One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.
Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”. The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment. From the introduction …
Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.
… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts. As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us. Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities. Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):
“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary. The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”
Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world. These notions are a core of yoga spirituality. As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:
For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined. Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is, in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14) … Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance. The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject. (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself; it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)
So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it. To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff. I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.
Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!
The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here). I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:
This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.
I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!
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