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Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

June 11, 2015 on 4:40 pm | In Dream Types | 3 Comments

A renowned philosopher of the mind, also known for his groundbreaking work on Buddhism and cognitive science, Evan Thompson combines the latest neuroscience research on sleep, dreaming, and meditation with Indian and Western philosophy of the mind, casting new light on the self and its relation to the brain.

Thompson shows how the self is a changing process, not a static thing. When we are awake we identify with our body, but if we let our mind wander or daydream, we project a mentally imagined self into the remembered past or anticipated future. As we fall asleep, the impression of being a bounded self distinct from the world dissolves, but the self reappears in the dream state. If we have a lucid dream, we no longer identify only with the self within the dream. Our sense of self now includes our dreaming self, the “I” as dreamer. Finally, as we meditate–either in the waking state or in a lucid dream–we can observe whatever images or thoughts arise and how we tend to identify with them as “me.” We can also experience sheer awareness itself, distinct from the changing contents that make up our image of the self.

Contemplative traditions say that we can learn to let go of the self, so that when we die we can witness its dissolution with equanimity. Thompson weaves together neuroscience, philosophy, and personal narrative to depict these transformations, adding uncommon depth to life’s profound questions. Contemplative experience comes to illuminate scientific findings, and scientific evidence enriches the vast knowledge acquired by contemplatives.

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  1. All Atheists/Agnostics must read this book 0

    Comment by Nikhil Sharma — June 11, 2015 #

  2. Is there consciousness beyond death? Probably… 0

    Comment by Pandafilanda — June 11, 2015 #

  3. Got Modern Darwinism? Unfortunately, the answer still seems to be no. This book presents some of the cutting-edge fruits of the otherwise virtuous, impressive and exciting research collaboration between neuroscientists and various serious contemplative practitioners, especially Tibetan Buddhists. This collaboration, however, which follows the great Francisco Varela’s vital vision for “Neurophenomenology,” still is crippled by virtually everyone involved ignoring what modern evolutionary psychology and Darwinism in general can tell us about what the human brain is “designed” by natural selection to be up to, and trying to accomplish, moment to moment, without our awareness – perhaps, even without the awareness of most of the above-mentioned highly adept practitioners.Today, as I ponder the book more and more, I am reducing my star rating from four to three. Read on to see why.Without evolutionary psychology, these neuroscientists and contemplatives will never formulate and test the most important and revealing hypotheses about the basic human condition, and what, for example, Gurdjieff called “The Terror of the Situation.” Evolutionarily naive neurophenomenologists therefore will fail to elucidate the most subtle and devious intrapsychic barriers we all face in trying to foster our exquisite and largely unknown developmental (“spiritual”) potentials as humans…The author does a nice job of portraying consciousness as “luminous” (revealing) and “knowing.” If he were a Darwinian, he would also warn the reader that natural selection can only create minds that, in any given context, have a consciousness that reveals what is adaptive to reveal, and only knows things in ways that are, in that same context, adaptive ways of knowing. Consciousness, like any capacity, co-evolved with stringent regulatory systems that optimize what is seen and how it is understood in ways that are expected, by unconscious computational systems, to enhance reproductive success in some way or another. Unfamiliar with these ideas? Then its time to activate “Beginner’s Mind,” squared. Don’t like it or believe it? Well, isn’t your practice about getting beyond liking and disliking, and not clinging to comforting beliefs? Isn’t it about investigation and discovery, as well as being a nicer person?Let me elaborate on the above (this passage added 1/26/15). The following four paragraphs are motivated by the discussion that begins on page 23, where Thompson points out the Buddha’s view, contra the Upanishads (huh! ancient wisdom can have deep flaws!) that, “consciousness is contingent and dependent on conditions.”Bravo, so far. The whole point of nervous systems is to allow animals to exhibit complex contingent responsiveness to the environment. Consciousness, especially at the human level, is a powerful and very expensive mental capacity that, like any capacity, co-evolved with strict regulatory mechanisms, which render it effective and efficient in maximizing lifetime inclusive fitness of the individual. The regulation of consciousness is unconscious, although certain kinds of meditative training may make the regulatory processes less transparent. But, this is still an empirical question, ignored by Thompson and his ilk mainly due to their faith in Buddhist practice and doctrine and total neglect of Darwinism.If some forms of introspection can reveal the regulatory functions in action, and provide a chance to intervene, perhaps just though observation itself, then those methods would provide a path toward greater consciousness than is automatically allowed to serve purely biological functions. They would lead to greater powers of real intentionality – the ability to more consistently respond to situation in accord with one’s most deeply held conscious intentions. But, it should be noted that some meditation may just strengthen the power of these regulatory mechanisms, in fact ALL of it may do so, leading to deeper sleep and enslavement to the regulatory machinery of the brain, albeit associated with a socially adaptive sense of greater peace and an illusion of greater freedom and intentionality.The big point here is that what is going on, right now, in your consciousness and mine, is indeed contingent and dependent, but NOT just on what sensory modality is offering up data to the CNS, like the tongue providing signals that the brain experiences as flavors. No, “misguided man.” That is incredibly naive. What consciousness is most dependent on are the unconscious regulatory mechanisms that are constantly optimizing the contents, often in subtle ways, to produce experience which backs up behaviors that are maximally socially efficacious (status enhancing) and otherwise fitness enhancing. Without clear understandings of these dependencies serious (not to mention amateur) meditators, philosophers and, finally,…

    Comment by Paul J. Watson — June 11, 2015 #

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