Now the point of this discussion is not to definitively express the total distance covered by all that electrochemical activity in our systems in numbers with so many zeros we need scientific notation. I’ve used approximate numbers on purpose. I just want to give you a tangible sense of the actual magnitude of the distance which exists within our nervous systems. Separation is not a figment of our imaginations. Distance is not foreign to us. It’s not a sign of abnormality. On the contrary, it’s all built into our systems at the most fundamental, cellular level.
If you’re put off by this idea, you’re not alone. Camillo Golgi, the Italian Nobel Prize winner for Science in 1906 – who enabled scientists to get a look at actual neurons through his staining technique – flatly denied that neurons could be separate. He insisted that, like the vascular system, nerves were continuously connected in a diffuse network. He shared the Nobel Prize that year with Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who along with others insisted (without actually being able to see) that neurons had to be separate.
History (and the electron microscope) eventually proved Ramon y Cajal and other adherents to the “neuron doctrine” correct. But it doesn’t change the fact that for most people (who don’t really know or care about neuroanatomy), the idea of all that separation within our systems can be deeply unsettling. Many of us rely on a sense of undifferentiated connectedness to feel secure in our world. We turn to direct contact, immediate perception for our most reliable sense of security. We trust what’s up close and personal, and we shy away from people and ideas that feel foreign. But the simple fact is, our very wiring is full of gaps which guarantee we’ll never directly contact anything. Distance, not undifferentiated contact, is a hallmark of our central nervous system. What do we do, in the face of evidence that says true connectedness can never exist?
I myself would love to believe that Unity is possible. I’d love to be sure that we can all truly connect with others and the world around us. I’m tired of all the separation, the divisiveness, the fragmentation of the world around me. But now it appears that fragmentation is the rule, rather than the exception. If we’re really and truly separate from each other on the microscopic cellular level, how can we ever hope to overcome our broader separations that are driving us farther apart, with each passing day? Surely, there must be some truth to the sage declarations that separation is illusion… and that division – Othering – is a product of our politics and choices, not our innate state.
But… science. It’s wrecking everything.
We’ve seen how the measurable separations of those trillions of synaptic clefts rules out direct contact with the world around us. It’s literally never actually possible. As much as we may crave closeness, as much as we may espouse unity and claim that separation is an illusion, we simply cannot argue with the objective fact of the built-in divisions that permeate our physical vehicles in numbers too large for many of us to count. As much as we may want to trust our senses, to rely on them for grounding us in the world… as much as we may believe only our own immediate experience of life… that doesn’t change the fact that the neurological highways that connect us to the world are riddled with gaps that cannot – by definition – be directly connected.
Separation isn’t the illusion. Unity is.