Saturday, 1 December 2012

Consciousness without a brain

In a previous blog (Intelligence without brains) I mentioned the occurrence of intelligence in organisms without brains, in particular amoebae. The power of reason seems to crop up everywhere in the natural world and its relationship to configurations of matter and energy defies reductionist analysis. Recently I came across a cover story in Newsweek (7 Oct 2012) which strongly suggests that consciousness too can occur independently of the brain;  or more specifically, that there can  be consciousness in a human being without the neocortex showing any sign of activity, despite assiduous monitoring by a neurosurgical team.

What is the neocortex? Here is the definition from a medical dictionary: ‘Part of the cerebral cortex; constitutes about 85% of the human brain’s total mass. The neocortex is thought to be responsible for higher level cognitive functions, such as language, learning, memory and complex thought.’

 The feature concerned an experience of an academic neurosurgeon of world renown, Eben Alexander, who has published over 150 peer-reviewed papers. A virulent form of meningitis had attacked his brain, leaving him in a coma for 7 days during which he had been closely monitored for any trace of neural activity in the neocortex. Dr Alexander unexpectedly came back to earthly consciousness  and claimed he had been having a coherent conscious experience during the 7 days.

As a neurosurgeon he had always been sceptical of NDEs (near-death experiences). But this one was different. Previous ones he had encountered in his career and read about had been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to illusions resulting from activity in a malfunctioning neocortex. This time no activity, and hence no malfunctioning, was detected despite the very closest monitoring and scrutiny: the neocortex was totally inert. It was not working imperfectly because it was not working at all.

Dr Alexander wrote down what had happened soon after coming back to ordinary consciousness and used his account as a basis for a book, Proof of heaven: a neurosurgeon’s journey into the afterlife, which I have not yet read.  Apart from the visual events of this journey he experienced infinite love, something encompassing all forms of earthly love and more and the presence of God, who reassured him that he could do nothing wrong. All the beings he met or became aware of  were interconnected in some way, both with each other and with him. He also felt that far from being in a dream this was reality, and that his memory of this world seemed like a dream.

The number of NDEs grows as medical technology advances and is being taken seriously by an increasing number of neurologists and doctors. That consciousness of some kind is able to exist indepedently of the body is now almost certain. Cases have been recorded where the patient knows what is going on around him, in detail, despite being brain dead, having his eyes covered and his ears plugged.

As a Christian I am not sure what to make of this. Many of us find NDEs as difficult to understand as do materialists. The eternal life which we experience here on earth by faith and which continues after physical death takes us beyond space and time until God creates a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, at which point we receive our resurrection bodies.

It is really up to the individual but personally, I am inclined to believe that the NDE is indeed a genuine state of being which God creates for us (the way he has created the reality of life on earth) en route to an afterlife proper, once physical death is final. This could be God's kind way of handling the transition and it would be natural for some of our earthly culture to be reproduced in  this intermediate NDE state, to reassure us in our journey. Or could it be that our society and culture here are pale imitations of a richer and more intense reality? As St Paul says 'For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.'   1 Cor 13:12

As one who has spent most of his life steeped in the scientific worldview I have to  remind myself of the perplexiing and mysterious nature of our existence here. Is there a soul independent of the body? Karl Popper,  probably the most respected philosopher of science, likened it to  a piano player. Our brain-body system was the piano, played by the soul. If our material self was damaged it was like having the mechanism of the piano damaged; but the piano player carried on. You can shoot the piano, but not the piano player.

It is only because I have had time in the last few years to look into the deeper implications of the diverse divisions of science, albeit subject to my limitations,  that I've become aware of the strangeness of our existence that seems to have escaped the awareness of many competent but highly specialised scientists cocooned in a fragment of the total picture. Listed below are some aspects of reality which are now accepted by people in the various disciplines, though few of them seem to have grasped the whole.

  •  Nothing is solid but much appears solid. A lump of lead is totally space and energy put together to give the impression of solidity.

  • Time, space and matter are interconnected by Einstein's equations.

  •  Matter and mind are different aspects of the same underlying entity (follows from quantum physics experiments; it is analogous to wave-particle duality, whereby one entity has both wave and particle aspects but is itself neither of these).

  • All entities are instantanously connected in some way, independently of their separation in time and space. Thus quantum events in our neurons, in fact in all the cells of our body-brain system, are instantanously connected to all quantum events in the universe - past, present and future - including the point of the Big Bang creation. This arises from quantum entanglement.

  • Quantum events, including those in our own brains, affect what we call past events as well as future ones. (E.g. the delayed choice experiment in quantum physics).

  •  Physical reality is of such a nature that it cannot be fully described by mathematics or physical models on a one-one basis; i.e. science will never be able to describe more than limited aspects of reality. To attempt to do so would be like squaring the circle.

Previous posts touched upon some of these and there is plenty more to say about them and other aspects of the world we live in. Unlike the ancients, we have concepts of other dimensions and our reality gets stranger the more you look into it, so it should not be difficult for modern, post-Enlightenment man to believe in heaven and a Creator.


Author, 2077AD