Meditation Blog : Science Archives



Double Triptych

January 24, 2007 | Science | Permalink



The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation

A comprehensive study summarizing the scientific research on meditation is available free online from the Institute of Noetic Sciences. The publication (also for sale in book format) is titled "The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation" (1996) by Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan. In the helpful introduction Eugene Taylor discusses the historical roots of meditation, outlines meditation's introduction to the modern West, and provides an overview of meditation as a subject of scientific study in the West, India, and China.

When it comes to defining meditation, Taylor writes:

As for modern developments, in trying to formulate a definition of meditation, a useful rule of thumb is to consider all meditative techniques to be culturally embedded. This means that any specific technique cannot be understood unless it is considered in the context of some particular spiritual tradition, situated in a specific historical time period, or codified in a specific text according to the philosophy of some particular individual.

Taylor is indicating that meditation doesn't exist as we popularly conceive it — in an abstract or general form — only as distinct techniques which have emerged from specific philosophical and religious backgrounds. As an example, Taylor points out that the widespread and well-regarded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, founded at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, "combines elements of Vipassana, a Theravada form of Buddhist meditation from Burma, and Zen practices from Japanese Buddhism with Hatha yoga, a tradition from the Indian subcontinent." (An entry at TricycleBlog, the weblog of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, offers some thoughts about the MBSR program's secular presentation of Buddhist meditation.)

When meditation is put under the scientific microscope, Taylor refers to two points of confrontation. The first is whether a rationally-based scientific method can adequately evaluate the realm of "intuition and insight":

Science, the product of Aristotelian thinking and the European rationalist enlightenment, now turns its attention to the intuitive transformation of personality through awakened consciousness (and other such Asian meanings of the term enlightenment). This means that the faculties of logic and sense perception, hallmarks of the scientific method, are now being trained on the personality correlates of intuition and insight, hallmarks of the traditional inward sciences of the East.

To grasp what meditation is has proven to be no easy task. The underlying and usually hidden philosophical assumptions of traditional, rationalist science do not value the intuitive. They do not acknowledge the reality of the transcendent or subscribe to the concept of higher states of consciousness, let alone, in the strictest sense, even admit to the possible existence of unconscious forces active in cognitive acts of perception.

Secondly, Taylor asks whether science itself will be transformed by the encounter:

The essential difficulty here is not just the reformulation of meditation techniques to fit the dictates of the scientific method, but rather what might be called a deeper, more subtle, and potentially more transformative clash of world epistemologies. It is not simply that meditation techniques have been difficult to measure but rather that, in the past, meditation has largely been an implicitly forbidden subject of scientific research. Now, however, major changes are currently underway within basic science that presage not only further evolution of the scientific method but also changes in the way science is viewed in modern culture. An unprecedented new era of interdisciplinary communication within the subfields of the natural sciences, a fundamental shift from physics to biology, and the cognitive neuroscience revolution have liberalized attitudes toward the study of meditation and related subjects. Meanwhile, the popular revolution in modern culture grounded in spirituality and consciousness is having a growing impact on traditional institutions such as medicine, religion, mental health, corporate management strategies, concepts of marriage, child rearing, and the family, and more. Increasingly, educated people want to know much more about meditation, while our traditional institutions of high culture remain unprepared as adequate interpreters.

The body of "The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation" is authored by Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan. Following their own overview of the scientific studies on meditation, they provide a detailed summation of the scientific research by organizing it into three categories: physiological effects, behavioral effects, and subjective reports. The research is then broken down by category as follows:

Physiological Effects

The Cardiovascular System

Heart Rate
Redistribution of Blood Flow
Blood Pressure and Hypertension
Other Cardiovascular Changes

The Cortical System

EEG: Alpha Activity
EEG: Theta Activity
EEG: Beta Activity
EEG: Hemispheric Synchronization
EEG: Dehabituation
Specific Cortical Control
Other Cortical Changes

Blood Chemistry

Adrenal Hormones
Thyroid Hormones
Total Protein
Amino Acids and Phenylalanine
Plasma Prolactin and Growth Hormone
Lactate
White Blood Cells
Red Blood Cell Metabolism
Cholesterol

The Metabolic and Respiratory Systems

Muscle Tension

Skin Resistance and Spontaneous GSR

Other Physiological Effects

Brain Metabolism
Salivary Changes
Effectiveness in the Treatment of Disease
Treatment of Cancer
Changes in Body Temperature
Alleviation of Pain
Exceptional Body Control

Behavioral Effects

Perceptual and Cognitive Abilities

Perceptual Ability

Reaction Time and Perceptual Motor Skill
Deautomatization
Field Independence
Concentration and Attention
Memory and Intelligence

Rorschach Shifts

Empathy

Regression in the Service of the Ego

Creativity and Self-Actualization

Creativity
Self-Actualization

Hypnotic Suggestibility

Anxiety

Psychotherapy and Addiction

Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
Addiction and Chemical Dependency

Sleep

Sex Role Identification

Subjective Reports

Equanimity

Detachment

Ineffability

Bliss

Energy and Excitement

Altered Body Image and Ego Boundaries

Hallucinations and Illusions

Dreams

Synesthesia

Extrasensory Experiences

Clearer Perception

Negative Experiences

Searchable Bibiliography

Related

The Mind and Life Institute is a "working collaboration and research partnership between modern science and Buddhism."

October 12, 2005 | Science | Permalink



A Different Universe

After discussing David Bohm's thoughts on fragmentation and wholeness here, it was interesting to come across The New York Times' recent review of Robert Laughlin's book "A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down." Laughlin, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, criticizes science's emphasis on reductionism — the dividing of the world into smaller and smaller objects of study. The Times' reviewer describes Laughlin's concerns:

By breaking matter into atoms, subatomic particles and subatomic forces, and by disassembling living organisms into such discrete elements as cells, genes, enzymes and so forth, scientists have learned much about how nature works, and how we can make it do our bidding.

Inevitably, reductionism has been overused. Not everything can be reduced to cosmic nuts and bolts. In the emerging sciences of the 21st century, many researchers are dusting off an old saying: ''The whole is more than the sum of its parts.''

Laughlin's book echoes David Bohm's thoughts twenty-five years prior. In his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order" (1980), Bohm observed:

Science itself is demanding a new, non-fragmentary world view, in the sense that the present approach of analysis of the world into independent elementary parts does not work very well in modern physics. It is shown that both in relativity theory and quantum theory, notions implying the undivided wholeness of the universe would provide a much more orderly way of considering the general nature of reality.

I haven't read Laughlin's book, but I would guess that his analysis doesn't extend as deeply as Bohm's in its examination of reductionism's roots in thought, and the complementary problem of the psychological fragmentation of the human mind. In a future entry or two, I'll wrap up the discussion of Bohm (whose work is implicitly connected to an inquiry into meditation) for the time-being.

June 26, 2005 | Science | Permalink



David Bohm on Thought, Part 3

In two previous entries (Part 1, Part 2), I introduced David Bohm's views on thought as elaborated in his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order." Bohm makes a vital point when observing that while our society is embedded in thought, we have paid little attention to understanding the process and structure of thought itself. Bohm writes:

We are ready to give such attention and work in a wide range of fields, scientific, economic, social, political, etc. As yet, however, little or none of this has gone into the creation of insight into the process of thought, on the clarity of which the value of all else depends. What is primarily needed is a growing realization of the extremely great danger of going on with a fragmentary process of thought. Such a realization would give the inquiry into how thought actually operates that sense of urgency and energy required to meet the true magnitude of the difficulties with which fragmentation is now confronting us.

To give an example of fragmentary thought, I'd like to reference a recent article from the New York Times Magazine. The April 10 issue features the story "The Other Stem-Cell Debate," in which the author, Jamie Shreeve, discusses the ethics of injecting animals with human stem cells in order to examine how such cells develop (experimentation in humans is considered unethical).

Driving the surge in chimeric experimentation is the enormous but still untested promise of human stem cells. In theory, stem cells isolated from an early human embryo can transform themselves into virtually any kind of cell in the body, kindling hope that one day they may be transplanted into human patients to provide new tissue wherever it is needed...

The article finds its focus in the question, "How 'human' are chimeric creatures made from human stem cells?" However, I'd suggest that such a question is operating from a fragmentary point of view. Bohm describes fragmentation as:

…a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and ‘broken up’ into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.

The concept of an essential "human-ness", and the categorical cleaving of humans from other forms of life, are examples of distinctions based in our capacity for thought and abstraction.

In chimeric experimentation human cells have been inserted into animals such as grown monkeys, fetal lambs, and mice embryos. There are certainly ethical questions to be raised about such research, but the question of how human these "chimeras" are is a suspect one. Had we experimented by transferring chimp neurons into a mouse brain, would we be asking whether the mouse now had some essential chimp-ness? When pig heart valves were transplanted into Jesse Helms, did we worry that he was partly porcine? The article itself admits that commonality among organisms is pervasive:

That said, all modern genetic research, including the sequencing of the human genome itself, underscores how trivial the biological difference really is between a human being and the rest of life. Ninety-nine percent of our genome is shared with chimpanzees. Thirty-one percent of our genes are interchangeable with those of yeast.

Another concern is voiced by a scientist who co-wrote the Canadian stem-cell guidelines and remarked, "We have to be sure we are not creating beings with consciousness." First of all, such a statement presumes that only humans have consciousness, when as we've noted while discussing neuroscience in earlier entries (2/2/05, 2/3/05, 2/8/05), consciousness may exist in manifold forms. When we hardly understand our own brains and subjective experience, it's presumptuous of us to claim comprehension of the consciousness of other fauna. In any case, concerns about transplanting human consciousness into other beings don't accord with the complexities of biological functioning. As one stem-cell researcher notes:

''Even if I were to make a monkey with a hippocampus composed entirely of human cells, it's not going to stand up and quote Shakespeare,'' Snyder says. ''Those sophisticated in human functioning know that it's more than the cellular components that make a human brain. It's the connections, the blood vessels that feed them; it's the various surfaces on which they migrate, the timing by which various synaptic molecules are released and impact other things, like molecules from the bloodstream and from the bone.''

Continuing to search for what separates us from other animals, the author of the Times article eventually settles on the notion that it comes down to the size of our brain:

If it is not some categorical essentialism that draws a bright line between us and the rest of the animals, surely it is the size and power of our brains. They are the physical address of everything we think of as uniquely human -- our rational thinking, intelligence, language, complex emotions and unparalleled ability to imagine a future and remember the past....''Humanness'' surely resides in the emergent layers building the vastly complex architecture of the human brain.

Drawing a "bright line" between humans and animals based on brain size is just another kind of "categorical essentialism." And again, why fall back on the concept of "humanness"? Like a Platonic form, it has no grounding in the realm of science. Certainly the human animal has a distinguishably complex brain, but such a fact does not imply that humans are apart from the rest of life. And despite the author's assertion, scientific research indicates that thinking, intelligence, language, emotion, and memory are not exclusively human attributes. As to differences in the brain, a biological anthropologist interviewed for the article suggests they are a matter of degree and not kind:

...[Deacon] says that there is little evidence for the sudden appearance of some new thing — a uniquely human gene, a completely novel brain structure in the hominid lineage — that sets us distinctly apart. Obviously, there has been an overall increase in brain size. But the telling difference is in more subtle shifts in proportion and connections between regions of the brain, ''a gerrymandering of the system'' that corresponds to a growing reliance on the use of language and other symbolic behavior as a means of survival.

The key point here is that humans, relatively speaking, have a highly developed capacity for abstract thought. Abstraction allows us to conceive of ourselves as materially different from nature, but thinking does not make a thing so. This brings us back to David Bohm, who emphasizes:

...it is crucial that man be aware of the activity of his thought as such; i.e. as a form of insight, a way of looking, rather than as a 'true copy of reality as it is'.

As mentioned in the beginning of this entry, we act in the world to a great degree through the filter of our thinking. Faced with dilemmas, we turn again and again to thought to resolve them. Yet, we remain unaware of the extent to which our problems originate in the fragmentary tendencies of thought itself. Here we've used the example of an article on stem-cell research to illustrate how preconceived notions frame the questions we ask. In a subsequent entry we'll further explore David Bohm's response to the challenges of fragmentation.

Previously

David Bohm and Wholeness

David Bohm on Thought

David Bohm on Thought, Part 2

June 8, 2005 | Science | Permalink



Global Warning

The New Yorker magazine recently completed a compelling and wide-ranging three-part series on climate change called "The Climate of Man." Parts One, Two, and Three are available online. The New Yorker web site also includes an interview with the writer of the series, Elizabeth Kolbert, which contains the following exchange:

One disturbing thing about your article is just how alarmed many seemingly sober-minded scientists are. What sort of a gap is there between expert and lay opinion on climate change?

That’s a good question. I think there is a surprisingly large — you might even say frighteningly large — gap between the scientific community and the lay community’s opinions on global warming. As you point out, I spoke to many very sober-minded, coolly analytical scientists who, in essence, warned of the end of the world as we know it. I think there are a few reasons why their message hasn’t really got out. One is that scientists tend, as a group, to interact more with each other than with the general public. Another is that there has been a very well-financed disinformation campaign designed to convince people that there is still scientific disagreement about the problem, when, as I mentioned before, there really is quite broad agreement. And third, the climate operates on its own timetable. It will take several decades for the warming that is already inevitable to be felt. People tend to focus on the here and now. The problem is that, once global warming is something that most people can feel in the course of their daily lives, it will be too late to prevent much larger, potentially catastrophic changes.

Update: The New Yorker no longer has this series archived onlined — probably for copyright reasons as Kolbert has expanded the articles into a book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

May 10, 2005 | Science | Permalink



David Bohm on Thought, Part 2

The last entry introduced David Bohm's ideas about thought. Bohm referred to thought as a physical, material process, which operates in a mechanical, conditioned fashion. Thought, as he terms it, is not simply mental verbalization, it is a network, "whose content is the total response of memory, including feelings, muscular reactions, and even physical sensations, that merge with and flow out of the whole response."

We can see what Bohm means by the notion of thought as a network, by observing our own experience. Thoughts are intimately bound up in feeling and physical response. For example, as I'm walking down the street I hear a song coming from a cafe. Memory recognizes this song, and with its associative qualities, gives rise to the thought of person X — let's say that the song was a favorite of X. Based on my past experience with X, their recalled memory-image summons strong feelings — neurochemicals instantly course through the body. There is a slight nausea in the pit of the stomach and the pulse has quickened. I fold my arms in a protective, defensive posture against the discomfort. An associative chain of memories of X continues on in the brain.

Let's return to Bohm's broader views and look at what he calls fragmentation, or division. We only have to read the daily headlines to see the consequences of fragmentation writ large. Such conflicts are pervasive on a smaller scale in our daily lives. Bohm sees fragmentation as rooted in thought, so let's examine the relationship of the two. Bohm writes:

Fragmentation is continually being sought out by the almost universal habit of taking the content of our thought for 'a description of the world as it is'. Or we could say that in this habit, our thought is regarded as in direct correspondence with objective reality. Since our thought is pervaded with differences and distinctions, it follows that such a habit leads us to look on these as real divisions, so that the world is then seen and experienced as actually broken up into fragments.... This confusion is of crucial significance, since it leads us to approach nature, society, and the individual in terms of more or less fixed and limited forms of thought, and thus, apparently, to keep on confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 4.]

Bohm gives examples of such limited, fragmented approaches:

If one approaches a man with a fixed 'theory' about him as an 'enemy' against whom one must defend oneself, he will respond similarly, and thus one's 'theory' will apparently be confirmed by experience. Similarly, nature will respond in accordance with the theory in which it is approached. Thus, in ancient times, men thought plagues were inevitable, and this thought helped make them behave in such a way as to propagate the conditions responsible for their spread. With modern scientific forms of insights man's behavior is such that he ceases the unsanitary modes of life responsible for spreading plagues and thus they are no longer inevitable. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 8.]

When the U.S. president went to war in Iraq, he claimed to be certain that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction." In the two years since the invasion, the U.S. military recovered no such weapons and has given up the search. Although we don't know the content and complexities of the U.S. president's thought process, we can probably conclude that he made the mistake of taking his thought to be "a description of the world as it is." By approaching Iraq from "more or less fixed and limited forms of thought," he kept on, "confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience."

We'll take another look at fragmentation in a subsequent entry, by referencing a recent New York Times Magazine article discussing the frontiers of stem-cell research.

Previously

David Bohm on Thought

David Bohm on Wholeness

May 3, 2005 | Science | Permalink



David Bohm on Thought

Recently I wrote an introductory entry about the American physicist David Bohm, a friend of both Einstein and J. Krishnamurti, and an accomplished scientist and philosopher in his own right. Here I want to further discuss his ideas on thought, fragmentation, and wholeness, as detailed in his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order."

Two of my favorite voices on such matters are J. Krishnamurti and Toni Packer, but neither of them present an overarching framework or theory for their ideas (which makes it harder for Krishnamurti's work to be accepted within an academic setting). As a working physicist and professor, at universities such as Princeton and the University of London, Bohm had the academic focus and bent to present an overall framework for his ideas. For a few entries, I'd like to explore some of this framework.

A key focus in Bohm's work was to understand thought more clearly. In his view, thought, when misapplied, lies at the root of the division and conflict that fragments humanity within and without. Bohm has a more expansive or systemic view of thought than we commonly consider (see also, his book "Thought as a System"), so let's look at how he defines it:

What is the process of thought? Thought is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process. To treat them separately makes for fragmentation and confusion. All these are one process of response of memory to each actual situation, which response in turn leads to a further contribution to memory, thus conditioning the next thought. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 64.]

The main point here is that thought, as Bohm terms it, is more than simple ideation. It includes the whole movement of memory in its pervasive workings throughout the body and brain. He continues:

One of the earliest and most primitive forms of thought is, for example, just the memory of pleasure or pain, in conjunction with a visual, auditory, or olfactory image that may be evoked by an object or a situation. It is common in our culture to regard memories involving image content as separate from those involving feeling. It is clear, however, that the whole meaning of such a memory is just the conjunction of the image with its feeling, which (along with the intellectual content and the physical reaction) constitutes the totality of the judgment as to whether what is remembered is good or bad, desirable or not, etc. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 64.]

Bohm follows with another essential point, which is that thought is a material process (albeit a subtle one) that operates in a conditioned, mechanical manner; the assumption that thought is ethereal or insubstantial is an incorrect one:

It is clear that thought considered in this way as the response of memory, is basically mechanical in its order of operation. Either it is a repetition of some previously existent structure drawn from memory, or else it is some combination arrangement and organization of these memories into further structures of ideas, concepts, categories, etc. These combinations may possess a certain kind of novelty resulting from the fortuitous interplay of elements of memory, but it is clear that such novelty is still essentially mechanical (like the new combinations appearing in a kaleidoscope).... Now, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that thought is basically a material process. For example, it has been observed in a wide variety of contexts that thought is inseparable from electrical and chemical activity in the brain and nervous system, and from concomitant tensions and movements of muscles. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, pp. 64-66.]

So, this is our starting point, examining not just the content of thought, but the structure and process of thinking itself. We'll elaborate further on Bohm's theories in a subsequent entry.

April 29, 2005 | Science | Permalink



David Bohm and Wholeness

A recent New York Times article asked the question, "Who is the next Einstein?" Some of the notable scientists interviewed were aptly skeptical of the query:

Dr. Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist and best-selling author, who is often so mentioned, has said that such comparisons have less to do with his own achievements than the media's need for heroes.

I mention the article as a way of introduction to David Bohm (1917-1992), for it's reported that Einstein once privately called Bohm his "intellectual successor." At the time, Bohm was a colleague and friend of Einstein's at Princeton. The two were working on refining a theory of quantum mechanics, with Einstein saying, "If anyone can do it, then it will be Bohm."

In later years, Bohm encountered the writings of J. Krishnamurti. He was struck by the way Krishnamurti's observations echoed his own investigations into quantum mechanics. Bohm sought out Krishnamurti and the two became close, participating in regular conversations and dialogues of inquiry over the years.

Bohm's friend and biographer, F. David Peat, said of Bohm:

Certainly he did say that the two most important encounters in his life were with Einstein and Krishnamurti. He felt something similar between the two men — the great, enormous energy that both of them had, and the intensity, and the honesty. And with each of them he had a deep friendship, but at an impersonal rather than a personal level. I think both men were quite important to him, but certainly with Krishnamurti the dialogues they had went very, very deep.

Though he was one of the most important physicists of the twentieth century, Bohm's ideas were not always well-received by his colleagues. In turn, Bohm criticized the mainstream course of physics, asserting that it was more concerned with discrete mathematical solutions than a broad-based understanding. Einstein concurred, he wrote to Bohm in a letter, "If this is the way things are going, then there's no point in my doing physics anymore."

Bohm's book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order" (1980), contains an overview of his theories on the nature of reality. In the introduction, he writes:

I would say that in my scientific and philosophical work, my main concern has been with understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete, but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. x.]

Where his fellow physicists were focusing on the pieces, smashing atoms into smaller and smaller particles, Bohm was interested in the whole. He believed that a deeper level of order existed, and that what we commonly view as separate has an underlying connection, which he termed the "implicate order." In an interview, Bohm's biographer Peat, a fellow physicist, elaborates:

Then there was his theory of the implicate order. The world we seem to live in — the world of classical objects, the world of Newtonian physics — Dave referred to as the "explicate order." He felt that what we take for reality is only one particular level or perception of order. And underneath that is what he called the "implicate order," the enfolded order in which things are folded together and deeply interconnected, and out of which the explicate order unfolds. The explicate is only, you could say, the froth on top of the milk and the implicate order is much deeper. It includes not only matter, but consciousness; it's only in the explicate order that we tend to break them apart, to see them as two separate things. Dave spent a great deal of time in the last decades of his life trying to find a mathematical expression for this vision of reality.

Considering the question of a "next Einstein" posed by the New York Times article, let's see what Bohm had to say in a similarly-themed passage from "Wholeness and the Implicate Order":

To develop new insight into fragmentation and wholeness requires a creative work even more difficult than that needed to make fundamental new discoveries in science, or great and original works of art. It might in this context be said that one who is similar to Einstein in creativity is not one who imitates Einstein's ideas, nor even one who applies these ideas in new ways, rather, it is the one who learns from Einstein and then goes on to do something original, which is able to assimilate what is valid in Einstein's work and yet goes beyond this in qualitatively new ways. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 31.]

Bohm was certainly investigating these "new ways," and we'll explore more of his ideas in another entry.

Related

Encyclopedia entry on David Bohm at Wikipedia

Interview with Bohm's biographer, F. David Peat

Interview with David Bohm

David Bohm's books at Amazon.com

"The Limits of Thought," a book containing dialogues between Bohm and J. Krishnamurti

"Infinite Potential," Peat's biography on Bohm

April 19, 2005 | Science | Permalink



Examining the Self

By examining consciousness more closely, we challenge our usual assumptions about ourselves and the world. Another subject that requires more attention is the notion of the "self."

We commonly maintain the idea of an internal self — the psychological "I" we locate at the core of our identity. But does this "I," this "self," this "me," substantially exist? Rodolfo Llinas, Chairman of the Department of Physiology and Neuroscience at NYU, writes in "I of the Vortex":

"I" has always been the magnificent mystery; I believe, I say, I whatever. But one must understand that there is no such tangible thing. It is just a particular mental state, a generated abstract entity we refer to as "I" or "self".... The "I" of the vortex, that which we work and suffer for, is just a convenient word that stands for as global an event as does the concept of Uncle Sam vis-à-vis the reality of a complex, heterogeneous United States.

The meditation teacher Toni Packer addresses the same question in her book "The Wonder of Presence":

Now, is there such an entity as me or I? Or is it just like the weather — an ongoing, ever changing stream of ideas, images, memories, projections, likes and dislikes, creation and destruction, that thought keeps calling I, me, Toni, and thereby solidifying what is evanescent?

The site Naturalism.org, which promotes a scientific approach to understanding the world, offers a complementary view:

The self is constituted by more or less consistent sets of personal characteristics, beliefs, and actions, but it doesn’t exist apart from those complex physical processes that make up the individual. It may strongly seem as if there is a self sitting behind experience, witnessing it, and behind behavior, controlling it, but this impression is strongly disconfirmed by a scientific understanding of human behavior.

It was once believed that atoms were indivisible and the sun revolved around the earth. Perhaps we are even more attached to the belief in a permanent self — the "I" in control of our life. When examined more closely, through the scientific lens, or in the moment-to-moment attention of awareness, such solidified beliefs begin to dissolve.

February 13, 2005 | Science | Permalink



Rodolfo Llinas on Consciousness

Continuing on the theme of the last two entries on insect consciousness and bird intelligence, we'll work our way, via the octopus, towards the human brain (and the particular relevance of this topic to meditation.) Rodolfo Llinas, a "founding father of modern brain science," is the author of the fascinating book "I of the Vortex," which offers a compelling argument about the evolution of thought and the mind.

In examining the question of consciousness, Llinas addresses the question of whether animals and other creatures experience subjectivity, or whether they are simply automatons:

I shall use the term qualia to denote subjective experience of any type generated by the nervous system, be it pain, the color green, or the specific timbre of a musical note. This issue has been discussed at great length from a philosophical point of view.

Llinas notes a common scientific perception that:

...while being the basis for consciousness, qualia appeared in only the highest life forms, suggesting that qualia represent a recently evolved central function that is present in only the more advanced brains. This view relegates the more lowly animals, for example ants, to a realm characterized by the absence of subjective experiences of any kind.

Llinas disagrees:

To me, these views lack a proper evolutionary perspective.... What is not often understood is how deeply related qualia truly are to the evolutionary, functional structure of the brain.


He goes on to discuss the intelligence of octopi:

I must tell you one of the most alarming experiences I've had in pondering brain function.... that the octopus is capable of truly extraordinary feats of intelligence. I have read of experiments in octopus by J.Z. Young, where these invertebrates have solved problems as complicated as opening a jar to remove a crab kept inside. Operating with nothing but the visual image and olfactory clues indicating the presence of the crab inside and the tactile manipulation of the jar, the creature finally found that the top could be opened by applying force. And after having done so, when presented again with the same problem, the animal was immediately capable of opening the top and fetching the crab out. Astoundingly, this event could be learned with a single trial. More to the point, however, and most remarkable is the report that octopi may learn from observing other octopi at work. The alarming fact here is that the organization of the nervous system of this animal is totally different from the organization we have learned is capable of supporting this type of activity in the vertebrate brain.... there may well be a large number of possible architectures that could provide the basis of what we consider necessary for cognition and qualia.... the simplest assumption from what we see is that their behavior supports subjectivity.... the onus of proof lies with those who believe that these animals are devoid of qualia.

These observations on "possible architectures for cognition," echo the recent reevaluation of the bird brain, and its non-mammalian stucture for intelligence.

Llinas continues:

Given our knowledge today, we seem to have come as close as we can to understanding qualia [subjective experience]. Those who reject the reduction of qualia to the electrical activity and geometry of neuronal circuits, perhaps do so because they lack any understanding of functional geometries; qualia are not some mysterious events that, "residing between," manage miraculously to change the nature of electrical activity into "feelings." After all... qualia are soluble in local anesthetics. Here the ghost in the machine is responsive to surgery or even a whack on the head. Since when are transcendent properties so fragile and close to the biological process? Parsimony and serious science clearly indicate that "the bridge," "the mysterious transformation" of electrochemical events into sensations is an empty set. It does not exist: neuronal activity and sensation are one and the same event.

Llinas concludes that, "For all intents and purposes, the question of qualia or feelings is the question of conscious experience." Our common approach when considering consciousness is to imagine it hierarchically as a special province of the human brain. We may allow that other creatures have varying, albeit lesser forms of experience, but nothing that compares to the rich, language-infused complexity of the human mind. But such judgments are merely a reflection of our capacity to analyze, compare, and elevate the primacy of our own experience. Llinas suggests that consciousness, or subjective experience, is not an exclusively human capacity, but stems from neural activity itself.

February 8, 2005 | Science | Permalink



Bird Brain

Following yesterday's entry on insect consciousness, we now turn to our avian friends. The New York Times reports on an emerging (and redressive) scientific consensus that birds are highly intelligent.


Birdbrain has long been a colloquial term of ridicule. The common notion is that birds' brains are simple, or so scientists thought and taught for many years. But that notion has increasingly been called into question as crows and parrots, among other birds, have shown what appears to be behavior as intelligent as that of chimpanzees....

Today, in the journal Nature Neuroscience Reviews, an international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto. Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and mammal brains....

At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food....

Like mammals, some birds are naturally smarter than others, Dr. Jarvis said. But given their range of behaviors, birds are extraordinarily flexible in their intelligence quotients. "They're right up there with hominids," he said.

However, considering the consequences of our discovery, birds may have preferred we remained in the dark about their smarts:

"There are still puzzles to be solved," said Dr. Peter Marler, a leading authority on bird behavior at the University of California, Davis, who is not part of the consortium. But the realization that one can study mammal brains by using bird brains, he said, "is a revolution."

"I think that birds are going to replace the white rat as the favored subject for studying functional neuroanatomy," he added.

February 3, 2005 | Science | Permalink



Animal Intelligence

The organization Edge hosts The World Question Center, which every year fields a question to "leading scientists, writers, and futurists." The question selected for 2005 was "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?"

One of the respondents, Alun Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of the publication New Scientist, addresses the topic of animal and insect consciousness.

Strangely, I believe that cockroaches are conscious. That is probably an unappealing thought to anyone who switches on a kitchen light in the middle of the night and finds a family of roaches running for cover. But it's really shorthand for saying that I believe that many quite simple animals are conscious, including more attractive beasts like bees and butterflies.

I can't prove that they are, but I think in principle it will be provable one day and there's a lot to be gained about thinking about the worlds of these relatively simple creatures, both intellectually—and even poetically. I don't mean that they are conscious in even remotely the same way as humans are; if that were true the world would be a boring place. Rather the world is full of many overlapping alien consciousnesses.

Why do I think there might be multiple forms of conscious out there? Before becoming a journalist I spent 10 years and a couple of post-doctoral fellowships getting inside the sensory worlds of a variety of insects, including bees and cockroaches. I was inspired by A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, a slim out-of-print volume by Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944)....

That's what I mean by consciousness—the feeling of "seeing" the world and its associations. For the bee, it is the feeling of being a bee. I don't mean that a bee is self-conscious or spends time thinking about itself. But of course the problem of why the bee has its own "feeling" is the same incomprehensible "hard problem" of why the activity of our nervous system gives rise to our own "feelings"....

To think this way about simple creatures is not to fall into the anthropomorphic fallacy. Bees and spiders live in their own world in which I don't see human-like motives. Rather it is a kind of panpsychism, which I am quite happy to sign up to, at least until we know a lot more about the origin of consciousness. That may take me out of the company of quite a few scientists who would prefer to believe that a bee with a brain of only a million neurons must surely be a collection of instinctive reactions with some simple switching mechanism between them, rather have some central representation of what is going on that might be called consciousness. But it leaves me in the company of poets who wonder at the world of even lowly creatures.

"In this falling rain,
where are you off to
snail?"

wrote the haiku poet Issa.

February 2, 2005 | Science | Permalink



Love Story

Writing in The Japan Times, Rowan Hooper discusses an evolutionary take on love. A recent study makes the case that romantic love has evolved from maternal love:

What researchers at University College London have now found is that romantic and maternal love activate many of the same regions of the brain. The implication is that maternal love is the evolutionary basis, the foundation, for romantic love.

The researchers, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, of UCL's Laboratory for Neurobiology, also found that love leads to a suppression of neural activity associated with critical social assessment of other people and negative emotions: The brain is told to go easy on people. The findings suggest that once you fall in love, the need to critically assess the character and personality of that person is reduced. The work could provide a neurological explanation for why love makes us blind.

January 26, 2005 | Science | Permalink



The Brain on Politics

In "This Is Your Brain on Politics" in the New York Times, Joshua Freedman discusses politics from the perspective of neuoroscience:

...recent neuroscience research suggests that Democrats and Republicans are not nearly as far apart as they seem. In fact, there is empirical evidence that even the fiercest partisans may instinctively like both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, although they struggle against this collaborative impulse.... In the case of this past election, while we witnessed an electorate that seemed irreconcilably divided, using f.M.R.I. [functional magnetic resonance imaging], we could see that the Republicans and Democrats we tested liked both candidates. The initial reflex toward allegiance is easy to explain: people rise through the ranks to run for higher office because they are able to evoke in others a powerful impulse to join their cause. Voters sense this attraction, and to keep from succumbing, they dredge up emotion-laden negative images as a counterweight.

This speaks to the problems of identification. When we identify with a particular candidate, party, or country, our capacity to look and think with an open mind is diminished. Despite the seeming security of a black-and-white perspective, we must struggle to maintain it when the inevitable contradictory facts and feelings emerge. Freedman continues:

Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel alienated from each other help to close the political gap? It is unknown, because neuroscience has advanced only recently to the point where humans can begin to watch themselves think and feel. If we are going to solve the nation's complicated problems, it is important to close this gap because in a setting where emotions run high, careful thoughts have no chance against intoxicating ones. In divisive politics, as in highly spiced dishes, all subtlety is lost.

While neuroscience may have only recently advanced, "to the point where humans can begin to watch themselves think and feel," we don't need magnetic resonance imaging to watch ourselves think and feel. Meditation itself is simply a name for the open, unbiased awareness of what is going on. Without effort, we can see the impulses, attractions, thoughts, and emotions arise within ourselves from moment to moment. And in that open seeing, there is a freedom from the struggles of identification.

January 18, 2005 | Science | Permalink