There is much more to mindfulness than the popular media hype

Have the benefits of meditation been overhyped in the West? FatCamera/E+ via Getty Images

Pierce Salguero, Penn State

Mindfulness is seemingly everywhere these days. A Google search I conducted in January 2022 for the term “mindfulness” resulted in almost 3 billion hits. The practice is now routinely offered in workplaces, schools, psychologists’ offices and hospitals all across the country.

Most of the public enthusiasm for mindfulness stems from the reputation it has for reducing stress. But scholars and researchers who work on mindfulness, and the Buddhist tradition itself, paint a more complex picture than does the popular media.

Medicalizing meditation

Mindfulness originated in the Buddhist practice of “anapana-sati,” a Sanskrit phrase that means “awareness of breath.” Buddhist historian Erik Braun has traced the origins of the contemporary popularity of meditation to colonial Burma – modern-day Myanmar – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meditation, which was practiced almost exclusively inside monasteries until then, was introduced to the general public in a simplified format that was easier to learn.

The gradual spread of meditation from that time to the present is a surprisingly complex story.

In the U.S., meditation first started to be practiced among diverse communities of spiritual seekers as early as the 19th century. It was adopted by professional psychotherapists in the early 20th century. By the 21st century, it had become a mass-marketing phenomenon promoted by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The process of translating the Buddhist practice of meditation across cultural divides transformed the practice in significant ways. Modern meditation often has different goals and priorities than traditional Buddhist meditation. It tends to focus on stress reduction, mental health or concrete benefits in daily life instead of spiritual development, liberation or enlightenment.

A pivotal moment in this transformation was the creation of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) protocol by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in 1979. The stress reduction program introduced a standardized way of teaching meditation to patients so that its health benefits could be more rigorously measured by scientists.

Research on this new kind of “medicalized” mindfulness began to gather steam in the past two decades. As of today there are over 21,000 research articles on mindfulness in the National Library of Medicine’s online database — two and a half times as many articles as have been published on yoga, tai chi and reiki combined.

Scientific evidence vs. mindfulness hype

Medical researchers themselves have had a far more measured opinion about the benefits of meditation than the popular press.

For example, a 2019 meta-analysis, which is a review of many individual scientific studies, pointed out that the evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and other meditation-based interventions has “significant limitations” and that the research has “methodological shortcomings.”

Based on their review of the scientific literature, the authors warned against falling prey to “mindfulness hype.” On the positive side, they found various forms of meditation to be more or less comparable to the conventional therapies currently used to treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain and substance use. On the other hand, they concluded that more evidence is needed before any strong claims can be made regarding treatment of conditions such as attention disorders, PTSD, dysregulated eating or serious mental illnesses.

More troubling, some researchers are even beginning to suggest that a certain percentage of patients may experience negative side effects from the practice of meditation, including increased anxiety, depression or, in extreme cases, even psychosis. While the causes of these side effects are not yet fully understood, it is evident that for some patients, therapeutic meditation is far from the panacea it is often made out to be.

Putting mindfulness back into context

As a historian of the relationship between Buddhism and medicine, I argue that mindfulness can be a beneficial practice for many people, but that we should understand the broader context in which it developed and has been practiced for centuries. Mindfulness is one small part of a diverse range of healing techniques and perspectives the Buddhist tradition has developed and maintained over many centuries.

Buddhist monks in orange robes praying
Mindfulness is one small part of the healing techniques forwarded by Buddhism. FredFroese/iStock / Getty Images Plus

In a recent book, I have traced the global history of the many ways that the religion has contributed to the development of medicine over the past 2,400 years or so. Buddhist tradition advocates countless contemplations, devotional practices, herbal remedies, dietary advice and ways of synchronizing the human body with the environment and the seasons, all of which are related to healing.

These ideas and practices are enormously influential around the world as well as in Buddhist communities in the U.S. Such interventions have been particularly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic – for example, through the medical charity of major international Buddhist organizations as well as through health advice given by high-profile monastics such as the Dalai Lama.

Buddhism has always had a lot to say about health. But perhaps the most significant of its many contributions is its teaching that our physical and mental well-being are intricately intertwined – not only with each other, but also with the health and vitality of all living beings.

Medicalized meditation is now a self-help commodity that generates over US$1 billion per year, leading some critics to label it “McMindfulness.” But placing mindfulness back into a Buddhist ethical context shows that it is not enough to simply meditate to reduce our own stress or to more effectively navigate the challenges of the modern world.

As I argue in my most recent book, Buddhist ethics asks us to look up from our meditation cushions and to look out beyond our individual selves. It asks us to appreciate how everything is interconnected and how our actions and choices influence our lives, our society and the environment. The emphasis, even while healing ourselves, is always on becoming agents of compassion, healing and well-being for the whole.

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Pierce Salguero, Associate Professor of Asian History & Religious Studies, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can religion and faith combat eco-despair?

There’s a growing belief that teachings from religious faiths belong in the discussion around environmental protection. ImagineGolf/E+/Getty Images

Rita D. Sherma, Graduate Theological Union

Scientists regularly study the ongoing degradation of Earth’s environment and track the changes wrought by a warming planet. Economists warn that intensifying disasters are harming people’s quality of life. And policymakers focus on crafting rules to diminish the health and environmental effects of humanity’s growing footprint.

What is the role of philosophers and people of faith in this bigger discussion around the environment and sustainability? Rita D. Sherma is co-chair of a research initiative aimed at bringing the beliefs of religion, spirituality, and ethics to the study of sustainability. Here she explains the core ideas behind “green spirituality,” how religion and environmental protection are closely intertwined and the role faith can play in restoring hope amid the drumbeat of discouraging environmental news.

What is green spirituality?

Green spirituality is an orientation to the divine, or supreme reality, that is grounded in our experience of life on planet Earth. It respects the miracle of life on this planet and recognizes our relationship with it. Such a spirituality can have God or the divine as the focus, or it can be oriented toward the Earth and its ecosystems for those outside of organized religion. It encourages a contemplative and harmonious relationship with the Earth.

Green spirituality seeks to harness the spiritual traditions of the world to energize the effort to restore planetary ecosystems and stop future harm. https://www.youtube.com/embed/d42L4hVJmrA?wmode=transparent&start=0 The rights of nature movement wants to give sacred rivers the same legal protections as people.

Why do spiritual and religious teachings belong as part of the global conversation on the environment?

First, 80% of the world’s population practices an established religion or a spiritual tradition that offers community, support, and resources for resilience.

Second, as I have written in my new book on religion and sustainability, better technology will help human communities restore ecosystems. More and better data, such as computations to forecast disasters, will also be helpful. But both are inadequate in the face of human denial and recalcitrance.

In my book, I write: “Planetary survival is now predicated upon the alignment of our notions of both human and ecological rights with our highest principles. As such, ways of knowing that are embedded in religion, philosophy, spiritual ethics, moral traditions, and a culture that values the community and the commons – as an essential resource for the transformation necessary for environmental regeneration and renewal – are indispensable.” In other words, people on Earth need to tap into the ways of thinking from these faith traditions to address the environmental crises we face now.

Can faith and religion help counter rising eco-anxiety?

Catastrophic wildfires across the planet, extreme weather patterns that destroy homes and histories, degraded soil, toxic air, unsafe water, and the desecrated beauty of places we have loved are causing climate trauma and eco-anxiety. For those who are acutely aware of the cliff edge on which we stand as a species and as a planetary community, the despair evoked by the magnitude of the disaster is almost unbearable.

Religions, faiths, and spiritual practices can help in unique ways. In this space, people can find community, peaceful practices of meditation, prayer, embodied sacred actions that include rituals and liturgies, and a ‘long view’ informed by the tragedies and triumphs faced by spiritual ancestors. Faith can provide hope and resilience in the midst of crises.

How do different faith traditions treat respect for nature?

Religions may disagree on many things, but each contains philosophical or theological orientations that can be interpreted and applied in ways that protect the Earth.

Some traditions such as Hindu, Yogic, Indigenous and others see the self as a microcosm of macrocosm, or a part of the greater whole. And, a profound sacred immanence, or integral divine presence, is woven through their philosophies. For these spiritual traditions, religious practice integrates trees, flowers, sacred groves, sanctified terrains, rivers, mountains and elements of the entire ecosphere into liturgical and personal practice.

Christian ecotheology focuses on stewardship and the ethics of Earth justice. A well-known Muslim ecotheologian speaks of the Earth as a mosque in reference to a saying (hadith) of the prophet – which renders the entire Earth as sacrosanct. Jewish ecological thinkers have envisaged the idea of “Shomrei Adamah” (Keepers of the Earth), which connects humanity and the Earth through divine love.

Buddhism’s spiritual aim is the absolute awareness of interconnectedness and mutual causality. Ahimsa, or noninjury to living beings and the Earth, is the highest doctrinal principle in Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is intensely followed in Jainism.

How are organized religions putting environmental protection into practice?

Many initiatives and conversations are happening among religions, and among interreligious leadership and international bodies – most importantly, the United Nations initiatives.

Some important conversations include the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, which brings the dedication, impact, and moral authority of different faiths to restore the world’s rainforests and help empower the Indigenous peoples who view themselves as their protectors. Greenfaith is a global, multireligious climate and environmental movement. I also serve on the advisory board of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, a pioneering international interreligious project at Yale University started by scholars Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim that ignited the academic field of religion and ecology as a global engaged force for the greening of religion.

How are environmental advocacy groups drawing in religion?

In 1985, the World Wildlife Fund established the U.K.-based Alliance of Religion and Conservation for developing partnerships with religious groups for collaborating on environmental protection. WWF’s Sacred Earth: Faiths for Conservation program collaborates with faith groups and religious communities who are committed to the view that the Earth is a sacred charge that demands the commitment of our care.

In November 2017, the U.N. “Environment Programme,” realizing the significance of religious communities as key actors, founded the Faith for Earth Initiative to engage with faith-based organizations as partners, at all levels, toward achieving the sustainable development goals and realizing the 2030 agenda. The initiative affirms that “Spiritual values drive individual behaviors for more than 80 percent of people.”

In fall 2020, the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the U.N. Environment Programme jointly published a book titled “Faith for Earth – A Call for Action,” which provides an overview of the diversity of religious principles and practices that support action for the protection of the Earth.

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Rita D. Sherma, Associate Professor of Dharma Studies, Graduate Theological Union

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How the presence of pets builds trust among people

Pet ownership can often enhance feelings of trust among strangers. FOTOGRAFIA INC./Collections E+ via Getty Images

Megan K Mueller, Tufts University

Companion animals are a core part of family life in the United States, with 90 million American households having at least one pet. Many of us view pets as beloved family members who provide nonjudgmental emotional support and companionship during times of stress.

That’s not all. Research shows our pets can also strengthen our relationships and trust with other people. In addition, pets contribute positively to trust in our broader social communities.

Companion animals as social facilitators

As many of us know, animals provide an avenue for approaching another person socially, serving as a conversational starting point for connection. Pet ownership alone could be a source of shared interest and knowledge, even among people who may not have similar interests otherwise.

Simply walking down the street with a dog can lead to significantly more social interactions than walking without a dog. Assistance dogs can also facilitate these interactions. One study found that individuals using a wheelchair were more likely to be approached when their assistance animal was present.

The presence of an animal can also enhance perceptions of trustworthiness and responsibility, which in turn fosters positive social interactions. Researchers found that people were more likely to help a stranger with a dog than one without a dog, suggesting that the presence of an animal conferred perceptions of trust.

For children, interacting with a pet can also provide an additional opportunity to practice positive social interactions and develop empathy and compassion. Recent research indicates that living with dogs is associated with better social and emotional skills for children. In our own research at the Tufts Pets and Well-Being Lab, we also found that teenagers with high levels of attachment to their pets were likely to have higher levels of social skills and empathy toward others than those without such attachments.

Pets and social capital

A man walking his dog bends down to pet a woman's dog on a neighborhood street.
Two neighbors stop for a conversation while walking their dogs. Spiderplay/Collection E+ via Getty Images

Pets have also been shown to foster social capital in communities. Social capital is a concept that encompasses the broader community and neighborhood networks of social relationships, and the degree to which the community has a culture of helping others. The trust inherent in these connections can lead to better health and well-being.

Interestingly, pet owners have consistently reported higher levels of social capital in their communities than people without pets, both in the United States and internationally.

In addition to social facilitation, pets can contribute to social capital by strengthening social trust within communities. Neighbors may rely on one another to assist with animal care, which builds reciprocal trust. Pet owners’ use of shared spaces, such as dog parks or green spaces, can lead to better social relationships.

In spite of it, during the COVID-19 pandemic dog owners were more likely than those without dogs to go for regular walks outdoors, providing an opportunity for community engagement during a period of extreme social isolation. The presence of an animal has even been found to increase positive social interactions in the workplace.

While evidence continues to support the idea that pets foster positive interactions between people, animals are not a universal solution for creating trust. There is still a lot we need to learn about the interrelated relationships between pets and people.

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Megan K Mueller, Associate Professor of Human-Animal Interaction, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness


This is what should be done by those who are skilled in goodness,
and have known the place of peace.
Let them be able and upright, very upright,
easy to speak to, gentle and humble;

content and unburdensome,
unbusied, living lightly,
alert, with senses calmed,
courteous, not fawning on families.

Let them not do the slightest thing
that others might blame with reason.
May they be happy and safe!
May all beings be happy!

Whatever living creatures there are
with not a one left out—
frail or firm, long or large,
medium, small, tiny or round,

visible or invisible,
living far or near,
those born or to be born:
May all beings be happy!

Let none turn from another,
nor look down on anyone anywhere.
Though provoked or aggrieved,
let them not wish pain on each other.

Even as a mother would protect with her life
her child, her only child,
so too for all creatures
unfold a boundless heart.

With love for the whole world,
unfold a boundless heart.
Above, below, all round,
unconstricted, without enemy or foe.

When standing, walking, sitting,
or lying down while yet unweary,
keep this ever in mind;
for this, they say, is a holy abiding in this life.

Avoiding harmful views,
virtuous, accomplished in insight,
with sensual desire dispelled,
they never come back to a womb again.

Beginner’s Guide to Meditation » for a positive & productive day (part 1)

This series teaches the basics of mindfulness meditation for beginners. In this episode we practice: finding a comfortable seat, bringing your attention to the breath, and becoming aware of any sensations and thoughts that enter into the mind while meditating. We will explore what to do with these thoughts and emotions in the next video.

FEATURED IN THE VIDEO »
To watch part 2: https://youtu.be/0eKD-mDa3CA »
To watch part 3: https://youtu.be/zFotlhvCzWc »

Where I learned Vipassana meditation: http://satipatthana.ca »
Music “Garden Music” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/b…

Laughing is good for your mind and your body – here’s what the research shows

It’s hard to beat a good laugh with a friend. Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Janet M. Gibson, Grinnell College

Amusement and pleasant surprises – and the laughter they can trigger – add texture to the fabric of daily life.

Those giggles and guffaws can seem like just silly throwaways. But laughter, in response to funny events, actually takes a lot of work, because it activates many areas of the brain: areas that control motor, emotional, cognitive and social processing.

As I found when writing “An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor,” researchers now appreciate laughter’s power to enhance physical and mental well-being.

Laughter’s physical power

People begin laughing in infancy, when it helps develop muscles and upper body strength. Laughter is not just breathing. It relies on complex combinations of facial muscles, often involving movement of the eyes, head and shoulders.

Laughter – doing it or observing it – activates multiple regions of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles; the frontal lobe, which helps you understand context; and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions. Turning all these circuits on strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activity.

By activating the neural pathways of emotions like joy and mirth, laughter can improve your mood and make your physical and emotional response to stress less intense. For example, laughing may help control brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, similar to what antidepressants do. By minimizing your brain’s responses to threats, it limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol that can wear down your cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems over time. Laughter’s kind of like an antidote to stress, which weakens these systems and increases vulnerability to diseases.

women laughing together at an outdoor meal
Getting the joke is a good workout for your brain. Thomas Barwick/Stone via Getty Images

Laughter’s cognitive power

A good sense of humor and the laughter that follows depend on an ample measure of social intelligence and working memory resources.

Laughter, like humor, typically sparks from recognizing the incongruities or absurdities of a situation. You need to mentally resolve the surprising behavior or event – otherwise you won’t laugh; you might just be confused instead. Inferring the intentions of others and taking their perspective can enhance the intensity of the laughter and amusement you feel.

To “get” a joke or humorous situation, you need to be able to see the lighter side of things. You must believe that other possibilities besides the literal exist – think about being amused by comic strips with talking animals, like those found in “The Far Side.”

Laughter’s social power

Many cognitive and social skills work together to help you monitor when and why laughter occurs during conversations. You don’t even need to hear a laugh to be able to laugh. Deaf signers punctuate their signed sentences with laughter, much like emoticons in written text.

Laughter creates bonds and increases intimacy with others. Linguist Don Nilsen points out that chuckles and belly laughs seldom happen when alone, supporting their strong social role. Beginning early in life, infants’ laughter is an external sign of pleasure that helps strengthen bonds with caregivers.

Later, it’s an external sign of sharing an appreciation of the situation. For example, public speakers and comedians try to get a laugh to make audiences feel psychologically closer to them, to create intimacy.

By practicing a little laughter each day, you can enhance social skills that may not come naturally to you. When you laugh in response to humor, you share your feelings with others and learn from risks that your response will be accepted/shared/enjoyed by others and not be rejected/ignored/disliked.

In studies, psychologists have found that men with Type A personality characteristics, including competitiveness and time urgency, tend to laugh more, while women with those traits laugh less. Both sexes laugh more with others than when alone.

white-haired woman laughing on a park bench
Laughter has value across the whole lifespan. Steve Prezant/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Laughter’s mental power

Positive psychology researchers study how people can live meaningful lives and thrive. Laughter produces positive emotions that lead to this kind of flourishing. These feelings – like amusement, happiness, mirth and joy – build resiliency and increase creative thinking. They increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Researchers find that these positive emotions experienced with humor and laughter correlate with appreciating the meaning of life and help older adults hold a benign view of difficulties they’ve faced over a lifetime.

Laughter in response to amusement is a healthy coping mechanism. When you laugh, you take yourself or the situation less seriously and may feel empowered to problem-solve. For example, psychologists measured the frequency and intensity of 41 people’s laughter over two weeks, along with their ratings of physical and mental stress. They found that the more laughter experienced, the lower the reported stress. Whether the instances of laughter were strong, medium or weak in intensity didn’t matter.

Maybe you want to grab some of these benefits for yourself – can you force laughter to work for you?

A growing number of therapists advocate using humor and laughter to help clients build trust and improve work environments; a review of five different studies found that measures of well-being did increase after laughter interventions. Sometimes called homeplay instead of homework, these interventions take the form of daily humor activities – surrounding yourself with funny people, watching a comedy that makes you laugh or writing down three funny things that happened today.

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You can practice laughing even when alone. Intentionally take a perspective that appreciates the funny side of events. Laughing yoga is a technique of using breathing muscles to achieve the positive physical responses of natural laughing with forced laughter (ha ha hee hee ho ho). Some tips on how to get started with laughing yoga.

Researchers today certainly aren’t laughing off its value, but a good deal of the research on laughter’s influence on mental and physical health is based on self-report measures. More psychological experimentation around laughter or the contexts in which it occurs will likely support the importance of laughing throughout your day, and maybe even suggest more ways to intentionally harness its benefits.

Janet M. Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Grinnell College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is it time to give up on consciousness as ‘the ghost in the machine’?

ImagesRouges/Shutterstock

Peter Halligan, Cardiff University and David A Oakley, UCL

As individuals, we feel that we know what consciousness is because we experience it daily. It’s that intimate sense of personal awareness we carry around with us, and the accompanying feeling of ownership and control over our thoughts, emotions and memories.

But science has not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness – which has important implications for our belief in free will and our approach to the study of the human mind.

Beliefs about consciousness can be roughly divided into two camps. There are those who believe consciousness is like a ghost in the machinery of our brains, meriting special attention and study in its own right. And there are those, like us, who challenge this, pointing out that what we call consciousness is just another output generated backstage by our efficient neural machinery.

Over the past 30 years, neuroscientific research has been gradually moving away from the first camp. Using research from cognitive neuropsychology and hypnosis, our recent paper argues in favour of the latter position, even though this seems to undermine the compelling sense of authorship we have over our consciousness.

And we argue this isn’t simply a topic of mere academic interest. Giving up on the ghost of consciousness to focus scientific endeavour on the machinery of our brains could be an essential step we need to take to better understand the human mind.

Is consciousness special?

Our experience of consciousness places us firmly in the driver’s seat, with a sense that we’re in control of our psychological world. But seen from an objective perspective, it’s not at all clear that this is how consciousness functions, and there’s still much debate about the fundamental nature of consciousness itself.

One reason for this is that many of us, including scientists, have adopted a dualist position on the nature of consciousness. Dualism is a philosophical view that draws a distinction between the mind and the body. Even though consciousness is generated by the brain – a part of the body – dualism claims that the mind is distinct from our physical features, and that consciousness cannot be understood through the study of the physical brain alone. MIT’s Alex Byrne explains the philosophical underpinnings of the dualist position.

It’s easy to see why we believe this to be the case. While every other process in the human body ticks and pulses away without our oversight, there is something uniquely transcendental about our experience of consciousness. It’s no surprise that we’ve treated consciousness as something special, distinct from the automatic systems that keep us breathing and digesting.

But a growing body of evidence from the field of cognitive neuroscience – which studies the biological processes underpinning cognition – challenges this view. Such studies draw attention to the fact that many psychological functions are generated and carried out entirely outside of our subjective awareness, by a range of fast, efficient non-conscious brain systems.


Read more: What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?


Consider, for example, how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before, or how, with no deliberate effort, we instantly recognise and understand shapes, colours, patterns and faces we encounter.

Consider that we don’t actually experience how our perceptions are created, how our thoughts and sentences are produced, how we recall our memories or how we control our muscles to walk and our tongues to talk. Simply put, we don’t generate or control our thoughts, feelings or actions – we just seem to become aware of them.

Becoming aware

The way we simply become aware of thoughts, feelings and the world around us suggests that our consciousness is generated and controlled backstage, by brain systems that we remain unaware of.

Our recent paper argues that consciousness involves no separate independent psychological process distinct from the brain itself, just as there’s no additional function to digestion that exists separately from the physical workings of the gut.

An artist's impression of neurons in the brain
The neural machinery of the brain may be all we need to study in order to understand the human mind. MattLphotography/Shutterstock

While it’s clear that both the experience and content of consciousness are real, we argue that, from a science explanation, they are epiphenomenal: secondary phenomena based on the machinations of the physical brain itself. In other words, our subjective experience of consciousness is real, but the functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.

Future study of the brain

Our position is neither obvious nor intuitive. But we contend that continuing to place consciousness in the driver’s seat, above and beyond the physical workings of the brain, and attributing cognitive functions to it, risks confusion and delaying a better understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

To better align psychology with the rest of the natural sciences, and to be consistent with how we understand and study processes like digestion and respiration, we favour a perspective change. We should redirect our efforts to studying the non-conscious brain, and not the functions previously attributed to consciousness.

This doesn’t of course exclude psychological investigation into the nature, origins and distribution of the belief in consciousness. But it does mean refocusing academic efforts on what happens beneath our awareness – where we argue the real neuro-psychological processes take place.

Our proposal feels personally and emotionally unsatisfying, but we believe it provides a future framework for the investigation of the human mind – one that looks at the brain’s physical machinery rather than the ghost that we’ve traditionally called consciousness.

Peter Halligan, Hon Professor of Neuropsychology, Cardiff University and David A Oakley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Consciousness: how can I experience things that aren’t ‘real’?

Great colours in Cappadocia, Turkey. But what are they? Olena Tur/Shutterstock

Philip Goff, Durham University

When I see red, it’s the most religious experience. Seeing red just results from photons of a certain frequency hitting the retina of my eye, which cascades electrical and biochemical pulses through my brain, in the same way a PC runs. But nothing happening in my eye or brain actually is the red colour I experience, nor are the photons or pulses. This is seemingly outside this world. Some say my brain is just fooling me, but I don’t accept that as I actually experience the red. But then, how can something out of this world be in our world? Andrew Kaye, 52, London.

What’s going on in your head right now? Presumably you’re having a visual experience of these words in front of you. Maybe you can hear the sound of traffic in the distance or a baby crying in the flat next door. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit tired and distracted, struggling to focus on the words on the page. Or maybe you’re feeling elated at the prospect of an enlightening read. Take a moment to attend to what it’s like to be you right now. This is what’s going on inside your head.

Or is it? There’s another, quite different story. According to neuroscience, the contents of your head are comprised of 86 billion neurons, each one linked to 10,000 others, yielding trillions of connections.

A neuron communicates with its neighbour by converting an electrical signal into a chemical signal (a neurotransmitter), which then passes across the gap in between the neurons (a synapse) to bind to a receptor in the neighbouring neuron, before being converted back into an electrical signal. From these basic building blocks, huge networks of electro-chemical communication are built up.


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These two stories of what’s going on inside your head seem very different. How can they both be true at the same time? How do we reconcile what we know about ourselves from the inside with what science tells us about our body and brain from the outside? This is what philosophers have traditionally called the mind-body problem. And there are solutions to it that don’t require you to accept that there are separate worlds.

Ghost in the machine?

Probably the most popular solution to the mind-body problem historically is dualism: the belief that the human mind is non-physical, outside of the physical workings of the body and the brain. According to this view, your feelings and experiences aren’t strictly speaking in your head at all – rather they exist inside an immaterial soul, distinct from, although closely connected to, your brain.

The relationship between you and your body, according to dualism, is a little bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. You control your body, and receive information from its sensors, but you and your body are not the same thing.

Dualism in a nutshell. Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Dualism allows for the possibility of life after death: we know the body and the brain decay, but perhaps the soul lives on when the body dies, just as a drone pilot lives on if his drone is shot down. It is also perhaps the most natural way for human beings to think about the body-mind relationship. The psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that dualism is hardwired into us, and that from a very early age infants start to distinguish “mental things” from “physical things”. Reflecting this, most cultures and religions throughout history seem to have adopted some kind of dualism.

The trouble is that dualism does not fit well with the findings of modern science. Although dualists think the mind and the brain are distinct, they believe there is an intimate causal relationship between the two. If the soul makes a decision to raise an arm, this somehow manages to influence the brain and thereby set off a causal chain which will result in the arm going up.

Rene Descartes, the most famous dualist in history, hypothesised that the soul communicated with the brain through the pineal gland, a small, pea-shaped gland located near the centre of the brain. But modern neuroscience has cast doubt on the idea that there is a single, special location in the brain where the mind interacts with the brain.

Perhaps a dualist could maintain that the soul operates at several places in the brain. Still, you’d think we’d be able to observe these incoming signals arriving in the brain from the immaterial soul, just as we can observe in a drone where the radio signals sent by the pilot arrive. Unfortunately, this is not what we find. Rather, scientific investigation seems to show that everything that happens in a brain has a physical cause within the brain itself.

Imagine we found what we thought was a drone, but upon subsequent examination we discovered that everything the drone did was caused by processes within it. We would conclude that this was not being controlled by some external “puppeteer” but by the physical processes within it. In other words, we would have discovered not a drone but a robot. Many philosophers and scientists are inclined to draw the same conclusions about the human brain.

Am I my brain?

Among contemporary scientists and philosophers, the most popular solution to the mind-body problem is probably materialism. Materialists aspire to explain feelings and experiences in terms of the chemistry of the brain. It is broadly agreed that nobody has the slightest clue as yet how to do it, but many are confident that we one day will.

This confidence probably arises from the sense that materialism is the scientifically kosher option. The success of science in the past 500 years is after all mind-blowing. This gives people confidence that we just need to plug away with our standard methods of investigating the brain, and one day we’ll solve the riddle.

The trouble with this common viewpoint, as I argue in my book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, is that our standard scientific approach was designed to exclude consciousness.

Galileo was the first person to demand that science should be mathematical. But Galileo understood quite well that human experience cannot be captured in these terms. That’s because human experience involves qualities – the redness of a red experience, the euphoria of love – and these kinds of qualities cannot be captured in the purely quantitative language of mathematics.

Galileo got around this problem by adopting a form of dualism, according to which the qualities of consciousness existed only in the incorporeal “animation” of the body, rather than in the basic matter that is the proper focus of physical science. Only once Galileo had located consciousness outside of the realm of science, was mathematical science possible.

In other words, our current scientific approach is premised on Galileo’s separation of the quantitative physical world from the qualitative reality of consciousness. If we now want to bring consciousness into our scientific story, we need to bring these two domains back together.

Is consciousness fundamental?

Materialists try to reduce consciousness to matter. We have explored some problems with that approach. What about doing it the other way around – can matter be reduced to consciousness? This brings us to the third option: idealism. Idealists believe that consciousness is all that exists at the fundamental level of reality. Historically, many forms of idealism held that the physical world is some kind of illusion, or a construction generated from our own minds.

Idealism is not without its problems either. Materialists put matter at the basis of everything, and then have a challenge understanding where consciousness comes from. Idealists put consciousness at the basis of everything, but then have a challenge explaining where matter comes from.

But a new – or rather rediscovered – way of building matter from consciousness has recently been garnering a great deal of attention among scientists and philosophers. The approach starts from the observation that physical science is confined to telling us about the behaviour of matter and what it does. Physics, for example, is basically just a mathematical tool for telling us how particles and fields interact. It tells us what matter does, not what it is.

If physics doesn’t tell us what fields and particles are, then this opens up the possibility that they might be forms of consciousness. This approach, known as panpsychism, allows us to hold that both physical matter and consciousness are fundamental. This is because, according to panpsychism, particles and fields simply are forms of consciousness.

At the level of basic physics, we find very simple forms of consciousness. Perhaps quarks, fundamental particles that help make up the atomic nucleus, have some degree of consciousness. These very simple forms of consciousness could then combine to form very complex forms of consciousness, including the consciousness enjoyed by humans and other animals.

So, according to panpsychism, your experience of red and the corresponding brain process don’t take place in separate worlds. Whereas Galileo separated out the qualitative reality of a red experience from the quantitative brain process, panpsychism offers us a way of bringing them together in a single, unified worldview. There is only one world, and it’s made of consciousness. Matter is what consciousness does.

Panpsychism is quite a radical rethink of our picture of the universe. But it does seem to achieve what other solutions cannot. It offers us a way to combine what we know about ourselves from the inside and what science tells us about our bodies and the brains from the outside, a way of understanding matter and consciousness as two sides of the same coin.

Can panpsychism be tested? In a sense it can, because all of the other options fail to account for important data. Dualism fails to account for the data of neuroscience. And materialism fails to account for the reality of consciousness itself. As Sherlock Holmes famously said: “Once we have ruled out the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Given the deep problems that plague both dualism and materialism, panpsychism looks to me to be the best solution to the mind-body problem.

Even if we can solve the mind-body problem, this can never dispel the wonder of human consciousness. On such matters, the philosopher is no match for the poet.

The Brain is wider than the Sky

For, put them side by side,

The one the other will contain

With ease, and you beside.


The Brain is deeper than the sea

For, hold them, Blue to Blue,

The one the other will absorb,

As sponges, Buckets do.


The Brain is just the weight of God

For, Heft them, Pound for Pound

And they will differ, if they do,

As Syllable from Sound.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1862


To get all of life’s big answers, join the hundreds of thousands of people who value evidence-based news by subscribing to our newsletter. You can send us your big questions by email at bigquestions@theconversation.com and we’ll try to get a researcher or expert on the case.

More Life’s Big Questions:

Philip Goff, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thought of the day 02-07-2016

p10104_thumbWe continue to emotionally and intellectually evolve as we grow older. For some this means embracing the child within and for others it may bring them to a point where they learn how to let go of the pain from their past. The problem with being a self-aware beings is we have a lot of luggage to carry with us through our life if we don’t learn to let go and to forgive. That luggage or baggage only wears you down it hurts only the one who is carrying it. To accept your life and all the things you have experienced during your lifetime is the first step in moving on. Yes you have been done wrong been hurt and more than likely you have wronged or hurt others along the path of life as well. Take it as it is accept both what you have done and that which has been done to you learn to let it go for what is the past is no longer a concern.

Being bitter mistrusting and full of anger fear and pain is no way for anyone to live. Being in such a negative way only blocks your ability to be love be happy and to live your life with integrity. Forgive those whom have done you wrong and yourself for the wrongs you’ve done as well. Remember only the lessons not the hate pain or remorse they bring. Today is a new day each day is yet another chance to live life to the fullest. Choose to live in the here and now not in the shadow of yesterday.

 

“It is just as important to forgive yourself as it is to forgive others.”

Raymond Barbier

Thought of the day 02-07-2016 was originally published on RJB Network Blogs

Thought of the day 1-18-2016

DSCF0012The journey of life has many ups and downs the longer you are on the path the harder the downs seem to be. Seems as we grow older we focus more of the negatives in life than the blessings and positives. Maybe this is due to the misperception that the good  or better times are less often than the bad ones. This may be due to the way our brains tend to store the traumatic events vs its method of storing the rest of the experiences we have. It also could be due to a negative mindset some of us carry with us in later years. Regardless of the reasons behind the misbelief that there is less enjoyable times in our life as we age they are just as present and available as they were when we were younger.

Some science supports the idea that as we age the part of our brain that is stimulated by things such as physical pleasure and rewarding activities is less active or responsive than it is during earlier stages of life. What i wonder is if it is the same when it comes to the unpleasant and unfavorable experiences we have and the brain. More or less what once made our hearts sing and made us feel more alive when we were young may just be a slight and short lived bursts of the same or maybe no kind of reaction at all. But then one must question is it really the brain that is cutting of the high or is it the fact we don’t participate or engage in the things as much as we grow older so the body adapts to the changed lifestyle. I guess i will leave those questions to the people whom are more qualified to answer them.

All I know is that i shall do my best to enjoy my life as long as i can life is a blessing and is short so carpe diem.

Ray Barbier

 

Thought of the day 1-18-2016 was originally published on RJB Network Blogs

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