Chapter 2


A psychology that satisfies the intellect alone can never be practical, for the totality of the psyche can never be grasped by intellect alone.

C.G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

W e have seen from our brief summary of biogenetic structural theory in the last chapter that the epistemic process is a quality of the organization and function of the human nervous system. As such it is clear that there is no possibility of understanding the epistemic process without understanding the neurobiology of consciousness. We have made this argument in detail in Brain, Symbol and Experience (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:336-338).


In the last chapter of that book, as well as other places (e.g., Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984), we argued that the positivist account of knowledge is naive in that it treats the act of observation as a given, and only the object of knowledge and the techniques of assessment of the object are conceived as problematical. Positivism confidently presumes to know how we come to know what we claim to know, and normatively imposes a set of rules for the proper way of knowing. This imposition of epistemological norms upon the process of scientific inquiry has the effect of producing scientistic procedures in scientific disciplines and aids the formation of Kuhnian paradigms. Paradigms not only direct the attention of researchers to prescribed domains and methods, but also distract the attention from alternative, but proscribed domains and methods.

Yet it is clear from a more neuroepistemological point of view that the epistemic process is, like the rest of the operational environment we wish to come to know, essentially transcendental and mysterious, and as such, a perpetual source of problems for science to solve (Husserl 1969). A post-Kuhnian, neuroepistemological perspective would argue that any account of the process of observation must include the internal neurocognitive state of the observer. Ideally this involves among other things a description of the observer's state of consciousness, a description of the observer's presuppositions about the act of observation and the object, and the level of complexity of the observer's cognitive structures. After all, much of a scientist's process of initiation into a scientific discipline involves a social conditioning of precisely these factors (see Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984).


As we argued in Brain, Symbol and Experience , the best and most direct route (although not the only route) to uncovering the essential structures of experience available to us today is to steep oneself in the cross-cultural evidence on human experience, and then explore the universal structures of experience via an amalgamation of phenomenology and the neurosciences; that is, via a neurophenomenology (Laughlin 1988b). Specifically, anthropology gives us a sense of the full range of human experiences, while at the same time it suggests some of the universal similarities in those experiences. Phenomenology provides a kind of laboratory for exploring these universal structures, as it were, from the inside. And the neurosciences allows us an independent source of observations about the structures of experience by looking directly at the architecture of the organ of experience, the human brain.

This is the broad and unitary approach I am advocating in this book, and one the efficacy of which that I will demonstrate wherever possible. But first it is necessary to examine what is meant by phenomenology and how phenomenology may be amalgamated with modern neuroscience. The reason for first clarifying what I mean by "phenomenology" is that the term is bantered about a good deal these days and is frequently used in the most general way to mean any sort of experientially-based methodology. Even within the western philosophical tradition the word labels a very broad movement and not a precise school or unitary method. As the foremost historian of the phenomenological movement notes in the introduction to his text:

Among the many misconceptions which this book is meant to rectify is the idea that there is such a thing as a system or school called "phenomenology" with a solid body of teachings which would permit one to give a precise answer to the question "What is phenomenology?" The question is more than legitimate. But it cannot be answered, since, for better or worse, the underlying assumption of a unified philosophy subscribed to by all so-called phenomenologists is an illusion. Besides, "phenomenologists" are much too individualistic in their habits to form an organized "school." It would go too far to say that there are as many phenomenologies as there are phenomenologists. But it is certainly true that, on closer inspection, the varieties exceed the common features.

(Spiegelberg 1982: xxvii-xxviii)

The philosophies that have been grouped under the aegis of phenomenology are very diverse and often downright contradictory, and include many views such as those of Dilthey, Husserl, Schutz, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur and Gurwitsch that have directly or indirectly influenced anthropology (see eg. Cove 1987: 18-42).

Generally speaking, however, phenomenology may refer to any method for the study of phenomenal consciousness that (1) grounds knowledge about consciousness in intuition as the prime source of insight and as the final arbiter of truth about consciousness, and (2) recognizes the possibility of, and seeks knowledge about the essential structures of consciousness (Spiegelberg 1982: 5-6). But unlike the more western historical accounts of phenomenology, I will take the more anthropologically sound position that this definition may refer as easily to some non-western approaches to self-reflection as it does to western themes in philosophy. For example, as we shall see in Chapters 4 and 5, both Husserl's transcendental phenomenology and the Buddhist Satipatthana ("Foundations of Mindfulness") may be considered phenomenologies under this definition. Both approaches advocate direct intuition as the best access to knowledge about consciousness, and both recognize the existence of structures that are interpreted as essential to consciousness and universal to humanity.


What I mean by "neurophenomenology," then, is that the understanding of the processes of intuition, and the interpretation of the intuition of essential structures of consciousness carried out by way of any phenomenological method, are explained with reference to the neurosciences .

Consciousness is the only scope of inquiry in the world that we may know from both the inside (via contemplation) and from the outside (via observation of the nervous system and its activities in cross-cultural expression). Neurophenomenology takes advantage of this fact and unites these two most direct approaches to consciousness in a common dialogue. From the neurophenomenological point of view it is possible to neurobiologically (1) justify the efficacy of mature contemplation and intuition as a means of ascertaining knowledge about the structures of consciousness, (2) orient the contemplative vis a vis the experientially available functions of the brain, and (3) explain intuited and described structures within neurocognitive theory.

It is also possible to phenomenologically (1) test neurobiological theories and concepts about the structures and operations of consciousness, (2) discover new essential structures and relations among structures requiring neurobiological explanation, (3) produce the broadest possible experiential scope of which the human brain is capable, and (4) produce descriptions of the processes of consciousness from the intimacy of direct experience.

The Justification of Neurophenomenology .

Neurophenomenology is implied and amply justified by biogenetic structural theory. It is our view that both the intentional processes (including attention, arousal, cognition, affect, etc.) and the object of awareness are constituted within the organization of the nervous system. Any act of awareness, regardless of its object, is mediated by neural networks, including the object itself and all of its features. When I speak of the "object," I am not referring to the noumenon in the operational environment, but rather to the cognized, or modeled object constituted by the tissues of the brain. This is the case even if the brain itself is the object of awareness, for of course even the observation of the brain by the brain is a cognizing process, and models of the brain are part of the cognized environment of the neuroscientist.

Naive realism causes difficulties with accepting the simplicity and straightforwardness of the phenomenological project. Naive realists believe that the object of consciousness is "out there," the noumenon, the entity or event in the operational environment that may have stimulated the object of perception. Because of this mistaken understanding of perception, such realists sense a difficulty in performing the remove from the object to the structures of meaning constellated upon the object, an operation that is fundamental to phenomenological analysis. For them it is a departure from the object "out there" to the meaning "in here," when by any reasonably modern understanding of the physiology of perception, the movement is from the object as constituted within the sensory nervous system to some other process within the nervous system. By our account, this is a homeomorphogenic relationship between various subsystems of the body.

This is precisely why intuitive comprehension of the operations and structures of consciousness is such a direct and useful approach to their study, for the identical processes are brought to bear upon usually unconscious processes as are used to scrutinize the normally more conscious object (Wilson 1978). Naive realists have argued that the rational mode of knowing the object "out there" is fundamentally different than the intuitive method used in phenomenology, but as soon as one realizes that the object, as well as other processes of consciousness, is mediated by neural models, then one can easily see that the retreat from the object in phenomenological analysis is but a shift in awareness from one set of neural processes to another.

The cortical level of the human nervous system evolved to carry out at least one principal function, and that function is to constitute a cognized environment functionally interposed between sensory input (exteroception) and motor output. The structure of the cortical processes that constitute the cognized environment are essentially intentional; they constellate cognitive processes about the object. But the focus of these intentional processes may be wilfully re-directed toward the very processes of constitution themselves. Because of the way the neural systems have evolved to function, they will as easily constellate upon features of objects, abstract concepts and ideas about objects, bodily functions involved in the orientation toward the object, the extent of arousal evoked by the object, behaviors directed in response to the object, and many other features of consciousness. As we have evolved to know the object, so too can we know the processes that produce the object. All that is required is to learn to control the intentional processes relative to the object.

An Exercise: The Wilful Control of Attention .

Perhaps it would be useful to offer a concrete example of the kind of control I mean so that we have a shared experience upon which to ground our mutual understanding. May I suggest that you fix your gaze upon some object in the distance. Concentrate your attention upon the object as intensely as you can. Feel the effort such concentration requires. Now, without moving your gaze from that object , shift your attention to some sound in your environment, and again intensify your attention upon the new object. Feel the effort this shift of attention requires. Try moving your attention back and forth between the visual object and the auditory object, intensifying concentration upon each in turn. But gradually begin to watch the effort required to shift attention and to intensify attention upon the object. That is, gradually make the effort of attention the principal object of awareness. When you get the hang of this subtle shift in attention, add a third object, say the pressure of your buttocks on the chair or feet on the floor. Now move attention and concentration around in the sensorial field circumscribed by the three objects from three different sensory modes. Again, gradually pay more attention to the effort required for the change in orientation. Study that effort. Add more sense objects (eg., breath at the nostrils, other sounds, colors in the peripheral field) if you wish, but keep the gaze fixed upon the original visual object. You may notice that the more you pay attention to the effort -- perhaps an aspect of consciousness to which you have never before paid much attention -- the more the effort aspect stands out in relief from the rest of the context of perception.

This exercise is pertinent to our discussion of phenomenology. In order to carry out any phenomenological analysis, the contemplative must learn to redirect attention away from conditioned ways of viewing and toward the normally subconscious processes that participate in constructing the object. And as we have seen from direct experience, this redirection requires effort, and more than the usual self-awareness. Yet the ability to expend this type of effort, and to maintain this level of self-awareness is fundamental to everything Edmund Husserl and the Buddha taught about the exploration of consciousness.

The Advantages of Neurophenomenology .

I hope to show in the course of this book that a neurophenomenological approach to the study of consciousness has numerous advantages for a science of consciousness over alternative approaches, even when those alternative approaches may be quite valid, useful and even consonant with the neurophenomenological approach. I will list six of these advantages in brief to set the tone for what comes afterwards.

1. Neurophenomenology helps to transcend cultural, ideological and theoretical biases about the nature of consciousness . As Edmund Husserl (1931, 1977) repeatedly emphasized, and as the anthropological literature amply attests, naive observers approach the study of consciousness encumbered by a "natural attitude;" that is, with a load of cultural conditioning they tacitly accept and find extremely difficult to eliminate or transcend. Alfred North Whitehead spoke to the heart of this problem when he wrote:

Thought is abstract; and the intolerant use of abstractions is the major vice of the intellect. This vice is not wholly corrected by the recurrence to concrete experience. For after all, you need only attend to those aspects of your concrete experience which lie within some limited scheme. There are two methods for the purification of ideas. One of them is dispassionate observation by means of the bodily senses. But observation is selection. Accordingly, it is difficult to transcend a scheme of abstraction whose success is sufficiently wide. The other method is by comparing the various schemes of abstraction which are well founded in our various types of experience. This comparison takes the form of satisfying the demands of the Italian scholastic divines whom Paul Sarpi mentioned. They asked that reason should be used. Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery.

(Whitehead 1925: 24-25)

What is particularly interesting in Whitehead's discussion is his recognition of the difficulty of avoiding conceptual loading in experience. He was aware of how selective is perception, being as conditioned by cultural and personal points of view (and I would add neurognostic creodes) as is more lofty thought. Whitehead has recourse to a comparative analysis of abstract "schemes" grounded in experience, a strategy also worked out in the "sociology of knowledge" approach of Karl Mannheim (1936) and one to which I subscribe to some extent in this book. For example, neurophenomenology goes quite a way in avoiding the mind-brain dualism so typical of Euroamerican thinking by recognizing that brain and mind are two ways of viewing the same transcendental scope.

As we have shown elsewhere (Laughlin 1988, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter 8) in our analysis of the relationship between cosmology and experience among traditional societies, the interpretive phase of culturally guided transpersonal experience is often conservative, engendering a "closed system" (Fischer 1986) interpretation that may stop further inquiry and is thus unproductive of an ongoing, "open," perhaps life-long, phenomenological exploration. This interpretive phase is embedded in a cycle of meaning (1) by which a society's cosmology gives rise to symbolic expressions that evoke experiences that in turn are interpreted in terms of the cosmology. The basic function of this cycle in most instances is to bring personal experience, identity and understanding in line with a society's world view, while also experientially vivifying and verifying the cosmology. Some systems will encourage a freedom of exploration more than other systems, but most will tend to close-off exploration when experiences begin to reach beyond the dimensions interpreted as beneficial to the commonweal. This is why in the preface to this book I remarked that "meaning" is not necessarily "explanation." The task of science goes beyond the production of an interpretive framework for our experiences, but is committed to a deeper penetration into the "why questions;" questions pertaining to the atructures that mediate experience, and the relations between these structures and the rest of the operational environment.

Of course, no system of cultural knowledge is completely open, and certainly not scientific paradigms and religious ideologies. As we shall shortly see, even systems of phenomenology incorporate biases of view that make one domain of exploration more likely than alternative domains. Neither can neurophenomenology claim to entirely avoid closure; it can only claim to be more open relative to traditional cosmological systems, religious ideologies and narrow disciplinary paradigms.

2. Neurophenomenology escapes the naive self-reflection evident in ego-centered psychologies . By combining trained contemplation with the neurosciences, neurophenomenology escapes many of the apparent paradoxes that arise between reports of naive introspection and how we know the brain works. That is, we are no longer required to view consciousness from the position of the empirical ego. One obstacle to mapping the structures of experience onto the structures of the nervous system has been the (often tacit) desire to define and fix the location of the ego, the subject in the subject-object relation. In short, western psychologies are commonly ego-centered and involved in the search for the "ghost in the machine," the little homonculus somewhere in the works that is the audience for the sensorial movie.

Such psychologies are hampered by naive introspection, the uncritical, but from a cultural point of view perfectly natural, presumption that the ego is a real, substantial, seamless and enduring entity that needs to be located somewhere in mind or brain. This naive presumption is grounded upon direct, but undisciplined and culturally guided experience of the self, and as such forms a hub for the wheel of what Hebb (in Buchtel 1982: 22ff) called the "common-sense view of consciousness" and what Husserl (1931) called the "natural attitude."

The empirical ego is the product of our "natural attitude" directed at naive, socially conditioned self-understanding. The empirical ego is our cognized self, a culturally conditioned fiction we reify upon our experience of ourself and our activities in the world. And the delusion of this ego fiction is easily vulnerable to the phenomenological reduction. Indeed, the mature contemplative from whatever tradition has transcended -- has in a sense "gone beyond" or "behind" -- the views of self constructed for the culturally and linguistically relative "natural attitude" so often reflected in (say) modern anti-transcendental hermeneutical theories of self and meaning (eg., Wachterhauser 1986).

3. Neurophenomenology helps to shift observation in favor of sensorial reality . Because there is a contemplative component to the discipline, exploration of consciousness is carried out in such a way as to shift the predominance of experience toward the novel and away from the projection of certainty (see Spradlin and Porterfield 1984 for a cogent discussion). The mechanisms for this shift will be discussed later (and were addressed in Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter 11). The point to be made here is that the projection of the more abstract, conceptual elements and relations from the "natural attitude" oriented cognized environment upon the sensorium is sufficient in most individuals to inhibit novelty and reify anticipated structures. And this is the case whether the cognized abstractions derive from the neurosciences or from some other cultural or ideological font. In a word, mature contemplation, a major component of neurophenomenology, is the only systematic means we human beings have available for transcending the "natural attitude," the incessant reification of cognized environment upon the sensorial networks producing experience. Neurophenomenology allows us to "return to the things themselves," to re-engage with sensorial creations, and to appraise their nature unfettered by static cultural or ideological interpretive frames.

4. Neurophenomenology produces a more robust body of theory . Because we have applied the rule of minimal inclusion to the scope of inquiry -- the scope in this instance being human consciousness itself -- the broadest possible range of data is considered relevant to the study, and each body of data stands as a cross-check to the validity of ideas about the scope (see Pribram 1986, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter 1). Research on consciousness is ever grounded in direct contemplation, but not to the exclusion of other styles of observation that may be validly and usefully incorporated into the neurosciences, including experimentation, neurophysiology, ethnography, clinical neuropsychology, etc. Neurophenomenology is envisioned as an integrated set of parallel explorations, not, as is so often implied in Husserl's writings, as a serial process beginning with phenomenology and incorporating scientific work only after completion of the phenomenological reductions. Neuroscience produces the theoretical view in which to carry out critical interpretation while phenomenology keeps the interpretive process maximally open to novelty.

5. Neurophenomenology is an exploration open to all who are prepared to train themselves as contemplatives . Neurophenomenology opens the possibility of participation to anyone, be they neuroscientist or otherwise, who is willing to train themself as a contemplative. Progress in neurophenomenology requires ongoing research in the neurosciences, of course. But the data and theory produced by the neurosciences provide a dynamic interpretive frame for, and is open to the results of contemplation, the latter being such that it requires no equipment, no academic position, and no government grants. What it does require is an on-going engagement in the neuroscienceson the part of the contemplative, or contemplative skill on the part of the neuroscientist. Naturally the happiest combination is a neuroscientist who is also a contemplative, but this is not necessary for a neurophenomenology. All that is required is sufficient dialogue.

6. Neurophenomenology helps avoid mind-body dualism . The reader may well ask why I bother to limit consciousness to the nervous system? There are many reasons for doing so, but my current ones have to do with the power of the neurophenomenological perspective for avoiding mind-body dualism. We have discussed this issue repeatedly (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:10-12) and it is of paramount importance to building a science of consciousness, and a science that takes consciousness fully into account in its formulations.

The trouble is that scientists, most of whom were born and raised in western cultures, carry into their scientific endeavors pre-scientific cultural baggage (i.e., a "natural attitude"). And one bit of baggage they carry is the tacit knowledge that they "inhabit" their bodies. I was taught that "I" am inside my body looking out at the world "out there," and this is quite naturally how I approach the study of myself and the world. "I" am a mental entity that "inhabits" this body, and "I" am studying the world "out there," a world that includes physical bodies (my own along with them).

This view of myself as a mental entity inhabiting a body derives from a cultural fiction, a really all-pervasive one that becomes expressed in language in the way we speak about ourselves and the world, and institutionalized in such things as scientific disciplines divided into the "physical" sciences (biology, physics, chemistry) and the "social" sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology). Mind-body dualism is as insidious as it is distorting to our understanding of humanity as a phenomenon, and can only be systematically overcome by either full realization of the unity of being (which comes naturally in the course of mature contemplation) or by being forced to do so through application of a perspective that requires that both mental and physical aspects of being be taken into account in any explanation of consciousness.

One way to conceptually bridge from mental to physical is to recognize the nervous system as the organ of mentation, and require that any exploration of the one take the other into account. That is what we have done all along in biogenetic structuralism, and I am continuing in this vein in the present book. Notice that this does not mean that biogenetic structuralism requires a reduction of experience to brain structures. Neither my experience of myself and my world, nor my knowledge of the brain, is a complete account of my being. A complete understanding of my being is approached only by taking all possible ways of knowing myself into account. I am a mystery to myself. My experience is a mystery, and my body is a mystery. In fact my experience and my body are both ingredients of the same mystery: "What am I."

7. Neurophenomenology recognizes the importance of intuition as a source of knowledge about consciousness . Phenomenology, by whatever stripe or culture of origin, is an approach to knowledge about consciousness grounded in intuition and dependent upon the possibility of rational formulation and linguistic description of intuitive insights. Instead of being tacitly operating in the process of scientific discovery, intuition is regarded in phenomenology as both the original experience of knowing, and a possible object of phenomenological exploration. Intuition is thus used as both a transcendental source of knowledge and as evidence of the neurognostic processes that produce knowledge.

As we have seen, this reliance upon intuition as the source of knowledge is anathema to the positivist account of science, and is therefore an issue that needs to be discussed at length before we can proceed to exemplify neurophenomenology directly. Therefore, the next chapter will be given over to such a discussion -- one that also suggests an evolutionary and neurophysiological theory of intuition.


1. Our "cycle of meaning" is an anthropological version of the "hermeneutical circle" of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur (see Bernstein 1983).