I'm on the road, at the biennial consciousness conference in Tucson. Yesterday, Russ Hurlburt and I led a workshop on the use of beepers to explore the stream of experience (the topic of our recent book). As part of the workshop, we "beeped" the audience -- a few random beeps sounded through speakers, interrupting our PowerPoint presentation, and each audience member was to reflect as best she could on her "last undisturbed moment of inner experience" just before each beep. For each beep, we selected a random audience member to describe her experience, and we interviewed her about it, we argued with each other about it, and other members of the audience pitched in, too. Great fun, I thought.
I was especially struck by one of the audience member's reports. He said that, as best as he could tell, he had no inner experience whatsoever, no consciousness, no phenomenology, at the moment just before the beep. He did have an experience a few moments before the beep -- one of feeling his nametag pressing against his chin (he was absent-mindedly playing with it) -- but at the moment of the beep itself, nothing. Russ was talking, but he didn't have any auditory experience. If I understand him correctly, he felt he had no sensory experience of any sort, nor any emotional experience, nor any imagery, nor any conscious thoughts, no experience at all.
People do sometimes say this when they are sampled with beepers, Russ has found in his decades of study. I've also heard a couple of reports of this sort among the forty or so people I've interviewed using Russ's beeper methodology -- but in both of my own cases, the subjects had fallen asleep and the beep had woken them.
Now I confess that I incline toward a rich view of experience -- according to which we generally have constant visual experience, constant auditory experience, constant tactile experience of our feet in our shoes (though peripherally and faintly, of course!), and much else going on with us experientially at any one time. I'm not at all sure that this view is right, but to think that we have waking moments with no experience whatsoever...!
This is one of the cool things about beeper interviews: People say things you'd never expect them to say, they describe their experience in ways you (and even they) might have thought impossible, with all sincerity. It jars me from my complacency.