In some circles, “awareness” is a higher state of consciousness imbued with magical properties, a kind of portal onto the true nature of the world. This magical awareness allows one to overcome the barriers of mind and body to participate in the “really real”, to use Clifford Geertz’s phrase for the sense “upon which the religious perspective rests”. With this religious sense of awareness, comes great revelation. Such an idealized conception of awareness draws power from its conceptual other, its “as opposed to”: the “waking sleep” of ordinary consciousness, where one is stumbling about in the dark forest of illusion. In this waking sleep, we’re not really awake – that is, not truly aware – although we probably think we are. The standard example used by those wanting to convince us of how unaware we are is that of driving to work. See? Somehow you got to the office but can’t remember a single thing about the trip. That’s because you weren’t aware. You were asleep at the wheel and didn’t know it.
Not being the religious sort myself, I’m skeptical. I have questions. Is memory-on-demand proof of awareness? If so, does that mean that with awareness, comes great remembering? And what are we talking about here? Declarative memory, yeah – but what type: visual memory, auditory memory, verbal memory, emotional memory, spatial memory, memory of physical sensations? At least one bit of a memory trace out of the thousands of percepts being experienced every second? Are we also in a state of awareness while we are remembering? What neurological evidence is there to distinguish real awareness from illusory awareness? And if we weren’t really aware when we thought we were, what were we instead?
I don’t mean to imply there are no neural correlates to certain kinds of religious experience – there probably are, insofar as religious experience is a thing – that is, something that has common elements among its various manifestations. When people are in the grip of some sort of religious ecstasy, their experience may very well correlate with certain patterns of brain activation and neurotransmitter release. Ditto when people are feeling serenely unattached. Or when feeling a sense of profound understanding. These brain patterns may or may not be connected to any specific revelatory content (that is, specific beliefs about the nature of what is). That’s for science to find out and me to wonder.
And I do not doubt that the brains of people who are experts in religious experience exhibit certain neural regularities that distinguish them from novices or worse.
Coming up: more questions! Starting with: what is “awareness” in the brain? Are there different types of awareness? Are they different levels of awareness? Are some sorts of awareness better than others? What makes them better?
Reference: Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. Chapter: “Religion as a Cultural System.” Basic Books.