How conscious experience comes about, and why meditation is helpful

Guy Claxton


This chapter applies recent thinking in the fields of consciousness studies and embodied cognition to the subject of meditation. In particular, I will sketch an answer to the question “How does conscious experience (CE) come about?” and then use this to make some suggestions about what meditation is and why it should turn out to be helpful in promoting human flourishing and compassion. The main focus will be on mindfulness as it has come to be practiced in secular Western contexts, as well as in the context of monastic Buddhism.

Metaphors of mind, old and new

Meditation is designed to alter the quality and/or the content of consciousness, as well as of behavior. Specifically, many meditation practices attempt to focus attention more acutely than usual on the phenomenology of experience: How it arises, unfolds, and passes away. Attention is paid to these and other aspects of the nature of conscious experience, as well as (as is more normally the case) its content. If we are to begin to understand how meditation “works,” therefore, it is useful to see what cognitive science has to say about these matters. If scientifically-based approaches to the arising of conscious experience are valid, they may then offer useful pointers to practice: where and how it is most advantageous to focus one’s attention, for example.

But are these scientific models valid? One test is empirical: do they account for observed phenomena and predict new ones? Another, though, relates to the extent to which their pre-theoretical presuppositions unquestioningly import, and merely embellish upon, folk models of the mind. Are we sometimes merely adding a scientistic veneer to old images of mental processes? We will return to empirical matters later; here I want to begin by making some remarks on the second point.

In science, as in folk psychology, buried metaphors often drive thinking. Consciousness and conscious experience are no exception: they tend to be construed through metaphor. For some, consciousness is a kind of brightly-lit chamber or theater stage in the mind, and conscious experience is the contents that happen to be “on-stage” at any moment. Some cognitive psychologists have associated this “chamber of consciousness” with constructs such as working memory, or the “central executive,” in which case the stage becomes a workshop where processes are applied to the contents (e.g. Baddeley 2007). This metaphor invites one to think about other “dark” regions of the mental theater where the same contents (props, actors, and so on) may exist, and maybe carry on functioning, but out of sight of the “viewer”—the “I”—who is some combination of stage director and audience member. If the actors start to behave badly, the “I” can also act as a censor, banishing (“repressing”) taboo performances from appearing on the stage.

Alternatively, consciousness has been seen as a kind of screen or display- board in the mind, on which certain information—the contents of conscious experience—can be posted. The viewer of this information might again be the first-person “I,” or, in the case of Barrs’ (2005) “global workspace theory,” might be other processing modules in the mind, not necessarily conscious, which can pick up the posted information and, perhaps, contribute their own expertise or perspective to ongoing problem-solving. The “I” could be seen as the computer operator, watching the activity on the screen and pressing keys to determine future processing, while the chips and processors on the computer’s motherboard constitute a kind of “cognitive unconscious.” Sometimes this metaphor has been used to make a strong distinction between the objects in mental storage (“declarative memory,” capable of being made conscious) and the processes and programs that can be applied to that database (called “procedural memory,” usually not conscious).

Consciousness (or “conscious awareness,” I’ll use those terms interchangeably) could also be seen as a roving spotlight that sequentially highlights (or “lights up”) different contents in memory (e.g. Crick 1984). In this image, mental contents are not moved around between different locations, some of which are conscious and some not, but “stay put” and are illuminated in situ. Sometimes this illumination is seen as a form of neural activation—people often talk about different parts of the brain “lighting up”—and the activation itself is capable of altering the activated representation. This metaphor, often used in the context of creativity, allows the source of illumination to be narrow, focused, and intense, or diffused, more all-encompassing, but perhaps of a lower level of intensity (or, sometimes, “arousal”).

All of these metaphors suggest interesting ways of thinking about consciousness, and are capable of being applied to “mindfulness.” Some suggest, for example, that mindfulness is like turning up the brightness on the stage lights, or varying the focus of the spotlight. Or that mindfulness involves learning to shift the perspective of the viewer from actor on the stage, to stage director, or even to a dispassionate observer in the audience, unmoved by the drama unfolding before her. But all of these images are limiting and capable of being misleading (if taken too seriously or pushed too far), as all metaphors are. Some are more biologically plausible than others—there is no evidence, for example, that there are real locations in the brain that correspond to the central executive or the global workspace, to which passive “contents” get sent for processing, like books being recalled from the stacks of a university library and placed on a student’s desk.

However, my purpose here is not to offer a detailed critique of these depictions. (That job has been well done by Blackmore 2003, Shanon 2001, and others). Instead, I want to explore the potential of a different perspective on consciousness that is emerging from the hybrid study of “embodied cognition” This newly constellated focus of enquiry is an offshoot of cognitive science, drawing principally on philosophy, psychopathology, experimental psychology, neuroscience, robotics, and evolutionary theory. Its focus is on the detailed interactions between body, brain, and mind, with a growing research base that suggests that no satisfactory account of human experience and behavior can be given if the body is not taken fully into account. The computationalist idea that we are like computers or virtual machines that can be instantiated or embedded in a variety of different “housings” and “carriers,” and that what matters is really the “logic” of the machine, not its physical constitution, is hotly contested. This new discipline is still in formation, and those involved certainly do not speak with a single voice. Many would consider the perspective I am going to explore here a rather tame version of embodied cognition (e.g. Chemero 2011). Nevertheless, I hope to show its utility in thinking about meditation.

I shall interweave two new metaphors for this perspective that I will call “welling up” and “unfurling” They are very similar, but emphasize slightly different aspects of the underlying view. To illustrate unfurling, imagine the growth of a plant, a fern say, or perhaps a white rose. The fern starts from an invisible spore in the ground, and then grows over time into a large, visible, highly differentiated mass of fronds. Let’s say the spore is the original seed of an intention, and that motivational seed unfurls into a complex physiological and behavioral expression of that “germ of an idea” Take a time-lapse film of the growing fern, and speed it up, so that the whole process now takes a quarter of a second. It will be hard to spot the stages of growth. It will look like one moment there was no fern, and then, suddenly, there is a fully formed fern-thought, or action, or emotion.

This perspective on the formation of ideas, acts, and experiences was originally dubbed “microgenesis” by Heinz Werner (1956). Werner saw the generation of a thought or an utterance not as a process of assembling word-meanings according to syntactic rules (the dominant cognitivist image at the time), but as a process of rapid evolution from a subcortical glimmer or meaning to an elaborated complex of sensory and motor activations across the brain as a whole, and thence back again to the muscles and the viscera of the body. Jason Brown (1991, 1999) has developed the idea of microgenesis further, and linked it to the cognitive psychology found in various traditional Buddhist teachings such as the Abhidharma, in a range of publications on which I am drawing here.

Nothing in this image suggests when or how, or even whether, consciousness appears. It is perfectly possible that the seed germinates into an action rapidly and effortlessly without any self-consciousness, or even conscious awareness. For example, we may we walking down the pavement deep in conversation with a friend, completely oblivious to the subtle maneuvering of our bodies as they chart an intricate trajectory between the oncoming pedestrians; or eating a bowl of cornflakes whilst totally engrossed in a movie. If we wanted to add consciousness to the metaphor, we can swap the fern for the rose-bush, and call the growth of the foliage “unconscious,” and the blooming of the white flower “conscious experience.” (This of course explains nothing by itself, but may direct us, as metaphors often do, toward more compelling considerations.)

To capture the experiential side of microgenesis more fully, I will make use of another metaphor, that of welling up—as, for example, when we well up with emotion and know that we are on the verge of tears. Sometimes we “well up” with feeling without clearly knowing why, as when we are suddenly touched or moved by an image of starving children on the evening news, or by an unexpected moment of forgiveness or gentleness in a film, or by a piece of music. (Adele’s song “Someone Like You” catches a number of people by surprise in this way (Doucleff 2012).) We might be able to rationalize the response after the event, but at the time we are, as we might say, “caught unawares.”

Most people have this experience of “welling up” occasionally. But my more radical suggestion is that these special moments are actually prototypical of our conscious experience as a whole. All our thoughts and sensations well up from visceral and unconscious origins in the same way, but we habitually become aware of our experience only when it is already well formed, and miss the distinctive feeling of an event unfolding within us over time, over which we may or may not have control. One of the effects (and intentions) of various forms of mindfulness training (as we will see later) is to bring conscious awareness to earlier and earlier stages of this up-welling.

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