NEUROPHENOMENOLOGY OF THE DOT
...The object is just that which is grasped and posited in adequate intuition as a primordial Self, transparent in virtue of its primordiality, and absolutely transparent in virtue of the completeness of the meaning and its complete primordial filling-out... .
Edmund Husserl, Ideas
There are three major principles of neural organization that mediate relations characteristic of experience: functional hierarchy of processing, lateral asymmetry of processing, and what I have called the "prefrontosensorial polarity principle." I have touched upon all three of these principles in earlier chapters and have suggested that they are both fundamental to our understanding about the working of the nervous system, and are amenable to phenomenological investigation.
The first principle, functional hierarchy, was addressed in Chapter Three under the guise of ergotropic-trophotropic tuning. This view conceives of the nervous system as a functional hierarchy in which networks of cells higher in the order perform more complexly and flexibly by organizing those systems subordinate to them in more complex arrays (see eg. Pribram 1971, MacLean 1973, Powers 1973, Varela 1979).
The second principle, lateral asymmetry of function, I also mentioned in Chapter Three in relation to intuition. This view conceives of the cerebral cortex as operating as a structural dialogue between the left and right hemispheres. Left and right hemispheres are understood to function in opposite or complementary ways upon the same object. Both of these principles are well documented and are now basic to the consideration of the neural substrate of consciousness, at least among those schooled in the neurosciences.
THE PREFRONTOSENSORIAL POLARITY PRINCIPLE
The third principle, the prefrontosensorial polarity principle, was initially introduced in Chapter One under the topic of intentionality (see also Laughlin 1988, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter 4). It will become our central concern in the next two chapters. This principle hypothesizes a fundamental dialectical relation between prefrontal and sensorial cortex, a relation we suggest mediates both intentional processes in consciousness and the sense of subject-object distinction when it is present to awareness. This principle is one that distinguishes conscious network from all other networks in the nervous system.
We specifically hypothesize that the essential intentionality of consciousness, so characteristic of the structure of conscious network, is mediated by a dialogue between prefrontal cortical structures (more particularly dorsolateral and orbital prefrontal cortex) and sensorial cortex. This dialogue is paramount in integrating the production of the phenomenal world and the meaning of (or cognitions about) the phenomenal world in both moment-by-moment experience and in development.
I take the view that the major proportion of networks comprising conscious network at any moment are cortical ones (see also Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter Four). One reason for this presumption is that although the cortex is richly interconnected with subcortical structures, the vast majority of connections made by cortical neurons are intracortical; that is, made with other cortical neurons. And most of these connections are with cortical cells in areas proximal to the area of the body (soma) of the cell establishing the connections.
In this chapter I will investigate the neurophenomenology of the sensorium and the basic unit of sensation, the "dot," and withhold my discussion of the prefrontal intentional processes until the next chapter.
THE SENSORIUM AND THE DOT
The sensorium is the functional space within the nervous system wherein the phenomenal aspects of the cognized environment are constituted and portrayed in moment-by-moment experience. Phenomenal experience is a construction mediated by the moment-by-moment re-entrainment of perceptual and associative structures (see Yates 1985). And, as both perception and association are mediated by living cells within the nervous system (for the visual system alone involving neural networks of the striate, prestriate, parietal, hippocampal, brain stem and other regions of the brain), the part played by both is an active one. Phenomenal reality is thus in part an entrainment of cognitive and perceptual networks which is designed to portray an unfolding world of experience to the organism. The functional space within which association and perception are combined into unitary phenomenal experience is the sensorium.
Both cognitive and sensorial processes are actively involved in constituting the world of experience, as is implied by our "two hand clapping" model of experience (see Figure 0).
Figure 0. The Prefrontosensorial Polarity Principle: A Dialectical Relationship Between Prefrontal Intentional and Sensorial Areas of the Cortex.
This is due in large part to the fact that both cognition and sensation are mediated by living cells. It is in the misconstrual of the nature of the sensorium that many confusing conceptions of consciousness arise. For instance, a naive idealism might hold that sensory input about the world is a "kaleidoscopic" jumble of sensations until ordered by ratiocination. This would amount to a view of cognition rising to order a passive and unordered, and even chaotic world of sensations. (1) On the other hand, a naive realism might hold that sensory input acts to impress the order of the world upon a passive-receptive cognition. This would amount to the view of a world ("out there") rising to inscribe its order upon the passive, "blank slate" of cognition.
Neither of these simplistic beliefs, however attractive they may be for some thinkers, will pass muster in the face of either mature contemplation or modern neuropsychology. From the phenomenological side, at no point in performing reductions does the contemplative ever reach a stratum of "pure" sensation that is unordered and chaotic. Rather, sensation is always found to be exquisitely ordered to experience. The apprehended order may not be that which is anticipated. Indeed, it may be so novel as to be terrifying. And, in advanced phases of contemplative consciousness, the anticipatory functions of cognition tend to drop away altogether and the spontaneous order of the sensorial field is apprehended as it arises. In any case, at no time is sensation experienced as chaos. Thus there are no phenomenological data to support the naive idealist's account. Nor are there data to support the naive realist's account, for, as desire and anticipation drop away in consciousness, the very order of sensory perception changes. The outer operational environment continues to influence sensory order only so long as the structures of perception are oriented to whatever extent toward the adaptive mode.
On the neurophysiological side, the brain, as I have said, is a society of cells. The systems that mediate sensations in the central nervous system are living systems, and as such are organized, goal-seeking processes. Both sensory and cognitive systems are comprised of living cells, each acting selectively upon stimuli at their membranes. Sensory systems operate to transmit veridical, but very selective information into the cognized environment (Gibson 1969). Cognitive systems operate upon this information in a feedforward, or anticipatory manner so as to "keep one jump ahead" of events in the operational environment (Miller et al. 1960, Pribram 1971). This is the adaptive function of the nervous system -- to match models and sensations in an adaptively isomorphic way. Behavior, I repeat, may be seen as a means of controlling perception such that sensory order fulfills the order anticipated by models (see Powers 1973, Arbib 1972, Uexkull 1909).
Conscious network is thus in part an entrainment of cognitive and perceptual networks which is designed to portray an unfolding world of experience to the organism. The functional space within which cognition and perception are combined into a unitary experience is the sensorium. Conscious network is the system of entrainments mediating the entirety of consciousness arising in the moment, while the sensorium is that subsystem within conscious network that is mediating phenomenal experience. Sensorial activities include verbalized thoughts, percepts in any and all sensory modes, feelings, images, and the like. The distinction between sensorial and non-sensorial operations of conscious network should not, therefore, be held as absolute. Rather, one may speak of structures that are more or less apparent in the organization and presentation of phenomenal reality. The structures mediating form, for example, may be more apparent to introspection than, say, attentional structure, but both are integral to the organization of moment-by-moment experience. The structures mediating intuitive associations relative to percepts may be even further removed, yet still experientially salient, as we have seen in our various exercises above.
A significant feature of sensorial activity is that it normally forms a totality of experience each and every moment as it unfolds. Perception does operate to differentiate percepts, and cognition may perform organizational operations upon percepts, but the world of phenomenal experience tends normally to remain "stuck together" within sensorial space. Objects come and go without leaving a "hole" in the sensorium, the field of sensations always completes itself. This is even true for individuals that have suffered damage to the visual center in one hemisphere of their brain. Half of their visual field is no longer functioning, and yet they will still perceive their visual field as whole and complete. In other cases where there has been damage to the parietal visual attention area on one side of the brain, a patient may "see" the effected half of the visual field, but they cannot attend to objects on the effected side. Their visual field is whole, but their attention to objects in the field is limited to the undamaged half.
This is why I depict the sensorium as a functional space, rather than as a geometrical space, for the latter implies a logical extension uncharacteristic of the sensorium. It would not be inaccurate to model the sensorium as a phase hyperspace of potential entrainments in which phenomena fulfill themselves as momentary concretions mediated by actual entrainments (see Figure 0; see also Laughlin and Stephens 1980).
[Figure of Phase Hyperspace Here]
Dots: The Unit of Experience
Just how phenomena fulfill themselves in the sensorium is a bit difficult to talk about, for how one comes to intuitively apprehend the workings of the sensorium after performing the requisite reduction may seem contrary to the evidence of naive introspection. This is one of the many reasons that evidence derived from introspection by trained, mature contemplatives is so important to both our approach and to science generally. It is at this juncture of our research that we must strongly appeal to data apparent only from the standpoint of the requisite "phenomenological epoche."
It is readily apparent to the mature contemplative that experience arising within the sensorium is comprised of nearly infinitesimal and momentary particles. Most individuals, ensconced as they are in the "natural attitude," miss this phenomenologically salient fact simply because they are not interested in, nor are they trained to concentrate upon, the mechanisms of their own perception. But with training, it is quite easy to become aware of the activity of these tiny and momentary sensory events, given the requisite calm and concentration of awareness. Moreover, they are directly perceivable in all sensory modes, and especially easy to confirm as the building blocks of objects and movements in the visual field. Labelling these particles of experience after their visual form, we will call them sensorial dots , but will keep in mind that "dots" comprise phenomena in all sensory modes. (2)
More Exercises .
It is not possible for me to suggest an exercise that would quickly persuade the reader of this essential feature of sensorial activity. Yet, if the reader is willing to put in the effort to train the contemplative faculties, the reader may come to quickly confirm or disconfirm the existence of the dot. There are many techniques by means of which one may practice apprehending the essential nature of dots. For most people, dots in the visual mode are the easiest to perceive. And visual dots are most easily detected under conditions of subdued light. One might wish to concentrate upon any patch of light at twilight, while considering the patch as a field of innumerable particles. Another method is to apply gentle pressure to the sides of both eyeballs, just at the bridge of the nose, with the eyes closed. When the pressure produces geometrically patterned light, the pressure is released and the dots comprising the light patterns are studied. With sufficiently intense concentration, the changing pattern of light will not fade, but will actually be augmented and can lead within moments to a portalling experience -- perhaps the experience of passage down a light-tunnel with some sort of vision at the end of the tunnel (see MacDonald et al. 1988 on portalling techniques). Yet another method is to concentrate upon a small patch of light on a dark field for a moment (for example, a patch of sunlight falling on the ground in otherwise dark undergrowth), and then close the eyes and watch the eidetic image fade. A tiny spot of light reflected from a snow flake or sparkling water may be used in the same way -- take in the spot and hold it as long as one can with the eyes closed while studying the composition and decomposition of the eidetic image.
Detection of dots is not, I have suggested, restricted to the visual system. In fact they may be detected in any of the sensory modes. For instance, sooner or later in carrying out the meditation on the breath one will come to "see" that the sensations produced by the air passing in and out of the nostrils has a granular texture. I would suggest that the reader who is doing serious anapanasati meditation (awareness of the breath) pay close attention to the texture of the sensation of the breath.
The Sensorium As a Field of Dots .
The sensorium is a dot-filled "field of perception" (Husserl 1931: 101, Gurwitsch 1964, Ey 1978: 86) which is perceptually and cognitively distinguished into sensory modes, and within sensory modes into objects and events. The basic act of perception is the abstraction and reinforcement of invariant patterns in the unfolding field of dots (see Herrnstein 1982, Gibson 1979). It is the job of the cognized environment to portray an internalized world of phenomena by ordering dots into recognizable configurations. Modalities may become somewhat confused in distinction as in cases of synaesthesia (Marks 1975) where one may "see" a symphony, or "hear" a painting (made possible due to cross-modal transfer networks between areas of sensory cortex; see Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974), but such states are still ones that produce sensory distinctions.
There are, however, phases of consciousness attained in mature contemplation during which distinctions between objects and even between sensory modalities fall away, and in which the entire sensorium is experienced as a single sensory monad (either bounded or unbounded, finite or infinite). In an extreme version of this experience the distinction between the different fields of dots comprising various sensory modalities merge into a unified, singular field (an experience that has been called the coincidentia oppositorum ). During this experience consciousness becomes indistinguishable from the sensorial monad, the sensorial monad indistinguishable from consciousness. This is the realization of "pure" sensation, although, as I have said, the sensorial field remains ordered. This experience may lead to the intuitive realization of the "fullness" of the Plenum Void described in eastern traditions. Conscious experience at this point verges upon totality, a phenomenally undifferentiated, timeless, and extensively infinite monad of awareness in which the unfolding energy events in the being play themselves out without hindrance and with the experience of complete flow. Dots are ubiquitous to all phenomena. All phenomena -- no matter how intensely experienced, no matter in what phase of consciousness experienced, no matter in what combination of sensory modes experienced, no matter how peripheral or central to awareness, no matter how momentary or enduring, and no matter of self or of world -- all phenomena are composites comprised of swarms of dots appearing and disappearing within the sensorium. That is to say, swarms of sensorial dots occur nowhere else but within the nervous system of the perceiver. They are the basic building blocks of sensory-perceptual experiences mediated by sensorial networks entrained to conscious network.
It would be well to once again remind the reader that I am not embracing a naive solipsism by saying there is no world "out there." Rather I am saying that the phenomenon is not the event in the operational environment (noumenon) that may have given rise to the phenomenon. We do not, of course, perceive photons (visual stimuli) or molecules of vibrating gas (auditory stimuli), but rather patterns of neural activity which provide form, color, motion, frequency, texture, etc. All of these qualities are the result of serial and parallel neurocognitive operations performed upon the field of dots, not upon the photic or sonic stimuli that may have given rise to the initial generator potentials (3) leading to perception. Consider the fact that both a flash of light and gentle pressure upon our eyeballs will result in our experiencing "light." This is because the visual receptors are not only sensitive to photons, but also to the pressure of fluid within the vitreous. "Light" stimulated either photically or by pressure is comprised of the very same field of dots.
Bindu, Prime Potency, Actual Entity, and Other Notions .
Our notion of dot is equivalent in some respects to Lonergan's (1958: 442) concept of "prime potency." Potency is the raw "material" of experience, the "stuff" that makes up that about the phenomenal world that is to be known. As such, potency exists as a set of primitive limitations upon form and activity. It is "the potency of the lowest level that provides the principle of limitation [read essence] for the whole range of proportionate being" (ibid: 442). In biogenetic structural terms, dots are the prime potency of the cognized environment as it unfolds and dissolves in the sensorium.
Our concept of dot is also similar to Whitehead's (1978) notion of "actual entity" or "actual occasion." But ours is intended as a descriptive empirical category and not a metaphysical or theoretical one like a black hole or a quark. The dot is directly perceivable to any person prepared to train themselves to "see" it (i.e., see, hear, feel, taste, think, etc.). In this respect it is analogous to the ancient Sanskrit concept of bindu (meaning "dot" or "drop;" see Woodroffe 1974) which is the elemental particle of prana , the fundamental energy comprising the entire universe. Hindu ontology would hold that the entire world, our bodies and minds included, is formed by the interaction of akasa (the inherent and imperceptible structure of the world, something like Bohm's 1980 "implicate order") and prana ordered by akasa (see Vivekananda 1956: 34ff). The notions of bindu and prana are semi-empirical ones in Hindu mysticism. The bindu is directly experienceable -- at least by yogis -- as the building block of phenomena from the most gross object such as a table or a planet to the most subtle like the breath or spirit.
Where our construction differs somewhat from the eastern view is that we make few claims here about the constitution of the outer operational environment. We make claims only with respect to what we know about the physiology of the being and the phenomenology of consciousness. Explaining the dynamics of the world apart from the brain and consciousness is the task of other sciences -- incidentally, sciences that would ideally be staffed by people who have become phenomenologically grounded in the nature of their own processes of observation (Husserl 1970, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). What we are claiming is that the entire phenomenal world is constituted by and within the brain, that it arises within the individual sensorium, and that it is experienced as totally comprised of dots. Dot is thus a phenomenological category , a Husserlian "essence," the result of what Michael Polyani (1965) would call a "logical disintegration" of form into its constituent fragments. The normally unperceived structures mediating the organization of dots -- our equivalent of the eastern akasa -- are simply those formed by the organization of the neurocognitive system of the perceiver, a hierarchy of intentional order imposed upon the sensorium by cognition.
Dots and Atoms .
We suspect that early atomist theories in western metaphysics and science, as well as eastern ontologies, are examples of unconscious projection by inquiring brains of their own essential organization upon the world. The notion of something like the monad as the ultimate building block of the world goes back to the early Greeks, and is specifically referenced by that term in metaphysics in the 18th century by Leibnitz in his Principles of Nature and Grace . Many philosophers have developed monadologies over the centuries, including Kant and Whitehead. The term monad derives originally from the Greek root meaning "one" or "unit," and is used in many cases to refer to a simple, irreducible particle of reality from which all composite things in the universe are constructed. The monad is frequently conceived as a source of power in its own right, and, as in the case of Whitehead's "actual entity," a scintilla of consciousness. The concept of monad seems closer to a mental particle than, say, the notions of atom or molecule, but it is usually not clear (and this is the crucial point to me) to what extent the monad is intended in these philosophies either as an empirical, descriptive term, or strictly to apply to consciousness mediated by brain.
The accuracy of the projection of dots upon the world would seem to be verified to some extent by modern physics. But we should not lose sight of the fact that dots are phenomenologically ascertainable and present in every operation of perception. Dots are not our version of McCulloch's (1965: 37) "psychon," his theoretical basic psychic unit. And dots are not being inferred as in physics in order to account for some more complex phenomenon such as a track in a cloud chamber, or the loss of expected energy from a binary star system. Rather, the role of dots in perception is analogous to the particles that make up the image on a TV screen, a movie marquee, or a newspaper photo. We are ordinarily not aware of these particle, but they are there to be seen if we look for them under the requisite conditions. Dots are introspective events that are momentary to perception, and yet which contribute to much more enduring events such as forms, patches of color, textures, etc. It is apparent to the contemplative mind that all verbalized thoughts, images, percepts, and even perceptual space, the edges of forms, and colors in all hues (including black) are comprised of dots.
Dots and Quanta .
Again, dots are certainly not photons. "There is no light, but we may see light. Light is a sensation and thus has no physical existence" (Baumgardt 1972). We know from a whole raft of evidence that although a single quantum of electromagnetic energy may be registered by a rod cell in the retina, it is insufficient to produce a phenomenologically reportable sensation of light (see Baumgardt 1972, Barlow and Mollon 1982). Under very special conditions of adaptation to total darkness, it requires the entry through the pupil of the eye of between 80 and 100 quanta at 500nm in order for there to be a report of a sensation 50% of the time. The number of effective absorptions in rod cells (scotopic vision) at the periphery of the retina required for reporting 50% of the time is between 10 and 15 quanta. And vision at the fovea is a tenth as sensitive, requiring something like 600 quanta entering at the pupil and an absorption of 38 by the cone cells for a sensation to be reportable.
We also know that registration of stimuli at the level of the individual receptor cell is spatially indivisible, for its discharge travels along an anatomically distinct pathway (Westheimer 1972). Thus, the absorption of a quantum by a receptor cell places an absolute limit to the resolution of registration of visual information about events in the operational environment, a limit that is only partially overcome at higher levels of neurocognitive processing. These figures are approximate, of course, and are low because of the unusual experimental conditions. Many factors actually influence the threshold of energy required for a reportable visual sensation under normal conditions, including background lighting, light adaptation, ingestion of psychoactive substances like coffee and smoke, the level of arousal of the subject, etc. The point is that a good number of quanta must impinge upon the retina before the perceptual system will "take notice" and begin to build a picture of the event out of dots. And, although I have centered my discussion on the visual system, there are data that indicate that all of the senses operate upon such thresholds.
Dots Mediated By Networks .
Our understanding of the neural structure mediating the dot is far from complete, but with Polyani (1965: 806) we would argue that they are fairly fixed neural structures relative to the higher cognitive operations that are mediated by more complex patterns of entrainment. It seems unlikely that what is being experienced as a dot is the activity of a single nerve cell. Rather, sensorial particles are probably mediated by columns in the sensory cortex, and initially organized via hypercolumns into the primary "given" abstracted order of phenomenal reality (see articles by Marrocco in Ledoux and Hirst 1986 and Sawaguchi and Kubota 1986 for reviews).
Caution should be exercised in conceptualizing the structure of the sensorium, for it used to be thought that sensorial information was processed lineally from primary to secondary and then to multimodal areas. It is now known that information processing is far more complex in the nervous system, involving as it does parallel structures processing simultaneously over wide areas of tissue. Prestriate cortex in the visual system, for example, is organized into at least a dozen distinct association areas, all of which are topographically interconnected, and all of which receive afference from, and project efference to, subcortical areas (Marrocco in Ledoux and Hirst 1986: 46). Striate cortex itself projects back to the thalamus as much efference as it receives afference, and that efference may be inhibitory as well as excitatory, suggesting a controlling influence by primary sensory cortex over what information it receives. Understanding the functions of such reciprocal innervation almost certainly is relevant to discussions of "top-down" vs. "bottom-up" control in cognitive psychology (eg. Mandler 1984), as well as the perennial question of the influence of language and culture on perception (eg. Geertz 1983: 147ff; see Rosch 1977).
HUSSERL AND THE DOT
Another weakness in Edmund Husserl's transcendental phenomenology occurred because of Husserl's systematic bias toward the study of meaning (the "noetic" and "noematic" acts of consciousness) and away from the study of sensation and "pure" perception (the "hyle"). (4) This bias resulted in a relatively rich record of meditations upon the factors of consciousness constituting meaning, but a paucity of reflections upon the actual sensory material presumed under certain circumstances to fulfill ( erfullen ) the active imposition of intentional and meaningful structure upon perception. Consequently, the meaning of such terms as "hyle" and "filling" remain half-baked and obscure in Husserl's writings (see Miller 1984: 135). This bias seems to have been due to a pervasive mind/body dualism inherent in Husserl's thinking:
Thus strict adherence to the form/matter, mind/body dichotomy dictates the future development of Husserl's phenomenology away from a phenomenology of perception. For if even in perception one must always separate the act of meaning from the act of intuition which fills that meaning, it follows that one can have an account of the interpretive sense....but no account of the corresponding intuitive sense. One can have an account of what the mind takes the object to be but no account of our bodily interaction with the object in perceiving it.
(Dreyfus 1982: 108)
Husserl's mind/body dualism is hardly surprising considering: (1) it is a tacit attitude in the Euroamerican culture to which he was enculturated prior to becoming a contemplative and philosopher, and (2) he apparently neither discovered, nor ever incorporated into his project the deep calming and centering techniques used in other western and nonwestern contemplative traditions; techniques that, as we saw in Chapter Five, evoke experiences of non-duality and totality upon which a non-dualistic assessment of phenomena may be. In all fairness, there is some indication that Husserl himself was aware of the strictures he had imposed upon his phenomenology as a consequence of this bias (see Dreyfus 1982: 107). Furthermore, as obscure and tentative as he tended to be about the nature of the "hyle," it is clear that Husserl was aware that primordial perception is "filled" with sensuous matter, and that the order of sensuous matter is both universally given to all phenomena and knowable via eidetic intuition (see Husserl 1931: 194 on "primordial given," 380 and 398 on "filling-out," and 1970b: 290 on "fulfilling sense").
MORE NEUROPHENOMENOLOGY OF THE DOT
As we have seen above, unlike the view of the physical world propounded in atomist theories, and unlike objects in geometrical space, dots are contiguous -- there is no space surrounding dots within the sensorial field. This is an aspect of the "plenum" characteristic of emptiness, (5) or voidness (Skt., Sunyata ; Tib., stong pa nyid ), according to some schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Dots arise (Skt., uppada in early Theravadan Buddhism), have a momentary duration (Skt., thiti ) and then dissolve (Skt., bhanga ; Govinda 1974: 133). They thus have a momentary occurrence (Skt., cittakhana , the so-called "thought moment"). The field of dots is thus continuously being renewed. Although the constituted phenomenal object may endure, the dots comprising the object do not endure, and in fact may not be held beyond the duration of their momentary occurrence by any act of will whatsoever. This is the characteristic known in some schools of Mahayana Buddhism as the "pure" voidness of phenomena. Seeing clearly that all phenomena, including phenomena identified with the empirical ego, are constituted from such insubstantial stuff is also one aspect of the anatta (meaning essentially no permanent soul, self or substance) realization in Buddhist phenomenology.
This is not to say that the neural network -- the akasa , or unperceived, operational environmental structure of experience -- comes into existence and passes away with the dot. Rather, the intermittency of activity of the network is experienced as the momentary occurrence of the dot. Nor do I wish to leave the impression that every sensorial network is continuously producing dots in consciousness. Far from it, for a network can only produce a dot in the sensorial field if it is entrained to the conscious network mediating experience. Most sensorial networks remain latent, or excluded from consciousness much of the time.
We can now see a different complexion on the face of Husserl's much discussed distinction between signifying and intuitive acts. Husserl claimed that signifying acts only "aim at" their object, while intuitive acts "grab" their object. The former may or may not be fulfilled, the latter is inevitably fulfilled (see above, p. 000). Reinterpreting his distinction in our own terms, meaning may or may not be accurately reflected by objects realized within the field of dots. Intuition is about phenomena are always realized within the field of dots. Moreover, it matters not whether the object arising as an organization of dots is stimulated from the outer operational environment via peripheral sense receptors, or from the inner operational environment via imaginal structures.
Dots, Drops and Gaze
There is a certain ambiguity to some eastern descriptions of the dot, an ambiguity with essential neurophenomenological implications. The Sanskrit term bindu (Tib., thig le ) refers both to "dot" and to "drop" (see Chang 1963: 125). One reason for this ambiguity is that, under certain conditions, a "dot" becomes a "drop" during contemplation under certain circumstances. Once awareness of dots arises, the contemplative may choose to study individual dots as the object of meditation. With the application of sufficient concentration upon any visual dot, an interesting phenomenon occurs: a spherical "drop" or "bubble" arises centered upon the spot where the dot used to be. The dot appears to transform into a drop. Above a certain intensity of concentration, no visual dot can be attended without the drop arising as a consequence. The experience may become more elaborated to become drops within drops, or circles within circles about the center which was the initially attended dot. The elaboration may continue to a full-blown tunnel experience that in turn may become a doorway (or portal; see MacDonald et al. 1988) leading one into a multiple-reality experience. Thus, bindus are interpreted in Tantric Buddhism as being symbolic of the very essence of mind.
Drop As Symbol .
Let us return for a moment to our breathing exercise. As it happens, when concentration upon the breath reaches sufficient intensity, and relaxation has deepened below a threshold, certain visual signs may arise (in Buddhist psychology, a patibhaga nimitta , or "universal sign"). A very common sign will be a string of drops ( bindus , "marbles," "beads," "fish eggs," "bubbles;" interpretations will vary with culture and personal background).
Also, there reaches a stage in the maturation of a contemplative when a drop may arise before the mind's eye and remains thereafter present to visual awareness whenever it is sought. This is a stage in insight practice that has been called the "self-illuminating" void; in our own terms, the sensorium "illuminating" or enlightening the consciousness about its own essential processes. Obviously, the perpetual availability of this drop-like image is naturally symbolic of reaching a stage of mature awareness, and there are warnings in various tantric texts about "losing the drop;" i.e., of losing that requisite level of concentrated awareness in spiritual development. I will discuss visualization and universal signs in Chapter 8. Suffice to say that there arise sensorial signs that signal stages in the maturation of the contemplative, signs that when reported to a master-adept will be interpreted as a signal of developmental significance.
The drop in this symbolic sense is often accompanied by other signs, like clouds of color and lines, that combine to express the predominant quality of the phase of consciousness in which they arise. For example, active conflict between conscious and unconscious networks may be symbolized as a "dance" or "standoff" between a light and a dark drop in a field of red "mist." Intensification of concentration of both light and dark aspects of the being may then be expressed as a small bright drop intervening between the larger "dancing" light and dark drops.
Field Properties of Dots .
A neurological account of the dot/drop ambiguity is fairly straightforward. Drops are circular images comprised of dots (in the sense we use the term here) topographically related to the central dot by an unseen, but well researched neurognostic organization known as the "receptive field." Cells and networks of cells in various sensory modes are known to exhibit excitatory and inhibitory influences in concentric rings around them (see Barlow and Mollon 1982 for various discussions of receptive fields). I suspect that intensification of concentration upon any dot causes an augmentation of activity in the column mediating the dot, and this augmentation reaches a threshold where its activity reverberates to adjoining columns to produce concentric waves of excitation and inhibition that are experienced as rings, tunnels or spheres. This is one of many examples of the extent to which dots influence each other as members of a hidden array.
Indeed, one of the first things one realizes about dots is that, while they are discrete perceptual events, they do not occur at random . They are frequently related in a wave-like manner; that is, one has the intuitive impression of a wave of dots without being able to perceive the mechanism that produces the wave. This is something like the wave impression one gets from a movie marquee made up of a field of light bulbs that blink on and off to produce apparently moving text. The wave is an ordering of the temporal relations among dots whose activities are mediated by an unseen, neurognostic structure capable of producing apparent motion in the cognized environment. I suspect that the fundamental neurognostic relations among waves of activity of otherwise discrete phenomenal units have been unconsciously projected into the thinking of modern physics resulting in the perennial wave-particle ambiguity in accounts of quantum events. Waves are an essential feature of the temporal organization of dots in all sensory modes. They unfold across perceptual epochs (see Chapter Seven) and may become involved in the constitution of form and motion at the mundane level of perception.
It is the spontaneous scintillation and irrepressibility of the arising of dots that imposes the fundamental "givenness" of phenomena, both in their dot-nature (Husserl's "primordial givenness") and in their essential intuitive-nature ("self-givenness;" Husserl 1931: 194ff), to consciousness. In Husserl's words:
Apprehension of the essence has accordingly its own grades of clearness , just as in the case of the particular [read "dot-nature"] which floats before our gaze. But for every essence, just as for the corresponding phase of its individual counterpart, there exists, so to speak, an absolute nearness , in which its givenness is in respect of this graded series absolute, i.e., pure self-givenness. The objective element does not only meet one's gaze as "itself" in general, and we are not only aware of it as "given," but it confronts us as a self given in its purity, wholly and entirely as it is in itself .
(Husserl 1931: 194)
Thus, fields of dots (the "primordially given") and intuited relations among dots (the "self-given"), two of the essential ingredients of phenomena comprising the cognized environment, have gaze . (6) By gaze I mean that they have, as it were, a life of their own, are somewhat autonomous and actively command the attention of prefrontal intentional structures to which they may appear (to the contemplative at least) in "absolute nearness" and with intense clarity. It is this "givenness" that is the tipoff in phenomenology of an essential neurognostic structure in cognitive neuroscience. The apprehension of both dots and relational waves of activity among dots is tantamount to the brain recognizing and modelling its own essential organization, an organization that normally operates unconsciously to naive perception.
Moreover, proper instructional interpretation of the drop may be used in meditative disciplines to further the development of the contemplative. While the appearance of the drop depends upon reaching a threshold of extraordinary concentration and calm, once it does appear it may have the effect of reinforcing the maintenance of that phase. This is clearly the reinforcement loop utilized in tantric yoga.
There is now ample evidence that the brain processes the topographical relations among sensorial features in a parallel manner, and in discrete association areas distributed over wide areas of cortex and subcortical tissue (see Barlow and Mollon 1982, LeDoux and Hirst 1986, McClelland and Rumelhart 1986). These primordial, neurognostically structured relations such as line and edge formation, color contrast, apparent motion, figure-ground, and depth perspective are combined into a unitary perceptual environment, probably by prefrontal processes. These features converge to order the field of sensorial dots that fulfill the perceptual object. For example, it is apparent to contemplatives, as it apparently was to the neo-impressionists, that lines and edges are constituted in consciousness by hue and brightness contrasts among dots, and not as solid strokes of color. Lines and edges of things are intuitively apprehended relations among the dots comprising them, and are mediated by the appropriate neurognostic structures that have evolved to produce them.
This is all the same whether the field of dots is initiated by receptor cells at the periphery (indicating sensations about events external to the being) or by neural networks in the central nervous system (indicating hallucination, or imagination). The same essential dot and relational cortical structures are involved in constituting phenomena in either case. How to treat the difference between a "real" or "imagined" object has been a perennial problem for theories of intentionality in transcendental phenomenology (see eg. Follesdal 1969: 680). It is largely a false problem from a neurophenomenological point of view, for one realizes that phenomena initiated in either case are finally constituted within the central nervous system utilizing the same neurognostic structures which impress their organization upon experience.
One may even readily understand how relations, or the "immanent" ( reell ) aspects of "noemata," may be apprehended without their being "filled in" by dots; i.e., are "empty" (Husserl 1962, Follesdal 1969: 686). One may be conscious of the idea of "line" without a phenomenal line being present to perception. The same may be said about waves or any of the other essential relations one may apprehend among dots. This is possible precisely because the neurocognitive structures mediating those relations may operate independently of those producing the sensorial field of dots. After all, the immanent features of objects are mediated by living neural networks that may be entrained to conscious network in the absence of fulfilling patterns of dots. It is the intuitive apprehension of these relations in all their pristine clarity that likely lies behind formal logic, mathematics (Husserl 1969), and geometry (see Beth and Piaget 1966), whether the projection of those intuitions upon formal thought and mathematical symbolization was consciously apprehended or not.
1. Idealism is represented in western philosophy by the metaphysics of George Berkeley, and in Buddhism by the Vijnanavada school.
2. I wish to thank John R. Schumacher, Radhika Sekar, and Lois and Gerard Chetelat for the invaluable discussions out of which a better understanding of the significance of dots emerged.
3. A generator potential is the action potential, or electrochemical impulse, emitted by a sensory receptor cell at the periphery in response to stimulation within the discrete range of its receptivity.
4. Husserl used many terms and phrases for sensation, including "hyletic data," "primordial filling," "sensuous filling," "primordial state of being filled out," "primordial givenness," "primordial impressional data," "sense primordially filled out," etc.).
5. Emptiness in Husserlian phenomenology does not have the same scope of meaning as emptiness in the Buddhist sense. Husserl means by emptiness that a noemata (a meaning) is empty until "filled in" by primordial impression (see Follesdall 1969: 686) -- that is, by dots. Buddhist psychology holds that even primordial impressions are "empty" of any permanent substance or soul.
6. I want to explicitly dissociate my use of the term "gaze" from the Laconian use of that term.