I’m not sure what is meant by “neural reductionism” here, but if it includes the popular notion of “reducing consciousness to brain processes”, then I think there are different levels of analysis and different categories of causes that need to be explored. I don’t think the behavior of mice and hawks in a meadow “reduces” to the chemical processes in their bodies, let alone the quantum processes, but there is certainly a relationship between one and the other. Absent a resort to supernatural or transcendental factors, of course immaterial mental activity including consciousness – whether in humans, monkey, mice, or lizards . . . even spiders – must “reduce” to underlying material phenomena in the sense that the latter are necessary enabling and constructive conditions. But this does not mean that powerful ideas such as cultural helplessness or profound feelings such as love are “merely” electrochemical processes any more than the hunting behaviors of hawks are “merely” molecular processes. If you’re interested, check out some articles on Neurodharma in the Wise Brain Bulletin, which try to get at this; also my article The Mind, the Brain, and God.
There is a lot of fMRI research in which the prompt to the subject in the scanner is reading a text. Many of the texts used are emotion words or passages. So there are many examples of reading producing brain activity that is consistent with the experience the subject reports while reading the text.
More specifically, if you mean reading about an experience per se, I don’t know of any specific studies about that, but there well may be. Bottom-line, if you read about an experience – say, a memoir of combat or rock-climbing or bar-hopping or commodities trading . . . or similar passages in fiction – and have a sense of that experience yourself while reading about it in someone else, then apart from the hypothetical influences of transcendental factors, by definition that mental experience must map one-to-one to underlying neural activity, and in the regions of the brain that represent that kind of experience (e.g., right hemisphere for imagery).
A parallel to reading would be imagining different experiences or behaviors. You might be interested in Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, in which she reports a study that piano players who simply imagined playing a certain piece of music for sustained periods grew cortex in motor regions of the brain that handled those particular finger movements.
This article of mine might also be helpful: Mind Changing Brain Changing Mind.
I use the word “mind” the way it is essentially used, most of the time, in neuroscience, to refer to the entirety of the information represented within the nervous system. We are surrounded by examples of different materials representing immaterial information: the physical hard drive of your computer stores and operates upon the non-physical information in your documents, music, and pictures; physical sound waves carry the intangible meanings of the words we use; and so on. In the same way, the brain represents, stores, communicates, and transforms the information that comprises the mind. Most of this information is forever outside awareness.
In effect, the mind is what the nervous system does, headquartered in the brain.
There may be a transcendental X factor – call it God, Spirit, or by no name at all – at work in awareness, in the mind in general, or in the universe altogether. Personally, I experience and believe that this is the case. But even without this possibility, the dots that connect mental activity and neural activity are getting clearer and clearer – giving us many opportunities to develop and use increasingly precise and powerful ways of using targeted mental activity to stimulate and therefore strengthen the neural substrates of wholesome states of mind.
In reflecting on the super and perennial question of the nature of consciousness, it helps me to bring this lofty topic down to earth in our close kinship with other animals with a nervous system, such as the birds and squirrels I see out the window of my home office. They are clearly seeing and hearing, feeling pain and pleasure. They are aware of their surroundings, and thus conscious in that sense. The fact that their experiences are simpler than ours does not mean they do not exist. So we can ask of them, what is the basis – the causes and conditions – for their experiences? (By “consciousness” I mean simply the combination of experiences and the field of awareness in which they occur.)
Experiences are intangible. We cannot touch or weigh or box up an experience of the color red. But they still exist. Since they are intangible, they do not have a location per se (a huge and useful point). But their causes and conditions do.
Within the ordinary universe – the “natural frame” – there are many causes and conditions that enable, foster, and shape the experiences of a squirrel . . . or a human typing now on a keyboard. Everything that keeps the body going (food, air, water, etc.) is a factor, plus the environment, culture, society, and all the way back to the Big Bang. Causes and conditions located all over the place.
Within the body, what is happening in various systems such as musculoskeletal tissue certainly affects the experiences a squirrel or person is having. In particular, what is happening in the nervous system, especially its headquarters the brain, strongly influences our experiences – and thus our consciousness.
In fact, the immediate physical basis of experiences such as hearing, seeing, remembering, imagining, thinking, sensing, feeling, wanting, suffering, and awakening is the nervous system. It is a necessary condition for experiences such as these. Without the nervous system, there would be no natural experiences.
As long as it is intact and metabolically active, the brain is the necessary and sufficient basis for experiences.
Taking all this into account, in my view, while experiences and consciousness do not have a location, their causes do. We can assess the influence of different kinds of causes in various ways. Science is certainly not currently able to measure quantitatively and “weight” the influence of various causes on experience. Still, it seems obvious that the primary location of the causes of the consciousness of a squirrel is its brain. And the same is true for every human.
This does not mean ignoring other causes and conditions located elsewhere. It is not either-or, it’s yes-and. And it does not mean conflating the physical location of the brain with metaphors like “heady,” “Spock-like,” “in your head,” “top-down,” etc. The primary location of the causes and conditions of sensations in the big toe as well as experiences of tender lovingness . . . is the brain. So if we care about tender lovingness and other important experiences, well, it’s useful to learn about the brain!
For me, the mind/brain (nervous system) distinction is at bottom the distinction between immaterial information and a material substrate that represents it. I think information is real and natural while being immaterial – but information requires a material substrate. And in the nervous system, unlike a chalkboard, information in turn shapes neural structure; the mind changes the brain.
In ways that remain mysterious, somehow the realm of immaterial information becomes experienced phenomenology – for octopi and cats as well as people.
And there could be transcendental X factors at work as well.
I was trying to say that the brain is “close” (i.e. proximal) to the mind . . . while also nodding in the direction of the fact that a brain is sufficient for a basic kind of mind – such as the experiences and information processing of, say, a monkey or a lizard – but for a truly human mind one also needs other enabling and facilitative conditions, such as exposure to language and other aspects of human culture.
I’ve found the work of Evan Thompson, specifically his book Mind in Life, to be deeply useful both intellectually and personally on this issue.
Fundamentally, in my view, there are just three kinds of ways to engage the mind, to practice with it productively:
In effect, if the mind is like a garden we can observe it, pull weeds, and plant flowers. In a nutshell: let be, let go, and let in.
The three ways to engage the mind work together. For example, we need to make efforts to grow capacities to be with the mind, such as self-acceptance, observing-ego functions, or distress tolerance. And we be with the results of our efforts to reduce the negative and grow the positive.
Of the three, the first one (which approximates the conventional definition of “mindfulness”) is primary. You can always be with the mind, but you can’t always reduce the negative or grow the positive.
My super short answer is I don’t know.
Slightly longer: My personal view is that ordinary awareness – the awareness of cats, dogs, monkeys, whales, and humans (and probably that of lizards, worms, and fruit flies) – is likely fully explainable by the operations of the nervous system, embedded in the body, nature, and in “higher” animals, including us, by culture. I think we are a century or two from this full explanation – it’s that complex and subtle a topic – but that such an explanation of ordinary awareness entirely in terms of the natural frame will eventually be developed.
And – my personal view is also that material reality includes, entails, requires, and depends upon some sort of currently mysterious consciousness, woven into the fabric of reality itself. For quantum potentiality to emerge into quantum actuality at the emerging edge of now – always and eternally – I think there must be some kind of consciousness . . . a kind of consciousness that we can barely if at all imagine . . . another word for which is God.
These two views of mine make me deeply grateful for the gifts of evolution and life, in terms of my ordinary awareness, and make me deeply awestruck and humbled by the prospect of and by the sense of each emerging moment of my life and the universe altogether being a passing manifestation of the underlying Divine nature of this other person, this breath, this experience, this word.
People define enlightenment differently. I like the expression: sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening . . . in a lovely circle, or spiral, with no point of beginning or ending. Or the traditional phrase: moments of enlightenment, many times a day.
In early Buddhism, enlightenment is conceived of in four stages, starting with stream entry and ending as an arahant. I like the way enlightenment is operationalized for an arahant: irrevocably (which gets to your query about losing enlightenment), greed, hatred, and delusion (broadly defined) no longer arise in the mind at all, or perhaps arise subtly and occasionally but can find no hold. That’s a psychologically meaningful definition I can relate to.
In effect, we are already enlightened (in the sense of always already having Buddhanature; it’s just obscured by the usual crud) and we have moments of awakening that inspire and purify us. . Over time and with practice, those jewel-like moments become deeper, longer, and more stable, gradually stitching together at the highest levels into a seamless necklace of unconditional love and inner peace. Pretty good news!
I’m not sure there is any evidence, in a scientific sense, in the natural world for God (a term I use broadly). I think a lot of sterile arguments are between atheists and believers about whether there is evidence in the natural world for God; many atheists seem eager, even aggressively so, to pounce on any claim from the theist camp that there is naturalistic evidence for God (or the supernatural in general). I try to stay out of these kind of arguments since as I wrote in my essay on God and the Brain, I think they are intellectually fruitless (and personally frustrating).
I think there either is God or there isn’t. If there is, that seems quite extraordinary and important to me, in my value systems, so it is a priority for me to discern the divine if it in fact exists. As to how I pursue that discernment, it is through both reason and experience.
Reason suggests to me:
Experience intimates to me a personal sense of something benevolent, conscious, sacred, and profound that is beyond my reason.
Thank you for this question. You have zeroed in on a big matter that I tried to describe in one small sentence!
What I was trying to say is that the contents of mind – anger, worry, pleasure, thoughts, perceptions, sensations, desires, etc. – are a part of the mind that may be troubled (even horribly so), but mind as a whole – including the awareness aspects of mind – is usually operating just fine.
So shifting awareness from the contents of mind to mind itself (as a whole) – put differently, shifting awareness to experience as a whole, including its awareness elements – can disengage us from upsetting thoughts and feelings and ground us in a reassuring sense of mind as a whole.
Try this experientially and see what you find. The sense of mind as a whole can be hard to sustain, but keep at it and it will get more stable. Also note that as soon as we (naturally) create a concept of mind-as-a-whole, that conceptualizing is a part of mind-as-a-whole and draws us out of it as a whole. Conceptualizing is OK, but keep letting go of it to open into again and again mind-as-a-whole.
You raise a deep and wonderful question, and its answer depends on how you define “Self.” I use that word to refer to the central “I” that’s presumed in Western psychology and philosophy (and everyday usage) to be the owner of experiences and agent of actions, and which is defined and constituted by three attributes:
The fact is that these three attributes that constitute an “I” – unification, permanence, and independence – cannot be found in one’s own experience, nor in the neural processes that underlie I-related activations or representations in the brain. The actual experience of “I” is made up of parts (not unified), continually changing (not enduring), and affected by many factors (not independent). This has been seen in neuroimaging studies.
To use the language of Buddhism, the apparent “I” is empty: without substantial, essential nature. Both phenomenologically and ontologically, the presumed “me, myself, and I” is empty. If you like, check out my book, Buddha’s Brain, whose last chapter is about this subject.
In general I think that we can have and value all sorts of experiences of witnessing, integration, beingness, spacious awareness, etc. – experiences of the “self” – while also recognizing that these experiences (and their dynamic neural substrates) are compounded, transient, and dependently arising . . . and thus empty of essence.
Like many others, I’m leery of reifying or substantiating dynamic and insubstantial processes – even vital ones, such as the executive functions, subjectivity (ipseity), or the encompassing awareness that remains when the “parts” step back – into an entity, a being, a self. Trouble and suffering begins when we identify with and try to protect and glorify such an entity.
For me, the essence of practicing with self-ing (it’s a process, not an entity) is contained in this pithy comment from a monk whose name escapes me: “Love yourself. Just don’t love your self.” Be kind to the person you are, while not identifying with the self-referential processes occurring in the mind.
I have found personally that if I treat myself well – as well as I would treat a good friend – then cravings actually decrease, and my addictive tendencies are more manageable.
Regarding neuropsychology, I feel I do have some professional expertise, but regarding phenomena such as what you describe, I have only my personal opinions.
That said, since you asked, my personal opinion is that there is much evidence that certain things exist that are not yet explained by science as natural phenomena or perhaps not even explainable at all since they exist outside of the natural frame (i.e., they are supernatural or transcendental).
The tiny orbs of light seen by your tour mates sound like such a thing. Personally, it makes me happy that mysteries remain. And meanwhile, of course, the opportunity for practice and service remains in down-to-earth ways, whatever is also true about these others, wondrous phenomena!
As a psychologist, I am not giving medical advice. In that context, as a general statement, it is clear that mental factors such as stress on the one hand and gratitude or feeling cared about on the other can play a significant role in a person’s health journey . . . much as purely physical factors such as infection or cancer or effective medications can play a significant role as well.
Speaking personally, I try to approach my own health issues on both levels, mental and physical, based on sensible and individualized methods that have reasonable evidence, including the evidence of whether they are actually producing results for me.
Additionally, as an individual choice, I also include what could be called the spiritual level, distinct from the natural processes within our big bang universe, which include our thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams . . . as well as our organs and DNA. Others may not want to do this, and I respect that choice.
I have no problem with people who include the possibility of spiritual factors in their healing of a medical condition. I do think it is foolish to do this in a way that excludes or minimizes the role of the physical level in our healing. We have real bodies, they are full of real cells and molecules and microbes, and this physical stuff really matters, and modern medicine has many effective ways to deal with it. Sure, doctors can make mistakes, and we need to be aware of the financial incentives such as from pharmaceutical companies that tilt medical treatments toward certain approaches and away from others. I turn to doctors who listen carefully, don’t patronize, individualize their approach to me rather than “one size fits all,” and recognize the potential usefulness of complementary and holistic methods. But I would not want to use the spiritual level to crowd out sensible, standard medical interventions.
My book Neurodharma speaks to much of what you raise. In a nutshell, what’s helpful is to establish a fairly stable mindful awareness of your inner and outer world, which simply means being present much of the time, with related qualities of acceptance of your experiences and supportiveness (e.g., self-compassion) toward yourself. This is a realistic goal. It’s OK to daydream and ruminate from time to time…just not all of the time!
Awareness is the field through which experiences pass. Over time, as practice deepens, there is a growing sense of being this space in which experiences occur, while holding all experiences more and more lightly, aware of their ephemeral nature. This will come naturally. And we can deliberately practice this sense of abiding aware, allowing experiences to come and go, in specific meditations.
Then there is the classic notion of a transpersonal “cosmic” consciousness that transcends the individual awareness of people…and cats and dogs and lizards and who knows spiders as well. Teachers and writers sometimes blur and therefore confuse the distinction between individual awareness – being aware of stimuli is a biological property of animals with a nervous system, which does not mean they are self-conscious like humans – and this possible transpersonal, transcendental awareness.
Clearly there is the natural process of awareness – aware-ing? – in you and me and cats and squirrels, and there may also be a transcendental awareness/consciousness. And perhaps these two shade into each other in the depths of our being.
Meanwhile, there is always the next step to take, whatever it is. That’s worth focusing on, for all of us. Other books you might like are Diana Winston’s The Little Book of Being and Jaimal Yogis’s Saltwater Buddha.
And of course, keep going!
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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