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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly SPRING 2 0 09 56 roar of the engine and the pounding of the wind. “WHY?” Another day he hauled her to the train station, crowded with India’s most destitute homeless. He paced up and down the platform, pointing to tracks stinking with human excrement and seething with rats. “Would you throw yourself in front of a train for your teacher?” “I would,” she told me later that day. Ever since Skarda can remember, she knew she was des- tined to be a philosopher. It was an odd choice of vocations for a girl growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin. She didn’t come from a community of the college bound. “It wasn’t a goal that anybody else had,” says Skarda. “There wasn’t any role model for it or a person around me who would inspire me in that way.” Skarda persevered in her study of philosophy, completing first a BA, then two masters’ degrees and a PhD in the field. Her interest focused on the mind, but she always kept a wary eye on the body. “Wherever I found minds, I found bodies,” noted Skarda. “And wherever I found bodies, I found minds.” There had to be a connection. Maybe the mind was the brain, thought Skarda. Maybe materialism is right. There was only one way to find out. She decided to study physiology. During her Sloan postdoctoral fellowship at the Univer- sity of California Berkeley, she got her chance. Skarda heard about a brain researcher at the university who was studying perception in rabbits. She crossed the campus and knocked on his door. “There was Walter Freeman,” Skarda says. “He had his feet on his desk with two different colored socks on and an iguana on the desk hissing at me. He was smoking a cigar. And there was a skeleton hanging behind him with a hat on.” Skarda introduced herself and said, “I want to know how the brain works.” Freeman laughed. “So do I! Sit down,” he said. Today it seems like a natural alliance—a philosopher of mind teaming up with a brain scientist—but in the early eight- ies it was an unheard of collaboration. According to Skarda, there were no brain scientists working in cognitive science yet. “It was radical,” she says. “The brain was considered irrelevant to cognition.” The interdisciplinary nature of the Sloan fellowship gave her flexibility to explore traditionally separate fields, and she brought her neuroscience findings back to her weekly cognitive science meetings. When Skarda’s Sloan funding ended, Freeman created a postdoctoral fellowship for her in his lab and managed to convince Berkeley’s dean of the science department to allow him to fund a philosopher on his grant. “It was a feat unheard of,” Skarda laughs. Freeman’s lab was engaged in what was and continues to be a central project of neuroscience—understanding how the brain and the perceptual system create our experience. An entire world appears to us: trees and flowers, the taste of chocolate, the sound of children laughing. Trees, flowers, and the rest seem to be “out there,” independent of us. How then do they get into our experience? Skarda was examining the perceptual model that was dom- inant at the time in neuroscience. According to this model, sci- entists generally assume that the brain delivers our conscious experiences via representations. That is, the perceptual system is in the assembly business. It takes in discrete sensory stimuli (like colors or edges) and bundles that information into neu- ral wholes that correspond to external objects. The trees and flowers we experience subjectively are neurological stand-ins for—representations of—the objective ones. This representa- tional model still dominates in neuroscience today, although several decades of scientific research has failed to find these neural representations in the brain—either as single nerve fir- ings, or as patterns of activities of groups, networks, or global masses of nerve cells. In fact, this “binding problem” is one of the fundamental problems of contemporary neuroscience. In February, 1991, Skarda was working at home when she looked up from her computer and something remarkable hap- pened. She rested her eyes on a flowering camellia outside the window and in an instant, she recalls, “everything turned inside out, and I saw that I had everything backwards.” The problem she had been working for years to understand—how brains got into relationship with fundamentally independent external objects—was not a true picture of what actually took place; it was not the problem at all. Brains weren’t internal- izing objects. “I saw this embeddedness,” Skarda says. “There were no breaks.” Suddenly Skarda understood perception in a whole new way. She realized her perceptual system was fooling her. “It shatters a state of relatedness into an illusion of independence,” Skarda (left) teaching at the Maha Bodhi Stupa in Bodhgaya. (Writer Linda Heuman, center) heididielmann