Emptiness doesn’t have to mean nothingness: it could mean happiness

What remains of us when we no longer think or feel anything? Are we then nothing?

I was green around the gills. Only minutes earlier, I had been chattering away happily with a more-or-less healthy hue to my complexion as I boarded the plane with a plan to demonstrate how our wireless technology for measuring heart and sweat-gland activity works under unusual conditions.

But now, here I was, just about to jump out of the plane, with only a parachute to save me, and I had taken on the colour of a vampire whos been snacking on the wrong blood group. Later, this will even be recognisable on photos of the event.

My mouth was so dry that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth; my knees were so weak, they were trembling as I staggered towards the hatch. There was not a word to be heard from me now, not a peep. I would never have managed to put together a sensible sentence, anyway, as my mind was racing, without contributing anything constructive to the situation.

My friend, the brain scientist and musician Valentino Braitenberg, described the brain as a thought pump, continually drawing things up from the deep. Right now, my pump was just about to go into hyperactive collapse, unable to draw anything but snatches of thoughts up from the depths, like a shipwrecked sailor trying desperately to bail out her leaking lifeboat with an empty yoghurt pot.

Then, finally, I jumped. I suspect someone must have pushed me, but I have no recollection of it now. Just as I have generally very little memory of anything from the moment I jumped to the moment I landed. Suddenly, the panic within me disappeared. The carousel of thoughts in my head stopped spinning and I was simply falling, with the sky above and the slowly approaching forests below me.

It was a moment of rapture my self no longer seemed to exist. The fear I had felt before jumping was gone, and it was not replaced by a new fear, because there was nothing I could do anyway. Our wireless-technology project was certainly no longer of any concern to me, and all my other day-to-day worries were swept up into the sky by the wind that was thundering in my ears. Ive heard of mountaineers seeing their whole life flash before them as they plummet from the heights. But for me there was: nothing. Just emptiness.

The world was still there, but the borders between it and me became blurred. The others who jumped with me later told me I let out a yell for several seconds as I was falling, the like of which they had never heard emanating from me. I cant remember it. I dont even remember my parachute opening. All I can remember is landing, which in my case involved the branches of a tree and a few light injuries because I forgot to steer. And I remember my deep disappointment at the fact that it was over. I felt as if I had awoken from a wonderful dream but could not remember what made it so beautiful.

I have not done another parachute jump since. Not out of fear of the fall itself, which was appeased by that first jump. My fear is a different one. It is namely the fear that plummeting into the depths will never be as wonderful as it was the first time: so wonderfully empty.

What remains when we no longer think or feel?Brain scientists dont usually have much truck with emptiness. Their work revolves around behaviours, thoughts, and emotions their inadequacies, and also their potential.

We now know that our brain is an organ of enormous plasticity. It is always able to keep learning and adapting from our early youth to our old age. Infants grow up speaking two languages with no problem at all, old people can learn to juggle or play a musical instrument even in extreme old age, criminals can become useful members of society, and, contrariwise, successful business executives can become desperate criminals.

The possibilities are many both desirable and undesirable and include the ability to cope with crisis situations. It is a constant source of amazement, the way traumatised children, maltreated concentration-camp survivors and victims of war somehow manage to lead fulfilled lives again. Other people, by contrast, fall into despair at nothing more tragic than a lost football match.

In all these cases, problem-solving thinking is what is required and our thought pump begins working at full power. This not only brings us the realisation that the world exists, but also makes us realise that we exist in that world. Ren Descartes summed this up in his famous phrase: cogito ergo sum I think, therefore I am. Everything may be uncertain and in doubt, but the fact remains that it is I who am thinking those doubts; and in the first instance, that sounds comforting.

In another way, however, it also sounds worrying, since it raises the question: what remains of us when we no longer think or feel anything? Are we then nothing? Must we fear sinking into a sea of emptiness and eventually dissolving away?

In our daily lives at least, that fear does not appear to play an important role. We find it almost unbearable when the television breaks down or the internet is cut off, or when we have nothing to do or no one to be with. In a survey of young men and women, a third of the respondents said they would rather go without sex than their smartphone if they were marooned on a desert island. Other surveys have shown that peoples fear of boredom is similar to their fear of cancer. Almost as if to say: better to be fatally ill than empty. Yet another study found that healthy volunteers with no masochistic tendencies would rather give themselves harmless but unpleasant electric shocks than sit and wait for 15 minutes.

The fear of emptiness also plays a major role in many medical conditions. For example dementia, which eventually leads to complete apathy. Or borderline personality disorder and depression, which lead patients repeatedly to express the lack of meaning and the pointlessness of their existence. Psychopaths and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are driven to their abnormal behaviours by their fear of emptiness. They need powerful stimuli to escape it, which is why they torment animals and people, risk huge sums on the stock markets, or speed down the motorway at 200km/h.

A study carried out at the University of Innsbruck in Austria showed that people with aggressive, sadistic or psychopathic behavioural traits have a great preference for bitter-tasting foodstuffs. The reason for this is that bitterness is one of the extreme, even potentially life-threatening stimuli that psychopaths need. Many poisonous substances taste bitter, and that is why stimulating the bitterness receptors on the tongue sends the brain into alarm mode. Thus black coffee and gin and tonic are among the kicks that psychopaths need in their lives. Its no accident that James Bond drinks extremely dry vodka martinis.

In the experience-driven society we live in, the extent of our fear of emptiness can be seen in the fact that almost 30% of people in Germany have signed a living will. Such a document determines that life-prolonging measures should be terminated if the patient is left bedridden and completely paralysed, with no hope of recovery. Peoples fear of this state of absolute inactivity is so great that they would rather be dead. However, very few people know what life might be like for them when they have lost the ability to do anything.

At the University of Tbingens Institute of Behavioural Neurobiology, we have spent many years working on establishing contact with completely paralysed and locked-in patients. We have not only achieved various degrees of success in this, but have also been able to ascertain that these people appear to enjoy a high quality of life. For some, even higher than that of healthy people! This despite the fact that they were no longer able to move a single muscle, and their brains showed mainly low-frequency activity, which could be described as typical of running on empty.

Or is the very reason for their happiness because their lives are filled with emptiness?

There is no alternative: emptiness requires trust. There are many ways to achieve emptiness. Apart from meditation, floatation tanks, music, and dance, these ways also include sex, religion, and epilepsy three things with quite a bit in common. And there are probably many more.

I have worked with the philosopher, science journalist, and particularly helpfully this time experienced musician Jrg Zittlau and, during the process, new potential techniques to achieve emptiness kept occurring to us.

One such example is art, to which Schopenhauer assigned a certain potential for release from will. Others include things such as cheering in the crowd at sporting events or marching in step, which might not be quite so culturally highbrow, but which have just as much of an emptying effect on some people. Some sports enthusiasts enter a kind of emptiness zone as they rock climb, row, or run a marathon; for other people, doing the ironing is enough to reach this state.

Thinking

Some types of drugs also bring about such emptiness, but many have rather hefty side-effects. I had a very intense experience of emptiness with curare but this arrowhead poison used by the Indigenous people of South America is famous for causing complete paralysis, and so cannot be used except in the presence of an experienced anaesthetist to ensure continued breathing. Which brings us to a pivotal point to be considered on the way towards emptiness.

I would never conduct an experiment that involved paralysing the respiratory system unless there were an anaesthetist present whom I trust implicitly. If that trust is not there, what remains is caution and fear and those are barriers to achieving emptiness. This is not only true for those experimenting with curare. Anyone who makes only a half-hearted attempt to meditate or keeps one eye on the exit during a floatation-tank session will fail to achieve a state of emptiness. Mediocre musicians will be less able to lose themselves in the music than practised professionals who do not need to concentrate so hard on mastering their instrument. Completely locked-in patients achieve a higher level of satisfaction with life than many paraplegics, presumably because they have come to terms with their fate and their loss.

During my parachute jump, I only experienced a state of emptiness because there was nothing I could do about the situation I was in once I had jumped. Positive emptiness can only occur when we allow ourselves to surrender to a given situation completely, with trust, and without compromise or a feeling of regret for what we lose when we gain emptiness. We cannot have an alternative to emptiness in mind, or feel fearful of it, or hope to gain something from it. Otherwise, it will not work.

This is an edited extract from Thinking is Overrated: empty brain happy brain by Niels Birbaumer and Jorg Zittlau (Scribe, $27.99)

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa SafontEmptiness doesn’t have to mean nothingness: it could mean happiness

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