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Models of Consciousness and Clinical Implications
Workshop April 2-5, 2013.
Public Event: April 6, 2013
Phenomenal consciousness appears to be continuous and unified, while in cognitive neuroscience theory and experiments suggest that the brain acts in a discrete, distributed, and deterministic manner. This conclusion is also endorsed by trained phenomenology, in the form of insight meditation. Usually consciousness is so well coordinated that the fact that it comes from distributed neural modules/networks is not percieved; neither that it is discrete and deterministic. If by some conditions conscious experience is perceived as discrete, distributed, and deterministic, this may be against our usual perception of ego---in the sense of identity and agency. One can wonder whether, under certain circumstances, this fundamental structure may result in clinical consequences.
The following passages come from the Buddhist tradition:
“There is seeing, but no seeer.”
“There is thinking, but no thinker.”
“There is doing, but no doer.”
An imaginary psychiatrist would frown: “Is this person loosing ipseity?”.
Buddhist texts then are becoming even more 'suspicious'.
“One cannot say that the self does exist, nor that the self doesn't exist.”
Then the imaginary psychiatrist would conclude: “This person is schizophrenic or at least schizoid.”
But then the meditator states friendly and convincingly:
“To explain this better, the self does exist, not as a stable, 'real' entity, but as a process. Realizing this frees us from (mental) suffering, as we no longer need to pretend (that there is a fixed self); we become more mild and have more compassion. When we know that the self is imagined, we can work with it even better.”
Then the psychiatrist starts becoming impressed and begins to meditate. (Actually this happened at the workshop.)
The workshop aimed at putting on the scientific agenda the mentioned observable characteristics of consciousness and the puzzling fact that this may both lead to clinical problems and to increased wisdom. Beforehand it was agreed that the output of the workshop would be a list of questions to be investigated. These questions, coming from three 'Theme-groups' at the workshop, were formulated on the last day of the workshop and are the following.
Group 1 Neural models of consciousness
1. What are our primary assumptions as to the nature of consciousness? What are the consequences of these primary assumptions?
2. What are the degrees and varieties of consciousness. Are states of consciousness unified in time or otherwise, internally or externally?
3. What are the relationships between consciousness and attention, sensory persistence, working memory, and episodic memory, e.g. in relation to the dissolution question?
4. What are the neural mechanisms of coordination and how do they relate to consciousness and meditative practice?
Group 2 States of consciousness
1. What are the relationships between sensory-motor, emotional, and cognitive processes in the brain/body?
2. How are mental states defined, controlled and modulated in the brain? (E.g. what is the role of mindfulness?)
3. What is the role of intrinsic mental / brain activity versus stimulus-response paradigm?
4. What is the relation between art production and appreciation and various mental states.
Group 3 Disorganization of consciousness; clinical consequences
1. What is the description of mindfulness? How does mindfulness meditation relate to disidentification and detachment? How are experiences during mindfulness meditation related to different forms of pathological experiences?
2. Should the self be seen as a social/relational construction?
3. How can our relationship with ‘me/self’ change through the practice of meditation? How can this changed perspective inform psychopathology?
(“What insight meditation perspective on consciousness can contribute to psychopathology, in order to change the perspective on certain phenomena so that they become less threatening?”) 4. What are the neural mechanisms of 'dissociation/disidentification' in meditation and psychopathology. What are the differences. What are their functional consequences, e.g. for deconditioning?
5. How does acceptance relate to change?
After the workshop there was a 'Public Event' at which mindfulness trainers and others were invited.
The Workshop was attended by 30 persons (psychologists and psychiaters, philosophers, technical scientists, some of them meditators or meditation teachers) and 10 PhD students or young scientists. The Public Event was attended by 65 persons, who seemed to be greatly interested in what we had to report. As far as we can tell all participants at the workshop thought it a great success, and a rare opportunity to discuss such apparently nebulous topics with scientific rigour. Many new contacts were firmly esablished, and serious possibiliities for close collaborations involving various combinations of participants were investgated. It is too soon to be able to report on the fruitfulness of those collaborations, but we can at least confirm that those involving us, the organizers, are being actively pursued.
Henk Barendregt (Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Fabio Giommi (Milano, Italy)
Antonino Raffone (Rome, Italy)
Bill Phillips (Stirling, Scotland)