Storms in Nature and in the Human Experience - Part 2

In part 1 in this short series on the Storm, we covered storms in the natural world.

We discussed how storms are forms that emerge from formless substances such as air and water. We learned that currents, and constraints, drive this emergence of form. Likewise, we looked at turbulence, and found that it is among the most difficult of all phenomena, to predict and simulate precisely. We marveled at the destructive power of storms, that comes from the concentration and flow of energy, that we normally don’t perceive, in the skies and oceans. Lastly, we discussed dissipation. We saw that one of the many paradoxes of storms, is that they actually exist solely, to dissipate their own source of energy.

These qualities of storms, in the natural world, can be fascinating and awe-inspiring in their own right. That said, we will now turn to looking at using natural storms, as a symbol and a metaphor, and see what they suggest about the human experience.

Storms of the Human Experience

Storms in the Mind

The mind is a place that naturally lends itself to the symbolism and metaphor of weather, and of storms specifically. We often hear people using expressions to characterize their minds, that could also apply to natural atmospheric phenomena.

People speak of "feeling Blue" like a sky darkened by thunderclouds, or an ominous stormy at sea.

We use terms such as "Brainstorm" to refer to a rapid flurry of thoughts and ideas, even though this particular use of storm symbolism, is usually employed with a positive connotation.

Here, we will look at two ways that using the storm as a metaphor can help us to understand something about the human mind.

The first approach is to look at the electrochemical substrate of the mind (as currently understood by neuroscience). The second approach is to look at the content within the mind, particularly in the form of narratives.

Electrochemical Storms

The best understanding that science can give us about the basis of the human mind, as of 2022, is that it is based on a substrate of electrochemical activity, in the brain.

It is worth noting that all that current neuroscience can give us, is a set of strong correlations between electrochemical activity in the brain, and 1st person accounts of personal, phenomenal experience. These internal experiences, often referred to as “qualia” in the technical terminology, cannot be measured objectively with today’s technology, and may be forever beyond measurement even in principle.

As we discuss the mind, and its relationships to storms in nature, and brains in skulls, there are some important things to point out. Perhaps above all, we must acknowledge just how much we don't know, about how this mind, this world, and this whole human experience, emerge, and relate to each other. All of this is central to the so-called "Hard Problem" of consciousness, a term coined by the philosopher David Chalmers in the 1990s. The concept itself, has been contemplated by such notable minds such as Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud, and countless stoned apes, across the aeons.

The basic quandary of the "Hard Problem", as modernized by what science can establish, is to explain precisely and rigorously, why electrochemical activity in the brain, should be associated with any kind of internal, first person, phenomenal experience at all.

So far, there is no widespread consensus as to what if any explanation, mechanical or otherwise, can be provided such that electrochemical activity in the brain, can manifest conscious experience.

Some people, such as Donald Hoffman and Bernardo Kastrup, have even espoused the possibility that this explanatory gap between mind and matter, can never be bridged by starting with the electrochemical activity in the brain. Instead, they have suggested in separate but similar ways, that perhaps in effect, the only way to explain the existence of conscious experience in a material world, is to start with conscious experience as fundamental. From there, the task would then be to discover how to get the precise observations of the martial world, out of that.

The idea that conscious experience could be fundamental, is not at all something new or even “new age”. This is an ancient intuition that we can trace back at least as far as Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, more than 2,000 years ago. Closer to the modern day, we have had intrepid minds such as Schopenhauer, Kant, William James, and many others, seriously considering this as a possible account of nature.

The jury is still out for now, but this remains perhaps the single most elusive and significant question, in all of science and philosophy.

Watch this space.

Narrative Turbulence

Storms of the mind are most often driven by associated narratives.

Anytime we are troubled by what happened in the past, or what has yet to happen in the future, we are afflicted by narrative turbulence.

The human experience is overwhelmingly defined, by our capacity to imagine events which are not happening now. For better or worse, the human species, is unique on planet earth, and perhaps much of the cosmos, for being the species that has the awful tendency to suffer asynchronously. Animals cry out in pain at the very moment it strikes them, but humans go beyond live pains that are broadcasted in real time. We stream our suffering on demand, just like all our favorite shows. We recoil from future pains that have not yet happened, and we ache over past events, that can never be changed.

Perhaps the ultimate form of narrative turbulence, is that which forms the narrative self. The avatar in our waking dream simulation, that thinks it is the most important being in all existence, and yet paradoxically, has no real existence of its own. Without a narrative self, there would be no narrative turbulence. Both the Buddhists and the Stoics among others, realized this and much of their teachings, are just an attempt to dissolve the narrative self, as viewed through the different cultures of Eastern and Western sensibilities.

Storms in the Body

Storms in the body come in many forms and severities. Here we take a look at some of the most significant examples.

Body Tension as a Storm

Even without anything traumatic or catastrophic happening, all of us have experienced the aches and pains of lingering body tension, at some point in our lives.

There is a phrase that sounds hilarious until you realize how far-reaching its implications are. The phrase is “our issues are in our tissues”. I remember the first time I heard this phrase mentioned in a talk by Tara Brach, a prominent meditation teacher and author. It seemed almost too on the nose, or cliché, to be worth considering at first. Then, the more I thought about it, and the more I noticed how tension tends to get locked into various parts of the body, the more I realized the value and simplicity of that phrase.

One aspect of body tension that is particularly insidious and very much akin to a storm, is how subtle, imperceptible tension, can build into massive problems over time.

We would not know that that breeze that blows across our morning tea, through a slightly cracked kitchen window, will grow to become a monstrous tropical storm, that ravages a whole coastline.

Body tension is much like that. We have thousands of small events of tension in the body, most of which are completely below our level of conscious awareness or control. This does not mean that they don’t have an impact, however.

Over time, many of us come to have chronically tight necks and shoulders, aching backs, poor circulation, and any number of musculoskeletal ailments that lead us to pop Advil, and often times much more severe substances.

So, we can see that the metaphor of the storm, is helpful for thinking about how seemingly small and invisible tension events, can build up over time to become major problems for our quality of life.

Illness/Disease as a Storm

Another way to think about storms in the body, is to look at the spectrum of sickness, illness, and disease. This can encompass everything from the common cold, to COVID-19, and cancer.

When the body is in a state of illness, a more general way to describe this is to say that the body is out of balance.

A healthy body is a body that can maintain itself within the optimal range for function. This is why one of the first things doctors check for is a fever.

Have you ever wondered why a temperature increase of a few degrees in body temperature, should be of any consequence, compared to the large fluctuations in temperature people in northern climates are accustomed to?

It is not, as many people think because there is something inherently bad about being warmer. It is not the temperature itself that is the problem. One of the main issues, is the effect that changes in temperature, can have on various systems and functions of the body. In particular, temperature can influence how easy it is for certain chemical reactions to be catalyzed. Changing the temperature inside the body, even by a few degrees, can have nonlinear effects that cascade through the systems of the body. This is one of the reasons why fevers can be so important to monitor and to reduce, especially in vulnerable populations such as in elderly people, small children, or people who have compromised immune systems etc.

Here again, we find a remarkable link between the storms in the seas and skies, and the storms of illness in the body. A few people reading this, may have noticed an odd similarly between fevers and global warming, and this is a bit more than an odd coincidence.

In a very similar way to how fevers in the body change the rate at which certain chemical reactions, and other processes can occur, global warming can be thought of as a kind of “fever” for the “body” of the ecosystem.

There is a natural ebb and flow of our environment, just as in the human body. Seasons come and go, ice forms and melts, populations migrate and come back home.

Just as only a few degrees of increase in the body, can spell big trouble, so it is the same of the environment, around the globe.

I see this connection between recognizing the similarities between our bodies and the greater environment, as a missing link in explaining the importance of climate change to the masses, that I regret has been sorely underreported. That said, I do want to give some credit to the physicist Geoffrey West, who has made a similar point in public lectures for his book “Laws of Scaling” ().

The point is that small changes, seemingly innocuous temperature increases of only a few degrees, can wreak havoc in the body, and in the skies and oceans alike. This happens because of the creation of extreme conditions, that give rise to massive storms, and all kinds of devastation, if these systems cannot recover and balance properly.

Emotions as Currents of the Storm

When we speak of storms, both literately and metaphorically, inevitably we are dealing with currents in some fashion.

Whenever we think about currents in literal stones in nature, we are talking about some source of energy driving a flow through the system, which dissipates that energy.

If we then think back to the storms of the body and mind, we can see that metaphorically, emotions effectively play the role of currents in the atmosphere and oceans.

It’s a bit funny that if you actually look at the word “emotion” and think about how it is related to storms in the natural world, you can intuitively think of it as standing for “Energy – for Motion”. Again, colloquial language has long used expressions related to the physical motion of substances, to refer to the currents of emotion inside the mind and body. Note how we say that an impactful speech was “moving”, even if you did not move one inch during its recitation. We say that it was “moving” or that a stunning violin solo moved the audience to tears”, in reference to those invisible “currents” of emotion. Invisible disturbances, much like currents of air and water, that also have the power to shape the world, for better or worse.

Storms in Society

Though much of this piece is about the metaphor and symbolism of comparing storms in nature, to storms in the minds and bodies of the human experience, we now come to a very stark and unavoidable reality check, that makes the point better than words ever could.

At the time of writing this very paragraph, the world is showing us some of the deadliest and most lethal examples of storms, both literally, and metaphorically.

Storms of War

Just days ago, Russia announced the fraudulent annexation of 4 new territories in Ukraine. This came on the heels of a mass draft order to mobilize some 300,000 Russian men, to bolster Putin’s stalled war of choice. Along with the land grab, the Russian president Vladimir Putin, has issued even more threats that he will use nuclear weapons to “defend” Russia, and that he is “not bluffing”. So, we now have this metaphorical war storm brewing, and growing darker and darker, in the world of human affairs. A storm that could easily turn nuclear, if the currents of aggression cannot be dissipated in time.

Storms of Water

On the flip side, Hurricane Ian, a literal storm of air and water, continues to wreak havoc on the southeastern region of the United States, as well as in Cuba. At the time of writing this, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that 44 people have died in Florida, 4 in North Carolina, and 2 in Cuba. Most reportedly died from drowning. This is grim no doubt, but as is often the case in storms of all kinds, the death, and destruction will likely be much worse, once the clouds clear, and we can see it all laid out before us.

Closing Thoughts

In this article, we looked at storms as metaphors that play out in the human experience. We saw that, from the perspective of modern neuroscience, “storms” in the mind play out as electrochemical storms in the substrate of the brain. From the standpoint of the internal first person experience, we came to understand that narratives about the past and future drive the current of upheaval that bring the clouds of pain into our experience from time to time.

We explored how storms in the body can be thought of as taking the form of body tension. Just like massive tornadoes can appear seemingly out of nowhere, we saw that so often in this life “our issues are in our tissues”. Much of the pain and discomfort that comes about, has accumulated over time and is locked in tense muscles and other systems of the body.

Illness was another place that we found a great example of the storm metaphor in the human experience. We looked at how tiny changes, such as a few degrees of a fever, can signal much bigger problems inside the body. We found an unexpected connection between fevers in our own individual bodies, and climate change across the globe. In both cases, just a few degrees of change, can make all the difference.

We discussed emotions as “currents” that mediate between the mind and body.

Finally, we paused to recognize some very sobering and haunting examples of storms and their intersection with the human experience. There was the devastation that hurricane Ian brought to Florida and Cuba, and the specter of nuclear war that may be brought by Vladimir Putin. These storms of water, and storms of war, really show how powerful the symbol of the storm is, for gaining insight into ourselves and our collective human experience.