Can Attention Enhance Consciousness?
A Neurologist's View
This article appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.
Science has taken up the mystery of consciousness lately with the same verve it applied to other big questions such as the nature of life and the origin of our universe. Some scientists equate consciousness to a complex computer program, others to an irreducible force that pervades the universe like electromagnetic energy. Some, like neurologist Antonio R. Damasio, continue to look into the most obvious source of consciousness: the brain. As head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City, Damasio has spearheaded research on the neuroscience of the mind. His books, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain and The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, have become influential best-sellers in popular neuroscience. I spoke with him recently about the biological nature of consciousness and the attempt to enhance it through meditation.
Fernando Pagés Ruiz: You say in your book that focused attention seems to be a prerequisite for consciousness. I'm wondering if enhancing attention through exercises such as meditation and yoga can enhance consciousness too?
Antonio Damasio: I would say yes. I think that yoga and meditation are methods that directly and in a very healthy way can manipulate consciousness. They can enhance consciousness to help you become hyper-aware.
FPR: The first step in meditation practice involves hyper-awareness in the sense of single-pointed awareness. But once this step is mastered, the meditator abandons single-pointed awareness and begins to experience awareness as a pure undifferentiated state without a clear distinction between self and object. From a biological perspective, could you tell me what's happening in the meditator's brain and whether this is good for you?
AD: I have never done research on the mental and brain processes of meditation, so I'm not an expert. But my impression is that you are quite right. In advanced meditation you move away from extended consciousness, away from one's autobiography in relation to the world, to concentrate on something deeper and simpler: one's core biological nature. So, in a way, to get to experience that I would qualify as spiritual or mystical, you are delving deeply toward the core of being rather than going up toward the more complicated aspects of self and its relation to society.
FPR: Do you think there's a biological imperative behind the impulse to higher consciousness?
AD: I think there is a biological imperative toward inner balance. This relates to the basic impulse to maintain life. Religion and self-improvement involve building defenses that promote calm instead of anxiety. They engage us in a way that provides emotional homeostasis. Of course, this process finds its expression through culture. Each culture copes in a different way.
FPR: Now that consciousness has found its place in the laboratory and scientists like yourself are finding biological explanations for it, do you still see a place for the empirical pursuit of consciousness research, such as the first-person approach used by meditators? AD: Absolutely. The two pursuits are quite different, but perfectly compatible. On the one hand, you can study the biological characteristics of this phenomenon the same way that you study the biological aspects of language or memory. On the other, techniques that look at consciousness from a very personal and direct vantage are perfectly legitimate. Especially since this helps people become more aware of themselves and the conditions they are in. It makes for happier and better people. I'm in favor of that.