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The full cognitive process occasioned by a very strong stimulus (according to the Theravāda Abhidhammic developments)
December 11th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The full cognitive process occasioned by a very strong stimulus (according to the Theravāda Abhidhammic developments)

The stages of a full cognitive process occasioned by a "very strong stimulus" are based on how conditionality informs causality. It is heavily reliant on the Patthana  book of the Abhidhamma;  this is however a later development.

It attempts to describe the normal flow of consciousness seen as successive 'sets' of mental factors (consciousness always arises in co-dependence with factors: examples of combinations between 7 and 36 factors have been described in Theravāda scriptures).

Based on the classic analysis, two types of cognitive process are possible:
• a five-senses-door process (involving both the five-senses and the mind, hence sometimes called 'mixed' process), and
• a mind-door process (involving solely the mind, hence sometimes called 'bare-mind-door' process).

It is to be noted that between cognitive processes, the mind reverts to its 'natural' state, called 'bhavanga',  a passive state of 'rest'.

The 'passivity' mentioned might be misleading though, as bhavanga  ensures the perpetuation of consciousness, the apparent 'continuity' (or even apparent 'permanence', leading to the illusion of self) of our consciousness. It is thus not so passive. It is better described as process-free, in the sense of no distinct (sub-)stream of thought might be discriminated (which doesn't mean the bhavanga  is without function.) It only means the bhavanga  cannot be analysed further.

The bhavanga  oscillates with the process-based consciousness, and is not a 'basis' of it. When one subsides, the other arises, and vice versa.

A sensory perception will start from a contact  at the relevant sense-door.

It goes via 7 stages:
• disturbance and arrest of the 'inactive' mind,
• adverting (when the mind 'turns' toward the sense-door),
• perception (non-verbal / without interpretation),
• conscious discriminative perception,
• investigating and determining the mind's response (both kamma-  and formations-related),
• impulsion (the actual response of the mind, with kamma  involved),
• retaining (holding on to the object) / registration.

As it can be seen, the causality worthy of interest to the Theravāda Abhidhammic thought is causality in consciousness, rather than causality in terms of external world. This is consistent with the soteriological purpose of the Teachings.

Cognition is thus not so much the result of a contact with the external world, but the result of some activity of the mind, it is the cumulative result of cognitive 'moments'.

Cognition itself doesn't include the vibration and the arrest of the bhavanga,  it starts at the 'adverting' (which already shows 'discrimination' between the 6 sense-doors).

The 'impulsion' (javana)  is the core of the cognitive process, it goes through 7 swift 'runnings' over the object, thus also taking the bulk of the time of one 'cognitive moment'.

Impulsion is notably the only stage involving volition, i.e. an ethical aspect.

A "very strong stimulus" goes through all these phases (from disturbance to registration).
A "strong stimulus" would trigger a causal chain only up to the impulsion.
A "slight stimulus" would only trigger a causal chain only up to the determination of the object.
A "very slight stimulus" would only trigger the disturbance of the bhavanga  (no cognitive process at all).

Based on the previous (perception-based) analysis, a "full cognitive process" by a "very strong stimulus" would thus appear to have 9 phases:
bhavanga  vibration (1 moment),
bhavanga  arrest (1),
• adverting (1),
• discrimination, sense-consciousness (1),
• perception, non-verbal (1),
• investigation (1),
• determination (1),
• impulsion (7),
• registration (2).

However, it is normally preceded by another phase (making it to 10)
• past bhavanga  (1 moment)
which notably accounts for the fact that no dhamma  (ultimate phenomenon) has a single cause, hence the 'stimulus' is not the only condition for a cognitive process to arise but a bhavanga  must also be present…

The cognitive process thus amounts to 17 mind-moments (which happens to match the duration of momentary existence  of 'material' dhammas). This will again highlight that the Abhidhamma is concerned with the soteriological purpose of Nibbāna, hence with understanding the mind (in its relation to the world) rather than the 'external' world.

It is to be noticed though that the cognitive process described is only the discrimination of the chain-reaction to a stimulus, until the complex causal web (many causes, many effects) makes further discrimination intractable.

In an ordinary setup, many  such cognitive processes would be experienced, possibly having very similar stimulus…

Moreover, bare-mind-processes would be interwoven, leading to 'fabrications' and 'proliferations'.

The overall experience to an ordinary mind (of which the mindfulness is still dull) might be of one  cognitive process, while it is in fact the cascading  of many (appropriating the previous one and proliferating from it).

#Buddhism   #Theravada   #Dharma  
On dhamma  vs. appropriation (of dhamma)  by the mind:
On "intrinsic nature" of dhamma:
Photo: "Meditation in the Swiss Mountains" © Kedar (