The origins of consciousness studies

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The contemporary approach to consciousness was initially developed at the beginning of the last century, particularly by those who followed the Husserlian phenomenological tradition, such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) had taken a different and new approach to the understanding of the mind-body relationship in order to overcome dualism. He observed:

I cannot shut myself up within the realm of science. All my knowledge about the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own peculiar point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced. If we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin to reawaken the basic experience of the world of which science is the second order of expression. Science has not and never will have, by its nature, the same significance qua form of being as the world which we perceive, for the simple reason that it is a rationale or explanation of that world.

(Husserl, in Merleau-Ponty 1962)

Such an approach produced a distinction between an 'objective' body, which can be identified with its anatomical description and the lived body, which lives through and sustains the act of perception.

According to Gallagher (1997), the distinction between 'subjective' (lived) body and 'objective' body is best understood not as one between two different bodies, but as a way of perceiving the same body.

The phenomenological notion of the lived body brought a lot of common sense into the debate on our existence, where lived-body-environment became a unitary structure devoid of a sharp separation between the human organism and the surrounding world. In Heidegger's words, the lived body is a 'mode of being-in-the-world' (Heidegger 1962).

Phenomenological thinking was also taken up by the Kyoto School in Japan, initiated by Nishida Kitaro and carried on by Nishitani Keiji and other members. It was later developed in the works of scholars such as Yasuo Yuasa and Hiroshi Ichikawa (Ichikawa 1979; Yuasa 1993).

For several reasons, phenomenology did not become the dominant mainstream approach in Western societies, where the Cartesian legacy is still influential. According to Yasuo Yuasa, this is because: (1) phenomenology has limited its investigation to a universal or normal state of consciousness, with no significant attention paid to the study of altered states of consciousness (ASC), such as meditation or mystical states of consciousnesses; (2) it did not emphasize a dynamic perspective of consciousness, assuming instead that the connection between body-mind was constant and not developed or cultivated during the life of an individual; and (3) finally, it largely stressed a 'temporal' dimension of human existence, rather than a spatial dimension, or an integration between the two (Yuasa 1993).

Phenomenology has recently been re-evaluated in cognitive science (Varela 1996; Thompson 2001; Depraz et al. 2003), where its latest offshoot is called neurophenomenology (Varela 1996). This can be defined as a style of research that aims to incorporate the first-person lived experience with the brain dynamics of consciousness. In a paper entitled 'Neuro-phenomenology: a methodological remedy for the hard problem', Francisco Varela wrote:

Neurophenomenology is the name I am using here to designate a quest to marry modern cognitive science and a disciplined approach to human experience, thus placing myself in the lineage of the continental tradition of phenomenology. My claim is that the so-called hard problem . . . can only be addressed productively by gathering a research community armed with new pragmatic tools enabling them to develop a science of consciousness.

In other words, according to Varela, Chalmers' 'hard problem' cannot be solved by 'piecemeal' studies of neuronal correlates of experience but requires a strict method for rediscovering the primacy of lived experience. Anyone following this method must cultivate the skills of stabilising and deepening their capacity for attentive bracketing and intuition, and for describing what they find.

Varela describes the basic working hypothesis of neurophenomenology as follows: 'phenomenological accounts of the structure of experience and their counterparts in cognitive science relate to each other through reciprocal constraints' (ibid.: 343). So the findings of a disciplined first-person approach should be an integral part of the validation of a neurobiological proposal.

Varela was very critical of the attitude of the dominant 'philosophy of mind' to 'just-take-a-look' with regards to human experience, where this is conceived as a pure cognitive or mental event. 'The mental', says Varela, 'does not have any obvious manner to investigate itself, and we are left with a clear logical conclusion but in a pragmatic and methodological limbo' (ibid.: 334). The point is well expressed by Searle:

Much of the bankruptcy of most work in the philosophy of mind . . . over the past fifty years . . . has come from a persistent failure to recognize and come to terms with the fact that the ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first-person ontology . . . there is, in short, no way for us to picture subjectivity as a part of our world view because, so to speak, the subjectivity in question is the picturing.

In agreement with Searle, Heidegger (1889-1976) argued that in order to experience the Dasein (or 'being here'), we need to move from an ontic perspective (the aspect of being upon which the philosophy of mind has concentrated) towards the ontological one (what Searle calls 'first-person ontology').

From a neurophenomenological point of view, the claim that all states of mind are generated by brain states and electro-stimulation does not invalidate the world outside ourselves nor does it prevent us from looking at and seeing what we choose. The argument has been well summarized by Parvizi and Damasio (2001), who specified that neuroscience needs to explain both 'how the brain engenders the mental patterns we experience as the images of an object (the noema in phenomenological terms)', and 'how, in parallel . . . the brain also creates a sense of self in the act of knowing . . . how each of us has a sense of "me" . . . how we sense that the images in our minds are shaped in our particular perspective and belong to our individual organism (Parvizi and Damasio 2001: 136-7). In phenomenological terms, the last question addresses a (pre-)noetic quality of consciousness, in particular, the noetic aspect of the 'ipseity', or the minimal subjective sense of 'I-ness' in experience, which is constitutive of a 'minimal' or 'core self', as contrasted with a 'narrative' or 'autobiographical' self (Gallagher 2003). The pre-noetic level of consciousness is fundamentally linked to the bodily processes of life regulation, emotion and affect, such that all cognition and intentional action are emotive (Panksepp 1998; Damasio 1999). For instance, I look at a fashion magazine with a friend of mine. We both look at the same model posing with a pink hat. By doing so we both activate certain neural activities in our brains, but when I look at this figure, I can recall that I have the same hat and that this was a present from my boyfriend on my last birthday. Now, such an acknowledgment generates a sense of 'me', which makes my experience rather different from that of my friend. This has been called by Damasio the 'sense of knowing' (1999: 82-106). In his view, this is a fundamental component of a 'core consciousness', or that part of consciousness which is always present in the nowness of the experience and it is disconnected from both past or future, which belongs to an 'extended consciousness'. On the contrary, the latter lies at the foundation of the former and provides us with an identity and offers us an awareness of the lived life and anticipation of the future, in the here and now. In other words 'extended consciousness is everything core consciousness is, only bigger and better, and it does nothing but grow across evolution and across the lifetime of experience of each individual' (ibid.: 196). This is supported by Damasio's observation of neurological patients who presented with an impairment of extended consciousness, but whose core consciousness remained untouched. By contrast, impairments that begin with core consciousness may demolish the entire edifice of consciousness and thus are not an independent variety of consciousness.

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