People of the Books

Brian Zimmerman

Examining the world through the microscope and Midrash. By Spertus Institute's Brian Zimmerman.

People of the Books

This is your brain on Judaism

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Hello, readers. I'm Brian, the new voice behind People of the Books, and I'm thrilled for this opportunity to share my thoughts with you every month. Like my predecessor Betsy Gomberg, I'll be delving into the world of books and authors, but with my own little spin. My favorite books are the ones that try to explain the mysteries of the world around us, so I tend to gravitate toward books about science, psychology, nature, and history. In this column, I'll be exploring these subjects and how they relate to Judaism. I hope you'll join me!

First up: the brain. In his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Jewish neuroscientist David Eagleman gets inside your head - literally. His book is an exploration of consciousness, and in it he examines everything from how we fall in love to why it's so hard to keep a secret. Through scientific studies, humorous anecdotes, and inspirational profiles (like the one about the blind mountain climber who "sees" with electrodes on his tongue), Eagleman's book makes you think about thinking in a whole new way.

One of Eagleman's most ambitious theories is that humans aren't as aware of our surroundings as we think we are. To prove this point, Eagleman cites a famous experiment in which scientists approached random pedestrians on the streets to ask for directions. While the subjects were giving directions, another pair of scientists disguised as construction workers passed in front of the subjects with a slab of wood, creating a momentary blockage of sight. What the subjects didn't know was that hiding behind the wood was yet another scientist, who stealthily swapped places with the original one. The scientists wanted to know: after a momentary lapse in sight, would the subjects notice that they were talking to entirely different person?

The answer? No. Most people were so wrapped up in the routine task giving directions that they forgot to register the physical features of the first volunteer. How could they have missed something so obvious? Well, it's due to a phenomenon called change-blindness, and it happens when we're so involved in our own thoughts that we fail to notice changes in our environment.

Reading Eagleman's book made me curious about my lack of awareness, and I scoured the internet for more information. As it happens, Eagleman isn't the only Jewish author thinking about change-blindness. Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, a blogger for The Huffington Post, has his own take on consciousness, only his is from a Jewish perspective. In his article, entitled "What Would a 'Conscious Judaism' Look Like?" Rabbi Mitelman attempts to analyze modern psychology through the lens of Jewish thought, and it's here that we find an interesting intersection between neuroscience and Judaism.

In Judaism, writes Rabbi Mitelman, there is a special word for an alert state of consciousness. It's called kavanah, which literally translates to "intention of the heart." Historically used to describe the mindset required for Jewish prayer, today kavanah has become associated with the concept of "mindfulness." It's taking that moment to register your surroundings, and even more, to be thankful for them. It's the also reason Jews say a blessing before things like eating, sleeping, and washing hands - because it's important to remember that even during these mundane tasks there is greater meaning and purpose.

Turns out, kavanah serves a neurological purpose as well. Since our brains like to conserve energy, they tend to designate less attention to our external world when we're engaged in familiar tasks. That's why we can "zone out" while we do things like brush out teeth or ride the "El." But when we make an effort to pay attention - when we practice kavanah - we're essentially tricking our brains into treating old information like we're encountering it for the first time. It's only then that we're able to notice what we've taken for granted, like how beautiful the sky is on a rainy commute to work, or how happy we feel when picking our kids up from school - even if we've performed these tasks a thousand times before.

In the end, both Judaism and neuroscience wind up on the same side of kavanah. They both embrace the fact that being aware of the wonderful gifts life has given us is always a good thing. So the next time you feel like you're sleepwalking through life, stop what you're doing, take a moment of kavanah, and experience a greater sense of being alive.


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