Rise of Consciousness


Brain and self are the common threads that are used by neuropsychiatry, neuropharmacology, and philosophy to get some hold on one of the most intractable problems of humankind, namely, “consciousness.” Is there a common issue in brain and self studies that appears over and again? Yes. That is the attempt to explain the unity, continuity, and adherence of our experience, whether it is sensory or mental. To address the unity, adherence, and continuity of experience is to address the place of the self in the brain. A major challenge to this effort is the fact that, though we tend to commonly address a static unit by calling it “self,” the self is a constantly emerging phenomenon as a result of its interaction with nature outside (social and biological) and the nurture inside (mind).In the works of several neuropsychiatrists of recent times we see how they use the first-person account of experiences of their patients to understand the construal of agency and experience in challenging situations. These accounts have brought in the humanising picture of the brain and give an alternate perspective to understand the brain and the body. Jonathan Cole in a telling manner narrates the case of patients with spinal cord injury.  He explains the neurology and phenomenology of unusual condition of deafferentation in patients. They have extreme difficulty with movement because of the lack of senses of touch and proprioception below the neck. Cole’s narratives explain how they experience and project their agency (1998). In Still Lives, Jonathan Cole (2004) gives an account of the responses he received from people with quadriplegia due to spinal cord injuries for the question ‘what it is like to live without sensation and movement in the body’. If the body is dysfunctional, where does the self reside? Cole finds that there is no single or simple answer.

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Is Irreducible Experience the Puzzle for Consciousness?

arrowBy and large, if we follow the current discussions on consciousness in the West we get two impressions. First, one gets to think that the understanding of consciousness is dependent on the understanding of, if not the brain, at least the physical processes guided by some mechanism. Second, there is no consensual definition of the problem, method and the major goals of enquiry itself; and third there is insufficient recognition of the very complexity and subjective nature of the phenomenon. All the three features have jointly contributed towards generating vast literature, dialogues and discussions about a variety of issues relating to consciousness, the primary one being empirical research and on medical possibilities, especially in the area of ‘abnormalities’. The extent of the meanings imputed to ‘consciousness’ most often crosses empirical limits and sometimes even diffuses with qualitative experiential descriptions. It is very important that there be not only a well-laid out definition for the problem but also a methodological consistency. This does not mean that even before the enquiry a complete theory of consciousness is postulated. To have the semantics of consciousness given importance at the start itself means that the theory will not be drawn based on the limitations of the methods, but on the original contention about ‘consciousness’. What exactly are we trying to understand by the study of consciousness? The answers could range from neural functions to subjective experience. It is again interesting to see that the meanings we give to ‘consciousness’ are wider conceptually than the strict semantic (in current discussions) definition of consciousness. This is even clear at the starting point of discussion when the immediate reference is to ‘experience’.

More in: Is Experience the Puzzle for Consciousness?, Invited Lecture at the international conference on cognitive science at Centre for Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, University of Allahabad, 16-18 December 2004

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Self and Neuropsychiatric narratives

arrowIn the process of its emergence the boundaries of the self seem to change, creating havoc for some (in the case of psychiatric challenges) and peace to others (in the case of spiritual experiences). Where and how in the brain is the “self” housed? How does the self make adaptive changes in one’s personality corresponding to changes in the brain? How does the self influence and alter neurochemical functions of the brain? Can the brain address its structural and functional challenges without the recourse to the self? These and similar questions may not give immediate answers considering the complex ways in which both our brain and self are cross-wired. These questions are difficult to answer also because we are not comfortable in using concepts that do not have the backing of scientific, causal relations. Several medical cases studied by neuropsychiatrists show that the way the patient behaves before and after a cure is not even amenable to arrive at straightforward causal relations between the brain and the self. A discussion on some of the recent neuropsychiatric narratives gives us a telling picture of the self at the edge, and its challenges and possibilities in the efforts to create meaning in life.

More in: Lectures
6 August 2011, Wellbeing and its implications for Brain and Consciousness Studies, Plenary Keynote address at the International Conference on Positive Psychology, Amity Institute of Behavioural and Allied Sciences, Jaipur
25 March 2011 Self at the Edge: Brain and the recent neuropsychiatric narratives, Invited Lecture for the National Seminar at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad,  in collaboration with the Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences on "The Enigma of Health: Maladies and the Politics of Healing"

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The Problem of Consciousness is less about Conscious Experiences and more about the Conscious Experiencer
There seems to be two kinds of pursuits: The first kind is that which attempts to generate, classify and categorize knowledge for building institutions and understanding various levels of complexities in human behavior. The second kind is that which does not follow a structured database, but which attempts to transform existing patterns of thinking and experience. The distinction between ways to knowledge creation and ways to transformation is well spelt out in the area of consciousness studies. Therefore, understanding consciousness in terms of degrees of intelligence and thereby degrees of self-awareness (based on cognitive and social functions) is as important as practices and philosophies that focus on the transformation of states of mind and experiences. Neural mechanisms and even their artificial simulations to cause specific experiences are indeed significant to be understood. Their understanding is considered significant since it leads to the removal of myths created about the ethereal continuity of consciousness. Reducing conscious experiences to their neural mechanisms, causes and cortical areas, according to this camp, is tantamount to reducing something (self) mistaken as qualitative to quantitative.

This reductionism is good enough to have the focal understanding about consciousness and, based on which, to have a better classification of intelligence ranging from humans to other animals to machines. But is the problem fully grasped and accounted for by that attempt? If we look a bit closer, the answer is ‘No’. The problem about consciousness is not just about having different kinds of conscious experiences and their explanation in terms of neural causes and correlates. Had been the case reductionism would have solved the mystery underlying the phenomenon.

The problem of consciousness is less about conscious experiences and more about the conscious experiencerR.

More In: Menon, S. 2001, Beside two faces of consciousness: Looking at the 'intentor' and the 'integrator'
In:  Consciousness and its transformations, Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Eductaion, Pondicherry, Ed. Matthijs Cornelissen, pp 295-306

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Face of Consciousness

If ‘definition’ and ‘knowledge’ are to be objective, with the potential for ‘predictability’ and ‘repeatability’, can we include the study of human mind and consciousness under classical ways of understanding? Can we define consciousness based on pre-experiential understanding of it? Can the experience be studied with the experiencer having minimal or no role? Conversely, can the self/experiencer be understood with experience having minimal or no role? In short will the definition of consciousness be exhaustive of its complexity?

I propose that these questions are as difficult or easy as asking ‘can I see my face’. I can see my face as much as it is represented. But none of the representations can replace my original face. What we ‘see’ is only the reported. The being of the reported cannot be confused with the being of the original. Whether they are two distinct duals is of course a metaphysical theme for discussion. How ever, I think, the most interesting issue is that though ‘the reported’ and ‘that which is reported about’ could not be reduced to one, ‘the reported’ and ‘that which is reported about’ can influence each other. I understand and define my self based on my experiences. At the same time, my experience depends upon the notion that I have of my self.

More In: Menon, S. 2001, Beside two faces of consciousness: Looking at the 'intentor' and the 'integrator'
In:  Consciousness and its transformations, Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Eductaion, Pondicherry, Ed. Matthijs Cornelissen, pp 295-306

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