Academic Studies of Human Consciousness

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Last update to this website was on:  15 March 2011

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Concepts of Consciousness - A Brief Academic History

The earliest substantive study of human consciousness, probably occurred during the 6th Century B.C.  This age, referred to by Will Durant as the "Shower of Stars," is at the center of the "Axial Age" as defined by the philosopher Karl Jaspers.  Most notably, this was the time of the Buddha in India, the philosopher Heraclitus in Ephesus and the physician-philosopher Alcmaeon of Croton.  These men all taught and thought extensively on topics pertaining to consciousness.  Unfortunately, the Buddha's teachings were strictly oral and, although both Heraclitus and Alcmaeon wrote books, only fragments have survived in the works of other Classical Era writers.

To the best of my knowledge, the earliest extant writings on the subject of consciousness, are contained in some of the early prose Upanishads (ca. 700-500 B.C.) of ancient India.  Subsequently, in 4th Century B. C. Greece, various aspects of consciousness were addressed in the written dialogues of Plato (427-347 B.C.) and the works of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).  During the Hellenistic Age (ca. 330-100 B.C.) which followed, the views of Plato and Aristotle continued to dominate consciousness thinking in the Greek speaking world.

From the 1st Century B.C. to the 5th Century A.D., Europe and the Near East were under the political hegemony of the Roman Empire.  During this era, Stoicism and Neo-Platonism were the dominant philosophies.  However, in the 5th Century, the Roman Empire in the West collapsed and the Greco-Roman "Age of Reason" was replaced by a Christian "Age of Faith."  The result, at least in Europe, was an intellectual Dark Age which lasted from the 5th Century until the time of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th Century.  Virtually no progress in the area of human consciousness study was made in Christian Europe during this thousand year period!  Philosophical thought, such as it was, was dominated by the dead hand of Aristotle and the Scholastics.  Fortunately, in the 15th Century, a rebirth of learning occurred and an entirely new set of scientific ideas  ultimately came to replace the inadequate Medieval mindset.

Beginning in the 17th century, European philosophers started to wrestle with the mysteries of the conscious mind. The serious study of consciousness became a province of that branch of philosophy usually referred to as metaphysics.  The most notable people in this field included Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704), Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716), David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhelm Frederick Hegel (1770-1831).  The philosophical writings of these people explored the same subjects that modern-day philosophers, psychologists and scientists still pursue. These subjects include cognition, perception, language, beliefs, emotions, sensations of pain and pleasure, awareness of self, sleep, dreaming, and the relationship of body to mind.

In Europe and America, psychology and brain science began to emerge in the middle of the 19th Century and consciousness began to be studied in a rational and systematic manner.  The most notable practitioners during this era were the psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and William James.  Despite this auspicious beginning, the study of human consciousness soon fell out of fashion and by about 1920 a new Dark Age had descended over consciousness research.

This occurred primarily due to the rise of psychological Behaviorism pioneered by people such as Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.  Human consciousness phenomena were considered to be too subjective in nature and not  conducive to experimental analysis. This religious orthodoxy of Behaviorism dominated psychology from the 1920's to the 1960's.  Creative thought about cognitive phenomena and related topics was smothered.

However, even during this 20th Century Dark Age, work performed primarily by medical researchers improved our understanding of arousal, sleep, dreaming, hypnosis, pain, pleasure, sensory perception, and animal consciousness.

While the study of human consciousness was stalled, important scientific gains were made in other areas of the life sciences, particularly genetics.  In 1944, the Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a science classic entitled What is Life.  This book inspired many scientists in physics and chemistry to enter the fields of molecular biology and genetics and led to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953.  The noted physicist and computer scientist Eric Baum, who is elsewhere discussed at this web site, has said:

Schrödinger felt that life must be explainable by physics and chemistry, yet seemed to violate the normal behavior of entropy-- and he understood further that this was a remarkable wedge point to explore. He figured out the explanation: life is the result of evolution of genetic information, which selects for complex processes that by ordinary considerations would be very unlikely. He predicted that there must be a molecule capable of carrying the genetic information (incorrectly thinking it would be a protein).  His beautifully-written book was influential and timely. Within 4 years, Von Neumann elucidated the mechanisms involved in self-reproducing automata (illustrating his abstract discussion with a picture looking remarkably like DNA to the eyes of readers today); and within a decade, Watson and Crick grasped the structure of DNA.

In the late 1950s, psychology began to emerge  from its Behavioral Dark Age into the light of the Cognitive Revolution.  This psychological renaissance occurred largely due to the experimental work of people such as George A. Miller and Donald Broadbent, as well as by the writings of the noted linguistic scientist Noam Chomsky.  In 1967, Ulric Neisser's book entitled Cognitive Psychology, named the new field and effectively outlined its content. Behaviorism still survived during the 1960s and early 1970s, but only as a declining intellectual movement that was in its last gasp of popularity. By 1980 the domination of cognitive approaches across almost all areas of psychology (even animal learning) was virtually complete.

By the late 1980s, advances in neuroimaging, brain mapping, and the science of artificial intelligence (AI) caused a new generation of researchers to investigate human consciousness.  Recently, new discoveries in human brain neuroplasticity have further stimulated consciousness research. Very recently, neuroscientists  have begun to examine Buddhist Meditation techniques with respect to their affect on neuroplasticity. The end result of all these new discoveries is that the quantity of research papers in the consciousness field has enormously increased.  Since the mid-1990s, major universities began to offer reasonably well defined consciousness studies programs. Professional journals and societies have been created and academic conferences devoted to consciousness studies are now being held on a regular basis.  In the United States, the most important are the conferences hosted by the Center for Consciousness at the University of Arizona in Tucson. These conferences have been held bi-annually since 1994 with the  ninth conference scheduled for 13-17 April 2010.


Main Purpose of this Web Site

The noted neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, in Chapter 1 of his book entitled The Feeling of What Happens (Published 1999) makes the following statement:

The traditional worlds of philosophy and psychology have gradually joined forces with the world of biology and created an odd but productive alliance.  For example, by means of the loose federation of scientific approaches currently known as cognitive neuroscience, the alliance has permitted new advances in the understanding of vision, memory and language.  There is good reason to expect that the alliance will assist with the understanding of consciousness as well.

Consistent with the above, I have undertaken a self-imposed project involving the identification and discussion of some of the ideas of several important philosophers, psychologists and scientists (four people for each field) concerning both human and machine consciousness.  Most of the individuals selected have performed their most important work within the last twenty years.  The 12 individuals discussed are listed in the following table:

Philosophers Psychologists Scientists

Daniel Dennett

The Buddha

Eric Baum

Jerry Fodor

Julian Jaynes

Antonio Damasio

Colin McGinn

Stephen Pinker

Gerald Edelman

John Searle

Daniel Wegner

Francisco Varela


This project is being accomplished mainly as an intellectual exercise for my own personal amazement and amusement.  Even so, the results of these studies are being made available to anyone who may have similar interests via this web site.  The essays appended to this site only provide my interpretations of some of the ideas of the individuals cited.  In no way should these interpretations be considered to represent a complete summary of all of the ideas of these people.  The interpretations are entirely my own and I am solely responsible for any errors, whether objective or subjective, that may be found.

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My Websites

I currently support twenty-four websites. Fifteen sites are related to philosophy and art and nine are related to genealogy and local history.  Hyperlinks to these sites are shown below.

Philosophy and Art:

Alchemists of the 20th Century

Baudelaire and the Impressionists

Concepts of Consciousness

Greatest Minds and Ideas

Mozart's Opera - The Magic Flute*

Objective Art

Philosophy of Heraclitus

Platonic Golden Chain*

Platonism, Paganism and Christianity*

Mysteries of Isis and Osiris

Biography of Pamela Colman Smith

Introduction to Mythology

Lehrtafel of Princess Antonia

School of Athens

Mithras - Lord of Ages*

* Sites still under construction

Genealogy and Local History:

Bell Witch of TN

Campbell Family

Cherokees of Rusk County TX

Mayfields of VA, NC, KY, and TN

Mayfields of SC

Mason, Mortier and Cory Families

Norfleet Family

SC Revolutionary War Sites

SC Tories and Rebels

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CopyrightŠ 2004-2010 by Phil Norfleet

All Rights Reserved. Published in the United States of America.  My essays provided at this web site may be reproduced for nonprofit personal or educational use only.  However, commercial use of these materials is a violation of United States copyright laws and is strictly prohibited.

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Philosophers Psychologists Scientists Meditation Metaphysics Upanishads