Dr Richard Bolstad is co-author of Integration

As taught on the Integration course in Thailand, Crete and New Caledonia

Consciousness: Towards An NLP Perspective

Dr Richard Bolstad

What and Where is Consciousness?

We tend to take for granted that we are conscious or self-aware, making our actions different to those of a machine such as a computer, which merely does actions but is not aware, not genuinely observing its actions. We think we know what we mean by acting consciously, as opposed to acting as a sleepwalker does, or as a person in a coma does. However when we attempt to explain our intuition about this quality, it is illusive, and even scientists instead often describe functions which can also be run without consciousness, such as self-reflexive calculations or thoughts. In the 1960s, psychologist Charles Tart analyzed the state of consciousness into a number of component processes, including exteroception (sensing the external world); interoception (sensing the body); input-processing (seeing meaning); emotions; memory; time sense; sense of identity; evaluation and cognitive processing; motor output; and interaction with the environment. However, each of these, separately, seems able to be lost without a loss of consciousness (eg in sensory deprivation tanks), and some of them turn out to be merely other words for the same phenomenon (whether it is called "sensing", "being aware of" or "being conscious of", we don't really explain it just by giving it another name).

As early as 1950 pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing attempted to define consciousness in terms of the intuition which most people claim to have about it, saying that if a machine can convince most humans that it is conscious, then it is, by definition, conscious. His so-called "Turing Test" was first passed by a machine in 2014. Since non-conscious states such as deep sleep or coma differ from conscious states in their neurological basis, neuroscientists have attempted to identify consciousness as a specific brain function: for example Gerald Edelman referred to it as a type of short term memory experience which he called "the remembered present". This has even led some biologists to suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain which appears when a large enough number of neurons are in connection (see for instance Mario Bunge 1977). Such a claim would of course imply that whales were more likely to have consciousness than humans. It also does not answer the question "What is consciousness", but more attributes its emergence magically to a set quantity of interactions. It is like saying that when you count to a million, consciousness emerges.

In the Eastern philosophical traditions, on the other hand, consciousness is conceived as a fundamental ground of the universe, which merely manifests through complex structures such as the brain (just as the electromagnetic force manifests through the neurons into the electrical activity of the brain). Many physicists have expressed a similar conviction, although they have generally been uninterested in linking a theory of consciousness into a theory of the universe. One exception was David Bohm (1980), who conceptualised consciousness as an underlying ground to the universe which was more fundamental than both quantum physics and relativity. In the same way, the movement of time is viewed by neuroscientists and psychologists as a subjective way the brain categorises its experiences, but physicists tend to think of time as fundamental to the working of the universe, and Einstein's physics of relativity demonstrated that time and matter are one thing (space-time).

The idea that quantum theory has something to do with consciousness goes back to nuclear physicist Eugene Wigner, who argued that the wave function of a quantum field collapses into a material phenomenon due to its interaction with consciousness. While this specific claim is not generally accepted, Erwin Schrodinger, the founder of Quantum Physics held "We have got used to localising the conscious personality inside a person's head - I should say an inch or two behind the midpoint of the eyes ... It is very difficult for us to take stock of the fact that the localisation of the personality, of the conscious mind, inside the body is only symbolic, just an aid for practical use.... There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousness. Their multiplicity is only apparent; in truth there is only one mind." (Dossey, 1989, p126)

Theoretical physicist Roger Penrose and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff collaborated to produce the theory known as Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) in the 1990s. They suggested that quantum level computations, experienced by us as consciousness, were being "orchestrated" by electrical input from the neurons. They thought this was happening in the microtubules which connect neurons in the brain. These tubules create tiny isolated environments in which quantum effects could function, insulated from the main non-quantum brain tissue. In January 2014 Hameroff and Penrose announced that a discovery of quantum vibrations in microtubules by Anirban Bandyopadhyay of the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan confirms their theory that consciousness is produced by the collapse of quantum wave functions inside the microtubules. "The origin of consciousness reflects our place in the universe, the nature of our existence. Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain?" asked Hameroff and Penrose in a 2013 review. "This opens a potential Pandora's Box, but our theory accommodates both these views, suggesting consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules, protein polymers inside brain neurons, which both govern neuronal and synaptic function, and connect brain processes to self-organizing processes in the fine scale, 'proto-conscious' quantum structure of reality." In this model, the universe has a proto-conscious background which is focused or energised by the fine structures of the brain into our full individual human "consciousness".

If this is true, it suggests that consciousness would also be present in other creatures with neuronal microtubules and maybe others. Rene Descartes claimed with his Christian philosophy of dualism that only humans have consciousness, and even in the twentieth century, researchers argued that we cannot speculate about consciousness in non-human animals (see Carruthers, 1999). In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote, "The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. Why this should have happened is, to me, the most profound mystery facing modern biology." When Dawkins wrote, it was assumed that consciousness only occurred in animals with a neo-cortex. In 2008 (Prior et alia), an investigation of Eurasian Magpies showed that they have a sense of self-identity. Although these very small birds do not have a neocortex, they are clearly capable of understanding that a mirror image reflects their own self, just as humans and apes do. Self recognition in a mirror is one behaviour which is usually considered irrefutably connected to our own sense of subjective awareness of our own existence, and thus to consciousness. Some sense of awareness of self-existence may have emerged very early in the story of life, if not at the start.

What Are The Evolutionary Advantages of Consciousness?

Obviously, if consciousness is fully or partially generated in the brain, it must give living animals an evolutionary advantage over being mere automatons. Much research over the last decades suggests the nature of that advantage in human subjects (what magpies are doing with it is anybody's guess). Ellen Langer is a Professor of psychology at Harvard University who has researched what she calls mindfulness over the last 40 years. In an interview for Harvard Business Review, she identifies three researched benefits of conscious attention:

1. Innovation. "With Gabriel Hammond, a graduate student, I ran a study where we asked participants to come up with new uses for products that had failed. We primed one group for mindlessness by telling them how the product had fallen short of its original intended use--to cite a famous example from 3M, a failed glue. We primed the other for mindfulness by simply describing the product's properties--a substance that adheres for only a short amount of time. Of course, the most creative ideas for new uses came from the second group. I'm an artist as well as a researcher, writer, and consultant--each activity informs the others for me--and I got the idea to study mindfulness and mistakes when I was painting. I looked up and saw I was using ocher when I'd meant to use magenta, so I started trying to fix it. But then I realized I'd made the decision to use magenta only seconds before. People do this all the time. You start with uncertainty, you make a decision, and if you make a mistake, it's a calamity. But the path you were following was just a decision. You can change it at any time, and maybe an alternative will turn out better. When you're mindful, mistakes become friends."

2. Performance. "We did a study with symphony musicians, who, it turns out, are bored to death. They're playing the same pieces over and over again, and yet it's a high-status job that they can't easily walk away from. So we had groups of them perform. Some were told to replicate a previous performance they'd liked--that is, to play pretty mindlessly. Others were told to make their individual performance new in subtle ways--to play mindfully. Remember: This wasn't jazz, so the changes were very subtle indeed. But when we played recordings of the symphonies for people who knew nothing about the study, they overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces.... At the very highest levels of any field--Fortune 50 CEOs, the most impressive artists and musicians, the top athletes, the best teachers and mechanics--you'll find mindful people, because that's the only way to get there."

3. Health. "Years ago we did studies on chambermaids (who lost weight after being told their work was exercise) and vision (where people did better on eye tests that had them work up from large letters at the bottom to small ones at the top, creating the expectation that they would be able to read them). Now we're trying a mindfulness cure on many diseases that people think are uncontrollable to see if we can at least ameliorate the symptoms."

Langer warns: So when someone says, "Learn this so it's second nature," let a bell go off in your head, because that means mindlessness." This, for NLP Practitioners, raises an important issue about the value of the unconscious mind. To understand how the "unconscious mind" operates in neurological terms, let me explain a little about the brain and memory. At one time in my life, I needed to use my conscious mind to tie my shoelaces. Nowdays, my "unconscious mind" performs that function. What do I mean when I say that last sentence? I mean that another area of the brain now runs my shoelace tying strategy automatically when it is triggered by the sight of my shoes untied. Even a person severely affected by the memory loss of Alzheimer's disease may continue for some time to be able to tie their shoelaces, because such strategies are stored in areas of the brain less affected by that condition (Schacter, 1996, p 134-137). Such memories are called "procedural memories".

There is another type of memory which patients with Alzheimer's continue to have too. Memory researcher Daniel Schacter discusses the results of an experiment with words which reveals this other type of memory. First, he shows people a series of words, each of which is to be studied carefully for 5 seconds. The first set of words are: assassin, octopus, avocado, mystery, sheriff, climate. Next, he shows people a second set of words and asks if any of this second set were in the first set. The second set are: twilight, assassin, dinosaur, mystery. If your memory functions well, you recognised two of these from the first list. Next, Schacter asks people to complete the following English words by filling in the blanks. Third set: ch----nk, o-t--us, -og-y---, -l-m-te.

Most people who have seen the first set of words have difficulty coming up with two in this third set of words (chipmunk and bogeyman) but find octopus and climate rather obvious. That's because your memory has been "primed" by studying the first set. Now, here's the interesting thing. Priming also works for people with Alzheimer's disease, who cannot recall whether any of the second set were in the first set. Priming even works for people who are exposed to spoken information when they are unconscious due to anaesthetic! (Schacter, 1996, p 170-172). Whereas conscious memory requires activation of brain areas such as the frontal cortex, the unconscious memories of priming and the unconscious memories of a procedure such as shoelace tying are stored deeper in the brain. These other types of memory/skill are unconscious, and they are very useful. We do not need to make such memory systems conscious. Unfortunately, these unconscious memories operate on automatic. They can be "primed" by any irrelevant and even harmful stimuli which a person happens to come across.

Langer cautions, "Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It's the essence of engagement. And it's energy-begetting, not energy-consuming. The mistake most people make is to assume it's stressful and exhausting--all this thinking. But what's stressful is all the mindless negative evaluations we make...." Interestingly, this has some correlation with the difference between what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 (unconscious) and System 2 (conscious) thinking, each of which have been shown to have strengths in certain situations. System 1 thinking is fast, unconscious, intuitive and effort-free. System 2 thinking is slow, conscious, uses deductive reasoning and is a lot of hard work. System 1 is very useful where there is not the time to consciously assess all the variables, and you have experience relevant to the task eg the fire fighting captain who correctly anticipates that a house on fire is about to explode and gets his team out in time yet cannot articulate why he knew that. System 2 is great for making careful decisions as long as you can stop it being seduced by biases that you are not consciously aware of. That is to say, most of us do not realise how unconsciously we are responding with System 1 biases: A simple example: if you hold a pencil between your teeth forcing your mouth into the shape of a smile, you'll find a cartoon funnier than if you hold the pencil pointing forward, by pursing your lips around it in a frown inducing way. And just "putting on a frown" works to reduce overconfidence; it causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking; to question stories that we would otherwise accept as true because they are coherent!

Can Consciousness or Awareness Be Improved?

Matthieu Ricard is a French Buddhist monk who resides at Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal. He co-authored a study on the brains of long-term meditators, including himself, who had undergone a minimum of three years full time meditation training (Lutz et alia, 2004). Mindfulness experts such as Ricard can be exposed to a 115-decibel "burst of white noise" (equivalent in volume to a gunshot) without showing the usual uncontrolled startle response at all (Levinson and Ekman, 2012). That means they are able to continue noticing what is going on in their environment, instead of getting caught up in their own panic, and so they continue making good decisions. While this is clearly a learned form of consciousness, most people would be ambivalent about giving up three years to attain such skill.

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT has experimentally trained people with psychiatric conditions such as depression in Buddhist mindfulness meditation techniques. Researchers have shown that the techniques can assist them to be more fully aware of their own responses, and thus choose to respond differently, reducing the incidence of depression and anxiety, for example (Ma and Teasdale, 2004).

This increased mindfulness, consciousness or awareness is not the same as concentration. Langer explains: "Vigilance, or very focused attention, is probably mindless. If I'm racing through the woods on horseback, watching the branches so that I don't get hit in the face, I might miss the boulder on the ground, so then my horse stumbles and I'm thrown off.... What you want is a soft openness--to be attentive to the things you're doing but not single-minded, because then you're missing other opportunities."

Mindfulness is also not the same as what is commonly called "self-consciousness". In 1996, 37 year old Indiana Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a massive stroke, the result of bleeding from a damaged blood vessel which destroyed most of the left side of her brain, including the areas essential for creating a sense of "self". The upper back corner of the brain is called the Orientation Association Area or OAA (Newberg, D'Aquili and Vince, 2002, p 4). The section of the OAA on the left side of the brain analyses the entire visual image into two categories: self and other. When this area is damaged, the person has difficulty working out where they are in relation to what they see. Just trying to lie down on a bed becomes so complicated that the person will fall onto the floor. Bolte Taylor was able to describe her experience without this area functioning. With no sense of "self" separate from the world, she was none-the-less very conscious.

Andrew Newberg and Gene D'Aquili have studied the OAA in both Tibetan Buddhist meditators and in Franciscan (Christian) nuns (Newberg, D'Aquili and Vince, 2002, p 4-7). Newberg and D'Aquili used a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to observe these people in normal awareness, and then at the times when they were at a peak of meditating or performing "centering prayer". At these peak moments, activity in the OAA ceased as the person's brain stopped separating out their "self" from the "outside world" and simply experienced life as it is; as one undivided experience. The Buddhist meditators would report, at this time, that they had a sense of timelessness and infinity, of being one with everything that is. The nuns tended to use slightly different language, saying that they were experiencing a closeness and at-oneness with God and a sense of great peace and contentment. The stilling of the sense of separate self creates an emotional state which is described variously as bliss, peace, contentment or ecstasy. Newberg and D'Aquili speculate that the same stilling of the OAA occurs in peak sexual experiences, and that earlier in human history this may have been the main source of such states of oneness (and may be its evolutionary "purpose" in the brain -- Newberg, D'Aquili and Rause, 2002, p 126).

Jill Bolte Taylor explains "In the absence of the normal functioning of my left orientation association area, my perception of my physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air. I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.... Without a language centre telling me: "I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I am a neuroanatomist. I live at this address and can be reached at this phone number," I felt no obligation to being her anymore. It was truly a bizarre shift in perception, but without her emotional circuitry reminding me of her likes and dislikes, or her ego centre reminding me about her patterns of critical judgement, I didn't think like her anymore.... I had spent a lifetime of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to "do-do-doing" lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day I learned the meaning of simply "being.".... All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful." (Bolte Taylor, 2006, p 67-68). In this sense, the experience of self-free awareness is usually reported as being more real than usual consciousness; and more fully conscious than everyday waking experience.

In general, a single profound experience of heightened consciousness tends to alter a person's life. In 1962, Walter Pahnke at Harvard University studied the effects of taking a hallucinogenic substance. He gave a single capsule to 20 research subjects, all of whom were divinity students and attended a church service that day. Half the capsules contained psilocybin (30mg), an extract of psychoactive mushrooms like those used by shamans in numerous cultures around the world, and the other half contained a placebo. The difference was rather obvious, with psilocybin subjects saying things like "All of a sudden I felt sort of drawn out into infinity.... I felt that I was caught up in the vastness of creation .... Huge as the mystics say .... I did experience this classic kind of blending .... The main thing about it was this sense of timelessness" (Hamer, 2004, p 87). In 1986, Rick Doblin began a series of 25 year follow-up interviews. He administered a questionnaire on "mystical" or "higher consciousness-based" attitudes and found that subjects who originally had psilocybin capsules scored at 65% while controls scored at below 13%. This correlated with interview comments where the controls only dimly recalled the original experiment, while the drug users consistently reported it as the highlight of their life. Most of us can agree that this particular experience of consciousness is even more artificially "induced" than is Jill Bolte Taylor's experience. However researcher Andrew Newberg, who finds the hallucinogenic experience produces the same brain changes as prayer and meditation, says "I always use the analogy about me wearing glasses: When I wake up in the morning, it's a very fuzzy world. I put my glasses on and I see the world clearly," he said. "It's possible these kind of experiences [with drugs] are not artificial or false, but really enable a person and a person's brain to experience the world in a much more fundamental way." (Interviewed 27/5/2015 by Josh Zepps of Huff Post News and reported by Buxton, 2015).

Reports of heightened subjective experiences of consciousness abound in spiritual and religious teachings from across the world. Andrew Newberg's research indicates that they may be all tapping into a similar human experience. After written contact with the Indian speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), I came to appreciate his clear descriptions of this consciousness beyond self-consciousness. Krishnamurti explains (Jayakar, 1986, p 378) "When thought identifies itself with sensation, then it becomes the 'me'.... To observe with all your senses -in that there is no identification. The question is, can you look with all your senses awakened?.... When there is movement of thought, then it is one particular sense operating. Can I find out if there is a totally different dimension? A state where consciousness as we know it ceases.... This is only possible when the sensory as identification with thought is understood. Then the senses do not produce the psychological structure, as the 'me'."

So Krishnamurti says simply being aware of all of the senses at once puts an end to the process of owning/identifying. Here is the answer to a double bind which many students of "meditation" have been caught in. Students of meditation have often assumed that the ending of thought (particularly of talking to oneself) is the prerequisite for experiencing a state of awareness. Zen teacher Shindai Sekiguchi explains the problem with this: "The common idea is that in order to reach this state one must empty the mind of all thoughts and ideas. This is in fact true, but the desired end cannot be achieved by consciously attempting to think about nothing .... Similarly, if I tell a friend not to think of a red monkey or a yellow hippopotamus, that animal immediately leaps into his mind to prove my point." (Sekiguchi, 1970, p6).

One solution to this dilemma has been to take the attention which has been wandering down various paths, and hold it in one sensory system (in Zen this is done by concentrating on the breath, for example). Krishnamurti argues that this leads to concentration, but not to awareness. It focuses the sense of self, but does not end it. It may give your "self" a better thinking strategy, but it does take you beyond strategies. He says (Krishnamurti, 1954, p218-221) "I am interested in so-called meditation but my thoughts are distracted, so I fix my mind on a picture, an image, or an idea and exclude all other thoughts.... A business man making money is very concentrated -he may even be ruthless, putting aside every other feeling and concentrating completely on what he wants. A man who is interested in anything is naturally, spontaneously concentrated. Such concentration is not meditation, it is merely exclusion.... A man who is fully aware is meditating.... Then you can follow, without condemnation or justification [owning or disowning], every movement of thought and feeling; by following every thought and every feeling as it arises you bring about tranquillity which is not compelled, not regimented, but which is the outcome of having no problem, no contradiction. It is like the pool that becomes peaceful, quiet, any evening when there is no wind; when the mind is still, then that which is immeasurable comes into being."

In terms of the sensory systems, as described in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), this mindfulness meditation simply means the simultaneous awakening of all the senses. "If you are so attending, all your senses are completely awake. It is not one sense attending, but the totality of all the senses. Otherwise you cannot attend. Complete sensory activity is a state of attention. Partial sensory activity leads to concentration....Can one see completely with all the senses? See not with the eyes alone, but with the ears; to listen, to taste to touch?.... Watch yourself one day. Look at the sunlight and see whether you can see with all your senses, completely awake and completely free. Which leads to an interesting fact. Where there is disharmony, there is the self. Attention is complete harmony. There must be a great volume of energy gathered through harmony. It is like the river Ganga. Attention is a movement to eternity." When Buddha was asked "Are you a God?" he said "No!" When he was then asked, "Are you a man?" he again answered "No!" When the speaker finally asked him "Then what are you?" he replied "I am awake!"

Krishnamurti says (1973, p 466) "Can you see a tree without the operation of thought, without the image of the tree? --the image being the thought that says: that is an oak. In observing a tree what takes place? There is the space between the observer and the tree, there is distance; then there is the botanical knowledge [Verbal, or in NLP terms Auditory digital], the like or dislike of that tree [Kinesthetic]. I have an image of a tree [Visual construct] and that image looks at the tree.... Is there an observation without the interference of thought? --that means without the interference of any image. You can find this out; it's not a question of just accepting or believing. You can look at your wife or your husband, the tree, the cloud, or the person sitting next to you, without any image."


Consciousness has been defined in a number of ways: as a series of brain activities such as short term memory, as an intuited state, as a background state of the universe, and as a quantum effect elicited by the microtubules in the brain. It is also called mindfulness and awareness, and its presence delivers advantages such as increased innovation, higher level performance of tasks, increased physical responsiveness and health, and the ability to detect and transform unhelpful emotional states. It can be distinguished from both concentration and self-consciousness, both of which are heavily dependent on the dominant hemisphere of the brain. Deactivation of the left hemisphere by physical trauma or trained meditation or centering prayer can quickly create a state in which the person is observing with all the senses, aware of being, and yet not owning or disowning any experience. In this state there is a sense of greater than normal energy, consciousness, bliss and love.


Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz