NIAS CONSCIOUSNESS STUDIES PROGRAMME
Sangeetha Menon

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Sangeetha Menon joined National Institute of Advanced Studies, in January 1996, in the Indian Institute of Science campus, Bangalore (India). She is Professor and Head of the NIAS Consciousness Studies Programme. Sangeetha Menon started her research with a comparative study of consciousness, from the East and the West, with focus on the theories of agency, emotion, freedom, self, and human wellbeing in the Bhagavad Gita. Subsequently she focused on Indian philosophical concepts criss-crossing the works of philosophers such as Sankaracharya, Abhinavagupta, Narayana Guru et al. and also bringing in Indian aesthetics and dramaturgy to understand cognitive dimensions of creative expressions and personal agency. Her initial papers argue for an epistemological shift that considers the ontological primacy of self, and the importance of the experiencer that would present the 'harder problem' of consciousness. While some of her initial studies were deeply metaphysical and philosophical in approach, she moved on to engaging philosophy with biology and psychology to understand the primary issue in consciousness, which is the 'self'. She is one of the originators of the field of Indian psychology, guiding research in the area of wellbeing studies, life-sustaining values, self-transformation and artistic experience. One of her primary contributions in consciousness studies is in presenting and engaging with the concept and experience of self from the neurobiological and philosophical point of views, and theorising a 'self-challenged brain and brain-challenged self'.

Prof. Sangeetha Menon is a philosopher-psychologist.. Her educational background is in biology, philosophy and psychology. A gold-medalist and first-rank holder for postgraduate studies, she received national University Grants Commission fellowship for her doctoral studies for five years. She is a Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, in the campus of Indian Institute of Science and joined NIAS in 1996, with particular interest in consciousness studies. Dr Menon has been working in the area of consciousness studies for over eighteen years. She has given numerous lectures and presentations in her country and also in United States, Europe and Australia on wide-ranging issues relating to consciousness, mind, and science-spirituality interface issues. Her publications cover areas that concern consciousness studies, brain sciences, altruism, aesthetics, Indian psychology and science-spirituality-art dialogues. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (in 2002) and the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (in 2013) have published reports on her research work and contributions to theories of self-transformation. She has several publications in peer-reviewed journals, and has contributed chapters on a variety of issues relating to science & religion, self, mind and consciousness. Her chapter on “Hinduism and Science” that appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006, OUP) gives a fresh outlook on this issue. She has also authored few monographs on consciousness in the context of Indian thought. Her latest books published by Springer are: “Brain, Self and Consciousness: Explaining the conspiracy of experience; and the edited volume “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Consciousness and the Self”. Her other books include "The Beyond Experience: Consciousness in Bhagavad Gita" (2007),"Consciousness, Experience and Ways of Knowing: Perspectives from Science, Philosophy and the Arts" (2006, NIAS), "Science and Beyond: Cosmology, consciousness and technology in Indic traditions" (2004, NIAS), "Consciousness and Genetics" (2002, NIAS), "Scientific and Philosophical Studies on Consciousness" (1999, NIAS) and "Dialogues: Philosopher meets the Seer" (2003).

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Self and Consciousness

© Sangeetha Menon

The coming together of neurobiology, neuropsychiatry and philosophy has brought to light the biologically ridden body on one side and the delicate nature of the personhood on the other. What is strikingly interesting, if we span the discoveries and path-breaking studies in the last decade in neuroscience, neurochemistry and neuropsychiatry, is how the human personhood has resurfaced as an important factor that needs inclusion and explanation in a scientific manner. In the recent times it is with equal gusto that descriptions and presentations are made about the cognitive processes, emotional valences, and most importantly considering experience as an integral whole, in the alleys of science.

Self is the puzzle for twenty-first century biology, and for consciousness studies. It was not too distant in the past that human experience and the subjectivity of the person were anathema for empirical sciences. The keywords that ruled a biologist’s imagination were inspired by the functional roles played by genetics and the physiology of the body until the recent past. Such a stance was confronted a few decades back and the qualitative attributes of experience and the personhood were brought into the lab to search for possible empirical convertibles and biological correlates. In this trend that is ongoing the first and foremost entrant is cognitive sciences. Cognitive sciences started with the agenda of explaining the act of seeing in vision, and such perceptual endowments that humans and animals possess. It was soon found that it is crucial to understand the intelligence behind the act of perceptions to justify the variations and differences in capabilities that individuals exhibit while interacting with the environment.

Thus ‘mind’ came into the forefront through the backdoor once again from the exclusive grips of philosophy and psychology. Along with the mind came in the new avatar of the body which is not completely biological but partly conceptual and representative. Theories of embodiment available today in plenty in the discourse on mind and cognitive capabilities have re-fashioned the ways in which the good old ‘body’ that classical biology was familiar with. The concept of the body 16 in cognitive sciences is an extremely fascinating subject that has extended from the blood and flesh of the anatomical body to objects that we desire and possess, capabilities that we can ‘afford’, and most importantly to the self that inhere the body. Which means, the difference and distance between the traditional ideas about the body and the body-dweller is dwindling. The body is the subject and the living person. What is bereft of the body is given embodiment with the powerful structures of phenomenology which endorse experiences that are lived and are alive at all moments.

The impact of the body-phenomenology on sciences is such that emotions and psychological dispositions such as compassion have come to be regarded as significant in explaining the human self and its affective expressions. The affective sciences is today in par with the cognitive sciences to accommodate those tendencies of the human that was once considered to be working against rational behaviour and appropriate decision making procedures. The study of emotions and their place in the geography of the human self have also taken the alliance of the brain, its structures and neurochemical functions to present viable theories both within and outside the evolutionary context.

What does all this mean to that erstwhile philosophical gold mine of the ‘self ’? Is philosophy side-lined in the pursuit of the undisclosed engravings of the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of the human self? Why have the body and embodiment become favourites of cognitive sciences to explain human capabilities? By bringing in the body from the dark corners of the pre-renaissance age to the modern show-light of cognitive sciences and information systems have we pawned a few physical attributes of the body and added a few non-physical functions on to it? Is the new avatar of body taking away what is central to the existence of the self? In other words, is the ‘body’ of the recent times exhuming the self from the ancient times of metaphysics but only to lead to its extinction?

These and many other tributary questions can be approached only if we bring into our focus the role of the interrelations between the brain and the self to chart the paths of consciousness and lead to the unknown and unimagined spaces of the possibilities of the human self. It is no more possible to have exclusivist presentations about the brain and the self if what 17 we look for is the complex ways in which the human self is endowed. Often the self is conceived and conceptualised in the form of ‘the self ’ or ‘your self ’ or ‘someone’s self ’. The form ‘my self ’ is hard to be seen in cognitive sciences’ repertoire. Once we accommodate the notion of self as ‘my self ’ the detached and impersonal disregard for the self will reduce, and we will start talking about a living self which is you and me.

This is the greatest difficulty faced by sciences such as neuropsychiatry. Because there is a lack of involved participation (of course the practise of science cannot be involved to begin with!) even the most intimate subject of enquiry, the self, is overlooked particularly of its influence on every single person, even the person who is engaged in scientific enquiry. If at all such an intimate self is recognized, with no time spared, it is dismissed as a fleeting, promiscuous self who is the illegitimate child of sociolinguistics or the information processing systems that is embedded in our brains. The immediate availability of the bodily-self takes the centre stage of one’s reflection to acquire closeness to one’s identity. The body that inhabits the changing self becomes the self of the person. The physical body is governed by the principles of chemistry and biology. But when I and my body interact with the environment (the outside world of people, relations and objects) I am not worried or even thinking (unless one is a hypochondriac) how the chemical processes are being executed in the body. What I think about are my feelings and thoughts that are directed from and to objects, people and relations.



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The physiology and anatomy of the body that is anyway concealed to me because of the gift of the human skin is a non-event for me. At the same time, somehow the brain and the body shroud the nitty-gritty of electrochemical processes with a unique biologically uncharacteristic feeling of I and me. First, I am the one who thinks, feels and responds. Primarily it is the thinking person that relates to the body and is aware of the body. Subsequently, the feeling comes that I have a body. There is significant difference between the implications of a being self and a having self. The discussions on consciousness are yet to highlight this distinction that is basic to our experience. The experiential primacy of the self is closely tied up with our ability to reflect and introspect. While the brain might have a big say in deciding our states of waking, dreaming, conscious and unconscious states, it is the experiential self that has the capability to dive deeper and reflect in complex and focused manners. The notion of “pure experience” is important in conceptualising subjectivity and methods to investigate it. Consciousness studies, today, are excited by several challenges commencing from explaining the origin of consciousness, the nature of self, personal identity, and role of self-transformation, to list a few. And in all these challenges, the two most important questions that baffle us are: how does the brain challenge the self and the self challenge the brain? And, how is the conspiracy of ‘experience’ and the ‘experiencer’ created by the self-challengedby- the-brain and the brain-challenged-by-the-self?

Publications

Sangeetha Menon's works have been published by Springer, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Pearson Education, International Society for Science and Religion (Cambridge), Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture (Japan), Munshiram Manoharlal Publications and others.

Sangeetha Menon, Ed., Self, Culture and Consciousness: Interdisciplinary convergences on knowing and being, Springer-Nature 2017 (in press)

"Brain, Self and Consciousness: Explaining the conspiracy of experience" Sangeetha Menon, Springer 2014

"Interdisciplinary perspectives on Consciousness and the Self, Editors. Sangeetha Menon, Anindya Sinha, BV Sreekantan", Springer, 2014

"The Beyond Experience: Consciousness in the Bhagavad Gita", Sangeetha Menon, BlueJay Books, New Delhi, 2007

"Nature and Culture"
Editors. Roddam Narasimha and Sangeetha Menon, Project on the History of Science, Philosophy and Culture, Vol. XIV, Centre for Studies in Civilisations, New Delhi, 2011

"Binding Experiences: Looking at the Contributions of Adi Sankaracarya, Tuncettu Ezuttacchan and Sri Narayana Guru in the Context of Recent Discussions on Consciousness Studies", Sangeetha Menon, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 2002

"Dialogues: Philosopher meets the seer", Sangeetha Menon and Swami Bodhananda, Srishti Publishers, New Delhi, 2002

Consciousness, Experience and Ways of Knowing: Perspectives from Science, Philosophy and the Arts
Editor. Sangeetha Menon, National Institute Of Advanced Studies 2006

Science and Beyond: Cosmology, consciousness and technology in Indic traditions. Editors. Sangeetha Menon, B.V.Sreekantan, Anindya Sinha, Philip Clayton and R Narasimha.. National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, 2004

Science and Metaphysics: A discussion on consciousness and genetics Editors. Sangeetha Menon, M.G.Narasimhan, Anindya Sinha, B.V.Sreekantan, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, 2002

Scientific and Philosophical Studies on Consciousness
Editors. Sangeetha Menon, M.G.Narasimhan, Anindya Sinha, B.V.Sreekantan, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, 1999

PAPERS
Body, Self and Consciousness according to Tirumūlar’s Tirumandiram: A comparative study with Kashmir Śaivism
Geetha Anand and Sangeetha Menon, International Journal of Dharma Studies (2017) 5:3, DOI 10.1186/s40613-016-0045-5

Self and Emotions in Bhakti
Sangeetha Menon, 2016, Journal of Indian Psychology, Vol30, Nos. 1&2, 2016, pp. 32-39

A heuristic model linking yoga philosophy and self-reflection to examine underlying mechanisms of add on yoga treatment in schizophrenia, Naren Rao and Sangeetha Menon. 2016 International Review of Psychiatry, Issue 2, 2016, pp. 265-272, DOI:10.1080/09540261.2016.1194259

The ‘Outer Self’ and the ‘Inner Body’: Exteriorization of the Self in Cognitive Sciences. Menon, Sangeetha. 2016., Journal of Human Values January 2016 22: 39-45, doi:10.1177/0971685815608062

The Theory of Emotions in Sanskrit Poetics and its Implications for Psychiatric Practice. Rajaraman, Shankar & Menon, Sangeetha. 2016. Journal of Indian Psychology, vol. 29, nos. 1 & 2, pp. 34-44

Body-sense and the Somatic markers: Emotions in consciousness studies. Sangeetha Menon, Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies, January 2016, Special issue on Theories of Affect. Guest Editor: Sneja Gunew

Desire and Self-Representation: A philosophical reading of the Malayalam novelette "Agnisakshi", Meera Kumar and Sangeetha Menon, Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Springer doi: 10.1007/s40961-016-0060-z

Consciousness and Cognition, Sangeetha Menon
In Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism. Ed. Alf Hiltebeitel. New York: Oxford University Press, July 2016
DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0171

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