Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Summary of recent posts on consciousness, neuroscience & meditation

I found this interesting article, which basically summarizes everything I've discussed recently. A few excerpts:

"Antonio Damasio (1995) distinguishes three kinds of self that constitute consciousness. At the neural level, there is the non-conscious proto-self. This represents the pattern of neural impulses that, from moment to moment, regulate the body-mind organism in reaction to external objects that perturb homeostasis.

"The core-self is the next level up, the lowest form of awareness that observes the proto-self in the process of being modified by an external object. This produces a basic reflexive sensation e.g. 'I can feel myself becoming irritated by something'. The idea of the core-self draws upon the concept of the transcendental 'I' by the German idealist Fichte (1796/2000), where consciousness is not a pre-existing phenomenon reacting to external obstacles, but rather the phenomenological subject arises in the very interaction between outside objects and the internal activity that deals with this disturbance. The core-self is this very activity (Zizek, 2006).

"Damasio’s third level of consciousness is the autobiographical-self. This is a more elaborated level of consciousness, relying on memories and past experiences, formulating imagined, anticipated futures; essentially our internal story-teller, rendering the first-order experiences of the core-self into personal narratives. This allows for a richer form of consciousness, featuring complex subjective emotions and beliefs.

"The existence of the proto- and core-selves has arguably been demonstrated in Libet’s early experiments using EEGto predict participants’ decisions before they reached subjective awareness (Libet et al., 1979). These experiments portray the core-self as a passive observer, becoming aware of the proto-self after the fact, and could appear to undermine free will, a foundational assumption of phenomenology. Libet himself actually defended free will throughout his life (1999), claiming that it exhibits itself in the ability of the core-self to veto the impulses of the proto-self. The core-self is thus characterised by intentionality, able to exert a degree of control over lower level impulses.

"Two principal forms of Buddhist meditation of interest to researchers are Open Presence (OP) and Focused Attention (FA).... [The latter] from a neurophenomenological perspective...could represent a parsimonious exercise in bolstering the intentional core-self, exerting willful veto power over the incoming impulses of the proto-self.

"Open Presence....refers back to the notion of stripping away the autobiographical 'interested' self to reveal the 'essence', the core-self, which does not engage with the oncoming thoughts and feelings. Its only minimal interest is in observing and describing what it 'sees' (Damasio, 1995), i.e. the proto-self. Hence as practitioners develop their skill in OP, their aim is to cultivate an awareness of the invariant nature of experience (Lutz et al., 2007).

"With regards to the intentional nature of consciousness, an early EEG study found that practicing FA may lead to a partial 'deautomatisation' of the mental processes that interpret perceptual stimuli (Kasamatsu & Hirai, 1966), like turning off our internal auto-pilot and switching to manual control, to use a garish analogy. This would imply that meditation trains the practitioner to have increased control of the core-self where not only is awareness of proto-self activity increased, but the power to inhibit the impulses of the proto-self is strengthened."

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