Neuroscience and Consciousness: A Critical Overview of Literature


What follows is a critical overview of key articles from 2001 – 2011 that investigate the intersection of consciousness and neuroscience.  While analysis of many of the articles will be addressed from a perspective of humanistic psychology, some articles will not necessarily lend themselves to this approach, and a general critical approach will be employed.  The articles range from psychiatric medical aspects of neuroscience to behavioral neuroscience to humanistic psychology.  Throughout, the author utilizes a humanistic and intersectional viewpoint that it is possible to unify sections of competing and opposing philosophies that may have more in common than researchers and practitioners may realize.



While a high number of academic papers and articles on consciousness (referred to meditation in some contexts) have been written since the 1950s (Lutz, et al, 2006), most of them utilize research that is restrictively reduced to a particular methodology or field of thought, whether sociology, medical science, non-humanistic psychology, or another school of thought without considering research or ideas from disparate, but often, related fields, fields that impact the brain’s functions or personal fulfillment. In the spirit of the intersectionality of all things, this article is an attempt to critically review disparate literature and find commonalities.

The purpose of this first section is to unite the various definitions of consciousness from the articles and determine a common theme.  While a humanistic psychological perspective will dominate, other perspectives will not be considered invalid, due to the fact that consciousness does not have one primary meaning across disciplines, or even in all cultures. Even Buddhist perspectives on consciousness are fluid, with no commonly accepted viewpoint (Encyclopedia of Buddhism, p 175), though like science there are some points of intersection.

While Thompson and Varela (2001) restrict their research to the neuroscience of consciousness from the perspective of cognitive science within an “enactive” viewpoint (especially where consciousness intersects the brain-body world  rather than just being centered in the head), their approach to the research provides a new perspective that can provide an opportunity for intersectional understanding to a humanistic psychological approach of consciousness as much as any research included in this overview.  Dietrich (2004) unites creative action with consciousness in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, equating consciousness with awareness.  Lutz, et al (2006) explore the initial findings of neuroscientific research upon meditation. Chiao, et al (2008) dissect visual perception to self-consciousness and its implications on cultural neuroscience.  Graziano and Kastner (2011) look at the adaptive nature of consciousness within social neuroscience that individuals access to understand another’s behaviors.  Each view of consciousness is valid but it reduces each aspect of it to a part, not a whole.  What each misses is what an intersection of the whole becomes:  a complex analysis of consciousness in body, mind, and perhaps spirit.

Review of the Literature

While looking to past research, Thompson and Varela (2001) explore new ground through a recent concept of “enactive cognitive science,” that seeks to understand the interplay and intersectionality of brain, body, and world through dynamical systems theory where traditional ideas of representation and computation, as well as the idea of traditional decompositions of cognitive systems into separate functional subsystems are inadequate in light of the revelations of dynamical systems theory mentioned above.  Further, their review of the literature indicates that there is large-scale integration in the formation of dynamic links in the brain mediated by synchrony over multiple frequencies that are able to unite into a more synchronous one over a limited period of time (a fraction of a second) in a recent study (Roskies, 1999, in Thompson and Varela, 2001).  As of the date of this article, this was opinion backed by several other studies referenced as supporting evidence, thus substantiating the idea that, at least neuroscientifically, everything is connected.

Dietrich (2004) argues that consciousness is connected to creativity via higher brain functions of neural brain circuits associated with the pre-frontal cortex (though not necessarily the seat of creativity) and the control of consciousness, especially when creativity is the result of deliberate control, rather than spontaneous generation through mystical or spontaneous generation.  In spite of the common ground amongst researchers regarding brain function and creativity (Pfenninger and Shubik, 2001 in Dietrich, 2004), modern brain research has not been incorporated into creativity research, perhaps because one is generally looked upon as cognitive, clinical, and biological, and the other as non-clinical psychology.  The author points to substantial evidence that reveals that discrete circuits are involved in specific aspects of higher brain function (Cabeza and Nyberg, 2000; Damasio, 2001; Duncan and Owen, 2000 in Dietrich, 2004) where studies compared creative thinking in higher as well as ordinary brain functions.

Lutz, et al (2006) provide an overview of neuroscientific research on meditation, divided into three sections, a definition of meditation, the intersection of neuroscience and meditation, and “Neuroelectric and Neuroimaging Correlates of Meditation.  They admit that though there are many scientific reports and theoretical proposals ((Austin, 1998; Shapiro and Walsh, 1984; and others, in Lutz, et al, 2006), still little is known about the neurophysiological processes involved with meditation and its possible long-term effects on the brain.  While the authors state they have neither found statistical evidence nor control populations and rigor in the early studies, as well as the challenges controlling the degree of expertise in the practitioners that has explained the limited contributions of neuroscience oriented research on meditation, they have divided their inquiry into the three questions above to thoroughly approach this challenge, including the first section designed to conceptually define meditation in operational terms.

Chiao and Harada (2008) take the idea of cultural neuroscience of consciousness that was on the periphery of an earlier journal article, ultimately rejected (visual perception as consciousness), and expands it into research in self-awareness, from the merely physiological to the psychological and philosophical viewpoints of the personal self of the West to the collective self of the East. The authors combine this seemingly dichotomous view and argue for a comprehensive view that includes both viewpoints that ultimately underlies the neurobiological phenomena of both, while reviewing recent evidence of cultural variations and explore the implications to the study of consciousness.  Cultural neuroscience, they argue is a new interdisciplinary field backed by empirical demonstrations that cultural values, practices, and beliefs play a critical role in psychological and neurobiological processes (Kitayama and Cohen, 2007; Chiao and Ambady, 2007 in Chiao and Harada, 2008).

Graziano and Kastner (2011) bring this full circle, with a hypothesis that consciousness is a construct of the social perceptual machinery, rather than one that is evolutionarily present in the brain rather than being an evolutionary or adaptive property.  In this case, the authors posit that the brain constructs models of other people’s minds to gain some ability to understand or predict others’ behaviors.  While the idea that consciousness has been closely related to social ability has been suggested in earlier studies (Baumeister and Masicampo, 2010; Carruthers, 2009; Frith, 1995 in Graziano and Kastner (2011) it has also been noted that self-knowledge does not explain consciousness (Crick and Koch, 1990 in Graziano and Kastner, 2011).  The authors propose that, on a neuronal basis, the machinery for social perception provides the feeling of consciousness and awareness as a product of social perception (Graziano, 2010 in Graziano and Kastner, 2011) which will become evident later when we discuss their research question.


Research Questions

Thompson and Varela (2001) do not provide us with a hypothesis, but they assess the current research and provide us with a convincing argument that large scale integration of neural pathways in the vertebrate brain that make up consciousness is the formation of dynamic links synchronously controlled over multiple frequency bands, most recently in electrophysiological studies in animals that have concentrated on short-range synchronous activity between adjacent areas related to a single sensory perception (Gray, et al, 1989; König, et a, 1995 in Thompson and Varela, 2001).  There have been other studies designed to test this idea over long range synchronizations between widely separated brain regions during cognitive tasks (Bressler, et al, 1993; Roelfsema, et al, 1997; 18 Rodriguez, 1999; Srinivasan, 1999; von Stein, et al, 2000 in Thompson and Varela, 2001), and while these results support the idea of a more general notion that phase synchrony should subserve just the binding of sensory attributes but overall integration of the dimensions of  a cognitive act,  the evidence is only correlative, not causal, and more research is required.

Dietrich (2004) defines creativity as “every neural circuit that computes specific information also produces novel combinations of that information” as well as higher order structures implicit in a person’s culture that are not dependent upon neural structures. Current research is analyzed and creativity is categorized in neuroanatomy in four basic types, whether the novelty production is deliberate or spontaneous, intuitive and analysis, or explicit and implicit ((Ashby et al., 1999; Shirley and Langan- Fox, 1996; Simonton, 1975 in Dietrich, 2004).  First, to be conscious of an idea and evaluate its appropriateness. Second, insights are the beginning of converting novel idea combinations into a creative work.  Third, the prefrontal cortex must activate the creative activity. And fourth, creative insight and effort requires a high level of knowledge, skill and/or technique.  There is also some evidence that deliberate creativity is different than spontaneous creativity and the prefrontal cortex plays a large role in long-term memory retrieval (Cabeza and Nyberg, 2000; Hasegawa, Hayashi, and Miyashita, 1999 in Dietrich, 2004).

Lutz, et al (2006), while providing an overview of meditation, consciousness, and neuroscience, also dive deep into details and disagreements, and they provide us with a pointed assessment of what realistically constitutes meditation without getting drawn into a philosophical flame war with different spiritual practices.  They address five questions:  a relative degree of stability and clarity suitable to meditation practice, whether the meditation has an object, the meditation techniques being used (pranayama, for example), the expected effects during the practice, and the expected effects after a practice session.  They elaborate on these questions and encourage practitioners and researchers adapt or add to this rather detailed list (in the article) depending upon one’s particular practice, but they neither indicate that ancient Buddhist and Hindu practitioners were practitioners as well as researchers, nor do they indicate if there are current researchers who are also practitioners.  While this regularly occurs in Buddhist and Hindu practice with no one questioning the legitimacy of such research, there is no mention throughout Lutz, et al (2006) of a researcher who is also a practitioner, but they do encourage and cite working with advanced meditators of various spiritual practices (Benson et al, 1982; Takahashi et al, 2005 in Lutz, et al, 2006).

Chiao and Harada (2008) take cultural neuroscience and dissect it into a schema that encompasses equal parts social psychology, social, cognitive, effective neuroscience, and imaging genomics (culture, mind, brain, and genes).  They take visual experience as an example and cite examples where visual sensations indicate consciousness but expand on the idea, further indicating that cultural beliefs can be interpreted differently in the self and influence visual perception at a behavioral level utilized in the Frame-Line Test developed by Kitayama and colleagues (2003, in Chiao and Harada, 2008) and designed to measure the capacity to incorporate and ignore contextual information at the same time.  The results indicated that people living in a collective culture, like Japan, notice and incorporate contextual information when a focal object is perceived, and people in an individualistic culture, like the United States, ignore contextual information when they perceive a focal object.  It’s obvious here that some colors, based on this assessment, are associated with good and others with evil, but their association differs from culture to culture. This is cultural neuroscience at its simplest.

Graziano and Kastner (2011) provide us with the hypothesis, awareness is a product of social perception and indicate that humans have neural machinery that contributes to constructing models of other people’s minds (Brunet et al, 2000; Ciaramidaro et al, 2007; Gallagher et al, 2000, and others in Graziano and Kastner, 2011) that may also contribute to building a model of one’s own mind (Frith, 2002; Ochsner et al, 2004; Saxe et al, 2006 and others in Graziano and Kastner, 2011), but this self-knowledge does not easily explain consciousness (Crick and Koch, 1990 in Graziano and Kastner, 2011). The authors additionally propose that the machinery for this social perception provides us with a feeling of consciousness (Graziano, 2010 in Graziano and Kastner, 2011) but it does not account for any other senses and limits consciousness and awareness to a visual modal.  In their first example, Abel sees Bill and Bill sees the coffee cup, but nowhere is the stimulus for looking at the coffee one of a sense of smell or a sense of hearing if Bill calls to Abel. Their awareness as a product of social perception can incorporate one where several senses are triggered, but no others are explored here.


Discussion and Conclusion

Everything is connected.  Some may point to studies and isolated conclusions, but others can look at each of the same studies and realize there are applications, implications, and results that have value beyond a specific discipline or even a specific study.  While the papers included here range from social science, to biological science, to behavioral, to humanistic psychology, they commonly connect to an idea, to understand consciousness within neuroscience from a more collective and perspective of an earthly whole.  While one includes a hypothesis with a desired result that is questionable in its narrowness (Graziano and Kastner, 2011), the others explore their topics in depth, perhaps to formulate a hypothesis and a study later.  Thompson and Varela (2001), while writing in the cognitive sciences, realize that consciousness isn’t just a biological or cognitive clinical exercise and advocate that the processes necessary to understand the connections between neural dynamics and consciousness include an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses brain, body, and world (though, here, I would add the necessary mind and spirit to be truly interdisciplinary) to explore one of their suggested questions for future research, “Can long-range synchronization in the vertebrate brain be shown to play a causal role in behavior or consciousness?”

Creativity, while as of this writing (Dietrich, 2004), wasn’t really connected to neuroscience studies, though this author has seen various academic programs incorporating creativity over the last several.  However, research has been conducted within the realm of psychometric, and while this overview leaves little room to expand each of these subject studies, a thorough exploration of the literature would yield the idea that interdisciplinary research in this area is overdue.  Lutz and Davidson (2006) summarize the available literature in neuroscientific literature on meditation with overviews that are designed to suggest potential areas of further inquiry from these initial findings.  This entry is perhaps the most comprehensive in that in incorporates meditation into the description of consciousness, whereas many of the others only suggest the connection by inference.

Chiao and Harada’s (2008) explorations of cultural neuroscience of consciousness allow for a larger picture of the whole of consciousness and neuroscience that would allow for a more logical integration of creativity at a collective level as well as some other studies into the framework of future research.  Given that the authors differentiate between Eastern and Western cultures, it might be valuable to study groups and individuals within Western Society (the United States in their example) whose original culture is native to the East (Japan for example) to determine similarities or indeed changes in collective or original perceptions.

Looking at this topic from a macro level, as we did when we began, the obvious conclusion, looking at all of the research included here, is that the studies here are seemingly disparate in approach, they have a common thread that can be united in an interdisciplinary fashion, perhaps not all at once given limited resources and time, including Graziano and Kastner (2011) with their concluding questions, “How can the inner ‘feeling’ of awareness be explained?” that hints at the concept of metaphysical Buddhist awareness of the self and no self, almost pushing the topic to a conclusion where there will be no conclusion, and  “How can the machinery for social perception gain access to modality-spanning information?” where awareness includes objects, in this case a coffee cup, but their concept of a social perceptual model is linked to visual awareness only and does not include the awareness of visually impaired or, in the earlier example, the sense of smell (of coffee).  In that sense, we may end with more questions that the ones we began with.



Chiao, J., & Harada, T. (2008). Cultural neuroscience of consciousness: From visual perception to self-awareness. Journal of Consciousness studies, 15(10-1), 58-69.

Dietrich, A. (2004). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 11(6), 1011-1026.

Graziano, M. S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Human consciousness and its relationship to social neuroscience: a novel hypothesis. Cognitive neuroscience, 2(2), 98-113.

Lutz, A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness: An introduction. The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, 19.

Thompson, E., & Varela, F. J. (2001). Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness. Trends in cognitive sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

Yamabe, N. (2004). Theories of Consciousness. In R.E. Buswell (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume One, A-L (pp. 175-178). New York: Macmillan.

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