Monday, February 18, 2013

Evan Thompson's "Dreamless sleep, the embodied mind and consciousness"

At Thompson's homepage there is a link to some of his selected articles, one of which is a condensed version of what will be in his forthcoming book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy (link). The article is "Dreamless sleep, the embodied mind and consciousness: The relevance of a classical Indian debate to cognitive science" (link). The abstract follows with my commentary.

"One of the issues debated between the Advaita Vedānta and Nyāya schools in classical Indian philosophy is whether consciousness is present in dreamless sleep. Advaita Vedānta argues that the waking report 'I slept well' is a memory report and hence requires previous experience, whereas Nyāya argues that the report expresses a retrospective inference. Consideration of this debate, especially the reasoning Advaita Vedānta uses to try to rebut the Nyāya view, calls into question the standard neuroscience way of operationally defining consciousness as that which disappears in dreamless sleep and reappears when we wake up or dream. The Indian debate also offers new resources for contemporary philosophical concern with the relationship between phenomenal consciousness (subjective experience) and access consciousness (accessibility to working memory and verbal report). At the same time, findings from cognitive neuroscience have important implications for the Indian debates about cognition during sleep, as well as for Indian and Western philosophical discussions of the nature of the self and its relation to the body. Finally, considerations about sleep drawn from Advaita Vedānta, as well as the Yoga school and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, suggest new experimental questions and protocols for the cognitive neuroscience of sleep and consciousness."

I like this from p. 10. Ring any bells?

"But whereas the Advaitin takes this minimal selfhood to be a transcendental witness consciousness, I think itʼs open to us to maintain that it is my embodied self or bodily subjectivity, or what phenomenologists would call my pre-personal lived body. In this way, I think we can remove the Advaita conception of dreamless sleep from its native metaphysical framework and graft it onto a naturalist conception of the embodied mind."

I also like this practice from p. 19, something I've been doing for years, "treating going to sleep and waking up as themselves occasions for meditation—for watching the mind as it enters and emerges from sleep."

Also of interest is that according to Thompson Vedanta is using a transcendental argument to support consciousness in deep sleep, that sort of argument being "to deduce what must be the case in order for some aspect of our experience to be possible" (9). Recall that Bryant also uses Bhaskar's elucidation of this sort of argument to support his ontocology. But Vedanta uses not only the transcendental argument but conscious experience as justification. The latter is traditionally distinguished between phenomenological and access consciousness. Vedanta's transcendental argument accepts the possibility that we do not access consciousness during deep sleep, that we only deduce it as necessary. But Vedanta (and its yogic-influenced Tibetan Buddhist varieties) also claim we have access during deep sleep. And this is exactly what Bryant and Bhaskar would call the epistemic fallacy from their transcendental perspective.

In the last section of the paper (starting at 16) Thompson explores access in lucid dreamless sleep as consciousness without an object. It is described "as disclosing a basal level of pre-personal consciousness that lies deeper than the modes of awareness that characterize the ego-centred waking and dreaming states" (20). I'm thinking this goes beyond (below) the core consciousness described in the article. Recall this post from the states thread, of a base awareness without contents. It seems that core consciousness with its rudimentary ipseity still has contents given its differentiation and relation to objects or contents of consciousness. Tonic attention though seems more akin to consciousness without an object.

Thompson then asks if the traditional metaphysical interpretations of such phenomenal states can be separated for purposes of scientific study. In one experiment it was shown that long-time meditators exhibited 20-25% more gamma activity during deep sleep than did the controls, gamma being correlated with conscious processes, as well as distinguishing lucid from non-lucid dreamless sleep. It appears this could suggest be access to the base state without contents described above during sleep. Further tests are required, but this could indeed lead to a postmetaphysical de/recontexualization like that presaged in our prior states thread, sans the transcendent-metaphysical frames.

I think the above de/re also handles the epistemic fallacy because what is being accessed is a tonic attention that is fully embodied and thereby limited by that embodied constraint. Such a consciousness without an object doesn't lay claim to access to the reality of All, or even access to all of our personal cognitive unconscious or collective unconscious. It's just accessing that embodied part of our natural awareness available to us by virtue of having the body and brain we do, with all its limitations.

And this extends to that basic awareness or response mechanism (prehension, if you will) all suobjects have by virtue of their embodied structures, per Bryant. Hence this isn't just about humans and their relation to other objects, but the structural integrity of all suobjects in their relation and response to their worldspaces. All suobjects have some access via their structure, and yet that access is limited by that structure as well, with plenty hidden (withdrawn) never to be accessed in total, both within and without.

Also note that Fallio describes tonic attention as a "condition for" cognitive processes. Here we have our transcendental, yet embodied, condition necessary for consciousness. Also recall that Damasio posits that awake attention is prerequisite for both mind and self consciousness. He of course is limiting his focus to sentient creatures, and his terms are specific to that. But as I said, this basic awareness or attention seems like it can be an embodied basis for any structural organization, even non-sentient. But again, humans evolved minds on top of that, as did other sentient creatures, and then developed self consciousness on top of that, as did a few other creatures. Humans of course developing the latter much further than others, and what distinguishes them from a rock, ants or even horses. Still, basic prehension seems inherent to our particular structural universe and we have it too.

PS: I introduced a paper Thompson references on p. 7 of the states thread: Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness. Relevant to my recent points above, recall this from p. 8:
A few points on Damasio above related to the previous meditation article on ipseity and awareness. Note that consciousness is not the same as basic mind awareness. The former requires a 'self' and the latter is bereft of one. Core consciousness pre-dates the narrative self and is focused in the present only. It seems this is the 'bare awareness' from the meditation article, which requires ipseity (self), and is not the same as the unconscious 'mind' process (awake awareness) that Damasio distinguishes. This is congruent with my earlier speculations that it requires an 'ego' to meditate, which goes down into the 'mind.' I didn't have Damasio's more refined definitions then, so the ego to which I referred might be more like the core consciousness than the narrative self?

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