Archives 2022

Toward a More Complete Model of the Brain, Mind, and Consciousness

Toward a More Complete Model of the Brain, Mind, and Consciousness

     The study of consciousness, it seems, cannot advance beyond its own limited premise without incorporating a lightly held balance of both science and ontology; a balance between knowledge and mystery.  As evinced by Koch (2018), one of the common perspectives held by the larger scientific community is that consciousness is, in some necessarily quantitative manner, a byproduct of brain activity – and yet, at the very same time (and counter to that proposition), consciousness does not appear to be the sum total of the brain and its parts.  It is not easily explainable through a reductionistic, materialist view of the ‘brain’ as the origin of consciousness – hence the “hard problem of consciousness” that pervades to this day.  Another perspective could shed a very different kind of light on the “hard” problem of consciousness by shifting our perceptual frame of reference just enough to catch that light.

     Prenter (2021), for instance, has prepared a nondual account of the interaction between perception and consciousness which, among its many other well-made points, states that “there is no question of whether matter is ‘intrinsically’ conscious, since material objects are icons on interfaces” (p. 101).  When this perspective is turned toward consciousness itself, we must question whether or not we have made consciousness an icon, projected upon an interface, from the very outset – causing a great deal of confusion on the matter.  In sharp contrast to this deep examination of foundational assumptions, the account of Pepperell (2018) seeks to present arguments in favor of a physical and energetic explanation for consciousness that emerges from neuroscience, biological processes, and the physical sciences.  He suggests that complex organizational structures, producing a dynamic range of energetic patterns, are responsible for creating a “recursively self-referential” mechanic of differentiation which we could then describe as consciousness (p. 9).  Neither model, in and of itself, sufficiently explains consciousness or answers to the origins of consciousness though.  Perhaps by holding both in the same space, we can seek a resolution in the ‘and’ that exists between them. 

     Held together in the ‘and’, this balance between science and ontology allows for a very different relationship between the various models of mind being used to explain consciousness.  Indeed, when we see consciousness as the byproduct of brain activity, we quickly arrive at a limitation in our abstractions of mind.  Whereas opening ourselves to the possibility that the brain could be an object of consciousness, made manifest through conditional conceptual models and the unquestioned acceptance of authoritative knowledge, may allow us to step out of the view which sees the physical as primary and consciousness as secondary; enough so that the two reverse – and then find equilibrium.  Rather than choosing one position over the other, it is in being able to hold both positions at once, without conflict or paradox, which allows us to construct a more complete model of the brain, mind, and consciousness.   

References

Koch, C. (2018).  What is consciousness? Nature 557 (S8-S12) doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05097-x

Pepperell, R. (2018). Consciousness as a physical process caused by the organization of energy in the brain.  Frontiers in Psychology 9(2091)

Prentner, R. (2021). Dr Goff, tear down this wall! The interface theory of perception and the science of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 28(9), 91–103. https://doi.org/10.53765/20512201.28.9.091

Getting Started: First Things First

Getting Started: First Things First

     My starting point for this class is well summarized by Laughlin and Rock (2013) in their description of mature contemplation, natural attitude, and the transcendental epoch that appear within Husserlian transcendental phenomenology (pp. 266-268).  Indeed, some of the key points made are the very reason for my interest in completing the ITP doctoral program (with a concentration in consciousness studies and contemplative neuroscience).  My focus, for the past several years, has been on teaching contemplative wisdom practices that help clients clarify, for themselves, the “numerous realizations pertaining to the essential structures of consciousness” (p. 269) that tend to emerge from experiential nondual insight. 

     The core challenge, as I have come to see it, is also reflected here (p. 273) – an acknowledgment of the inherent difficulties in communicating a wordless understanding, using words; combined with the general disinterest that most people have in the kind of rigorous, and often deeply confronting, self-reflection that is required.  This, at least, characterizes early elements of the deconstruction process that usually occur for one’s cup to be made empty.  Once empty, the use of language, models, and liberating concepts become vehicles of conveyance rather than a literal description or interpretation of reality, truth, and being.  This, in turn, becomes a doorway to further integration and embodiment, where nonduality reveals itself as something akin to a lived mystery that is celebrated with curiosity and appreciation in our everyday experience.       

     This reminds me of a paper that I came across, a couple of years ago. Hanley, Nakamura, and Garland (2018) conducted a study of nondual awareness that attempted to identify the traits and states of consciousness that correlated with the subjective experiences of its participants.  After this week’s reading, and my introduction to the formal study of phenomenology, I am quite excited to see how the new models, methods, and approaches that I am learning about now can be applied to defining, measuring, and communicating esoteric principles such as those that become obvious and undeniable through contemplative practice but are impossible to convey through the limits of language.  In essence, I am learning new linguistic and symbolic references that can be used to further peel apart the common misconceptions that create so much inner and outer conflict in the world.   

     Given the sample discourse between Pinker and McGilchrist (2013), for instance, what we are observing is a conflict of perspectives that appear somewhat entrenched and positional.  Yet what is really being argued here are deeply biased, conceptual, and perceptual maps that differ in the way they approach the intersection between the sciences and humanities.  If we adopt the use of model agnosticism introduced last week (Erickson, 2020) perhaps discussions such as this could be more fruitful.  No longer so deeply identified with the content of our various positionalities, we can be more open to discourse without personalizing (or needing to defend) our varied interpretive stances.  This is where I want to take my own research work, so this class is already very exciting for me. 

References

Erickson, J. (2020). “Model agnosticism” in Imagination in the Western psyche. (pp. 12-18). Routledge.

Hanley, A. W., Nakamura, Y., & Garland, E. L. (2018). The Nondual Awareness Dimensional Assessment (NADA): New tools to assess nondual traits and states of consciousness occurring within and beyond the context of meditation. Psychological Assessment, 30(12), 1625–1639.

Laughlin, C. D., & Rock, A. J. (2013). Neurophenomenology: Enhancing the experimental and cross-cultural study of brain and experience. In H. Friedman, & G. Hartelius (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology (pp. 261-280). Wiley Blackwell.

Pinker, S., & McGilchrist, I. (2013, August). Science and the humanities. Channel McGilchrist. https://channelmcgilchrist.com/steven-pinkers-essay/