"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | August 2004  





                 A Survey of the Mind




                Swami Satyaswarupananda




     (Continued from the previous issue)



     Like most physicists, Penrose is clearly no idealist. He believes that just as quantum physical theories have been highly successful in explaining the physical world, they should, with suitable modifications, be able to account for ‘mentality’. He primarily bases his thesis on the non-computational aspects of mathematical thinking. There are many mathematical problems that a computer could never possibly solve, but which the human brain can grasp and resolve. Penrose believes that such non-computable elements need to be incorporated into the quantum theory to make it complete. He is convinced that effects like quantum entanglement (physically separate particles behaving as if they were somehow interlinked and able to communicate instantly) underlie mentality, and that large-scale quantum effects could be occurring in the brain and could explain its intuitive capabilities.


     There are some interesting parallels between Penrose’s ideas and the Vedantic conception of the mind. The mind, according to Vedanta, is definitely material. But this material stuff is conceived of as subtle or anu, where subtlety implies sensual imperceptibility. This position is similar to Penrose’s suggestion of the mind being determined by material properties at the quantum level, which, by definition, is beyond objective observation (as any observation reduces it to the classical physical plane).


     But Vedanta does not grant ontological primacy to mentality; it is only a later evolute, while the fundamental entity that acts as the source and also underpins the entire cosmos (both living and non-living) is of the very nature of consciousness (termed Brahman or Atman). The non-relational nature of this entity clearly does not help the positivistic bias for objectification, but the Penrose programme for a material explanation of mentality is certainly not against the Vedantic position.


     This Vedantic position needs to be taken serious note of by empiricists. A whole host of confusing terminology, opinions and theories could be sorted out if one accepted the fact that pure consciousness is an entity sui generis, that it is the very essence of subjectivity and cannot be objectified. What we can study are its effects in the objective world (which follow definite laws) just as the existence of fundamental particles in physics is known from the effects they produce. This Vedantic idea has been very eloquently echoed by the philosopher of science David Chalmers (although he does not seem to be aware of Vedanta):


     Physical theories are best suited to explaining why systems have a certain physical structure and how they perform various functions. Most problems in science have this form; to explain life, for example, we need to describe how a physical system can reproduce, adapt and metabolize. But consciousness is a different sort of problem entirely, as it goes beyond the scientific explanation of structure and function.



     Of course, neuroscience is not irrelevant to the study of consciousness. For one, it may be able to reveal the nature of the neural correlate of consciousness - the brain processes most directly associated with conscious experience. It may even give a detailed correspondence between specific processes in the brain and related components of experience. But until we know why these processes give rise to conscious experience at all, we will not have crossed what philosopher Joseph Levine has called the explanatory gap between physical processes and consciousness. Making that leap will demand a new kind of theory.



     In searching for an alternative, a key observation is that not all entities in science are explained by more basic entities. In physics, for example, space-time, mass and charge (among other things) are regarded as fundamental features of the world, as they are not reducible to anything simpler. Despite this irreducibility, detailed and useful theories relate these entities to one another in terms of fundamental laws. Together these features and laws explain a great variety of complex and subtle phenomena.



     It is widely believed that physics provides a complete catalogue of the universe’s fundamental features and laws. As physicist Steven Weinberg puts it in his 1992 book Dreams of a Final Theory, the goal of physics is a ‘theory of everything’ from which all there is to know about the universe can be derived. But Weinberg concedes that there is a problem with consciousness. Despite the power of physical theory, the existence of consciousness does not seem to be derivable from physical laws. He defends physics by arguing that it may eventually explain what he calls the objective correlates of consciousness (that is, the neural correlates), but of course to do this is not to explain consciousness itself. If the existence of consciousness cannot be derived from physical laws, a theory of physics is not a true theory of everything. So a final theory must contain an additional fundamental component.



     Toward this end, I propose that conscious experience be considered a fundamental feature, irreducible to anything more basic. The idea may seem strange at first, but consistency seems to demand it. In the 19th century it turned out that electromagnetic phenomena could not be explained in terms of previously known principles. As a consequence, scientists introduced electric charge as a new fundamental entity and studied the associated fundamental laws. Similar reasoning should be applied to consciousness. If existing fundamental theories cannot encompass it, then something fundamental is required. (1)


     Incidentally, Vedanta and Yoga are specifically concerned with the study of the laws that pertain to consciousness and its manifestations in the physical world. A detailed study of these laws, however, is beyond the scope of this article.



     The Biological Perspective



     Human biology has not yet measured up to Penrose’s speculations. Despite remarkable advances in molecular biology, mental function still remains largely equated with the brain and neural network. However, many recent developments call for a fundamental change in this viewpoint. First, neuronal conduction appears to be simply too slow to account for a number of rapid, conscious, split-second responses (termed ‘ballistic’ movements) that we make during many of our daily activities. Second, the neural network is not simply transmission lines for electrical impulses. A whole host of chemicals - neuro­transmitters - act as mediators in the process of neuronal transmission, and have important independent roles in modulating brain function. Further, the nervous system is not the sole control mechanism in the body. There is the endocrine system, which modulates a whole host of functions through a series of hormones. The neural and endocrine network is in turn closely linked with another class of molecules comprising the immune system, which defends the body against the constant assault of foreign organisms and chemicals trying to enter the body. A fourth factor that is being increasingly recognized as crucially related to these three is the human psyche. This forms the psycho-neuro-endocrine-immune axis, the control system of the body, each of the four components of which interacts with the others to produce a harmoniously orchestrated ‘master-control’ mechanism. The psyche is the odd one out in this quadruple, being poorly defined in material terms. At the present state of knowledge physiologists identify neurotransmitters and related brain chemicals as closely associated with psychic function. The evidence for this comes from the alterations in brain biochemistry noted in individuals with psychiatric illnesses. Also, specific chemicals injected at particular sites in the brain can elicit very specific emotional responses. And, of course, the familiar sensation of sudden fright or anger is well correlated with the release of catecholamines from the adrenal glands, which course through the blood stream to all body tissues.


     So, if organic molecules are the prime mediators of psychic function, how do they actually manage to do this? Organic molecules have always been closely associated with the structure of living organisms, but if, and why, they have a specific role in mediating life remains unclear. The two defining characteristics of life are metabolism and reproduction. Metabolism enables living organisms to maintain their integrity, organization and growth in the face of the constant movement towards dissipation and disintegration, a fundamental physical process governed by the second law of thermodynamics - the law of entropy. Reproduction, the process by which an organism is able to produce one or more similar organisms starting with a part of itself, ensures growth and continuity of the herd. Both these activities require what may be termed ‘intelligence’, that is, the ability to possess, organize and put to use a specific piece of information or know-how. Of course, we are here speaking of intrinsic ‘intelligence’. Thus a computer chip that is able to run a pro­gramme to solve a complex mathematical problem does not in itself possess the intelligence inherent in the programme. Its inherent ‘intelligence’ is the ability of its semiconductor body to either allow or prevent (depending on the biasing) the flow of a current through its parts which codes the 0 and 1 of the binary logical system fundamental to its complex use. (It is true that we are not apt to look at material properties as intelligent just as the Sankhyas look upon Prakriti, or nature, as insentient. Our analogy here is with respect to intrinsic capabilities. Also, it is worth remembering that according to Advaita Vedanta even the apparently non-intelligent nature is an evol­ute of consciousness, and is capable of mediating it.)


     Traditionally, researchers have tried to track down this intelligence to a specific cellular component (the cell being the basic living unit of most organisms), and the most obvious candidate is the DNA (or in some cases the RNA), the chemical constituent of the genes, which code all the information necessary to maintain cellular function. This brings one back to the basic question: If the DNA molecules are nothing but hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms arranged in a specific double helical structure, what enables them to mediate the intelligence necessary for life, some­thing that the hundred-odd other atoms known to man seem unable to do? Or, for that matter, is there any fundamental difference between the molecular components of living and non-living objects? The recent discovery of prions (which are small strands of protein that by virtue of an unusual configuration can replace similar proteins in the brain and are thus responsible for the devastating mad-cow disease) has made the dividing line between the living and the non-living very fuzzy. They lack nucleic acids, which have till now been taken as a sine qua non of life, but behave like infectious agents and can increase in numbers by a process of recruitment - inducing normal prion proteins to change their configuration to that of the abnormal prion. Molecular configuration clearly has important implications for the ‘intelligence’ associated with life. There is evidence that even the water associated with cells (and our bodies are, in terms of weight, seventy per cent water), is ‘ordered’ differently than the water in the environment. These orderings and configurations are obviously determined by the physical interactions at the subatomic or quantum level. Quantum physical interactions are also crucial for the integrity and functional capacity of the nucleic acid sequences that make up the genes and they are again centrally involved in such molecular interactions as ‘recognition’ of foreign antigens by the immune molecules of the body. But it will be some time before the biologists will be ready to explain important biological phenomena in quantum physical terms. Swami Ranganathanandaji had insightfully noted in his correspondence with Julian Huxley over thirty years ago: ‘Molecular biology has now some understanding of the genetic material and its chemical properties and processes. But the conclusions about life as a whole based on this understanding are bound to undergo revolutionary changes as and when molecular biology develops, as in the case of twentieth-century physics, into first its atomic and then its nuclear dimension.’ (2)


     The concept that the physical properties of the elements and molecules making up the human body have an important role in mediating mentality has important ramifications.


     First, each human cell is potentially ‘intelligent’, and the human mind could as much be associated (as the Vedantists point out) with the entire human body as it is with the human nervous system. After all, developmentally speaking, it is a single-celled zygote that develops into an entire human being, and hence the zygote contains all the information necessary for the process (a capacity termed totipotency or pluripotency). Another remarkable phenomenon that is being widely recognized is the capacity of pluripotent stem cells in the blood and bone marrow to migrate into other tissues and get transformed into the cells of that particular organ. Even cardiac muscle cells (which were till now thought to be incapable of regeneration) have recently been reported to have been formed by this process in adult humans. Most of the mature tissue cells were thought to lose this capacity for de-differentiation. But the recent success of cloning experiments have shown that almost any body cell can be induced not only to de-differentiate, but to serve as the precursor for an entire living being (like a sheep).


     That all this marvellously coordinated function of the tissues in our body remains largely beyond our conscious perception and conscious control does not run counter to the notion of mentality. That most of our mental activity occurs at a subconscious or even unconscious level is now a well-accepted fact, especially after the popularization of this concept by Freud and other psychologists, although Yoga psychology had not only recognized this fact but systematically elaborated on this a couple of millennia ago. Moreover, the fact that conscious and unconscious mental activity can profoundly affect body physiology, and that, conversely, our mental disposition can be altered by physiological changes in the body, are facts supported by numerous objective studies.


     A second, and even more intriguing, corollary of the quantum physical determination of mentality is the ability of mental effects to override the physical boundaries of the body. If, as the philosopher of science Abner Shimo­ny (reiterating the viewpoint of Alfred N White­head) has suggested, a ‘proto-mentality’ needs to be granted to elementary particles, then biological systems are simply more sophisticated organizers of mentality, which literally makes up the physical universe. Incidentally, this position, termed panpsychism, has been espoused by a whole host of thinkers over the ages, including men like Leibniz and Teilhard de Chardin. It has been criticized for proposing too radical a transformation of physics; but this is precisely what Penrose is now proposing. So, even though we readily recognize the physical influence of the environment on our bodies and our capacity to alter the environment through physical means, we usually fail to take notice of subtler interactions that are often characterized as ‘mental’. Most of us would have had the experience of our thoughts coming true, of a thought casually passing through our minds physically coming to pass, or of a premonition coming true. We are usually apt to pass these off as mere coincidences unless we have some exceptional or remarkably elaborate experience. Carl Jung, who named this phenomenon synchronicity, believed that many of these experiences cannot be explained as chance coincidences; instead, they suggest that there is another kind of ‘order’ in the universe in addition to that described by causality, an order attributed to what Jung called the ‘collective unconscious’ or the ‘archetype’, which is ‘psychoid’ in character, that is, it is both psychological and physical. (3) Popular science writers are apt to relate such phenomena to the quantum physical phenomenon of ‘entanglement’, but at present such associations remain highly speculative. But the fact remains that our present psycho-physiological models are far from satisfactory in explaining transpersonal interactions even though we tacitly assume them to be so. There are numerous areas in which non-verbal communication predominates - the rapport and understanding that we share with our colleagues and friends, the finely coordinated activity generated in complex team efforts (team sports and orchestral music included), the ability of animals and even plants to respond to the thoughts and emotions of their caretakers, are all common occurrences that are very difficult to explain in terms of physical interactions alone. Even more striking are incidences of clairvoyance and clair­audience and related paranormal phenomena. Unfortunately, studies in these areas are often vitiated by frauds and the credulous, and genuine events are summarily dismissed by the orthodox scientific establishment steeped in scientific dogma or biased by personal and theological inclinations.


     There are, of course, notable exceptions. Several groups at important medical centres in the US have recently shown a keenness to study the efficacy of prayer and of what they term ‘distant healing intention’. In several reports investigators have found that if one gets people to pray for or send strong thoughts for healing critically ill patients, then they seem to do better than similar patients for whom no such measure was undertaken. The effect did not appear to depend on the proximity of the patient and the person praying, nor on their knowing each other. (4) The reputed international journal Annals of Internal Medicine recently reviewed twenty-three studies of intercessory prayer (that is, a prayer by somebody else for the patient), found a positive effect in fifty-seven per cent and concluded that ‘the evidence thus far merits further study’. A recent American study, the MANTRA (Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training) project, of patients with life-threatening heart problems, found that off-site intercessory prayer reduced the rate of short- and long-term complications (although the difference was not statistically significant, probably because the number of patients studied was small). None of these studies was very sophisticated and the results were far from conclusive, yet the very fact that such phenomena are being seriously studied is of importance.



     Insights from Yoga-Vedanta



     The Vedanta and Yoga systems have very important insights to offer in this matter. The traditional Vedantic epistemological position requires the mind to reach out and make contact with the object for perception to take place. (5) In the case of visual perception it amounts to the mind using the eye and associated visual systems as the portal for reaching out to the object and getting ‘moulded’ in the form of the object (leading to the formation of a mental mode, or vritti, of the form of the object). The self of the subject is thus linked to the object by this vritti, and the consciousness underlying and illuminating this complex gives rise to the subjective awareness of the object. The light rays reaching the eye only have an auxiliary role in this process. It is worth reiterating here that the Vedantists recognize consciousness as a distinct entity independent of and prior to the objective material world from which the latter evolves by a process termed vivarta, or apparent transformation. It is omnipresent, the eternal subject ‘illuminating’ all objective phenomena and is not to be equated with perceptual awareness (chetana), which depends on the functioning of a material mind. Swami Vivekananda, who had met Her­mann Helmholtz when he participated at the International Electrical Congress in Chicago in 1893, and had probably known about the latter’s formulations on the physiology and psychology of vision (and these are still considered valid), has presented a slightly modified version of the Vedantic epistemology of perception. According to him, the sense organs carry the impulse generated by light falling on the retina to the mind which then ‘reacts’, and this reaction is what we call visual perception. (6)


     In the ‘mind equals brain function’ model of the ‘identity theorists’ there is simply no scope for anything reaching out of the body from within. Neuroscientists, who, by and large, would vouch for this theory, try to explain vision in terms of electrical impulses generated as a consequence of photo-chemical reactions in the specialized cells of the retina called rods and cones, when light falls on them. These impulses are then systematically processed and transmitted to the brain, where it gives rise to conscious visual awareness. Now, even in this model vision does not simply involve a passive flow of impulses from the peripherally situated eye to the brain. Impulses also flow down from the higher brain regions to the periphery and influence what we consciously see. More importantly, there is simply no explanation for the qualitative component (technically termed qualia) of the visual experience. After all, we see colours, blue, red and the like, and not electrical impulses. Way back in 1671, Newton had observed, ‘The rays (of light), to speak properly, are not coloured. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up sensation of this or that colour.’ (7) Also, although the electrical impulses coursing through the optic nerves are identical in all neurons, they get interpreted variously as spatial configuration, colour and so on. Hence colour, psychologists argue, is in the mind. (8) We therefore need a more fundamental understanding of the structure of the mind than what the neuro­physiologists now offer us in order to understand this interpretive function (the ‘reaction’ in Swami Vivekananda’s words). And when we learn to think in terms of physical properties more subtle than electrical impulses, the ‘reaching out of the human mind’ posited by Vedantists may not appear as counter-intuitive as it does now.


     Patanjali’s Yoga system notes that not only does the mind reach out to particular objects, it can reach out to virtually any object in the universe. This all-pervasiveness of the mind, termed vibhutva, (9) is not so much a spatial extension in classical physical terms, but comprises the inherent potential to know any and every object in the universe. This is not something mystical because scientists are actually reaching out to the farthest reaches of the universe as much with their minds as with their instruments of astronomical observation. In fact, there is nothing unreasonable about the efficacy of mathematical and related scientific thought in explaining the objective world, simply because this capacity is built into the very structure of the mind (as is the human capacity for abstract language).


     Patanjali has detailed the process (called samyama) by which the mind not only gets to know an object but can exactly ascertain its modifications in the past and future. Samyama (comprising sequentially of dharana, dhyana and samadhi) (10) involves concentration of the mind on an object to the exclusion of all other mental processes. In a successful samyama the concentration is of such high order that the object alone occupies the field of awareness and the mind is able to exclude awareness of the experiencing self as also of its own functioning. We all have had fleeting, involuntary glimpses of this process when something rivets our attention, but a consciously controlled and prolonged samyama calls for a prolonged and disciplined practice of yoga. The yogi proficient in samyama can use it to focus on the flux (parinama) in terms of time, state and content of any objective system and get to know the exact past course and the most likely future fate of the system. (11) This is precisely what we do, though very clumsily, when we infer the past and project the future of any object, and this is how scientists build up the edifice of science, again in a very halting fashion. But the mind, Patanjali tells us, is structured to see this past and future as a continuum in the present instant, much like seeing the lifeline of a system in a space-time graph or phase-space diagram. In fact, for a mind focused in samyama, the very concept of temporal flux disappears (this actually is a test of successful samyama, or of one-pointed concentration in general). It may be mentioned in passing that there are physicists who believe that a valid unified field theory would eliminate time as a variable. (12)


     The conative capabilities of a mind in samyama, as detailed by Patanjali, are even more impressive, in that there is hardly a thing that the mind cannot accomplish provided its energies are controlled, focused and appropriately directed. (13)


     It is worth remembering that the mental properties that Patanjali delineates become evident only in a mind capable of sustained and habitual, one-pointed focus after it is purified of its own inherently distracting habits and passions. This is a dauntingly difficult task, as any sincere practitioner could tell, no less difficult than the task of actually getting a system into a quantum coherent state at room temperatures, a property that Penrose believes is important in the physical description of the mind. All the same, any satisfactory model of the mind must account for these properties, difficult as they may be of objective observation, even as unified field theorists must account for the host of real and virtual subatomic particles, whose existence only the rare physicist involved in very high energy experiments can actually corroborate. And just as astrophysicists reach out to the deeper recesses of outer space and particle physicists go deep underground to detect elusive subatomic particles, researchers need to develop sophisticated methodologies to study the rare minds that have attained to higher states charted out by Patanjali, for an accurate understanding of the structure and function of the human mind.




     (To be concluded)




     Notes and References



     1. David Chalmers, ‘The Hidden Mind’ in Scientific American, Special Edition, 31 August 2002, 96.

     2. See Swami Ranganathananda, The Message of the Upanisads (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001), 603.

     3. One of Jung’s patients vividly brought home this concept by having an elaborate hallucination that closely resembled an ancient Persian myth about which the patient could not have had a prior knowledge.

     4. See Larry Dossey, Reinventing Medicine (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 37-60.

     5. See ‘Perception’ in Vedanta Paribhasha of Dharmaraja Adhvarindra, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1983).

     6. See ‘The Real and the Apparent Man’ in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.263-88.

     7. Quoted in P G Zimbardo, Psychology and Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 229.

     8. Ibid.

     9. See Vyasa’s commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 4.10.

     10. Yoga Sutras, 3.1-4.

     11. Ibid., 3.16.

     12. Tim Folger, ‘From Here to Eternity’ in Discover, December 2000, 54.

     13. Compare ‘Vibhuti Pada’, Yoga Sutras.



     Read more:



     A Survey of the Mind (July 2004)

      A Survey of the Mind (September 2004)


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