The Empirical Science of You
Updated: Feb 26
Amount of substance...
These are the 7 fundamental dimensions. They are highly important to all of the sciences, as they are used to describe anything which is measured. With the respective units to each of these dimensions, like seconds, newtons and meters, you can describe how much you have of anything, as well as how bright it is, how large it is, how much current goes through it, how heavy it is, for how long you have it, and much, much else. Practically Everything in the observable universe can be described with these units and combinations of them.
...Except of course for any conscious experience you can have (which for my part is a pretty significant portion of my day to day life).
Taste, touch, smell, sound, sight and thoughts are not describable by any scientific measures - and since these are the only things we can be conscious of, in a way this makes our whole experience of life kind of inexplicable.
But if we want to gain insight into our conscious experience, what do we do? We can't measure any of the things which we can experience in life, so is it even possible to conduct a science of you?
Yes. There are many things we can accurately learn about our conscious experience. But as you know, there are also many things which we can never learn from our conscious experience. In fact, it can be quite useless when it comes to science. Let's acknowledge this:
Conscious experiences have no place in ordinary science
Because our conscious experiences are subjective, they have no place in ordinary sciences. And rightly so! We cannot accurately rely on our subjective experiences to tell us how far it is from here to there. Neither can we use our subjective feelings to determine the weight of something; the luminosity of something; the amount of something; the electric current through something; the temperature of something; or the time something takes.
Not that we cannot tell if something is hot or cold; long or short; heavy or light and so on. Guesses can be good but there is no accuracy to them, and depending on a persons state of mind, these guesses can be really poor. They can even be made up or hallucinated. Moreover, the quality of our guesses is very likely influenced by our opinions, the quality of our brains, our skill of guessing (and which substances we have taken, if any).
Our conscious experiences are simply totally unreliable when it comes to saying anything about "the real/objective world". Therefore we use machines, technical equipment and reproducible experimental setups in real science.
BUT! As useless as our conscious perception is to science, there is one real world thing which our conscious perception can be used to measure with staggering precision, and that is: Electro-chemical activity between neurons in our brains.
Cognitive neuroscience confirms we can investigate the mind
The mind is a very complex thing, and not close to fully understood at all. It is, however, very elaborately proven that everything that we can be conscious of, is 100 % correlated with brain activity. This is a very important conclusion from the scientific field of cognitive neuroscience.
As an example, if you experience seeing something, either in visual type thoughts or simply by looking at something with your eyes, the occipital lobe in the back of your head is showing increased neuronal activity. More precisely, if you see red, one specific local region of the occipital lobe will show increased activity; if you see blue, another specific local region; and so forth.
All of our senses are mapped out like this: Smelling, hearing, feeling and tasting are all precisely correlated with specific regions of the brain.
Of course many things take place in the body and brain which we are not conscious of. But the point here is, that whatever we are conscious of is a product of activity in the brain. Therefore we know, that whatever we are conscious of corresponds to real neuronal activity.
The brain is the most advanced bio-technology in the universe
For this reason, I find it useful and fascinating to think of the mind/brain like this: It is the most advanced bio-tech in the universe. (Wouldn't you agree?) And apparently it functions as a technical tool for measuring electro-chemical activity between neurons in the brain. The readings on this machine (our body and mind) do not come out in numbers and text, like our normal scientific equipment - No, the readings come out in conscious experiences. And it's highly accurate readings too.
And I who thought the type writer was old school! To the most advanced bio-tech in the universe (the brain), even numbers and written language is outdated. Consciousness readings, now that's where the money is.
That sounds like some next level sci-fi stuff for sure, but hey man, it's evident truth. And what's more, this bio-tech brain that we use to measure neuronal activity with, is accurate as heck! Not even the most expensive fMRI can pick up on all the subtle differences in your conscious experience on a moment to moment basis, let alone distinguish what's conscious and what's not. The mind and brain is an unfathomably sophisticated and accurate device. The brain is by far the most effective tool for measuring consciousness on the planet. So why not use it to conduct some scientific research?
Conduct scientific experiments with your own highly advanced technology - your brain
Our conscious experience, quite objectively speaking, can accurately inform us about what's going on in our brain, and how it goes on. In fact, it can never be false, as that would violate the proven inherent relationship between brain activity and conscious experience.
But we must be careful. Because subjectivity still exists, and that is the ultimate culprit of science. Because they are subjective, all ideas, beliefs and opinions can not be counted on to represent something true. We can believe anything we want, and that may either be right or wrong in respect to the real/objective world. But we wouldn't know. Like Plato/Socrates are known for saying: All we can know is that we don't know.
What is absolutely true/objective, however, is what we perceive. Regardless of whether we are hallucinating, seeing clearly or if we are just plain stupid, what we perceive will correspond exactly to the electrons moving in our brain - as they do in the real world. Thus the neuronal activity readings/conscious experiences are always accurate.
So although we cannot use our conscious experience to deduce anything about the world around us, we can very accurately use it to study ourselves and the workings of our conscious experience. All we have to do is avoid subjectivity, that is, avoid: Opinions, beliefs, ideas and other forms of subjectivity.
How to avoid being subjective
Opinions, beliefs and ideas all rely on interpretation. If we look at something and then think to ourselves "This is ugly"", "This is good" or "This is bad", then we have not only seen, but also interpreted what we have seen with respect to ourselves; ourselves being the "subjects" to the observed "objects". Furthermore, even if we feel something about what we see, then we are likely in the process of making up an opinion/belief/idea.
Luckily there is a way to sort out interpretation from direct, raw sense impressions (raw consciousness data/neuronal activity readings). Experienced meditators can separate their sense impressions and be aware of what is what: Sight can be seen as just sight; hearing can be heard as it is just heard; opinions can be identified just as opinions; belief can be identified as belief; and so forth.
How to get there, can be done by practicing methodically to break up our conscious experience into its subtle components. By doing so, you can learn to separate the components of what you are conscious of, and see each of them for what they are as they are seen by themselves.
But what are the subtle components of your consciousness?
Imagine that you could take a mental snapshot of what you are seeing right now, of the screen or of what you can see around you. It doesn't matter exactly what it is. Then imagine that you could export this mental snap shot to your computer and analyse it in Photoshop. Finally, imagine that you can zoom in on the mental image and magnify it as much as you may want.
Now zoom in so far on the mental snap shot that you begin to see the individual pixels of the image; these are the pixels of your conscious experience of seeing.
However small these pixels are, they represent the smallest visual sense impressions that you can be conscious of. Any smaller and you wouldn't be able to narrow down your focus on it.
We can call such a pixel a consciousness unit, or a consciousness pixel if you will. It is such pixels that comprise the subtle components of your entire conscious experience. Many of these are required to make up just one visual image by integrating over the whole bunch to create a smooth mental display - just like with a real photograph/image.
Similarly, there is a lower limit to the "size" all of your other senses. If you "zoom in" on any of your five sense impressions, at some point each of them will become something which you are just barely able to sense; they will become "pixelated", and the basic characteristics of what makes up your entire experience of life, will clearly stand out.
By training your focus, you can study who you are in detail
The point is this: By training your focus, you can learn to see the details that make up your conscious perception - and you can therefore get a better and more informed, wise perspective on that.
Beware that "spiritual" issues like who you really are, arise from conscious experience, so that is the kind of stuff we dive right into when doing this practice. This is where science and spirituality inevitably meet.
As you now know, we do not dive into deep spiritual issues with a religious or dogmatic attitude. Rather, we use a scientific approach, as verified by what we know from cognitive neuroscience: What we are doing, is to directly observe the consciousness reading of the movement of electrons in our brains - making this study an empirical science of our deeper selves.
Seeing the details of who you are - how it affects you
Seeing the "pixels" of your conscious experience changes you for good. After all, that is why we do this sort of practice. And the changes have potential to be extremely positive. Your sense of self; your sense of being who and what you are, is a product of what you are consciously experiencing.
And as we know from experience, things tend to look very different up close, than from afar; the subtle details of you are, are very different from the whole, integrated picture we may have of ourselves and the life we perceive.
This is likely why it is so difficult to effectively communicate "spiritual truths" to people who are not deep in it themselves. The world within spirituality simply looks different, so a clear sight of the different perspectives are bound to have different, albeit accurate descriptions; conflict is bound to arise between the people who see differently. In a way, they may both be right.
An analogy can illustrate how the details of you are different from the integrated you:
Imagine that you look at a huge screen, one of those that you may see at concerts or on the walls of large buildings. From afar, such a huge screen displays a smooth image, perhaps of the singer on the stage, or of an advertisement on the wall. If you've ever been close to one of these, however, you'd have noticed that the image is not smooth at all. It consists of large bulbs or LEDs. The "pixels" of these screens are so large that they become clearly visible when you are just remotely near them. The result is that the experience of looking at the screen is completely different. The smoothness of the image disappears and is replaced by flickering lights of different colours.
Looking at the screen up close produces a vastly different experience than from afar. And yet, nothing has changed but your perception; your point of view.
Let's take the example a bit further, because I find it actually can illustrate quite well why it is that we want to work to see the pixels of our conscious experience of life.
Imagine that a person didn't know the details of the large screen with the smooth image. If they'd never seen a screen before, they might think that there was actually a man inside the screen. Then, if the screen goes black, this person may actually freak out: "Oh no! What happened to the guy!?"
But had this person been up close to such a screen before, and inspected it from various angles and distances, then he would know how it works. He would know that it's not really a guy inside of it - it's just a bunch of little LEDs that create the illusion of a guy inside. If he knew all of this, he would be calm and at peace when the screen went black, not in a panic.
Liberation arises from seeing all the details clearly
Seeing the details of your conscious experience of life has the exact same effect of making you at peace. And it has the power to take away any fear you may have in life.
The reason is very simple, and as a brief introduction we can continue with the example from above: The reason why the person who has studied the large screen does not freak out when it goes black with a man inside, is because he understands that it is not a man at all - it's just an illusion.
Much of the fear, panic, worries and regrets we experience in life comes from the perspective of life we have. It is our perspective that convinces us of what's good and bad, desired and undesired, dangerous and harmless, and as a result we feel like we feel the only right way there is to feel about stuff: "I am right to worry! I should worry about this" Sure, if that's how your world works.
From where we see things, these states of suffering are not up to us. We see them as "how it is" from where we stand and we simply follow along, never realizing that the insight we have into ourselves, could change our perspective of life drastically and free us from mental suffering.
A lot of suffering comes from thinking we are separate selves
Most of us only know about the integrated image, the image as seen from afar. The illusion that we are under as a result, is that we think we are separate selves.
(Separate selves is the illusion we are under, corresponding to the illusion of the man in the screen in the example. It is this illusion that causes us to suffer.)
Because we see ourselves as separate, we can be hurt, excluded, judged, shunned and damaged. Therefore, there indeed is something for us to fear as long as this is our perspective. Additionally, our thoughts, opinions and beliefs are "ours" so we can feel righteous, wrong, cheated and otherwise in conflict with our environment.
Being separate selves, which we are from the integrated and gross perspective of life, simply causes human struggles and suffering.
The Three Characteristics: No self, Impermanence and Un-satisfactoriness
The reason why you can find peace and liberation from seeing the details of life, is that you learn to see that the pixels of your conscious experience, and what they make up, is not you, is not permanent and won't satisfy you: you're not separate, there's nothing to hold on to, nothing to lose. And trying to hold on, will not provide you with lasting satisfaction.
These are the three characteristics, as formulated by the Buddha. He said that if we learn how to observe these in our conscious experience of life, we will find peace and liberation within ourselves; "enlightenment".
You don't have to be a Buddhist in order to practice seeing this. In fact, I suggest that you don't become one unless that really is your cup of tea. I personally was never one, mainly because there's no need to call yourself anything in order to grow wiser, which this is all about. Besides, Buddhism holds a lot of dogma/blind belief, as do part of all religions. A lot of Buddhists may have no idea about how to generate insight in their lives. Instead, a lot of them are very good at making get-out-of-trouble offerings to deities they blindly believe in, say all the right mantras correctly, and can tell you all about what happens to us when we die and all kinds of stuff they don't really have any clue about but have just memorized from the religious stories they've heard. A parrot can say all the right things, and in the right order too. But when it comes to liberation and changed perspectives of existence, seeing, understanding and wisdom is all that matters.
Instead of blindly believing in something, let's challenge our sense of separate selves from a scientific point of view
Although we feel very much like we are separate selves, modern science has found no such self in the human body or mind. Quite on the contrary: Scientific experiments have proven that we tend to have a false and illusory sense of self, by identifying with things which provenly are not what we believe/feel is "us".
For instance, split brain experiments have shown that people believe that they make decisions based on what they chose to think and believe in; out of "free will". I can recognize this from my own tendencies to identify with content of mind: We tend to think something like "I choose to do this because I want to", and we believe it fully; we see it as our free will. But in fact, split brain patients prove that we think and believe such mental stories even though they are obviously proven to be false.
Split brain patients are very interesting to study in this way, because their right and left brain hemispheres have been separated in order to alleviate their epileptic symptoms. Somehow It works from a medical point of view, but their sensing brain is no longer communicating with their intellectual brain - and they remain conscious of just one of them!
When we look at something, the right side of our visual field communicates with the left brain hemisphere, and the left side of the visual field to the right brain hemisphere. In normal brains there is a communication between the two, but in split brain patients, the communication is cut off. Their sensing side can no longer communicate with their intellectual side. And most often, we are conscious only of our intellectual side where the left brain interpreter sits, i.e. our thinking brain.
In the experiment I referred to above, a sign was held up in front of a split brain patient, to his left side. The sign said "stand up". The person stood up as he was ordered and then he was asked why he did that. He responded that he just felt like he wanted to stretch his legs.
He was oblivious to the fact that he was ordered to stand up, but still he had found a logical explanation (from thinking about it) to his actions and taken ownership over the action. He believed that it was his conscious, free will to stand up. He believed that the action pertained to himself, because he was thinking it.
The illusion of a separate self, often lies in our belief that we are our thoughts
Another experiment by Libet (described here) showed that the brain actually initiates decision making seconds before we are conscious of it. But our left brain interpreter (our thoughts) still convince us that "I consciously choose to do this".
This belief that we are our thoughts, or the thinker/hearer of our thoughts, is a main part of the illusion most of us are under: The illusion which tells us that we are separate selves. As we pay very close attention to our thoughts and our identification with them, it becomes very hard to see why we would identify with it. (Try it: Are you in control of your thoughts? Are they you? OK...Stop them for just 5 seconds, I dare you. Can't doit? OK, then try and see if you can predict what you are going to think about next. And if you make a decision about what to think about, how did you do that? How do you initiate thinking? Can you explain that? This is the kind of scrutiny you have to confront your most basic assumptions with. Test them out - if you are your thoughts, or just in control of them: Prove it, then!)
You can align your perception with scientific findings
In short, science definitely proves that we are under false beliefs about what we are and what our will is. But with meditation you can align and update your perception to match the findings we make. You can learn to observe the same things that science proves; you can learn to see through the illusion by practicing empirical mind science.
Interestingly, the Buddhas insights are only reaffirmed by modern science. I personally find it very comforting that the science of us and the science of the brain and psychology can back up each other. The Buddha didn't have any access to modern science, he had to find these truths by empirical observation of his own mind. If he could, so can we, especially with the help of modern science. All we have to do, is to align our perception with what we know to be true. In other words, we already know what to look for.
Scientists don't commonly try to update their perception to match their scientific findings. They stay with their left brain interpreter and intellectualize everything. Therefore they don't perceive what they know. There's nothing wrong with that, except it keeps us from breaking through the illusion. Experiencing these truths simply have a very different effect on us than knowing them intellectually.
Quantum mechanics: Its resemblance to conscious experience
A great example of how we fail to update our conscious perception to match our intellectual knowledge, is how we react to the findings of quantum mechanics. This scientific field is likely the most verified and powerful scientific field there is. And yet, people don't find it intuitive on any level, nor do they try to or even know that it's possible.
The conclusions of the field are mind boggling, intellectually speaking (see for yourself in this cool, short video), and a common saying in my quantum mechanics class in my university went like this: "If you understand quantum mechanics....then you don't understand quantum mechanics". Luckily, I didn't understand anything of it, so I guess I was doing fine.
But quantum mechanics is the "truth"; it's the way the world is, isn't it? It's the most verified and solid science there is, after all. Therefore, shouldn't we be able to experience life in a way that doesn't contradict these findings? At the very least, shouldn't we be open to this being a possibility?
Quantum mechanics is a good example because the details of our conscious experience actually resembles the findings of this scientific field to a remarkable degree!
In a very short format: The findings of quantum mechanics describe matter as boundless waves, not solid and well defined particles, like we otherwise tend to think of them. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, this means that particles/waves are not even defined as being in a particular location, unless measured. Before this happens, matter exists in its boundless wave form, stretching all across the universe, collapsing into solid existence only when measured/observed. Once measured/observed, the particle's position immediately is no longer known, because it has been affected by the measurement itself (for example by an electron or photon bouncing off of it, sending it into an unknown state). Therefore, observing quantum mechanical matter (read: Super tiny stuff), like atoms, electrons, protons, quarks, etc, can never happen in the same way as we can observe larger matter, like cars, planes, tennis balls, people...
We can observe people and cars and planes continuously, never losing them of sight even for a moment. That's not how it is with quantum (super small) matter. We can observe it, but the moment we do, it's already gone somewhere else and it's impossible to determine where that might be. But then we can observe it again, and again, and again, always dropping it for a moment before finding it again. We are likely to find it in a similar place, but never exactly in the same place, nor in exactly the same state of energy/temperature and momentum.
In writing this, I realize that there's no difference in how I would describe observing a "pixel" of my conscious experience. These too, tend to flicker "in and out of existence", in accordance with the Copenhagen interpretation. It gives the impression that everything vibrates, even our consciousness - hence the teaching of the Buddha about impermanence.
I am not saying that our consciousness behaves quantum mechanically - I don't know that. I should be the first to admit that I believe it, though. I do find it suspicious that the description of very small details (quanta) of conscious experience has similar characteristics as particular quantum mechanical matter. Especially since we already determined that the body is in fact a highly sophisticated tool for measuring electrons moving around in the brain...It'd be damned if there was a connection here, would't it?
The Empirical Science of You is a central theme for this site: It is important to remain scientific in our approach to understanding ourselves, as we live in a world of thousands of wacky spiritual teachings that serve no other purpose than making us religious, dogmatic and blind-faithed. We may as well use all the knowledge that is accessible to us: Meditators' experiences, the Buddha's teachings, modern science, and of course: Our own strict scrutiny.
In accordance, in this article we delved into the most central perspective for being a Scientific Meditator: One who is always skeptical of what he/she hears, and scrutinizes any and all teachings until they collapse, or prove themselves.
We looked at the main purpose of the meditator: To gain insight into the details of what we are. And this what we think we are, is a product of what we already look at every day, and have already drawn conclusions on - but based on a superficial perspective of our conscious experience.
I simply suggest that we look closer, and employ a scientific approach in doing so. Because the effect of seeing clearer who and what you really are, is the elimination of a lot of the suffering we have in life.
Finally, we saw that there is a remarkable resemblance between what the Buddha taught, the findings of modern science and psychology, and the experiences of meditators (me). But again, central to the Scientific Meditator is this: You simply have to do the research (meditation) if you really want to know for yourself.
Concluding too much based on this text would likely just be another belief-phenomena. For now I hope you have been inspired, and are ready to take on the empirical science of ourselves.