Friday, April 4, 2008

Crisis on the Planet of the Hairless Apes (Part II): The Fine Structures of Consciousness

In the past posts we saw that the world of our experience is constituted between our ears, within our organ of consciousness -- within our brain. The world of our experience, our consciousness, and the society of cells that mediate our stream of consciousness we decided to call our "brainworld." We described the interaction between our brainworld and the real world, and then suggested three gross ways that this interaction contributes to The Crisis: (1) We quite naturally and commonly confound our brainworld with the real world; (2) We therefore systematically fail to recognize the transcendental nature of reality and everything in it; and (3) We fail to take due cognizance of the fact that most of the real world is invisible to us, particularly causal relations that are beyond the bounds of our perception.

What I want to do in this post is to continue looking at the nature of the brainworld, and in particular explore the more subtle fine structure (organization not easily discerned course of naive, everyday experience) of our experience. But here's the rub: There are only two ways to come to know the fine structures of consciousness -- on the one hand by way of the neurosciences and on the other hand by way of phenomenology. So before we get into the examination of these structures, we need to say a few words about these two ways of exploring the same scope of inquiry, one from the outside-in and the other from the inside out.

The Neurosciences

The neurosciences are a large group of clinical and laboratory disciplines that study the brain and include neurophysiology, neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience, social neuroscience, neurology, developmental neuroscience, neurolinguistics, neurosociology, neuroanthropology, and many other fields. By and large, there are two methods used in neuroscience to empirically study the brain -- both depending upon observations from the outside-in. One way is to measure brain activity using machines of various kinds, including EEGs, PET scans, magnetic resonance, so forth. These are laboratory methods. The other way is by looking at what happens to people with brain damage -- in modern times, with the aid of xray and other machines. This is the clinical method, and is by far the oldest method. Doctors have been noticing patterns of change in behavior and personality due to brain damage for over a hundred and fifty years. Indeed, hunters and warriors in other traditional societies have made similar observations.

If you want a feel for what neuroscience has to say about consciousness, check out some of the books I have listed in the Suggested Readings section below. We will always be coming back to neuroscience in these posts, but I will not spend much space going into the nitty-gritty details of how the brain works. Nor will I spend effort arguing for this or that neuroscience point of view. My whole point in these posts is to bear down on those characteristics of the human brainworld that contribute to our being in the muddle we are now in. I will try to keep this in mind when my inclination is to wander off in unproductive, but ever-so-interesting directions.


Phenomenology has many meanings in philosophy, but what I mean by the term in these posts is the systematic, trained study of one's own consciousness by methods of introspection. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the great German philosopher who advocated grounding all the sciences in the scientific study of consciousness by direct, trained introspection. In modern parlance, what he was advocating is the value of meditation as a method for examining the essential structures of consciousness. One of the problems of course is that science has a long history of poo-pooing the value of introspection as a source of data -- and with good reason. Untrained introspection is about as useful to science as would be an untrained EEG operator or a layperson trying to diagnose a brain tumor. What is required of course is the same degree of training and experience for the phenomenologist, just as any other serious, professional researcher. Trained introspection -- what we in BS call mature contemplation -- is of great value to neuroscience, and consciousness science generally, although there are laboratory-bound experimentalists who would deny this. Without putting too fine a point on it, experimentalists of this ilk are simply ignorant.

Mature contemplation is so important to the biogenetic structural project that I will commit an entire post to this subject next time. Suffice to say here that mature contemplatives take advantage of the special nature of their own brainworld -- its ability to turn its observational, experimental and empirical faculties to bear on its own essential nature, its processes and its acts. It is the only consciousness, as we have said, that can know itself from both the outside-in, and the inside-out. And the results of mature contemplation when paired with findings in modern neuroscience are great effect.


The reason we emphasize these two approaches to the fine structures of consciousness is that traditional anthropology is very weak in both areas. Most young anthros graduate with their Ph.D.s without having received any training in either approach. Rather, the strength of anthros lays, as it has always lain, in the appreciation of how vast is the range of cultural views, social organizations, behaviors, and so forth that societies generate in their particular history of adaptations. Because of the natural inclination of people to interpret and experience things from their own society's point of view, anthropology has been a necessary corrective to ethnocentrism, which infests the thinking of Euroamerican-aussie scientists just as much as it does others naively presuming that the way they view the world is the "way it is."

Cultural Neurophenomenology

As BS developed through the years, we emphasized the study of consciousness, and especially of alternative states of consciousness (ASC), and how different societies influenced the use of ritually driven ASC to cultural purposes. We eventually realized the extreme power of combining neuroscience and phenomenology (mature contemplation), and exploring the cultural variance and invariance in phenomena. ONe of my friends and colleagues, Professor Jason Throop came up with the term "cultural neurophenomenology" to describe this combined approach -- especially as the term "biogenetic structuralism," which had made more sense during the hay day of French structuralism (e.g., the writings of the brilliant French ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss), had become more outdated with every passing year. Far better a term that actually describes the approach -- cultural, neuroscientific and phenomenological -- so that has been the rubric under which we have written for the last while. It is the contention of this approach to consciousness that no account can be considered complete that does not mine the information available in all three sources. And why the heck not? It can only make the account we end up with all the more substantial.

So, we will now turn out attention to two further essential elements of consciousness in order to understand why the self-limiting nature of our brainworld has left us in such a dangerous pickle. But first, a word from our alternate sponsor.
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Consciousness, as the roots of the term imply, means to experience with knowledge, to be aware of not only the thing you are sensing, but the meaning of the thing. And in many Indoeuropean languages (such as Spanish), the term also connotes awareness of the moral value of the thing -- consciousness and conscience are thus synonymous in these languages. The term experience, too, connotes knowledge gleaned from repeated happenings. Both terms then incorporate both "happening" and "knowing" within their connotations. When I use the terms here, however, I tend to reserve "consciousness" for the entire sphere of our awareness, or the entire process by which awareness is brought to bear on something, while I use "experience" to emphasize the sensory rich happening arising within the sphere of consciousness, or within an act of consciousness. Yet, even when using the terms this way, "experience" almost always involves meaning. Normally if I experience something, knowing about that something is incorporated within the conscious act. The sensing and knowing are normally virtually simultaneous. Look around you right now. Is there anything novel in your environment? Anything that you don't instantly identify? Likely not, but if there is something novel there, you will find your gaze lingering upon it with interest until it has been rendered familiar. You see, as we have said before, the prime function of your brainworld is to create redundancy out of novelty. It does this by creating knowledge within the brainworld about any and everything around it. Hence part of any normal experience of the real world is provided by the meaning already in our head. Our brainworld is not satisfied with seeing things in the world as they really are, but rather in rendering the real world around us, including our own being, meaningful.* We will return to this drive to know, to render experience redundant, below -- as well as in future posts. Right now we want to examine some of the fine structures that make experience possible.


A major ingredient of any experience of our being, or of our environment are the sensory impressions delivered into our brainworld from our sensory organs peripheral to, and internal to our body. We have two types of senses, those designed to be impressed from outside our body (light coming from the screen in front of your eyes, the vibrations in the air produced by the ear buds of your iPod) are called exteroceptors, and those designed to be impressed by stuff happening inside your body (hungry, hot & cold, pain, etc.) are called interoceptors. What is the nature of these sensory impressions?
Well, here is where commonsense may lead us astray, for we are conditioned to reflect naively upon the qualities of our own experiences. When we look at a red car, that redness is normally understood to be solid, for isn't the paint on the car solid? If we set our foot upon the floor, we normally perceive solidity, perhaps an unbroken sensation of pressure from toe to heel. Of course, isn't the floor solid concrete? This kind of conditioned assumption about sensations is what the great phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl (see above) called our "natural attitude" toward phenomena. We take certain things for granted about how our experiences are constituted and never think to test them by direct introspection.
But when we bring these natural attitude assumptions into question -- when we put them aside and look closely at how experiences are really constituted, then we begin on the path of discovery leading to mature contemplation. And on this path we will find that things are not as we are conditioned to believe. Two discoveries that a mature contemplative may encounter are the pixelated texture of sensory impressions, and the rhythmic iteration of fields of these sensory pixels.
The Pixelated Texture of Sensory Impressions
Sensory experience presents to awareness as a field of points, granules, or, to use a contemporary term, pixels (the term literally means an "element of a picture").** Sense impressions in all sensory modes present in a granular field of atomic units -- pixels. Sensory pixelation is easiest to explore in the visual system. There are various meditation techniques that can be used to detect visual pixels: (1) One may contemplate the visual field under very subdued light, perhaps as dusk descends into the darkness of night. (2) One may lay on one's back and focus on the deep blue of the sky on a cloudless day. (3) One may use a tiny speck of bright light, such as reflects off of snow flakes under a streetlight and closing the eyes, watch the eidetic image (the after image from any stimulus in any sense mode is called an eidetic image) degrade into darkness. (4) One may make one of Charlie Laughlin's patented Super-Duper Dot Detectors -- which is made by painting or gluing a small white dot (perhaps a 1/4" or smaller in diameter) onto a black 8" X 10" piece of cardboard -- and then using the white dot as an object for stimulating an eidetic image which, once the eyes are closed, degrades into its constitutive particles or pixels. There are many other methods that make detecting the pixelated texture of the visual field evident, and eventually you come to the point where the pixels are easily discerned in any visual experience.
The most important effect of this type of meditation is to break the habit of assuming solidarity. This is what Husserl meant by performing an "eidetic reduction" -- "reduce" literally means to "lead back" and "eidetic" means "essential form;" so, to perform an eidetic reduction in phenomenology means to lead the awareness back to the essential form of things in direct experience. And that is what mature contemplation means, in a way -- the ability to direct awareness to the essential form of things while ignoring any conditioning pertaining to those things.
It is easiest, as I say, to detect the pixelated texture of visual phenomena. The great neo-impressionist painter, Georges Seurat (1859-1891), who had read everything he could get his hands on in the area of the psychology of perception, described his contemplative exercises in many of his paintings -- starting a school of art that came to be called pointillism. Notice that in his painting at the left how the whole field of the painting is in colored dots. As the founder of neo-impressionism, it was Seurat's intention to communicate the fine structure of visual expression in his work. But please take note of the fact that this granular texture is the same no matter the sensory mode. Whether it is the experience of a Mozart symphony or the taste of grape juice or the wind on your skin, the mature contemplative comes to realize that the pixelated texture is universal to the senses, be they exteroceptive or interoceptive, and whether experienced in waking consciousness or in dreaming.
So, while our natural attitude toward experience is to presume solidity in surfaces, color fields, forms and the like, the mature contemplative learns to discern the tiny units that make up our various sensory fields. This discernment is one gigantic step (reduction) on the pathway to learning about the inherent impermanence of all phenomena. Nothing solid, nothing permanent. But that's a story for another day. More importantly for our current purpose, one learns to take the actual structure of experience into consideration, thus overriding the false assumptions of the culturally conditioned, naive, natural attitude.When one is able to discern the granular texture of sensory impressions, one can make a study of the sensory field.
  1. One discovers that the entire sphere of consciousness is filled with pixels (in the East they speak of the "plenum void," or a kind of "filled nothingness"). Pixels are contiguous one with another. There are no empty spaces. Pixels fill the field of each and every sensory mode presenting in consciousness.
  2. Even perceived silence is comprised of a field of auditory pixels. Apparent space between things is an illusion, for the "empty" space is constituted by sensory pixels as well. When we see black, which we are conditioned to associate with "nothing," the black field is constituted by black pixels.
  3. Pixels are NOT sparks, or tiny glittering lights, for these are relatively gross phenomena and are themselves made up of hundreds, even thousands of pixels -- hundreds or even thousands of them. If you watch a spark (a common experience for meditators) degrade (pass away), you can see the pixels that constitute the spark.
  4. Once one has learned to discern the field of pixels, it becomes easy to focus on this texture at any time and in any mode, for one learns that literally every sensory phenomenon is pixelated.
The reduction to the essential pixelated texture of sensory experience can change one's view of consciousness entirely. There is a wonderful little book written by Douglas Harding entitled
On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious. I checked on and you can get a used copy for $3. Anyhow, everyone interested in their awakening should read it. It is all about DH's discovery one day that he has no head. Everybody else seems to have a head, but where his head ought to be is this radient sphere of consciousness. And the rest of the book is a delightful and very serious analysis of the implications of this discovery. Well, what I am saying here is that the radient sphere of consciousness that seems to float between our shoulders is entirely made up of pixels -- a vast internal universe of pixels. And that is how our brainworld presents itself to itself.

Pixilated Patterns and Knowing

But a radient sphere of pixels is not all that we are aware of in experience, is it? Far from it. If we look around us, we not only see colors and hear sounds and feel textures and smell odors -- we see things that we recognize. Look around you now. Do you see anything you don't recognize? Do you see anything that is novel? If you are like me, then probably not. If I turn my eyes away from this monitor, I don't just see pixels and patterns of pixels, but I see photos of John McManus and Wild Bill Hickock on my wall (two heros of mine), some of my collection of toy ray guns (yeah, ok... that's a whole nother story), a computer tower, books, an XM Radio boom box, and on and on. All familiar things in their familiar places. How do we turn pixels into such a familiar tableau?

Patterns in the pixels, is the answer. Not only are our senses designed to depict the world as a field of pixels, these pixels are stimulated at the periphery of our body (our finger tips, the coclea of our ears, our chemo-receptors in our nostrils, etc.) in such a way that patterns of stimulation from reality are represented in the patterns of pizels, and these patterns are more or less reproduced all the way in from the peripheral sense receptors, via nerve tracts, into the brain where they are processed and combined with information about these patterns in our memory. You might call this reproduction of patterns at each level of neural processing "topographical penetration" (retinotopic penetration in vision, frequency-topic penetration in hearing, so forth).

Each moment of consciousness then is a blending of pixel patterns penetrating into the brainworld and memories of similar patterns and associated feelings, reactions, etc. stored in memory. We literally RE-cognize these patterns, we RE-collect form and meaning. This usually happens so smoothly and rapidly that what we are mainly aware of is the knowing of the pattern, not the pattern alone. As you read this sentence, you are mainly aware of meaning arising in your brainworld, not the black on white patterns I am producing before your eyes. But if I suddenly lapsed into Urdu: وضو کا طریقہ۔۔۔۔۔۔۔ مظلوم اونٹ۔۔۔۔ مظلوم اونٹ۔۔۔۔ U.S. آپ کی راے. ہمارے بارے میں, then the flow of meaning would cease. The black on white images would continue, but yoru brainworld can no longer match the patterns with meaning -- unless, unlike me, you can actually read Urdu (I just lifted the first phrase in Urdu I found when I googled Urdu). So, within our brainworld the incoming patterns of pixels is blended with stored meaning, and we are presented with, not just a world of novel patterns, but a known world of experience where very little is novel.

The Pixelated Sensory Field and Its Iterations

But the blending of pixelated patterns from the periphery and knowledge takes time. It never happens instantanweously. This is why the temporal element of experience is fundamental. The fine structure of temporal experience is even harder to discern for the contemplative because it requires slowing down the mind so that not only the atomic unit of perceived space is discerned (i.e., pixels), but also the atomic unit of time is discernable. It is readily apparent to many mature contemplatives that consciousness does indeed flow, as the great 19th century psychologist William James reported. and that flow of sensations is revealed to present within the sphere of consciousness in iterations or pulses. As the brainworld slows its activities, one comes to perceive that the sensory fields flicker. Each iteration or pulse is called a perceptual epoch. It is by studying the fine structure of perceptual epochs, the relations between epochs, and the binding together of epochs over durations that the contemplative is able to discover the essential and universal nature of time-consciousness – the experience of time that underlies the very structure of our subjective life regardless of our particular cultural heritage. When the contemplative becomes fully aware of perceptual epochs and can apprehend the arising and passing of epochs as they occur, then they may be said to have performed a reduction to the real, ongoing "now" moment. One is able to discern not only the pixelated texture of the entire sphere of consciousness, one may also discern the very rapid flickering of the sphere. In other words, the field of sensory pixels refreshed itself with each perceptual epoch. One is then able to see that the actual "now" moment -- one iteration of the field of pixels producing our sphere of consciousness -- can be opposed to the naive, natural attitude "now" that is actually a blending of perceptual epochs with recent memory and immediate anticipation -- or more imprecisely, the recent past (recollection), present (the real now moment) and near future (anticipated perception).

The neuroscience here is excellent, but it is complex. If you want to read about the relationship between perceptual epochs and how the brain mediates them, check out the article that Jason Throop and I are publishing in the June, 2008 issue of Time & Mind, here in an earlier draft in .rtf format: Sorry about the lousy formatting, but it is readable, and Google won't let me upload .pdf documents. What we need to emphasize here is that we know that the brain refreshes its perceptual field something like 40 times per second. In order for a temporal experience to arise, changes must occur across epochs. Anything arising within a single perceptual epock is experienced as simultaneous. Our sense of passing time, or duration of experience, is an awareness of events across epochs, usually across tens, hundreds, and even thousands of epochs. These epochs of refreshed sensory impressions occurs so rapidly that the naive, natural attitude toward duration is that it is a seamlessly continuous stream of awareness -- much like a modern movie. Movies come at you around 24 frames per second, while TV refreshes your screen at around 60 fps. But caution here: perceptual epochs are not still photos or frames. They are dynamic, and they take time to arise and pass away. In other words, perceptual epochs are not instantaneous. So we cannot carry the movie metaphor too far. We would lose track of the fact that even within a perceptual epoch there is movement. It is just that temporal judgements cannot be made within an epoch.

We have gotten deep into the nature of consciousness and experience of the world. And if you are not a mature contemplative yourself, we may have traversed into areas where you cannot of your own experience follow. There is then a challenge here for you. Do you want to just take my word for this stuff, or do you want to find out and verify it for yourself. If the latter, then you have no option but to follow in the footsteps of contemplatives that have gone before you. Remember the old addage, "the master is he (or she) who has entered the path before you." I will post a discussion of mature contemplation and how you accomplish it next time. Then it is up to you to either take the challenge or to just take my word for all the esoteric stuff in support of my argument that hairless apes on Planet Earth are facing a great crisis.

Let me summarize what I have said so far, so that these posts don't appear to be scattered ruminations. We have seen that our world of experience, our brainworld, is produced by our brain for its own consumption -- our brain is the producer, director and audience of its own internal movie. We have said that there is no experience, no act of consciousness, that is not mediated by our brain. Our brainworld operates by receiving information from the real world through its senses and modeling recurrent patterns in the world by growth, development and alteration of the primordial neurognostic models we are born with. So automatically and efficiently does this modeling happen that we are normall not aware that our world of experience is NOT reality. We naturally presume that what we experience is real (the natural attitude a la Husserl). We come up against the distinction between brainworld and real world when our actions are thwarted by reality. We also know reality from what the world affords us.

We have also seen that our brainworld presents to our awareness as a blend of pizelated epochs and knowledge (remembering, identification, perception, so forth), and that our temporal sense is derived by the pulsing iterations of perceptual epochs. In other words, our brainworld flickers and refreshes itself so rapidly that we naturally believe our stream of consciousness to be smooth and continuous, another factor that leads us to presume that our experience is reality. Moreover, the blending of patterns of pixels in sensory input and patterns stored in memory is so rapid and efficient that, unless one is trained in contmplating the structures of consciousness, one mistakes the knowledge (meaning) for the reality.

All of these factors become perfectly obvious to the trained phenomenologist who has practiced enough to become a mature contemplative. But herein lays the blinkers -- very few of us are mature contemplatives, and very few of us have accomplished the reductions necessary to see without the blinkers. How then can one proceed to become a mature contemplative? What is a mature contemplative and are their paths or techniques one may learn and thus become one? These questions arise quite naturally I suspect, for people have often queried me along those lines. So what I will do is take a kind of side turn next post and try to answer these questions as best I can. If you are not interested in knowing how one trains to discern the essential structures of consciousness, then perhaps you will wish to skip over the next post and continue on to the next bit on the Crisis.

* In our technical writing we called this quest for the meaning of things, the cognitive imperative.

** In our earlier work we simply called these pixels "dots." ______________________________________


D'Aquili, Eugene G., Laughlin, Charles D. and McManus, John, 1993. "Mature contemplation." Zygon 28(2): 133-.

Azevedo, Jane, 1997. Mapping Reality: An Evolutionary Realist Methodology for the Natural and Social Sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press. [Author uses BS to explore how our "cognized environment" (brainworld) and "operational environment" (real world) interact in evolution and adaptation.]

Changeux, Jean Pierre, 1985. Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Changeux, Jean-Pierre, 2002. The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Damasio, Antonio, 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt. [Author is a leading authority on the brain and feeling/emotion.]

Edelman, Gerald M. and Tononi, Giulio, 2000. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books. [Loads of information pertaining to the NCC, and how the brainworld works.]

Fuster, Joaquin M., 2003. Cortex and Mind: Unifying Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [The author is one of the leading experts on the NCC, especially the role of the prefrontal cortex in organizing the brainworld. Very readable for the intelligent layman.]

Harding, Douglas E. (1986) On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious. London: Arkana. [An absolutely unique book, and if you want to understand what the world and self look like to a mature contemplative, read this!]

Jerison, Harry J., 1973. Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence. New York: Academic Press.

Jerison, Harry J., 1985. "On the evolution of mind." In D.A. Oakley (ed), Brain and Mind. New York: Methuen.

Koch, Christof, 2004. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Englewood, CO: Roberts

LeDoux, J.E. and Hirst, W., 1986 Mind and Brain: Dialogues in Cognitive Neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Libet, Benjamin, 2004. Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lutz, Antoine, Dunne, John D. and Davidson, Richard J., 2007. “Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness.” in P. D. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch, & E. Thompson (eds), Cambridge handbook of consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Varela, Francisco J., Thompson, Evan, and Rosch, Eleanor, 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wallace, B. Alan, 2006. Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge. New York: Columbia University Press.

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