Consciousness – The Brain Mind Body Split
If you read widely on the subject of dreams or the nature of consciousness, you come across a huge division when the writers consider the meaning of extra sensory dreams or experiences. On one side of the divide there are those who attempt at all odds to maintain a position that is perhaps summarized by saying the brain and the neurological processes of the body are the sole source of personal awareness.
I recently came across an Internet thread in which this argument was being presented to a respondent representing the other side of the division. His statement was that if you could remove the brain from the person, and still have evidence of personal awareness, then he would be convinced awareness could exist apart from the physical body and the brain.
This is a bit like saying – If you remove the circuit from a television and still get a picture, then it would prove the existence of the signal.
The argument on the other side of the division was that personal awareness was not limited to the body and brain. In other words the death of the physical body need not be the end of awareness.
There are certain huge problems with this argument, and the problems exist on both sides. So what follows is an attempt to look more carefully at why the problem exists, and possible new ways of looking at it. See Archetype of the Paradigm
For instance, if consciousness survives bodily death, it is not the body as we know it. Therefore to remove the brain from the body would stop any possibility of consciousness expressing through or as that physical form. That in no way proves consciousness does not still exist in a way other than linked with a functioning physical body.
Also, the argument is obviously undertaken using words. And the words used express the concepts we have concerning what we call reality. The argument is therefore often about what is real, and what concepts of reality or the underlying nature of the universe and human experience the person arguing holds as true. See Tony’s Experience of Stroke
Also, people talk about truth as if it is something they personally own or know. If there is such a thing as absolute truth, it would include an understanding of every minute aspect of the universe and how it came into being, and every interaction it involves here and now. As none of us have that stupendous cosmic vision in which we hold everything in mind at the one moment, we are simply amusing ourselves with examining ideas that are minute fragments of the whole. So in that vein I will continue.
Are you just your brain?
So on one side, and this is perhaps putting it crudely, there is the standpoint that there is nothing else except matter and energy. From this point of view all human experience and all human possibilities can only be understood by understanding the physiological and neurological processes of the body. Anything that is not explainable by this approach is considered an illusion, personal hallucination (caused of course by physiological and neurological problems), or wish fulfillment.
On the other side of the argument it is stated that there are aspects of human nature that are not limited to the physical or neurological processes of the body. These are sometimes called the human spirit. The problem with this is that the language we use to describe these possibilities is based largely upon what is observed through our sense of the physical world, and the concepts that arise from such observations. In other words the language is largely inadequate.
However, central to the argument are certain human experiences. The arguments and the attempts to describe or negate these experiences do not in any way void the experiences. If you have a feeling you call anger, any description of it or attempt to negate it as a real experience doesn’t in any way change the experience. All it does is to attempt a description or insight into what it is. In the film Contact, Ellie, a scientist played by Jodie Foster, is being questioned about her disbelief in God by Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey. Ellie says to Palmer that there is no evidence for God scientifically, and that he cannot therefore prove his belief. She tells him she is looking for something tangible and provable. So Palmer very gently asks her if she loved her father who is now dead. Ellie, who in fact loved her father very deeply, says that yes, of course she did. Palmer then, again gently, asks her to prove it to him. Of course there was no scientific proof of what was a personal experience.
Some years ago, while working as a nurse I met and dealt with a number of people who were suffering, or had suffered, the effects of a stroke. What emerged from conversation with those who eventually learned to easily communicate again, was that while they were unable to communicate because of brain damage, they still felt themselves as a whole person. They still knew what they wanted to say or do, but their body would or couldn’t respond. They felt enormously frustrated. The brain damage had not taken away their sense of self. Over time, as the brain repaired or re-routed its processing, they could again move and talk. See: Tony’s Experience of Stroke.
Your mind is more than your brain
We might use the image of a driver and a car as an analogy of this. If the car engine will not work, or is damaged, it doesn’t mean the driver does not exist, or that he or she does not know perfectly well where they want to go or what they want to do.
Elsewhere I have often mentioned something I witnessed early in my life that for me showed a flaw in the argument that the mind, or what one is aware of, is limited to the brain and to what we know through our senses, and then extrapolate from.
One morning my wife Brenda woke and told me she had dreamt about the baby of two of our friends. The friends, who I will call Jane and Bob, were living about 200 miles from us. We knew Jane was pregnant, and about a week or so before the dream we had received a short letter saying their baby, a boy, had been born. We didn’t have a telephone at the time, so the letter was our only means of communication.
In the dream Brenda saw the baby and a voice from behind her told her the child was ill. Its illness, she was given to understand, was serious, and would need to be treated with a drug taken every day of the child’s life. The reason for this illness and the drug use, she was told, was because in a past life the being now born as the baby had committed suicide using a drug.
I didn’t take the dream seriously, thinking it was some sort of personally symbolic dream. But we couldn’t seem to extract any personal meaning for Brenda, so just in case I sent an account of the dream to Jane and Bob. About a week later we had a letter from them saying that the letter and dream had crystallised their already existing anxiety about the baby. It had not been feeding well and was fretful. On taking the baby to the doctor nothing definite could be found, but special tests were made in hospital. From these it was discovered the baby was dying. It lacked an enzyme that was needed to digest calcium. To compensate it was given a drug, which it has had to take every day of its life to make up for the lacking enzyme.
I don’t think there can be any clearer example than that, of the mind having some level of input other than information gathered through the physical senses and therefore what is already known in the brain. I use the example because it is not hearsay. It didn’t happen to somebody else who reported it to me. I witnessed every step of it. Recently I met the baby of that dream again. He is now a man of 35, and still needing the daily drug.
Particularly interesting also are the cases of near death experience (NDE) because in many of these the brain has been inactive for quite long periods of time. With no sign of brain or heart activity the person was yet still aware of the physical surroundings, or of events at another level of experience. Psychologist Susan Blackmore, who at one time argued on the side of the neurology and physical brain viewpoint, said that there is a purely physical explanation for these events, and suggests that the experiences are recollections of what happens as consciousness is lost or as it is regained, but not while unconscious. She says the induction of endorphins might cause heightened awareness with tranquillity, and Dr. Blackmore sees no reason to postulate a separation of mind and brain.
The mind body split
What is interesting to note in Dr. Blackmore’s explanation is the mention of the separation of mind and brain. This in fact is the core of the argument. It is also the stumbling block over which any attempt to analyse consciousness falls. And at the core of these concepts and the argument is the fact that our viewpoint of matter and of physical existence is such that it cannot in its old form conceive of a brain mind separation.
However, despite this argument, people continue, whether due to an NDE, an out of body experience, dreams such as experienced by my wife Brenda, or other extensions of awareness beyond sensory impressions, to witness verifiable external events while apparently unable to do so according to scientific theory. Such events reported are often out of sight of their body, and so couldn’t be something witnessed as consciousness of their physical senses was lost.
If you consider these two arguments, I think you will see that while Susan Blackmore has a massive cultural and scientific backlog of evidence and viewpoints on her side, Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick yet dare to put forward an argument that is weak in terms of physiological science, because their evidence is so compelling. In confronting popular scientific opinion their argument falls down because it has no physiological proof. But Blackmore’s argument falls down because it completely denies the evidence Parnia and Fenwick are looking at.
Again and again, those arguing the side of dead brain dead person, completely deny the existence of a real and verifiable extension of awareness in NDE or out of body personal awareness at a distance from the body. They deny it because their argument has no way of realistically explaining it.
As was said earlier, this is an argument using words and concepts that are not adequate to really find a meeting point between evidence and established ideas of physics and neurology. However, the new physics in the form of quantum mechanics, along with new ideas about consciousness, might be offering us such a meeting point.
From the old viewpoints about the nature of the observable universe, especially as it arose from the mechanistic ideas of Newtonian physics, in which the universe was seen as a huge mechanical device, the basis of which was the atom, the only way in which awareness could exist when the brain was dead would be through a separation of mind from body. Part of this concept lies in seeing matter, the atom, as a sort of inert substance that is totally devoid of any awareness, and in no way influenced by mind or thoughts. The problem for thinkers using this concept of existence was that from the organisation of such atoms in the human body personal awareness arose. But how can awareness arise from something that itself is totally devoid of awareness, or does not have the potential of consciousness? This was a question Newtonian physics has never been able to answer.
Remember all arguments are theories
However, all scientific and all philosophical statements are theories. They are the best we can produce at the time. So with the new evidence from quantum mechanics, in which it is seen that sub-atomic particles are actually influenced and fundamentally changed by observation, a whole new viewpoint of existence is emerging. (See: Corenotes.) Not only are sub-atomic particles seen to change their very nature when observed, and thus responds to mind, they also can communicate with each other beyond the speed of light.
One of the emerging realisations from this is that the world of mind, imagination and subjective experience are not separate from the external real world as we usually believe.
Michael Talbot says that “virtually all of our common-sense prejudices about the world are based on the premise that subjective and objective reality are very much separate. That is why synchronicities seem so baffling and inexplicable to us. But if there is ultimately no division between the physical world and our inner psychological processes, then we must be prepared to change more than just our common-sense understanding of the universe, for the implications are staggering.” (From The Holographic Universe).
Although this is by no means generally accepted, many physicists observing quantum phenomena say that every particle is constantly in touch with every other particle in the universe, and this take place beyond the limitations of time and space. This is stated in Bells Inequality Theorem. As its title suggests, it is a theory, though it has yet to be disproved.
University of London physicist David Bohm, a protégé of Einstein’s and one of the world’s most respected quantum physicists, in exploring this theory developed it further from his observations of sub-atomic particles. At the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory Bohm worked on plasmas. This is a gas with a high density of electrons and positive ions, with atoms that have a positive charge. He was astonished to find that in this state the electrons stopped behaving like individuals and started exhibiting signs of being part of an interconnected whole. In this form the huge numbers of electrons were well-organised. Like a living creature, the plasma constantly regenerated itself and enclosed all impurities in a wall in the same way that a biological organism might encase a foreign substance in a cyst. Bohm had the impression the electron sea was alive.
From such observations Bohm began to understand that these phenomena pointed to a revolutionary view of locality. We are steeped in the conviction, because of our view of the world through the limited view of our physical senses, that everything has a distinct location. But what Bohm arrived at was that at the quantum level the separation of location ceased to exist. There existed what physicists call non-locality.
The struggle with words
These are such mind altering ideas that we need to take time to absorb them. They are not saying that at the physical everyday level things do not have separate existence. But they are saying that underlying this appearance is non-separation, non-locality. If one can begin to grasp this, the argument about the mind body separation loses its difficulty. How can there be separation when there is non-locality at the basis of our existence?
We are still of course trying to build a sense of something with words. And this must be understood as the best way at the moment to pass on ideas, even if what is passed on is still in process. In fact Bohm, in writing about this to his fellow scientists, some of whom felt the mystery of quantum mechanics was fully explained, pointed out that the universe might well be infinite, so we never arrive at a full understanding, and are always in process.
Firstly, looking around, it is fairly obvious that as human beings we have very different levels of awareness and intelligence. Because of their physiology and perhaps illness, some people are barely aware or awake. Others are incredibly alert, creative and responsive.
Looking beyond humans, we can see that animals are also aware in similar ways. But they lack the self awareness, the sense of identity that enables us to build, create, and invent with such abandon. And beyond the mammals we see yet other ways of being aware. In fact awareness or sentience goes in a sliding scale right the way back down the life forms. There is no point where sentience begins. Even if we go back to plants and amoeba, they are still responding to their environment and have some level of awareness. What they lack is something like the brain that acts as a special organ of awareness. It organises the process of awareness and the inputs awareness receives through the senses.
This becomes more obvious when we consider humans who in one way or another have lost their senses. When a person is blind or deaf, a whole area of input and stimulation is lost. And this can continue right back to the point of being in a vegetative state if their special organs of perception and consciousness are damaged. Does that mean they have lost consciousness? Or does it mean they have lost sensory impressions, but their consciousness is still there?
Have I lost my mind?
We might ask the question here as to whether in such cases, as with stroke victims, consciousness has been lost, or is it that the special organs of awareness, perception and motor activity have been damaged?
The work of Karl Pribram, a neurophysiologist at Stanford University, gives further insight into this. His experience of working with fellow neurologist Lashley confronted him with astounding phenomena. Lashley had trained rats to perform a variety of tasks, such as run a maze. Then he removed parts of their brains and re-tested them. He wanted to see what parts he would need to cut out to remove the memory of what had been learned. But no matter what portion of their brains he cut out, he could not remove their memories. Even with massive portions of their brains removed, their memories remained intact. Pribram found that a similar thing occurred with humans who had, perhaps through injury or illness, lost even massive parts of their brain. So Pribram felt that memory was not localised in the brain, but existed in what was probably a holographic form, where each part contains the whole.
Pribram was very attracted to the work of Bohm because of what Bohm had uncovered about non-locality. This because another way of thinking about non-locality is to see it like a hologram where every part of the universe has in it the whole.
So the proposal is that consciousness is what Bernard Rensch calls panprotopsychic. It means that consciousness is present in all matter in some form. If this is true it would mean that the form of consciousness we know as humans is potentially there in all matter, and as the process of life developed into greater complexity, with specialised organs of awareness, the potential could manifest. In doing so it would manifest at different levels as the complexity of form evolved.
It would also mean that all matter is mind, and mind only becomes focussed as personality because of the form and function of the body and brain. However, with the loss of body and brain, consciousness is not lost as it is basically the universe. Without the focussing action of the brain, the universe is sentient as an unfocussed immensity of mind, carrying in it all experience. From this viewpoint everything around us is mind, is a fundamental part of consciousness, and is part of the whole, but expressing as different qualities or functions. As such there can never be a mind body split, as they are one and the same. But as mind, from this standpoint, is all matter, there is no loss of what has been experienced as ones personal life. See You Are a Dual Being and - Out of Body Experiences
If consciousness is fundamental in all the matter and energy around us, and if that is the basis of our own awareness, focussed as it is on sense impressions via the brain, then experiences of extra sensory perception are no mystery. There is a threshold in us between what experiences we have gathered through our body, through our senses, and the Hugeness beyond our own sense of self. That Hugeness holds, in perhaps an unfocussed way, all experience. To know within the Hugeness what is happening to someone thousands of miles away is easy. And that Hugeness only knows experience in the three dimensional world of our body by generating a life form through the processes developed slowly over millions of years on this planet. We are its eyes ears and curiosity in the three dimensional world. See Answer to Critics
I felt how true it was that each of us are like little bubbles, all in our own small sphere of experience. Then it struck me that although all of these tiny individuals appeared to have a separate identity, a separate body in space; and although they all had eyes with which they were looking at the world, they only had awareness out of my own consciousness. In fact they had no existence outside of me. Unknowingly they were all reflections of me.
Suddenly, and with some apprehension, I realised the meaning of this interesting fantasy that my unconscious had been communicating. I am a bubble. My personal awareness, although it seems distinct and separate, is in fact the reflection of one great consciousness pervading the universe. So who am I when my bubble bursts, as it must, and I return to my source? The fear I first felt has long melted. It has been replaced by joy as I have explored what it means to burst and return home.”