Lecture Two: Naturalism 2.3

2.3 Synchronic discontinuity


The sort of continuity that seems to characterize waking experience is also challenged on other fronts. What counts as the core agent in a given experience is not always identified in the same way, nor it is always identified with the same person. In this case, the discontinuity does not necessarily concern the contents that appear to be different at different times, but rather the fact that no fixed and permanent content provides a constant basis for an equally constant process of identification. This challenges even more directly the global Self and reveals an even greater heterogeneity in the spectrum of local selves. To build up the case for this sort of synchronic discontinuity, we can review a number of experiences, moving from the seemingly more ordinary, to the more extraordinary (although whether they are extraordinary depends heavily on what is ordinary for any given person).

Let’s begin with dreams. The experience of dreaming should be fairly common to every human being, and it is a common feature that appears across different cultures and different times. In discussing dreams, Thompson observes:

In the hypnagogic state, we look at visual patterns and they absorb us. When we dream, we experience being in the dream; more precisely, we experience being in the dream world. The experience of being a self in the world, which marks the waking state but diminishes in the hypnagogic state, reappears in dreams. (Thompson 2015, 127)

This prima facie similarity between dreams and waking is often noticed, to the point that is a widely common trope to wonder whether someone is dreaming or not (we shall come back to this point later). However, there are two important features that single out dreams from waking states: (i) the fluidity of identity, and (ii) the metacognitive dimension of dreaming.

In general, it is possible to both perceive and remember one’s own experience from two points of view: either from an inside (subjective) point of view, or from an outside (objective) point of view. This distinction has been often noticed in Western psychology and can be articulated in different ways. Dreams reveal a particularly strong instability about the way in which subjective and objective perspectives alternate, merge, and interact. As Thompson writes:

When you see yourself from the outside running from your pursuer in a dream, the character you identify with constitutes your dream Me, or self-as-object. Your spatiotemporal point of view as onlooker in the dream constitutes your dream I, or self-as-subject. Your dream Me and I are both aspects of your dream ego or your self-as-dreamed […]. Thus the Me and the I dissociate in this kind of third person perspective dream, for you see yourself (Me) as located in a different place from your observational point of view (I) within the dream. […] When you experience your dream body from within, however, your awareness seems located at the place of your dream body, and you see your pursuer through your dream body’s eyes. The I (self-as-subject) and the Me (self-as-object) coincide in their felt location. These perspectives can shift or alternate as you dream. You might first see yourself from the outside and then all of a sudden experience yourself from within. You might see another person or being—an animal, perhaps—and then abruptly feel yourself to be that being acting in the dream world. (Thompson 2015, 134)

The seemingly random shifting between subjective and objective perspective reveals that neither of these perspectives offers a privileged point of view of who the self actually is, since it can be envisaged from both. More importantly, this same shifting allows for identification with entirely different contents. While dreaming, I can regard myself from an external point of view, but I can also identify with something entirely different; another person, or another animal, for instance. These two aspects seem to be connected: the instability between objective and subjective perspective allows for a replacement of the actual content that is perceived to constitute the identity of the self. I can see a scene from the outside, in which I am someone who looks different from how I normally look, and I can then see the same scene from the point of view of that seemingly other person and identify with that point of view. All these changes take place in a fluid way, so that there is little evidence in dreams that any of them bear a more definitive or even fundamental role than any other.

Furthermore, a key feature of dreams is that they are convincing, despite the fact that many of their features would be judged incoherent from the point of view of a waking conscious experience. Dreams have a cogency that waking experience sometimes lacks, as if one could not avoid fully believing in what unfolds during the dream. Historically speaking, all cultures have had to face this power of dreams and they all had to come up with ways of dealing with it, often concluding at some point that dreams must have something important to reveal precisely because they are so powerful and persuasive. This cogency of dreams seems to be connected with a relative impairment of the metacognitive functions available during dream experience:

the nonlucid dream state lacks the kind of cognitive control that’s present in the waking state. Working memory is weak, so keeping track of what’s going on is difficult. Distraction happens constantly and attention can’t be volitionally sustained. Metacognition is unsteady, so we have difficulty monitoring thoughts and feelings. At the same time, emotions intensify—sometimes fear, anxiety, or anger; sometimes joy and elation—while basic behaviors such as seeking and fleeing often dominate what we do. […] The dreaming subject isn’t an effective metacognitive subject of experience. In a dream, it’s difficult to conceptualize and experience yourself as a self in the act of deciding (a volitional subject), a self in the act of attending (an attentional subject), a self in the act of thinking (a cognitive subject), or a self in the grip of emotion (an affective subject). Lacking insight into the nature of your ongoing conscious state, you can’t experience yourself as a dreaming subject. (Thompson 2015, 136-137)

Notice that the impossibility of experiencing oneself as a dreaming subject is connected with the impossibility of knowing during a nonlucid dream that one is dreaming. This means that in whatever way the self is constructed during a nonlucid dream (with all the changeability mentioned above), that self is currently the only self available in experience. Even if this dreaming self is highly shaped by previous memories and habits acquired during waking experience, during the dream there is no trace left of the same waking self. The dreaming self is in fact more or less different from the waking self, and for the duration of the dream, that dreaming self is the only self present. In this sense, nonlucid dreams provide another instance of how the seemingly continuous experience of selfhood associated with the waking state can be disrupted.

However, Thompson devotes two interesting chapters (5 and 6) to the experience of lucid dreams, namely, dreams in which an awareness that one is dreaming is available, to some extent, to the dreamer. Lucid dreams are not only anecdotally and randomly recorded by disparate individuals, they have been made an object of sustained practice by Indian schools (especially Tibetan Buddhism), in which methods have been devised in order to cultivate the ability of dreaming in a lucid state.

One way of understanding the key difference between nonlucid and lucid dreams is the following:

What marks a strong lucid dream is the felt presence of witnessing awareness, which can observe or witness the dream precisely as a dream. Its presence can inhibit the automatic identification with the dream ego that characterizes dreaming. The same witnessing awareness can be felt in the waking state in moments of heightened mindfulness; its presence can inhibit the automatic identification with the “I-Me-Mine” that characterizes the waking state. When we look at waking and dreaming consciousness from this vantage point, there’s nothing paradoxical about lucid dreaming, even at an experiential level. (Thompson 2015, 161)

Unlike nonlucid dreams, lucid dreams allow the dreaming subject to realize that what is been currently experienced is nothing but a dream. This realization is often accompanied by a sense of relief, freedom, and excitement. While nonlucid dreams tend to absorb the subject in their experience without any way of detaching from it, lucid dreams afford the opposite by somehow unbinding the subject from the experience itself. What does this trick is the reappearance of metacognitive functions (the awareness of the sort of experience that is currently unfolding) during the dream itself, and without disrupting the dream state as such.

From this point of view, lucid dreams provide a more subtle instance of how identification is disrupted. A nonlucid dream state is an instance of strong identification, despite the process of identification being tendentially incoherent in the dream state and often different from how it unfolds in the waking state. Even this nonlucid dream identification, though, can be disrupted with the reappearing of metacognitive awareness. In dreams, lucidity does not simply bring one back to the waking state, but rather introduces yet another domain of experience (lucid dreaming), with its own distinctive qualities and modes of identification. A key feature of lucid dreams seems the fact that identification with the dreaming subject is lightened. To use the terminology introduced above, in lucid dreams the self-as-object and the self-as-subject split apart even more evidently and consistently than in ordinary nonlucid dreams. The self-as-object is now seen as a dream product, and this reduces emotional tightness around its experience; I know that this is just a dream, and this is happening only to my dreaming-I. The self-as-subject takes a witness position, becomes a metacognitively aware observer of the dream action, and thus gains a sense of dispassion with regard to it.[1]

Thompson derives two sets of conclusions from the discussion of lucid dreams. On the one hand, he stresses that views that tend to reduce dreams to hallucinations, or that envisage waking life as nothing but a dream, somehow miss the phenomenological specificities and differences that qualify dreaming and waking. According to Thompson, dreams are not a sort of hallucination in which something is perceived to be present when it is not. Dreams are rather a form of spontaneous imagination occurring during sleep, which is qualitatively different from waking experience insofar as dreams do not entail the same sort of sensorimotor engagement with the world (Thompson 2015, 188). From this point of view, waking ‘isn’t a state opposed to dreaming; it’s a quality of awareness that can be present in any conscious state, including dreaming’ (Thompson 2015, 197). On the other hand, recognizing the genuine difference between these experiences (waking, dreaming, becoming lucid in dreams), he stresses the underpinning lack of a shared identity or self that can be identified as an overarching experiencer of all of them. Drawing here on a Daoist view, Thompson comments:

One phase isn’t reality and the other merely a dream; one isn’t true and the other false. Each phase is authentic and fully accepted as it is. Thus selflessness or the absence of ego leads to radical acceptance of all phases equally. In this Daoist vision, accepting each phase as equally real, along with accepting the natural distinction between waking and dreaming, is what enables one to be fully present in the here and now. […] The fullness of each experience requires not violating the natural borders between dreaming and waking, not supplanting forgetting with remembering. Transgressing these borders means fighting against change (“the change of things”)—a losing battle that detracts from reality rather than bringing about a higher reality. Detracting from reality inevitably leads to suffering, not happiness. (Thompson 2015, 200)

When the distinctive qualities of dreams (both lucid and nonlucid) are fully appreciated, it becomes apparent that they are different from waking experience, but also irreducible to one privileged baseline of what experience should be like. If this conclusion is accepted, it follows that none of these domains of experience is more real than any other, and their full spectrum reveals just that. Dreams might be as lucid as waking, waking might be as dull as nonlucid dreams, and nonlucid dreams might be more enticing than either waking experience or lucid dreams. The point is not to choose which domains best fits a pregiven criterion of reality, but rather to appreciate how this naturally available diversity of experience makes it apparent that no particular domain comes with an a priori or naturally encoded prominence above others.

There are at least two other sorts of experiences that might also challenge the ordinary waking sense of identification. They are perhaps more infrequent and rare, but when they occur, they seem to yield extremely vivid and compelling insights. These are so-called out-of-body and near-death experiences. In both cases, the subject of experience seems to dissociate from the body with which they usually identify. For this reason, this sort of experience is often adduced as empirical evidence for the possibility of a non-material consciousness or cognitive substratum existing independently from the body. Thompson’s neurophenomenological approach is apt to show that this sort of inference is unwarranted, and yet these experiences do provide valuable insights about the multifarious nature of experience and its wide spectrum.

Concerning out-of-body experiences, Thompson connects them with the distinction already mentioned between subjective and objective experiential perspective:

Out-of-body experiences illustrate the importance of distinguishing between the body-as-subject and the body-as-object. Your body-as-object is the body you see from the outside lying in bed, whereas your body-as-subject is you the perceiver. To put the point another way, your body-as-object is the external body image you identify as your body, whereas your body-as-subject is the felt origin of the visual (egocentric) and vestibular (geocentric) perspective from which you make that identification. We can now say in more precise terms what makes an out-of-body experience an experience of altered embodiment rather than of disembodiment: there’s a dissociation between your body-as-object and your body-as-subject. Normally you experience them as being in the same place. In an out-of-body experience, however, this unity comes apart, so that your body-as-object and your body-as-subject have different locations. For example, your body-as-object lies below on the bed while your body-as-subject floats above near the ceiling. Out-of-body experiences reveal something crucial about the sense of self: You locate yourself as an experiential subject wherever your attentional perspective feels located. […] In other words, your sense of who you are and where you’re located goes with your self-as-subject and not your body-as-object. (Thompson 2015, 210-211, original emphasis)

Out-of-body experiences are usually extremely lively, realistic and convincing. Hence, it is natural for people who have these experience to draw the inference that they can somehow exist apart from their physical body, and this easily leads to the conclusion that whatever exists and experiences the body as an object, but can also depart from that body, must be something that is non-bodily and non-material in itself (Descartes would agree). However, as Thompson discusses in detail, this conclusion does not follow from the experience as such. Out-of-body experiences are akin to lucid dreams in which the dissociation between subjective and objective perspective is coupled with a vivid awareness of the unfolding of the whole experience.

From the point of view of the processes of identification, out-of-body events clearly show an instance in which the ordinary waking perception of a coincidence between the subjective and objective experience, usually rooted in the experience of the same body, comes apart. Out of-body experiences thus reveal that this waking way of constructing experience is the result of a cognitive construction. This does not mean that the out-of-body experience is more reliable than the ordinary embodied experience, but rather that the latter is not something simple and fundamental. Ordinary embodied experience in fact appears as the result of a complex process of coordination and superimposition, which can be disrupted in voluntary ways (since out-of-body experiences can also be induced and trained, like lucid dreams).

Near-death experiences go even one step further. They may occur in people who are very close to death but somehow resuscitated, like in the case of patients who suffer from a heart attack. Those who can provide reports about these experiences seem to refer a wide range of different events taking place. Thompson discusses various classifications that have been provided in order to somehow organize and analyze these reports. For instance,

psychiatrist Bruce Greyson developed a new scale that includes sixteen items grouped into four components—1) cognitive features (time distortion, thought acceleration, life review, revelation); 2) affective features (peace, joy, cosmic unity, encounter with light); 3) paranormal features (vivid sensory events, apparent extrasensory perception, precognitive visions, out-of-body experiences), and 4) transcendental features (sense of an “otherworldly” environment, sense of a mystical entity, sense of deceased/religious spirits, sense of border/“point of no return”). Greyson’s “Near-Death Experience Scale” has a maximum score of 32, where a score of 7 or higher indicates a near-death experience. (Thompson 2015, 300)

Obviously, strong near-death experiences seem to represent a radical disruption of the ordinary waking experience and point to the existence of a different realm, where the self can travel after having left the physical body. However, from a medical point of view, there are several reasons that might be offered for the arising of these experiences. For instance, ‘reduced oxygen levels (hypoxia) can lead to experiences with many of the elements of near-death experience’ (Thompson 2015, 311). This, of course, does not mean that near-death experiences are illusory. As Thompson emphasizes:

One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death. Both these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true or literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death. In the one case, the experience of drawing near to death is projected onto the plane of a third-person representation of the disordered brain; in the other case, the experience is projected onto the plane of a third-person representation of a transcendent spiritual realm. Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality. (Thompson 2015, 314)

From the point of view of the current discussion, near-death experiences provide a particularly strong instance of how identification can be radically disrupted, anticipating what appears to be the most radical disruption that a living being could picture, namely, death itself. Part of the appeal of these experiences is connected with the fact that the content of near-death experiences seems to promise that death will not be such a radical disruption, that there will be some way for the subject of experience to keep existing after the breaking up of the body.

One general observation that can be derived from our discussion so far is that there is a direct correlation between the importance and meaningfulness that is attributed to experience and the use of the concept of ‘existence’ to express and articulate it. The cogency of nonlucid dreams leads some people to take the content of dreams as really existent. The vividness of out-of-body experiences also leads some to infer that the genuine subject of experience must exist somehow apart from the body. Near-death experiences seem to afford direct evidence for the existence of a whole non-bodily realm towards which one can travel. By contrast, when metacognitive faculties restrain the autogenous power of imagination, the sense of seriousness or urgency is somewhat reduced, the imagined action is taken less at face value, and it can be met with a greater sense of freedom, lightness, irony. In lucid dreams, one knows that what is happening does not really exist. Out-of-body or near-death experiences show unusual ways of disrupting the mechanism of bodily identification, but a sufficient degree of metacognitive awareness (or even post-hoc reflection) can inhibit any claims about the existence of a non-material realm to which these experiences would give access to.

This suggests that ‘existence’ is itself a basic hermeneutic scheme used to signal a domain of experience that appears phenomenologically and emotionally cogent and worth engaging with. The use of this label can be inhibited when metacognitive awareness leads to a realization that the content of experience is somehow the result of the subject’s own imagination, it is something constructed to a degree by the cognitive process itself. Hence, we face a curious paradox. What is waking experience? Does it really exist? And do I really exist when I am awake? If a strong sense of existence is correlated with a weak metacognitive awareness, then the less metacognitively aware I am, the stronger I will feel to be there, like in a dream. But if true awake experience is defined as the moment in which the functioning of metacognitive awareness is at its best, then true awake experience should be precisely the moment in which it is more unlikely to license any claims about existence, including ‘I am here.’ We shall now explore some implications of this paradox.

  1. One might wander to what extent this account of lucid dreams depends upon the Tibetan Buddhist context in which the practice of lucid dreaming is cultivated. One might imagine that in spontaneous and non-trained forms of lucid dreaming, the split between different sides of the sense of self might not emerge so neatly. And yet, what is most interesting for the present discussion is that the possibility of deliberately inducing lucid dreaming through training reinforces the idea that experience (including the experience of the dreaming self) is constructed, malleable, and open to be shaped in multiple ways. This is precisely what it means for the self to be ‘constructed.’


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The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.