Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Damasio's theory of consciousness applied to meditation

meditating monk
Meditators aren’t asleep, but they aren’t awake in a conventional sense either. Neuroscience should be able to explain their brain state, and I believe that Antonio Damasio’s theory of consciousness [1] could help. Specifically, I suspect that meditation shuts down extended consciousness, as he defines it, while leaving “core consciousness” intact.

For Damasio, consciousness is the feeling associated with the relationship between a perceived object and the perceiving organism. Damasio argues that consciousness consists of two levels: core consciousness and extended consciousness.

Core consciousness provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment (now) and one place (here). It arises from moment to moment, and is constructed out of the pulses of awareness generated by changes in objects and bodily states. It’s a very simple biological phenomenon, and is not exclusively human; it does not require language.

Extended consciousness provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self that’s based on an extensive memory and a rich sense personal history and anticipated future. It’s wrapped up with an identity and an elaborate sense of self, and is intertwined with language. Extended consciousness is built on core consciousness. Patients with impairments that shut down extended consciousness continue to show core consciousness, but once core consciousness is lost, extended consciousness also disappears.

I suspect some meditation techniques [2] are de-activating extended consciousness, leaving only core consciousness functioning. Many of the topics in meditation practice match Damasio’s description of core consciousness. Practitioners are advised not to verbalize their experience, but simply to be aware of sensations from moment to moment (cf. Damasio’s insistence that core consciousness is pre-linguistic). They are said to become aware that everything is constantly changing (cf. Damasio’s pulses of core consciousness). The sense of a persistent self fades away. However, there is still a sense of consciousness; meditation is not sleep. Hence, in Damasio’s terms, there is still second-order awareness of the relationship between the organism and the sensations it is experiencing.

This hypothesis immediately suggests some questions:
  • Damasio is quite specific about which parts of the brain are responsible for different states of consciousness. One should be able to use fMRI of these regions in experienced meditators to test the hypothesis that meditation shuts down extended consciousness while leaving core conscious functioning.
  • There is a growing body of evidence of the beneficial health effects of meditation. Can one connect differential activation of different kinds of consciousness in Damasio’s model to specific benefits?
  • Do higher states of meditation lead to partial shut-down of core consciousness, in the same way that “introductory” techniques like anapana shut down extended consciousness?


[1] Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (2000)

[2] There are many kinds of meditation. I have a rudimentary knowledge of the approach known as insight meditation, aka vipassana. See wikipedia for more: The most obvious candidate for meditation practice that suppresses core consciousness is “anapana”, a kind of tranquility meditation that aims to concentrate the mind.


Bret Battey said...

Hi Pierre,

Damasio was apparently involved in one of the early Mind and Life sessions -- meetings bringing together psychologists, neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars, esp. the Dalai Lama. I've read Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens" and "Looking for Spinoza". Damasio notably *doesn't* mention meditation in these books, though, except very briefly.

The details of the Damasio books aren't fresh on my mind right now, or I might be able to provide more details about another way we might relate meditation to his theories. But I can take a wild hack... While reducing the activity of extended conscious might be one function of some meditation techniques, my experience with Vipassana proper makes me wonder if quite the opposite might be taking place. In short-term practice, perhaps instead of diminishing extended consciousness, the activities of primary consciousness, including its "nowness", becomes the primary focus of extended consciousness. And the *long-term* practice may actually create *more* connections between extended and primary conciousness, or even feedback/control loops or feedback control mechanisms that did not exist previously. With the result that the impact/mapping of primary consciousness on extended consciousness becomes itself increasingly an object of conscious awareness. This could be breaking lower-level feedback loops (loops of emotion triggering feeling triggering emotion, in Demasio's terms), replacing them with 'higher level' feedback or control loops such that the emotional level no longer unconsciously triggers the feeling level and visa versa -- 'ending conditioned arising'.

I'm also intrigued by the idea of the relationship of feedback to oscillation in systems, and the kind of shaking or oscillation that the body can experience in some meditation -- perhaps a system trying to retune its homeostasis under increased feedback conditions relating bodily awareness to bodily control. My own experience with some shaking hasn't been associated with tired muscles trying to hold up my body in meditation posture, or the stress of sitting through pain, but sometimes with me beginning to have conscious feeling of sensation in areas of my body I had never been able to 'feel' before... passing attention through those areas then triggering body shaking. Notably in my case these areas are also body/muscle areas very much associated with stress and anger -- feeling states which in the past could also make me start shaking, as part of a full-fledged emotion-to-feeling feedback loop in runaway.

Gustavo Estrada said...

Right after reading this note I ordered THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS. I find your theory very interesting. Have you somehow expanded it or got feedback from other sources?