The Hard Problem Revisited: From Cognitive Neuroscience to Kabbalah and Back Again

  • B. Les Lancaster
Part of the Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality book series (SNCS, volume 1)


The dialogue between cognitive neuroscience and spirituality/mysticism has largely entailed measuring the neural and cognitive effects of spiritual practices. Such research follows from the spiritual traditions’ teachings about the intended psychological effects of practice. The ontologically more challenging postulates of spiritual traditions (e.g., mind beyond brain, ‘higher’ or ‘ultimate’ realities) are ignored when focusing in this way on measurable concomitants of practice. In this chapter I argue that the dialogue should be widened to include some of the ontologically more challenging concepts, where these involve references to the brain and psychological states. A specific example is examined in some detail: the kabbalistic worldview posits a correspondence between higher and lower levels in the cosmos (‘macrocosm’ and ‘microcosm’), and includes notions of unconscious thought arising in ‘brains’ in the Godhead. I demonstrate that the macrocosmic principles advanced in kabbalistic literature display a degree of concordance with the results of current research into the neural correlate of consciousness. I explore the implications of this concordance for the light it may cast on the enduring hard problem of consciousness.


Human Mind Cognitive Neuroscience Hard Problem Active Intellect Spiritual Tradition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Abrams, D. (1994). The book Bahir: An edition based on the earliest manuscripts. Los Angeles: Cherub Press.Google Scholar
  2. Aftanas, L. I., & Golocheikine, S. A. (2002). Non-linear dynamic complexity of the human EEG during meditation. Neuroscience Letters, 330(2), 143–146.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arzy, S., Idel, M., Landis, T., & Blanke, O. (2005). Speaking with one’s self: Autoscopic phenomena in writings from the ecstatic Kabbalah. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(11), 4–29.Google Scholar
  4. Assagioli, R. (1993). Transpersonal development: The dimension beyond psychosynthesis. London: Thorsons.Google Scholar
  5. Barušs, I. (2001). The art of science: Science of the future in light of alterations of consciousness. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 15(1), 57–68.Google Scholar
  6. Beauregard, M., & O’Leary, D. (2007). The spiritual brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  7. Beauregard, M., & Paquette, V. (2006). Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters, 405(3), 186–190.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Beauregard, M., & Paquette, V. (2008). EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience. Neuroscience Letters, 444(1), 1–4.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Boehler, C. N., Schoenfeld, M. A., Heinze, H.-J., & Hopf, J.-M. (2008). Rapid recurrent processing gates awareness in primary visual cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105, 8742–8747.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  11. Boyer, P., & Bergstrom, B. (2008). Evolutionary perspectives on religion. Annual Review of Anthropology, 37, 111–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 180–211.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chalmers, D. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2, 200–219.Google Scholar
  14. Crick, F. H. C., & Koch, C. (1990). Towards a neurobiological theory of consciousness. Seminars in the Neurosciences, 2, 263–275.Google Scholar
  15. Dehaene, S., Changeaux, J.-P., Naccache, L., Sackur, J., & Sergent, C. (2006). Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: A testable taxonomy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(5), 204–211.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Deikman, A. J. (1966). Deautomatization and the mystic experience. Psychiatry, 29, 324–338.Google Scholar
  17. Edelman, G. M., & Tononi, G. (2000). Reentry and the dynamic core: Neural correlates of conscious experience. In T. Metzinger (Ed.), Neural correlates of consciousness: Empirical and conceptual questions (pp. 138–151). Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  18. Engel, A. K., & Singer, W. (2001). Temporal binding and the neural correlates of sensory awareness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(1), 16–25.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Enns, J. T., & di Lollo, V. (2000). What’s new in visual masking? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(9), 345–352.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fahrenfort, J. J., Scholte, H. S., & Lamme, V. A. (2007). Masking disrupts reentrant processing in human visual cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(9), 1488–1497.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ferrer, J. N., & Sherman, J. H. (2008). Introduction: The participatory turn in spirituality, mysticism, and religious studies. In J. N. Ferrer & J. H. Sherman (Eds.), The participatory turn: Spirituality, mysticism, religious studies (pp. 1–78). Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  22. Firman, J., & Gila, A. (2002). Psychosynthesis: A psychology of the spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  23. Giller, P. (2001). Reading the Zohar: The sacred text of the Kabbalah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Hellner-Eshed, M. (2009). A river flows from Eden: The language of mystical experience in the Zohar (N. Wolski, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Originally published 2005)Google Scholar
  25. Hunt, H. (2001). Some perils of quantum consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(9–10), 35–45.Google Scholar
  26. Hurwitz, S. (1968). Psychological aspects in early Hasidic literature (H. Nagel, Trans.). In J. Hillman (Ed.), Timeless documents of the soul (pp. 149–239). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Idel, M. (1988). The mystical experience in Abraham Abulafia (J. Chipman, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  28. Idel, M. (1993). Midrashic versus other forms of Jewish hermeneutics: Some comparative reflections. In M. Fishbane (Ed.), The Midrashic imagination: Jewish exegesis, thought, and history (pp. 45–58). Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  29. Idel, M. (2005a). Kabbalah and Eros. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Idel, M. (2005b). Enchanted chains: Techniques and rituals in Jewish mysticism. Los Angeles: Cherub Press.Google Scholar
  31. Jung, C. G. (1977). In W. McGuire & R. F. C. Hull (Eds.), C. G. Jung speaking: Interviews and encounters. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Kriegel, U. (2007). A cross-order integration hypothesis for the neural correlate of consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 16(4), 897–912.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lamme, V. A. F. (2003). Why visual attention and awareness are different. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(1), 12–18.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lamme, V. A. F. (2004). Separate neural definitions of visual consciousness and visual attention: A case for phenomenal awareness. Neural Networks, 17(5–6), 861–872.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lamme, V. A. F. (2006). Towards a true neural stance on consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(11), 494–501.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lancaster, B. L. (1991). Mind, brain and human potential: The quest for an understanding of self. Shaftesbury: Element Books.Google Scholar
  37. Lancaster, B. L. (1997). On the stages of perception: Towards a synthesis of cognitive neuroscience and the Buddhist Abhidhamma tradition. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4(2), 122–142.Google Scholar
  38. Lancaster, B. L. (2000). On the relationship between cognitive models and spiritual maps: Evidence from Hebrew language mysticism. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7(11–12), 231–250.Google Scholar
  39. Lancaster, B. L. (2004). Approaches to consciousness: The marriage of science and mysticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  40. Lancaster, B. L. (2005). The essence of Kabbalah. London: Arcturus.Google Scholar
  41. Lancaster, B. L. (in press). The cognitive neuroscience of consciousness, mysticism and psi. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies.Google Scholar
  42. Legrand, D., & Ruby, P. (2009). What is self-specific? Theoretical investigation and critical review of neuroimaging results. Psychological Review, 116(1), 252–282.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Levine, J. (1983). Materialism and qualia: The explanatory gap. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 354–361.Google Scholar
  44. Luo, Q., Mitchell, D., Cheng, X., Mondillo, K., Mccaffrey, D., Holroyd, T., Carver, F., Coppola, R., & Blair, J. (2009). Visual awareness, emotion, and gamma band synchronization. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 1896–1904.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16369–16373.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lutz, A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness: An introduction. In P. D. Zelado, M. Moscovitch, & E. Thompson (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of consciousness (pp. 499–551). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Magid, S. (2002). Origin and overcoming the beginning: Zimzum as a trope of reading in post-Lurianic Kabbala. In A. Cohen & S. Magid (Eds.), Beginning again: Toward a hermeneutic of Jewish texts (pp. 163–214). New York: Seven Bridges Press.Google Scholar
  49. Matt, D. (1995). Ayin: The concept of nothingness in Jewish mysticism. In L. Fine (Ed.), Essential papers on Kabbalah (pp. 67–108). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Metzinger, T. (2003). Being no one: The self-model theory of subjectivity. Cambridge: Bradford.Google Scholar
  51. Newberg, A., Alavi, A., Baime, M., Pourdehnad, M., Santanna, J., & D’Aquili, E. (2001a). The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: A preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry Research, 106(2), 113–122.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Newberg, A., D’Aquili, E., & Rause, V. (2001b). Why God won’t go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. New York: Ballantine Books.Google Scholar
  53. Pascual-Leone, A., & Walsh, V. (2001). Fast backprojections from the motion to the primary visual area necessary for visual awareness. Science, 292(5516), 510–512.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Persinger, M. A. (1987). Neuropsychological bases of God beliefs. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  55. Revonsuo, A. (1999). Binding and the phenomenal unity of consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 8(2), 173–185.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ro, T. (2010). What can TMS tell us about visual awareness? Cortex, 46(1), 110–113. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2009.03.005.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rothberg, D. (2000). Spiritual inquiry. In T. Hart, P. Nelson, & K. Puhakka (Eds.), Transpersonal knowing: Exploring the horizon of consciousness (pp. 161–184). Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  58. Scholem, G. G. (1941/1961). Major trends in Jewish mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.Google Scholar
  59. Scholem, G. (1975). Devarim be-Go. Tel Aviv: Am Oved. (Hebrew).Google Scholar
  60. Sergent, C., Baillet, S., & Dehaene, S. (2005). Timing of the brain events underlying access to consciousness during the attentional blink. Nature Neuroscience, 8(10), 1391–1400.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Shokek, S. (2001). Kabbalah and the art of being. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  62. Singer, W. (1999). Neuronal synchrony: A versatile code for the definition of relations? Neuron, 24(1), 49–65.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Singer, W. (2000). Phenomenal awareness and consciousness from a neurobiological perspective. In T. Metzinger (Ed.), Neural correlates of consciousness: Empirical and conceptual questions (pp. 121–137). Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  64. Supèr, H., Spekreijse, H., & Lamme, V. A. F. (2001). Two distinct modes of sensory processing observed in monkey primary visual cortex (V1). Nature Neuroscience, 4, 304–310.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Tishby, I. (1949/1989). The wisdom of the Zohar: An anthology of texts. (D. Goldstein, Trans., 3 Vols.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  66. Treisman, A. M. (1996). The binding problem. Current Opinions in Neurobiology, 6, 171–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Treisman, A. M., & Schmidt, H. (1982). Illusory conjunctions in the perception of objects. Cognitive Psychology, 14(1), 107–141.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. von der Malsburg, C. (1981). The correlation theory of brain function. Internal report 81–2, MPI biophysical chemistry. Reprinted in E. Domany, J. L. van Hemmen, & K. Schulten (Eds.), Models of neural networks II (pp. 95–119). Berlin: Springer (1994).Google Scholar
  69. von der Malsburg, C. (1997). The coherence definition of consciousness. In M. Ito, Y. Miyashita, & E. T. Rolls (Eds.), Cognition, computation, and consciousness (pp. 193–204). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Whyte, L. L. (1962). The unconscious before Freud. London: Tavistock.Google Scholar
  71. Wilber, K. (2006). Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston/London: Integral Books.Google Scholar
  72. Wolfson, E. R. (1994). Through a speculum that shines: Vision and imagination in medieval Jewish mysticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Wolfson, E. R. (2004). Hermeneutics of light in medieval Kabbalah. In M. T. Kapstein (Ed.), The presence of light: Divine radiance and religious experience (pp. 105–118). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  74. Wolfson, E. (2005). Language, Eros, being: Kabbalistic hermeneutics and poetic imagination. New York: Fordham University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Zohar. (1978). Margoliot, R. (Ed.), (6th edn., 3 Vols.). Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Netherlands 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Natural Sciences & PsychologyLiverpool John Moores UniversityLiverPoolUK

Personalised recommendations