The Global Brain

1983

Peter Russell's award-winning video explores the idea that the Earth is an integrated, self-regulating living organism, and asks what function humanity might have for this planetary being. It suggests that we stand on the threshold of a major leap in evolution, as significant as the emergence of life itself, and the essence of this leap is inner spiritual evolution. Moreover, Russell maintains that it is only through such a shift in consciousness that we will be able to manage successfully the global crises now facing us.

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00:17

Here’s an image we all know well. It’s an image which is in many ways a symbol of our times. It represents what is perhaps our greatest technological achievement so far: the step out into space. But the picture of our planet also has a far deeper significance. For the first time we have seen ourselves and the planet from the outside, and the view has changed our feelings about ourselves in an unexpected way. For the early astronauts, the sight of the planet shining in the blackness of space was a profound experience. One of the astronauts who walked on the Moon described his view of the Earth as an experience of instant global consciousness. He said:


When you’re up there, you’re no longer an American citizen or a Russian citizen. Suddenly, all those boundaries disappear. You are a planetary citizen.

01:21

And similar experiences happened to the other astronauts. They saw Earth to be a beautiful, magical-looking planet, and came back deeply changed from that experience. Moreover, they became increasingly aware that all was not well back on Earth, and they came back wanting to help in one way or another. The pictures they returned with also had a deep effect on many of us back on Earth. For many people it’s an image which brings forth feelings of wonder and of awe, feelings of connection and of being part of something greater.

02:06

In some respects, the picture of our planet is a spiritual symbol of our times. Now, that may initially sound strange. What is spiritual about it? But if you think for a moment, most spiritual symbols are, in one way or another, symbols of wholeness, of oneness, of some underlying unity. And a sense of oneness and unity is exactly what is reflected in this picture of the planet. It symbolizes the growing awareness that we are one humanity living on one planet and with one common destiny. This is why the picture of the planet is so powerful and why it has become such an important symbol for all of those who are concerned about the fate of humanity and creating a better world. And there was another awesome realization which struck some of the early astronauts. Looking back at the Earth, it seemed that maybe the whole planet is a single living organism. Until we took the step out into space, we had only seen the planet from close up. Even when you’re ten miles up in a plane, you’re still only seeing a very tiny part of it.

03:28

In some respects, we could compare ourselves to fleas living on an elephant. Now, being scientific fleas, they have studied the skin, measured how deep it is, looked for the sweaty bits, found the hairy bits, and generally mapped out the elephant. Then, one day, one of these fleas takes a huge leap off, fifty feet away, and—looking back at the elephant—wonders: could this elephant actually be a living organism in its own right? We have been taking a similar huge leap back. From a hundred miles, to a thousand miles, until eventually we see the planet as a single entity. And the question comes: could planet Earth be a single living organism?

04:32

Now, this is not such a wild dream as you might suppose. A number of scientists are now beginning to take the idea quite seriously. Researchers in both England and America have been looking at some of the long-term changes which have happened to the planet. When, for example, you look at how the temperature of the planet has varied over the whole of its history, you find that it started off very hot, but then cooled rapidly until it reached the crucial range in which life could evolve. From then on it seems to have remained steady. Now that’s strange, because theoretically it should sooner or later have started rising again, becoming far too hot for life to continue. But it didn’t. It stayed constant. What seems to have happened is that the living organisms of the time released the right amounts of the right gases to keep the temperature of the atmosphere constant at just the right level for life to continue evolving. Now, that may sound an amazing coincidence, but it’s no more amazing than the fact that our own bodies sweat when we are hot and shiver when we’re cold, maintaining ourselves at a constant temperature. The salt content of the sea also shows an interesting degree of self-regulation. Salt is continually washed off the land into the sea, and at such a rate that it would take only 80 million years for the oceans to reach their present concentration. So theoretically, the oceans should by now have become one huge dead sea. But they haven’t. In fact, the salt content has remained remarkably steady. Somehow, small organisms in the sea have absorbed just the right amount of salt to keep it constant.

06:31

These are just two of many examples which have led scientists to propose that all the living organisms on the planet together function as one huge self-regulating system—a theory known as the Gaia hypothesis, after this lady, who is the Greek Earth mother goddess, Gaia. We might, then, consider our days and nights to be like the heartbeat of Gaia, the seasons to be her breaths, the tropical rainforests resemble the lungs, and the oceans are like the circulatory system. So if the whole planet does behave like a huge living system, what, we might then ask, are we doing here? What is humanity’s function in this system? To give some perspective, let’s go back and look at how we came to be here: at the whole evolutionary process which has led to us.

07:40

According to current scientific theory, the universe started with a big bang. Pure energy. Light. “In the beginning there was light”—something science and religion actually agree upon. Then this energy quickly condensed into electrons and protons, the first elementary particles. And then these very simple particles began combining to form the first simple atoms, which themselves began collecting to form more complex atoms, and more complex atoms, until the whole of chemistry had evolved. Next these different atoms came together to form molecules, like this amino acid, one of the basic building blocks of life. These, over time, began stringing themselves together to form much more complex molecules, like DNA, containing millions of atoms. These molecules then grouped themselves to form the first simple living organisms: bacteria and algae. Over time these, too, collected together to form multicellular organisms: simple sponges and the first plants.

09:25

This process of progressive complexification and organization continued, leading eventually to the first fish. Now, fish represent a very significant stage in evolution, for fish were the first creatures with a skull and a spinal cord. And inside was the delicate nervous system which now, for the first time in history, was protected by a case of bone. And from then on, the main thrust of evolution has been in the development of the nervous system. As we move on up through evolution, the external changes are very clear. Their gills have become lungs, the fins have changed into arms and legs. But the most important changes of all were happening on the inside. The nervous system has become unfathomably complex. And today, the most complex nervous systems known on this planet are to be found in dolphins and whales. The fact that they have more complex brains than our own suggests that they might be more intelligent than us—though what they do with that increased capacity we do not as yet really know.

10:52

Leaving them aside for now, let us consider the second most complex nervous system on this planet: the human nervous system. One of the unique attributes of the human mind is our ability to study the world around and understand it. It is this which underlies our science, our technology, and the whole of human culture. We are, as we have seen, a product of this long evolutionary journey: through the evolution of matter and the stars, through the evolution of life and simple organisms, to the stage where, now, with us, evolution has reached the crucial stage of complexity whereby it can look back on the universe. Whether we are studying a stone, a leaf, or looking out into the heavens, we are the universe’s way of beginning to explore itself. We are a star’s way of exploring the stars. And the same could be said of our inner reflections. When we turn our attention inwards and begin to explore our own minds and discover deeper levels within ourselves, we are the universe beginning to investigate its inner dimensions.

12:19

So the next question is: where is all this taking us? What’s next? In the long term, over millions of years, we will probably see various physical changes—such as our brains growing even larger. But there are other evolutionary developments happening a lot more quickly. One of the dominant trends of evolution has been a progressive linking of smaller units into larger and larger units. This suggests that the next stage might involve human beings themselves linking together in some way. Indeed, this process has already begun. It’s what we call civilization. The organization of the streets in this danish village is very similar to the way the first multicellular organisms developed in the sea. This is Sun City, Arizona. The pattern here is similar to a growing fetus. And this tendency of people coming together into larger units is also happening at a much higher level. We can see it in the union of the states in the USA and the USSR, and the coming together of the EEC in Europe. This is the natural drift of evolution, and its end result would seem to be the whole of humanity beginning to function as one single community.

13:51

As well as this linking at a physical level, we are also beginning to link together at a deeper level. As a result of the information explosion, telecommunications, and the birth of computer networks, we are beginning to exchange information with each other wherever we may be. We are beginning to share our thinking. We are beginning to connect up mentally. We are beginning to link mind to mind. And as we begin to understand each other, an even deeper level of linking is occurring: a linking of soul to soul. We are beginning to appreciate our sensual unity and oneness. So the next stage of evolution could be humanity beginning to link together—physically and mentally, beginning to work and function on many different levels as an integrated system.

14:55

Now, there’s some interesting parallels between this integration of humanity and the integration which occurred at earlier stages of evolution. If we go back and consider the emergence of life from matter, we find that the simplest bacteria contain several billion atoms. The figure shown here of ten billion is only a very approximate figure. Whether it’s two billion or five billion or twenty billion doesn’t really matter. But it seems necessary to bring together approximately this number of atoms in order to create the complexity necessary for them to become a living system. Similarly, if we look at the next leap in evolution (the evolution of intelligent consciousness), we find it again takes several billion nerve cells linked together in the human brain to produce the reflective consciousness characteristic of humanity—though, again, the figure is not meant to be exact. Now, if this turns out to be a general principle of evolution, it would suggest the next stage—the linking of humanity into an integrated system—would involve the working together of a similar number of minds. And indeed, the human population has already reached this level. We might, then, think of humanity as some sort of huge global brain: a brain in which we are the cells, linked together by our growing information networks.

16:26

And there are indeed some interesting parallels between the way societies develop and the way the human brain develops. The main thrust of development of the human brain takes place mainly before birth, between weeks eight and thirteen after conception. Imagine for a moment that you are a nerve cell in this growing human brain. At first there’s plenty of space. Then, very quickly, there’s a massive population explosion of nerve cells. If you were a nerve cell, you’d probably think, “This is getting dangerous. There’s not enough oxygen to go around. We’re going to be short of blood soon.” But suddenly, at week thirteen, the explosion stops. From then on, the development of the nervous system focuses on the growth of connectivity and complexity: the linking together of these billions of nerve cells. Today we are seeing a similar process happening to humanity. We’ve had this massive population explosion, but it’s now beginning to slow down. And we seem to be moving into the next phase: the linking of the billions of human cells in this planetary brain. Through postal systems, telephones, computer networks, and satellites we are increasing the connectivity and linkage of the billions of minds which, together, constitute humanity.

18:04

Now, all that I’ve spoken of so far is the good news. The bad news is that our rapid development is also threatening the welfare of the planet. In some respects we seem to be very much like a planetary cancer. It’s interesting that, if you take a photograph of a city from the air and look at the way the city spreads out into the environment, it’s very reminiscent of the way a cancer grows in the body. This, for example, may look like Los Angeles from the air, but it’s not. It’s actually a cancerous tissue in the human body. But take a good look at it. Notice how it’s growing. And then compare it with this. Now, the similarity is more than just in appearance. If you go back and look at what causes the cancerous tendencies in the individual and at what causes a similar tendency in society, we find that underneath are very similar principles.

19:20

Let’s look first at why a cell in the body becomes cancerous. In the center of each cell are the genes. They contain the information that keep you functioning as a single living organism rather than just a bowl of biological soup. Now, if the genes in a cell are disturbed, that cell may become selfish. It may no longer support the system as a whole, but instead go off doing its own thing at the expense of the body. In short, it becomes a cancer. Now when we consider human beings in a community, we are looking at an organization of minds. And the parallel to the genes is to be found at the center of our consciousness. It’s that deeper level of inner wisdom, that inner awareness of being much more than we normally experience, a part of something much greater. And when we lose touch with this inner wisdom we also become like selfish cells, out of touch with the needs of society as a whole, living at the expense of each other. The philosopher Alan Watts referred to this selfish, isolated way of existence as the skin-encapsulated ego: what’s inside the skin is “me,” what’s outside the skin is “not me.” Biologically speaking this is, of course, true: we are each separate biological individuals. But it is not the whole truth. We are much more than that. We are creatures with an inner life, with an existence that stretches beyond our biological identity.

21:10

The reason we’ve become stuck in this limited way of seeing ourselves is because the real self, our deepest sense of “I,” is actually very hard to grasp. Trying to describe that deeper sense of self is very much like trying to describe a hole in a piece of wood. If you ask people to describe a hole such as this, they may start by saying, “Well, it’s a round hole.” You say, “Yes.” They say, “It’s a wooden hole, and it’s red.” You say, “Hang on, the hole isn’t wood. The hole isn’t red.” They say, “Aha! The hole is black.” But no, that’s the background. And suddenly they are stuck. What’s the hole? How do you describe the hole itself without describing its surroundings? In a similar way, it’s very difficult to grasp and define our own inner sense of self. Instead, we tend to describe ourselves in terms of what surrounds us: our many possessions, the roles we play, our social status, our beliefs (both scientific and religious).

22:36

Now, this limited sense of identity may not in itself seem very dangerous, but it does have some far-reaching consequences. It turns out that many of the ways in which we mistreat and abuse the environment stem from our seeing the world as separate from ourselves. We may take fairly good care of what is inside the skin, but we don’t care nearly so well for what is outside the skin. As the late Gregory Bateson said, “If this”—meaning this me-versus-the-world attitude—“If this is your estimate of your relationship to nature, and you have more advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die, either of the toxic byproducts of your own hate or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.” And Bateson went on to say that, “If I am right, the whole of our thinking of what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. The most important task today is to learn to think in a new way.” I would actually go a step further and say the most important task is to be in a new way: to experience, to be conscious, in a new way. We need to make the shift from this, the skin-encapsulated model of the self, to this, what some have referred to as “leaky margins.” The boundaries are still there, but they are much less solid. In addition, we now experience a greater oneness with the world outside. Such a shift of consciousness could play an important part in the next age of our evolution.

24:40

If we go back and look at the previous major steps in evolution, we can see that each stage became a platform for the next. Energy led to matter, matter led to life, and now life has led to consciousness. Thus, the spearhead of evolution is now the human mind. We have moved beyond biological evolution into mental evolution. Thus it is not changes in our bodies which will now determine the future so much as changes in our thinking, changes in our perception, changes in our attitudes. The evolutionary phase which we have now entered is the evolution of human consciousness. Inner development is now the key. In short: evolution has become internalized.

25:54

And these changes are happening much faster than we might at first suspect. Recent data shows that inner evolution may soon become very widespread in our society. If we look back at the past distribution of human employment in the West, we see that the major focus for centuries was agriculture. Most people were employed on the land. That continued until 1900, when a new curve took over: industry. Industrial work became the dominant use of human time. We entered the Industrial Age. And the Industrial Age continued until 1975, when a new curve took over: information processing. And we are now very much in the Information Age. And we entered the Information Age much faster than anybody anticipated. Whereas it took over a century for the industrial revolution to have its full effect, the information revolution has had a major impact in just 25 years.

27:10

So the next question is: what will follow the Information Age? Well, there are already signs of a new curve beginning—and although small at present, it is growing even faster than information processing. This curve represents the growing number of people involved in the exploration and development of the vast resources of the human mind itself. These are the people who are beginning to explore what may perhaps be the last great frontier: our own minds. The number may be small at present. But as you can see if you extrapolate the trend, then by the year 2000 it will have overtaken the information curve. What we would then see is a very major shift in values as more and more people discover a deeper sense of unity and purpose, and—letting go of their petty selfish ways—beginning to function more in tune with humanity and the planet as a whole.

28:30

Now, the idea that there are deeper levels to human consciousness is not new. In all ages all around the world we find people talking of that same fundamental wisdom, that same basic understanding of life and consciousness. Here I’ve symbolized these different people at different times by different colored dots. Now, when any particular teacher died, his message was forced to spread by word of mouth or be written down on parchments, with the result that, as his ideas began to spread around the world, they inevitably became distorted and absorbed by the culture of the time, with the result that very little now remains of the original wisdom. But today we are at very different circumstances. Firstly, hundreds upon thousands of people are beginning to discover the hidden potentials of the human soul. And secondly, books, tapes, television, computer networks—in short, the whole information revolution—has given us the means to share these discoveries with each other without the information suffering the distortion and misunderstanding that was inevitable in the past. So now, as the wisdom begins to spread out across the planet, there is instead a positive feedback. The wisdom reinforces itself. Rather than dissolving, the wisdom builds upon itself.

30:28

Such an inner awakening could be the crucial ingredient in the linking of humanity into an integrated society. A society in which we are linked spiritually through an awareness of our inner unity, an awareness that we’re all part of something greater, and at the same time gaining a greater awareness of our individual potentials and uniqueness. A synthesis of individuality along with greater community. Such an inner development, if widespread, could be very valuable in helping humanity deal with the problems now facing it. We are clearly in a time of crisis. But most of us think of crisis as bad. But maybe we have something to learn from the Chinese on this. Their word for crisis, wéijī, means two things. The first symbol means “danger,” “beware.” But the other two symbols mean “opportunity.” An opportunity for something new to emerge. If we only see crisis as danger, as a threat to our accustomed ways, then we may spend all our energy resisting it. We need also to look at the opportunities inherent in the crisis.

31:58

From an evolutionary perspective, crises are a sign that something has gone wrong. The patterns of the past are no longer working. Crises are thus a challenge: the challenge to adapt. They are the challenge to let go of the old ways of thinking and move on to a new way of seeing. Thus, humanity’s current crisis may not, at its root, be an economic crisis or an environmental crisis, it may well be a crisis of consciousness: a crisis in how we see ourselves and the world around. Many of us have probably experienced at one time or another those moments when we feel at one with the world, a sense of inner peace with no need to prove who we are. The question is: can we allow these precious moments to happen more often in our lives and in the lives of other people? In short, can we choose to explore and develop our greatest resource of all, our own minds, our inner selves?

33:08

I’d like to finish with a poem from Christopher Fry's play A Sleep of Prisoners.

The human heart can go the lengths of God…

Dark and cold we may be, but this

Is no winter now. The frozen misery

Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;

The thunder is the thunder of the floes,

The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.


Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to meet us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The greatest stride of soul man ever took.


Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise

Is exploration into God.

But where are you making for? It takes

So many thousand years to wake,

But will you wake for pity’s sake!



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