Explorations into the Body of Consciousness: Highlights from Dr. Charles Raison’s talk from the International Forum on Consciousness

Forum attendees have dinner with speakers.
Forum attendees have dinner with speakers.

The following blog highlights the presentation from Dr. Charles Raison at the International Forum on Consciousness, Conscious Evolution: The Awakening, co-hosted by the BTC Institute and Promega Corporation, May 7–8, 2015.

The Forum is designed to bring together people from diverse perspectives and professions to facilitate public dialogue regarding complex and challenging issues.  This year, our intent was to respond to voices of wisdom and action that call for us to shift our consciousness up a notch.

Our goals included building on the lessons of past and present in order to grow further into new systems, new ways of being that may better allow us to foster a long-term, sustainable relationship with the biosphere and the ever-evolving cosmos.

A full house of 325+ attendees, we were guided by eight outstanding presenters, all of whose talks and panel discussions may be viewed via links from our website (http://www.btci.org/consciousness/).   Our first speaker, Dr. Charles Raison, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin , effectively set the stage for the Forum, piquing interest for the talks and discussions that followed, as well as the many related conversations that continue to flow.

A few highlights from his talk:

    • Science strives for objectivity but every scientist has a personal motivation regarding the work they’ve come to do.
    • Quoting John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Looking at consciousness this way is interesting – not mystical, but actually scientific.

  • Dr. Raison engages the audience at the Forum.
    Dr. Raison engages the audience at the Forum.

    It can lead to examining the principle of embodiment, as discussed by Francisco Varela: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems.”

  • Our bodies and their perceptually-guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex mental representations… our behavior emerges from the real time interplay of specific resources distributed across the brain, and environment, coupled together via our perceptual systems.
  • It’s interesting to look at (1) sensory input patterns that affect the brain; (2) social connections that affect who we are; and (3) the world itself, how our minds coevolve with the landscape we experience.
  • This principle of embodiment may be very relevant for developing new treatments for depression that evolve out of ancient practices that tapped into this perspective. This perspective provides a needed counter-balance to the current focus on the brain as the sole source of mental disorders.  An embodied perspective suggests that just because the brain is the proximal cause of all mental states does not mean it is the most important or therapeutically useful cause for all cases of emotional pain, such as major depression.
  • Research is being done that looks at the sensory input of temperature, through use of hyperthermic chambers that in some ways mimic a sweat lodge experience. Results from a study conducted by Dr. Raison’s group indicated that subjects in the treatment group experienced a decline in depression 3x the size of the effect typically seen with standard antidepressant medications with minimal side effects. In addition to feeling better, patients who received hyperthermia spent more time with other people and were more open about themselves, based on recordings from their daily lives.
  • In thinking about context and consciousness, we can reflect on characteristics of the environments that seemed to foster early art (caves) and to support shamanistic traditions. In considering the resurgence of interest in research related to entheogens, such as psilocybin, a research question for the future is: Might long-term beneficial effects of psilocybin result in part from altering patterns of embodied cognition/emotions in ways that make the individual resonant with actual circumstance/environmental conditions?
  • In short, we miss out on so much when we over-prioritize the brain. Or, in thinking about consciousness, don’t overestimate the brain!


Dr. Raison has recently joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin – Madison as the Mike and Mary Sue Shannon Professor of Mind, Body, and Family-Wellbeing, School of Human Ecology; Professor, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine and Public Health.  He formerly served at the University of Arizona College of Medicine as Professor of Psychiatry with a joint appointment to the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

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Karin Borgh
Karin Borgh, PhD is the Executive Director of the BTC Institute.

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