James Clement van Pelt

James Clement van Pelt co-founded the Initiative in Religion, Science &  Technology at the Yale University Divinity School. He does research in Comparative Religion, Consciousness Studies, Philosophy of Science, Ontology, Theologies of Technology, and Metaphysics. His current project is 'The Culmination: Convergence, Crucible, and the Climax of Technological Civilization'.

Rediscovering the Heart: Beyond the Mind-Body Dialectic

This presentation describes a model of the dynamics of consciousness as it relates to three kinds of experience: physical (sensations), affective (emotions, feelings), and mental (ideation). Extending and adding to Baar’s global workspace theory, this model avoids the implied “inner” location of the self in the midst of the skull and takes note of the overall context of consciousness in its physical, emotional, and ideational settings. In doing so, the usefulness of the traditional idea of the heart, as in mind-heart-body in place of the conventional “mind-body” formulation, seems descriptive of the central location of the affective center to consciousness.

Each kind of consciousness has a specific position in perception, comprehension, and intention, such that experience follows a systolic-diastolic dynamic. Sensations must be processed into affectations before they can be experienced in the mind. Mentation must be processed into affectations before they can become intentional actions carried out by the physical body. This is the invariable order from physical sensations to affective feelings to mental comprehension, and from mental to intentional to physical actions. To reach the mind, sensations must first become affectations; to reach the physical body, ideation must produce affective intentions, which then can become actions carried out by the body. Sensations cannot materialize in the mind directly, and intentions cannot manifest as action in the body directly.


This model is based on teachings of Meher Baba and other Eastern sources who replace Western monism with a tripartate model of consciousness: three “worlds”—gross, subtle, and mental—and three means of participating in those worlds—a gross body, a subtle body, and a mental body. This model is deep and complex, so I have simplified it by analogizing the gross to the physical, the subtle to the affective, and the mental to the immaterial aspect of the mind. In the course of experience, these three converge into a single sensation-feeling-thought combination. That experiential moment unfolds in several phases: first, a general sensation with minimal content; then a repetition of that sensation with much more information about its nature, location, and agents; and then a primarily mental process in which an analysis of that content is produced and adapted into the world model each person constructs from that content. 


This world model likewise has three aspects: the sensorium (the composite of physical sensations and its implied construction); the affectorium (the composite of feelings and affections and its interaction with the sensorium and the mentorium), and the mentorium (the composite of the ideas based on the meanings of what is being experienced. The physical sensations have no meaning in themselves and are not felt until they pass through the affective process and thence into the mind. Likewise the emotions are devoid of content until they are processed into ideational forms comprehensible to the mind. And likewise ideas have no sensations or feelings until they enter the mind from the affective center. Paradoxically, ideational forms do have feelings and sensations of their own, but they are masked, swamped, or blotted out by physical sensations and affective feelings.

The process from sensation to feeling to idea, and from ideational form to affective form to physical enactment, can happen with extreme rapidity, in milliseconds and even microseconds. Yet even in the case of Olympic sports performance, the processing must go from physical to affective to mental and from comprehensive to intentional to physical, instant by instant by instant, with the circuit repeating with updated physical, affective, and mental aspects of the constructed world.


To compound that performance, there can be up to seven simultaneous threads of each kind of experience happening simultaneously, divided between physical, affective, and mental centers. Driving a vehicle can involve the five senses including balance; three or more feelings such as the anticipation of vectors of the vehicle or other moving bodies; and three to five mental threads including three just for maintaining a coherent conversation or listening to the radio while observing highway conditions and following a mental map correlated with highway signage and scenery and multiple threads of memory. Genuinely contemplating the amounts of data being processed leads to a conviction that human experience cannot possibly be entirely physical, i.e. electrochemical—that an important component must be happening in immaterial conditions not confined by the limitations of physicality. This need not equal dualism since experience ultimately is monistic—one thing composed of many things intereacting as a single model of reality. 

Plural aspect monism could describe that state, but it must be acknowledged that sensation and ideation are completely discrete and incommensurable. It is the affective that enables them to function together. The affective has an aspect of physical sensations induced by hormonal responses to ideational content, and vice-versa—think of the physical sensations associated with “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”, with victory and defeat being highly cognitive multi-layered sets of meaning. The function of the affective center is to detect incongruity and resolve it, which involves the expenditure of affective energy sometimes called “nervous energe”. That expenditure is experienced as emotional release as excess affective energy is expended. That resolution resolves the incongruity, which produces an affective form that is shared with the mental forms of mental experience. The sensations of release and resolution, being partly physical and partly ideational, come together to be experienced as emotions. For example, a joke sets up an incongruity that enters as words (from sounds or written form); they pass through the affective to the mental, the meaning of which is comprehended and, in the case of a joke, through which an incongruity is detected. The incongruity’s resolution is evaluated for its affective content (e.g. is it harmful or not), which is resolved by enjoyment and then by laughter to expend the excess affective energy pleasantly.


How the physical brain enters into the perception, comprehension, and reaction is a separate question that follows the development of a useful, descriptive, prescriptive, and predictive functional model. That in turn requires a field model capable of bridging between the immaterial mind and the material brain, for which there is a need to avoid over-attributing causation to the physical component of the unified body (brain)-mind system.


The tripartate functioning of gross/physical, subtle/affective, and mental/ideational can be overlaid in a number of other dynamics. In each case, the affective “layer” is dark—tacit either entirely or partly, either permanently or at will. In the operations of consciousness, physical sensations are prominent, as is the ideational content of the conscious mind. Between them is a “dark” layer in which the transitions between physical and mental happen imperceptibly; we feel the input and the output but not how the gap between the two is bridged. If one is injured physically, the initial impact is prominent and its meaning and implications are uppermost (who caused it, how serious is it, what is its nature, what happens now), but how the impact turns into the information that defines the injury is not experienced. Serious injuries are often accompanied by a period of zero memory just preceding and just following the injurious event. The computer operation known as Deep Learning involves input into the system and output from it, with the middle process unknown and unknowable. A case of partial “darkness” is the soundtrack of an especially gripping movie, which deliberately moderates the viewer’s emotional experience but immediately ceases to work if the viewer deliberately and consciously attends to it.


The interaction of “dark” as experientially inaccessible bears interesting correspondences to Global Workspace Theory in its complex interactions between consciously attentive and subconscious/unconscious interludes and states. Those correspondences are a worthy topic for future exploration.


This raises a question about the traditional account of the functionality between body and mind. In that account, the affective center is known as the heart, and is conflated with the cardiac organ at the center of the cardiac system. The life-sustaining dynamic of systole and diastole, collecting the exhausted blood and then impelling its oxygenated richness through the circulatory tree to every part of the body was analogized to the similar action of the bronchial and veinous trees of the cardiopulminary system, and its rhythm of more than one beat per second was analogized to the rhythm between consciousness and unconsciousness (they cycle of alpha-beta to delta waves) of one per day, dusk to dawn, with the experiences of REM and deep sleep constituting that dark interlude. The cardiac darkness at the moment equidistant between systole and diastole before it plunges into another beat cycle can serve as another example as long as the physical cardiac organ is not conflated with the heart in its more traditional meaning as the core of personal being and integrity. The cardiac system does provide an evocative analogy to the in-out indwelling of the world via the mind-heart-body in its meaning-making contribution to the living world.