Our Models of Consciousness: How They Shape Our Reality

Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. (Definitons.net)

What determines the nature of our lived reality? It is determined by our experiences, our direct observations. Yet for the most part, we go through life with no awareness of how or why we filter our experiences, accepting some of our perceptions as valid—within the boundaries of reality—while dismissing others as illusionary.

Whether or not we realize this, our experience of the world—and, thus, our behavior—is strongly influenced by our perspective on consciousness. Our view of consciousness can either connect us or separate us from a particular experience—either open us up to or cut us off from an expanded reality.

You may be wondering, how would I even know what my view of consciousness is? Here is a little gauge: consider that, checking your emails in a coffee shop, you overhear an account of a near-death experience from the next table. A young man is talking about traveling down a dark tunnel, seeing a brilliant light, experiencing unearthly joy . . . What is your inner reaction likely to be? Would you be skeptical? Incredulous? Or would you entertain the possibility that his account is correct? In other words, is your current view of consciousness large enough to allow for subtle, psychic, or anomalous experiences? Or does it discount them automatically?

Now, let’s take a look at three perspectives on consciousness and consider how these perspectives could affect our experiences and our willingness to accept the experiences of others.

Medical Model of Consciousness: A Materialistic Worldview

The first is the medical model of consciousness, (the middle column of the figure, above): it is a limited model that differentiates normal (e.g., deep sleep, dreaming and, the awake/alert state) from abnormal states of consciousness, like coma.

This is the model of consciousness I was taught as a neuroscience graduate student. Within the materialist framework in which I was trained, this medical model was adequate to explain the only states of consciousness I was aware of. According to this model, there is no reality other than the physical universe, and this means that our mind and conscious awareness are considered a product of the activity of our brain.

There is some evidence to support this material view. Studies have identified that in the waking state there are “default” neural networks that are activated when our mind wanders and other networks activated when we are problem solving. Distinctly different networks are activated during dreaming and sleep. This model is also useful in the diagnosis of a variety of physical disorders, such as stroke or coma. It does not, however, acknowledge the possible reality of a near-death experience (NDE), which is outside this model and is dismissed as the result of pathology within the brain.

Expanded Models of Consciousness

The states of consciousness described in many NDEs include a sense of connection with all things, a boundless sense of joy, and a sense of being bonded to a consciousness greater than one’s own. The qualities of an NDE experience are surprisingly close to those of the deepest states of meditation. In my experiences of meditation, as a neuroscientist, I was mystified by the new levels of consciousness that became accessible to me: feelings that seemed ineffable, experiences of light, and an expansion of awareness beyond the body.

Studying this phenomena, I found it interesting that the perceptions that come in NDEs during cardiac arrest are accompanied by an EEG that is flat-lined, indicating brain activity is minimal if present at all. Similar expanded states of consciousness are experienced in meditation, suggesting that NDEs and meditative states are tapping into a common level of consciousness. This has led researchers to ask if there are levels of consciousness within a normal individual that go beyond the state defined as “awake and alert?” Laboratory studies on meditators and first-person descriptions of their experiences in meditation suggest that there are.

These additional levels of awareness have been described in a variety of ways: as one-pointed focus on an object such as the breath or as states of open presence or loving-kindness. In one study that compared advanced meditators practicing thought-free meditation, it was found that EEG activity at most frequencies and in most of the cortex was reduced, when compared to other states, moving toward the flat-lined EEG seen during NDEs.

This leads me to propose a model (top-right columns of the figure above), that includes a number of higher levels of consciousness beyond those of the default mode of awareness. I include the lowest level, 1) the default mode, with uncontrolled thoughts; 2) a higher level of mindfulness, with focused meditation, on the breath, or loving-kindness; 3) a state in which the mind is silent, and one is simply aware; and finally 4) a state of non-local unitary consciousness, in which there is a sense of connection with all things, accompanied by an experience of light and joy.

Is Consciousness Present in All Matter?

A final lens through which we can examine consciousness is the biological/pan-physical model of consciousness, which proposes that there are levels of awareness in all matter, living and nonliving. This model (bottom left column of the figure) has been proposed recently by such researchers as David Chalmers and Christof Koch, though a similar form is the pre-modern philosophy known as panpsychism, the understanding that consciousness is in everything. Chalmers proposes that everything in the universe, even the most basic particle, is made up of information and that all information contains two basic aspects: physical and experiential. He associates an entity’s experience of consciousness with the level of complexity with which that entity is able to process consciousness. Chalmers says:

Where there is simple information processing, there is simple experience, and where there is complex information processing, there is complex experience. A mouse has a simpler information-processing structure than a human, and has correspondingly simpler experience (Chalmers, 1996, p. 231).

Thus awareness extends from a coarse or simple consciousness in inanimate objects through the complex consciousness—even involving self-awareness—that is associated with higher animals, including humans.

Given this model, we might then ask if the full spectrum of consciousness might not include within it levels of all three models? This is similar to the complete model (shown above) that many meditative traditions have proposed, in which consciousness is seen as both immanent (in all things, including rocks and plants) and, at the other end of the spectrum, transcendent (as a nonlocal consciousness beyond all material reality).

Models of Consciousness: Determinants of Our Lived Reality

If you believe in a materialist model that considers consciousness beyond the human waking, dream and sleep states to be abnormal or nonexistent, this will limit your sense of interconnection. But if your model includes a continuum of consciousness within everything, the feeling of connection inherent in this model will naturally generate compassionate action: you understand that what happens to others also happens to you.

Regardless of which model you accept, a key question is whether you are open to modifying your understanding based on emerging evidence regarding the nature of consciousness? Here is how the astrophysicist Bernard Haisch explains the strong grip of the medical model on modern science and our culture:

Modern Western science regards consciousness as an epiphenomenon that cannot be anything but a byproduct of the neurology and biochemistry of the brain. While this perspective is viewed within modern science as a fact, it is in reality far stronger than a mere fact: it is a dogma. Facts can be overturned by evidence, whereas dogma is impervious to mere evidence (Haisch 2007, p. 53).

Consider whether you are open to expanding your existing model of consciousness. As our model of consciousness expands, our experience of connection with everyone and everything around us expands as well. And this, in turn, can lead to an increased capacity for compassion and for actions by which we can heal ourselves and our planet.

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