A Scientific Method for Exploring Consciousness

October 12th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

To what degree is it possible for us to seek and discover the “truth” as we explore consciousness itself? How knowable is our inner reality?

Of course we have the scientific method. Observe. Hypothesize. Test. Draw conclusions. Put the results to good use. And obviously the repeated application of the scientific method has produced some remarkable discoveries in the external world.

But unfortunately we cannot merely apply the scientific method to help us understand consciousness itself. Why not? Because the scientific method presupposes an independent observer, and we don’t have that privilege when studying our own consciousness. You cannot independently observe your consciousness without affecting it. We cannot separate the subject from the object in our experiments in consciousness. We play the role of both the observer and the observed simultaneously.

By “consciousness” I am referring to your sense of awareness. Your consciousness is the thinker of your thoughts. We can use external devices to measure our brainwaves, and we can drug ourselves to alter our state of consciousness. But we have no outside-in means of measuring consciousness from the perspective of consciousness itself. I can experience my own consciousness but only my own and no one else’s. I cannot observe or test your consciousness as you experience it.

And yet despite these problems, we are not entirely helpless. We do have some ability to observe our consciousness. We can become aware of our own thoughts and beliefs.

But how do we study these subjective experiences with some degree of intelligence? The scientific method only lets us study the outskirts of consciousness but not its juicy interior. So if we cannot use the scientific method, then what intelligent alternatives are available to us?

I don’t have an ideal answer for this question. Even though we cannot collectively apply the scientific method, we can do our best to apply an individualized, subjective version of the scientific method, where we experiment on ourselves and play the roles of both observer and observed. It’s messy and imprecise to be sure, but I think it’s better than nothing. It does provide some useful data, even though interpreting that data can be like unraveling a spider’s web.

Probably one of the most useful methods I’ve found is to alter my beliefs in some fashion, experience reality from within that new belief system and take lots of notes on my perceptions and thoughts, especially those that seem to have changed. Then when I shift my beliefs again, I can review those notes as well as my own memories… now viewing them from a different perspective. And I can do this multiple times as I continue to shift my beliefs. Again, it’s messy and imprecise because my notes and memories don’t make for a perfectly accurate record of my consciousness, but for now they’re the best tools I have available. This method allows me to examine changes in my consciousness as a semi-independent observer because I can take advantage of the perspective of time. I can re-examine the impression of those experiences after they’ve occurred, like a paleontologist examines fossils.

Together my notes and memories allow me to partially reload a previous context into my consciousness. It’s like loading a piece of software from your computer’s hard drive into its RAM, where the CPU can then run it. With some practice I can now do a fair job of splitting my consciousness into something of a multi-tasking processor. So I am simultaneously running a previous experience and also observing it from another perspective.

You have the ability to do this as well, although you probably haven’t tried to develop it much. Are you familiar with the concept of hindsight? Hindsight is when you recall a past experience from a new perspective. So you play the role of observer (your current perspective) while simultaneously loading in the observed (your memory). So you remember the stuff you did as a teenager and think, “That was really stupid.” Teenage readers, please take note. But instead of merely reliving the memory and associating with it, you remain dissociated and observe it from the distance of time.

Hindsight only provides you with one perspective, however, and that’s a bit too limiting for our purposes. When you use hindsight, you’re only viewing the past from the vantage point of the present. Have you ever tried using hindsight in reverse though? I encourage you to try it if you can handle the mental gymnastics. In this case you would go back to the past memory and fully associate into it. See it through your own eyes — really be there. Use your imagination to make it feel as real as possible. Hear the sounds. Smell the smells. Think the same thoughts you did back then. For a moment just allow yourself to become that person. Reload your past self into your consciousness.

Now as you maintain this past perspective, load up your present reality as if it were a memory. Stay dissociated, and see your present from a third-person perspective. It may help to imagine your present self on a movie screen, with the real you (which in this case is the past you) sitting in the theatre watching the movie. So you’re seeing your present self up on the screen from the perspective of your past self sitting in the theatre. Then just allow your present reality to play out a bit, and allow yourself to interpret it from the perspective of your past. I think you’ll find this reverse hindsight a truly fascinating and enlightening experience. For example, you can use it to imagine what your teenage self would think of you today. Try it!

You can also use this method with two past memories or two imagined future memories or one of each. By mentally shifting around to different perspectives as you play the roles of both the observer and observed, and then taking notes on what you discover (so you can review them later from yet more perspectives), you will ultimately create a pseudo-scientific logbook to use for exploring your own consciousness.

Through this process I’ve been able to discover how I feel about atheism from the perspective of being a Catholic, a Buddhist, an agnostic, a fellow atheist, and so on. This helped me separate out some degree of “truth” that seemed independent of my perspective. For example, no matter what belief system I held, it was important to me that it feel good. A belief system that kept me in a state of fear might appear normal from the inside, but it invariably looks hideous from the outside peering in. I felt I could make better choices once I could examine different beliefs and their consequences both from the inside looking out and from the outside looking in.

You can also use this method to help you make decisions about your future. For example, suppose you’re trying to select a career for yourself, and you aren’t sure which one feels right. This is very common among people in their 20s. Let’s say you can’t decide whether to go to medical school (to become a doctor) or to go to law school (to become evil). I’m kidding! :)

So you might imagine what it’s like to be a doctor and then imagine what it’s like to be a lawyer. But most likely you’ll imagine both of these from your current perspective, and that may not provide the info you need to help you make this decision. I’d recommend you do that first, but then do this too: Imagine you’re the doctor, and fully associate into that role, and while doing so, imagine yourself as a doctor thinking about being a lawyer, and notice how that feels. Use the movie screen technique I mentioned earlier. Then do the reverse. Imagine yourself as the lawyer thinking about being the doctor. This isn’t hindsight or foresight, so I guess it would be sidesight. But I think you’ll find it helpful in situations where you must choose between equally appealing (or unappealing) alternatives. You may find that the extra information is exactly what you need to achieve clarity. If you become a doctor, will you regret never becoming a lawyer? And what of the opposite scenario?

This process helped me make my major career change last year. Writing and speaking on personal development was the only career that made sense from every perspective. And it especially looked good from the inside looking out. It was the one career that wouldn’t leave me thinking, “Maybe I should be doing something else.” And that’s exactly how it turned out.

Hopefully this is enough to give you a sense of my pseudo-scientific method for exploring consciousness — or at least belief systems, which is a part of consciousness. It’s still a bit wild at this point, but then so am I. :)

This method should at least give you a way to begin exploring your own beliefs with some degree of ability to observe, hypothesize, and test without getting too lost in the folds of your own thoughts. And if you’re afraid to try it, well, your lack of courage is a good place to start experimenting then, isn’t it?

So go have a look around your own consciousness, and please let me know if you discover anything interesting. Just don’t drink the water though. ;)



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