Saturday, December 31, 2011

The neuroscience of Vipasanna meditation: why and how?

(Abstract for the Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference)

Stephen Whitmarsh, Mark Leegsma

The premise of the Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference is that a unified science of such a kind doesn't yet exist. We agree, more or less tacitly, that there is no agreement, and we desire rather than possess a paradigm. In particular, a definition of the target phenomenon that is both unequivocal and satisfying appears to be lacking. Yet, scientists of consciousness usually proceed as if such a definition were already available. In good pragmatic fashion, we assume a priori that consciousness is an object and exists in an observer-independent way; presumably all the scientist of consciousness has to do is select the full-fledged phenomenon and find out how it works. With consciousness, however, it doesn't work that way. We will argue, on the contrary, that consciousness is emphatically a question for us and that, against pragmatism, no science of consciousness may ignore this given before it starts empirically investigating its 'nature' or its neurological correlates. Instead, we will turn the questioning of consciousness and its very existence into our main point of departure as well as a phenomenon for neuroscientific investigation. So, instead of continuing the current flaw in the science of consciousness - assuming a priori that consciousness is an object - we suggest the only viable a priori is ignorance.
Investigating our relation to a lack of knowledge is the key endeavour in Vipassana meditation. Therefore, a neuroscience of Vipassana meditation will in effect be impossible when - courtesy of any assumptions and a priori definitions introduced - the very phenomenon it investigates (ignorance) is ignored. The issue seems further confounded from the fact that meditation resists definition in a similar way as any a priori definition sabotages its phenomenological questioning. Taken from four years of confronting such issues of ignorance in my PhD on the neuroscience of Vipasanna medition, I will give examples of failure to define and operationalize Vipassana meditation. Along the way it became apparent that the neuroscientist has to become a meditator as well. This resulted in neuroscientific studies of Vipassana meditation using electrocorticography and magnetocorticography that elucidate some of its neural mechanisms and that have resulted in its 'real-life' application in online brain-computer interfacing.

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