peer-reviewed, edited version of this paper appeared in Vol. 52
No. 3-4 (2010) of Activitas Nervosa Superior: The Journal for
Neurocognitive Research. That article is available in PDF
form on this
site and soon on the ANS site.
Presented at the Tucson II
Toward a Science of Consciousness 1996 conference
Tucson Convention Center, Tucson, Arizona, April 8, 1996
THE NECESSITY FOR DEVELOPING
SKILL AT MIND-PROCESS OBSERVATION, AND A SUGGESTED METHODOLOGY
by Copthorne Macdonald
I. The Problem
Integral to an eventual understanding
of brain/mind relationship and function is the web of correlations that
exist between mind events and physical (primarily neural) phenomena. Contemporary
science has mounted a major effort to understand the physical side of the
issue and has had success after success. Yet on the mental side, it has
neglected even basic data gathering.
Ever since introspectionism
was abandoned early in this century, the scientific community has shown
little interest in training people to observe the functioning of their own
minds with greater than ordinary clarity. Thus, despite advanced academic
training and much knowledge about physical phenomena and processes, few
consciousness theorists or experimentalists have any special expertise at
closely observing mental artifacts and processes. Without observational
clarity about the mental, how is that web of physical/mental correlations
going to be mapped? And how is the "hard question" going to be
Unfortunately, we humans are
not naturally skilled at observing mind content and process. Our natural
tendency is to get lost in the mental drama that accompanies our life. We
tend to identify with the informational content of our minds in much the
same way that we identify with the informational content of an engrossing
movie. Consequently, much of the time we are "lost in the show."
We have developed neither the detachment required for scientifically sound
observation of mind contents and functions, nor the requisite observational
The need for accurate
Increasingly, situations arise
where knowledge from one discipline alone is not enough to extend the frontiers
of understanding and creative capability. In order to do creative work in
the field of medical technology, for example, the biomedical engineer must
have both physician-type knowledge and engineer-type knowledge in one brain/mind.
I am suggesting that a similar necessity exists in the field of consciousness
studies. Whether their primary discipline is philosophy, neurology, psychology,
or cognitive science, those theoreticians and researchers who complement
academically grounded expertise with highly developed mind-watching skills
have an advantage. They bring two pools of relevant data to their
explanation-creating, theory-building activities. This, I suggest, gives
them a significant advantage in their efforts to arrive at accurate, insightful
explanations of what is going on.
II. Mind-Watching Methodologies
was the psychologist's tool of choice in the late 19th Century. The experiments
themselves tended to be limited in scope. Each was designed to explore some
limited aspect of subjective experience, and the inner observation was often
correlated with some objective factor such as time or the intensity of a
sensation. In his Principles of Psychology, William James (1950,
p. 191) acknowledged that "introspection is difficult and fallible,"
but went on to say that "the difficulty is simply that of all observation
of whatever kind." (Emphasis his.) Titchener (1908, p.180) put
it this way: "There is no difference, in principle, between inspection
It is interesting to review
the mindset and terminology of the Introspectionists the kinds of
distinctions they made in their observations. Titchener (1908), for example,
spoke of the quality, intensity, temporal duration,
spatial extension, and attentional clearness of sensations.
He also acknowledged the necessity for experience in mind watching if anything
worthwhile was to come of it, and gave this example (1908):
When a tachistoscopic
field is exposed for the first time to an unpractised observer, he will
very probably fail to 'make out' anything at all; the lines or letters or
geometric figures are seen as a general impression, without the discrimination
of detail. (p. 238)
It is this "discrimination
of detail" that observational practice helps develop, and which must
be present if examination of mind contents is to have significant value.
Titchener (180, p. 179) speaks of the "practised observer" having
"the introspective habit . . . ingrained in the texture of his mind,"
making it possible "to take mental notes while the observation is in
progress" and even, at times, to "jot down written notes as the
histologist does while his eye is still held to the ocular of the microscope."
The present necessity
The experimental introspectionism
of Wundt, Külpe, and Titchener involved, for the most part, a focused
one-thing-at-a-time kind of looking. It was appropriate to the psychological
questions of that day, and the data it provided fed the inductive processes
of those experimenters.
Today we have a different set
of problems. A major concern of the participants in this conference, for
instance, is the relationship of brain process to mind process the
relationship of neural activity to mental qualia and functioning. I am suggesting
that a slightly different kind of introspective looking can contribute to
the development of this kind of understanding. Many years ago Boring spoke
of Köhler's plea for "phenomenology as free description of, without
analysis into formal elements" (Boring, 1950, p. 601), and quoted Köhler
as saying "Never, I believe, shall we be able to solve any problems
of ultimate principle . . . until we use the phenomenological method, the
qualitative analysis of experience." Today, I'm simply echoing Köhler's
Specifically, I am suggesting
that mind content and function be watched with the same sort of observational
skill that naturalists employ when they observe the behavior of wildlife:
a combination of detachment, wide attentional focus, keen interest, alertness,
and the ability to detect fast-changing subtlety.
This is a less directed kind
of mind watching than that practiced by the turn-of-the-century introspectionists.
One watches, not focused on one specific thing, but without expectation,
simply waiting to see what happens next. One watches to see what arises,
and to detect (if possible) causal patterns related to those arisings.
The bad news is that this kind
of observational capability is not innate. Naive observers just don't have
it. The good news is that this combination of attitudes and skills can be
developed through practice. The experienced naturalist on a field trip sees
much more than she did on field trips when she was a student. The bird watcher
with 20 years experience identifies many more birds than does the beginner.
Similarly, the ability to see what is happening in the mind with relative
clarity and precision develops through mind-watching practice.
The sort of mental training
required is already going on in many parts of the world, though not for
this specific purpose. It is found in the monastic disciplines of Buddhism,
and in Western methodologies such as Open Focus (Fehmi and Fritz,
1980). In Theravadin Buddhism the
relevant technique is variously called Vipassana, Mindfulness,
or Insight meditation. In Zen,
the terms used are Bare Attention, and Shikan-Taza.
In Tibetan Buddhism, it is Dzogchen practice
that helps develop this observational skill.
In all these practices, the
methodology is to watch the ever-changing qualia and dynamic processes of
mind with an interested, caring detachment. Skill at doing this develops
over time, and effective practice involves engaging in this kind of mind
watching daily for perhaps an hour and in the Buddhist variations
on this theme, periodically for days- or weeks-at-a-time in intensive retreat
The Buddhist approach
In the Buddhist practices,
the observer first develops attentional steadiness or concentration by spending
time watching just one thing. This "one thing" is usually the
sensations that arise in connection with breathing either the sensation
of the breath passing through the nostrils, or sensations connected with
the rising and falling of the abdomen. Because the body is always breathing,
and because these breath-associated sensations are relatively subtle, they
make good objects of attention. When the ability to watch breath sensations
has developed to a certain point, the observer is encouraged to widen the
focus of attention to include other objects physical sensations,
feelings, sounds, thoughts and ultimately, whatever arises in the
mind. Theravadin Buddhism's Vipassana, Zen Buddhism's Shikan-Taza
and Tibetan Buddhism's Dzogchen all involve practicing this non-identified,
accepting, open-to-everything kind of noticing.
The Open Focus approach skips
the narrow-focus, one-pointed initial practice of the Buddhist traditions,
and instead attempts to talk the participant directly into the second, "open"
kind of mind watching through the use of pre-recorded audio tapes.
III. Tangible Results
When you follow this methodology
to the point that you start to get results, what is it that you are able
to see clearly that others tend to miss? The following examples illustrate
a few of the possibilities.
1. The automaticity of
mind processes, their mechanical nature.
Often noticed during the very
first attempt at this sort of mind watching is the lack of personal control
over mind happenings. The teacher's instruction is simple: "Sit for
the next 45 minutes and pay attention to the physical sensations that accompany
breathing." Doing this on the first attempt proves impossible. At some
point perhaps as early as one minute into the process attention
gets diverted from breath sensations to thoughts, or sounds, or an itch.
As Daniel Goleman (1988) describes it
At the outset, the
meditator's focus wanders from the object of meditation. As he notices he
has wandered, he returns his awareness to the proper focus. His one-pointedness
is occasional, coming in fits and starts. His mind oscillates between the
object of meditation and distracting thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Later, concentration develops
and attention is able to remain on the chosen object. Still, even though
attention is now stable, other mind content continues to arise. Goleman
The first landmark
in concentration comes when the meditator's mind is unaffected both by outer
distractions, such as nearby sounds, and by the turbulence of his own assorted
thoughts and feelings. Although sounds are heard, and his thoughts and feelings
are noticed, they do not disturb the meditator. (p. 10)
("Disturb" in this
context means causing attention to move away from the chosen object.)
2. The relationship between
awareness and the informational content of mind.
If the mind watching effort
is pursued for an extended period, it eventually becomes apparent that even
when the mind is very "quiet" (little mind content: quiet surroundings,
closed eyes, few thoughts arising), one is still intensely aware.
As I once put it (Macdonald, 1993):
A moment may come
. . . when awareness becomes aware of awareness when the observing
faculty becomes aware of itself as an entity separate in some sense from
the show, and different in nature. At such moments it becomes clear that
awareness is inherently still and unchanging, and that all motion, all change,
resides in the informational show. . . .(p. 89)
What sense a person makes of
this observation may be influenced by the kinds of knowledge that the person
brings to it. I happened to bring an understanding of communication systems
engineering to the experience, and the mental data I observed seemed to
fit a particular conceptual model from that field.
In radio transmission, an energy
carrier is modulated by program information, by the show. The carrier is,
in effect, a medium which has the informational message impressed upon it,
and which then carries that message with it. My mind watching led me to
see awareness as a medium, as a kind of sentient carrier. This awareness
carrier was being modulated by brain-generated information, and the products
of that modulation process were mental artifacts: mind content, qualia.
I came to see qualia as instances of information-modulated awareness. Going
into this a bit further (Macdonald, 1993):
At times I speak of
awareness and the informational show as being separate and from one
perspective they are. But from another perspective they are not. . . . [In
the radio example] the show modulates the carrier (changing the carrier's
frequency in FM, or its amplitude in AM). The physical reality is the carrier
itself; the show is a changing informational pattern encoded in the instant-to-instant
changes impressed on the carrier. The show and the carrier are separate
conceptually; they are different kinds of reality. At the same time, they
are one in the physical reality of an energy carrier undergoing modulation.
Similarly, awareness and the mental show are conceptually different kinds
of things, and in that sense are separate. They are one, however, in the
reality of awareness undergoing modulation. (p. 90)
Using another analogy, waves
are informational modulations of ocean. From one perspective waves are informational
entities in their own right, having distinct shapes and locations. From
another perspective, however, waves are simply ocean.
This carrier/information view
led to additional writing on the nature of mental and physical reality (Macdonald,
1994) and (Macdonald, Forthcoming), as I recently explained (Edgar, 1995):
My interest in new
descriptions of reality arose out of my need to make sense of two widely
different poles of personal experience. As an electronic design engineer,
I had developed confidence in the validity of science and the intellect.
Science works. By following scientific laws I had been able to design sophisticated
physical systems that never before existed. Then I discovered meditation,
a quiet mind, and the deep intuitive side of myself. In the process of spending
several thousand hours intently watching mental happenings, certain truths
about subjective experience became equally clear, equally persuasive. I
found myself with one foot in each of two very different worlds. I reasoned
that if both worlds were grounded in reality then it should be possible
to find (or create) a paradigm capable of encompassing both. Eventually,
key pieces (some from communications engineering) fell into place, and the
result was the medium/message or carrier/information interpretation of reality
presented in Toward Wisdom and the Zygon paper. (p. 258)
3. Insights into the identification
For many observers the kind
of looking we are considering here sheds light on identity and the
identification process. One typical insight involves seeing (as in 1.
above) that much of what goes on in the mind happens automatically without
any sense of intention or personal ownership associated with it. Another
(much rarer) identity-related event is a gestalt shift of identification
from the body and mind contents to awareness. The "I sense" becomes
associated with awareness itself. Such a shift is actively sought in traditions
such as Vedanta, Taoism, and some branches of Buddhism. The traditional
"Perennial Philosophy" way of viewing the situation was articulated
by Aldous Huxley (1945):
The ground in which
the multifarious and time-bound psyche is rooted is a simple timeless awareness.
By making ourselves pure in heart and poor in spirit we can discover and
be identified with this awareness. (p. 29)
Whether or not this particular
identity shift is directly experienced, alert but detached mind watching
can shed light on our identifications and on the processes that underlie
4. An appreciation of
other, non-intellectual, modes of knowing.
Our late-20th-century minds
tend to be noisy minds, full of informational content and fast-paced mental
activity. Because it is extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to pay
close attention to something and engage in discursive thinking at the same
time, the kind of attentive mind watching we're talking about tends to quiet
the mind. This quieting of the mind has been observed by myself and others
to lead to a closer connection with, and appreciation for, the source of
guidance and creative solutions often termed intuition, or the intuitive
process (Bastick, 1982, p. 277; Goldberg, 1983, p. 179-80; Macdonald,
The phenomenon of knowing
it by being it knowledge through identification is another
sometime byproduct of the quiet mind.
5. Insights into the role
of selective attention.
As Eccles has pointed out,
it seems highly unlikely that sophisticated human-level conscious processes
would have evolved if they did not have survival and/or reproductive value
for the species (Eccles & Robinson, 1985, p. 37). In other words, consciousness
must be effective and play one or more valuable roles. What might that role
or roles be?
Mind-watching, coupled with
some reading on the subject, led me to conclude that consciousness and the
mechanism of selective attention keep the amount of neural computation needed
for situation evaluation down to a level that can be handled by a human
brain of the present size. As I recently put it (Macdonald, Forthcoming):
appears to be the mechanism that allowed mind to play this operational [situation
evaluation] role. Theorist of evolution Jerison (1973, p. 4) said: 'I regard
the mind and conscious experience as constructions of nervous systems to
handle the overwhelming amount of information that they process.' And selective
attention appears to be the mechanism that allowed the amount of computation
needed for situation evaluation to be kept at a manageable level.
approach seems to have been this: Create neuronal systems that generate
mental metaphors or analogs of the immediate physical situation, and by
superposing them bring them together in one mental 'space.' Combine with
this a selective attention mechanism which allows the superposed mental
fields to be scanned for qualia having survival or reproductive significance.
And when attention dwells on a particular quale, arrange for the neuronal
correlates of that quale to become available for unconscious computational
If this processing deems
the quale significant, my own personal experience indicates that it initiates
one of several possible responses:
- a direct behavior (as when
someone jumps immediately to save a child in danger),
- a subjective 'message'
such as a thought, feeling, or emotion which then appears in the mind
along with the information already present there, or
- an instruction to the systems
which control attention to stop paying attention to the present object
and resume attentional scanning.
6. Insights into how reactive
As I say elsewhere (Macdonald,
Strong emotions were
another part of evolution's solution to this decision-making and behaviour-guiding
problem. In a frog, the automatic reaction to a perceived opportunity or
danger is the action itself: go after the fly, jump off the lily pad. In
a human being the automatic reaction to an opportunity or danger is likely
to be an emotion rather than a direct action. Emotions are messages
that suggest or promote certain kinds of action, but they
don't initiate action directly. Instead, emotions appear on the screen of
mind along with perceptions, thoughts, and other forms of mental data. The
message that an emotion presents is taken into account by the situation-evaluation
and decision-making process, but it is just one of many pieces of data being
considered. (p. 68)
At another point I became aware
of the process by which highly-charged emotional states are created. In
short, brief impulses of reactive emotion lead to discursive thinking or
storymaking which leads to more impulses and more storymaking in positive
feedback fashion. If the cyclical feedback continues, that first isolated
emotional impulse becomes a full-blown emotional state. (Macdonald,
Once having noticed
an impulse there are three ways of dealing with it not all of them
- We can prolong the impulse
by identifying with it and weaving a story around it, by feeding energy
into a process that maintains it. If we do this, then a state
of anger, fear, jealousy, or desire arises. This, in turn, may result
in anger-based, fear-based, jealousy-based, or desire-based action of
- Another option is to deny
or repress the impulse to push it into the subconscious. This
is apt to have unfortunate consequences later, since repressed material
is not really gone. It often returns and causes trouble.
- A third option is simply
to notice the impulse, realize its automatic, mechanical, ancient-brain
origin, and let it go. (p. 61)
IV. Pitfalls and Limitations
Introspection has its pitfalls
and limitations. If we choose to go this route and add mind watching to
our bag of tricks, we must recognize the dangers, and not expect more from
the methodology than it can deliver.
One pitfall is just plain getting
it wrong. James (1950) said:
Something is before
us; we do our best to tell what it is, but in spite of our good will we
may go astray and give a description more applicable to some other sort
of thing. The only safeguard is in the final consensus of our farther
knowledge about the thing in question, later views correcting earlier ones,
until at last the harmony of a consistent system is reached. Such a system,
gradually worked out, is the best guarantee the psychologist can give for
the soundness of any particular psychologic observation which he may report.
Memory is an integral part
of the process, and memory's limitations must be acknowledged and circumvented
to the extent possible. Recording observations immediately, while they still
reside in short-term memory, has clarity and accuracy advantages
but interrupts the flow of observation. Waiting till later to take notes
avoids the interruption, but risks the erosion of clarity/accuracy as memory
degrades. Fortunately, many situations and types of mind content arise over
and over again. This allows us to take one approach this time, and another
approach the next time, reducing the importance of any one observation.
Yet another potential pitfall
is the influence of observation itself on what is observed. This effect
varies from insignificant, or practically so, to highly significant. The
kind of interruption mentioned above is one manifestation of it. As Titchener
(1908, p. 177) put it, "if you try to report the changes in consciousness
while these changes are in progress, you interfere with consciousness; your
translation of the mental processes into words introduces new factors into
the experience itself." Even more intrusive is the effect of observation
on emotions. Titchener (1908, p. 177) acknowledged that "Cool consideration
of an emotion is fatal to its very existence; your anger disappears, your
disappointment evaporates, as you examine it." (This phenomenon is,
of course, sought after and welcomed in the usual use of this methodology:
The kind of introspection suggested
here is no panacea for the ills that beset the field of consciousness studies,
but is, I believe, an activity that can facilitate progress. Although this
kind of mind observation yields little quantitative information, it does
yield qualitative insights and instances of intuitive clarity. Some of these,
coupled with objective data, can be crafted by the intellect into testable
hypotheses and helpful theoretical constructs. Phenomenological observation,
by itself, is not the answer to anything. But it allows a kind of cross-fertilization
with informational and conceptual content from neurology, psychology, philosophy,
and cognitive science that promises to lead to new ways of looking at brain/mind
issues, and ultimately to new explanations of, and clarity about, the brain/mind
P.O. Box 2941, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada C1A 8C5.
[The following information was updated on 27 August 2007.] Email:
email@example.com Web sites: http://www.copmacdonald.com/,
Return to text.
Princeton Biofeedback Center, P.O. Box 572, Princeton, NJ 08540.
609-924-0785. Return to text.
See (Levine, 1979; Goldstein, 1983; Macdonald, 1993). Also, Insight
Meditation Society, Pleasant Street, Barre, MA 01005. 508-355-4378.
Return to text.
See (Kapleau, 1965). Return to text.
See (Reynolds, 1989; Dowman, 1994; Norbu, 1989). Return
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