Introduction

Thanks to John Schwenkler and The Brains Blog for giving me this opportunity to tell you about my work. In this first post I’d like to describe the themes and ideas of my most recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. In later posts I’ll go into a few selected topics and issues in more detail.

The central idea of the book is that the self is a process, not a thing or an entity. The self isn’t something outside experience, hidden either in the brain or in some immaterial realm. It’s an experiential process that is subject to constant change. We enact a self in the process of awareness, and this self comes and goes depending on how we are aware.

When we’re awake and occupied with some manual task, we enact a bodily self geared to our immediate environment. This bodily self, however, recedes from our experience if our task becomes an absorbing mental one. If our mind wanders, the mentally imagined self of the past or future overtakes the self of the present moment.

As we start to fall asleep, the sense of self slackens. Images float by, and our awareness becomes progressively absorbed in them. The impression of being a bounded individual distinct from the world dissolves. In this so-called hypnagogic state, the borders between self and not-self seem to fall away.

The feeling of being a distinct self immersed in the world comes back in the dream state. We experience the dream from the perspective of the self within it, or the dream ego. Although the entire dream world exists only as a content of our awareness, we identify our self with only a portion of it—the dream ego that centers our experience of the dream world and presents itself as the locus of our awareness.

At times, however, something else happens. We realize we’re dreaming, but instead of waking up, we keep right on dreaming with the knowledge that we’re dreaming. We enter what’s called a lucid dream. Here we experience a different kind of awareness, one that witnesses the dream state. No matter what dream contents come and go, including the forms the dream ego takes, we can tell they’re not the same as our awareness of being in the dream state. We no longer identify only with our dream ego—the “I” as dreamed—for our sense of self now includes our dreaming self—the “I” as dreamer.

Similarly, while meditating in the waking state, we can simply witness being conscious and watch whatever sensory or mental events occur within the field of our awareness. We can also watch how we may identify with some of them as “Me” or appropriate some of them as “Mine.”

According to certain Indian philosophical traditions, we can distinguish three aspects of consciousness. The first aspect is awareness; the second aspect is the contents of awareness; and the third aspect is how we experience some of these contents of awareness as “I” or “Me” or “Mine.” To understand how we enact a self, therefore, we need to understand three things—the nature of awareness and its sensory and mental contents, the mind-body processes that produce these contents, and how some of these contents come to be experienced as the self.

In my book, I take this threefold framework of awareness, contents of awareness, and self-experience—or what the Indian tradition calls “I-making”—and put it to work in cognitive science. Whereas the Indian thinkers mapped consciousness and I-making in philosophical and phenomenological terms, I show how their insights can also help to advance the neuroscience of consciousness.

Let me give a brief overview of the main ideas from the book’s chapters.

Chapter 1 introduces the ancient Indian map of consciousness, which is said to comprise the four states of wakefulness, dreaming, deep and dreamless sleep, and pure awareness.

Chapter 2 focuses on attention and perception in the waking state. I compare theories and findings from cognitive neuroscience with Indian Buddhist theories of attention and perception. According to both perspectives, although the stream of consciousness may seem to flow continuously, upon closer inspection it appears to be made up of discrete moments of awareness that depend on how attention shifts from one thing to another. I review evidence from neuroscience showing that focused attention and open awareness forms of meditation have measurable effects on how attention structures the stream of consciousness into discrete moments of awareness. I conclude by using both Buddhist philosophy and cognitive neuroscience to argue that in addition to these discrete moments, we also need to recognize a more slowly changing background awareness that includes the sense of self and that shifts across waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep.

Chapter 3 takes up the question of whether the mind transcends the brain and living body, as Indian and Tibetan philosophers traditionally claim. I argue that there’s no scientific evidence to support this view. All the evidence available to us indicates that creature consciousness is contingent on the brain. Nevertheless, my viewpoint isn’t a materialist one, for two reasons. First, consciousness has a transcendental primacy that materialism fails to see. There’s no way to step outside consciousness and measure it against something else. Science always moves within the field of what consciousness reveals; it can enlarge this field and open up new vistas, but it can never get beyond the horizon set by consciousness. Second, since consciousness has this kind of primacy, it makes no sense to try to reductively explain consciousness in terms of something that’s conceived to be essentially nonexperiential, as physicalists conceive the physical. Rather, understanding consciousness as a natural phenomenon is going to require rethinking our scientific concepts of nature and physical being.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 concern falling asleep, dreaming, and lucid dreaming. I begin with the state leading into sleep, the hypnagogic state. Whereas normal waking consciousness is ego-structured—we experience ourselves as bounded beings distinct from the outside world—this structure dissolves in the hypnagogic state. There’s no ego in the sense of an “I” who acts as a participant in a larger world, and there’s no larger world in which we feel immersed. Instead, there’s a play of images and sounds that holds consciousness spellbound.

The ego structure of consciousness returns in the dream state. In the dream state we experience being in the dream world. Sometimes we experience it from an inside or first-person perspective; sometimes we see ourselves from an outside or third-person perspective. These two perspectives also occur in memory, where they’re known as “field memory” and “observer memory.” In the dream state, however, the spellbound attention that occurs in the hypnagogic state returns, so dreaming too is a kind of captivated consciousness.

This changes in a lucid dream. The defining feature of a lucid dream is being able to direct attention to the dreamlike quality of the state so that one be think of it as a dream. When this happens, the sense of self shifts, for one becomes aware of the self both as dreamer—“I’m dreaming”—and as dreamed—“I’m flying in my dream.”

In these three chapters I review findings from sleep science that show that each state—the hypnagogic state, dreaming, and lucid dreaming—is associated with its own distinct patterns of brain activity.

I end my discussion of dreaming by criticizing the standard neuroscience conception of the dream state as a form of delusional hallucination. Instead, I argue that dreaming is a kind of spontaneous imagination.

Chapter 7 examines out-of-body experiences. In an out-of-body experience, you feel as if you’re located outside your body, often at an elevated vantage point. Yet far from showing the separability of the self from the body, out-of-body experiences reinforce the strong connection between the body and the sense of self. These aren’t experiences of disembodiment; they’re experiences of altered embodiment. You see your body as an object at a place that doesn’t coincide with the felt location of your visual and vestibular awareness. In this way, there’s a dissociation between your body as an object of perception and your body as a perceptual subject and attentional agent. Out-of-body experiences reveal something crucial about the sense of self: you locate yourself as an experiential subject wherever your attentional perspective feels located, regardless of whether this happens to be the place you see your body as occupying.

Out-of-body experiences provide no evidence that one can have an experience without one’s biological body, for the body remains present throughout. Furthermore, experiences with many of the features of out-of-body experiences can be brought about by direct electrical stimulation of certain brain regions and by virtual reality devices. So out-of-body experiences are brain-dependent.

Chapter 8 asks whether consciousness is or can be present in deep and dreamless sleep. Most neuroscientists and philosophers of mind today assume that dreamless sleep is a blackout state in which consciousness fades or disappears completely. In contrast, the Indian philosophical schools of Yoga and Vedānta, as well as Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, maintain that a subtle form of awareness continues. I present the Indian philosophical case for deep sleep being a mode of consciousness and show that none of the behavioral or physiological evidence from sleep science suffices to rule out there being a mode of phenomenal consciousness in dreamless sleep. Hence the standard neuroscience way of trying to define consciousness as that which disappears in dreamless sleep needs to be revised. Yoga, Vedānta, and Buddhism assert that the subliminal consciousness present in dreamless sleep can become cognitively accessible through meditative mental training. I present some preliminary evidence from sleep science in support of this idea. I end the chapter by proposing that we need to enlarge sleep science to include contemplative ways of training the mind in sleep. This project will require sleep scientists, anthropologists, meditation practitioners, and contemplative scholars of the Indian and Tibetan traditions to work together to map the sleeping mind.

Chapter 9 investigates what happens to the self and consciousness when we die. Neuroscience and biomedicine talk about death as if it were essentially an objective and impersonal event instead of a subjective and personal one. From a purely biomedical perspective, death consists in the breakdown of the functions of the living body along with the disappearance of all outer signs of consciousness. Missing from this perspective is the subjective experience of this breakdown and the existential significance of the inevitable fact of one’s own death. In contrast, Tibetan Buddhism presents a vivid account of the progressive breakdown of consciousness and the dissolution of the sense of self during the dying process. It also describes how to face this process in a meditative way. According to Tibetan Buddhism—as well as Yoga and Vedānta—great contemplatives can disengage from the sense of self as ego as they die. Resting in an experience of pure awareness, they can watch the dissolution of their everyday “I-Me-Mine” consciousness and witness their own dying with equanimity.

Near-death experiences during cardiac arrest provide an important case for investigating how the mind meets death and the relationship between consciousness and the body. Although these experiences are often presented as challenging the view that consciousness is contingent on the brain, I argue that none of the evidence brought forward to support this position is convincing. Instead, all the evidence to date, when examined carefully, supports the view that these experiences are contingent on the brain.

At the same time, we should avoid the trap of thinking that the reports of near-death experience after resuscitation from cardiac arrest must be either literally true or literally false. This way of thinking remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death. Dying and death must also be understood from the first-person perspective. We need to stop using accounts of these experiences to justify either neuroreductionist or spiritualist agendas and instead take them seriously for what they are—narratives of first-person experience arising from circumstances that we will all in some way face.

Chapter 10 targets the view widespread in neuroscience and neurophilosophy that the self is nothing but an illusion created by the brain. I call this view “neuro-nihilism.” I argue that although the self is a construction—or rather a process that’s under constant construction—it isn’t an illusion. A self is an ongoing process that enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the process itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing. I call this the “enactive” view of the self. This chapter presents a systematic statement of the enactive view and shows how I-making happens at multiple biological, psychological, and social levels. The discussion combines elements from Buddhist philosophy (specifically from the “Middle Way” or Madhyamaka school), biology, cognitive science, and the neuroscience of meditation.

Although cognitive science and the Indian philosophical traditions form the core of my book, I also draw from a wide range of other sources—poetry and fiction, Western philosophy, Chinese Daoism, and personal experience. By weaving together these diverse sources, I hope to demonstrate a new way to relate science and contemplative practice. Instead of being either opposed or indifferent to each other, cognitive science and the world’s great contemplative traditions can work together on a common project—understanding the mind and giving meaning to human life. Two extreme and regressive tendencies mark our era—the resurgence of religious extremism and outmoded belief systems, and the entrenchment of scientific materialism and reductionism. Neither mindset realizes the value of meditation and the contemplative way of life as a source of wisdom and firsthand knowledge essential to a mature cognitive science that can do justice to our entire way of being. My book upholds a different vision. By enriching science with contemplative knowledge and contemplative knowledge with cognitive science, we can work to create a new scientific and contemplative appreciation of human life, one that no longer requires or needs to be contained within either a religious or an antireligious framework.

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6 Comments

  1. Tad Zawidzki

    Hello Evan –

    Thanks for the very interesting introduction! It definitely whets the appetite!

    Quick question: sometimes you refer to the “I” enacted through a process of self-making as a single, unitary phenomenon, whereas other times you seem implicitly to speak of different “I”s – the “I” of wakeful consciousness is not the same “I” as the “I” of (non-lucid) dreaming consciousness, etc. So my question concerns whether or not you think of the enacted, processual “I” as a unitary or multiplex phenomenon.

    I’m interested in this because it may be relevant to claims that certain very refined and sublime and difficult to attain states of awareness, allegedly accessible to highly practiced meditators, are radically non-discriminative, to the point where the distinction between self and other, or subject and object disappears. This characterization seems paradoxical – how can one report an experience without commitment to a subject of it? But if the subject we construct is a multiplex phenomenon, perhaps there is a way out of paradox: some components of the subject may disappear in such meditative states, though not all…

    • Evan Thompson

      Hi Tad,

      Thanks for these good questions. I talk about your points in the last chapter on the self. I argue that there is a core sense of “I am” (for which I use the Indian term, “I-making”), which is present across all these states, though it may disappear in certain meditative states. So the core sense of “I am” is unitary, but the way it’s experienced in relationship to the body and mental contents is multiplex and shifts across waking perception, mind wandering, dreaming, etc.

      The issue of whether it’s coherent to suppose there can be reports of “selfless” states is difficult. It depends on what “selfless” means. If it means the absence of the subject/object or self/other distinction, then strictly speaking it would seem that any report of such an experience has to be a retrospective appropriation by the reporting cognitive subject of an experience that transcends that kind of cognitive subjectivity. On some views, the report is a retrospective report of the memory of entering and exiting the state, and so is a report of the defining “edges” or “borders” of the state. I also talk about these issues in the last chapter on the self and in chapter 8 on dreamless sleep.

      • Tad Zawidzki

        Thanks, Evan, for the intriguing response. I definitely need to follow up on this by reading your book!

        Have you given any thought as to how your view might relate to other multiplex theories of the self, e.g., Neisser’s notions of the ecological, interpersonal, extended, private, and conceptual selves? I think Serife Tekin has recently expanded on this list in the context of thinking about psychiatric conditions as well…

        • Evan Thompson

          I distinguish in the book between minimally phenomenal, bodily, mental (involving memory and time travel), and social senses of self. These distinctions parallel those of other theorists, such as Zahavi, but don’t exactly line up with Neisser’s. Still, the overall frameworks are pretty compatible, I think.

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