As a wise teacher once said: “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth… there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
Ok, it may have been a throwaway line in a movie (even if it was a particularly cool throwaway line that had us all secretly trying to bend spoons for about two weeks after we saw it) but The Matrix’s Spoon Boy was actually hinting at a very old and fundamental concept: the pursuit of pure consciousness.
“The concept of ‘pure consciousness’ or ‘pure awareness’ … refers to the meditator’s subjective experience of consciousness as such, wherein he or she is non-conceptually aware of being aware,” explains a paper on the phenomenon. “Pure awareness is often described as a contentless form of experience, and it has played a great role in Eastern philosophical traditions.”
Don’t worry – we’re not trading regular physics for metaphysics just yet. That paper was published last week in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, and it’s the introduction to a rather fascinating new study aimed at quantifying this unique state of mind.
“[This] project has two metatheoretical goals that correspond to two fundamental motivating questions,” the paper explains. “What, if anything, can count as the simplest form of conscious experience? And is it possible to arrive at a minimal model explanation for conscious experience in neurotypical human beings?”
To answer these admittedly intimidating questions, the researchers sent out questionnaires in five different languages to over 3600 committed, regular practitioners of meditation. Of those, just over 1403 fulfilled the two requirements for inclusion in the study: the respondents had to have experienced pure awareness at some point, and they had to complete every one of the more than 100 questions about it in the survey. Participants were asked to rate aspects of their experience such as "Did you experience sensations of temperature?", "Were you in a positive mood?", or "Did you experience thoughts?".
By performing a kind of statistical breakdown called factor analysis, the researchers were then able to pick out questions where most people had provided similar answers.
“This led us to identify twelve groups, which in turn allowed us to name twelve factors that characterize pure consciousness,” Metzinger explained. “According to this scheme, typical characteristics of pure consciousness seem to be, for example, the perception of silence, clarity, and an alert awareness without egoic self-consciousness.”
These twelve factors, the researchers believe, therefore characterize the least complex form of human consciousness, or what they call the “minimal phenomenal experience”.
“The goal of our research was not to learn more about meditation. We are interested in human consciousness,” said lead researcher Thomas Metzinger. “Our working hypothesis was that pure consciousness is the simplest form of conscious experience. And our goal was to develop a minimal model explanation of human consciousness experience on the basis of this hypothesis.”
It's important to note that the study had a few limitations, most of which were part and parcel of the methodology. After all, any study that relies on self-reported memories of ineffable personal experiences is bound to sacrifice some level of scientific objectivity. The researchers also noted that the study suffered from a huge self-selection bias – that is to say, the data only really came from the kind of people who were motivated enough to fill in a 100-question survey about a single past meditation experience. Future studies, the researchers said, would need to include many different populations in an effort to counterbalance this.
Metzinger also hopes those future studies might turn up something else as well: evidence of pure consciousness being achieved outside of meditation.
“The responses we received also included personal reports suggesting that pure consciousness is also experienced in other situations,” Metzinger said. “[For instance] as during accidents and serious illness, at the threshold between sleep and wakefulness, or when immersed in play as a child.”