Part 1

What sort of knowledge then can we hope to obtain from performing "reductions" in the Husserlian sense? Well, the short answer is that we can reduce literally any recurrent pattern in consciousness and experience. One can meditate on colors and come to directly experience the psychological associations that lawfully arise relative to different hues. One can reduce hunger pangs, back pains, the sensations on the bottom of the feet when walking. The list of objects is endless.

But there are some reductions that are more productive of overall understanding than others relative to the operations of consciousness that condition our experience of the world. I thought I might give a few examples here so as to give you a feel for the process. These are by no means the only essential structures of experience that we might profitably spend time on. But they are major ones and ones that I have discussed in my own writings so far.


Probably the first structure we should mention is intentionality, if for no other reason than it has been the characteristic of consciousness most considered definitive. Meditators and philosophers as far back as the Greeks noticed that when we are conscious, we are conscious of something . That is, there is always an object around which our consciousness seems to organize itself. That "something" may be a thing, a quality, an event, a feeling, a sensation or a property of mind. But depending upon what we focus on, the quality and organization of our consciousness changes. You can carry on the exercise I gave when discussing the reduction in the previous tangent and demonstrate to your own satisfaction that there is not, nor can there ever be, a moment of consciousness without an object -- although of course consciousness itself and its structures and qualities may be the object.

And if you watch the normal movement of consciousness as it arises and passes moment-by-moment, you may discover that your consciousness flits from object to object as the stream of consciousness unfolds. This is a realization that is fundamental to the Buddhist phenomenology of liberation, by the way. Coming to control the flitting from object to object is only possible when one calms the mind to an extraordinary extent.

It is also a fundamental realization in Husserlian phenomenology that whereas the consciousness is intentional, the real world is not. That is, the operational environment has no focus. It is happening everywhere all the time. The organization of our experience and our knowledge of reality is always from a point of view. But reality is transcendental and has no point of view, unless of course we are talking about other conscious beings in reality.

In the development of a neurophenomenology, we have hypothesized that this characteristic intentionality is mediated by an interaction between the prefrontal cortex and the sensorium. Any object of consciousness, remember, is also mediated by a neural network and is, for the moment, the central focus of cognitive, affective, metabolic and motor operations for the organism. Subsidiary structures entrained as a consequence of the dialogue between prefrontal and sensorial processes may be located over a wide expanse of cortical (eg., parietal visual attention structures, right lobe imaginal structures, left lobe language processing structures), subcortical (eg., hippocampal recognition structures, brainstem arousal structures, limbic emotional structures) and endocrinal (eg., hypothalamic and pituitary structures) areas. There are suggestive data from sleep labs that the primary variable determining whether or not we remember our dreams in the morning is the extent of prefrontal intentional processing maintained across the warp between dreaming phases of consciousness and waking phases.


If you study your sensorium in just the right way, you will come to see that the sensory "things" you see and hear and touch and taste are comprised of almost infinitesimal particles. Your sensorium is granular in "texture." In different traditions, these particles have been variously labelled (e.g., yod in Kabala, bindu in Hindu and Buddhist tradition), but because they tend to be first apprehended in visual perception, I simply call them dots . It should be understood, however, that the contemplative can readily ascertain that qualities in all sensory modes are comprised of dots. Dots are a multimodal sensory essence that may be readily intuited, much as anyone who cares to look may apprehend the "dots" comprising a television image. All you have to do is want to see them and get close enough, so to speak.

Sensorial dots are commonly missed to naive introspection:

Because most people are not interested in, nor are they trained to concentrate upon the essential features of their perception, and
Because most people have not developed the depth of calm requisite to perform the necessary reduction.

With sufficient incentive and training it is quite easy to become aware of the activity of these minuscule and momentary sensorial events and their patterns of organization within perceptual forms. The best conditions for first discerning dots is in the visual domain and under twilight conditions. Study visual objects in semi-darkness and you may see that they are made up of a field of conjoined particles. Another way is to look at some lighter object in semi-darkness and then close your eyes and watch the eidetic image deteriorate. You will see that as the image fades, you can still see the residual dots, for they don't all fade at the same time. Still another method is study the contrasting edges of things. You will find that edges are fuzzy and they are fuzzy because they are made up of dots. As you become practised at discerning dots in the visual mode, shift to the other sensory modes and study their texture. You will come to see they are made up of particles as well.

You will come to see that dots are the building blocks of objects and movement in the sensorial field, and once apprehended, they may be apprehended at any time, as long as the requisite awareness is present and directed at that property of experience.

After the "dot reduction" (Husserl's word for the field of dots was "hyle") has been performed, the sensorium is experienced as a field of dots that is perceptually and cognitively distinguishable into sensory modes, and within sensory modes into forms and events. The fundamental act of perception is the abstraction and reenforcement of invariant features within the order of an unfolding and dissolving field of dots. The cognized environment is realized within the sensorium by ordering fields of dots with recognizable ( re -cognizable!) configurations.

Playing with metaphors for the moment, the sensorium is like a back-lit screen comprised of a field of dots. One is normally aware of the cognized movie, but not of the projector. One intuits the principles of mind that manifest as apparent regularities in the functioning of the projector. But in the case of the sensorium there is no screen. A screen is a thing that is still apparent when the movie stops. There is really no "thing" to perceive when the sensorial movie stops. So the sensorium is more like a hologram projected into space. But there is no "space" there either - spacial extension being just another cognized illusion that vanishes with the movie. So, the sensorium is like a magic theatre with no screen, no projector, and no space. In other words, the sensorium is a plenum void constituted by and for the mindbrain.

You may discover that dots have minute spatial extension and are always contiguous within the sensorial field. Apparent space is a neurognostic cognition imposed upon topological relations among dots. In other words, dots are perceived to have extension and to make up the entirety of sensorial "space" with no real space between dots. Extension interpreted as "space" between objects is a relational interpretation. Such "space" or "emptiness" is readily seen by the contemplative to be a "plenum void;" i.e., full of impermanent, contiguous dots. Any place one concentrates within the sensorium one will find contiguous dots. I am speaking here of the topological relations among dots in the field comprising any given moment of consciousness. Moreover, phenomena are comprised of dots whether or not the stimulus initially eliciting the phenomena are internal or external to the nervous system. The perceptions of both a car "out there" and a car "in a dream" involve the constituting of an object within a field of dots.

Our understanding of the neural structures mediating the dot is thus far speculative, but we would argue that such structures are fairly fixed relative to the flexibility of higher cognitive operations mediated by more complex and more plastic neural entrainments. Sensorial dots are probably produced at the cortical level of organization and are unlikely mediated by the activity of a single cell. So we can't say "one dot, one cell." It is more likely that sensory particles are mediated by columns in secondary and tertiary sensory cortex, and obtain much of their initial ordering ("primordial givenness" in Husserl's terms) via hypercolumnar organization.

A cortical column is a functional unit that may be comprised of 10,000 or more neurons, plus support cells. The relationship between sensorial dots (mediated by cortical networks) on the one hand, and the activity of individual receptor cells at the periphery of the nervous system on the other hand is very complex. It involves a topographical transmission of patterned activity into the brain, a regularity of transmission that functions to maintain an adaptive isomorphism of the cognized environment with patterns of stimulation at receptor sites.


If you study the arising and passing of dots in your sensorium, you will come to realize that their appearance is intermittent. We have already noted above that dots arise, endure a moment and then dissolve. They can no more be wilfully caused to abide longer than their natural life cycle than can the fluorescing dot composing a television image. They are by nature momentary in duration, and their nature is conditioned by the organization of the neurognostic structure of the cells mediating them.

You will come to readily see that dots do not generally arise and dissolve at random. Far from it, for it is apparent that fields of dots arise and pass away in unison. Fields of dots are as intermittent in occurrence as are individual dots. The arising and dissolving of a single field of dots may be termed a sensorial epoch .

Sensory epochs arise and dissolve serially much as a run of photographic frames produces a "moving" picture in the cinema. Perceptual frames pulse or flicker through consciousness, as does awareness of them. This is an important essential feature of perceptual phenomenology, for it is not readily apprehendable to naive introspection. People are conditioned by their enculturation to "see" things -- solid, enduring things -- just as they are conditioned to see the characters and events on the TV and not the dots that make up the picture. The failure to detect dots and their pulsing intermittency reflects the level of phenomenological skill one is able to apply to the study of consciousness.

Perceptual intermittency is generally not apprehended until perception of form (i.e., "car," "sound of constant pitch," "taste of sole almandine") has been reduced so that concentration is solely upon the essential ingredients of perceptual acts. When the contemplative becomes fully aware of perceptual epochs and can apprehend the arising and dissolving of them as they occur, then he may be said to have performed the reduction to the real, ongoing "now" (in Buddhist terms, the cittakhana ) as opposed to the "now" of mundane perception (the "serial now," or khanapaccupana ). The latter, tainted as it is with the "natural attitude" of culturally conditioned experience is a cognitive concatenation of perceptual epochs with memory and anticipation -- or more imprecisely, the past, present and future (see Husserl's volume, The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness . Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1964: 62).

The relations among memories of patterns abstracted from recently past epochs, the "now" or current epoch, and anticipated soon-to-arise epochs are, as Husserl noted, "primordial" -- that is, fundamental to the neurognostic organization mediating perceptual acts. These are cognitions that entrain with the sensorial structures mediating the fields of dots to produce enduring objects and the continuity of events.

This is fundamental to cognized time. The temporal organization of experience is a complex matter, however, and involves areas of the brain in addition to those mediating perceptual epochs. The role of prefrontal cortical intentional processes in selecting, exciting and ordering sensorial activity into a temporally meaningful plan is crucial.

Part of the dialogue between prefrontal and sensorial structures seems to involve septal-hippocampal centers in the midbrain. Orbitofrontal projections from prefrontal cortex richly innervate the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal projections enter the lateral septal area. These areas are also connected to secondary sensory areas and seem to receive sensory information that is already abstracted from the initial processing in primary sensory cortex. That is, in the phenomenological sense, the sensory information arriving at septal-hippocampal sites appear to be abstractions from the operations carried out by primary sensory cortex, while the field of sensorial dots is already a rudimentary abstraction of events in the operational environment.

It was once thought that the hippocampus was a memory storage center. It is now suspected that the septal- hippocampal system does not store memories, but is an area that anticipates what will be found in the next sensory epochs and attempts to match what does arise to that which is predicted from memory constituted elsewhere (perhaps in the temporal lobe) in the brain. It is, in Husserlian terms, an area (perhaps the area) of the brain specialized to concatenate recent "retention" (abstracted patterns and knowledge of past epochs), the stream of current dots (currently arising and dissolving epochs) and future "protentions" (anticipated future form of epochs).

EEG recordings from sites in both prefrontal cortex and hippocampus indicate significant slow wave negative activity relative to attention to sensory events. Prefrontal theta seems to be associated with concentration upon sensory objects, and slow wave, low amplitude prefrontal waves (so- called "contingent negative variation," or CNV) with anticipation of delayed events. Hippocampal theta may be an artifact of a general pacemaker function. The relations among these various slow wave forms and perceptual epochs is not known, but they almost certainly involve the temporal organization of cognitive and perceptual functions.

There exists another important literature in the neurosciences relevant to our discussion of sensorial epochs. This research is ongoing and there remains a good deal of controversy on findings and interpretations in this field. Nonetheless, this research is suggestive of the neurophysiological substrate of perceptual epochs -- epochs being variously termed in this literature "perceptual moments," "temporal frames," "excitability cycles," "central intermittency," and "perceptual frames." Moreover -- and this is most important to anyone who grounds themselves in phenomenology -- these findings are consistent with my own direct experience.

There is considerable evidence for some sort of central temporal processing based upon a minute perceptual unit within which temporal discriminations cannot be made. Stimuli of different durations which are phase-locked to cortical rhythms and presented within a single epoch will be perceived as simultaneous, whereas stimuli presented across epochs will be perceived as sequential, or in apparent motion. The duration of an epoch seems to average around 100 msec (1/10 of a second) and is more or less equivalent to the wavelength of the EEG cortical alpha rhythm.

The extent to which cortical EEG reflects the precise phasing of local sensorial events remains uncertain. There is some evidence suggesting a more complex relationship between epochs at the local sensorial level and global measures of cortical EEG of the sort reported above than previously thought. Nevertheless, perceptual epochs would still seem to exist and last roughly 100 msec, thus producing a basic unit of perceptual time within which temporal discriminations are not made.

The arising and dissolving of fields of dots occurring within a single epoch thus provide spatial extension without temporal seriation. This is, for the contemplative, the experientially pure form of Alfred North Whitehead's "mode of simultaneity." Essential temporal relations which participate in constituting enduring objects and events are mediated by neural entrainments established across multiple epochs. This is the experientially pure form of Whitehead's "mode of causal efficacy."

The function of the sensorial epoch may prove to be one of synchronizing parallel processes involved in constituting a phenomenologically unitive experience. This suggestion would be in accord with the so-called "excitability cycle hypothesis" which posits epochs of sensory delivery into consciousness. In my view, this is the hypothesis best supported by the neuropsychological data so far.

And as I say, contemplation supports this hypothesis, for the direct experience of sensorial epochs is of pulsing intermittency in the arising and dissolving of fields of dots. Cognitions pertaining to apparent motion involve tracking changes in spatial relations between epochs. Mind you, the activity of dots within an epoch is vivid and dynamic. There is activity within the epoch, but no temporal attributions obtain within it. Temporal attributions are imposed by cognitive abstraction upon relations detected between epochs.

Direct experience also argues for caution in presuming that the activity of dots, and the sensorial structures mediating dots, are necessarily time-locked to stimuli. There is a great deal of spontaneous dot production in the sensorium apparent to direct perception and due no doubt to the fact that the structures mediating them are organizations of living cells that may, and often do produce intrinsically initiated activity. I suggest that direct contemplation supports Pinneo's distinction between the "phasic" (time-locked to extraneous stimuli) and "tonic" (intrinsically initiated) activity of sensorial structures.


As we reach the end of this tangent on the structures of experience, let me caution you not to get frustrated when attempting these reductions. To see in a phenomenological way depends upon developing skills, and developing those skills takes time. Go easy on yourself. For most of us, the ability to see in this way requires that we cultivate calm and tranquil states in which to carry out exercises leading to our direct seeing of these structures. When we are hyper and in adaptational mode, we tend to see things in more conditioned ways and more superficially. If we want to see in new and culturally unconditioned ways, we should seek a safe, comfortable, leisurely space and chill-out. It helps to do our favorite exercises to calm the body and focus the mind. Even the ability to become deeply calm, but remain very actively aware, is a skill in itself with major implications for doing phenomenology.

We have reached the end of Part 1 of our exploration of the structures of experience. If you wish to continue on to Part 2, feel free to do so. Or you may wish to return to our discussion of the training for transpersonal anthropologists, or to the tutorial index and return later.