I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This includes poems such as the one below.
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 06/12/2014 | Leave a Comment »
Given that I made such a big thing out of a near death experience in Monday’s post on the No-Self issue, I thought the least I could do republish some earlier posts on consciousness and NDEs for good measure before the week is over. This is the second of three that belong together. The first came out on Wednesday: the other will come out tomorrow.
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.
Posted in Afterlife, Book Reviews, Science and Religion, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bacterial meningitis, Coma, Eben Alexander, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, NDE, near death experience, psychology on 02/12/2014 | 5 Comments »
The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. God willing, the earth shall never be deprived of these two greatest gifts.
(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, page 171)
Given that I made such a big thing out of Eben Alexander’s book in yesterday’s post on the No-Self issue, I thought the least I could do, to make it easy to access, was republish my review of his book. So here it is. I’ll also throw in a couple more earlier posts on consciousness and NDEs for good measure before the week is over.
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon with a dramatic conversion experience behind him. Seven days shifted him from sceptic to believer in the afterlife. Experiences he had had as a medic were completely reconstrued (page 87):
. . . . a coma patient was a kind of in-between being. Neither completely here (the earthly realm) nor completely there (the spiritual realm), these patients often have a singularly mysterious atmosphere to them. This was, as I’ve mentioned, a phenomenon I’d noticed myself many times, though of course I’d never given it the supernatural credence [before].
His recovery, his NDE apart, was to be a minor miracle (page 89):
. . . they did not know of anyone making a full recovery from bacterial meningitis after being comatose for more than a few days. We were now into day four.
The fact that he is now talking and walking let alone writing this book was highly improbable, verging on downright impossible (page 92):
I’m not going to include any plot spoilers in this review. Though the book has been sniffed at by sceptics who feel Eben has gone soft in the head, I can assure you his experience was truly remarkable and his account of it sober and convincing.
Well, I would be convinced, wouldn’t I, since he confirms all my biases. I can only say that I do expose myself to the writings of those with whom I disagree, fighting my confirmation bias at least to that extent, but their arguments always seem to fall short of what I regard as measured and weighty (see below for more on that).
Coming out of Coma
Instead of recounting the experience in itself, I’ll pick up the narrative from when he comes back into the body and focus on what his experience could be said to have demonstrated. About his return from his coma he writes (page 117):
My mind—my real self—was squeezing its way back into the all too tight and limiting suit of physical existence, with its spatiotemporal bounds, its linear thought, and its limitation to verbal communication. Things that up until a week ago I’d thought were the only mode of existence around, but which now showed themselves as extraordinarily cumbersome limitations.
He acknowledges that on his return he was also the victim of something (page 118) called ‘ICU psychosis.’ However, he does not agree that this state accounts for his NDE experience (ibid.)
Some of the dreams I had during this period were stunningly and frighteningly vivid. But in the end they served only to underline how very, very dissimilar my dream state had been compared with the ultra-reality deep in coma.
The whole coma experience had been totally convincing (page 130):
What I’d experienced was more real than the house I sat in, more real than the logs burning in the fireplace. Yet there was no room for that reality in the medically trained scientific worldview that I’d spent years acquiring.
I can tell you that most skeptics aren’t really skeptics at all. To be truly skeptical, one must actually examine something, and take it seriously. And I, like many doctors, had never taken the time to explore NDEs. I had simply “known” they were impossible.
Among the reasons he has for being convinced of the reality of his own experience and the validity of its implications is his view that the illness he had was as close to death as you can get (page 133):
He finds all the usual candidates that sceptics adduce to explain away an NDE, such as anoxia and drug/temporal lobe effects, completely unconvincing. Also, as he was utterly unaware of any of the literature on NDEs, he had no expectations to subtly influence his experience, and in any case, as you will see when you read his account, his experience was untypical in certain key respects. He outlines the explanation which he regards as the most plausible reductionist candidate (page 142):
The final hypothesis I looked at was that of the “reboot phenomenon.” This would explain my experience as an assembly of essentially disjointed memories and thoughts left over from before my cortex went completely down. Like a computer restarting and saving what it could after a system-wide failure, my brain would have pieced together my experience from these leftover bits as best it could.
He find this also unconvincing (ibid.):
Everything—the uncanny clarity of my vision, the clearness of my thoughts as pure conceptual flow—suggested higher, not lower, brain functioning. But my higher brain had not been around to do that work.
This is what makes the NDE which resulted from a coma induced by bacterial meningitis so compelling as evidence. There were no higher brain functions to stitch together the kind of coherent experience he went through and could recall in such rich detail. He is scathing now about this panoply of reductionist pseudo-explanations (page 142-143):
There was for him no escaping the probability that what he had experienced was real (page 144):
. . . when I added up the sheer unlikelihood of all the details—and especially when I considered how precisely perfect a disease E. coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down, and my rapid and complete recovery from almost certain destruction—I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason.
He puts the basic reason very simply (page 144): ‘Medically speaking, that I had recovered completely was a flat-out impossibility, a medical miracle.’
The Nature of Consciousness
This leads him to look at an experience whose true significance he had missed when viewing life through the lens of his sceptical persona (page 146):
Many others have seen that astonishing clarity of mind that often comes to demented elderly people just before they pass on, just as John had seen in his father (a phenomenon known as “terminal lucidity”). There was no neuroscientific explanation for that.
It is a short step from such a perspective to the even more radical revision of his concept of consciousness as a whole (page 150):
Far from being an unimportant by-product of physical processes (as I had thought before my experience), consciousness is not only very real—it’s actually more real than the rest of physical existence, and most likely the basis of it all. But neither of these insights has yet been truly incorporated into science’s picture of reality.
Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.
His point about the astonishing fact that consciousness exists is also one that I have tackled before, both on my blog (see links in this sentence) and in the lion’s den of the Birmingham Medical School (page 154).
There is nothing about the physics of the material world (quarks, electrons, photons, atoms, etc.), and specifically the intricate structure of the brain, that gives the slightest clue as to the mechanism of consciousness.
In fact, the greatest clue to the reality of the spiritual realm is this profound mystery of our conscious existence.
The Great Being
I’d like to close with his carefully worded observation about the nature of God, which describes the sense he had of being closely connected in his NDE with that Great Being while at the same time this entity was nonetheless inherently beyond his comprehension and totally irreducible to anything he could ever comprehend (page 106):
While in the Core, even when I became one with the Orb of light and the entire higher-dimensional universe throughout all eternity, and was intimately one with God, I sensed strongly that the creative, primordial (prime mover) aspect of God was the shell around the egg’s contents, intimately associated throughout (as our consciousness is a direct extension of the Divine), yet forever beyond the capability of absolute identification with the consciousness of the created.
All in all this is a carefully written and rigorously examined account of a truly extraordinary experience whose reality I do not doubt, even though it is just the testimony of one person. I recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in this aspect of life.
Amit Goswami on Consciousness as the Ground of our Being
Posted in Mindfulness, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 7 Illusions, Bahá'u'lláh, Eben Alexander, Karen Wilson, NDE, Poonja-Ji, Proof of Heaven, Ramana Maharshi, Richard Mendius, Rick Hanson, Sam Harris, The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain, Tulku Urgyen on 01/12/2014 | 2 Comments »
O MY SERVANT! Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more.
(Bahá’u’lláh – Hidden Words – Persian 40)
At about this point I was planning to do a review of Karen Wilson’s insightful book 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are. However, my post last week on The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain set another hare running which I mentioned towards the end of the post. I wrote:
Their concept of self is worthy of consideration also, but I’ll keep that for a separate post.
The reason for not tackling it as part of the review of their book is that it spreads into Karen’s book, into a recent article of Sam Harris’s and across into the Bahá’í Writings – too much to cover in the last few lines of a long post.
I decided it was best to tackle it separately now and defer the review of Karen’s book till a bit later – not too much later though I hope.
The No-Self Issue
Hanson and Mendius have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my core beliefs, as some of what they say can be seen as compatible with the quote at the head of this post, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul (page 204):
. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.
What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):
Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”
What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.
First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’
While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article, which my good friend Barney alerted me to – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality – he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:
Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.
To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi (1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’
While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.
Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:
The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.
What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:
The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.
He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:
This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.
For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.
Only that which is not truly you will disappear. And you will feel more like yourself than ever before. Inside yourself now, you KNOW who you are. But most of the time you do not act who you are.
She continues to use ‘self’ language, so I find the path she then takes me on somehow more meaningful than where Harris and the Buddha book leave me. Also she is using terms which resonate with me, and which I have explored in earlier posts (my italics – 456):
The exhilaration of her conclusion is infectious though I will be exploring some reservations about her use of the word mind in exactly this way when I come to review her book (520):
That`s when it hit me: I AM even when I don`t think, therefore I am not my mind!
Where’s the Catch?
To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’
He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.
But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.
I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):
To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?
The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):
In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.
As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.
His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.
What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?
Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us:
Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world. (Tablets: page 730)
For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.
So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.
Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.
Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.
How it touches me?
For reasons I have discussed at length elsewhere, I don’t expect any of this to convince a sceptic. The best I can do is use it to demonstrate that believing in survival after death or the transcendent nature of consciousness is just as rational as not doing so. An experience that an atheist interprets in purely material terms may, to a believer’s eyes, quite reasonably point to the reality of a transcendent dimension. It’s a choice, but the evidence can never be compelling if Hick is right and this is God’s way of leaving us free to decide for ourselves.
My fascination with this particular crux though is not quite the same as my interest in NDEs. It’s more immediate and urgent, less happy being theoretical and distant. Ever since the mid-70s I have been deeply intrigued by consciousness and have used dreams, breathing meditations, along with various forms of therapy, to explore hidden aspects of my own mind experientially, not theoretically.
What is eluding me right now is what others profess to have experienced – pure consciousness stripped of the static generated by our brains. Knowing how obstinate I have been in seeking to unlock other doors of perception, I could be a while yet battling with this one. Below is the guided meditation I created for myself from the Buddha’s Brain book to help me on my way with this task.
We’ll see if I have enough time this side of the grave.
Posted in Book Reviews, Compassion & Empathy, Identity & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness (S U N Y Series in the Philosophy of Psychology), Cognitive dissonance, consciousness, Dabrowski, Jenny Wade, Positive Disintegration on 01/11/2014 | Leave a Comment »
Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came out on Tuesday and the second yesterday. The last will be published tomorrow.
The two previous posts have given a brief overview of Jenny Wade’s thesis and looked at her treatment of near-death experiences and lateralisation. At last we have reached the core theme of her brilliant book, Changes of Mind.
Transitions between Levels
This theme relates strongly to one of my most recent preoccupations: Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. He speaks of five levels of personality development (see diagram above from my earlier post on the subject). To oversimplify for present purposes, we move from an overly conformist self-gratifying level through conflict to increasingly autonomous levels where we strive to enact our ideals rather than indulge our desires. Authenticity and empathy become increasingly influential states of mind. He is though more concerned with creativity than mysticism and, as far as I can tell, he has little or nothing to say about transcendence.
From Wade’s point of view he joins the many others whose theory of development stops too soon, probably at her Authentic level (see next post).
The two theories begin at different points. Dabrowski, in the treatments I have so far read of his theory, does not include prenatal and infantile stages. He seems to be concerned with adult functioning and his Level One conflates Wade’s Achievement and Conformist levels. Also, whereas she tracks in detail subsequent developments towards the autonomy he sees as becoming increasingly evident through his Levels Two to Four, he seems to leave it as simply something that occurs if the challenges of inner conflict are met, without specifying what kinds of challenges might be typical of various developmental levels.
I think, therefore, Wade complements his thinking in an important way and would like to spend some time outlining some of the details in her model to illustrate this.
The Driver of Dissonance
Wade contributes, thanks to her close examination of many thinkers including Piaget, Kohlberg, and Wilber amongst others, a crucial conceptual clarification at each stage. Whereas it seems to me from the secondary sources that Dabrowski contents himself with using words like ‘suffering’ and ‘conflict’ to give a catchall description of what in general goes on, Wade is far more precise. Even in childhood states of consciousness, whether they have persisted into adulthood or not, she detects specific conflicts that trigger development. Take for example her description of the move upwards from Naïve to Egocentric Consciousness (page 94):
The essentials – corroborated by anthropological research and theory – are that the individual’s needs fail to be met consistently enough by the environment, creating a conflict that simultaneously gives birth to the self-encapsulated ego and the fear that it can be destroyed. In both children and adults, this seems to occur through exposure to information that cannot be assimilated at their present level of functioning.
In Naïve Consciousness the individual feels safely embodied in their context. When they feel exposed to danger by a separation from that context, the dissonance begins to operate that will drive them to a different level of understanding.
She is clear though that this same basic principle applies across many stages of development (ibid.):
In essence, cognitive conflict results from repeated exchanges that cannot be resolved using resources and solutions available to the present developmental level. The problem does not go away, the motivation to solve it remains strong, and yet the individual’s resources are not competent to resolve the dilemma.
She uses Kuhn’s terminology in saying ‘the limits of a paradigm [have been] reached.’
Where Dissonance Might Be Elusive
Dissonance at the Egocentric level is harder to come by (page 106):
Cleckly and Smith point out that lots of people function primarily at the Egocentric level in modern society, many of them rather successfully.
How, then, is a desire for a transition to the conformist level created? One possibility is particularly intriguing (page 117):
[Many researchers converge on the belief] that socialisation results from the certainty, as opposed to the possibility, of one’s own death.
Clearly, such a fear would seem to be enough to derail all but the most intransigent of narcissists. Conformist awareness (ibid.) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’
Not surprisingly, dissonance at this level is even harder to come by than at the Egocentric level (page 130):
Transition from the Conformist stage is usually very difficult, because the individual is in a fairly stable equilibrium with his social environment and will tend to rationalise away information that does not align with his worldview or self image. When sufficient cognitive dissonance arises, however, change to the next stage no longer follows the invariant pattern of most developmental theories: instead, two paths are available.
A Fork in the Path
In effect, the path forks between Achievement and Affiliative Consciousness. There is no clear consensus about exactly what triggers the shift towards either of these higher levels. There is a sense that the exact direction may be partly determined by gender (page 132), women moving towards the Affiliative option and men the Achievement one.
This is one choice point at which I feel Dabrowski may be the more illuminating of the two about the possible trigger. He is clear that a conflict between what a person feels ought to be the case and what they see is the case precipitates a shift from conformity towards autonomy. Wade (page 148) quotes the view that a transition ‘occurs when a dramatic life event destroys faith in established authority.” She amplifies on this later (page 156-157):
When forced to acknowledge that the rules do not work, evolving Conformists will choose either the Achievement solution, “get it while you can” or the Affiliative solution, “love conquers all,” depending upon predisposition and compelling environmental factors.
Dabrowski is also clear that this sense of ‘what is’ conflicting with ‘what ought to be’ may be relatively rare, something with which Wade clearly agrees (page 133):
Researchers have observed that, comparatively, very few adults even in industrialised societies function consistently above the Conformist level.
She accepts that this may be in part because developmentalists do not have the tools to study this level and/or the database may be too poor to contain such information. My own sense is that such states of mind, in terms of stepping up to either Affiliative or Achievement levels, while they may not constitute a majority in any population, in advanced Western societies will not be all that rare. People going beyond these next two levels, however, will be much thinner on the ground. It is more likely to be absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence that is at work concerning the frequency with which people pass beyond conformism. A closer look at what might follow must wait until next time.
. It is perhaps worth mentioning that these are not the only theories that focus on levels of personality development. Ken Wilber refers to several in his book (page 5) – A Theory of Everything. He includes the well-known, such as Abraham Maslow, but also others who are less famous such as Clare Graves. He feels their theories are not contradictory and are rooted in good evidence for the most part.
Posted in Book Reviews, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged consciousness, Jenny Wade, Lateralization of brain function, Levels of consciousness, The Master and his Emissary, Unity on 30/10/2014 | Leave a Comment »
Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came out yesterday. The third will be published on Saturday and the last on Sunday.
This re-exploration of Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, began with a brisk review of her overall perspective followed by a summary of her views on near-death experiences. Before we come to transitions between levels of consciousness, the topic that is closer to the core of her overall purpose, her sense of how the different hemispheres of the brain influence the realisation of different levels of consciousness deserves a look.
Perhaps I should clarify at this point that she is concerned to unwrap the mysteries surrounding human consciousness at least in terms of how it develops and to define more adequately the different stages of that development. When I come to discuss the specifics of this it will be obvious that there are implications for what we term personality or character in the individual and what we term culture or society at the level of aggregates of people. This is very much a concern of McGilchrist as well in his masterly treatment of the subject in The Master and his Emissary.
Her Sixth Level of development is called Affiliative Consciousness. It is one of two stages of development that are open to somebody who has reached what she calls the conformist level of consciousness. All that needs to be said for now is that the choice at that stage, as she sees it, lies between Achievement Consciousness and Affiliative Consciousness (page 147). Achievement consciousness resolves the problems of the conformity level by working on the thesis that you “get it while you can,” whereas Affiliative Consciousness believes that “love conquers all.” We will be exploring the transition aspect in more detail later.
As she unpacks the characteristics of Affiliative Consciousness the lateralisation links becomes clear (page 151: ‘. . . ‘ indicates here and below I have deleted her references):
People at the Affiliative level mainly grasp similarities and patterns rather than differences . . . . In part, the emphasis on similarities comes from the need to avoid conflicts that might threaten their sense of community, but it is coupled with a holistic worldview and indifference to the passage of time characteristic of right hemisphere dominance . . . .
In the same way as McGilchirst does, she feels (page 152) that our culture is biased against right-hemisphere processing. As a result is tends to denigrate this level of consciousness:
The bias against right brain processing has created – and perpetuated – confusion between Naïve and Affiliative consciousness.
Naïve Consciousness, Level Two, is characteristic of early childhood in her classification of levels. It is clearly an insult to see Affiliative Consciousness as a regression to such a state and I find her linking of this to our culture’s disparagement of right-brain functioning completely plausible.
She does not contend, though, that Affiliative Consciousness is without drawbacks (page 153):
Affiliative consciousness is not all sweetness and light, however. Turning now to what may legitimately be considered drawbacks of right-brain processing, Affiliative people often do not perceive inharmonious elements indicative of negative emotions and difference, particularly anger. . . . They avoid conflict and confrontation. . . Right-brain-dominant people tend to be much less verbal in response to stress then left-brain-dominant people, more prone to deny problems, hold in hostility, and develop an appeasing ‘peace at any price’ approach to personal conflict.
So, not completely satisfactory then. What she feels is better is a balance between the two hemispheres. Achievement Consciousness is the more left-brain mode and is definitely not without its problems either, as its motif is ‘get it while you can’ (page 147). To do this it figures out ‘the “rules of the game” in order to “cut corners”, “play the angles,” increase [its] “odds” and gain an advantage over less able . . . . members.’ Not a prescription for the ideal personality, then, either.
Balancing these two aspects moves the person to the level of Authentic Consciousness (page 157):
Authentic consciousness requires access to the non-dominant hemisphere, but not exchanging one hemisphere’s orientation for the other’s. It is “whole brain” thinking, in which both hemispheres organise consciousness, suggesting some entrainment of EEG patterns across the neocortex.
McGilchrist would wholeheartedly agree that this is a huge step forward (see YouTube video below). In The Master and His Emissary he wrote (page 203):
[T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.
The next stage after this is Transcendent consciousness, the last one before Unity consciousness. At this stage the synchrony of the two halves of the brain goes beyond intermittent entrainment (page 198):
During meditation, EEG measurements show that both hemispheres slow from beta level activity to alpha and theta waves. Theta is the characteristic brain wave pattern of long-term meditators. Not only does synchronisation of brain waves occur between hemispheres in advanced states, but this entrainment forms harmonic patterns called hypersynchrony.
The exact relationship between the hemispheres is not clear at the Unity level (page 260):
It is not know whether people with Unity consciousness have significantly different brainwave patterns than those at the high end of Transcendent consciousness, especially concerning hemispheric influence…
The Transcendent level can be reached via the Authentic level from either Achievement or Affiliative levels of consciousness provided sufficient degrees of dissatisfaction are there to spur us on, but that issue needs to wait until next time. This is the aspect to which she has, in my view, made her most telling contribution.
McGilchrist RSA Version
Posted in Afterlife, Book Reviews, Science and Religion, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, David Bohm, Jenny Wade, Mark Fox, NDE, near death experience, Positive Disintegration, The Master and his Emissary on 29/10/2014 | Leave a Comment »
Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this next sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The second will be published tomorrow and the other two on Saturday and Sunday.
When I first read Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, I was carried away when she hypothesises that the highest possible stage of the development of human consciousness is Unity Consciousness. As ‘unity’ is a Bahá’í mantra, this was enough in itself to guarantee my complete attention and disarm my disagreements.
But there was more. This level of development was the last of nine. In Arabic numerology nine is the numerical value of the word at the core of the name of this Revelation: ‘Bahá.’ I was entranced. I wrote ‘Brilliant!’ inside the front flyleaf after I’d finished the book.
Because my recent reading of Dabrowski (see three earlier posts) has sensitised me to the possibility of categorising levels of consciousness and perhaps even character development, I decided to re-read her book.
I have decided this time round that it is brilliant (for different reasons though) but flawed.
Still brilliant after all these years
Her reflections on lateralisation and its relationship with the development of consciousness are intriguing and will probably prompt me to revisit Iain McGilchrist to check them out more thoroughly, but as it stands I resonate strongly to what she says. She maps out her levels of consciousness against the back drop of lateralisation and mounts a compelling argument for the value but extreme difficulty of achieving a proper balance in our lives between the operation of the two hemispheres of the brain. But more of that in the next post.
Her most interesting observations to me at present relate to the way that her model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness.
It is probably only fair to add that I am completely incapable of properly evaluating the foundation of her thesis in Bohm’s work on the implicate order as I simply do not understand Bohm’s thinking well enough. You may well wish to stop reading at this point if you feel I have totally disqualified myself from commenting on her other lines of thought.
My simple summary of what I think she means in terms of Bohm is this. There is a hidden order and a visible one. Both are inextricably intertwined. The visible, or perhaps more accurately, the accessible order is the material world as we commonly experience it. The hidden order (though transcendent, timeless and placeless) is also expressed in and through the physical world here and now. Our highest self exists fully realised already in the hidden order but remains invisible to almost all of us. The purpose of our lives is to come to a realisation and expression of and identification with that self, consciously in the visible order. When we do so all ego and desire will fall away, and self in any sense we currently understand it fades away completely. If we fail, in her view we are reincarnated again to have another go. Moving up the levels of consciousness is primarily about cleansing the lens of perception so that we can experience in its true nature what is currently hidden from us.
For those of you who have continued reading, we need to look slightly more closely at the first of the themes I mentioned, and later at the other two in even greater detail.
Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):
One of the key problems here is that she fails to recognise, from the evidence available to her at the time, that NDE-type experiences are not uniquely linked to close encounters with death as she contends (page 324) on the basis of evidence drawn from Morse. Fox’s access to the RERC data enabled him to recognise the common elements between so-called NDE experiences and other mystical and spiritual states where there was neither a threat to life nor any kind of trauma. She does though accept (page 239), but more cautiously than Fox, that ‘near-death consciousness . . . appears to share some characteristics of Transcendent consciousness.’
She also rather too uncritically accepts a long list of core elements (pages 225-226), something about which Fox’s critical re-examination has caused me to be rather more sceptical.
Given that NDEs are very much secondary to her main thesis and her treatment of the issue covers a mere 24 pages out of her total of 341, it is perhaps not too surprising that it falls short of Fox’s focused and thorough treatment.
It certainly does not seriously blemish the overall case she is seeking to make. More of that next time.