Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

Dizzy heightsI recently read John Hatcher’s latest book Understanding Death. The second half was compelling reading and I’d thoroughly recommend it. However, it maps so closely onto so much that I have blogged about recently I thought I’d refrain from reviewing it in detail. It inspired me though to go back to an earlier book of his published in 2005 – Close Connections. Improbable as it might sound to a materialist, this book on spirituality helped keep me grounded in reality recently while I was staying on the dizzying 32nd floor of a Shanghai hotel. While the themes it deals with, unlike the hotel, are not exactly a million miles away from my well trodden home turf, it has much that enriched my understanding further, so I thought reviewing the second half of this book would be well worthwhile.

He looks in the first part of the book, at science, evolution and theodicy, amongst other preoccupations of mine, before he reaches the core topic of his book which I want to look at more closely. I am going to pick up his theme roughly halfway through (page 154): ‘our metaphorical self (our body) is the outward expression of our metaphysical self (our soul).’

The first half of his book has sought to establish that there is both a spiritual and a physical aspect to reality. This is a theme developed elsewhere on this blog so I thought I’d skip that aspect of his argument this time round. I am mainly interested for now on where he goes with this.

Much that he says has echoes of my other reading and I’ll point this up where it seems appropriate to do so.

He sees parallels between the maturation of the individual and of society (page 162).

Even as the advancement of the human body politic is portrayed in [Baha'i] terms of an “ever-advancing civilisation,” so the advancement of the individual can be portrayed in terms of an ever more inclusive or expansive definition of “self” . . . . an expanding sense of one’s relationships with and obligations to others, even eventually to the whole of mankind.


Robert Wright

The resonates with Robert Wright in The Evolution of God and Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation. Wright’s position is captured in a quote I’ve used in an earlier post:

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

(page 428-429)

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, takes a more nuanced position but nonetheless highlights the positive power of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

A recent article suggests that the empathy debate is a vigorous one.

From here Hatcher moves through familiar territory marshalling evidence in support of the metaphysical including near death experiences (NDEs) for example. There is much on this blog on this subject also (see the earlier links) so again I will not dwell on this.

It’s when he refers to Larry Dossey quoting the work of Paul Davies (page 180-81) that we move closer to the core of my current preoccupations.

‘What stuff is the soul made of?’ he asks.  ‘The question is as meaningless as asking what stuff citizenship or Wednesdays are made of. The soul is a holistic concept.’ This essential concept of ‘the mind,’ or ‘self,’ or ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’ as nonlocal and nonmaterial – though capable of interacting with physical reality – is critical to our discussion.

pim v l

Pim van Lommel

This proves to be a truly challenging issue once you get up close, as we will see in the sequence of four posts.

The start is deceptively familiar, straightforward even. He brings in, at this point, the metaphor of the ‘transceiver’ which I had already met in the work of Pim van Lommel who unpacks it in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 68 – see an earlier post for a fuller treatment):

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.

Hatcher puts it this way (page 181):

To consider that the consciousness and its powers (will, memory, rational thought) can function through a transceiver (the brain) without being localised is at the heart of the Bahá’í concept of an ‘associated’ or ‘counterpart’ relationship between the physical self (especially the brain) and the metaphysical self (the soul). Dossey states the concept succinctly: ‘the fact that the mind maybe nonlocal does not mean that it could not act through the brain.’

These ideas, I have recently discovered, have their roots in the thinking of a 19th Century pioneer in this area, FWHMyers. Kelly in the book Irreducible Mind summarises a key part of his position (page 73):

. . . 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

After exploring the effects of prayer, he draws on the insights of Lothar Schafer (pages 184-85): ‘. . . the background of reality has mind-like qualities.’ This is reminiscent of what Amit Goswami, the physicist, described in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science.

This paves the way for a close consideration of the light that the Baha’i Writings shed on this intriguing and all-important matter. Consideration of that will have to wait till the next post. It’s where concepts get really slippery and hard to hold onto.

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mind diagram material

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

As time goes on my idea of what I think is happening in consciousness moves gradually more within the reach of speech. In my view, as modern humans in thrall to a materialistic ideology, we believe we live in a bubble largely mediated by the brain and to a considerable extent that is true. I’ve tried to model this idea in the diagram above: it’s not meant to replace the threshold model I’ve discussed elsewhere but rather to complement it. The threshold model represents an idea which was once more widely accepted in the West and needs to be again. The two ways of describing the situation are not incompatible. The threshold model allows for the fact that if you damage the brain as a receiver of transcendent wavelengths you end up locked into a very narrow range of signals, in some cases exclusively from the basest part of the spectrum.

Most brains most of the time for most of us have reasonably accurate access to our social and material environment. Transcendent reality is a no-brainer most of the time these days in the West, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense of the term.

Where’s the harm in that?

If my understanding of people and things keeps me safe and does no harm to anyone else, what’s the problem?

Well, for a start, it’s very rare for anyone’s brain to work that well all the time.  Our brains are far from perfect. The messages our brains convey to our minds are mucked up one way or another far too often for our comfort. Many of the ways this happens are relatively harmless and are dealt with in books such as those by Chris Frith – Making Up the Mind –  and Kahneman – Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow - I have touched on the latter in an earlier post.

Sometimes though, as a result of these distortions, we harm ourselves and others all too frequently.

A good place to start examining some of the ways the brain can be shaped to warp our understanding in dangerous ways is Adrian Raine‘s overview of the roots of crime in his book The Anatomy of Violence. He’s no believer in transcendence: he dismisses Descartes, for example, saying with confident incredulity, that he thought the brain ‘was an antenna for the spirit to communicate with the body’ (page 65). He’s also radically sceptical about the idea of free will, and regards it as an illusion (page 315): ‘You did not choose to read this book. Your brain made you do it.’

Nonetheless, you’d have to go a long way to find a better analysis of the ways that the physical and the social can interact to create a dangerous brain. And he bravely goes out a long way onto a tapering branch in a thoroughly justified effort to bring the taboo topic of biology back into the frame of reference for any discussion of the origins of crime and violence.

It will be impossible for me to do full justice to his position in such a short space as this, so I do not propose to dwell on what are for me some of the weaker sections of the book but they have to be mentioned. The book has the structure of a sandwich.

The first part advocates an unqualified evolutionary perspective on the reasons why men are the main perpetrators of violence in our society. The data he uses certainly support this gender bias unequivocally. Evolution has clearly played its part. Most of what he adduces by way of a supposedly complete explanation is a plausible myth for which, by definition, there can be little if any evidence.

The last part explores, depending on your perspective, either a utopian or a dystopian view of our future ability to reduce crime, for example, by only allowing those with a licence to have children and by placing in secure but reasonably pleasant environments those whom our much improved testing methods have defined as almost certain to commit serious harm in the future. It’s a brave presentation of possibilities, but not to everyone’s taste perhaps – we’re in the land of the Minority Report almost.

There is more to his thesis than that though. There is the wholesome protein of well-supported analysis between these two slices of white bread.

Dennis Rader

Dennis Rader

My interest in this aspect of the mind-brain relationship has always been there, hence for example my post on Baron-Cohen’s book – Zero Degrees of Empathy. This interest was recently reactivated by the above-average crime drama on BBC – The Fall. There we see the activities of a serial killer whose identity we know right from the start. The story line was based on the murders of Dennis Rader so it was well-grounded in the real world and a fascinating depiction of how a man can execute a series of murders while at the same time appearing to be an ordinary family man.

This motivated me to get past the off-putting opening section of Raine’s book and reach the fascinating core of his analysis. Raine acknowledges from the outset that social and biological influences interact (page 9):

I want to stress that social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence.

His Core Position

To summarise his strongest thesis brutally, he illustrates in compelling detail how impairments in various parts of the brain, which would usually result either from genetic imperfections and/or from pre-, peri- or post-natal insult or deprivation, though later injuries play a definite part, are compounded when attachment problems occur in infancy and early childhood. The damage that can occur to the developing brain is often preventable as in the case of the harm which is caused by alcohol, tobacco and drug usage. Sometimes, tragically, it is not preventable even though it should be, as in the case of post-war starvation conditions during pregnancy. It’s effects can be passed down the generations by means of the epigenetic effects – ie when our environment works to switch genes on or off.

Once the damage is done it is hard if not impossible to remedy when the person whose brain is impaired is unwilling to invest any effort in the process. Willingness to invest effort suggests that there are ways of repairing the brain even of a possible psychopath. I think the will to do so comes from the mind which is independent of the brain but requires an intact brain to operate: Raine, of course, would feel the drive to mend your brain comes from the brain itself.


To simplify somewhat, the focus of much of what he writes concerns defects in conscience, emotional conditioning and the organisation of one’s behaviour.


In terms of conscience and conditioning the limbic system plays a key role (page 90):

Josh Greene, an amazing philosopher and neuroscientist at Harvard, published the first study to describe what happens at a neural level during personal moral dilemmas. . . . Compared to more “impersonal” moral dilemmas that do not bring you face-to-face with someone else, your brain shows increased activation in a circuit that comprises the medial prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala. . . . . This is where that amygdala and other limbic activation comes in, contributing to the emotional “conscience” component of moral decision-making alongside some subregions of the prefrontal cortex.

It appears to account for the lack of conscience in a psychopath (page 115):

We can think of a conscience as essentially a set of classically conditioned emotional responses. . . . Because of this lack of fear conditioning, psychopaths lack a fully developed conscience. And it is that lack of conscience—a sense of what is right and what is wrong—that makes them who they are.

Two Types of Psychopath

The kind of thing that makes this book such an invaluable read is that Raine does not stop there. He looks at evidence that draws a distinction between two types of psychopath (page 124):

The unsuccessful psychopaths also show what we would expect based on prior research with institutionalized psychopaths, a blunted autonomic stress response—only small increases in sweat rate and heart rate from the resting baseline. The successful psychopaths, in sharp contrast to their unsuccessful counterparts, show significant increases in heart rate and skin conductance relative to their resting state. Essentially there is no difference between the successful psychopaths and the normal controls.

He is all too aware that this then raises another crucial question (page 128):

But if the successful psychopath does not have the autonomic impairments that haunt failed psychopaths, what made him psychopathic in the first place?

And as you would expect from such a thorough study, he has an answer (page 128):

The successful [psychopaths' pulse rate is] six beats per minute slower than the control group, and slightly below the level of the unsuccessful psychopaths. So, successful psychopaths have the low resting cardiovascular arousal that we argued earlier may result in stimulation-seeking, a cardinal feature of the psychopath.

As if that was not complicated enough, he throws another ingredient into the mix (ibid.):

. . . . .the successful psychopaths evidenced a psychosocial impairment not shown by the other two groups—being raised by people other than their natural parents or being brought up in a foster home or other institution. Parental absence and a lack of bonding may have helped shape the lack of close social connectedness and the superficiality that typifies psychopathic relationships.

Clearly then, brain abnormalities interact with environmental influences so we are not looking at a simplistically biological model here.

Learning from Mistakes

A different area of the brain comes into play when we look at impulse control and the organisation of behaviour (page 138):

Those with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder—lifelong persistent antisocial behavior—had an 11 percent reduction in the volume of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. . .

He goes on to explain why this matters (page 141):

 The ventral prefrontal cortex . . . .  connects to the limbic system and other brain areas to generate appropriate emotional responses within a social context, measured here by a sweat response. . . . Second, at a cognitive level, such neurological patients make bad decisions.

What is even more interesting is that such deficits impair the linkage with emotional learning in such a way that people do not get warning bells ringing in their heads when they enter situations which past experience has demonstrated to them are potentially dangerous. They never made the connection so they repeat the mistake. In a card choice experiment which required the participants to learn to discriminate between a high-reward high-risk deck with low longterm returns from a low-risk low-reward deck with high longterm returns, guess what? There were no alarm bells ringing in the lesion patients’ heads (page 142) ‘so they continue to pick cards from the bad decks.’

Only Simulations to go on

This is a very small sample of evidence from a book which is 453 pages long. While the incidence of extreme consequences such as murder and rape as a result of brain impairment is relatively low, the prevalence of distorted perceptions of personal and practical reality as a result of milder deficits in the brain are far more widespread. What is even more unsettling is that even the normal brain cannot be relied on to deliver completely accurate estimates of what is really going on outside our heads. I’ve explored that elsewhere so I won’t bang on about it again here. I simply wanted to do a bit more to dispel the complacency with which we all assume we know what’s real and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad.

Unfortunately, all we have is a relatively useful approximation of reality to go on, and we have to be prepared for it to sometimes let us down quite badly.

So, is there anything we can rely on more securely? Is there anyway our consciousness can reliably access a trustworthy simulation of a more viable reality? That’s something I hope to return to in due course when I might be able to speak to the possibility, even probability, of a model more like the one below.

mind diagram with transcend

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Regular readers of this blog will have seen this diagram before. No need to worry, though. This post is not a repeat of a previous one though it does return to an earlier theme.

I was at a meeting the other day where a conversation with a friend clarified that I am not the only one to find the idea of consciousness having thresholds an extremely useful one that resonates strongly with personal experience. It was only a snatched exchange of ideas as the meeting moved from one part of the agenda to another but it was enough for us to pass shared fragments of agreed reality to and fro.

‘Please, friends,’ shouted the facilitator. ‘We need to sit down. . . . ‘

‘I really like this idea of the brain as a filter,’ my friend whispered.

‘. . .  we really have to make a start. . . . . ‘

‘I know,’ I replied out of the corner of my mouth.’ It fits with the other analogy of the brain as a receiver.’

‘. . . we’ve got a lot to do still. . . . ‘

‘Yes,’ she hissed. ‘It tunes to a wavelength and only catches a tiny part of the spectrum.’

‘Right,’ came the shout from the front. ‘We need to watch the presentation on the make up of this neighbourhood.’

We had to sit back down again, keep quiet and tune into the broadcast of the meeting.

It was enough to trigger another spate of ideas on this subject. This is partly because, as I think I have said before, this blog all too often simply relays other people’s ideas and doesn’t share why they resonate so strongly with me at a personal level. Perhaps it would be useful to do bit more sharing at that level. It feels a bit scary though so I’ll start with a few generalisations.

Filtering – a mixed blessing

It is efficient for consciousness to be protected by filters. It would be hard to focus on what to do next if we were flooded with all the possible incoming data, most of which is not relevant to our present purposes. When the filter breaks down problems of distraction or destruction creep in such as with so-called ‘psychosis’. I read a paper by Hemsley on this many years ago, 1975 in fact, in which he examined ‘attention deficits in schizophrenia.’  “Inefficiencies in . . .  the ‘filtering’ . . . .  mechanism” is referred to as one of the factors behind this problem with focused attention. Attention is grabbed by passing distractions and their grip was thought to be too strong sometimes to resist. Much water has passed under this bridge since, particularly in terms of radically questioning the whole construct of schizophrenia, but the idea that we need a filter to keep out unwanted distractions if we are to function efficiently still seems plausible.

But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. This protection comes at a price. We are blind and deaf to much that would enrich our lives. When consciousness is controllably permeable there is an opportunity for creativity and/or mysticism. This is an area that Myers was very much concerned with and I will eventually return to that topic in this blog. (‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ Well. at least another 400 pages by my reckoning. I got bogged down for a long time in the rather swampy prose of the chapter on memory in Irreducible Mind.)


Anyway, to get back to the main point. What makes me feel that what I am conscious of is protected by filters that create a threshold that certain kinds of experience cannot or at least do not usually cross? I am not going to go into any detail about the way the brain works to control attention. One example of its reality should be enough to convince that a filtering process of stunning power exists. An experiment was run where people were asked to count the passes of the ball in a basket ball game. During the game a man in a gorilla suit walks across the court in full view. Half those watching the video and counting passes did not see him! The significance of this is discussed at the following link. A key comment for our present purposes is this:

Question: What does this experiment demonstrate to us about selective attention?

Christopher Chabris: What this experiment shows is that when we’re paying attention to something, basically doing a task that demands our attention such as counting the passes of the basketball in this case, or really any other kind of really attention-demanding task that we do, we can seriously overestimate our ability to do other tasks at the same time and especially to notice and handle unexpected or surprising things.  We think that we’re going to notice unexpected things that come into our field of view and we think we’re going to pay attention to the things we should pay attention to, but in fact, when we’re focused on one task, we’re noticing and paying attention to a lot less than we really think.

Coming up from below

Of course, I am not talking only of this kind of filtering, which most of us would readily accept as part of our makeup. I am talking about something more radical.

The idea that consciousness has material pressing upwards upon it from below has a long history, and Freud is probably its most famous proponent. While I do not accept that his description of my mental architecture is accurate nor that his account of the complexes is completely credible, I do agree that underneath my awareness there are strong currents of unacknowledged experiences flowing. This was brought home to me in 1974 in the most compelling fashion imaginable.

Shortly before this stunning experience, I had been standing in a pub in Hampstead, staring out of its leaded window panes onto the mishapen street outside as I waited for a friend to join me. An unexpected thought just flashed through my mind concerning my work as a teacher: ‘If I have to carry on with this another thirty years I’d rather shoot myself.’ I was shocked. Thoughts like that were not just rare occurrences in my consciousness – they had been non-existent until that moment at the age of 31.

I decided it was time for a little self-exploration. Not realising the risks I might have been taking and because of my antiestablishment stance at the time which bordered on the anarchic, it never occurred to me to try any conventional approach to self-understanding –  I had to go for the totally alternative. I got to hear of a group which called itself ‘People Not Psychiatry.’ I discovered that one of their followers ran encounter groups in a squat not far from where I was living at the time. I booked in for an ‘encounter group’ weekend.

The full story will have to wait till next time.

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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 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.


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 (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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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.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244)

assagioliIn 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).

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

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)[1] (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.


Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

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.’

[1] 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.


The Threshold Issue

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Reality Model

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.


A Transceiver

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.


Stellar Spectra (from this website)

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.


Picture from this link.

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