Professor J P Das speaks to Live Encounters Magazine

Profile  J P Das LE Jan 2015

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Professor J.P. Das,  Author of Consciousness Quest – Where East Meets West, Emeritus Professor in Educational Psychology, and Emeritus Director, Developmental & Learning Disabilities Centre, University of Alberta, Canada, speaks to Mark Ulyseas

Why did I write this book?

As a child, I sometimes wet my bed although I was 6 years old. Just before I did that in my sleep I was dreaming that I was out in the wash room and urinating. I was also sleep-walking now and then—I would leave my bed and go look for a shirt in the ward robe. My mother would usually bring me back to my bed. I had no recollection of it.

Later, much later, I read psychology and wanted an explanation of dreams—Freud’s wish fulfillment explained it all. I also studied hypnosis as a grad student at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, learnt to hypnotize, and was amazed to produce ‘sleep-walking’ in some of my subjects who were college students.

Then later I have seen people patients in coma, some of them recovered after a month, some stayed in coma for 3 years and died. How could I understand these altered states of consciousness?

Even during waking, a kid in the class would be intently attending to my lecture, making eye-contact, but really may not be attending to the content of my talk at all for periods of time.

I got interested in neuropsychology. I remember in one instance, I watched the neurosurgeon freeze the left half of the brain to ensure that the language area is indeed located in her left brain—she had a tumor on the right half that the surgeon was going to remove. It was the typical Wada test. Years before, Penfield had begun doing brain surgery in the same institute, albeit on an older table. Where did consciousness go during surgery? How was it stored in the left brain during freezing?

Consciousness was a mystery for me. Specially growing up in rural India, I would witness people getting into a trance in a village fair, walk on live coal. Once I had my grand uncle turned a yogi, stay in our home for a few weeks—He was practicing during that time sleeplessness as a sort of penance—not sleep for several days and nights in a row. He would be perfectly awake as we two little brothers would sneak out of our beds in the early hours of the morning to check if he was asleep! He would look at us and simply give us a smile! Eternal vigilance, opposite of coma? I have enough reason to be curious about consciousness, and courageous enough to write an entire book that explores where the Eastern contemplative tradition meets the neuropsychological and neural correlates of consciousness. Courageous, not erudite; for my objective is merely to begin a conversation, ask questions, and try to answer some that I had not even intended to ask.

A detailed overview of the book: Consciousness Quest where East meets West. 

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? Must consciousness remain a mystery? These are some of the questions that are considered in this book. A list of the broad topics of discussion in the 15 chapters of the book is given in the preface to the book which I cite:

(a) If consciousness is a product of the brain with its neural connections, are we to believe that we are nothing but this, that our thoughts and feelings are completely describable in terms of neural correlates?

(b) 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?” Chris Frith in his book, Making of the Mind: How the brain creates the mental world provides reasoned answers to the ‘consciousness for question that are discussed in the present book: 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.

(c) But in a scientific study of consciousness, is not introspection, which is to review ones thoughts, an important method for investigating consciousness? However, is it not an unreliable instrument to probe conscious experience? Yes, and that is the main reason why those who advocate the study of introspection are ignored by strict behaviourists. Is it then at all possible to have a ‘science’ of self-reflection, or meditation that uses introspection as an indispensable tool? There are now several objective methods, specially for brain-imaging that are used .However, we cannot avoid while studying consciousness as a first-person experience. The book discusses the findings from both of the methods, from both perspectives–contemplative traditions and neural correlates.

(c) But in a scientific study of consciousness, is not introspection, which is to review ones thoughts, an important method for investigating consciousness? However, is it not an unreliable instrument to probe conscious experience? Yes, and that is the main reason why those who advocate the study of introspection are ignored by strict behaviourists. Is it then at all possible to have a ‘science’ of self-reflection, or meditation that uses introspection as an indispensable tool? There are now several
objective methods, specially for brain-imaging that are used .However, we cannot avoid while studying consciousness as a first-person experience. The book discusses the findings from both of the methods, from both perspectives–contemplative traditions and neural correlates.

(d) What are these different perspectives? To view consciousness as neurons firing in unison at specific frequency, for example, is a third-person view. A first-person perspective is phenomenal experience, consciousness as the individual experiences it. There is a second person perspective as well—the influence of culture and gene co-evolution that shapes our consciousness.

An overview of the chapters – ‘Self’ and the quest for true knowledge of Self: This knowledge is achieved through realization and thus must be personally experienced. Theory of mind in Indian philosophy of Vedanta is worthy of consideration. The concept of consciousness as it pertains to objects comes into question: Is there a necessity of having an object or can a stage of awareness exist beyond consciousness of the object? Also, awareness does not relate to an object, but rather the experience of the object.

Wakefulness, dream and sleep – An interest in the three states of awareness or consciousness is found in all civilizations in all ages and regions of the world. Traditional writings of many societies uphold the view that there is a world beyond what we see and observe, and in which our actions are located. Even in the waking state, common experiences of illusion and hallucination signal the existence of this other world, the world of thoughts and images that may completely supplant the perceptual world. Unawareness is seen in several activities including hypnosis and meditation, and dreaming. These have major roots also in the frontal lobes. In hypnosis, only certain parts of the frontal lobes are selectively excited whereas there may be a state of inhibition in the rest. In both the Upanishad view of self and consciousness, and the Western systems, dream represents the image-self; consciousness is inward moving. Dreamless sleep may be associated with the conceptual self; there are no perceptions. Waking involves the perceptual self; consciousness is outward moving. Dreams retain some ability for perception. For example, if a bee is buzzing during your sleep, it may produce a dream that the bees are swarming around a fruit beside an unclad woman, tigers hovering above her (a painting by Salvador Dali). Dreams protect sleep as Freud had observed.

How do the brain areas distinguish between Wakefulness & Dream? In the waking state the thinking part of front part of the brain, DLPFC is on, and the amygdala is off. In the dream state, this is reversed. That is, DLPFC is OFF; Amygdala is ON

Mindfulness: Foundations – “Meditative styles can be usefully classified into two types—mindfulness and concentrative—depending on how the attentional processes are directed.” Mindfulness meditation is referred to by another name, Insightful meditation. The source book of mindfulness, Maha-satipatthana Sutta, has been considered both as the foundation of mindfulness (pattana) and as an introduction or presentation of mindfulness (upasthana). The first interpretation focuses on the objects of the meditation practice, the focal points that provide mindfulness with a foundation — or, to use the more idiomatic English phrase adopted here, a frame of reference. Altogether there are four: the body in and of itself; feelings in and of themselves; mind in and of itself; and mental qualities in and of themselves. The “in and of itself” here is crucial. In the case of the body, for instance, it means viewing the body on its own terms rather than in terms of its function in the context of the world (for in that case the world would be the frame of reference). Dropping any concern for how the body’s beauty, agility, or strength fits into the world, the meditator simply stays with the direct experience of its breathing, its movements, its postures, its elementary properties, and its inevitable decay. A similar principle applies to the other frames of reference.

Mindfulness—Western reinterpretation – Langer defined her version of mindfulness as a heightened sense of situational awareness and a conscious control over one’s thought and behavior. She also refers to the attuned mind, a mind that is in tune with what is happening at the moment. The individual’s thoughts and actions impact on the neural, as the neural system influences thoughts and actions. The obstacles to mindfulness include sensual desires, sloth, drowsiness, and anxiety. Even if the neural basis of each one of these may be discovered in synaptic activities and mirror neurons, the hard question still remains: How are these neural changes experienced, for example, as desire or sloth?

Deep into neurological basis of consciousness – Gerald Edelman’s theories are rooted in neurology. The structure of the brain is accordingly a key factor. The principle, which makes this structure work, is Neuronal Group Selection, or Neural Darwinism. Edelman attached great importance to higher-order processes. Concepts by themselves only constitute primary (first order) consciousness: human consciousness also features secondary consciousness, language, and a concept of the self. Luria, a pioneer neuropsychologist, would certainly approve this as he distinguishes a functional system from a static notion of abilities.

But does the brain create consciousness? It is not clear. Consider Eckhart Tolle’s popular views: ‘the brain’ with its innumerable neurons, does not create consciousness, rather it is the other way around. Such a top-down notion of consciousness has been advocated by some Eastern philosophical systems.

But can mind be reduced to matter? – Self-knowledge, and the knowledge about self are the central topics about consciousness that two recent Indian philosophers, Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo adumbrate. Consciousness approached from a neuroscience point of view need not alienate itself from Eastern philosophy. Mind and matter are complimentary aspects of the same reality according to Pauli. Consciousness is a mental even; therefore, it is awareness of the present. The tense less domain, in contrast, refers to matter and physical energy. Because of their two contrasting categories, one for the mind and the other for matter, mind cannot be reduced to matter, and by the same token, matter cannot be reduced to mind

Neither mentalism nor materialism is the way to understand the world or the human mind. The two
related questions that remain to be answered are posed by Mohanty (2004): “what makes it possible that human consciousness, can, through science and philosophy, venture to articulate the structure of reality? What justifies the possibility of success here – if human mind and reality were completely disjoined?”

What is a neural correlate of consciousness? A neural system is defined as NCC if the system correlates directly with states of consciousness.

What causes consciousness? Its Neural Correlates? An NCC (Neural Correlates of Consciousness) is a neural system that correlates directly with states of consciousness. That means experience of consciousness. The robot does not have such experience. It does not have intentionality. NCC may bridge the gap between subjective and objective, and thereby establish a connection between first person experience and third person concept of consciousness that is objective.

Chalmers cites Penfield’s old work; it suggested that the location of consciousness is outside the cerebral cortex. According to Searle, a respected authority on consciousness, brain processes at the neural level cause conscious states. This accords well with Chalmer’s NCC describing consciousness as an emergent property of brain processes. How the brain generates consciousness is the big question.

What consciousness is for? Chris Frith’s (2007) book, Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World, gives us a readable account of stunning illusions that can be framed in very clever experiments on consciousness. The last part of the book concerns culture and the brain. It is in this part we find Frith’s answer to the question, “What is consciousness for?” In as much as he delves into the social-cultural aspects of consciousness, we find that he has been anticipated by Vygotsky some 75 years back.

– “What is consciousness for?” Consciousness is for creating the experience of agency and responsibility of self and others. It is for awareness of action.

– Consciousness is for permitting the discussion of motivations and strategies for decisions. It is for awareness of choice.

– Consciousness is for permitting the sharing of experience and the generation of shared reality. It is awareness of sensation.

– Consciousness is for allowing us to create group knowledge and optimize group decision making. Consciousness is fundamentally social.

Frith extends its connotation to include the reflection of one’s personal thoughts as well as the reflections of others’ thoughts. He uses a metacognition framework to elaborate upon the social value of consciousness.

Wisdom of the East: What’s knowledge? What should we know? Through reflection, we focus on consciousness to acquire the following attitudes: Humility, patience, sincerity, nonviolence, uprightness, purity, devotion to one’s spiritual teacher, constancy, self-control, dispassion towards objects of the senses, freedom from I-ness, wholehearted intent to abandon vain relations with people, self-sufficiency, constancy in spiritual search, and desire to gain the true wisdom. These describe the person who understands his or her true self according to Bhagabadgita.

How do we know? What should we know? : Eastern contemplations – True knowledge comes from one’s own experiences, not through indirect sources such as listening to others. Ultimately, though, there should be agreement among three sources of knowledge: (a) what we have heard from scriptures; (b) what we have thought (that is, resulting from thinking); and (c) what is realized through service for others and through meditation. Otherwise, we will be like the spoon used in eating soup — it does not taste the soup! Great learning brings great humility; only when we light a candle are we aware of encircling darkness. Humility or discipline is opposite of pride or insolence.

To sum up, at the end is its beginning – Human consciousness is a work in progress. Thus at the end of this chapter, we can see that consciousness is still evolving. Perhaps the neural correlates of consciousness will still continue to evolve, and raise the self-conscious mind to a higher level of consciousness as Sri Aurobindo suggested. Since consciousness is a social product, humankind will evolve to have a consciousness that will make it easier for us to cut through the confusions and agitations and the afflictive emotions that harm societal growth, thus making our lives more fulfilling.

In the last chapter, Hard Problems: Legacy of ancient times four scholars (the author included) have given their opinions on and solutions to the following “hard problems” about consciousness:

• Is there a self?

• Does consciousness exist outside the body?

• Do we have free will?

• Can we separate emotion from reasoning?

Does consciousness exist outside the body? No. If we do, we have to go against scientific research and accept that consciousness survives after we are dead. We cannot justify a nonphysical mind.

Is there freewill? I agree with Wenger that it is a feeling, not a power that moves us to action.. For there are three prerequisites: One, the thought must come before the action; two, the thought must be consistent with the action; and three, it must not be accompanied by other causes. I think like many others that even if I may not be aware of my action immediately at the moment is initiated in the brain, do we have some control over it after we become aware and become responsible for it? Yes, we do.

Can we separate emotion from reasoning? This is a revival of the notion that cognition and emotion, or intelligence and temperament are intertwined. Legitimacy to link emotion and cognition in an integrated framework has been given by providing an anatomical location in the brain. Emotion-cognition interactions are not only theoretically important, but imply interactions at several levels.

At the end is the beginning

K. Ramakrishna Rao: What he wrote at the end is foreshadowed by his preface to this book. “Prof. J.P. Das in his Consciousness Quest makes a persuasive case that the hard problems of consciousness continue to be the conundrums causing much confusion and giving little hope of solving these riddles and paradoxes within the physical, neuropsychological frameworks. This may be sufficient reason to persuade ourselves to turn to the notion of consciousness as an irreducible principle that has an important role to play with human destiny. Whether this is a matter that can be investigated by using the so-called objective and quantitative methods is a different matter. …..May we hope that the next book of Prof. Das would address these issues.


J.P. Das is an Indo-Canadian psychologist and an internationally recognized expert in Intelligence. Among his major contributions to psychology is the PASS (Planning, Attention, Simultaneous, and Successive) theory of intelligence. He is currently engaged in expanding planning to include executive functions. What might be the implications of these higher mental activities for education as well as management behavior is the topic of this book.

Professor Das is an Emeritus Director of the Centre on Developmental & Learning Disabilities (named after him) at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, and Emeritus Professor in Educational Psychology. He has authored and co-authored over a dozen of books and contributed more than 300 research papers to international journals and edited volumes. His earlier published titles with SAGE include Cognitive Planning: The Psychological Basis of Intelligent Behaviour (1996, co-authored with Binod C. Kar and Rauno K. Parrila); The Working Mind (1998); Reading Difficulties and Dyslexia: An Interpretation for Teachers (2009); and Consciousness Quest: East Meets West (2014). 

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