ON MIRRORS AND BRAINS
As human beings, we are enmeshed in the process of evolution as active, and not merely passive, participants. The emergence of the human mind has brought about our involvement by giving us a capacity to anticipate and react to our circumstances in a way unique among species. The mind makes it possible for us to reflect upon the cosmos; it may even be said to reflect the cosmos, a sentient mirror which gives us a way of seeing all that has gone before us in the course of existence. The human mind also enables us to imagine possibilities that might develop in the course of future evolution, and moreover to influence the direction of this process.
Jonas Salk, Anatomy of Reality
T his book is about mirrors and brains, or rather about how the brain mirrors its own essential nature in experience. I do not mean I will be talking about real mirrors of the kind in which we shave and primp. I am using "mirror" in its metaphorical sense, in the sense of self-reflection. Of course, I am not the first to use this metaphor. Consciousness has long been described as being like a mirror, or some other reflective surface (pool, ocean, stream, crystal, etc.). In fact, contemplatives from all over the planet have for centuries used mirrors and the like to meditate upon consciousness (see McDonald, Cove, Laughlin and McManus 1989).
In some respects, The Mirror of the Brain is a sequel to our book, Brain, Symbol and Experience (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). It takes off from many of the conclusions we reached earlier, particularly in developing the concept of "mature contemplation" and the needless dualism between "science" and "mysticism." My intent in writing this book is to counteract the uncritical condemnation of introspection as being useless to science. This condemnation continues to be voiced in the current literature on cognition, neuropsychology, and other approaches to aspects of consciousness (see e.g., Weissman 1987, Lyons 1986, Johnson-Laird 1983:2, Edelman 1989:21-23), largely due I think to a resurgence of positivistic thinking in science and philosophy. But rather than couch my position in a negative vein by criticising these various authors, I prefer the more positive approach to countering anti-introspectionism by demonstrating (1) that naive introspectionism may well be dangerous to accurate theory building in science, and (2) that mature contemplation, an enterprise that can be and has been extremely valuable to science, requires as much training as any other skill in scientific exploration.
Not only is the training for mature contemplation arduous, but as we shall see, it requires the reorganization of the individual nervous system being trained. One of the benefits of that training is that the individual achieves a holistic frame of mind in which the inherent and dogmatic mind-body dualism upon which positivistic science depends is anathema. The contemplative eventually comes to see clearly that every effort to reassert a positivistic stance in science is actually a (usually unconscious) projection of a pre-scientific, cultural value that would perpetually separate the mind from the body, the mental from the physical, the "pure" scientific from the "practical" scientific, and so on. The clue to spotting uncritical anti-introspectionism is when the value of the direct experience of consciousness is denigrated without that position being thought through. Introspection is often cast off in a single comment or paragraph.
My position is that a great deal can be learned about the essential organization of consciousness, and the brain as well, through the explorations of trained contemplatives. I hope to demonstrate many of these findings in the course of this book. It is my presumption that consciousness is indeed the "mirror of the brain" in that consciousness reflects the internal organization of the nervous system mediating the consciousness. Moreover, all we ever know about the brain is due to reflection upon our experiences of the brain, whether those experiences be from the outside ("empirical observations," "anatomical descriptions") or from the inside ("meditations"). As a result of this personal bias, I tend to interpret the findings of contemplative explorations in a neurophenomenological perspective. Speaking frankly, my commitment has always been to science and to explanation. Traditional paths to self-awareness may open up experiences that then are interpreted as meaningful within some hermeneutical system, but they rarely produce explanations for those experiences. In other words, traditional paths may lead to the "thatness" of experience, but rarely to the "why" of experience. Just because an experience is meaningful does not quarante that it has been explained. The reader may or may not wish to buy into my bias, but it is fortunately not required for an appreciation of the value of mature contemplation for science. Mature contemplation stands on its own, with or without a neurophenomenological base.
Most of my contemplative training has been in a Buddhist context. I have studied in the Theravadin, Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana traditions, with the occasional detour into such meditative disciplines as phenomenology, Cabbala, Benedictine, Sufi, shamanism and esoteric Tarot. All of these approaches have fed me well. I am deeply indebted to my teachers in the Tibetan tradition, Chogay Trichen Rimpoche, Namgyal Rimpoche and Kalu Rimpoche. I also owe a debt of gratitude to teachers who were dead by the time I came along. Those include Alfred North Whitehead, and Edmund Husserl. The neurophenomenology that I espouse in this book derives from biogenetic structuralism, a perspective in anthropology that I have worked out in collaboration with others, especially John McManus, Gene d'Aquili, Robert Rubinstein, and Ivan Brady. I want to thank them for their part in putting together these ideas. Any misunderstandings, misapplications or misinterpretations of their views are my errors alone. Finally, I especially want to thank Susan Sample for giving me the concept, "metanoia," Bert McInnis for turning me on to the work of Adelbert Ames and the importance of illusions, Derek Smith for having suggested the content of the last chapter, and Jon Shearer for his help in working out the phases and warps model.