grade, when our science teacher asked us to imagine a variety of different size balls (i.e. a tiny paddle ball, a tennis ball, a beach ball) to represent the various orbs of the solar system. He explained that if the earth was the size of a tennis ball, the sun would be as large as a giant ball 23 feet in diameter and would be located seven football fields away. Pluto, the size of a grapefruit on this scale, would be 15 miles past the sun. The nearest star would be 130,000 miles away, and the billions of galaxies would stretch far into the vast expanse at incomprehensible distances. My mind exploded into a kind of amazed joy from this breathtaking glimpse into the infinite universe.
But even though I’d intellectually grasped the concept of infinity, I couldn’t use that information to better my life, nor could I even repeat the brief moment of expansion and bliss that the mere insight into infinity gave me.
So while it’s an incredibly uplifting and expanding concept—that our brain’s capacity to store information is as infinite as the universe itself—that is not the real news. After all, merely having the ability to store vast amounts of information is not life-changing in and of itself. We all can access a giant storehouse of information on a daily basis when we search the Internet.
What makes the human brain different from a computer is the quality of awareness, or consciousness, which allows us to reflect on and make sense of the trillions of bits of information that we confront every day. It is human consciousness that is capable of accessing infinity, which is completely different than just categorizing information. As Einstein famously said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” That ability to fathom and reflect on the infinite universe—and the infinite brain—is a function of human consciousness.
Yet the true miracle is that the human brain allows us to transcend its own activity and experience infinite consciousness awake to itself. Our brains give us the ability to experience our uniquely human consciousness—pure consciousness—which is not only infinite, but infinitely powerful in its transformational value. This is the real miracle of the human brain.
And the other real miracle? This field of infinite consciousness is accessible to each of us. My own pursuit of the infinite led me to learn the Transcendental Meditation technique in college, and that’s when I began, on a daily basis, to directly experience my own pure consciousness, that infinite field of intelligence and bliss that I had glimpsed in my youth. As my mind and body settled into a deep state of restful alertness, I often experienced that my mind expanded until it encompassed the entire universe.
This was not an intellectual glimpse into infinity but a direct experience of the infinite field of pure consciousness that resides within us all. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, explains that through the process of transcending, the mind experiences finer values of the thinking process, until it goes beyond the finest boundary of the active thinking mind and slips into the unbounded state of pure consciousness, also called Transcendental Consciousness.
In Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita, Maharishi writes, “Through Transcendental Meditation, the attention is brought from gross experience to subtler fields of experience until the subtlest experience is transcended and the state of Transcendental Consciousness is gained. The march of the mind in this direction is so simple as to be automatic; as it enters into experience of a subtler nature, the mind feels increased charm because it is proceeding towards absolute bliss.”
Maharishi also refers to this level of awareness as “Self-referral”: in other words, the object of perception is nothing other than the subject or the Self. This is unlike typical “eyes open” perception, in which there is always an object of perception—whether a book, the sky, or another person.
The beauty of the Transcendental Meditation technique, I discovered, is that it is a systematic way of directly experiencing the source of the thinking process—which is an unbounded, unlimited state of energy, intelligence and bliss that is hidden from view but drives all the conscious activity of the mind. Everyone has the source of thought within him or her, and everyone can access it. Transcending through TM is an effortless way to achieve direct access to this infinite field of pure consciousness—and to cultivate it so we can enjoy our own infinite, cosmic potential in everyday life.
And that regular dive into a blissful state of my own pure, unbounded consciousness had a deeply transforming effect on my entire life. Stress and anxieties fell away, it became easier to think and study, and friendships blossomed.
The many remarkable benefits of Transcendental Meditation practice—boosting intelligence and creativity, promoting health, fostering balanced personality development and enhanced relationships, even creating peace in society—have been documented by hundreds of peer-reviewed research studies, which were sponsored by the NIH and conducted at Harvard, the University of California, and dozens of top research universities and colleges around the world.
What’s important to note for the purposes of this discussion is that researchers believe that the myriad of positive effects happen because practitioners of TM are experiencing a fourth major state of consciousness, different from waking, sleeping or dreaming. In other words, this experience is not a mood but a real psychophysiological state that can be documented by measuring the parameters of the brain and body.
As long ago as 1970, Dr. Keith Wallace published research in Scientific American, showing that the mind and body experience a different state during the Transcendental Meditation technique—the heart rate and breath rate slow down significantly while the mind becomes more alert. He identified this state of restful alertness as a fourth state of consciousness, different from waking, sleeping, or dreaming.
In recent years, brain research by faculty member Dr. Fred Travis at Maharishi University of Management has documented the unique brain characteristics of individuals who are having these experiences of pure consciousness. Their brain functioning is highly coherent and integrated, as displayed in EEG patterns.
This experience of expansion, of feeling unbounded by space and time, is written about in the age-old Vedic literature of India, which describes the transformation of human consciousness that can take place with regular practice of meditation.
The final verse of the Yoga Sutra says, Chiti Shaktiriti, which means, “The power of consciousness is infinite.” It’s been experienced by great women and men throughout the ages.
Like the sun coming out on a cloudy day, the experience of infinite consciousness happens now and then to everyone. It happened to me as a young girl, and I imagine it happened to you too. The question is, “Can this experience become a permanent reality?” Transcendental Meditation offers that gift—a systematic way to experience pure consciousness, the true sunshine of life, every day.