Professor Olivia Carter | Using Meditation and Psychedelic Science to Examine Dimensions of Consciousness
The study of altered states of consciousness has long had the potential to provide important insight into the nature of consciousness. In recent years there has been a resurgence of research and public interest in atypical or altered states of consciousness. These have focused both on conditions in which consciousness is impaired due to brain trauma or enhanced in some way through meditation or ingestion of psychedelics. This presentation focuses on the latter as an avenue to examine the relationship between different features of consciousness in altered states, with the aim of addressing current debates regarding the uni-dimensional vs multi-dimensional nature of consciousness. First, I will describe the impact of psychedelic drug use (psilocybin and LSD) on perceptual and cognitive function measured through lab-based experiments and subjective psychometric scales (Bayne & Carter 2018). I will then present findings from a recent evidence synthesis that systematically reviewed 135 expert texts within 3 traditions (Shamatha, Transcendental and Stillness Meditation) to identify 65 features reported or implied in one or more practice (Woods, Windt & Carter 2022). Finally, I will bring these two lines of work together to directly compare the psychedelics and meditation findings. Some interesting commonalities were found to exist relating to experiences of unity and loss of ego as well as more mundane but central features of experience such as wakefulness. However, striking differences were also identified between the psychedelic and meditation states. Most notably the intensity and diversity of perceptual imagery and conscious contents experienced was found to be increased by psychedelics whereas these elements were greatly reduced or absent in meditation states. Similarly in the case of cognition, the psychedelic state was associated with disorganisation, diversity and rapidity of thought, while the meditation state was characterised by a stillness of mind with a complete absence of thoughts. Together these findings suggest that i) the psychedelic state does not mimic the goal states of expert meditators and ii) considering either or both of these states as “higher” or “enhanced” is inappropriate. I will finish by discussing these findings in relation to current debates about multi-dimensional vs uni-dimensional theories of consciousness and consider the clinical and ethical implications of these findings.
Professor Roger Crisp | What Matters in Survival
Many current philosophers, often influenced by the arguments of Derek Parfit, incline towards a reductionist view of personhood. This paper, focusing on Parfit’s famous case of My Division, discusses three related questions. First, given that an individual’s relation to some future individual is most often a matter of degree, how should we understand what matters in the light of decreasing connectedness or continuity over time? Second, since well-being is good for a person, whose well-being is at stake in My Division? Finally, how do differences between accounts of well-being affect views on what matters in survival?
Professor Keith Frankish | The Ethical Implications of Illusionism
Many philosophers hold that our conscious experiences are marked by possession of phenomenal properties – intrinsic qualities, which are known to us in a uniquely direct way and make it 'like something' for us to undergo the experiences. Illusionists reject this view and argue that consciousness is a complex functional process, to which we have imperfect and distorting introspective access. As a theory of consciousness, illusionism has many attractions, but it is sometimes thought to have radical ethical consequences. It is said that phenomenal states ground a special kind of value, giving creatures who possess them a claim on our sympathy and concern that creatures who lack them do not have. Some who take this view regard illusionism as a pernicious doctrine, which removes or at least seriously diminishes our reasons for caring about each other and other animals. In this talk I shall argue that this concern is unfounded. Phenomenal properties are not needed to ground the kind of value in question, and they would in fact make a very poor ground for it. An illusionist perspective can not only justify the value we place on the well-being of our fellow creatures but can provide a better, more consistent foundation for it. And far from diminishing the scope of our ethical concern, illusionism tends to expand it.
Associate Professor Philip Goff | Pan-Agentialist and the Meaning Zombie Problem
I will introduce a new problem: the Meaning Zombie Problem. Meaning zombies behave just like us, share our sensory experiences (colours, sounds, smells, tastes, etc.) but lack conscious thought and understanding. The coherence of meaning zombies raises the challenge of explaining why conscious thought and understanding exist at all, given that we would have survived just as well if we had been meaning zombies. As a solution to this problem, I will defend a form of 'pan-agentialism', according to which the roots of rational agency are present at the fundamental level of reality.
Professor Alex Green | BRAIN Stimulation for Recovery of Minimally Conscious STATE (BRAINSTATE)
Minimally Conscious State (MCS) has a prevalence of 1.5:100,000 and most commonly affects young people after severe traumatic brain injury. It is a state of wakefulness characterised by minimal but clearly discernible behavioural evidence of self or environmental awareness, accompanied by an increase in slow wave activity and reduction of faster brain rhythms. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is a common therapy for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. In MCS, DBS of various targets such as the thalamus have shown mixed results although good evidence is lacking. It is devastating both for the individual and their family and there is no proven efficacious treatment. We have previously demonstrated that Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) of the Pedunculopontine Nucleus (PPN) in the brainstem can increase daytime vigilance and alter sleep states. Combined with our program of device development in this area, we will conduct a clinical first-in-man study of ten MCS subjects, using Oxford’s 'DyNEuMo' (Dynamic Neuromodulation System) DBS device designed by Prof Tim Denison, a collaborator in the Department of Engineering at Oxford. Primary endpoint is measurement of the Coma Recovery Scale (Revised) – CRS-R. Secondary endpoints will include quality of life, and the investigation of EEG and local field potentials (LFPs) recorded from the device to investigate whether we can use brain electrical activity to control the device in a closed loop manner. We will also investigate whole brain activity using fMRI and look at the effects of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) as a means to predict responders. If the trial is successful we will use the pilot data for a larger phase II/III trial.
Dr Mette Leonard Høeg | Existentialism in the Neurocentric Age
Neuroscience is increasingly gaining authority in the explanation of human nature and existence. At the same time, neurotechnological possibilities for influencing and manipulating human mind states are developing rapidly. As a result of this scientific and technological progress, the normative and existential vacuum caused by the religious disillusion of the late 19th and 20th century is widening – and with it the space for flourishing of both hopes and fears, excitement and worry about the future of humanity. Neurophilosophers are anticipating a broad neuroscientific disenchantment and socio-cultural disruption and observing signs of a new neuroexistential anxiety of Kierkegaardian dimensions in contemporary culture, related to the clash of the neuroscientific and humanistic image of persons. There are calls for neuroanthropological risk assessment and formulation of a new consciousness culture and ethics. At the same time, researchers in psychedelic and contemplative studies are pointing to the potential for drastic increase in wellbeing, enhancement of morality and existential emancipation related to the shift towards materialist explanations of human nature and the new neurotechnological and biomedical possibilities. In this paper I, argue that the natural sciences and humanities must work together to successfully navigate this field of possibilities and risks, moral confusion and existential uncertainty. I draw the contours of consciousness studies as an interdisciplinary field with a strong existential dimension and explore the possibility of closing the divide between the old humanist paradigm and the new neurocentric.
Professor Mette Terp Høybye | Enacting Consciousness – Tracing Signs and Uncertainties in the Borderlands of Living
In the clinical borderlands caring for unresponsive patients who have suffered an injury to the brain, signs of consciousness serve to enact humanity in the persistent ethical dilemma of what makes a human and a human life worth living. Among neuro-intensive care professionals in charge of treating such unresponsive patients, it is a common perspective that the body must be given time for the brain to ‘wake up’ and respond. This is an inherently uncertain space where physiological responses are assessed, weighing their potentiality as signs of consciousness. Working to counter the uncertainty and break new ground in the prognostics of such patients, the use of neuroimaging technologies like fMRI has been suggested as a tool for more precise assessments of level of consciousness. Drawing on insights from an interdisciplinary project, engaging anthropological fieldwork in highly specialized intensive care units and in an experimental fMRI research setting the talk explores the high-stake practices that constitute consciousness in patients with acute brain injury. The talk examines this intersection of clinic and research, investigating negotiations of evidence in the translation from neuroscience to neurocritical care, as an enactment of signs of consciousness. Including discussing how such technologies are always embedded in complex contexts of clinical decision-making, where a response and brain pattern potentially detected by the technology does not dissolve the ethical dilemma of interpreting how signs are made to count (or not). The talk will consider how consciousness may at the same time be perceived as essential for the sentient being, and only one of several intertwined decisive dimensions in relating to patients with severe brain injury.
Professor Morten Kringelbach | Exploring the Neuroscience of Hedonia and Eudaimonia
Over the last two decades, a causal understanding has emerged of the brain’s pleasure system essential for survival. Reviewing the evidence, I show how this serves as a cornerstone for the well-balanced brain and can help make progress in understanding the brain’s orchestration of eudaimonia, flourishing and the life well-lived. I use music as an example to show how sweet anticipation and prediction are central to extracting meaning. In fleeting moments this may translate into both pleasure and pain, which over longer timescales can give rise to flourishing and suffering, providing meaning and purpose to life. However, given that the brain is always in non-equilibrium, a deeper understanding requires a new approach. Drawing on progress in field of complex systems, I show how our recent theory of the thermodynamics of mind provides a novel, unifying whole-brain modelling framework for understanding how the brain orchestrates hedonia and eudaimonia. Ultimately, this may provide new insights into tailoring interventions to promote thriving and how best to rebalance the brain in health and disease.
Dr Chris Letheby | Psychedelic Neuroexistentialism
Evidence suggests that psychedelic experiences can durably reduce fear of death, and some researchers think this effect is central to their increasingly well-attested therapeutic potential. But we do not yet know how these experiences reduce fear of death. The issues here are both mechanistic and epistemological. Is psychedelic therapy "simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying", as Michael Pollan wondered? Or does it work by inducing genuine insights? Or, perhaps, by some completely different mechanism altogether – one that is non-doxastic or even non-cognitive? Various theories of psychedelic therapy have been proposed, but most have had little to say specifically about reductions in fear of death. This is a significant omission because such reductions are (i) some of psychedelics' best-established therapeutic effects and (ii) some of the hardest for many theories to explain. I will use reductions in fear of death as a test case for prominent theories of psychedelic therapy. The aim is to improve our understanding not only of psychedelics’ potential in psychiatric treatment, but also of their possible role(s) in the "neuroexistentialist" project described by Flanagan and Caruso: the use of research in the mind and brain sciences to find viable solutions to a putative new wave of existential anxiety attributed to advances in the mind and brain sciences.
Professor Neil Levy | Confessions of a Semi-Zombie
I seem to have experiences with a phenomenal feel to them. But – insofar as introspection and testimony can be relied on – I also seem to have weaker and more recessive phenomenal states than usual. Most philosophers think that it is phenomenal consciousness that underlies, or at any rate makes a large contribution, to moral considerability. Since I am (I think) phenomenally conscious, they’d count me as morally considerable, which is a relief. However, at least some accounts of the value of consciousness might entail that I count less than others do. In this paper, I will assess my prospects; more generally, I will assess the contribution phenomenal consciousness makes to moral status and to any variation in such status across organisms (and across artificial agents). I’ll argue that that accounts of the contribution phenomenal consciousness have difficulty in yielding the result that moral status varies significantly, even across neurotypical adults. I’ll also assess the prospects for an account of moral status that sets phenomenal consciousness aside completely, in favor of a more functional ground.
Professor Ankhi Mukherjee | "The Hieroglyph of the Unconscious": H.D.'s Dreams
Sleep and dream have brought scientific and medical research into dialogue with the humanities from the early twentieth century, culminating in our time in extensive research and writing on sleep deprivation in late capitalism. The testimony of diaries, memoirs, letters, and literary texts can supplement current technology to record brainwaves of sleeping subjects to piece together the subjective experience and functions of dreaming. The aim of this paper is not limited to offering a set of qualitative data to compare with evolving specialisations in quantitative measurements of dreams. It makes a forceful connection between the onward thrust of modernity in early-twentieth century English and Anglophone literary cultures and the dream mode in which the blueprint of a counter-modern, anti-imperial, and anti-patriarchal future is being presented by writers sharing similar cultural legacies but aspiring to different socio-political destinies. Focusing on the American modernist poet H.D.'s Tribute to Freud, and with references to Sigmund Freud and H.D.'s contemporaries, I wish to discuss sleep and dream states as nervous conditions related to the onslaught of modernity. Literary figures will be brought into conversation with psychoanalytic traditions of dream interpretation as well as wider cultural understandings of the conscious and unconscious worlds of these public figures. My paper will also touch on relevant scientific works on sleep and dreams in its exploration of the dream orchestrators who address and deconstruct the science-arts divide.
Professor Nicholas Royle | Stream of Consciousness: Some Propositions and Reflections
This paper attempts to provide an exploration and re-evaluation of the term 'stream of consciousness', taking up William James’s original development of the phrase and elaborating on its pertinence (and impertinence) in the context of narrative fiction, especially focusing on the putatively classic case of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. It will offer a series of propositions and reflections in particular around the effects of construing consciousness not so much in terms of the moment (the conventional Modernist legacy of Walter Pater) but rather in terms of the assemblage and deconstruction of ‘memory systems’ (Budson, Richman and Kensinger).
Professor Max Saunders | More or Less Conscious
Much leading thought about consciousness in the inter-war period was associated with the British intellectual C. K. Ogden. His International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method began in 1922, with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and included landmark textbooks by major thinkers including Jung, Adler, Carnap, Husserl, and Piaget. Ogden edited the journal Psyche, which covered a comparably broad disciplinary range, and included work about Behaviourism, brain chemistry, and essays such as 'Are we becoming more conscious?' by literary critic I. A. Richards. Ogden himself contributed an essay on 'Bodies as Minds'. The paper will survey these accounts of consciousness, but will concentrate on two more of Ogden’s book series – especially To-Day and To-Morrow, where some of the more provocative new thinking about consciousness is to be found. The 110 volumes discuss the present state of their topic, then speculate on its possible future. I shall focus on 6 volumes, analysing the two which demonstrate the greatest acuity and foresight about questions concerning consciousness which preoccupy us now:
In Archimedes; or, the future of physics (1927) L. L. Whyte asks what would be necessary in order to construct an artificial human. He stages dialogues between a physicist, a psychologist, and a biologist, discussing the extent to which the nature of consciousness is determined by the physical structures of the brain.
J. D. Bernal, in The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929) performs an even more striking set of thought experiments. In one of the pioneering transhumanist texts in this series, he invents the electronic cyborg. He imagines increasing longevity by transferring brains to machine hosts; hot-wiring them to instruments providing extra senses – X-ray, chemistry, but above all radio. This would enable them to be in direct wireless contact with everyone else – effectively the internet before the invention of the computer. Such interconnectivity makes imaginable a form of collective consciousness – what science-fiction calls a hive-mind.
These writers poised before the threshold of computing thus raise questions which anticipate our moment at the dawn of Artificial Intelligence, and all the questions that raises about whether consciousness can be extended, synthesized, or indeed detected.
Professor Anil Seth | From Beast Machines to Dreamachines
Consciousness remains one of the central mysteries in science and philosophy. In this talk, I will illustrate how the framework of predictive processing can help bridge from mechanism to phenomenology in the science of consciousness – addressing not the 'hard problem', but the 'real problem'. I will advance the view that predictive processing, precisely because it is not itself a theory of consciousness, offers a powerful approach for addressing the real problem. I will illustrate this view first by showing how conscious experiences of the world around us can be understood in terms of perceptual predictions, developing an approach some are calling 'computational (neuro)phenomenology'. Then, turning the lens inwards, I’ll explore how the experience of being an embodied self can be understood in terms of control-oriented predictive (allostatic) regulation of the interior of the body. This implies a deep connection between mind and life, and provides a new way to understand the subjective nature of consciousness as emerging from systems that care intrinsically about their own existence. Contrary to the old doctrine of Descartes, we are conscious because we are beast machines. I’ll finish by describing a recent art-science collaboration – the dreamachine – which involves mass stroboscopically-induced visual hallucinations and a large-scale online survey of 'perceptual diversity' – The Perception Census.