Research and Education in Consciousness Science: Outline of Proposal for Stanford University
by Alan Wallace, PhD
There need to be two central themes for Consciousness Science research today.
A. Pure Science:
The pure science of consciousness entails investigating the nature, origins, and role of consciousness in human existence and the natural world. This has three branches:
1. First-person observation of mental states;
2. Third-person exploration of mind/brain correlates; and
3. Third-person study of mind/behavior correlates.
#2 and #3 are already well established in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. In particular, recent technological advances in cognitive neuroscience are shedding fresh light on mind/brain interactions and the origins of specific conscious states.
In the absence of #1, the problem is as follows: Third-person research depends upon first-person observations and reporting. For the scientific study of the brain and behavior by themselves, without relation to first-person experience, can reveal relatively little about the nature of conscious mental states themselves. While there is a high degree of rigor in the third-person study of neural and behavioral correlates of consciousness, there is presently no comparable degree of precision or reliability in terms of first-person observations and descriptions of mental events. But such rigor is necessary if the exploration of the correlates between mental processes and neural and behavioral events is to develop to its fullest potential. Thus, the possibility of enhancing and refining the first-person observation of the mind must be one of the prominent fields of inquiry.
The untrained pre-meditative mind may be compared to a telescope mounted on a horse, or a microscope on a shaking platform: the mental agitation, jitter, short attention spans reduce the resolution; and the superimposition of prior contexts distorts the mental content and processes to be reported.
B. Applied Science:
The applied science of consciousness focuses on the pragmatic study of human flourishing, or well-being, a topic that is rapidly gaining attention in the new field of “positive psychology.” The roots of this concept can be traced back to the classical Indian term sahajasukha, or bliss that is innate to the very nature of consciousness. It is also found in the ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia, commonly translated as “genuine happiness.” Later, Augustine brought it into the Christian tradition as a “truth-given joy.” In the modern context, it may be understood as a state of well-being, or human flourishing, that stems from one’s own mind in a state of healthy balance. Thus, such happiness is quite distinct from transient pleasures that are directly aroused by pleasurable sensory and intellectual stimuli.
Most notably, this state of contentment is not the result of distraction from misery via some indulgence. Rather, it is the bliss (ananda) state of experiencing things as they are.
The nature of such mental balance may be understood to have three components:
1. The first of these is attention balance, in which the mind is free of the extremes of agitation and dullness. The scientific study of such attention balance is especially urgent in today’s world, when there is a growing epidemic of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD). While drug therapy is often necessary in the treatment of such disorders, few people regard it as an optimal, or totally satisfactory, form of therapy. Other forms of intervention are clearly needed, not only to counteract such disorders but to prevent them from arising in the first place. The importance of healthy, balanced attention can hardly be over-emphasized for human life as a whole. In particular, the faculty of sustained, voluntary attention plays a crucial role in education. Research has demonstrated that meditation improves attention and various areas of mental performance, including contentment.
2. A second component of mental balance is emotional balance, which is crucial to any understanding of mental health. Research must be conducted and classes taught that would examine the nature of destructive and constructive emotions. How do they arise, what are their distinguishing characteristics, and what impact do they have on our overall well-being as individuals and as members of society? On a thoroughly pragmatic note, research must be done to explore ways in which destructive emotions may be attenuated and constructive emotions may be cultivated. The dissemination of such knowledge can play a vital role in general, public education in the modern world.
3. A third and final component of mental balance may be called cognitive balance. A common characteristic of psychosis is the inability to distinguish between objective reality and one’s own subjective fantasies. In cases of cognitive imbalance, the two are commonly conflated. While this is most conspicuous in the mentally ill, to a lesser degree this is a trait that is all too prevalent among those deemed healthy – Freud called it “normal neuroses.” Studies should be conducted on ways in which cognitive balance may be enhanced, especially through training in mindful discernment. Such training may be instrumental both in treating the mentally ill, as well as in training individuals to achieve exceptional degrees of mental health and well-being.
The pure science and the applied science of consciousness, while being distinct disciplines, are closely interrelated.
Highlights of the Academic Program:
There would be undergraduate classes and graduate seminars in the field of consciousness studies. Such classes should address theoretical questions pertaining to the nature of consciousness, as well as pragmatic issues concerning attention, emotional, and cognitive balance. Materials for these courses should be drawn from philosophy, cognitive psychology, psychiatry, cognitive neurophysiology, and the contemplative traditions of the world.
Various academic departments at leading universities already offer courses that address themes central to this. Where applicable, such a program would also provide a nexus for these pre-existing classes.
In addition, such a program would help faculty members across departments, who are interested in the study of consciousness, to design new courses in this field. Some courses would be co-taught by two or more faculty members.
Besides courses, the program would also sponsor theoretical and empirical research in the pure and applied science of consciousness.
This would be an inter-disciplinary program. Both in terms of the pure phenomenological study of consciousness and applied insight into the nature of human flourishing, the contemplative traditions of many civilizations have significant contributions to make – such as those of India, China, Japan, Tibet, and the West.
With its inclusion of neural, behavioral, and introspective approaches to the study of consciousness, such a program would provide a forum for interdisciplinary classes and research among the disciplines of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and religion. It would draw from the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural wealth of experience, research methodologies.
The Contribution of Indic Traditions:
The inspiration of science, modern and ancient, is to understand the nature of reality by means of rigorous experiential and rational inquiry. How is such scientific investigation to take its first step? When we consider that all our perceptual and conceptual experience of the world consists of mental representations – and not simply objective phenomena presented to us without the mediation of our physical senses and mental faculties – then the most rational, initial field of inquiry would be the study of the human mind itself. As an analogy, imagine a scientist being presented with an unfamiliar instrument of observation. The first thing he or she would reasonably do would be to carefully examine the nature of that instrument to see whether it was a reliable tool for examining other objects. Thus, in developing the natural sciences, the first science should be the science of the mind and consciousness itself so that we can understand the nature, origins, and causal efficacy of our fundamental tool for observing and understanding the universe. While this is precisely the first step taken by the contemplatives of classical India thousands of years ago, the Western tradition delayed the development of psychology for 300 years after the Copernican Revolution, and a science of consciousness has yet to emerge from this tradition. On the other hand, the West has now developed sophisticated means of studying the mind, behavior, and the brain from a third-person perspective, which the Indian tradition did not on its own. So we are now at an extraordinary point in human history, when the first-person methodologies of classical India and other contemplative traditions can be integrated with the third-person methodologies of modern Western science.
The scientific study of consciousness – both as a pure and applied science – should be of great interest to all societies. After all, it is the most central science of human nature, and the findings of an applied science of consciousness have enormous relevance for human flourishing throughout the world. The human mind lies at the root of the vast majority of human problems, including war, prejudice, overpopulation, environmental degradation, social injustices, and depletion of the planet’s natural resources, as well as a myriad of psychological problems. These problems are global in nature, so it is in the best interests human civilization for diverse societies to cooperate in finding solutions. No single culture or era of human history has a monopoly on insights into the nature and potentials of consciousness, so the time has come to develop a science of consciousness free of prejudice and dogmatism. The potential benefits are too great to allow for anything less than our finest, most altruistic efforts.