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Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2000, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p379, 37p.

NEUROPHENOMENOLOGY

By FREDERIC H. PETERS,
Department

of

Studies

in

Religion,

University

of

Queensland

Although the subject matter of religious studies is essentially phenomenal


(e.g., conscious acts, attitudes, intentions, worldviews), the analysis of the
basic datum, consciousness itself, remains of necessity incomplete because
of the discipline's restriction to the phenomenal envelope. Philosophical and
psychological analysis contributed to our understanding of consciousness,
but, lacking access to the neurological engine-room of consciousness, their
explanatory power is compromised as well. Neuroscience, on the other hand,
has moved beyond the behaviorist denial of consciousness and recent
research indicates that the evolutionary development of the brain's
representational capacity may well account for its ability to generate
consciousness. These advances provide an opportunity to many objective
explanation with phenomenological descriptions of the view from the inside,
creating a powerful new analytic tool: Neuro-phenomenology. Comprised of
an exaggerated differentiation between conscious state and informational
content, and constituting an important phenomenological category within
many Hindu and Buddhist programs, lucid consciousness makes an ideal
subject with which to assess the analytic power of Neurophenomenology.
1. Introduction
This paper introduces a new methodological approach to the analysis of
religious phenomena, a research program based on the integration of
neurological and phenomenological perspectives within a single analytical
lens. The expansion of the latter to include the former is necessitated by the
fact that while the subject matter of Religious Studies is essentially
phenomenal

(conscious

acts,

attitudes,

intentions,

worldviews),

the

phenomenological analysis of the basic datum, consciousness itself, remains


incomplete because of the discipline's restriction within the phenomenal
envelope, leaving the neural mechanisms generating that

envelope

completely unaccounted for. But as the evidence gathered over the past
century and a half indicates unequivocally, mental activity and brain activity
are one and the same, so that it is no longer possible to advance explanations
in purely phenomenal or psychological terms. Broadly speaking then, the
potential contribution of philosophical and psychological analysis on the
nature of consciousness (and thereby religious phenomena) shares with
phenomenology the limitation that they also lack access to the neurological
engine-room of consciousness. But unlike phenomenology, forms of
philosophy and psychology are additionally burdened by a continuing
resistance, reminiscent of behaviorism, to the very notion of consciousness
and to the reality of the phenomenal contents ("qualia") which constitute the
data. Neuroscience, on the other hand, has largely moved beyond the
Behaviourist denial of consciousness, with recent research indicating that the
evolutionary development of the brain's representational capacity may well
account for its ability to generate phenomenal consciousness. These
advances provide an opportunity to marry objective neurological explanation
with phenomenological descriptions of the view from inside, creating a
powerful new analytical tool: Neurophenomenology.
As with any discipline, Neurophenomenology requires the elaboration of
formal methodological protocols, particularly important in this case because
we are accustomed, intuitively, to categorize in terms of separate "physical"
and "mental" domains, where this discipline clearly attempts a formal
integration of the two into a single perspective. The three formal elements of
the methodology are then surveyed: the terminological apparatus (definitions,
language),

conceptual

structure (elementary

concepts,

theories)

and

systematic procedures (how data is gathered, classified, and analyzed). The


paper

then

concludes

with

several

illustrative

applications

neurophenomenological method of analysis.


2. Religious phenomena and the phenomenology of consciousness

of

the

Despite the lack of universal agreement on the definition of religion (Platvoet


1990), there is broad consensus that religious phenomena arise with other
human endeavors within an ongoing process of conscious orientation, a
process that establishes frames of reference in terms of space, time, values,
and motivations (Vernoff 1983). While some scholars largely equate religion
and orientation (Smart 1983: 3, 1981: 20-21; Streng 1973; Schmid 1979:
150ff; Eliade 1958: 463), others identify religion with particular constellations
of orientational factors such as a "thrust toward ultimate power" (van der
Leeuw 1938), "response to Holiness" (Otto 1917; Soderblom 1913), "means
toward ultimate transformation" (Streng 1973), "transcendent references in a
worldview" (Waardenburg 1978b), or a sense of the supernatural (Platvoet
1990). Within this overall framework consisting of the broad parameters of
conscious orientation, traditional phenomenological inventories highlight and
categorize typical functional elements that recur through religious traditions,
elements such as sacrifice, prayer, meditation, thanksgiving, worship,
petitions, remembrance, belief, hope, enthusiasm, confession, teaching, and
the intentions which lie behind them. Grouped in whatever way, the
phenomenological elements and types are all slices of life as experienced and
lived subjectively. In describing the overall functional framework and typical
elements of the orientational process, then, phenomenology aims to access
and describe the believer's subjective view of the world. As Eric Sharpe
(1983: 61) put it: "the Muslim does not reverence the Koran we read, but the
Koran he reads. A rock called Uluru is sacred to the Pitjandjara; Ayers Rock is
a tourist attraction."
Religious data then, are by and large, properties of conscious awareness,
comprised of whatever cognitive processes are involved in that state. That
being the case, as Leslie Dewart points out, "it would be sheer methodological
imprudence to try to account for the origin and nature of religion in isolation
from a thorough interpretation of the nature and origin of consciousness"
(1989: 75). Unfortunately, however detailed and accurate the description of
the subjective conscious universe, phenomenology has nothing whatever to
provide in the way of an objective explanation of this fundamental datum,
consciousness itself. By its very nature, phenomenology finds itself restricted

within the realm of "that which appears" (Gr. phainomenon) in consciousness,


at no point touching a point of reference beyond the phenomenal envelope.
Phenomenological description starts with the conscious, self-in-a-landscape
already generated, so that being conscious of something has been taken as
the fundamental characteristic of the phenomenal lifeworld, a property cast as
"intentionality"

(Bretano

1911:

88-89;

Husserl

1962,

1970:

233).

Phenomenology can expand upon this description of consciousness,


detailing qualities such as its self-referring or subjective nature, its distal or
projected form of display (Husserl 1962), its subject-centered perspective and
subject-object split (Eckartsberg 1978), its ongoing temporal flow (Moss and
Keen 1978), its variable attentional focus (Posner and Rothbart 1992), and the
unique quality of its content (Clarke 1995). However, none of these properties
has objectivity. They are all aspects of a subjective world.
Criticism of the phenomenological method for its lack of objective reference,
though certainly valid, often overlooks the essential point that subjective
phenomenal reality itself does not access the world ill a disinterested objective
fashion. Nor does it provide a window on the objective neural machinery that
instantiates it. By its very commitment to the depiction of this reality,
phenomenology is limited in the same two-fold fashion. These shortcomings,
however, do not constitute a basis for the elimination of phenomenology
from the Science of Religion. Rather, they indicate the need for close
partnership with an appropriate complementary discipline. In fact, the
banishment of phenomenology would only occasion its replacement with an
identical approach by some other name. Evidence forthcoming from cognitive
science and ethnology (detailed below) is unequivocal on the fact that
humans--and in fact a large percentage of organisms on the evolutionary
ladder--experience not the environment itself so much as a complex
representational panorama of self-in-the-world, an internally constructed
virtual reality. This evidence indicates that while there are certainly objectively
discernible forces at work in the generation and influence of this subjective
world, they have become part of a phenomenal process operating according
to its own dynamics and producing its own effects. Phenomenology cannot

be replaced, but neither can it hope to provide all the answers necessary for a
complete analysis of subjective events. Phenomenology needs a partner.
Of the traditional analytical disciplines linked with phenomenology in the
analysis of religious phenomena--anthropology, sociology, psychology and
philosophy--only the latter two have made any significant contribution,
historically, to the question of the nature of consciousness as such.
3.

The

limitations

of

philosophical

and

psychological

analyses

of

consciousness
Such is the dispersed, representational quality of consciousness that for early
humans, it was by no means immediately apparent that this phenomenal
presence is in any way related to the brain. Both the early Chinese (Onians
1954: 522) and Upanishadic India (Rao 1962: 21; Reat 1990: 123-7, 237ff)
concluded that the mental-emotional faculty arose primarily from the heart.
The Melanesians placed the memory in the belly and mind in the larynx (Doty
1965:11). Classical Egyptian culture, though recording some awareness of the
connection between bodily paralysis and brain injury in a medical papyrus
dating to 1500 B.C.E. (Laver 1972), indicates an utter ignorance of any
possible connection between conscious awareness and the brain--they
carefully embalmed the body and viscera while discarding the brain (Doty
1965: 24). It was the word heart which carded the significance of intelligence
and understanding and which embalmers took great care to preserve as the
physical substratum of conscious life after death (Hankoff 1980). It was not
until Alkmaion of Kroton (c. 500 B.C.E.) that the brain is definitely identified as
the seat of the mind.
But the power of academic speculation to influence basic folk psychological
notions(n1) about consciousness pales in comparison to the immediate
presence of the phenomenal envelope within which both world and self are
objectively present--and seemingly real--to the subject. It is the power of this
phenomenal objectification, for instance, which lies behind the ancient
insistence of Indian yoga that even though the abode of consciousness is
correlated with the head, this correlation holds between a separate energy-

mentality body and the gross physical anatomy (see "cakra" in Feuerstein
1990). On a broader cross-cultural front, the innate sense of separation
between the mental and the physical--the "phenomenal intuition"--manifests in
the fundamental conviction in the reality of a personal soul, a conviction which
to a large extent underlies humanity's predilection for religious beliefs (Tylor
1873). Historically, this fundamental conviction has underwritten not only
religion, but also philosophy's dogged insistence over two-and-a-half millennia
that in spite of the anatomical locatability of consciousness, soul/mind retains
a fundamental ontological independence from the brain. A succession of
philosophers, from Plato to Penrose (1930- C.E.), have argued for various
permutations in the relationship between these supposedly separate entities.
The most famous of these, Rene Descartes, continued the Platonic tradition,
granting consciousness the security of a unique, non-material substance, the
res cogitans which is forever separate from the res extensa of the material
world. Descartes traced the conjunction of the two to the pineal gland, a fitting
organ, he thought, because it was singular, not one of a pair as are most other
cortical elements. The power of the fundamental phenomenological intuition
can be appreciated from the fact that Descartes' commitment to dualism
remains in spite of his very modem appreciation of the scientifically
demonstrable mechanicalness of the material world and the body (Wilson
1980; Sellars 1963). Successive re-launches of the dualist manifesto can be
found in philosophers and neuroscientists alike: Leibnitz (1768), William
James (1890), John Eccles (1994), Wilder Penfield (1975), Karl Popper
(1977), John Searle (1992) and the latest in David Chalmers (1995, 1996).
Nonetheless, all lack a credible physiological mechanism mediating the
putative body-mind interface; their arguments for the fact of non-material
substance never stray far from its fundamental reference to the phenomenal
intuition. As Richard Boyd (1980: 68) explains it, against the confidence of
physicalist researchers that neural explanations will be forthcoming for all
higher cognitive processes, dualist thinkers "share the contrary intuition that it
is absurd and incoherent (or, perhaps even mad) to assert that mental
phenomena are physical. Mental phenomena are simply the wrong kind of
thing to be physical; they are essentially nonphysical."

Fighting the phenomenal intuition, philosophers such as Locke, Hume and La


Mettrie (1709-1751) maintained that there is no separate mental substance
whatsoever. This materialist position in philosophy has grown in strength and
stature as science itself has extended its explanatory reach and the scientific
outlook become part of the overall cultural worldview. In fact, even the
succession of philosophical arguments against science's non-anthropocentric
view of the cosmos (e.g., Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, James,
Bergson) unquestioningly incorporate many of the basic assumptions of
Newton's new science (Burtt 1924:17, 21). Moreover, philosophy makes no
direct contribution to the understanding of the biology and physiology of what
is, in fact, an extremely complicated neurological system. In this respect,
philosophy suffers with phenomenology from the limitations of its restriction
to the phenomenal theater of experience which has no direct access to its
neural engine-room, so to speak. In sum, neither the radically dualist nor the
radically materialist stream of philosophy has made much headway in
accounting for both the obvious physiological hardware and the sheer fact of
phenomenal awareness.
In the late-nineteenth century, on the other hand, early experimental academic
psychology sought to emulate the systematic objective exactitude being
achieved in the natural sciences. Following G. T. Ladd's 1887 definition of
psychology as "the description and explanation of states of consciousness as
such," the first universal school of psychology, "introspectionism," set out to
produce an exact table of basic conscious events matching the table of atomic
weights recently produced by Chemistry (Guzeldere 1995; Lyons 1986).
However, a growing dissatisfaction with what many would say was an inherent
inability of introspectionist enterprise to meet such mechanically exact
standards, led to its demise and the rise of two alternative streams of analysis.
On the one hand there was psychoanalysis, which relegated all but the most
"respectable" of normal waking phenomena to the nether regions of the
unconscious. While Jung and Freud, the discipline's two most celebrated
proponents, shared a common appreciation for the depth and power of
unconscious mental functioning, only the latter made any serious attempt to
go further and relate the mental universe, conscious and subconscious, to the

underlying cerebral activity. For several years at the end of the nineteenth
century, Freud worked on his "Project for a Scientific Psychology." Lacking a
sufficient body of neurological research in which to ground his hypothesis,
Freud abandoned it and moved to another scheme composed entirely of
mental units (Sulloway 1968; Fine 1962). Freud's reversion to a purely
psychological theory highlights the fact that, for all their commitment to a kind
of reasoned, methodical "scientific" analysis of mind, none of the early
psychologies (introspectionism, functionalism, Gestalt or psychoanalysis)
succeeds in finding a way beyond the phenomenal theater. Their definitions of
consciousness, in fact, reflect as complete a reliance on the introspective view
as those of philosophers such as Descartes, who wrote: "By the term thought
I understand everything which we are aware of as happening within us,
insofar as we have awareness of it" (1640:174). Against this, an equally
circular description from the psychological functionalist J. R. Angell, who
writes in his 1904 textbook Psychology:
Consciousness we can only define in terms of itself. Sensations, ideas, pains,
pleasures, acts of memory, imagination and will--these may serve to illustrate
the experiences we mean to indicate by the term; and our best effort to
construct a successful definition results in some such list, of which we can
only say: "These taken together are what I mean by consciousness."
Psychoanalysis, for its part, characteristically frames its definition in
contradistinction to the unconscious, but in no less circular a fashion. Freud
states: "What is meant by consciousness we need not discuss; it is beyond all
doubt" (1964: 70). For Jung, consciousness as "an inward perception of the
objective life-process" is entirely a phenomenal matter (1969, paragraph 277;
cf. 1966: 298). William James in turn never even once attempts a definition of
consciousness ill his monumental two-volume work Principles of Psychology,
because, he says, consciousness is too familiar to be given a definition. And
such was his conviction in the a priori status of phenomenal awareness as it
presents itself to introspection that he insisted openly that he would "discard
all curious inquiries about its certainty as too metaphysical for the scope of
this book" (1890: 185). In fact, within James' empiricist system, there is no

more possibility of standing outside the capsule of consciousness than there


is with phenomenology.
Experimental psychology, on the other hand, could have been expected to
make a significant contribution to the objective explanation of the fundamental
nature of consciousness. But historical developments conspired to foreclose
on this opportunity, at least during the greater part of the twentieth century. As
a result of the twin successes of evolutionary theory and breakthroughs in
physics and chemistry (Murphy and Kovach 1972), a general drift toward
materialism and objectivism took hold of the academic sciences at the turn of
the century. Publications explicating human mentality as entirely physiological
and mechanistic increased and a curious, almost zombie-like externalism took
over in the form of a reluctance, almost an inability, to conceive the workings
of the world as anything other than the operations of an objectively
measurable mechanism. This development proved disastrous for the incipient
awareness of the importance of internal representation in biological
organisms.
According to these same externalist notions, psychology exchanged
introspectionism for behaviorism (Dagenais 1972: 110-11). Within their
laboratories, experimental psychologists redefined their existing research
without much ado in terms of this new emphasis on operationalism. The
stimulus-response (or "reflex") arc, introduced in the late-nineteenth century,
became the centerpoint of analysis, beginning and ending as it did with
externally observable and measurable data. Within this overall academic drift
toward objectivism-operationalism, Behaviorism rose to ascendancy with little
difficulty. In Watson's behaviorism, "mental" processes are envisaged as
internal behavior, imagination and thought are cast as internal speech
involving "implicit" muscular behavior, and speech itself an "active language
habit" involving explicit muscular behavior, and the "habit" of language is
learned in childhood by repeating sounds which bring a response from adults.
At no point is there need to invoke some sort of mentalistic internal learning or
cogitating mechanism. Put crudely, inside the human head, there is nobody
home (Murphy 1962: 263). As a result, not surprisingly, discussion of internal

conscious states was to be eliminated from the academic agenda. Psychology


text books, dictionaries and encyclopedias began to omit words such as
consciousness, awareness, and introspection altogether,(n2) and symposia
avoided the topic.(n3) Consciousness largely disappeared from the landscape
of experimental psychology. Moreover, the revival in the legitimacy of
consciousness as an analytical category in post-behavioral psychology has
not overcome the fundamental limitation to the discipline's ability to explain
phenomenal awareness, its exclusion from the medium of the brain's electrochemical activity where consciousness is found. This limitation is fatal
because, as detailed in the following section, it is not simply a matter of
mental and neural activity complementing each other. They are in fact,
ontologically one and the same. Analysis which captures one aspect to the
exclusion of the other fundamentally and unavoidably distorts rather than
illumines the real nature of the phenomenal process. In this sense,
psychology only compounds phenomenology's basic problem.
Neither psychology nor philosophy, then, provide the necessary objective
window on the biological sphere within which the final explanation of
consciousness and its phenomenal properties are to be found. That access
can only be gained through recourse to neurological research. Fortunately,
significant progress toward an explanation of consciousness has been
achieved as a result of advances in neuro-imaging and in surgical and
experimental procedures. Technological improvements have made possible,
for the first time, the ability to map the brain in fine detail, view its physiological
activity in real time at the whole-brain level (Hillyard 1993), as well as in the
single neuron (Kitai 1981); the capacity to trace the neural connectivity
instantiating the activity using novel neuronal markers (Cowan et al. 1972),
and to alter that connectivity in a controlled fashion through chemical and
surgical lesions in order to test functional theories (Jeannerod 1987). Within
the post-behavioral intellectual climate which recognizes the reality of
consciousness, this new-found technological window on cerebral activity
generated a new body of research that holds the promise of significant
breakthrough in our understanding of the integral association between mind
and body.

4. The identity of neural and mental processes


The fundamental understanding that undergirds all current efforts to identify
the neural correlate of conscious experience is the conclusion that brain
activity and mental activity are one and the same event, that they are coextensive, taking place at the same time, in the same place (the brain) and in
the same physical sphere of existence because they are, in fact, identical.
This conclusion runs counter to the "phenomenal intuition" of immediate
subjective experience, the feeling that consciousness is somehow apart from
the physical sphere, and has been established with certainty only after
millennia of anatomical, medical and neuropsychological investigation.
Moreover, the technological advances necessary to demonstrate conclusively
the identity of neural and mental events have been developed only recently.
Successive discoveries during the nineteenth century made "progress" in the
sense of progressively debunking various spiritualistic notions of heavenly
substances pervading the body and mind. Research determined that nerve
energy is not spiritistic but electrical energy (du Bois-Reymond 1843), that the
basic component of the brain is the neuron, a normal biological cell specially
adapted with axons and dendrites for signaling to other cells (Hanover 1840;
Deiters 1865); that neurons were neither utterly separated not thoroughly
fused together but interconnected via axons and dendrites (Cajal 1888); that
interactive communication between neurons takes place at a synapse
(Sherrington 1897); that behavioral functions such as speech (Paul Broca
1861), language comprehension (Wernicke 1874) and processing in both the
sensory (Milner 1826; Munk 1878; Ferrier 1876) and motor modes (Hitzig and
Fritsh 1870) are localized in specific areas of the brain. Balancing this strict
localization within the overall evolutionary framework of British neurologist
Hughlings Jackson (1864), who held that most motor and sensory functions
are processed through a hierarchical network of centers which have evolved
to extend flexibility and ingenuity, the neurological fraternity had a fairly
accurate--if not finely detailed--anatomical and functional ground-plan of the
brain.

Recent technical advances in brain imaging together with increased


sophistication of experimentation have now made it, at the very least,
increasingly difficult to resist the conclusion that brain activity and mental
activity are one and the same. Wilder Penfield's electrical stimulation of the
brain yielding immediate phenomenal experiences (Gregory 1981: 475), the
generation of two minds from the surgical separation of the hemispheres
(Sperry 1990), blindsight studies showing that phenomenal awareness of
events is utterly dependant upon the viability of certain neural connections
(Weiskrantz 1996), all confirm that mental activity is tied to neural activity.
Neuroimaging technology applied in real time on conscious, awake subjects
confirms clearly that when a thought occurs the brain moves, every time, and
in predictable patterns and cortical areas depending on the type of thinking
undertaken--mathematical, visual imaging, anticipation of an upcoming event,
verbalizing and so on (Roland and Friberg 1985). Conversely, without brain
activity, no phenomenal awareness is present; obstruct the appropriate neural
connections through controlled lesions within particular higher processing
areas, and there is not simply an awareness of a loss of sensory stimulus,
there is no awareness whatsoever, most particularly no awareness even of
the absence of the lost sensory/motor function--a condition known as
anosagnosia (Baars and Banks 1992; Schacter 1990). And between the
variabilities of conscious perception and the utter lack of same, the
phenomenal states of sleep and dream-sleep occur in terms of precise,
predictable patterns of electrochemical activity, recordable on a battery of
mechanical devices. The phenomenal and the neural are undoubtedly one
and the same.
All of these procedures confirm beyond doubt that material process and
conscious awareness are "coextensive," which means that while we may use
different vocabulary (brain, mind) to describe the different perspectives from
which this process can be registered, there are only biological (more precisely
bio-electrical)

processes.

As

Christine

Skarda

(1990)

puts

it:

"Neurophysiological processes do not cause mental states, they are mental


states at the neurophysiological level of description. Phenomena described at
different levels of description are not causally related, [they are identical]"

(Skarda 1990; Hardcastle 1995; Clark 1995; Kinsbourne 1988). Based on this
working hypothesis of the identity of neural and phenomenal activity, some
progress has been achieved in identifying elements of the neural correlate of
consciousness.
5. Neurophenomenology: An integral form of analysis
The core conclusion of the previous section is that phenomenal awareness
(consciousness) and neurological activity are one and the same event, a
single process. Subjective mentality is a psycho-physical process. From this,
the implication follows unavoidably that if consciousness and brain activity are
one, then the analytical discipline attempting to describe and explain this
activity must be able to address both neural and phenomenal aspects of the
integral process. Neurophenomenology is designed to marry the capacity of
phenomenology to provide objective accounts of subjective phenomena with
the capacity of neurology to generate objective data on relevant aspects of
brain activity. Together, these two are capable of providing objective analysis
of the neural activity and psychological manifestations of subjective conscious
life in a way that preserves tile benefits of different levels of analysis
(McCauley 1996) without compromising the ontological integrity of the data.
On the question of conscious phenomena, in any event, recent technical and
theoretical advances in the neurosciences have rather forced the issue of
integrating humanistic and scientific analysis by opening an explanatory
window on processes that span the psychophysical (neuro-phenomenal)
divide. This has opened up the possibility of framing more integrated, less
tightly focused analysis in human studies generally. Biologist Timothy
Goldsmith's The Biological Roots of Human Nature (1991) calls for a
methodological alliance between the natural and social sciences. In their book
The Adapted Mind (1992), Jerome Barkow (anthropology), Leda Cosmides
(biology and cognitive psychology) and John Tooby (psychology and
biological anthropology) propose a more complete integration of behavioral
and social sciences with the natural sciences. Similarly, in its study the
behavior of pre-human organisms, from clams to orangutans, Ethology has
elaborated the complementary fields of Cognitive-Ethology, concentrating on

the development of the representational capacity necessary to generate the


increasingly sophisticated behavioral aptitudes found in organisms from
invertebrates to man (Ristau 1991); and Neuro-Ethology which explores the
evolutionary changes in the brain which correlate with the advances in
representational and behavioral aptitude (Guthrie 1980).
6. Methodological protocols
Neurophenomenology attempts to formulate a framework capable of critically
analyzing the structural parameters of the conscious economy in a way that
reflects the ontological identity of biological and subjective psychological
spheres. This presents unique challenges for the various elements of its
formal methodological framework. Terminological apparatus (definitions,
language),

conceptual

structure (elementary

concepts,

theories)

and

systematic procedures (how data is gathered, classified, and analyzed) must


all reflect this commitment to a newly integrated epistemological perspective
that accounts for neurological and subjective phenomenal elements
simultaneously. In this introductory sketch of the principles, methodological
framework and application of Neurophenomenology, space does not permit
the further elaboration of definitional issues involved, or of the systematic
procedures necessary. Suffice it to say, on the latter point, that there can be
no revival of the long since discredited notion of introspection as a valid
source of data. Standard neuro-scientific procedures (Grobstein 1990;
Thatcher 1994), combined with credible psychological test formats (Cronbach
1983; Anastasi 1982) and cross-cultural observational techniques derived
from anthropology (Ford 1961; Pelto 1970) should provide a reliable (and
credible) battery of procedures capable of yielding the neural and phenomenal
data required.
The second strata of methodological protocols, the conceptual apparatus, is of
particular relevance to the concerns of this introductory sketch. Concepts are
the fundamental building blocks in terms of which research is conducted and
out of which broader theories are composed. Just as definitions are relative to
their overall frame of reference, every concept implies a typology or
categorization of the conceptual domain from which it is derived, a

categorization which selects from the vast range of things and events in the
universe those most relevant to the disciplinary focus. In the study of
economic behavior, the significant data would be in the form of prices and
volume of goods, costs of production and related numerical information. In
Cultural Anthropology, physical environment, techniques for coping with
same, social organization, religion, language and lifecycle act as convenient
modules (Kluckhohn 1961: 90). In Ritual Studies, on the other hand, ritual
space, objects, time, sound and language, identity and action comprise the
essential conceptual categories (Grimes 1982).
Neurophenomenol0gy looks both to the primary phenomenological structural
features of consciousness and to objective neuropsychological markers as
guides to the essential components of its integrated conceptual framework. As
to the first, phenomenological analysis has uncovered four essential
properties of consciousness. These are (1) the functional integrity of
consciousness which generates a singular, unified field of conscious
awareness integrating sensory, motivational, emotional and conceptual
systems; (2) the intentional character of the brain's representational display,
which comprises both a distal or objectified form of display, the default or
inherent quality of "realness," and the four pan-human types of representation
(sensations, emotions, volitions, conceptions); (3) subjectivity, the selfreferring quality of the field of conscious awareness which persists through
varying quantities and types of representational content, such that "there is
something it is to be that organism"; and (4) the spatial, temporal, operational
and categorical structuring of the representational panorama.
The functional integrity of consciousness derives from the integrative activity
of the cognitive mechanisms involved in the generation of consciousness,
which generates a singular, unified field of conscious awareness integrating
sensory, motivational, emotional and conceptual systems. Neuroscientists
note that, whereas most of the unconscious processing takes place within
sensory systems isolated from each other (Mesulam 1985), and whereas,
within these sensory systems, feature analysis is carried out in distinct
processing streams, these disparate streams are brought together with

representations of motivational and emotional states into one common


representational symphony within the conscious arena (Baars 1988; Delacour
1995). At the phenomenal level, this integrated singular "symphony" is
experienced in terms of "its 'oneness' as opposed to a great many
independent activities going on at once" (Penrose 1989: 398-399). This
holistic property of the representational panorama has been highlighted in
now-familiar characterization of consciousness as a global workspace (Baars
1988).
The second basic aspect of the phenomenal quality of consciousness is its
distal or objectified form of representational display (Baars 1988: 303;
Velmans 1996). European phenomenology styles this quality of the
phenomenal lifeworld in the first instance as "intentionality," (Bretano 1911:
88-89; Husserl 1962, 1970: 233), which high-lights the fact that being
conscious always implies already being conscious of something. Others
envisage this distal quality in terms of the fact that consciousness arises as
already being a self situated somewhere, as "Being-in-the-world" and
"dwelling among things" (Heidegger 1927); as "openness to the world"
(Merleau Ponty 1968) and as participating in an interhuman sphere
(Eckartsburg 1978: 116). Conscious representational states, in other words,
consist of a global or panoramic, objectified model of the self-in-a-world. It
should also be noted that this objectified quality also pervades introverted
subjective states to the extent that subjects typically characterize these mental
landscapes as other "worlds." This projected or objectified quality of conscious
representation persists even in conditions of sensory deprivation and even
extreme meditative "void" conscious awareness (Laughlin, McManus and
d'Aquili 1992: 331-3) which is most often interpreted by the subject as a
different "world."
The third basic property of consciousness is its quality of subjectivity, the selfreferring "knowing that you are experiencing" quality that informs all conscious
conditions and persists through varying types and amount of content
processing. Consciousness arises as a phenomenal envelope or "lifeworld"
comprised essentially of the subjective sense, such that, as Nagel has

characteristically phrased it, "an organism has conscious mental states if and
only if there is something it is like to be that organism, something it is like for
that organism" (1974: 436). Subjectivity has also been styled as "the running
span of subjective awareness ... a person's ongoing awareness of specific
mental activity" (Schacter 1989), "a feeling of subjective and perceptual unity
[wherein] the brain itself becomes the observer of its own processed
information" (Harth 1995: 34), "complex self-referential representational
structures" (Flohr 1995) and "personal experience as directly apprehended ...
being aware of one's surrounding, of the self, and of one's thoughts and
feelings" (Sommerhoff and MacDorman 1994). It constitutes what an
increasing majority of analysts consider to be the heart of the conscious
condition.
The final property, the four universal parameters according to which the
representational panorama is structured, merits some elaboration as it forms
the basis of a new approach to important methodological issues in Religious
Studies. The objectified representational model conjured up by the brain's
representational apparatus is structured in universally characteristic ways.
Spatially, the phenomenal envelope (or panorama) is structured in terms of a
"self-other" (landscape and society) or "subject-object" axis, a subjective self
and objective "world around me." This subject-object split is so radical that
Johnson-Laird (1988) envisages the cognitive program as embedding a
representation of the subject within its ongoing representation of the
environment. However the split is not immoveable and can recede from
explicit representation in circumstances of intense absorption as when
engrossed in a movie, during ecstatic (lit. "to stand outside oneself")
experience, or following an intense program of meditation (see below). This
fundamental (though not insurmountable) subject-object perspective also
extends

out into the perceptual landscape so that, under normal

circumstances, phenomenal events traverse a spatial landscape organized


according to the primary axis of the bodily self (Eckartsberg 1978: 117).
Sounds leave their source and enter our personal sphere. Smells gradually
approach and become taste. Sights can remain over there at a distance,
recede from or approach toward the personal centerpoint of the phenomenal

landscape. As well as being spatially structured, the distal representational


panorama is structured temporally. While the nature of time itself may be little
understood in formal terms, phenomenal experience is universally and prephilosophically structured in a temporal fashion, taking place within a
seemingly objective framework of past, present and future (Eckartsberg 1978:
47).
Operational structuring of the brain's representational output involves the
coding of two streams of representation, internally-generated "thinking" and
externally-initiated "perceiving" in different ways such that the two exhibit
different qualia or subjective feels, in much the same way the five senses are
each comprised of a distinct qualitative feel. Although many current
characterizations of conscious mentation more or less assume that the
representational flow, phenomenal awareness, forms a qualitative continuum,
"a single unified narrative" (Aronson, Deitrich, and Way 1992), evidence has
emerged which clearly indicates that while the field of consciousness may feel
holistic, it is nonetheless split into two coherent streams of representation, one
nested within the other. Psychological investigations have reported for over a
quarter of a century on the capacity of the conscious mind to work in terms of
more than one stream of information processing, permitting the simultaneous
processing of perceptual and conceptual content (Cherry 1953). At the
neurological level, imaging studies confirm that while brain circuits for
perceiving and thinking are not totally separate, they span processing centers
arranged along a continuum each with its own mix of overlapping functions-from "mostly perceptual" areas at the back of the brain to "mostly mental"
regions in the front (Courtney et al. 1997).
Finally, representational experience is also automatically organized in terms of
categories, some of which are universal and others culturally and individually
idiosyncratic. This process of categorization is known to form a fundamental
aspect of the brain's functional architecture, because different classes of
things (faces, animals, inanimate objects) are recorded in different areas of
the brain and can be disfacilitated by lesions in these particular areas (Rapp
and Caramazza 1995). Recent psychological testing indicates, however, that

in addition to categorizing based on learned, feature-similarity processing


(Mervis and Rosch 1981), the brain uses basic hard-wired conceptual
categories

to

classify

and

interpret/understand

incoming

sensory

representations (Medin and Ortony 1989; Rips 1989). As Medin and Ortony
point out in their influential paper on category formation (1989: 179-80), these
hard-wired categorical complexes generate, at the phenomenal (consciously
experienced) level, psychological essences, the experience and belief that
things have a kind of intrinsic or essential nature (Medin 1989: 1476). Both
brain damage studies and child development studies have identified three of
these universal categorical essences as modules identifying mental or
sentient beings, living things, and inanimate objects. By means of these
psychoneural modules, the perceived world is automatically divided, in other
words, into three domains or "kingdoms": animal (sentient), mineral
(inanimate) and vegetable (animate, living). But the three lenses themselves,
located as they are at the conceptual and thus pre-operational (non-physical)
level of coding, are capable of generating representations of a nonphysical,
causal essence (an essence by means of which non-animate things influence
events by power, animate things cause events to happen by vitality, and
sentient things by will-power). These nonphysical essences, it turns out, are
the experienced spirit agencies of religious life.
The phenomenological elucidation of the structure of conscious subjectivity
contrasts somewhat with the breakdown of mental processes envisioned by
cognitive

neuroscience(n4)

in

that

the

latter

largely

ignores

the

phenomenological properties (subjectivity, distal display, representational


structures), tending to focus instead on a common set of disjointed, objectively
observable cognitive (sensory perception, memory, learning), behavioral,
neural and physiological processes, only a portion of which form part of the
conscious economy treated in phenomenology. A survey of the subjects
addressed shows a common agenda which can be matched against the chart
of essential structures (dimensions) of the phenomenal condition to form the
skeletal parameters of a neurophenomenology.

Listed in columns side by side, the relationship between categories from the
two epistemological perspectives can be appreciated.
Analytical categories of cognition

Phenomenal

/ Neuropsychological

subjectivity

distal representation

structures of representation

sensations

/ sensory systems

emotions

/ emotional states

intentions

/ volition

thinking

/ cognitive processes (memory,


learning)

-----

/ unconscious neuro-electrical
processes

-----

/ behavior

-----

/ functional properties

As is evident, the non-phenomenological disciplines have no focus on the first


three characteristics of the phenomenal condition, namely subjectivity, distal
representational display and the spatio-temporal structure of the objectified
phenomenal model of the self-world.(n5) Phenomenology, on the other hand,
offers little in regard to the analysis of behavior (including motor systems) or
unconscious (including neural) states. The two analytical systems intersect
mainly in the area of the types of representational process, comprised in both
idioms

of

sensations,

emotions,

intentions

and

conceptions.

For

neurophenomenology, the task is to provide credible phenomenological


description together with neurological explanation for a conceptual framework
more comprehensive than either has been accustomed to addressing in the
past.
7. Neurophenomenological analysis and religious phenomena

While the re-dedication of psychological and neurological research to


unraveling the mechanisms involved in cognitive processing has not, as yet,
fully explained the electrodynamic activity underlying the nature of
consciousness itself, a sufficient body of facts have been established to
indicate the broad structural parameters according to which the brain's
representational output is configured. This, in turn provides the basis on which
the neurophenomenal analysis of religious phenomena can proceed. The
following section sketches the potential of neurophenomenology to provide
new

insights

in

broad

range

of

important

areas

of

religious

phenomenology, including: worldview, myth, ritual, mysticism, healing and


ecstasy, the important issue of gender and the many forms of psycho-physical
(psycho-physiological) behavior that comprise an intrinsic part of religious life
(trance, dance, hallucinogenics, breathing exercises, fasting, sexual practices
and so on). We will conclude with a brief neurophenomenological examination
of one of the central issues of religious studies, the neurocognitive basis of the
sense of the supernatural itself.
In his 1983 monograph Worldviews, Ninian Smart virtually equated the
comparative study of religions with the comparative study of worldviews
(1981: 20, 1983: 3) and religion itself with the sheer act of orientation, "for
orientation to life is itself a fact of life; and we are all so oriented."
Neurophenomenology confirms this notion of worldview as a fundamental
structural parameter of the brain's representational activity, although, as
indicated above, evidence now suggests that the distinction between religious
and non-religious phenomena derives initially from the operational structuring
of representational experience into mental-spiritistic as distinct from physical
spheres of phenomena. The precritical neurocognitive activity tends to
populate

the

external

and

internal

phenomenal

landscape

with

mentospiritualistic entities and qualities (such as spirit power or mana) which


the postcritical mind must interpret as either supernatural or merely mental
entities and qualities. According to neurophenomenology, then, the genesis of
religion can be traced to a particular combination of the four structural
parameters of the neurorepresentation process, and in terms of this distinct

domain of neurophenomenal data, the discipline of Religious Studies can rest


a credible claim as a legitimately distinct discipline.
Essentially

representational

medium,

it

is

hardly

surprising

that

neurophenomenal mind expresses itself so naturally in highly symbolic forms


whose interrelatedness, or patterns of association in memory, construct
elaborate "mythical" storylines that unfold geographically and temporally in
terms of the same space-time coordinations that the brain uses to represent
the external perceptual panorama. Several analysts, including van der Leeuw,
Eliade, and Leach envisaged myth as essentially an account of the birth of the
world and its inhabitants (Leach 1966). In neurophenomenal parlance, this
"giving birth to the world" can be nothing other than the brain's
representational process of generating the world-self phenomenal panorama
in term of its universal structural parameters (spatial, temporal, categorical,
and meaningful). It follows that myth must basically be the mind's account of
these fundamental representational structures including its categories, their
order, and their interrelationships (Bolle 1983: 321; Long 1986: 30).
Neurophenomenology, therefore, confirms Long's characterization of the
study of myth and symbols as a kind of "archaeology of the subject," a rediscovery of the invariant structures by which the human mind encodes or
represents the world (1986: 43).
The mediation of religious behavior through neural structure has received its
most extensive treatment to date in regard to ritual. Psychophysiological
analysis has viewed ritual as an evolutionary development of social
communication and ritual displays in animals (Smith 1979; Laughlin and
McManus 1979); precisely performed emotive-interactions serving principally
to restore group harmony (Chapple 1970) and induce dissociative trance
through the entrainment of bodily rhythms (Lex 1979). At the cognitive level,
the methodical, almost mechanical exactitude followed in religious ritual can
be analyzed in terms of the neurophenomenal process in which the brain
mechanically chunks the perception of events into tightly associated
packages. The content of these chunks of associated features and meanings
constitutes what is phenomenally experienced as the meaning of a particular

item, place or event (Blumenthal 1977; Thatcher and John 1977: 80). Ritual
involves the controlled generation of stylized bodily gestures, word utterances,
sights and smells so as to construct a carefully predetermined series of
associations. In so doing, particular meaning complexes are established (or
re-established), and world and self are experienced in a new way on the basis
of this newly forged representational grid (Peters 1986). Neurological research
is beginning to identify a number of cerebral processing mechanisms that
could constitute the basic temporal clockwork which enables the mind to
parse the seamless stream of incoming sensation into chunks of internally
integrated perceptual meaning (Kissin 1986:144).
Healing and ecstasy, so much a part of the devotional intensity generated in
all religious traditions (including not a few Sunday morning TV broadcasts)
show a familiar pattern of unusual bodily gestures and abnormal speech
patterns often interpreted as a kind of possession or infusion by heavenly
forces. This pattern of religious practice is ancient, and common to religious
traditions worldwide because it arises on the basis of the common
neurophenomenal inheritance of human beings generally. Research is
beginning to uncover the significant role of the autonomic nervous system in
the physiological architecture of this common inheritance (Lex 1978;
Goodman 1972). The autonomic nervous system, a separate army of trunk
nerves and ganglia maintaining functional balance of the internal through
control of the major organs (bowels, stomach, heart, lungs and temperature)
which feed through the ladder of motor-reflexes ranged along the spinal
column to and from the unconscious and conscious processing systems of the
cortex. The same capacity that athletes exploit for restorative release of builtup blockages and tensions, as well as functional improvement through
purposeful mental relaxation and visualization, this same capacity is naturally
released during periods of heightened arousal of this autonomic nervous
system, catapulting the believer through seemingly supernatural bodily
contortions, but not infrequently also results in measurable changes on the
medical front as well. And because the autonomic is an ancillary, largely
unconscious system, its activation does appear to the subject as if someone
or something else were pulling the strings; as if another entity or power had

indeed "entered" and taken over the body, initiating strange gestures and
utterances (Johnson 1970). Within a "religious" worldview populated by spirits
and spirit powers, the doctrine of possession is a sensible interpretation of the
physiological and phenomenal facts.
Ecstasy and spirit possession constitute but two forms of religious
phenomenology where the sense of the supernatural is intensified through
the manipulation of psycho-physical or psycho-physiological conditions in the
body. In fact, a large proportion of spiritual experience is dependant to a
significant degree upon the alteration of bodily conditions and therefore
requires

an

understanding

of

neurophysiological

as

well

as

neuropsychological mechanisms for a satisfactory explanation (Goodman


1991: 340).
Other obvious examples of deliberate psychophysiological manipulation
designed to yield altered states of consciousness would include the excitation
of the nervous system--particularly through special breathing techniques--in
Hindu Kundalini (Briggs 1933) and Buddhist Vajrayana yoga (Gyatso 1982) as
well as Taoist naidan or inner alchemy practices (Welch 1957:109). Breath
control, of course, occupies a central position, as pranayama, in all yogic
practices as well as some Orthodox Christian programs of prayer (Matus
1984: 135). Research has uncovered the significant role played by
hallucinogens in a variety of religious traditions such as ancient Vedic religion
of India (as soma) and pre-Zoroastrian Iran (haoma), the shamanistic
practices of South America (Whitten 1987) and peyote cults of southwest
United States (Slotkin 1975), and the kava ceremonies of the Pacific Islanders
(Aaronson and Osmond 1970). Contemporary movements such as the
Rastafarian and Rajneesh rely (relied) on the regular ingestion of marijuana
and ecstasy respectively (Smith, Augier, and Nettleford 1960). Ritual sex has
been recruited within a variety religious scenarios in societies as diverse as
that of the Australian aborigines, North American Indians as well as Indian
Tantric and Chinese Taoist traditions (Eliade 1987). In all these cases,
analysis of religious cognitive phenomena cannot be completed without the

contribution of explanatory material relating to neurological mechanics and the


physiological systems of which they are a part.
Neurophenomenology also provides the opportunity to broaden the approach
to gender issues in religious phenomena beyond research focused on the
influence of socio-cultural value patterns and worldviews, to include
contributions from research that now indicates the extent to which genderbased attitudes are derived from patterns of neural connectivity. Though
research in this area is only in its infancy (Falk 1992: 101-124; Kimura 1992;
Schiebinger 1992), it is already apparent that gender-related differences in
anatomical connectivity may well underwrite differences in cognitive
processing style (Moir 1993; Reinisch 1987). The gender-based cognitive
peculiarities could, in turn, combine with socio-cultural factors to influence the
way men and women "read the world" so to speak. To the extent that this is
so, there are obvious questions, as yet largely unaddressed, regarding the
nature and extent (importance) of gender-based differences in the style of
religious practice adopted in the various religious traditions. In his landmark
essay "Body, Brain and Culture" (1983), Victor Turner confessed that
[t]he present essay is for me one of the most difficult I have ever attempted.
This is because I am having to submit to question some of the axioms
anthropologists of my generation--and several subsequent generations--were
taught to hallow. These axioms express the belief that all human behavior is
the result of social conditioning. Clearly a great deal of it is, but gradually it
has been borne home to me that there are inherent resistances to
conditioning ... [because] our species has distinctive features, genetically
inherited, which interact with social conditioning. I found myself asking a
stream of questions more or less along the following lines .... What is the
nature of the alleged "chain", and how long is it, by which genes hold cultural
patterns. (1983: 221,224)
Behavior and cognition are, of course, more directly linked to the geneticallycontrolled physiology and neurology of the body than the "culture" derived
from them. But this sort of neurophenomenological inquiry into the different
identity, life-style and cognitive-style tendencies that neurologically-based

differences brings to society might well provide a useful counterbalance, in


gender studies as in ritual studies, to the current research emphasis on the
effects of sociocultural stereotypes and norms on the creation and
maintenance of gender specific religious roles, practices and identity (Warner
1976; Sharma 1994; Borresen 1995; Knapp 1994; Koppenborg and Wouter
1995).
Because it is comprised of a simple intensification or exaggeration of the basic
separability between conscious state and the varying levels of sensory,
perceptual, emotional and ideational content processed within that conscious
state, and because it constitutes an important phenomenological category
within many Eastern (and Western) programs of spiritual development, the
lucid consciousness (or lucidity) often developed in programs of religious
mysticism makes an ideal subject with which to assess the improved analytic
power of Neurophenomenology. As several analysts have pointed out in
detail,(n6) early meditative programs in both Hindu (Upanishads, Yoga
Sutras) and Buddhist traditions (Pali Nikayas) are similarly structured in terms
of an ever increasing (or ever more intense) differentiation between the
witnessing conscious awareness and the stream of content flowing through
the conscious state. In both programs, the meditating subject gradually
diminishes the sensory, ideational and emotional content while maintaining
ongoing conscious awareness. Thus the stages of ascent, in both cases are
set out largely in terms of the degree and type of content remaining in
conscious awareness. In the Yoga Sutras, a basically fourfold scheme of
ascent passes through a series of transic states (samadhi) focused on the
particular object which classical interpretations sees as losing first the gross
sensory associations (vitarka), then the more subtle, ideational meanings
(vicara), then the emotional content (ananda) and finally the sense of I-ness
(asmita). These four levels are understood by Patanjali as samprajnata, or
samadhi retaining some form of content, however subtle. The summit, on the
other hand, is clearly described as asamprajnata, a condition of pure
conscious awareness without any object at all (Yoga Sutra 1: 18-20)
characterized as the Self or Purusha, a kind of spiritual monad comprised
essentially of consciousness-being or awareness-energy (citi-shakti). In the

Yoga Sutras, this Purusha is cast as a supremely differentiated, self-contained


sphere of conscious awareness and contrasted with the changeable citta, the
function-of-thinking or mind-stuff (YS 2:20 and 2:6).
The classic Buddhist path structure of the Pali Nikayas similarly involves a
progression from an initial transic state composed of five factors; unified
awareness (ekagratta), bodily bliss (piti), reasoning, (vitakka), peaceful
happiness (sukha), and investigation (vicara); through a series of transic
states (jhanas) that progressively drop these elements of content so that the
condition of conscious awareness becomes ever more differentiated to the
point that it is capable of maintaining itself even in the absence of content.
Thus the final stage as described in the Nikayas, the fourth formless jhana,
the meditative condition of neither perception nor non-perception (considered
in this system to exceed in subtlety the meditative spheres of infinite space,
infinite consciousness and nothingness), is still cast as a condition of
conscious awareness in Buddhaghosa's standard commentary (Vissuddhi
Magga 2.10.4; and see Eliade 1970: 73, 171-3).
This same condition of meditative lucidity plays an important role in the
experiential dimension of religious life generally, well beyond these Eastern
meditative programs (Peters 1998).(n7) It should be remembered that lucidity
is a phenomenon based on the neurological heritage common to all humanity
and would be expected, therefore to be involved in some fashion in many
traditions. Its pan-human character becomes apparent when we recall that the
Buddhist and Hindu meditative traditions have their roots in shamanism, a
form of "ecstatic practice" (Eliade 1972) involving the maintenance of
enhanced awareness and conscious memory of imaginative content
experienced during a dissociated state, the traditional "journey" which
constitutes the metier of shamans everywhere. And even a cursory review of
the heritage of mysticism in both Christianity and Islam highlights the role of
lucidity in maintaining states of exaggerated conscious differentiation in the
form of Kaivalya-like isolation(n8) as well as the witness-like condition courted
in the Buddhist mindfulness program and also in Advaita Vedanta.(n9)

In recent psychological literature, the term "lucidity" has come to be


associated with this phenomenon involving the onset and increase in the
differentiation of the conscious awareness from the stream of content.
Experimental dream research (re)discovered a particular variant of the sleepstate dreaming condition wherein the dreamer "awakens" within the dream
condition, observes and is cognizant of the subjective nature of the dreaming
condition, and is often able self-consciously to manipulate dream content. In
this context, the term lucidity has been applied to the condition of conscious
awareness which is separable from the ongoing flow of (dream) content, and
has been defined formally as follows: "A lucid dream is a dream in which the
subject is aware that he is dreaming" (Green 1968: 15; Walsh 1992: 194;
Laberge 1985: 1; Tart 1984: 4-6). This characterization focuses on the
capacity of the separable condition of conscious awareness not so much to
abstract itself from content altogether, but to pass judgement, from its
witnessing position, on the ontological status of the experienced phenomenal
content (Malamud 1986). And in view of the correlation drawn in this thesis
between traditional accounts of meditative enlightenment and this condition of
conscious lucidity, the capacity to reassess the ontological status of
experienced content in dream lucidity highlights the essential role that lucidity
must have played in generating and validating the theological assertion, in
Advaita Vedanta, that the experienced world is in itself unreal (maya).
Although traditional religious interpretation of these meditative states as
constituting an alternative, non-physical "transcendental" domain of existence
find no support within a materialist framework, neurophenomenological
evidence does confirm traditional religious claims of a human capacity to
intensify or exaggerate the differentiation between the conscious state and
conscious content. Neurological studies indicate that consciousness is a
distinct style of representational processing that is separable form the
sensory, perceptual and ideational content processed within it. As a distinct
processing phase, the neurology instantiating consciousness can be located
in specific cortical centers and the recursive patterns of physiological activity
identified. Its separability from the processing of content can be tracked in
conditions such as REM dreaming, when information processing occurs in the

complete absence of the conscious condition. In periods of restful awakeness


on the other hand, the subject remains behaviorally conscious while
neuroimaging technology pictures a cortex without the intense activity of
operations

such

as

mathematical

reasoning,

verbal

dialogue

and

remembering (Roland and Friberg 1985). This lack of activity can be


accentuated further during periods of deliberate sensory deprivation and
meditative isolation with behavioral consciousness remaining (Brownfield
1965; Kasamatsu and Hirai 1966).
The trend of neuropsychological analysis generally, then, is beginning to
provide a basis for the explanation of meditative conscious lucidity in terms of
a neural capacity for monitoring representational activity (Kitcher 1995). While
this capacity is normally closely linked to that processing, there is no reason to
suppose that extended training, such as that described in traditional
meditative texts, could not facilitate continued monitoring activity in the
absence of representational processing (contra Katz et al. 1978, 1983). In
terms of neurophenomenological theory then, it is understandable that such
contentless processing would be experienced by the practitioner as "pure
consciousness," a purely mental existence free of physical limitations, a kind
of experience which lends itself to the interpretation that the experiencer has
indeed achieved a new ontological status, such interpretations as are
enshrined in traditional meditative theologies.
Neuro-phenomenological analysis can also contribute significantly to the
explanation of several recurrent features of heightened lucidity consistently
reported

in

traditional

meditative

literature.

As

we

have

indicated,

phenomenological studies of the properties of consciousness indicate that, as


a style of representation, consciousness is most basically characterized both
by its recursive, self-reflecting capacity (subjectivity) and its "distal" or
objectified form of display. That objectified representational display is, in turn,
universally structured in terms of a subject-object dichotomy and a sense of
temporal flow. But these representational structures seem not to be inherent
to the fundamental recursive neurological process instantiating consciousness
per se, because an increase in the differentiation between the conscious

condition and represented content in conditions of heightened lucidity has the


effect of abstracting consciousness from these structures. Both panenhenic
and isolative forms of mysticism display a kind if unified awareness lacking the
normal subject-object bifurcation (Stace 1960:61; Zaehner 1961: 28). The
subject remains consciously aware without the normal sense of time passing
(Zaehner 1970). And even the familiar sorts of categorizations of perceptual
content can be superseded such that the objectified self-world panorama can
be re-evaluated as simply the projection of the subject's own mind--all content
can be interpreted as mental. This latter development is nicely captured in a
famous Zen koan (Not The Wind, Not the Flag (Mu-Mon #29): "Two monks
were arguing about a flag. One said: 'The flag is moving.' The other
countered, 'The wind is moving.' The sixth patriarch happened to be passing
by. He told them, 'It is neither the wind nor the flag; Rather, it is mind that is
moving.'"
Finally, there is the matter of the supernatural sense itself. As Jan Platvoet
recently pointed out (1990: 189), the greater majority of scholarly definitions of
religion have, historically, focused on the centrality of a sense of the
supernatural within any relevant notion of the term religion. And in his classic
review of the academic study of religion, Eric Sharpe notes that the discipline
of Comparative Religion was founded, at least in part, to answer one simple
question:
Why had humanity ever found it necessary to be religious? Why were so
many still unable to emancipate themselves from religion? What was there in
the human makeup which made it seemingly imperative for man to perceive,
or postulate, or imagine, a world beyond the senses? (1974: 30)
What, in other words, is the basis for the enduring sense of the supernatural
which pervades the landscape of religious traditions universally. Based on
evident structuring of the brain's representational output in terms of a
differentiation between operational and pre-operational cognitive streams (as
above), it is apparent that the neurocognitive economy operates in terms of a
fundamental distinction between physical and non-physical representational
domains. But this structural distinction constitutes only one of three significant

layers of a cognitive composite comprising the supernatural sense (Peters


2000). As already noted, recent research in developmental psychology
indicates that the human brain is born with three hardwired categories or
"psychological essences" (Wellman and Gelman 1992: 366) which interpret
the world of objects in terms of three kingdoms comprised of the nature and
causal efficacy of the inanimate (physical things), the animate (biological
things) and the sentient (mental things). But these interpretive categorical
complexes are themselves functioning within the pre-operational stream of
representation, operating as focal lenses which generate in phenomenal
experience not merely the essence of sentience, of aliveness (animateness)
or of inanimate causal efficacy, but the non physical essence of sentience,
aliveness or inanimate causal power.
Combined with a suitably spiritistic worldview (which it helps to create and
sustain), this cognitive composite is responsible for the universal human
tendency to envisage a supernatural domain populated by three kinds of
supernatural agency: dynamistic supernatural power, vitalistic supernatural
energy, and mentalistic supernatural beings. It can be argued that many if not
most major multifaceted monotheisms have, over time, managed to
accommodate all three of these supernatural lenses within a single, integrated
religious worldview.
8. Conclusion
Neurophenomenology, as pretentious as the term might sound, may in fact
bring a much needed pedestrian exactitude and down-to-earth-ness to forms
of phenomenological inquiry which, while indispensable for the analysis of
human subjectivity (including religious subjectivity), has been justifiably
accused of prematurely terminating analysis at a descriptive stage, insulating
the data from explanation in terms of its very real social, cultural,
psychological and neural environment. Within a broader academic framework,
the breakdown of the extreme polarity between humanistic and scientific
domains of analysis has been encouraged, to a significant extent, by the
rekindled interest and progress in neuroscientific research on the neurological
foundations of phenomenal consciousness. In this endeavor, both science

and the humanities have been challenged to reconceptualize the relationship


between consciousness and matter in a more holistic fashion if not intuitively
obvious

fashion. Neurophenomenology is one product of

this new

understanding.
Within the context of Religious Studies, it has been evident for some time that
approaches based on both the humanities and social science must find
accommodation within a common field of study. The replacement of the
unrealistically uni-dimensional phenomenology with the more biologically
realistic approach of neurophenomenology may well signal that the roots of
accommodation and intertheoretic harmony are to be found in an integrated
approach to the basic substance of religious data--consciousness itself. To
the extend that this proves to be the case, systematic analysis in Religious
Studies will have been safely drawn beyond its twin tendencies toward a
narrow

nineteenth-century

conception

of

human

studies

(Geisteswissenschaft) as exclusively subjective and mental, as well as toward


elements of twentieth-century objectivist materialism. The kind of holistic
naturalism exemplified by neurophenomenology could well turn out to be the
hallmark of twenty-first century scholarship.
(n1) In neuroscientific discourse, the term folk psychology refers to the
untutored,

naive

intuitions

and

understandings

(or

"commonsense

assumptions") about the nature of the mind and of the relationship between
mental states and the objects of perception. Most often, the term refers
specifically to the belief--the "phenomenal intuition"--that mental phenomena
(and consciousness itself) are composed of a different substance from
physical objects because this is the way it feels to the self-consciously aware
subject (Davies 1995; Goldman, 1993; Hodgson 1994).
(n2) A shelf check of Psychology textbooks at the University of New England
(Australia) reveals that the term consciousness is missing entirely from the
indices of the majority of volumes published prior to 1975.
(n3) In 1977 Thatcher and John reported that in the three major symposia
concerned with mental activity and consciousness since 1950, "we find that of

the 58 papers therein contained ... only 5 participants in these symposia,


ostensibly focused on the physiological basis of consciousness and mental
experience, actually attempted to confront the question directly" (293).
(n4) The term "cognitive neuroscience" is used here in an overly simplistic
manner as an umbrella term covering a range of neurologically oriented
psychological disciplines including Neuropsychology, Psychophysiology,
Physiological Psychology,, Psychobiology and Experimental Psychology.
(n5) Gibsonian ecological psychology does treat the informational structure of
the environmental panorama but as structure inherent in the environment
rather than as structure imposed (or added) by an internal representational
system. Gibson himself forthrightly denied the role of representations in this
structure: "So when I assert that perception of the environment is direct, I
mean it is not mediated by retinal pictures, neural pictures or mental
pictures"(1979: 147). For more on Gibson's aversion to representations see
Ullman 1980.
(n6) On the meditative programs involving the progressive elimination of
content in Buddhist and Yogic schemes see Smart 1968a; Almond 1982:1768; Dasgupta 1973: 150-8; Eliade 1970: 47-101; Feuerstein 1974: 119ff, 1989:
195; Peters 1986:82-99 and 1998; and Crangle 1994: 1-14. The essential
similarity between the two programs was first noted by Emile Senart (1900:
349), followed by La Valee Poussin (1937), Eliade (1970: 162ff), Bronkhorst
(1986: 65-72), Klostermmaier (1986), and Crangle (1994: 205-7). Sharf (1995)
notes that, in practice, considerably less unanimity of experience obtains than
the standardized textual descriptions suggest, but he ignores the common
cognitive machinery at work amongst human practitioners of varying ages and
sects when he goes so far as to suggest that these descriptions have little in
the way of an actual, common phenomenal referent (1995:261). Given this
shared cognitive machinery it would be surprising if meditative traditions, in
spite of their variety, did not refer, at certain points, to common dimensions
and types of experience!

(n7) The fact that lucidity plays an important role in many meditative programs
does not suggest, of course, that the development of meditative expertise
necessarily plays an important role within religious traditions as a whole. As
Robert Sharf points out (1993, 1994, 1995), even in Zen Buddhist practice,
doctrine (including discourse about meditative states) and ritual have
traditionally played a much more important role than acknowledged in such
contemporary depictions as that of Suzuki (1949), Conze (1956), Herrigel
(1971) and James (1961). This overemphasis of the experiential dimension, or
indeed its deliberate underemphasis (Sharf 1993: 2; 1995: 240, 243) is not
shared by the majority of religious analysts (including phenomenologists) who
generally attempt to balance the interplay between six dimensions of religious
life: doctrinal, mythological, ethical, ritual, social and experiential (Sharpe
1983; Pye 1972; Smart 1968b).
(n8) Descriptions of Kaivalya-like isolated lucidity can be found in the works of
Plotinus, the Christian mystical writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, John of
the Cross and Ruysbroeck; Hasidic contemplatives Rabbi dov Baer and
Martin Buber; and the Muslim mystic al-Junayd. See Peters 1986: 92-5;
Almond 1982: 175-9; Stace 1960: 94-103.
(n9) The nurturing of a Witness-like condition similar to that courted in the
Buddhist mindfulness program (and also in Advaita Vedanta) can be found in
the Christian contemplative proactive of "recollection," which forms part of the
contemplative program of such celebrated mystics as Teresa of Avila (The
Life, chpt. 10), Hugh of St. Victor (On Contemplation), Augustin Baker (Holy
Wisdom), Richard St. Victor, Meister Eckhart, John Tauler and Ruysbroeck,
the anonymously authored English treatise The Cloud of Unknowing and
Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ. See Poulain (1910) on the tradition of
recollection in Christian mysticism.
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~~~~~~~~
By Frederic H. Peters, Department of Studies in Religion, University of
Queensland
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