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Dabrowski's TPD diagram

Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came out on Tuesday and the second yesterday. The last will be published tomorrow.   

The two previous posts have given a brief overview of Jenny Wade’s thesis and looked at her treatment of near-death experiences and lateralisation.  At last we have reached the core theme of her brilliant book, Changes of Mind.

Transitions between Levels

This theme relates strongly to one of my most recent preoccupations: Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. He speaks of five levels of personality development[1] (see diagram above from my earlier post on the subject). To oversimplify for present purposes, we move from an overly conformist self-gratifying level through conflict to increasingly autonomous levels where we strive to enact our ideals rather than indulge our desires. Authenticity and empathy become increasingly influential states of mind. He is though more concerned with creativity than mysticism and, as far as I can tell, he has little or nothing to say about transcendence.

From Wade’s point of view he joins the many others whose theory of development stops too soon, probably at her Authentic level (see next post).

The two theories begin at different points. Dabrowski, in the treatments I have so far read of his theory, does not include prenatal and infantile stages. He seems to be concerned with adult functioning and his Level One conflates Wade’s Achievement and Conformist levels. Also, whereas she tracks in detail subsequent developments towards the autonomy he sees as becoming increasingly evident through his Levels Two to Four, he seems to leave it as simply something that occurs if the challenges of inner conflict are met, without specifying what kinds of challenges might be typical of various developmental levels.

I think, therefore, Wade complements his thinking in an important way and would like to spend some time outlining some of the details in her model to illustrate this.

The Driver of Dissonance

Wade contributes, thanks to her close examination of many thinkers including Piaget, Kohlberg, and Wilber amongst others, a crucial conceptualIMG_0493 clarification at each stage. Whereas it seems to me from the secondary sources that Dabrowski contents himself with using words like ‘suffering’ and ‘conflict’ to give a catchall description of what in general goes on, Wade is far more precise. Even in childhood states of consciousness, whether they have persisted into adulthood or not, she detects specific conflicts that trigger development. Take for example her description of the move upwards from Naïve to Egocentric Consciousness (page 94):

The essentials – corroborated by anthropological research and theory – are that the individual’s needs fail to be met consistently enough by the environment, creating a conflict that simultaneously gives birth to the self-encapsulated ego and the fear that it can be destroyed. In both children and adults, this seems to occur through exposure to information that cannot be assimilated at their present level of functioning.

In Naïve Consciousness the individual feels safely embodied in their context. When they feel exposed to danger by a separation from that context, the dissonance begins to operate that will drive them to a different level of understanding.

She is clear though that this same basic principle applies across many stages of development (ibid.):

In essence, cognitive conflict results from repeated exchanges that cannot be resolved using resources and solutions available to the present developmental level. The problem does not go away, the motivation to solve it remains strong, and yet the individual’s resources are not competent to resolve the dilemma.

She uses Kuhn’s terminology in saying ‘the limits of a paradigm [have been] reached.’

Where Dissonance Might Be Elusive

Dissonance at the Egocentric level is harder to come by (page 106):

Cleckly and Smith point out that lots of people function primarily at the Egocentric level in modern society, many of them rather successfully.

How, then, is a desire for a transition to the conformist level created? One possibility is particularly intriguing (page 117):

[Many researchers converge on the belief] that socialisation results from the certainty, as opposed to the possibility, of one’s own death.

Clearly, such a fear would seem to be enough to derail all but the most intransigent of narcissists. Conformist awareness (ibid.) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’

Not surprisingly, dissonance at this level is even harder to come by than at the Egocentric level (page 130):

Transition from the Conformist stage is usually very difficult, because the individual is in a fairly stable equilibrium with his social environment and will tend to rationalise away information that does not align with his worldview or self image. When sufficient cognitive dissonance arises, however, change to the next stage no longer follows the invariant pattern of most developmental theories: instead, two paths are available.

two-roads-two-choices

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference. (Robert Frost)

A Fork in the Path

In effect, the path forks between Achievement and Affiliative Consciousness. There is no clear consensus about exactly what triggers the shift towards either of these higher levels. There is a sense that the exact direction may be partly determined by gender (page 132), women moving towards the Affiliative option and men the Achievement one.

This is one choice point at which I feel Dabrowski may be the more illuminating of the two about the possible trigger. He is clear that a conflict between what a person feels ought to be the case and what they see is the case precipitates a shift from conformity towards autonomy. Wade (page 148) quotes the view that a transition ‘occurs when a dramatic life event destroys faith in established authority.” She amplifies on this later (page 156-157):

When forced to acknowledge that the rules do not work, evolving Conformists will choose either the Achievement solution, “get it while you can” or the Affiliative solution, “love conquers all,” depending upon predisposition and compelling environmental factors.

Dabrowski is also clear that this sense of ‘what is’ conflicting with ‘what ought to be’ may be relatively rare, something with which Wade clearly agrees (page 133):

Researchers have observed that, comparatively, very few adults even in industrialised societies function consistently above the Conformist level.

She accepts that this may be in part because developmentalists do not have the tools to study this level and/or the database may be too poor to contain such information. My own sense is that such states of mind, in terms of stepping up to either Affiliative or Achievement levels, while they may not constitute a majority in any population, in advanced Western societies will not be all that rare. People going beyond these next two levels, however, will be much thinner on the ground. It is more likely to be absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence that is at work concerning the frequency with which people pass beyond conformism. A closer look at what might follow must wait until next time.

Footnote:

[1]. It is perhaps worth mentioning that these are not the only theories that focus on levels of personality development. Ken Wilber refers to several in his book (page 5) - A Theory of Everything. He includes the well-known, such as Abraham Maslow, but also others who are less famous such as Clare Graves. He feels their theories are not contradictory and are rooted in good evidence for the most part.

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Levels of Consciousness 2

Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came out yesterday. The third will be published on Saturday and the last on Sunday.   

This re-exploration of Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, began with a brisk review of her overall perspective followed by a summary of her views on near-death experiences. Before we come to transitions between levels of consciousness, the topic that is closer to the core of her overall purpose, her sense of how the different hemispheres of the brain influence the realisation of different levels of consciousness deserves a look.

Lateralisation:

Perhaps I should clarify at this point that she is concerned to unwrap the mysteries surrounding human consciousness at least in terms of how it develops and to define more adequately the different stages of that development. When I come to discuss the specifics of this it will be obvious that there are implications for what we term personality or character in the individual and what we term culture or society at the level of aggregates of people. This is very much a concern of McGilchrist as well in his masterly treatment of the subject in The Master and his Emissary.

IMG_0493Her Sixth Level of development is called Affiliative Consciousness. It is one of two stages of development that are open to somebody who has reached what she calls the conformist level of consciousness. All that needs to be said for now is that the choice at that stage, as she sees it, lies between Achievement Consciousness and Affiliative Consciousness (page 147). Achievement consciousness resolves the problems of the conformity level by working on the thesis that you “get it while you can,” whereas Affiliative Consciousness believes that “love conquers all.” We will be exploring the transition aspect in more detail later.

As she unpacks the characteristics of Affiliative Consciousness the lateralisation links becomes clear (page 151: ‘. . . ‘ indicates here and below I have deleted her references):

People at the Affiliative level mainly grasp similarities and patterns rather than differences . . . . In part, the emphasis on similarities comes from the need to avoid conflicts that might threaten their sense of community, but it is coupled with a holistic worldview and indifference to the passage of time characteristic of right hemisphere dominance . . . .

In the same way as McGilchirst does, she feels (page 152) that our culture is biased against right-hemisphere processing. As a result is tends to denigrate this level of consciousness:

The bias against right brain processing has created – and perpetuated – confusion between Naïve and Affiliative consciousness.

Naïve Consciousness, Level Two, is characteristic of early childhood in her classification of levels. It is clearly an insult to see Affiliative Consciousness as a regression to such a state and I find her linking of this to our culture’s disparagement of right-brain functioning completely plausible.

She does not contend, though, that Affiliative Consciousness is without drawbacks (page 153):

Affiliative consciousness is not all sweetness and light, however. Turning now to what may legitimately be considered drawbacks of right-brain processing, Affiliative people often do not perceive inharmonious elements indicative of negative emotions and difference, particularly anger. . . .  They avoid conflict and confrontation. . .  Right-brain-dominant people tend to be much less verbal in response to stress then left-brain-dominant people, more prone to deny problems, hold in hostility, and develop an appeasing ‘peace at any price’ approach to personal conflict.

So, not completely satisfactory then. What she feels is better is a balance between the two hemispheres. Achievement Consciousness is the more left-brain mode and is definitely not without its problems either, as its motif is ‘get it while you can’ (page 147). To do this it figures out ‘the “rules of the game” in order to “cut corners”, “play the angles,” increase [its] “odds” and gain an advantage over less able . . . . members.’ Not a prescription for the ideal personality, then, either.

Balancing these two aspects moves the person to the level of Authentic Consciousness (page 157):

Authentic consciousness requires access to the non-dominant hemisphere, but not exchanging one hemisphere’s orientation for the other’s. It is “whole brain” thinking, in which both hemispheres organise consciousness, suggesting some entrainment of EEG patterns across the neocortex.

McGilchrist would wholeheartedly agree that this is a huge step forward (see YouTube video below). In The Master and His Emissary he wrote (page 203):

[T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

The next stage after this is Transcendent consciousness, the last one before Unity consciousness. At this stage the synchrony of the two halves of the brain goes beyond intermittent entrainment (page 198):

During meditation, EEG measurements show that both hemispheres slow from beta level activity to alpha and theta waves. Theta is the characteristic brain wave pattern of long-term meditators. Not only does synchronisation of brain waves occur between hemispheres in advanced states, but this entrainment forms harmonic patterns called hypersynchrony.

The exact relationship between the hemispheres is not clear at the Unity level (page 260):

It is not know whether people with Unity consciousness have significantly different brainwave patterns than those at the high end of Transcendent consciousness, especially concerning hemispheric influence…

The Transcendent level can be reached via the Authentic level from either Achievement or Affiliative levels of consciousness provided sufficient degrees of dissatisfaction are there to spur us on, but that issue needs to wait until next time. This is the aspect to which she has, in my view, made her most telling contribution.

McGilchrist RSA Version

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Levels of Consciousness

Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this next sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The second will be published tomorrow and the other two on Saturday and Sunday.   

When I first read Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, I was carried away when she hypothesises that the highest possible stage of the development of human consciousness is Unity Consciousness. As ‘unity’ is a Bahá’í mantra, this was enough in itself to guarantee my complete attention and disarm my disagreements.

But there was more. This level of development was the last of nine. In Arabic numerology nine is the numerical value of the word at the core of the name of this Revelation: ‘Bahá.’ I was entranced. I wrote ‘Brilliant!’ inside the front flyleaf after I’d finished the book.

Because my recent reading of Dabrowski (see three earlier posts) has sensitised me to the possibility of categorising levels of consciousness and perhaps even character development, I decided to re-read her book.

I have decided this time round that it is brilliant (for different reasons though) but flawed.

Still brilliant after all these years

Why do I think this? My reasons fall into three main groups for present purposes: near death experiences, lateralisation of brain function, and the IMG_0493drivers of transitions from one level to the next.

The first topic is, in my view her weakest, and why I feel the book is flawed. Her treatment of this topic does not stand up well after reading Mark Fox’s thorough examination of the issues.

Her reflections on lateralisation and its relationship with the development of consciousness are intriguing and will probably prompt me to revisit Iain McGilchrist to check them out more thoroughly, but as it stands I resonate strongly to what she says. She maps out her levels of consciousness against the back drop of lateralisation and mounts a compelling argument for the value but extreme difficulty of achieving a proper balance in our lives between the operation of the two hemispheres of the brain. But more of that in the next post.

Her most interesting observations to me at present relate to the way that her model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness.

bohm

David Bohm

It is probably only fair to add that I am completely incapable of properly evaluating the foundation of her thesis in Bohm’s work on the implicate order as I simply do not understand Bohm’s thinking well enough. You may well wish to stop reading at this point if you feel I have totally disqualified myself from commenting on her other lines of thought.

My simple summary of what I think she means in terms of Bohm is this. There is a hidden order and a visible one. Both are inextricably intertwined. The visible, or perhaps more accurately, the accessible order is the material world as we commonly experience it. The hidden order (though transcendent, timeless and placeless) is also expressed in and through the physical world here and now. Our highest self exists fully realised already in the hidden order but remains invisible to almost all of us. The purpose of our lives is to come to a realisation and expression of and identification with that self, consciously in the visible order. When we do so all ego and desire will fall away, and self in any sense we currently understand it fades away completely. If we fail, in her view we are reincarnated again to have another go. Moving up the levels of consciousness is primarily about cleansing the lens of perception so that we can experience in its true nature what is currently hidden from us.

For those of you who have continued reading, we need to look slightly more closely at the first of the themes I mentioned, and later at the other two in even greater detail.

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):

One of the key problems here is that she fails to recognise, from the evidence available to her at the time, that NDE-type experiences are not uniquely linked to close encounters with death as she contends (page 324) on the basis of evidence drawn from Morse. Fox’s access to the RERC data enabled him to recognise the common elements between so-called NDE experiences and other mystical and spiritual states where there was neither a threat to life nor any kind of trauma. She does though accept (page 239), but more cautiously than Fox, that ‘near-death consciousness . . . appears to share some characteristics of Transcendent consciousness.’

She also rather too uncritically accepts a long list of core elements (pages 225-226), something about which Fox’s critical re-examination has caused me to be rather more sceptical.

Given that NDEs are very much secondary to her main thesis and her treatment of the issue covers a mere 24 pages out of her total of 341, it is perhaps not too surprising that it falls short of Fox’s focused and thorough treatment.

It certainly does not seriously blemish the overall case she is seeking to make. More of that next time.

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Mind

Image scanned from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life. The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 156)

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks page 174)

Progress on a spiritual path has often been associated with silence. Some years ago I heard almost the same words spoken as I watched the start of The Big Silence, which turned out to be a fascinating series of programmes on the spiritual impact of silence on five people over eight days  - it’s almost exactly what this post is about, though from a somewhat different angle.

Christopher Jamison, the monk who led the group of five through this experience, described silence as the means for us to connect with our souls, and our souls as our means of connecting with God. That chimes with what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said in the quotation at the head of this post. Not many of the five got that far but their journeys were fascinating to watch.

Stumbling across Evidence

But what, if any, is the possible scientific underpinning to this?

The convinced adherent of naturalism will rule out in advance even the faintest possibility of any such evidence existing, to such an extent that he, and it is often a ‘he,’ will not even look at the wealth of existing evidence that points firmly in this direction, much of it more rigorously produced than that which supports the efficacy of the drugs we swallow so trustingly.

Let me share how I stumbled across one small example to illustrate the care with which this kind of experimentation is devised and which makes the whole body of research impossible to dismiss arbitrarily. I won’t upset materialists by insisting that finding this book was synchronicity, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found the book I needed at the time I needed it even when I didn’t know I needed it

With some friends, I recently visited Hay-on-Wye, with the intent of plugging some specific holes in my library with books on certain topics. I perhaps need to point out that my wife would not agree that there are any holes at all in my library if a hole is to be defined as shelf-space. I am not using ‘hole’ in that sense.

Having successfully located a sufficient supply of six such books in three shops I popped into a fourth shop for no good reason at all except I felt like it. I’d filled the gaps I was aware of, after all.

I had ten minutes to kill before we were all due to meet again and the temptation was just too strong. After picking a particularly fascinating book off the shelf in the mindfulness section I checked the price. £326. Perhaps not.

In Search of the DeadJust above were a handful of books on NDEs. I almost didn’t bother to look because I have so many. I should have known what was coming – this is usually the way it happens. One caught my eye. To help me recover from the shock of the other book’s price I took it down.

In Search of the Dead. It had the BBC logo on the cover.

Jeffrey Iverson.

‘Never heard of him. If this is a book of ghost stories I’ll put it back,’ I promised myself. It claimed on the cover to be a ‘scientific investigation of evidence of life after death.’

In fact it looked a mish-mash of good science and intriguing ancdotes. £2. I only had a couple of minutes left. ‘What the heck! It’s only two pounds. If it’s no good the Oxfam Shop can have it.’

This is how the last book that I bought that day, became the first book that I read. And I’m glad I have. It’s an accessible but by no means naïve treatment of the topic.

Right at the start I found myself in territory that lies at the heart of the matter: the relationship between silence and the subliminal. An example is described in detail of how to investigate this with a sound – do I mean ‘silent’? – methodology. What follows is a brutal summary to illustrate the rigour of what is described more fully between pages 3 and 11.

Silence and Science

Iverson was a journalist, working for the BBC and visiting the States in September 1990 to get a handle on psi, the unknown factor in extrasensory perception. He was at the HQ of the American Society of Psychical Research. Dr Nancy Sandow and Dr Keith Harary were the key researchers named. The phenomenon under investigation was a form of Remote Viewing (RV). In this case it meant one person providing incontrovertible details under tightly controlled conditions of someone else’s visual experience some distance away, specifically for this BBC programme in a small park in New York City.

There are many ways in which such an experiment could be flawed. The experimenters in this case had done their best to close them all down.

First of all the subject, Tessa, who was to receive the RV data was unfamiliar with New York. Also, she wasn’t even a Remote Viewing Sketchtrained or self-styled psychic: she was simply the Production Assistant in Iverson’s crew who was volunteered for the role. She came from Wales and had never been to New York before.

Secondly, four diverse locations were chosen offering a selection of very untypical New York scenes.

Thirdly, Dr Harary, to whom none of these scenes was known, sat with Tessa in the library with a locked-off camera recording all they did and said before any further steps were taken. The library was a no go area and all means of communication with outside world had been removed. He and Tessa knew that a third person would be at one of the four locations at a specific time that afternoon. It was at that time they began their attempt to describe where she was.

Fourthly, Iverson received from Dr Sandow, who had selected the sites, a sealed envelope with all four locations specified. Then he was quarantined.

When all was set up, Dr Sandow got in a cab and randomly generated a number between 1 and 4, and set off for the designated destination. Before she clicked on the number she had no idea which of the four sites she’d be going to.

When she had stayed at that spot for the requisite period of time at the designated time period, the next phase began.

Meanwhile, Tessa had remained in the library for the duration of Dr Sandow’s visit to the site. Dr Harary then took the notes they had created, met up with Iverson and the envelope, and was driven to the four sites in a randomly chosen sequence. His job was to rank order the sites in terms of their correspondence to the description he was carrying.

Remote Viewing AngelTo cut a long story short, the correct site was streets ahead of any of the others, only one of which had even the faintest resemblance to the target park. What was even more impressive was that every detail Tessa had mentioned was correct – the tall trees, the T-shaped path, a red and white awning over a shop, and above all a winged metal statue going slightly green (see the picture of the statue and her drawing of it).

Conclusions and Caveats

The researchers were keen to point out that from that one study you could not conclude that psi or something like it was substantiated. Even with so many details correct, there were only four scenes for Dr Harary to choose from so he had a 25% chance of being correct. It is the sheer weight of the evidence gathered in hundreds of such examples that points to the reality of something that needs to be explained rather than dismissed as outright fraud or sloppy methodology. The investigators were themselves keen to emphasise this to Iverson.

Iverson himself quotes Charles Honorton as an example (page 41):

In 1200 individual trials over the [previous] 15 years, where random guesses would statistically be expected to produce a success rate of 25%, the . . . average has been 34% – a 9% markup on chance. “The mathematical odds against chance are in the trillions to one, and even critics of parapsychology acknowledge results cannot be due to chance,” he says.

Honorton was joined in conducting a computerised and even more tightly controlled set of experiments by a sceptic, Dr Ray Hyman, who said at the end (ibid.), ‘We agreed that the results so far cannot be due to chance and are not likely to be due to improper selections of favourable data. However, we still disagree over whether this [sic] data constitutes evidence for psi or for some form of error that has not been detected.”

Honorton is unequivocal (ibid.):

‘We feel now the burden of proof is on the sceptics to say why these results should not be accepted. . . . The evidence for psi is very strong but is still not generally accepted by the scientific community, mainly because they are not aware of the better research going on.

What Iverson felt the investigators he worked with conveyed clearly to him was:

  • Everyone is capable of psi (whatever that is – they didn’t pretend to know exactly);
  • For its full manifestation it depends upon a person feeling safe and for distracting stimuli to be reduced as far as possible to zero; and
  • The conditions most closely matching the ideal were
    • sleep, which we all know leads to dreams some of which some people feel contain psi material;
    • meditation, the consistent practice of which is widely reported to lead to transpersonal and mystic experiences; and
    • the Ganzfeld procedure which systematically cuts down visual and auditory stimuli.

I have to modify the first statement somewhat in that the statistics, while very significantly above chance, do not suggest that everyone was scoring hits anywhere near consistently. It seems obvious that some people must not have been scoring hits at all and/or people were inconsistent. I am not at all sure therefore that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so. (I have already blogged in some detail about this: see link.)

Basically, though, if we are calm and can sit in a quiet place for long enough, most of us will get in touch with what usually falls well below the threshold of our awareness. Some of what we then experience may, for some of us at least, be out of the reach of our ordinary senses but none the less correct. When what we experience by these means is a material reality it can of course be checked against known facts, as in the experiment described briefly above.

When it is not a material reality, what then?

It seems to me that it is not so obvious, in the light of all the successful experiments with data that can be checked and found correct, that we should dismiss as hallucinations less probable experiences, even when they cross the boundaries of the material. I also accept though that we cannot safely conclude that every experience generated by sensory deprivation of some form is authentic.

How can we steer a true course between dangerous gullibility and unwarranted scepticism? What are we to think when what we experience is so unusual and so sublime that it beggars belief? I have already blogged about many aspects of this in terms of extraordinary experiences. I hope to return to it again soon in the context of silence and the sublime.

For the visually inclined

Later on I thought it would be good if I could find the original BBC programmes and I did – on YouTube. The one that deals with the remote viewing experiment is below. The other two I plan to come back to later when I look at some other aspects of the book.

The Power of the Mind:

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link: for the original Spanish click here.

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worldwideweb

Worldwide Web (for source website see link)

Van Lommel, in his book Consciousness beyond Life, is attempting to persuade us that consciousness is not a product of the brain: in fact, the brain, in his view, may simply be our means of accessing consciousness, rather as a computer gives us access to the internet.

After the first shock of becoming a Bahá’í, which came at the end of twenty years as an atheist including seven years exposure to a reductionist psychological orthodoxy, I had to fight to integrate my new understanding into my current worldview. Now I was reading that the mind is an emanation of the spirit, whereas previously everything that I had read told me that the mind was at best an emergent property of the brain, at worst simply a by-product of neuronal complexity. It was a steep learning curve.

For anyone reading this who is where I was in terms of this collision of ideas, Pim van Lommel is at the top of an ideological Everest. I am not naïve enough to suppose that a sequence of three blog posts is going to do much to shift such a person from where they are at present into this very different paradigm, especially given the bias of mainstream science against the whole idea as completely preposterous.

I would like to argue though that the only tenable position for any true science to adopt is agnosticism, and, moreover, an agnosticism that does not rule out anything a priori, that is prepared to examine any evidence on its merits no matter how dissonant with its prevailing ideas, and that is also capable of realising that evidence and explanation are not the same thing at all. While I might feel that van Lommel’s evidence and the arguments he builds upon its foundations are compelling in their demonstration that there is indeed a soul and an afterlife (in fact, he’s not quite saying that), there might be other conclusions to draw from that same evidence that we will be deprived of if we dismiss it out of hand as virtually delusional.

So, in that spirit, I hope I can carry along any convinced atheists among the readers of this blog at least to the end of this post and of the next one so that they can hopefully get a glimpse of the cogency of his arguments through my rather brutal summary. It has not been possible to also include a detailed explanation of his evidence base. For that a close reading of his text would be necessary. You will have to take my word for it that the evidence he musters, beyond the fragments I refer to here, is not to be easily dismissed as fantasy.

fmri_groot

fMRI Machine (for source see link)

The Evidence

Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition. The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

and for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

He is, of course, not claiming that there is no relationship at all between brain activity and consciousness, only that the brain does not produce or completely determine consciousness in any way we currently understand and any assumption of that kind is unwarranted. He also produces reasons for concluding that our technology is not sophisticated enough as yet to capture what is actually going on. For example, our equipment can only scan once every two seconds whereas cerebral processes take place in milliseconds. This, he says, (page 180) is like ‘reading a book by reading only one of each thousand words.’

Further to this point, he quotes the interesting experience of a sophisticated subject who wanted to test this for himself, unknown to the experimenters. They were testing for the mind/brain’s reaction to either having one’s foot tickled or seeing one’s foot tickled. He decided he was going to think about football in the one case and about his cat’s funeral in the other. The results showed no difference between his thoughts and the thoughts of all the other participants as far as the fMRI scans were concerned (pages 180-181):

At present, scientific research methods appear to be incapable of accurately studying the neural processes associated with our experience of consciousness. . . . . . Given the fact that Roepstorff’s thoughts fell outside the scope of the experiment, the test leader should not have been able to understand the findings. But the leader failed to notice anything strange about the scans. They were no different from the scans of any of the other subjects. . . . .. only the subject himself has direct access to his thoughts.

In the end, the kind of subjectivity, whose abandonment by psychology the Kellys lament in their substantial work Irreducible Mind, cannot be ignored (page 181):

Consciousness is fundamentally unverifiable, and thus fails to meet scientific criteria…. This evaporates the hope for completely objective knowledge about consciousness. Sooner or later, you will have to talk to your subject, so there will always be a subjective link.

memory-improvement-with-brain-games-for-adults

For source see link.

Brain as Transceiver

Van Lommel then moves on to even more interesting ground (pages 183-184):

The hypothesis that consciousness and memory are produced and stored exclusively in the brain remains unproven. For decades, scientists have tried unsuccessfully to localize memories and consciousness in the brain. It is doubtful whether they will ever succeed.

He quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):

Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.

Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):

John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.

This leads him to feel that the usual conclusion we draw when brain damage impairs functioning may be simplistic and misleading (ibid.):

. . . [F]unctions can also be lost after brain damage brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage, serious head trauma with permanent brain damage, long-term alcohol abuse, or encephalitis. The obvious and correct conclusion must be that the brain has a major impact on the way people show their everyday or waking consciousness to the outside world. The instrument, the brain, has been damaged, whereas “real” consciousness remains intact.

There is also a two-way relationship between mind and brain, something to which the latest work on neuroplasticity conclusively testifies (see earlier posts for more information). As van Lommel puts it (page 184): ‘A conscious experience can be the result of brain activity, but a brain activity can also be the result of consciousness.’ He expands on this point later (page 200):

In summary, the human mind is capable of changing the anatomical structure and associated function of the brain. The mind can change the brain. There is unmistakable interaction between the mind and the brain and not just in the sense of cause and effect. As such, it would be incorrect to claim that consciousness can only be a product of brain function. How could a product be able to change its own producer?

He therefore feels justified in stating (ibid.):

. . . . switching on your computer, connecting to the Internet, and navigating to a Web site does not determine the content of this Web site. The activation of certain areas of the brain cannot explain the content of thoughts and emotions.

Later he unpacks the implications of this more fully (page 268):

We are not aware of the hundreds of thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of television and radio broadcasts, and the billions of Internet connections around us day and night, passing through us and through the walls, including those of the room in which you are reading this book. . . . . . We only see and hear the program when we switch on a TV set,. . . . . The computer does not produce the Internet any more than the brain produces consciousness. The computer allows us to add information to the Internet just like the brain is capable of adding information from our body and senses to our consciousness.

Samadhi_Buddha_01

Samadhi Buddha (for source see link)

Where this leaves us

He strongly questions the default position of contemporary neuroscience (page 185):

Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Consciousness does not happen in the brain… despite the fact that a majority of contemporary scientists specializing in consciousness research still espouse a materialist and reductionist explanation for consciousness,

He explains exactly where key mechanisms for consciousness fail in a cardiac arrest and why an alternative explanation is necessary for those cases where full or even heightened consciousness exists in such a brain state (page 193):

During a cardiac arrest the cerebral cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, and brain stem as well as all connections between them stop functioning, as we have seen, which prevents information from being integrated and differentiated—a prerequisite for communication and thus for the experience of consciousness. The experience of consciousness should be impossible during a cardiac arrest. All measurable electrical activity in the brain has been extinguished and all bodily and brain-stem reflexes are gone. And yet, during this period of total dysfunction, some people experience a heightened and enhanced consciousness, known as an NDE.

Not surprisingly, this line of thought has spiritual implications (page 302):

Physicist and psychologist Peter Russell compares the ability to experience consciousness with the light of a film projector. As the projector throws light onto a screen, the projected images change constantly. All of these projected images, such as perceptions, feelings, memories, dreams, thoughts, and emotions, form the content of consciousness. Without the projector’s light there would be no images, which is why the light can be compared to our ability to experience consciousness. But the images do not constitute consciousness itself. When all the images are gone and only the projector’s light remains, we are left with the pure source of consciousness. This pure consciousness without content is called samadhi by Indian philosophers and initiates and can be experienced after many years of meditation. It is said to bring enlightenment.

This brings me to a consideration of what van Lommel makes of this possibility. That will have to wait for the next post.

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Stop etc diagram v2

The previous post unpacked a diagram that attempted to look at some of the inner dynamics of the mind, as I see them. Although there were other inner forces that it didn’t look at such as the idea that will is a spiritual force rather than simply a product of the brain, it was still a fairly complex picture.  We examined the idea of reflection or disidentification as a powerful means of experiencing the true nature of our minds.  Now its the turn of a different idea: how the mind can change the brain. At the top of this post is a model of one aspect of that: at the bottom is a reminder of the diagram we are working from.

Changing the Brain

The other part of the power of Transactional Analysis (TA) comes from something else, something that is made more easily possible by the power of reflection but can be achieved without it. While TA has its own idea of what needs to be substituted for the bad habits we want to supplant, the focus now is on the underlying dynamic of the mind-brain interaction which makes it possible for TA, or any other system for that matter, to bring about enduring change if we deliberately persist with it long enough.

Every time I pull myself up short from implementing Oscar Wilde’s advice that the best way of getting rid of temptation is to give in to it, my brain changes as a result of the combined effects of focused attention and the exercise of deliberate choice. Even the habits of a lifetime can be changed in this way if the effort is repeated often enough.  Admittedly that can mean repeating the change thousands of times. It’s rather as though there are cart tracks which constant travel has carved deep into the brain: the wheels of the cart of our attention and thought constantly slip back into these ruts and it requires great effort to steer our cart out of them over and over again until other more constructive ruts have been laid down.

Black Sabbath

You may have already become aware that the diagram barely does justice to the unevenness of the contest here. It’s as though we are trying to listen to Handel‘s Messiah on an old-fashioned valve radio with a poor signal in the middle of a full-volume Black Sabbath concert. How can we boost the Messiah and muffle Black Sabbath?

Well, obviously we have to be clear that this is what we want to do at the deepest and most important level of our being, otherwise Black Sabbath will win every time. Then we have to recognise, as soon as we hear the first chord, that Black Sabbath is the music we have decided we do not want to listen to anymore. All too often we notice too late that we’re listening again and have moved nearer to the speakers drawn by fascination and habit. That gives Handel very little chance of ever being heard.

If we catch ourselves listening to Black Sabbath just as we are entering the O2 arena again (sorry about the anachronism – it just seemed the best short hand) we have more chance of moving towards the exit or finding a relatively quiet place and tuning into Handel. In terms of our old habit, we have to spot it as early as possible, stop it as fast as possible and swap it. You have to have a clear plan of the right thing to do instead. Doing nothing would be like not switching on the valve radio and failing to put anything else in place of Black Sabbath. Yet again Black Sabbath would win very time.

It is very hard indeed to follow this game plan with a long standing habit. It’s rather like learning to think in a new language, but it will work if we persist. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy makes it very clear that we have to be prepared to face discomfort, even painful experiences, along this path to constructive change: choosing discomfort over ease is something modern minds are not programmed to do. That may be the first hurdle we have to overcome. Also when we do slip back into the old habits, as we inevitably will, we need to remind ourselves that we are in this for the long haul: lapses are bound to happen but they don’t mean we have failed.

If we do manage to persist, it’s as though eventually we are able to upgrade our valve radio to a state of the art sound system leaving Black Sabbath with at best a couple of acoustic guitars and no microphone.

If we are dealing with a sudden temptation it may be enough to press the pause button before acting. This gives time for the most powerful part of the impulse to subside, for a process of reflection to take place and for us to do the right thing instead or act out the impulse more constructively. If acting on impulse is our pattern, then the same game plan as with tuning into the Messiah applies. We need to spot the impulse early, stop it in its tracks and put something more constructive in its place, over and over again before the habit of acting on impulse fades away and becomes something we can choose to do sometimes when it’s appropriate.

So the essence underlying the effectiveness of TA, and of many other therapies that claim to be unique for quite other reasons, is this two-fold pattern-breaking power: reflective disidentification and the deliberately chosen replacement of the destructive pattern of behaviour with a better one.  If, for example, we pursue the roots of our present conduct in the mind’s archaeology at the expense of using what we have learned to help us to distance ourselves from our habitual patterns and to replace them systematically with something more consistent with our highest values, then we will be mummified along with the remains we are exploring – the Freudian pun is intentional. Insight on its own often achieves nothing. Persistent action is also required as is the creative distance that comes from recognising that we are not the contents of our consciousness. We can choose to turn the mirror of our minds towards something completely different if we wish.

It’s probably obvious, but I’ll say it anyway before moving on, that reflection and disidentification as habitual practices (along with meditation, mindfulness etc), though special in their focus, achieve their transformative effects because they exploit the brain’s potential for neuroplasticity in exactly the same way as these other pattern-breaking techniques I have just described.

Whispers of the Spirit

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It will also be obvious that I have focused primarily on internal dynamics and processes. I am well aware that external factors such as culture, religion, community and family all impact upon behaviour in significant ways. However, for the kinds of enduring changes in the brain that we have been dealing with here to take place, we have to feel we have freely chosen to act as we do, not done so as a result of irresistible external pressure. Work on cognitive dissonance indicates that the more you pay someone to argue against their own beliefs (i.e. the higher the perceived external pressure) the less likely someone is to change their mind. I suspect that those who have an extrinsic motivation (eg the desire to be accepted socially) to practice a religion, the less likely it is that their conformist behaviour will lead to inner transformation.

And this is where the last skill of all comes in and is so important if we are to experience ourselves as following an inner guide towards the highest possible values. It is something which seldom gets a mention in mainstream psychotherapy even now: tuning in to the whispers of the spirit rather than to the amplified ravings of our reptilian brain or the plausible rationalisations of our frontal lobes. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expresses perfectly the nature of and need for this skill that can take us a lifetime to acquire:

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

(Paris Talks: page 174)

I didn’t begin meditating for another four years after my work in mental health began and I didn’t read those words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá until I became a Bahá’í, two more years at least further down the road. It seems you simply can’t rush this sort of thing.

I am aware that I may have packed too much into these posts for easy digestion and may have to come back to some of the themes to unpack them further, but I felt such a strong desire to catch these ideas on the wing before they flew away that I thought it best to write the posts anyway.  And it looks as though flowcharts don’t quite do the reality of all this justice after all. Maybe they help a bit though.

Mind Diagram v2

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