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Year : 2013  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 136-137
The Astonishing Brain and Holistic Consciousness: Neuroscience and Vedanta Perspectives

Professor, Division of Yoga and Physical Sciences, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (SVYASA), Eknath Bhavan, 19 Gavipuram Circle, Bangalore - 560 019, Karnataka, India

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Date of Web Publication14-Jun-2013

How to cite this article:
Hankey A. The Astonishing Brain and Holistic Consciousness: Neuroscience and Vedanta Perspectives. Int J Yoga 2013;6:136-7

How to cite this URL:
Hankey A. The Astonishing Brain and Holistic Consciousness: Neuroscience and Vedanta Perspectives. Int J Yoga [serial online] 2013 [cited 2023 Mar 25];6:136-7. Available from:

Author: Dr. Vinod D. Deshmukh

Year: June 30, 2012

Publishers: Nova Science Pub Inc (June 30, 2012)

When I began to read this book I was delighted that the first of the two forewords was written by my friend, Professor Gururaj Mutalik, the polymath and retired Professor in Pune. Mutalik appreciated the book's attempt to use an holistic approach to understanding Vedantic revelations about consciousness, as a metaphysical key to unraveling the mysteries of the universe, one beyond mere experimental science. The second foreword by Professor Subash Kak of Oklahoma State University appreciated Deshmukh's stand against the materialist stance that the brain is a mere machine, to which 'mind' is identical. As he states, the book's pioneering contribution is to correlate 'the latest results from neuroscience with insights on consciousness from the Vedic tradition.

That said, it is tragic that Deshmukh makes no reference to the equally pioneering work of David Chalmers, whose book, 'The Conscious Mind' (OUP, 1997) was largely responsible for restoring the study of consciousness to a place in the world of science. Indeed, he and Jonathan Shear, the founding Managing Editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, have done as much, if not more than anyone, to make the study of consciousness academically respectable. Shear, in particular, edited the book of essays, 'Consciousness, the Hard Problem', documenting reactions of senior members of the academic community to Chalmers's proposals. He has also written four other books in the field. The monumental work of Sir Roger Penrose, the Nobel laureate mathematical physicist at Oxford University, has also stimulated the regeneration of consciousness studies, as has his later collaboration with Neil Hammeroff at the University of Arizona, who has been responsible for the series of annual 'Towards a Science of Consciousness' conferences, the most recent being in Agra in March 2013.

One wonders why, when these thinkers have been responsible for mainstream academic thought on consciousness, the cornerstone against which all present proposals are judged, there is no mention of any of them in the book-neither in the references, nor the index. Chalmers's 'The Conscious Mind' lays out a criterion which makes sense of Vedanta: If it exists, consciousness cannot be reductive, it must be holistic and introduced into creation as an irreducible concept as fundamental as mass or electric charge. In the brain, there must correspondingly exist 'dual aspect information spaces of consciousness', which on one hand carry information, and on the other, permit consciousness to couple, forming information states of mind. The key problem then becomes the identification and characterization of such states, a problem on which Hammeroff and Penrose have worked long.

From a more poetic viewpoint, the book nevertheless contains much stimulating material-including poems by the author, which he uses liberally to illustrate points throughout the text. Previously, he has published three volumes of poetry. The book starts with a description of Omkar as the Anahata Nada, and then develops the idea of pure consciousness experienced in meditation. Chapters 4 and 5 describe aspects of neuroscience to which the author feels they may correspond, though he seems unaware of Chalmers's profound criteria, which largely invalidate his points because reductive phenomena cannot model experience. Local activity, describing local information processing, can never account for the content of experience, the former is reductive, and the latter can never be. Similarly, with the use of quantum theory, that too is in principle reductive, so Chalmers's work effectively excludes quantum systems from being able to describe states of conscious experience, despite all the work in this direction by Amit Goswami and others (including Hammeroff and Penrose).

Chapter headings make the sequence clear, how meditative states, first introduced in Chapter 18, dominate Chapters 21 to 28. Here it is sad that Travis and Shear's major modern work on demystifying consciousness came out in 2010, shortly after the book was completed. After Chapter 31 on Vedic psychology, which sadly fails to mention Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's great work on the topic, and chapters on Modern Psychology and Psychological Growth, the book returns to the Vedic perspective with chapters on Bhagavad Gita, Yoga, Advaita, and sages such as Ramana Maharishi, Aurobindo, and Krishnamurti, finishing with chapters on a Functional Brain Model, consciousness and spirituality, and continuing self-understanding. Appendices provide technical details on every realm covered in the book.

Hopefully, later editions of the book will update the missing elements, such as the biophysics of holistic regulation, developed at SVYASA, as recounted in successive editions of Yoga Sudha. Everything depends on the physical system being at feedback instabilities, where the system is placed in a state at 'The Edge of Chaos', as the well-known theory of complexity in biology phrases it. In such states, multiple choices available in chaos are possible, along with the stability of non-chaotic, normal states.

In the simplest such state in meditation, as a result of the subtle use of a mantra, the auditory pathway enters a state at the edge of chaos, which if exceeded results in a self-generated signal. The result is perception of a 'sound with no source' i.e., an 'unstruck sound'. This is the beginning of the refinement of perception, and the eventual ability to perceive the infinite in every finite object. It is the beginning of the path of significant progress in development of the inner life. Unfortunately, since neither the author, nor the quoted commentators seem familiar with the normal sequence of development of higher states of consciousness, the dawning of the ability to hear the 'Anahata Nada' is treated as if it were the end of the path, instead of the beginning.

One of the lessons of the book is the need for neuroscientists to study feedback control. The role of the nervous system is to control the organism. Without feedback, no regulatory control is possible; it has to be central to nervous system function. Dining in Cambridge last October, I was shocked to speak to a Professor Emeritus of Physiology, who found the existence of the Cortico-Thalamic circuits a mystery, when it is clear that on the sensory pathways, they provide the possibility of variable feedback control, and thus selective attention; for without variable feedback control, how would selective attention be possible? Certainly not the kind we normally experience, where paying attention amplifies perception.

Science makes major advances when two previously disparate fields are brought into a synergistic relationship. Neuroscience and control theory seem to be in this situation: dominated by misapplication of the supposed relationship between neural networks, logic, and information theory, which has long outlived its usefulness. Alfred North Whitehead once pertinently remarked, "Seek simplicity and beware of it!"

Brian Ford has pointed out in prominent articles that single cells are capable of astonishingly intelligent behavior. Neurons are far more than transmitters of single bits or gating mechanisms. Criticality, feedback control renders them individual intelligences in their own right, may we add. Neuroscience has yet to appreciate such insights.

Correspondence Address:
Alex Hankey
Professor, Division of Yoga and Physical Sciences, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (SVYASA), Eknath Bhavan, 19 Gavipuram Circle, Bangalore - 560 019, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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