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Consciousness Quest - Where East Meets West On Mind, Meditation, and neural Correlates

Consciousness Quest - Where East Meets West On Mind, Meditation, and neural Correlates
Item Code: NAR106
Author: J. P. Das
Publisher: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788132113492
Pages: 332
Other Details: 9.00 X 6.00 inch
About the Book

Consciousness is an active area of both philosophical debates and scientific research. Consciousness Quest, rather than covering the broad spectrum of consciousness spread over multiple scientific disciplines, refocuses the quest for consciousness on a specific area where Eatern contemplative traditions, mostly in Hindu and Buddhist theories of mind, meet Western empirical research. This book is an introduction to current scientific thinking and research on consciousness and at the same time acquaints readers with the spectrum of classical and modern philosophical notions on consciousness.

About the Author

J.P. Das is Professional Emeritus of Educational Psychology and former Director of the Developmental Disabilities Centre at the University of Alberta, Edmonton in Canada. His early education includes an honors degree in philosophy and psychology, and a doctoral degree in psychology from the University of London Institute of Psychiatry. His research specializations include cognitive processes and neuropsychology, and an innovative approach to intelligence. His books, tests, and programs have been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Finnish, Japanese, Spanish, Greek, and Korean.


Professor J.P. Das, an Indian psychologist working in Canada, earned for himself the reputation of being a leading psychologist in the world. His work in the area of hypnosis is seminal. So are his researches in the areas of cognition, learning, and education. In order to achieve this degree of eminence, he had to grow up in the Western tradition, and think and write as a Westerner does. This is an experience of several of us who are privileged to work in two different continents. I recall my own situation when I went to work with J.B. Rhine at Duke University 50 years ago. I was a tender-minded philosopher with a strong interest in classical Indian thought. I was soon trans-formed in the company of Rhine to be a tough experimental psychologist who uncompromisingly subscribed to rigorous methodological behaviorism. This left hardly any room for studying subjectivity, consciousness, and other higher order human abilities. It almost took me another birth and my return to India to get back to the study of subjects that actually brought me into studying psychology 60 years ago.

When I first met Professor Das more than 25 years ago, he was very much like me during my Duke days. Knowing his background and interests at the time, little did I realize that he would author a book like Consciousness Quest discussing, as he does, classical Indian concepts and esoteric ideas on consciousness and their relevance to contemporary psychology. This not only resonates well, but more importantly, I find this book remarkable and fascinating in at least two important respects. First, it indicates the maturity of psychology itself during the past 50 years. Second, it reveals the relevance of classical Indian thought to psychological discourse at this time beyond the borders of India.

Consciousness Quest: Where East Meets West by Professor Das, written in his senior years, suggests to me that psychology now is a mature field and that consciousness is a fit subject to be pursued by mature psychologists in their mature years. It was not very long ago that for respectful psychologists consciousness was a taboo to stay away from. According to the International Dictionary of Psychology (Sutherland, 1989), "it is impossible to specify what it (consciousness) is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it" (p. 90). J.B. Watson (1924) with his behaviourist manifesto, announced a century ago, nearly succeeded in banishing consciousness/mind from the precincts of psychology.

The reason for this is not too far to seek. At the dawn of 20th century psychology has turned its page from a theoretical pursuit of mind and consciousness along with philosophy to practical study of man from a scientific perspective. The overarching urge to be counted among sciences and the motivation to achieve academic recognition as an independent scientific discipline had led psychologists to take a twin posture. On the one hand, there was uncritical adoption of scientific method as pursued in physical sciences to study human nature and a tendency; on the other hand, to ignore or reject those areas of study that did not seem readily accessible for investigation by the so-called objective and quantitative methods. The "physics envy," as it was disparagingly called by those who could not digest this restricted conception of science, lasted for almost a century.

Now, 100 later, having achieved a degree of respectability as a science and as an academic discipline, psychology finds itself more self-confident and ready to assert itself as a grown up. Added to this is the postmodern perception that science is more than a bundle of objective facts. These two developments together place less pressure on psychologists to confine themselves within the narrow boundaries set by the restrictive methods of quantitative research. Further, important areas long ignored have begun to stare at and challenge the mature minds engaged in psychological inquiry. It has become increasingly uncomfortable for them to stay put in the confines of so-called objectivity.

Psychology bereft of subjective phenomena appears incomplete at best. Consequently, concepts like self, mind, and consciousness have found their way back into psychological discourse. Psychologists of the caliber of Professor Das in their mature years are retooling themselves to discuss consciousness and the questions it raises for psychologists to study and answer.

At the same time and at a different level there has been an earnest search by thoughtful psychologists for more inclusive models of human nature. This has led to a more tolerant attitude toward Eastern ideas that were dismissed earlier as unworthy of scientific attention. Classical Indian psychological thought is one of those knocking at the door for a respectable entry into serious academic discourse in the West. Indian psychology offers itself as an emerging new paradigm that could guide the future course of psychology.

What is Indian psychology? It is a nascent school/system of psychology with its roots in classical Indian thought. It is manifested in a multitude of practices prevalent for centuries in the Indian subcontinent. The broad contours of it are given in Rao (20 11) and discussed in Rao, Paranjpe, and Dalai (2008). Briefly, Indian psychology is the study of the person. The person is embodied consciousness. The human being is conceived as a unique, composite manifestation of body, mind, and consciousness. Central to the person is consciousness. Consciousness as such is conceived to be the changeless and permanent base of all knowledge and awareness. It bestows on the person freedom and subjectivity and enables him to have access to knowledge and to experience joy and bliss.

In addition to being the seat of consciousness, the person in the existential context is, as mentioned, embodied. Material bodies have three constituent aspects represented by the three primal elements of nature called sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva is the essence, which gives an object its meaning. Rajas is the energy component that drives the body and brings about changes in and around it. Tamas is the gross mass. The three combine together in various proportions to bring about evolutionary changes in the universe.

The mind is conceived as the interfacing instrumentality connected to the body at one end and to consciousness at the other. It is the mind that reflects consciousness and thus enables the person to have knowledge and awareness. However, the mind, itself being an evolute of matter, has within it the three primal elements of matter sattva, rajas, and tamas. Their proportionality in the makeup of the mind determines one's temperament and disposition to behave. Sattva constitutes the mind's essence. It functions to reflect consciousness in the mind and gives rise to awareness. It has the greatest affinity to consciousness. In its purest state it is indistinguishable from consciousness as such (Yoga-Sutra, 3.56). Rajas is behind the mind's intrinsic unsteadiness and constant wavering that make one's attention drift and shift and her awareness unsteady and variable. Tamas obstructs and obscures the light that is reflected from consciousness. It is the base of ignorance. In the gross material objects, the mass aspect is predominant, whereas in the mind it is minimal. It is for this reason, humans have subjective experience; and our minds are able to think and reflect in a manner that the other physical objects, which are primarily tamasic, are unable.

Embodied consciousness in the person gets clouded; one's behavior becomes conditioned, and knowledge imperfect and fallible. Consciousness clouded and constrained, the inherent freedom eludes the person; truth gets distorted and blemished; and the ego emerges as the major player in the life of the person.

The defining characteristic of the ego is identity. Its essential attribute is attachment. Attachment and clinging generate desires; and desires condition behavior and propel action in an unending cycle interrupted only by periods of frustration. The ego reining the person, conditioning his behavior and coloring his experience, the person is seen as situated in a sea of suffering. The human appears as a hedonistic, power hungry, amoral, and selfish being, whereas in truth, as the seat of consciousness, the person is intrinsically governed by truth, goodness, and beauty (satyam, sivam, sundaram).

Now, as a composite of body, mind, and consciousness, a person's behavior bears the influence of body and mind in unfolding consciousness. Here lies the neurobehavioral connection studied in psychology. Such a connection explains behavior only partially and possibly at lower levels of functioning. In order to explore the influence of mind with its subjective characteristics on the person the usual neurophysiological methods are essentially inadequate. New methods are needed to explore this dimension of human nature. In the Indian tradition, where psychology existed more in the form of practices rather than as theory, we find various specialized techniques and strategies in the form of different kinds of yoga to explore and study the nuances of subjective experience.

Meditation as a practice takes place at two different levels, which are variously emphasized by different systems of meditation like Vipassana and Patanjali yoga. Meditation is essentially a method of controlling a variety of influences that affect the mind, and corrupt and cloud one's consciousness. In practices of the concentration type of meditation attention is focused and restricted to exclude extraneous intrusions into one's perceptual experience. In the passive forms of meditation, the restriction is not of external intrusions but elimination of internal biases by focusing on non-interpretative reception of incoming information. It is somewhat similar to Husserl's "bracketing natural attitude," which is believed to give "apodictic evidence" of absolute indubitability in a "universe of absolute freedom from prejudice" (Husserl, 1960). In the final analysis, however, meditation should involve both kinds of restrictions: the externally inflicted and the internally generated.


Consciousness must remain as a mystery as there is nothing to explain it.

Why are we as human beings conscious? Why do we have such an excessive respect for the ability of reflecting on consciousness that seems to be unique to our species? Some recent books on consciousness indeed have asked these hard questions in addition to the over-arching one how does objective become subjective experience; or more elegantly expressed, how does matter become imagination (Edelman & Tononi, 2000)?

Since there are quite a few outstanding books that introduce these questions and many more (Dietrich, 2007), and get deeper into answering these questions (Dennett, 1991; Edelman & Tononi, 2000) and more recently, Damasio's (2010) Self Comes to Mind, is there some reason for writing another book on consciousness? And that too by someone like myself who has not been prominent at all in the stream of authors on consciousness? (But while pursuing science, never forgot his roots in the East.)

I think the title of the book may suggest that the time is ripe for getting together a readable book, albeit an elementary one, that focuses on where the Eastern contemplative traditions meet contemporary Western scientific paths to understanding consciousness. An overview of their meeting ground is provided in Chapter 1. The time is right for such a book also because of the rapidly growing interest of large sections of people in developed countries in the West and in East as well who are looking inwards, exercising self-reflection, and who believe that if enough of them populate large modern communities of people, they may be able to release the better angels of our nature. Without doubt, study of self-realization has been introduced to the family of scientific disciplines. At the end of this book, especially in its last few chapters, perhaps the readers will become comfortable with the fusion of science and contemplative tradition without leaving their trust in natural science, and not opting instead for paranormal and supernatural experiences.

Readers will also find that some of the uncomfortable scientific positions have been discussed and even resolved at times. I list a few of these:

(1) If consciousness is a product of the brain with its neural connections, are we to believe that we are nothing but this, that cur thoughts and feelings are completely describable in terms of neural correlates? A quick answer that deserves massive elaborations is No! To view consciousness as neurons firing in unison at specific frequency, for example, is a third-person view. A first-person perspective asserts that our psychological world influences the working of the so-called neural networks, and there is a second-person perspective as well the influence of culture and gene co-evolution that shapes our consciousness.

(2) Why are we conscious at all? Need we be while a vast number of functions are outside the control of consciousness? "What is consciousness for?" This question is a departure from the questions usually posed by contemporary researchers of consciousness. Chris Frith (2007, 2010) provides reasoned answers—consciousness is for creating the experience of agency and responsibility of self and others. Consciousness is for permitting the sharing of experience and the generation of shared reality. It encourages metacognition. Eastern philosophies have a lot to say about the origin and purpose of consciousness and why has it been given to us (see discussion in Chapter 14).

(3) But is not introspection, essentially the activity in reflection, the only method for investigating consciousness; and is it not an unreliable instrument to probe conscious experience. Is it then at all possible to have a science of self-reflection, or meditation? Indeed, is it possible to have a neural and chemical signature for meditation often leading to an experience of bliss? No, you cannot reject that possibility right away. In the famous Tucson conference in 2012, Patricia Sharpe presented an in-depth discussion on meditation-induced bliss bliss involves a part of the brain that is related to "dopamine release, the release of endogenous opioids, and a two-way feedback loop with the medial prefrontal cortex" (Grandy, 2012, p. 435). Uh! Of course, there were questions about the methods used in the study, but you do not have to leave your scientific perch to explore the neural connections of bliss.

Back to the substantial informative part of this preface, the book contains a Table of Contents and 15 chapters. Each chapter is followed immediately by references, and a bibliography is provided at the end of the book. Notes and Discussion specifically arising out of several of the chapters present additional references and elaborations of the contents of the chapter. Notes clarify the concepts and their sources while commentaries are substantive remarks; the reader may find both quite helpful. Discussions are mainly of two kinds, usually provided by outside readers. Some of the writers of the discussion add their own points of view that necessarily do not agree with the arguments presented in the chapter. Some others provide in-depth summaries of the chapter by an outside reader. I greatly appreciate the contributors who are identified by their names in the discussions. You may like to see the summaries even before reading the entire chapter.

For whom is the book written? This is a frequently asked question by potential readers and the publishers. Certainly the book will be arranged in the catalogue and the electronic media under multiple disciplines. Perhaps obviously as an integration of East—West psychology, philosophy, biological and neurological science, brain—behavior relationships, centering around the three subtopics in the title mind, meditation and neural correlates. I presume that the treatment of these concepts will be attractive for those who wish to get a quick view of these intriguing topics, and acquaint them-selves with the long past as well as the contemporary issues and persistent questions from the past that continue to be debated. The readers may be curious educated men and women, with a modicum of knowledge in sciences and contemporary thinking, searching for something afar from their routine lives. They may even pick it up at airport bookstalls or on a road trip. Quite unlikely you may say!

Students in humanities and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs may use the book as supplementary reading. A large number of STEM students are not keen to read much outside their texts. They are tracked to prepare for competitive examinations early on in their high school years as an entrance to elite institutions; once in, the courses have incomparable utility in both developing and developed countries of the world. However, both humanities and STEM students may enjoy reading a book on consciousness that makes contact with Western and Eastern heritage cultures in which they live, and a book written within a scientific framework. Sometimes they would find it useful to explore self-reflection and contemplation.

But why should they read the book now while studying for their careers in undergraduate programs? Well, when can they read it then? I wish I could be involved in using the book, had I the opportunity to teach under-graduate and graduate courses in pro-seminars, then revise the book based on the questions and comments of the students from whom I have always learnt much.

As such, I have enormously benefitted from several people who have read the earlier drafts of the book. Professor Narayanan Srinivasan of the University of Allahabad read the entire manuscript with care and patience, suggesting additions and asking questions that required rethinking on my part. I am also indebted to Professor Paranjpe, Emeritus Professor at Simon Fraser University, Dr. Arjun Purohit, an Emeritus Professor and Clinical Psychologist at Queens University, Kingston for discussion especially on those chapters relating to the contemplative writings in Hinduism and Buddhism. My very good friend, Professor S.P. Misra has contributed a commentary of quantum physics and consciousness as presented in Notes that has brought a closure to the issues under discussion in the chapter. Thank you my friend! Dr. Raja Sadhu, a younger psychiatrist with an inter-est in neurology who is closely in touch with the wisdom tradition of India, read many of the chapters and provided integrated summaries for each of them. I am especially grateful to him. Professor Chris Frith agreed to read Chapter 14 that discusses his seminal contribution in this area; besides a few places where his comments made me restructure the arguments, it was reassuring to learn that there were no major misinterpretations! I believe Professor Uta Frith and Professor Chris Frith have energized research and thinking on metacognition, and by default in the use of contemplation. I also acknowledge Dr. Christine Wihack for her significant contribution to Chapter 9.

The last chapter of the book stands apart from the rest: I asked the contributors who agreed to solve four hard problems in consciousness, and as a result received multiple answers. Professor K. Ramakrishna Rao, a long-time leader in the studies of consciousness, and Professor Bhawuk are both well-known for bridging the gap between Western and Eastern thinking in answering the four questions. Professor Dietrich, whom I consulted several times during the course of writing this book, provided a brief answer. My own answers along with theirs hopefully make the chapter an engaging read in the quest for consciousness.

Finally, I sincerely thank Professor K. Ramakrishna Rao for agreeing to write a foreword, a kind and generous testimonial, and generally encouraging me to write such a book. An astute thinker unafraid to explore paranormal experiences, whose writings have enriched the entire field of consciousness; I express my deepest appreciation for allowing me and fellow researchers a drink from the fountain of his knowledge.

I must declare that the book has been strengthened by my interactions with the persons whom I have mentioned and many others, but the remaining weaknesses are all mine it's not because of lack of effort, as the poet tells the muse of learning, "You know I haven't wasted time on the way, I aspired much, but aspirations were limited by my ability."

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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