Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Monk Who Saw Religion Through The Prism Of Science - 2

Consciousness as Missing Link?

There are, moreover, areas where the two, science and spirituality, do seem to overlap. One of these is consciousness studies. Vivekananda made numerous references to the word "consciousness" in his lectures. Notably, he used three categories: sub-consciousness, consciousness, and super-consciousness:

"You must remember that the first manifestation of this Prakriti in the cosmos is what the Sânkhya calls Mahat. We may call it intelligence—the great principle, its literal meaning. The first change in Prakriti is this intelligence; I would not translate it by self-consciousness, because that would be wrong. Consciousness is only a part of this intelligence. Mahat is universal. It covers all the grounds of sub-consciousness, consciousness and super-consciousness; so any one state of consciousness, as applied to this Mahat, would not be sufficient… The substance Mahat changes into the grosser matter called egoism."

In contrast, a majority of the researchers in this field seem to be of the view that consciousness is in the brain.

The main drawback of this approach is that it relies almost completely on the means to analyse a "conscious experience" rather than make any attempt to answer the question, "Who is having this conscious experience?"

Moreover, if the primary focus is on understanding neural responses, then a definition such as, "Consciousness refers to those states of sentience and awareness that typically begin when we begin from a dreamless sleep and continue until we go to sleep again, or fall into a coma or die or otherwise become 'unconscious'" (J. Searle, "The Mystery of Consciousness", The New York Review, November 2, 1995) is logical. But Vivekananda, following Indian spiritual and philosophical traditions, clearly stated that there are two other domains, one that is needed to understand dream and sleep or svapna and nidra (termed sub-conscious) and the other to study the level above individual egoism or samâdhi (termed super-conscious) that has to be included in any discussion of consciousness. Moreover, Vivekananda was very clear that the experience in the dream state is at a lower plane of existence (because it primarily arises from avidyâ, ignorance) than the experience during samâdhi. He also maintained that "when a man goes into samâdhi, if he goes into it a fool, he comes out a sage." It is almost impossible for science today to corroborate or disprove this hypothesis. Moreover, though scientists are mapping the brain of subjects during meditation to understand changes in activity in various parts of the brain, the question, "what is the entity that remains unchanged before, during, and after meditation and tells the experiencer of these experiences" is unanswerable by present scientific methods. Many researchers have posited further analysis of Vedantic insights to make advances in this field. Vivekananda viewed cosmology and consciousness as a continuum, unlike modern science's attempts to compartmentalise these two subjects in very different realms.

In any case, it is clear that Vivekananda anticipates by nearly a hundred years the efforts of other religious figures such as the Dalai Lama to open up spiritual phenomena to scientific examination, thereby enriching both domains. Science today has access to powerful brain imaging tools that can provide neurobiological correlates when subjects try to reach their own mind through meditation. According to Crick, Koch, and others, certain 35-75 hertz neural oscillations in the cerebral cortex seem to be correlated with awareness in a number of different modalities and a mechanism of binding (synchronisation of separately represented pieces of information) has been hypothesised. Davidson's work with Tibetan Buddhists has demonstrated the ability of Lamas with many years of meditative practices (>10,000 hours) to have a higher ratio of gamma-band oscillatory rhythm to slow oscillatory rhythm compared to the controls (no meditative experience). According to the subsequent findings, gleaned from scans of each monk's brain during meditation, an increase in activity was found around the frontal region of the brain, in which attention on specific tasks are processed; on the other hand, a decrease in activity was found around the area at the back of the brain, where one's processing of orientation and spatial awareness occur.

These studies show a definite and measurable causal correlations between meditation and certain kinds of brain activity, which may impact both neurosciences and meditation practices.


To Be Continue...    
Article by Makarand Paranjape 
Apr 04, 2017                   
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