Consciousness, Cognition and Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion published over a decade ago includes two conflicting articles on the nature of spiritual awareness. The first, by Robert A. Emmons, argues for what he terms “spiritual intelligence.” The second, by John D. Mayer, challenges Emmons’s formulation, replacing it with “spiritual consciousness.” More than a semantic squabble, their contrasting approaches address whether or not spirituality should be viewed as a form of cognitive activity or as an enigmatic element of consciousness.

Emmons offers a five-part definition of spiritual intelligence: (1) the capacity for transcendence; (2) the ability to enter into heightened states; (3) the ability to find sacredness in relationships and everyday actions; (4) the ability to use spiritual resources to solve problems; (5) the capacity for virtuous behavior. The problem with this list, in Mayer’s view, is its reliance on “ability” and “capacity”—language ordinarily reserved for discussions of mental aptitude and high-level reasoning. In classical discourse, abstract thought is the first hallmark and foremost attribute of intelligence. It involves executing various kinds of mental transformations, such as identifying patterns, generalizing information, registering similarities, contrasting dissimilarities and performing other regulated cognitive functions. From Mayer’s perspective, forcing spirituality into this limiting arena of cognition is more indicative of a desire to raise the prestige of spirituality than an accurate representation of what it entails.

As a corrective, Mayer modifies Emmons’s intelligence model to convey what psychologists call “structuring” or “developing” consciousness. He removes spirituality from the realm of reasoning and places it in the mysterious territory of consciousness, where it resides as a phenomenon distinct from rational systems of thought and an activity grounded in mechanisms of an intuitive, rather than cerebral, kind. He rephrases Emmons’s characteristics thus: (1) attending to the unity of the world and transcending one’s existence; (2) consciously entering into heightened states; (3) attending to the sacred in relationships and everyday actions; (4) structuring consciousness so that life problems are seen in light of ultimate concerns; (5) desiring to act in a virtuous way (italics from the original). These are processes, as opposed to mental exercises, and give preference to sensations—attending, altering, entering, desiring, etc.—over logic and reasoning.

To be sure, cognition can and usually does play a supporting role in spirituality. Religious stories, mythologies, doctrines, customs and interpretations provide language with which to frame the experience. These conceptions may be rehearsed beforehand, recalled during the act, or reflected upon afterward. But such discernment is ultimately separate from the experience itself. Indeed, the main reason spiritual pursuits elicit feelings of transcendence is because they are, at root, non-rational or supra-rational. They exist apart from ordinary mental states. Thus, argues Mayer, spiritual consciousness should not be confused with intelligence, where abstract thought reigns supreme, and should instead be embraced as a distinct way of knowing, where sensations are processed as meaning-giving and life-changing currents.

Such extra-mental awareness is commonly instigated and sustained through music. The naturalness with which music lends itself to this undertaking has made it a staple of spiritual practices worldwide. To paraphrase English theater critic Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), exposure to musical sounds activates passions that destroy reason. Stated more positively, if we allow ourselves to succumb to and be absorbed in musical stimuli, we can reach a level and category of consciousness discrete from the usual modes of cognition.

This does not mean that all music or all musical contexts are equally conducive to spirituality or will promote that end with equal effect. Nor is it always possible to keep the brain’s interpretive functions and critical faculties sufficiently in abeyance to be fully exposed to musical inducements. But the extent to which music is used in public devotion, private meditation, and other spiritual praxes proves its potency as a vehicle for transcendence. More importantly, it demonstrates an inherent distinction between mental processing and spiritual consciousness, without depreciating the latter. Spirituality may not be intelligence, but it is indispensable just the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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