A renowned philosopher of the mind, also known for his groundbreaking work on Buddhism and cognitive science, Evan Thompson combines the latest neuroscience research on sleep, dreaming, and meditation with Indian and Western philosophy of mind, casting new light on the self and its relation to the brain.
Thompson shows how the self is a changing process, not a static thing. When we are awake we identify with our body, but if we let our mind wander or daydream, we project a mentally imagined self into the remembered past or anticipated future. As we fall asleep, the impression of being a bounded self distinct from the world dissolves, but the self reappears in the dream state. If we have a lucid dream, we no longer identify only with the self within the dream. Our sense of self now includes our dreaming self, the "I" as dreamer. Finally, as we meditate—either in the waking state or in a lucid dream—we can observe whatever images or thoughts arise and how we tend to identify with them as "me." We can also experience sheer awareness itself, distinct from the changing contents that make up our image of the self.
Contemplative traditions say that we can learn to let go of the self, so that when we die we can witness its dissolution with equanimity. Thompson weaves together neuroscience, philosophy, and personal narrative to depict these transformations, adding uncommon depth to life's profound questions. Contemplative experience comes to illuminate scientific findings, and scientific evidence enriches the vast knowledge acquired by contemplatives.
Thompson (Mind in Life), a philosopher and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, sets out to explore consciousness taking his cue from a question he heard posed by the Dalai Lama: "Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does consciousness transcend the brain?" Drawing on rich and diverse sources from neuroscience, philosophy, religion, and personal narratives, Thompson tediously examines consciousness and the sense of self across waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states, as well as meditative states of heightened awareness and concentration. In the waking state, for instance, consciousness comprises diverse moments of awareness that can be shaped by the ways that attention shifts from one thing to another. In states of deep sleep, a subtle form of consciousness continues, which standard physiological evidence from sleep science cannot rule out, and Thompson argues that neuroscientists and contemplative thinkers can find common ground from which to rethink the ways consciousness functions in deep sleep. Encouraging dialogue between neuroscientists and contemplatives, Thompson concludes that in his research he has found that "wisdom includes a kind of awakening a waking up to the dream of independent existence without having to wake up from the dreaming."