To Pay Attention, the Brain Uses Filters, Not a Spotlight

A brain circuit that suppresses distracting sensory information holds important clues about attention and other cognitive processes.8

The illustration shows ghostly hands partially obstructing a person’s sight and hearing.
We attend to only a fraction of the sensory data available to us. New results are helping to explain how the brain filters out the sensations least interesting to it at any moment.Jason Lyon for Quanta Magazine

Jordana Cepelewicz Staff Writer September 24, 2019

VIEW PDF/PRINT MODEBiologyCognitionNeurosciencePerception

We can pick out a conversation in a loud room, amid the rise and fall of other voices or the hum of an air conditioner. We can spot a set of keys in a sea of clutter, or register a raccoon darting into the path of our onrushing car. Somehow, even with massive amounts of information flooding our senses, we’re able to focus on what’s important and act on it.

Attentional processes are the brain’s way of shining a searchlight on relevant stimuli and filtering out the rest. Neuroscientists want to determine the circuits that aim and power that searchlight. For decades, their studies have revolved around the cortex, the folded structure on the outside of the brain commonly associated with intelligence and higher-order cognition. It’s become clear that activity in the cortex boosts sensory processing to enhance features of interest.

But now, some researchers are trying a different approach, studying how the brain suppresses information rather than how it augments it. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve found that this process involves more ancient regions much deeper in the brain — regions not often considered when it comes to attention.

By doing so, scientists have also inadvertently started to take baby steps toward a better understanding of how body and mind — through automatic sensory experiences, physical movements and higher-level consciousness — are deeply and inextricably intertwined.

Hunting for Circuits

For a long time, because attention seemed so intricately tied up with consciousness and other complex functions, scientists assumed that it was first and foremost a cortical phenomenon. A major departure from that line of thinking came in 1984, when Francis Crick, known for his work on the structure of DNA, proposed that the attentional searchlight was controlled by a region deep in the brain called the thalamus, parts of which receive input from sensory domains and feed information to the cortex. He developed a theory in which the sensory thalamus acted not just as a relay station, but also as a gatekeeper — not just a bridge, but a sieve — staunching some of the flow of data to establish a certain level of focus.

But decades passed, and attempts to identify an actual mechanism proved less than fruitful — not least because of how enormously difficult it is to establish methods for studying attention in lab animals.

Portrait photograph of Michael Halassa in the lab.
Michael Halassa, a neuroscientist at MIT, has probed the role of an often-overlooked brain region in higher-level cognitive processes.Caitlin Cunningham Photography

That didn’t stop Michael Halassa, a neuroscientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wanted to determine exactly how sensory inputs got filtered before information reached the cortex, to pin down the precise circuit that Crick’s work implied would be there.

He was drawn to a thin layer of inhibitory neurons called the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which wraps around the rest of the thalamus like a shell. By the time Halassa was a postdoctoral researcher, he had already found a coarse level of gating in that brain area: The TRN seemed to let sensory inputs through when an animal was awake and attentive to something in its environment, but it suppressed them when the animal was asleep.

In 2015, Halassa and his colleagues discovered another, finer level of gating that further implicated the TRN as part of Crick’s long-sought circuit — this time involving how animals select what to focus on when their attention is divided among different senses. In the study, the researchers used mice trained to run as directed by flashing lights and sweeping audio tones. They then simultaneously presented the animals with conflicting commands from the lights and tones, but also cued them about which signal to disregard. The mice’s responses showed how effectively they were focusing their attention. Throughout the task, the researchers used well-established techniques to shut off activity in various brain regions to see what interfered with the animals’ performance.

As expected, the prefrontal cortex, which issues high-level commands to other parts of the brain, was crucial. But the team also observed that if a trial required the mice to attend to vision, turning on neurons in the visual TRN interfered with their performance. And when those neurons were silenced, the mice had more difficulty paying attention to sound. In effect, the network was turning the knobs on inhibitory processes, not excitatory ones, with the TRN inhibiting information that the prefrontal cortex deemed distracting. If the mouse needed to prioritize auditory information, the prefrontal cortex told the visual TRN to increase its activity to suppress the visual thalamus — stripping away irrelevant visual data.

The attentional searchlight metaphor was backward: The brain wasn’t brightening the light on stimuli of interest; it was lowering the lights on everything else.

GRAPHIC: How the Brain Tunes Out Distractions
Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine

Despite the success of the study, the researchers recognized a problem. They had confirmed Crick’s hunch: The prefrontal cortex controls a filter on incoming sensory information in the thalamus. But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t have any direct connections to the sensory portions of the TRN. Some part of the circuit was missing.

Until now. Halassa and his colleagues have finally put the rest of the pieces in place, and the results reveal much about how we should be approaching the study of attention.

Obscuring, Dimming, Blinking

With tasks similar to those they’d used in 2015, the team probed the functional effects of various brain regions on one another, as well as the neuronal connections between them. The full circuit, they found, goes from the prefrontal cortex to a much deeper structure called the basal ganglia (often associated with motor control and a host of other functions), then to the TRN and the thalamus, before finally going back up to higher cortical regions. So, for instance, as visual information passes from the eye to the visual thalamus, it can get intercepted almost immediately if it’s not relevant to the given task. The basal ganglia can step in and activate the visual TRN to screen out the extraneous stimuli, in keeping with the prefrontal cortex’s directive.

“It’s an interesting feedback pathway, which I don’t think has been described before,” said Richard Krauzlis, a neuroscientist at the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland who did not participate in this study.

We often neglect how we get rid of the things that are less important.

Duje Tadin, University of Rochester

Furthermore, the researchers found that the mechanism doesn’t just filter out one sense to raise awareness of another: It filters information within a single sense too. When the mice were cued to pay attention to certain sounds, the TRN helped to suppress irrelevant background noise within the auditory signal. The effects on sensory processing “can be much more precise than just suppressing the whole thalamic region for one sensory modality, which is a rather blunt form of suppression,” said Duje Tadin, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester.

“We often neglect how we get rid of the things that are less important,” he added. “And oftentimes, I think that’s a more efficient way of dealing with information.” If you’re in a noisy room, you can try raising your voice to be heard — or you can try to eliminate the source of the noise. (Tadin studies this kind of background suppression in other processes that happen more quickly and automatically than selective attention.)

Halassa’s findings indicate that the brain casts extraneous perceptions aside earlier than expected. “What’s interesting,” said Ian Fiebelkorn, a cognitive neuroscientist at Princeton University, is that “filtering is starting at that very first step, before the information even reaches the visual cortex.”

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Counting how many times the team in white passes the basketball reveals one surprising aspect of how selective attention works.
Counting how many times the team in white passes the basketball reveals one surprising aspect of how selective attention works.Transport for London

There’s an obvious weakness in the brain’s strategy of tossing out sensory information this way, though — namely, the danger that the jettisoned perceptions might be unexpectedly important. Work by Fiebelkorn suggests that the brain has a way to hedge against those risks.

When people think about the searchlight of attention, Fiebelkorn says, they think of it as a steady, continuously shining beam that illuminates where an animal should direct its cognitive resources. But “what my research shows is that that’s not true,” he said. “Instead it seems that the spotlight is blinking.”

According to his findings, the focus of the attentional spotlight seems to get relatively weaker about four times per second, presumably to prevent animals from staying overly focused on a single location or stimulus in their environment. That very brief suppression of what’s important gives other, peripheral stimuli an indirect boost, creating an opportunity for the brain to shift its attention to something else if necessary. “The brain seems to be wired to be periodically distractible,” he said.

Fiebelkorn and his colleagues, like Halassa’s team, are also looking to subcortical regions to explain this wiring. For now, they’ve been studying the role of yet another section of the thalamus, but they plan to look into the basal ganglia in the future, too.

Grounding Cognition in Action

These studies mark a critical shift: Attentional processes were once understood to be the province of the cortex alone. But according to Krauzlis, over the past five years “it’s become a little more obvious that there are things that are happening underneath the cortex.”

“Most people want the cerebral cortex to do all the heavy lifting for us, and I don’t think that’s realistic,” said John Maunsell, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago.

Correction added on Sept. 23: Michael Halassa’s affiliation with the McGovern Institute for Brain Research was added.

Portrait photograph of Michael Halassa.
Halassa gives his attention to a multi-electrode array, a device that he and his colleagues used to control brain activity during their search for the neural circuitry that filters out distracting stimuli.Caitlin Cunningham Photography

In fact, Halassa’s discovery of the basal ganglia’s role in attention is particularly fascinating. That’s partly because it is such an ancient area of the brain, one that hasn’t typically been viewed as a part of selective attention. “Fish have this,” Krauzlis said. “Going back to the earliest vertebrates, like the lamprey, which doesn’t have a jaw” — or a neocortex, for that matter — “they have basically a simple form of basal ganglia and some of these same circuits.” The fishes’ neural circuitry may offer hints about how attention evolved.

Halassa is particularly intrigued by what the connection between attention and the basal ganglia might reveal about conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, which often manifest as hypersensitivity to certain kinds of inputs.

But perhaps the most profoundly interesting point about the involvement of the basal ganglia is that the structure is usually associated with motor control, although research has increasingly implicated it in reward-based learning, decision-making and other motivation-based types of behavior as well.

Conscious experience must be tightly linked to actions.

Heleen Slagter, VU University Amsterdam

With the work being done in Halassa’s lab, the basal ganglia’s role has now been extended to include sensory control too. This highlights the fact that “attention is really about sequencing from this to that in the correct order and making sure you don’t get distracted by things you shouldn’t be distracted by,” Maunsell said. “The notion that motor structures are involved in this … is appropriate, in a way — that they should be right at the heart of the process of deciding what you will attend to next, what you will focus your sensory resources on next.”

That’s in keeping with a burgeoning view of attention — and cognition as a whole — as processes based on what’s known as active inference. The brain doesn’t passively sample information from the environment and then respond to the observed external stimuli. The reverse also happens, with body movements as small as the flicker of an eye also guiding perception. The sensory and motor systems “don’t operate independently, and they evolved together,” Fiebelkorn said. And so motor regions don’t only help to shape the output (an animal’s behavior); they also help to shape the input. Halassa’s findings provide further support for that more proactive role.

“Perception serves action, because we have to represent the world in order to act in it,” said Heleen Slagter, a cognitive scientist at VU University Amsterdam. “How we learn to perceive the world around us is very much through action.” The high level of interconnection with the cortex suggests that, even beyond attention, “these subcortical structures play a much more important role in higher-order cognition than I think is often considered.”


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And that, in turn, could provide hints about how to think about consciousness, neuroscience’s most elusive subject. As evidenced by Halassa’s study and other research, “when we look at the neural correlates of attention, we’re actually looking to some extent at the neural correlates of perception,” Maunsell said. “It’s part of a bigger picture, in terms of trying to understand how the brain works.”

Slagter is now studying the role that the basal ganglia might play in consciousness. “We experience the world not just using our bodies, but because of our bodies. And brains represent the world in order to meaningfully act in it,” she said. “Therefore, I would think that conscious experience must be tightly linked to actions,” just like attention. “Consciousness should be action oriented.”


A Journey Into the Animal Mind

What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world.

The Atlantic|

  • Ross Andersen

Getty / Life on White

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: dbirds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

Jainism’s highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals; at a bird hospital in Old Delhi, vets treat broken wings, administer medicine, remove tumors, and more. Photo by Hashim Badani.

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse.

In the state of Gujarat, where Gandhi grew up, I saw Jain monks walking barefoot in the cool morning hours to avoid car travel, an activity they regard as irredeemably violent, given the damage it inflicts on living organisms, from insects to larger animals. The monks refuse to eat root vegetables, lest their removal from the earth disturb delicate subterranean ecosystems. Their white robes are cotton, not silk, which would require the destruction of silkworms. During monsoon season, they forgo travel, to avoid splashing through puddles filled with microbes, whose existence Jains posited well before they appeared under Western microscopes.

Jains move through the world in this gentle way because they believe animals are conscious beings that experience, in varying degrees, emotions analogous to human desire, fear, pain, sorrow, and joy. This idea that animals are conscious was long unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. And not just the obvious cases—primates, dogs, elephants, whales, and others. Scientists are now finding evidence of an inner life in alien-seeming creatures that evolved on ever-more-distant limbs of life’s tree. In recent years, it has become common to flip through a magazine like this one and read about an octopus using its tentacles to twist off a jar’s lid or squirt aquarium water into a postdoc’s face. For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.

No aspect of our world is as mysterious as consciousness, the state of awareness that animates our every waking moment, the sense of being located in a body that exists within a larger world of color, sound, and touch, all of it filtered through our thoughts and imbued by emotion.

Even in a secular age, consciousness retains a mystical sheen. It is alternatively described as the last frontier of science, and as a kind of immaterial magic beyond science’s reckoning. David Chalmers, one of the world’s most respected philosophers on the subject, once told me that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, like space-time or energy. He said it might be tied to the diaphanous, indeterminate workings of the quantum world, or something nonphysical.

These metaphysical accounts are in play because scientists have yet to furnish a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. We know the body’s sensory systems beam information about the external world into our brain, where it’s processed, sequentially, by increasingly sophisticated neural layers. But we don’t know how those signals are integrated into a smooth, continuous world picture, a flow of moments experienced by a roving locus of attention—a “witness,” as Hindu philosophers call it.

Photo by Hashim Badani

In the West, consciousness was long thought to be a divine gift bestowed solely on humans. Western philosophers historically conceived of nonhuman animals as unfeeling automatons. Even after Darwin demonstrated our kinship with animals, many scientists believed that the evolution of consciousness was a recent event. They thought the first mind sparked awake sometime after we split from chimps and bonobos. In his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argued that it was later still. He said the development of language led us, like Virgil, into the deep cognitive states capable of constructing experiential worlds.

This notion that consciousness was of recent vintage began to change in the decades following the Second World War, when more scientists were systematically studying the behaviors and brain states of Earth’s creatures. Now each year brings a raft of new research papers, which, taken together, suggest that a great many animals are conscious.

It was likely more than half a billion years ago that some sea-floor arms race between predator and prey roused Earth’s first conscious animal. That moment, when the first mind winked into being, was a cosmic event, opening up possibilities not previously contained in nature.

There now appears to exist, alongside the human world, a whole universe of vivid animal experience. Scientists deserve credit for illuminating, if only partially, this new dimension of our reality. But they can’t tell us how to do right by the trillions of minds with which we share the Earth’s surface. That’s a philosophical problem, and like most philosophical problems, it will be with us for a long time to come.

Apart from Pythagoras and a few others, ancient Western philosophers did not hand down a rich tradition of thinking about animal consciousness. But Eastern thinkers have long been haunted by its implications—especially the Jains, who have taken animal consciousness seriously as a moral matter for nearly 3,000 years.

Many orthodox Jain beliefs do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. The faith does not enjoy privileged access to truth, mystical or otherwise. But as perhaps the world’s first culture to extend mercy to animals, the Jains pioneered a profound expansion of the human moral imagination. The places where they worship and tend to animals seemed, to me, like good places to contemplate the current frontier of animal-consciousness research.

Photo by Hashim Badani

At the bird hospital, I asked Singh whether any of his patients gave him trouble. He said that one refused to be fed by hand and sometimes drew blood when he tried to pick it up. He led me to another room to see the offending bird, an Indian crow whose feathers were record-groove black but for a sash of latte-colored plumage around its neck. The crow kept fanning one of its wings out. Light from a nearby window filtered through the feathers, as though the wing were a venetian blind. Singh told me it was broken.

“A few days after the crow arrived, it started using a special call when it wanted food,” Singh said. “None of the other birds do that.” The bird’s call was not an entirely unique case of bird-to-human communication. A grey parrot once amassed a 900-word vocabulary, and in India, a few have been trained to recite the Vedic mantras. But birds have only rarely assembled verbal symbols into their own, original proto-sentences. And, of course, none has declared itself conscious.

That’s too bad, because philosophers tend to regard such statements as the best possible evidence of another being’s consciousness, even among humans. Without one, no matter how long I stared into the crow’s black pupil, wishing I could see into the phantasmagoria of its mind, I could never really know whether it was conscious. I’d have to be content with circumstantial evidence.

Crows have an unusually large brain for their size, and their neurons are packed densely relative to other animals’. Neuroscientists can measure the computational complexity of brain activity, but no brain scan has yet revealed a precise neural signature of consciousness. And so it’s difficult to make a knockdown argument that a particular animal is conscious based strictly on its neuroanatomy. It is suggestive, though, when an animal’s brain closely resembles ours, as is the case with primates, the first animals to be knighted with consciousness by something approaching a scientific consensus.

Mammals in general are widely thought to be conscious, because they share our relatively large brain size, and also have a cerebral cortex, the place where our most complex feats of cognition seem to take place. Birds don’t have a cortex. In the 300 million years that have passed since the avian gene pool separated from ours, their brains have evolved different structures. But one of those structures appears to be networked in cortexlike ways, a tantalizing clue that nature may have more than one method of making a conscious brain.

At the bird hospital in Old Delhi. Photo by Hashim Badani.

Other clues can be found in an animal’s behavior, though sifting out conscious acts from those that are evolved and mindless can be difficult. Tool use is an instructive case. Australian “firehawk” raptors sometimes fly bundles of flaming sticks out of forest fires and into neighboring landscapes, to flush out prey. Maybe that means the raptors are capable of considering a piece of the physical environment, and imagining a new purpose for it. Or maybe something more rote is going on.

Crows are among the most sophisticated avian technologists. They have long been known to shape sticks into hooks, and just last year, members of one crow species were observed constructing tools out of three separate sticklike parts. In Japan, one crow population has figured out how to use traffic to crack open walnuts: The crows drop a nut in front of cars at intersections, and then when the light turns red, they swoop in to scoop up the exposed flesh.

As Singh and I talked, the crow grew bored with us and turned back to the window, as though to inspect its faint reflection. In 2008, a magpie—a member of crows’ extended family of corvids, or “feathered apes”—became the first non-mammal to pass the “mirror test.” The magpie’s neck was marked with a bright dot in a place that could be seen only in a mirror. When the magpie caught sight of its reflection, it immediately tried to check its neck.

Singh told me this crow would soon move upstairs, to one of the roof’s exposed cages, where the birds have more space to test their still-fragile wings, in view of an open sky that must surely loom large in a bird’s consciousness. With luck, it would quickly return to the spirited life preferred by wild crows, which sometimes play like acrobats in high winds and ski down snowy surfaces. (Birds that die at this hospital are buried along a riverbed outside Delhi, an apt touch in the case of the crows, which sometimes hold funerals—or, if not funerals, postmortems, where they gather around their dead like homicide detectives discerning cause of death.)

I asked Singh how he felt when he released birds on the rooftop. “We are here to serve them,” he said, and then noted that not all the birds leave right away. “Some of them come back and sit on our shoulders.”

According to the Jains, all animals are conscious beings, capable of experiencing emotion. Photo by Hashim Badani.

Crows are not among the shoulder-perchers, but Singh sometimes sees former crow patients hovering around the hospital. They might be looking for him. Crows recognize individual human faces. They are known to blare vicious caws at people they dislike, but for favored humans, they sometimes leave gifts—buttons or shiny bits of glass—where the person will be sure to notice, like votive offerings.

If these behaviors add up to consciousness, it means one of two things: Either consciousness evolved twice, at least, across the long course of evolutionary history, or it evolved sometime before birds and mammals went on their separate evolutionary journeys. Both scenarios would give us reason to believe that nature can knit molecules into waking minds more easily than previously guessed. This would mean that all across the planet, animals large and small are constantly generating vivid experiences that bear some relationship to our own.

The day after I visited the bird hospital, I left Delhi by car, on a road that follows the Yamuna River south and east, away from its icy source among the serrated ridges of the Himalayas. Delhi’s sewage has blackened long stretches of the Yamuna, making it one of the world’s most polluted rivers. From the road, I could see plastic bottles floating on its surface. In India, where rivers have a special place in the spiritual imagination, this is a metaphysical defilement.

Millions of fish once swam in the Yamuna River, before it was desecrated by the human technosphere, which now reaches into nearly every body of water on Earth. Even the deepest point in the ocean is littered with trash: A grocery bag was recently seen drifting along the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

We last swam in the same gene pool with the animals that evolved into fish about 460 million years ago, more than 100 million years before we split from birds. The notion that we are kin across this expanse of time has proved too radical for some, which is one reason the ever-changing universe described by Darwin has been slow to lodge in the collective human consciousness. And yet, our hands are converted fins, our hiccups the relics of gill-breathing.

Scientists have sometimes seemed to judge fish for their refusal to join our exodus out of the water and into the atmosphere’s more ethereal realm of gases. Their inability to see far in their murky environment is sometimes thought to be a cognitive impairment. But new evidence indicates that fish have minds rich with memories; some are able to recall associations from more than 10 days earlier.

They also seem to be capable of deception. Female trout “fake orgasms,” quivering as though they’re about to lay eggs, perhaps so that undesired males will release their sperm and be on their way. We have high-definition footage of grouper fish teaming up with eels to scare prey out of reefs, the two coordinating their actions with sophisticated head signals. This behavior suggests that fish possess a theory of mind, an ability to speculate about the mental states of other beings.

A more troubling set of behaviors has emerged from experiments designed to determine whether fish feel pain. One of the most intense states of consciousness, pain is something beyond the mere detection of damage. Even the simplest of bacteria have sensors on their external membranes; when the sensors detect trace amounts of dangerous chemicals, the bacteria respond with a programmed flight reflex. But bacteria have no central nervous system where these signals are integrated into a three-dimensional experience of the chemical environment.

Delhi’s sewage has made the Yamuna, once home to millions of fish, one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Photo by Hashim Badani.

Fish have many more kinds of sensors than bacteria do. Their sensors flare when the water temperature spikes, when they come into contact with corrosive chemicals, when a hook rips through their scales and into their flesh. In the lab, when trout lips are injected with acid, the fish do not merely respond at the site. They rock their entire bodies back and forth, hyperventilating, rubbing their mouths against their tanks’ sides or gravel bottoms. These behaviors cease when the fish are given morphine.

Such actions call the ethics of the research itself into question. But the experiences of lab fish are nothing compared with those endured by the trillions of aquatic animals that humans yank, unceremoniously, out of oceans and rivers and lakes every year. Some fish are still alive, hours later, when they’re shoveled into the sickly lit, refrigerated intake tubes of the global seafood supply chain.

Fish pain is something different from our own pain. In the elaborate mirrored hall that is human consciousness, pain takes on existential dimensions. Because we know that death looms, and grieve for the loss of richly imagined futures, it’s tempting to imagine that our pain is the most profound of all suffering. But we would do well to remember that our perspective can make our pain easier to bear, if only by giving it an expiration date. When we pull a less cognitively blessed fish up from the pressured depths too quickly, and barometric trauma fills its bloodstream with tissue-burning acid, its on-deck thrashing might be a silent scream, born of the fish’s belief that it has entered a permanent state of extreme suffering.

The Jains tell a story about Neminath, a man from deep antiquity who is said to have been sensitive to the distress calls of other animals. He developed his unusual fondness for animals while tending cattle in pastures on the banks of the Yamuna River, in his home village of Shauripur, which I reached four hours after leaving Delhi.

Neminath is one of 24 Jain “Fordmakers,” prophetlike figures who crossed a metaphorical river, freeing themselves from the cycle of birth and rebirth, before showing others the way to enlightenment. The Fordmakers’ life stories tend to emphasize their nonviolent natures. One is said to have floated perfectly still in the womb, sending not so much as a ripple through the amniotic fluid, to avoid harming his mother.

Only a few Fordmakers are confirmed historical figures, and Neminath is not one of them. The Jains say Neminath left his village for good on the day of his wedding. That morning, he mounted an elephant, intent on riding it to the temple where he was to be wed. On the way, he heard a series of agonized screams, and demanded to know their origin. Neminath’s elephant guide explained that the screams came from animals that were being slaughtered for his wedding feast.

This moment transformed Neminath. Some versions of this story say he freed the surviving animals, including a fish that he carried, in his hands, back to the river. Others say he fled. All agree that he renounced his former life. Rather than marry his bride, he set out for Girnar, a sacred mountain in Gujarat, 40 miles from the Arabian Sea.

Jain pilgrims climb Girnar, a sacred mountain in Gujarat, 40 miles from the Arabian Sea. Photo by Hashim Badani.

My own ascent up Girnar began before dawn. It followed the usual topography of enlightenment. I was to climb 7,000 steps, all built into the mountain, by nine in the morning, so as not to be late for a ritual at an ancient temple near the peak.

The trail was only 50 miles from Gir National Park, where, the day before, I’d seen two Asiatic lions, nearly indistinguishable cousins of Africa’s lions. Once the region’s apex predator, the Asiatic lion almost went extinct during the British empire’s colonization of India, when no viceroy could visit a maharaja’s palace without a hunt in the local forest. Even today, the Asiatic lion still ranks among the rarest of the large feline predators, rarer even than its neighbor to the north, the snow leopard, which is so scarce that a glimpse of one padding down a jagged Himalayan crag is said to consummate a spiritual pilgrimage.

I did my best to put the lions, which have recently expanded to Girnar’s forests, out of my mind as I passed small huts and tents in the dark, at the trail’s base. Daylight brought langur monkeys onto the trailside boulders. One watched a vendor set up his stall to offer food and water to passing Jain pilgrims. The monkey waited until the man’s back was turned, at which point he scampered in to grab a banana. In Gir National Park, I’d seen deer using these monkeys as a treetop surveillance system. The monkeys sat high in the trees, keeping watch for leopards and lions, which blend into the woodland’s pre-monsoon palette of amber and gold. Monkeys that spotted a stalking cat let out a specific call. Deer weren’t the only ones that recognized and used these calls; the lion tracker who had been with me in the park did too.

On the hike up Girnar, barefoot women kept passing me, wearing iridescent saris in bright shades of orange, green, or pink. Their delicate silver anklets tinkled as they went. When I reached a trail marker that said I was still 1,000 steps from the temple, I removed my pack and hopped up onto a wall, letting my legs dangle.

Photo by ​Hashim Badani

Two switchbacks below, an aged Jain monk in a white robe was struggling up the steps. He looked lonely, and seemed to be having trouble breathing. When Jain monks and nuns renounce worldly life, they sever all family ties. They embrace their children one last time, and vow never to see them again, unless chance brings them together on the rural back roads where the monks and nuns wander for the rest of their lives, carrying all their possessions on their back.

The monk and I had the trail to ourselves for a moment. All was silent but for a buzzing sound that I traced to a spindly black wasp bobbing above a dense clump of bougainvillea. The last ancestor this wasp and I shared likely lived more than 700 million years ago. The insect’s appearance reinforced this sense of evolutionary remoteness. The elongated shape and micro-tiled matte finish of its eyes made it seem too alien to be conscious. But appearances can deceive: Some wasps are thought to have evolved large eyes to observe social cues, and members of certain wasp species can learn the facial features of individual colony members.

Wasps, like bees and ants, are hymenopterans, an order of animals that displays strikingly sophisticated behaviors. Ants build body-to-body bridges that allow whole colonies to cross gaps in their terrain. Lab-bound honeybees can learn to recognize abstract concepts, including “similar to,” “different from,” and “zero.” Honeybees also learn from one another. If one picks up a novel nectar-extraction technique, surrounding bees may mimic the behavior, causing it to cascade across the colony, or even through generations.

In one experiment, honeybees were attracted to a boat at the center of a lake, which scientists had stocked with sugar water. When the bees flew back to the hive, they communicated the boat’s location with waggle dances. The hive’s other bees would usually set out immediately for a newly revealed nectar lode. But in this case, they stayed put, as though they’d consulted a mental map and dismissed the possibility of flowers in the middle of a lake. Other scientists were not able to replicate this result, but different experiments suggest that bees are capable of consulting a mental map in this way.

Andrew Barron, a neuroscientist from Macquarie University, in Australia, has spent the past decade identifying fine neural structures in honeybee brains. He thinks structures in the bee brain integrate spatial information in a way that is analogous to processes in the human midbrain. That may sound surprising, given that the honeybee brain contains only 1 million neurons to our brains’ 85 billion, but artificial-intelligence research tells us that complex tasks can sometimes be executed by relatively simple neuronal circuits. Fruit flies have only 250,000 neurons, and they too display complex behaviors. In lab experiments, when faced with dim mating prospects, some seek out alcohol, the consciousness-altering substance that’s available to them in nature in broken-open, fermenting fruit.

Many invertebrate lineages never developed anything beyond a rudimentary nervous system, a network of neurons dispersed evenly through a wormlike form. But more than half a billion years ago, natural selection began to shape other squirming blobs into arthropods with distinct appendages and newly specialized sensory organs, which they used to achieve liberation from a drifting life of stimulus and response.

The first animals to direct themselves through three-dimensional space would have encountered a new set of problems whose solution may have been the evolution of consciousness. Take the black wasp. As it hovered above the bougainvillea’s tissue-thin petals, a great deal of information—sunlight, sound vibrations, floral scents—rushed into its fibrous exoskull. But these information streams arrived in its brain at different times. To form an accurate and continuous account of the external world, the wasp needed to sync these signals. And it needed to correct any errors introduced by its own movements, a difficult trick given that some of its sensors are mounted on body parts that are themselves mobile, not least its swiveling head.

The neuroscientist Björn Merker has suggested that early animal brains solved these problems by generating an internal model of the world, with an avatar of the body at its center. Merker says that consciousness is just the multisensory view from inside this model. The syncing processes and the jangle and noise from our mobile bodies are all missing from this conscious view—some invisible, algorithmic Stanley Kubrick seems to edit them out. Nor do we experience the mechanisms that convert our desires into movements. When I wished to begin hiking up the mountain again, I would simply set off, without thinking about the individual muscle contractions that each step required. When a wasp flies, it is probably not aware of its every wing beat. It may simply will itself through space.

If one of the wasp’s aquatic ancestors experienced Earth’s first embryonic consciousness, it would have been nothing like our own consciousness. It may have been colorless and barren of sharply defined objects. It may have been episodic, flickering on in some situations and off in others. It may have been a murkily sensed perimeter of binary feelings, a bubble of good and bad experienced by something central and unitary. To those of us who have seen stars shining on the far side of the cosmos, this existence would be claustrophobic to a degree that is scarcely imaginable. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t conscious.

A Jain temple near the top of Girnar, the mountain where an ancient “Fordmaker” is said to have achieved total consciousness, with access to all animal minds. Photo by Hashim Badani.

When the monk arrived at the wall where I was resting, the wasp flew away, rising up toward the sun until I lost it in the light. The monk was wearing a white mask like those that some Jains wear to avoid inhaling insects and other tiny creatures. I nodded to him as he passed, and lay back against the warm stone of the mountain.

The monk was a white dot some six switchbacks up by the time I hopped off the wall and continued the climb, my legs stiffened by the break. I reached the entrance to the temple complex with only 15 minutes to spare. Its marble courtyard shone brilliant white, as though bleached by the mountain sun.

Ducking under a row of elegant golden medallions, I entered the temple’s interior chamber, where dozens of candles flickered in intricately carved wall niches, and on platforms that hung from the ceiling on chains. The stone ceiling was carved into a lotus flower, its delicate unfurling petals symbolizing the emergence of a pure, ethereal soul from the Earth’s muddy materials.

A Jain temple near the top of Girnar. Photo by Hashim Badani.

Forty Jains were sitting on the floor in neat rows, their legs crossed in the lotus position. The women wore fresh saris they’d carried up the mountain for the occasion. The men were dressed in all white. I wedged into a spot in the back.

We faced a dark, tunnel-like space lined by two sets of columns. At the far end, candlelight illuminated a black marble statue of a seated male figure. Its barrel chest was inlaid with gemstones, as were its eyes, which appeared to float, serenely, in the dark space, inducing a hypnotic effect, broken only when the man sitting next to me tugged my shirt. “Neminath,” he said, nodding toward the statue.

It was here on this mountain that Neminath is said to have achieved a state of total, unimpeded consciousness, with perceptual access to the entire universe, including every kind of animal mind. Jains believe that humans are special because, in our natural state, we are nearest to this experience of enlightenment. Among Earth’s creatures, no other finds it so easy to see into the consciousness of a fellow being.

The pilgrims started singing, first in a low hum and then steadily louder. One wheeled a giant drum next to the tunnel’s entrance and struck it with a dark mallet. Two others bashed cymbals together. Men and women walked in from opposite doors, converging, in two lines, on either side of the tunnel. A woman wearing an orange sari and a gold crown crossed in front of Neminath, lifted a vessel over his black-marble head, and poured out a mixture of milk and blessed water. When she finished, a white-robed man from the other line did the same.

The singing grew louder until it verged on ecstatic. The pilgrims raised their arms and clapped overhead, faster and faster. A climax seemed to loom, but then it all dropped away. The drums and the bells and the cymbals went quiet, leaving a clear sonic space that was filled by a final blow on a conch.

The shell’s low note was long and clean. It rang out of the temple and over the ancient peaks. As it trailed off, I wondered whether, in the centuries to come, this place might become something more than a Jain house of worship. Maybe it will become a place to mark a moment in human history, when we awakened from the dream that we are the only minds that nature brought into being. Maybe people will come here from all corners of the Earth to pay their respects to Neminath, who is, after all, only a stand-in for whoever it was who first heard animal screams and understood their meaning.Ross Andersen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Science, Technology, and Health sections.


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This article was originally published on March 1, 2019, by The Atlantic, and is republished here with permission.


  • By Bonita Grima

30 September 2019

There I was, on a cold but bright day in late autumn, wearing nothing but my bathing suit, lying on a pile of kangaroo skins and engulfed in plumes of smouldering leaves from a peppermint tree by the banks of a sacred river.

Kwoorabup has been a place of ceremony for thousands of years. The river, located near the small town of Denmark, 360km south-east of Western Australia’s capital, Perth, was given its name by the local Noongar people, who believe it was formed by the Wagyl, a giant serpent from the creation period known as the Dreaming.

Most people journey to this wild coastal stretch of Western Australia’s Great Southern region to visit vineyards, sample delicious produce and holiday by its strip of stunning beaches, but I was there to have my spirit rebalanced by the local medicine man, Joey Williams.

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Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people have the oldest living culture on Earth. For around 60,000 years, their intricate understanding of ecology ensured survival, and their physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well-being was achieved by maintaining healthy, balanced relationships with all living and non-living things.

At the heart of their communities were traditional healers. They have been respected and entrusted with the well-being of Aboriginal communities for as long as the culture has been alive, yet still today surprisingly little is known of them. The few healers who remain, of which Williams is one, have extensive knowledge of Aboriginal culture and are believed to possess supernatural abilities. Their role is to treat physical, mental and spiritual ailments using bush medicine, smoking ceremonies and spirit realignment – the latter being a common remedy for depression, or what indigenous Australians call “sickness of the spirit”.

Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people achieve well-being through balanced relationships with nature (Credit: Credit: Catherine Mercer)

Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people achieve physical, spiritual and emotional well-being through balanced relationships with the world around them (Credit: Catherine Mercer)

In 2017, the World Health Organization published a study stating the total number of people living with depression in 2015 was estimated to exceed 300 million – an increase of more than 18.4% since 2005.

More recently, the Australian Medical Association announced their agreement with other leading global health organisations, declaring climate change a “health emergency” that will cause a higher incidence of mental ill-health, among other health-related issues. With modern living an apparent threat to both mental well-being and the planet ­– and having personally battled with depression myself – I had wondered whether answers could be found by looking back to the wisdom of the world’s oldest continuous civilisation.

An Aboriginal elder and mubarrn, meaning “medicine” or “lore” man in the local Noongar language, Williams told me his healing ability has been passed down through his ancestral lineage. For him, and other Aboriginal healers, the most important first step in relation to healing is the ability to reconnect to the land, since for indigenous Australians, connection to country represents connection to their culture. For this reason, we’d started the healing ceremony the previous day in the Stirling Range National Park, a 90-minute drive north of Kwoorabup, to experience a reconnection ceremony at an ancient sacred site on the traditional lands of the Koreng tribe to which he belongs.

The few traditional Aboriginal healers who remain are believed to possess supernatural abilities (Credit: Credit: Bonita Grima)

The few traditional Aboriginal healers who remain, of which Joey Williams is one, are believed to possess supernatural abilities (Credit: Bonita Grima)

Western Australia’s only southern mountain range is an area of extraordinary beauty. It’s one of the few places in the state that gets snow, and spring sees it dotted with an array of brightly coloured wildflowers. Home to 1,500 species, many growing nowhere else, it’s one of the world’s most important areas for flora.

Many of these native plants have medicinal properties, and because Williams spent his early childhood living off the land with family, it’s no wonder that he, now in his late 50s, refers to the area as his “supermarket” and “pharmacy”.

Wading through knee-high grass, Williams showed me how to dig for bloodroot (good for numbing toothache) and gather resin formed from the oozing red antiseptic sap of a marri tree, which strangely resembled the very thing it is known for healing – an open wound. “It cures stomach ache too,” he said.

Indigenous Australians see the land as a “mother” and very much alive (Credit: Credit: Bonita Grima)

Indigenous Australians see the land as a “mother” and very much alive (Credit: Bonita Grima)

As we walked, Williams demonstrated that to him and other indigenous Australians, the land is very much alive, with songlines (cultural memory codes that hold knowledge of a place and define the responsibilities attached to kinship and lore) scattered across its skin. After singing the specific songline attached to the spot we were standing, Williams “read” the land to me, pointing out peaks like chapters. “There’s Bulla Meile, the hill of eyes,” he said. More commonly known as Bluff Knoll, southern Western Australia‘s highest peak is where the Koreng people believe they return after death. “And straight out in front of us is Talyuberlup. See her face, breast and stomach?” he asked, tracing curves in the air. “Meaning beautiful woman sleeping. She’s the protector of this range.” 

Following his gaze, the undulating countryside did indeed look like an expecting mother resting, and served as a reminder that Aboriginal people see the land as a “mother” and a guide for reciprocal wellness.

Back in the car, we continued on to Wickelenup, a semi-dry salt lake that is a “power ground”, a place where the Koreng people have performed ceremonial reconnection rites for thousands of years. Wickelenup means “lake of many colours” and it’s named for the ochre pits resting beside it. These large deposits of clay earth produce pigments ranging from pale yellows to deep reds, which, when painted on the body during a ceremony, represent the important connection that indigenous Australians have with the land.

I only have to listen to you for half an hour and I know you

Entering Wickelenup, Williams used clapsticks and what he called a “protection song” to summon his ancestors for the protection and blessing of our steps upon the Earth. After crossing a bed of clay that looked as if giant tins of red and yellow paint had been dropped from the sky, he led me to an oddly shaped chunk of volcanic rock that he used as a platform for grinding ochre. Williams stood with his eyes closed and sang the songline belonging to his family, the Kaarl Poorlanger, meaning “people of fire”, before mixing ochre on the stone and painting a russet-coloured pigment onto my skin in a technique known as “smudging”.

“This is your mark, your connection to this land. You might wash it off later but I know it’s there… and so will you,” he said.

Looking at the symbol on my arm, I asked why he had chosen what looked like ripples in water. “I didn’t,” he said. “You chose it in your mind.” Sensing my confusion, Williams elaborated. “I only have to listen to you for half an hour and I know you.”

Aboriginal knowledge of the land has been passed down through songlines (Credit: Credit: Catherine Mercer)

Aboriginal knowledge of the land has been passed down through songlines, cultural memory codes that define the responsibilities attached to kinship (Credit: Catherine Mercer)

Whether healers truly possess any psychic ability, it seems a key skill Aboriginal people have honed over thousands of years is an advanced way of listening.

Elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Aboriginal activist, educator and artist from Australia’s Northern Territory, believes “dadirri is the Aboriginal gift” the world is thirsting for.

Meaning “inner deep listening and quiet still awareness” in her Ngangikurungkurr language, dadirri is a form of mindfulness and reciprocal empathy we can develop with the land, each other and ourselves, according to Ungunmerr-Baumann. “We call on it and it calls to us… It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’,” she writes on her website.

For indigenous Australians, this spiritual listening practice provides a way to observe and act according to the natural seasons and cycles in a way the modern world seems to have forgotten. “We watch the bush foods and wait for them to ripen before we gather them. When a relation dies, we wait a long time with the sorrow. We own our grief and allow it to heal slowly,” she told me.

According to the WHO, the number of people living with depression increased more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 (Credit: Credit: ANTAC)

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people living with depression increased more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 (Credit: ANTAC)

While much ancient Aboriginal wisdom and culture has already been lost, elders such as Ungunmerr-Baumann are striving to keep what’s left alive, but it’s not an easy task. When the First Fleet of British settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, Australia’s indigenous population was thought to be around 750,000. Ten years later, it was estimated to have dropped by 90%, due to the introduction of new diseases and violent clashes with the European colonisers. Today, indigenous Australians make up just 3.3% of the population. The forced separation of families and removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, lore and practices affected the passing of cultural knowledge and led to the intergenerational trauma that is still being experienced today.

But one woman advocating for greater recognition of traditional Aboriginal healing principles, practices and medicine is Dr Francesca Panzironi, a human rights academic from Rome. The CEO of Australia’s first organisation of Aboriginal traditional healers, Panzironi formed Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC), with Ngangkari (healers of Australia’s central desert areas) in 2012.

“For indigenous people, it’s about reconnecting to culture and accessing healing techniques that are different from Western medicine,” Panzironi said. “Western medicine looks at the body from a mechanistic perspective, whereas healers highlight everyone has a spirit that intimately links to the body and emotions.”

Aboriginal Ngangkari healers now work alongside Western doctors and mental health experts in some public hospitals (Credit: Credit: ANTAC)

Aboriginal Ngangkari healers now work alongside Western doctors and mental health experts in some public hospitals (Credit: ANTAC)

Although traditional Aboriginal medicine is not recognised as an alternative medicine in Australia (due to difficulty regulating spiritual practices and the lack of testing of bush medicines), Ngangkaris are recognised in South Australian legislation through the Mental Health Act of 2009, and ANTAC now has healers working alongside Western doctors and mental health experts in some public hospitals. They provide “complementary” treatments to medical care for indigenous Australians – something especially beneficial for people recovering from intergenerational trauma, stemming from colonisation.

Panzironi says there has been increased interest from non-indigenous people, too, who are dissatisfied with the mainstream model and are looking for alternatives. “We had a middle-aged woman who reduced her intake of antidepressants significantly over a six-month period of regular pampuni (a massage technique used for spirit realignment by the Ngangkari, particularly in the stomach, which is thought to be connected to the mind), in consultation with her GP. Both the woman and her doctor noticed improvement in her mental health,” she said.

Currently ANTAC has a mobile clinic allowing Ngangkaris to travel to patients in areas of Australia where access to their services are non-existent, but Panzironi would like to see hospital programmes similar to the one in South Australia rolled out nationwide. “The goal is to have Aboriginal traditional medicine recognised as an alternative medicine and to make healers commonplace, as a viable choice for everyone through Medicare [Australia’s universal health care system],” she told me.

During ceremonial reconnection rites, the Koreng people paint their bodies with clay – a practice known as “smudging” (Credit: Credit: Bonita Grima)

During ceremonial reconnection rites, the Koreng people paint their bodies with clay – a practice known as “smudging” (Credit: Bonita Grima)

Back at Kwoorabup, Williams was preparing for the final stage of my spirit realignment ceremony. After using smoke to cleanse and protect our surroundings from bad spirits, as is the traditional ceremonial practice among Aboriginal people, he placed a small stone upon my navel – a tool, he said, to absorb my vibration or spirit.

“We’re all made up of vibration,” Williams said. “It’s connected at birth through the umbilical cord. It’s the essence of who we are.” Through his water vibrational healing ceremony, something that is unique to mubarrn of the area, he explained that I’d be able hear my spirit amplified when he placed the stone in the river. “High vibration means anxiety,” Williams said. “Low vibration is depression. I’ll take your vibration and balance it by releasing it through a portal I’ll open in your back.”

We’re all made up of vibration – it’s the essence of who we are

I had known the water would be cold, but that still hadn’t prepared me for the shock I felt when it came time to immerse myself in the river. Floating on my back, with Williams holding me, I tried to relax and listen to my “vibration” with the stone now held against my spine, but my shuddering body wouldn’t cooperate.

Pain from the freezing water intensified and I was also experiencing discomfort because I was unused to feeling supported. An irrational fear came over me – if I didn’t break free, to move by myself in a way I was used to, I might sink. But then I felt a strange force pushing up from under me and realised it wasn’t just Williams supporting me, but the river itself.

Doing as Williams asked – to relinquish control and acknowledge pain and trust – I tipped my head back and focused on the warmth of the sun’s rays. I remembered something I’d read earlier by Ungunmerr-Baumann. “We cannot hurry the river. We have to move with its current and understand its ways,” she’d written. Moments later, much to my disbelief, my ears filled with a sound like the motor of a distant power boat, growing louder and resonating within – sounding a lot like anxiety, according to Williams’ earlier description. Letting go, I breathed out and went under.

The author took part in a water vibrational healing ceremony, which is meant to amplify the vibrations of one’s spirit (Credit: Credit: Catherine Mercer)

The author took part in a water vibrational healing ceremony, which is meant to amplify the vibrations of one’s spirit (Credit: Catherine Mercer)

From my own experience, recovering from depression is a little like resurfacing from a cold river; thoughts like colours and sounds seem brighter, louder, clearer. And even if there’s no magic fix for mental illness, it seems indigenous Australians have much to teach us about developing greater awareness and reciprocity with our planet for our physical and emotional survival – if we only take the time to listen.

“You need to ask, who you are, why you’re here, where you’re going,” Ungunmerr-Baumann told me. “We know who we are as Aboriginal people. It’s in our language, dreaming, country. We’re waiting for all people to listen and hear what we hear so that we can connect and belong together.”