THE BLOG
05/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Toward a Science of Consciousness

Most people use money and technology, but don't know the underlying mechanisms of how they work. Similarly, most people go about their daily lives using consciousness, but don't know how it works. In the case of money and technology, we know that someone somewhere has an understanding of how things work. In biology we have an understanding of how most systems in the body work, down to the level of cells and DNA. We can build replacement body parts and train the body to re-grow new tissue with gene therapy. However with consciousness, top scientists today still have no idea how conscious experience arises.

At the heart of the consciousness "problem" lies the relationship between the mind and the body. How does the body create the mind (materialism)? Or is it the other way around, does the mind create matter (idealism), after all, everything that you experience is experienced through the mind. Do they both mind and matter co-exist and inter-relate in some way (dualism)? The relationship between mind and body has confounded scientists, philosophers, and theologians since the dawn of humankind.

In daily life, we encounter many examples of how the mind and body seem to interrelate. We read facial expressions and body language that physically communicate the emotional state of people we engage. Chemicals such as drugs and alcohol affect our mental state and our perception of reality. There are many reported cases of personality changes after stroke or brain injuries. With all this overwhelming empirical evidence, presuming a relationship between mind and body would seem as a "no brainer." However, we are no closer today to understanding how the mind emerges from the biological processes of the body than we were when we made the first investigations thousands of years ago. The irony of this is that while we may agree that you do have an understanding of what I am now trying to communicate to you with the words of this article, we have absolutely no idea as to how it can happen.

New tools such as Electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) correlate conscious experience with electromagnetic field activity localized in the brain. Skin conductance and heart-rate variability also correlate to emotional arousal. These physically based measures provide today's researchers with an objective way to explore the realm of perception, experience, and mind in real-time. Mythology, stories, and media have long been used to influence the mind. Through the use of moving images, music, and sounds, movies manipulate the mind to evoke a wide range of emotions that include fear, desire, anger, sadness, and love. Today's interactive media such as video games provide a highly interactive platform for designers to create new realities and observe how minds (players) interact with the environment based upon their unique world-view. With hooks into the realm of the mind as well as the realm of the body, Interactive media combined with biofeedback provide a unique platform for conducting objective investigations into the mind - body relationship.

Consciousness Studies brings together many different disciplines including science and religion, two areas traditionally at odds with each other, working together toward a common understanding of the life experience. As an example, recent neurological studies investigate the brain states of long-term meditators, christians speaking in tongues, and shamans journeying on Ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic. While investigations into "the nature of consciousness" may seem academic, practical applications abound in nearly every aspect of human endeavor especially education, psychology, and health. Any serious investigation into balanced living, sustainability, and World Peace, must begin with consciousness.

Hong Kong hosts the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference from June 11-14th. The Conference brings together many of the top neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers in the World. The Conference is part of a larger "Asia Consciousness Festival" that includes over twenty events including conferences, workshops, film screenings, theater, and art exhibitions related to consciousness. For more information, please see http://www.asiaconsciousness.org.