Archive for the ‘Self and Soul’ Category
Posted in Afterlife, Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, brain, consciousness, Irreducible Mind, Near Death Experiences, Pim van Lommel on 28/04/2013 | 1 Comment »
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Posted in Self and Soul, tagged Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Bahá'í Faith, FWH Myers, Irreducible Mind, Neuroplasticity, Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli, Transactional Analysis on 08/04/2013 | 2 Comments »
In a previous post on a chapter from the Kellys’ substantial
book, Irreducible Mind, I explained a little about the thresholds that place a filter between our consciousness and experiences from above and as well as experiences from below. This way of looking at things was originally derived from FWH Myers whose slightly confusing use of terminology I tried to clarify in that post using the diagram above.
I am planning to look at things from a slightly different angle now, more to do with the dynamics of the mind rather than its possible structure.
Reading, Writing and Relating, my three ‘R’s
In ‘My Background’ on this blog I have written: ‘I have been learning to use books and writing as two of the ways in which I can improve the maps I use to live by.’
My experiments with using what I was reading in this way began in earnest in the mid-70s. I had stepped back into the mainstream after living for nearly a year in communes devoted to bioenergetic analysis and primal therapy. (I may write more about those some other time.) I was working in a day centre for mental health. It wasn’t the clients that stressed me out but the tensions between the manager and her deputy, both of whom were pulling in opposite directions. After a few months of using a glass of sherry to de-stress when I got home, I decided I needed a healthier remedy. I enrolled in a Transactional Analysis (TA) group (more on that too later, maybe). I also bought lots of books about mind work, and I kept a detailed journal of my reading and my reflections during this whole period and have continued the same practice for much of the time since.
TA was extremely helpful in assisting me in the management of my interactions with other members of staff, not only in terms of understanding better how I was getting hooked into unhelpful patterns of relating, but also in terms of how to straighten out my responses so that I could more successfully avoid the hooks. Journaling is a good way to think about your thinking if you go back over what you have written with a more dispassionate eye later.
Somehow, though, this was not enough.
I was convinced of this when, in one of the books I was reading at the time, I came across a most interesting way of expressing the problem. It went something like this. ‘Why would you give someone else the power to make you upset/sad/angry? It’s your mind. Why let them control it.’ At the time I’d never thought of things this way, or at least not so clearly.
TA took me only so far in my understanding of how this might work. Yes, it gave me tools to examine my thoughts and behaviour, to step back from them to some extent. It also gave me other ways of thinking and behaving to substitute for them. These are two very powerful processes for inner change. However, the emphasis was very much on the TA way of analysing what was happening and on substituting the TA remedy. It hid the essence underneath. The essence, as I now understand it, only gradually became apparent. It’s this essence I hope to unravel now.
This diagram will hopefully help.
‘Well, that’s a fat lot of good!’ you shout, ‘I haven’t a clue what it means!’ And I can’t blame you for saying that. My initial response won’t be much help either: ‘I think in diagrams which saves an awful lot of words for me at the time.’
Now I realise I have to unpack what that means, of course. Behind those few coloured shapes and their labels stands my debt to Bahá’í ideas about the mind/soul/brain relationship, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, psychosynthesis, work on neuroplasticity, and a myriad other things I can’t call to mind right now. As this is not meant to be an academically respectable post, I’m not going to fret over that. Let’s get down to the basic practical implications.
The diagram represents the forces that might be impacting either directly or indirectly upon our consciousness and the decisions we make about what to do. We need to bring it down to earth a bit so we’ll start with a scenario.
What does this vignette illustrate in terms of the diagram?
My values are clear: compassion is the key. They come, you could argue, from a sense of spirituality that says we are all in essence one and when I harm someone else I am harming myself. One model suggests that our mind is an emanation of the spirit and could convey to us intimations of such higher values. This would affect the way we feel about the situation we are in. The diagonal line in the feelings box is there to flag up that that such intimations do not have quite such direct access to consciousness as the more powerful signal from our drives. Using similar imagery to that which Myers employed, the membrane between my awareness and promptings of the spirit is not as permeable as my higher self would like it to be, though it’s probably far too leaky already as far as my lower self is concerned.
My drives, that can be described as coming from lower urges generated in my brain, are pushing me to secure a competitive advantage. They come through; loud – passions tend to run high; clear – I know exactly what the message is; and very swiftly – they often have a short cut to my attention that bypasses my higher cognitive functions: for those reasons they can all too easily commandeer my will to their purposes even under the best of circumstances. Even more so if I forget what I have decided is really important to me.
A pause for reflection before action is often imperative. Reflection is not just thinking, as I have explained in more depth in a previous post, but thinking about thinking, and allows us to step back from what we are experiencing and inspect it more carefully, not mistaking it for who we really are or for the truth. The disidentification exercise created by Roberto Assagioli is a key tool in learning to understand the power of this insight and how to apply it to our lives. This was part of the power of TA: it gave me some tools at least with which to think about my thoughts and feelings and about how to pull back from a complete identification with them. (Below is the adaptation of Assagioli’s disidentification exercise I made to reflect other traditions as well.)
This is only one half of the picture though. The other half will have to wait until the next post.
Posted in Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, disidentification, FWH Myers, Irreducible Mind, mental health, Peter Koestenbaum, psychology, psychosis, Roberto Assagioli, Thomas Reid on 01/04/2013 | Leave a Comment »
What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.
In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.
Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):
After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:
We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.
(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)
Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. Reflection is the ‘capacity to separate consciousness from its contents’ (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.
I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).
How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):
The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…
What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.
Myers’s the self and the Self
The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.
So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):
These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.
Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (see diagram and footnote at the bottom of the post) (page 87):
Supernormal [ie supraliminal in my sense] processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal [unconscious in my use of terms] functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.
He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91)
The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.
He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):
When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [supraliminal: conscious in my usage] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious in my usage] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.
His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):
In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.
Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.
There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):
Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’
For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):
Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.
This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.
An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):
When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.
We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):
One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.
Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):
These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.
All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :
On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’
 Unfortunately, Myers uses supraliminal to mean anything that crosses any threshold into consciousness, whether from above or below. This is a perfectly legitimate usage but it then leaves us no straightforward word to describe what lies above us and beyond our upper threshold. I have preferred to use subliminal to mean what lies beneath the lower threshold and supraliminal for what lies beyond our upper threshold, and conscious to describe what crosses either of the thresholds into our awareness. Quotes from or about Myers tend to follow his usage.
Posted in Science and Religion, Science, Psychology & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, Electromagnetic spectrum, FWH Myers, Irreducible Mind, Mind–body problem, Pim van Lommel, Subliminal Self on 25/03/2013 | Leave a Comment »
Why it matters to me
As I partly explained in the previous post, my education as a psychologist was rooted in a discipline whose mainstream had chosen for almost a century to ignore subjective consciousness, probably the most important spectrum of human experience, in favour of what could be more easily quantified and externally observed. Most psychologists solved, and continue to solve, the mind-brain-reality problem by turning their backs both on the mind in any sense that is not reducible to brain activity and on any reality that appears to challenge the idea that there is nothing but matter. The poem I have just posted – Letter to a Friend in Winter – gives a sense of the issues I was wrestling with on the eve of my first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith in the spring of 1982: the same can also be said of the next poem I will be posting.
Deciding to become a Bahá’í pulled me up short, as I described in the first post of this series. I had not realised that we do not have to choose between material and spiritual models of mind and reality. There is in fact a third way. It involves opening the mind to all the evidence on both sides of the divide and developing a more adequate simulation of reality. And that’s precisely the challenge that Myers had taken up in the 19th Century. It’s time I did him the respect of beginning to grapple, albeit through an intermediary, with his position on this instead of looking only to modern writers for help. I have bought his key text – Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (the title was given posthumously and gives too narrow a sense of the book, apparently) – ready for the next stage, but feel I need to limber up in this way before tackling him head on.
If we start from the core point it will be easiest. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind (page 64):
In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.
She quotes from the man himself in terms of his sense of the divide between spirit and matter (page 70):
“The line between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial,’ as these words are commonly used, means little more than the line between the phenomena which our senses or instruments can detect or register and the phenomena which they can not.”
Is the mind only our brain?
The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):
The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.
Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):
It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?
The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (page 73):
. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.
So what is consciousness?
But in keeping with his ‘tertium quid’ approach, Myers believed (page 74) that “The reconcilement of the two opposing systems [the spiritual and material] in a profounder synthesis” is possible. According to Kelly (page 75) he drew on many traditions:
The rapidly multiplying observations of experimental psychology, neurology, psychopathology, and hypnotism clearly showed that the human mind is far more extensive than ordinarily thought, since much psychological functioning remains outside the range of our conscious mental life . . . .
He defined exactly what he meant (page 76):
. . . . something is ‘conscious’ if it is capable of entering waking awareness, given the appropriate conditions or the discovery of an ‘appropriate artifice’ or experimental method to elicit it . . . . Given this new, expanded conception of what is ‘conscious,’ Myers therefore considered such terms as “‘Unconscious’ or even ‘Subconscious’ . . . [to be] directly misleading” and he proposed instead the words ‘supraliminal, and ‘subliminal’ to distinguish between streams of consciousness that are and are not, respectively, identifiable with ordinary awareness. (page 76)
Kelly agrees that these two uses of the threshold concept can cause confusion. Myers is after all not only concerned with what rises into consciousness from beneath a lower threshold and but also what falls into it from above through a higher one. ‘Supraliminal’ would serve well for that second meaning had he not chosen to restrict its meaning in much of his work to what reaches consciousness from below.
This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, where Kelly uses ‘supraliminal’ to refer to what comes from above, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):
Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.
He does not feel we are yet at our highest achievable level (page 80): ‘. . . our present sensory capacities and our normal waking consciousness [do not] mark the final point of the evolutionary process.’ This gels strongly with my own feelings about the matter as does most of what he wrote. Basically, consciousness is to all intents and purposes infinite. Currently we can read only a tiny fraction of it. Our brains are capable of evolving far further and of taking in or ‘reading’ a broader range of wavelengths from this spectrum of consciousness.
From here Kelly goes onto look at his concept of the self. This is too complex a topic to cram into the end of this post so it will have to wait for next time.