Sensation, Feeling, Image, Talk

Dear friends,

One of the enduring discussions of the meeting for me has been the “levels of processing” discussion between Buddhism and Modern science. There was a long series of conversations about different levels of experience and their inter-relations- those strands of phenomenal experience coming through the body and the senses, the emotions, cognition, and attention/awareness.  This was related to the “binding problem” in psychology in which the existence of distributed processing of (visual) stimuli in different parts of the brain raises the issues of how these features get “bound together” into the stimulus object. An interesting discussion was how concepts provide such binding of features to an object in Tibetan Buddhist thinking, whereas Anne Treismann discussed attention as serving this “binding role.”  Of course, attention is directed by mental representations that are activated in situations as well, so there is a feed-forward and feed-back cycle here. What is attention like came up as a question?  Is it like a glue or fixative of some sort?


In our own work on self, and in developmental psychology, the notion of sensory-affective schemas, motor schemas, and later different levels of iconic and symbolic representation seems very related here.  It seems that when it comes to levels of information processing and self, the evidence suggests only “There ain’t one!”



A related line of discussion really related to the issue of “at what level does conceptualization” come in to organize sensory-perceptual-affective input?  As the scientists noted, even at the level of the retina there is a gross categorization of stimuli via rods and cones; emotions implicity attune attention, and categorization is automatic for previously encountered stimuli (e.g., native language). Thus, the scientists described the notion of perception-emotion-cognition as separable elements as increasingly untenable at certain levels.

Why this focus on separating these constituents of consciousness?  This is at the core of mindfulness practice and leads to a deconstruction of the seeming solidity of mental objects and mental life.  The self itself, of course, is composed of feelings, images and talk so learning to discriminate these objects in consciousness is also related to the soteriological aims of uprooting the troublesome tendencies of ego (attachment, desire, delusion) in the direction of enlightenment.
Here is a heuristic of what was discussed translated into my ideas on self, mindfulness as the development of skills associated with attentional stability and sensitivity, and the teachings of Shinzen Young: