Back on May 9, 2009, I wrote:
According to a very interesting article by John Colapinto in this week's New Yorker, "In the mid-nineties, [Dr. Vilayanur S.] Ramachandran [director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at U.C. San Diego] read a paper by Italian researchers who had discovered that a set of neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys fired not only when the monkeys reached for an object but also when they observed another monkey performing the same action. Ramachandran wondered if these so-called 'mirror neurons' also exist in humans."
Research has shown that deliberate movements in humans suppress a kind of brain activity in the motor cortex called mu waves. Tests by Dr. Ramachandran have shown that subjects merely witnessing an action in others caused mu-wave suppression as well, evidence that mirror neurons exist in humans, too. Other researchers have since confirmed that people have several systems of mirror neurons which perform various functions.
As Dr. Ramachandran explains, the mirror-neuron experiments show that the brain is a dynamic system, not only interacting with your own sets of sense receptors but also those of others. Dr. Ramachandran takes it further, stating that in a sense, our brains are all hooked up to each other's. . . Dr. Ramachandran has dubbed mirror neurons "Gandhi neurons' because "they're dissolving the barrier between you and me" . . .
But Dr. Ramachandran takes it further. "One of the theories we put forward," he said, "is that the mirror-neuron system is used for modelling someone else's behavior, putting yourself in another person's shoes, looking at the world from another person's point of view. This is called an allocentric view of the world, as opposed to the egocentric view. So I made the suggestion that at some point in evolution this system turned back and allowed you to create an allocentric view of yourself. This is," he claims, "the dawn of self-awareness," or consciousness.
So self-awareness, in this view, arises from a model in our minds of a "self" operating out there in the "external" world. As we have been discussing all week, such mental models were called sanskara by the Buddha; modern theorists use the term schemata.
Independent of Dr. Ramachandran, Guilio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed a computational theory that describes consciousness as arising from "integrated information." We lose consciousness when we go to sleep, Dr. Tononi explains, because that this is a time when information from the brain's specialized circuits is no longer integrated. Brain seizures are also associated with a loss of consciousness, as they also block complex informational exchange. The inability to put information together results in the absence of consciousness.
The Buddha taught that all things arise from conditions, that every phenomenon in the universe is created when certain underlying conditions come together in a certain way. Consider, for example, a sunflower. To create a sunflower, the necessary conditions include soil, water, light, warmth, and a seed. If any one of these conditions are not present, a sunflower does not come into existence. (Before someone starts arguing that hydroponics can produce a sunflower without soil, I will point out that first, they're merely refining the necessary ingredient of soil to nutrients, and second, that they're confusing the metaphor with the point being made, so shut up).
This is not to say that water or soil (or nutrients) do not "create" a sunflower, but that they are a necessary condition in the same way that flour does not create a cake, but is a necessary ingredient (as are ovens, cooks, time, and other ingredients). To produce a conscious self, the Buddha taught, the necessary conditions or ingredients (he referred to them as "aggregates") are a bodily form, sensation, perception, sanskara (schemata), and consciousness. These aggregates of existence do not "create" a person, but are the necessary conditions for the existence of a self-aware self. When they all come together, voila!, it's you and it's me.
So the question I have been pondering all week is from where does consciousness arise? Does it exist as a separate entity that seeks a vessel to contain it? Or does it arise spontaneously in the mind?
The Buddha taught that the sense-aspect of consciousness arises when a sensation - a sight, a sound, a touch, or a thought - encounters a bodily organ of perception - eyes, ears, skin, or mind. Without sight or eyes, there is no sight consciousness, and without sound or ears, there is no sound consciousness, and so on. But, as discussed yesterday, this sense-aspect is only one type of consciousness.
As taught by the Buddha, the necessary condition for the arising of self-awareness - ego consciousness - is sanskara. These mental models or schemata are precisely the creation of an allocentric view of the self discussed by Dr. Ramachandran, the "integrated information" of Dr. Tononi. If schemata, however we may refer to it, are not present, self-awareness does not arise, does not come into existence. In the Buddha's chain of events, then, self-aware consciousness arises from sanskara.
It is interesting to note that the Sanskrit word for consciousness, vijnana, is derived from root words meaning "to divide." Thus, we speak of discriminating consciousness, a consciousness that separates one thing from another, that separates self from others. Curiously, the discriminating consciousness arises from sanskara, taken from Sanskrit roots meaning "to put together," as in Dr. Tonini's "integrated information." The mind takes the unfathomably complex input of information from the universe, puts together a model of a self from this inforamtion, views it from an allocentric perspective, and then distinguishes that created model as separate from the rest of the universe. Thus is the self created. When the idea of the creation arises in the organ of thought perception, the mind, thought consciousness arises and we are then conscious of an invented self.
This is, of course, a subconscious process, or more accurately, a pre-conscious process, as it occurs before the arising of consciousness. As such, we are not aware of the creation of schemata or the subsequent arising of self-aware consciousness - we are ignorant of the process, even though it is occurring constantly, even right now as you read these very words. Therefore, taught the Buddha, the creation of sanskara arises out of ignorance. The necessary condition for the creation of self-aware consciousness is schemata, and the necessary condition for schemata is ignorance.
It is apparent then, that consciousness does not exist as a separate entity outside of an individual but is an integral component of an individual. The mind, or for that matter the universe, does not exist in a sea of consciousness as postulated by some New Age theorists. Rather, consciousness exists in the cloud of the mind. Finally, this brings us to the sobering realization that when the vessel of consciousness ceases to exist, consciousness disappears just like the characters in a dream when we awaken.
"So you should see all of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream."
(from The Diamond Sutra)