In 1994 I was a free-lance organizational development consultant in the Bay Area leading workshops on MindSet Mastery. Somebody told me about a new conference to be held down in Tucson called the Science of Consciousness Conference and which had the goal of creating a new field in science. I was interested but felt the heavy emphasis on science would not align with my own interests.
Fast forward 20 years and I am now a snowbird spending half my time in Tucson. I ran across an article online called “The Consciousness Controversy”. It described a conference in Tucson which would grapple with the conflicting views of consciousness held by modern Neuroscience and ancient Buddhism. This was the 20th anniversary of the conference I had heard about un the 1990’s. But now this sounded interesting and I signed up to attend.
Up until now I had not been exploring this broader question of the nature of consciousness.
This gathering turned out to be a swarm of divergent people and their views. In short time I was overwhelmed and exhausted by it all. I needed to take a day off and recuperate from the intensity of it all. The end result eventually are the other articles in this section on consciousness.
This 20th anniversary turned into a major celebration. These annual conferences had indeed been the stimulus to galvanize a broad acceptance of a new field in science. In the 1990’s there were almost no programs on Consciousness on college campuses. By 2012 this number had grown much larger. The Science of Consciousness had become firmly established in the overall field of Science. It was—and still is—an impressive accomplishment that warranted celebration.
But there was a shadow side to all of this. As the Science of Consciousness became more recognized, many of its proponents took on the view that Neuroscience is the only valid way to study consciousness. They claimed that consciousness is created by the neuro-systems in the body. We do not need to study consciousness directly, they said, we need to understand the human brain.
This led to some hard feelings at the 20th anniversary conference. Some of the people at the conference who represented other points of view felt dismissed. You might have picked up a whiff of resentment in my early articles from ten years ago.
I have just attended this year’s conference (2022) which was a celebration of both 1994 and 2014 conferences and the progress that has been since then. I wish to report that the tone was very different than 10 years ago. There was more of a feeling of inclusiveness than before
and people from a wide background and broad interests were involved. It was a much more enjoyable conference.
Here are some things I learned at the 2022 Consciousness Conference.
1) Distinguishing the difference between what consciousness does and what consciousness is.
The first key note speaker was Christopher Koch, Chief Scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He summarized the early focus of this new science and some things that were learned.
Dr. Koch made a key distinction between what consciousness is and what consciousness does. Often there was no distinction made between these two during the research protocol. Scientists would study what consciousness was doing and assumed they could extrapolate from that what consciousness is. But we found, Koch said, that as we got to the end of a wave of activity, there was a gap before anything more occurred. We had trouble seeing beyond the gap to understand what the agent of action actually was.
For me, this distinction is very important. I have valued—and relied on—this science to help us understand the various forms of consciousness that exist. As one who does not believe that the origins of consciousness reside in the brain, I have no trouble accepting the idea that consciousness is busy doing stuff up in our brain. I can embrace what Neuroscience has learned without having to accept their unproven premise about where consciousness originates.
2) “Don’t tell us about “my” experience, tell us about “the” experience.
The second keynote speaker was Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris who pioneered research into the effects of psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) on the brain. I had read about Dr. Carhart-Harris in the book How to Change Your Mind. The entire book is devoted to the discussion of psilocybin and it includes an in-depth discussion with Dr. Carhart-Harris.
In the book Dr. Carhart-Harris says he is not interested in what people experience when they take psilocybin. He wants to know what goes on in the brain when people have these experiences. Carhart-Harris believes that drug induced experiences have no bearing in reality. His only interest is to understand better how the brain creates this experience. The focus is on the activity of the brain and not the experience of the people.
I wondered to myself: how could Carhart-Harris find the activity of the brain more fascinating than the incredible and often life-changing experiences that come from psilocybin?
But this does highlight an important point: Neuroscience is focused on what the brain does, not what we experience through consciousness. The research identifies the experience and then traces it back to activity in the brain. It is the brain, not the experience, that needs to be examined.
At the end of Dr. Carhcart-Harris’s presentation, people lined up at a microphone to ask questions. The moderator announced: do not tell us about your experience, ask about THE experience. It took me a few seconds to grasp the distinction he was making: your experience is about something in life; we want to know what is happening in the brain.
3) This creates a split focus at the conferences (and in the whole field of consciousness studies).
The major talks held during the day focused mainly on Neuroscience and the brain. The pre-conference and evening sessions tend to focus on more fringe subjects (e.g. near-death experience, remote-viewing experience, soul-to-soul communication). When the focus is on brain activity the discussions tend to become highly technical. When the focus is on human experience the discussion tends to be broader and more diverse. This tends to move us away from science and towards “controversial” topics which can be neither proven or disproven.
And for those of us who are now in our 70’s, it begin to close a circle on the messy beginnings of psychedelic drugs that began in the 1960’s.