The nature and function of consciousness must first be addressed before one accepts the existence of alternate realms, and the convincing reports by those who contend to have communicated with NHEs and the deceased. After all, if one is able to access other dimensions and/or interact with NHEs and the deceased, then it should be a non-physical form of “YOU,” not bound by space and time that, in some inexplicable way, is capable of doing so. The question of how consciousness emerges from the brain lies at the heart of this issue.
Your consciousness and/or, a yet to be discovered aspect of brain activity, facilitate subjective interpretations of the physical world that give you meaning. But have you ever considered why you are conscious, or if the essence of “YOU” is just a jellylike mass of fat and protein consisting of some 100 billion brain neurons that resides above your shoulders? And above all, how and why did the subjective sense of “I” arise from lifeless matter? The objective world of science provides only theories to explain conscious experience and the sense of “I.” And does consciousness create your reality, or instead, does the physical universe create your consciousness?
For these reasons, the overarching concern is whether or not consciousness is a non-tangible form of energy that is independent of the brain, or a pure brain-based event, or did it evolve as an outcome of language? Despite the absence of a definitive answer, however, it seems surreal that a three pound mass of tissue lying between my ears enables the passionate feeling of unconditional love for another, the deep awe inspiring wonder of nature’s beauty, and the ability to intend and plan for the future. Or is consciousness simply an aspect of life not to be questioned and just “is”?
The evolution of scientific discovery from Galileo’s proof of a heliocentric universe and experiments paved the way for the methods of classical mechanics by Isaac Newton, the unified field theory by Einstein, to when Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon. These accomplishments led to advanced technologies and principles that have generated extraordinary increases in our capacity to formulate and analyze information. But despite this revolution, many more questions than answers exist about the nature of our reality, and our evolving planet and expanding universe. And the overarching fundamental question has remained the same. That is, is conscious experience a part of concrete reality and an intrinsic aspect of the universe?
Overview: Human consciousness is one of the most far-reaching ambiguities of our time. It’s like asking how we think about our own thinking, or how we can become aware of our own awareness. How do you know that you are “YOU”? Does your sense of being aware of yourself come from an aspect of “you” that exists apart and interrelates with your body, or is it just your body that is creating it? First, we must ask, what is consciousness?
Consciousness, sometimes referred to as “qualia” or moments of experience, are what make us human. That “I am aware of being aware” represents the act of consciousness. Our personal experiences and characteristics of sensation such as pain, love, and depression, and feelings and sensations, decision making, and free-will make you feel alive and give us a sense of purpose. It incorporates your awareness of the world. And this concept alone has served as a major focus of study in the fields of neuroscience, biology, psychology, philosophy, and physics. But the search to understand the nature and meaning of consciousness and how your brain provides a sense of an individual “self,” intention, and abstract thought remains a controversy. The problem is that attempts to solve the mind-brain relationship have been approached in different ways consistent with the theoretical principles and research methods unique to each field of study. In fact, there is even considerable controversy in the use of the term “consciousness” which is often used in different ways. In biology and medicine for instance, consciousness is studied in terms of brain mechanisms of arousal and responsiveness (alertness through disorientation, loss of communication, and depth of coma), and on identifying brain regions which mediate sensory and motor signals that induce feelings of self-location and the first person perspective. In contrast, consciousness studies in psychology and cognitive science tend to focus on asking verbal reports of experiences and subjective states (self-awareness, subliminal messages, denial of impairment, and altered states produced by drugs and meditation). In light of such diverse definitions and associated theories of consciousness, it is not surprising that vastly different approaches have been used to study it within the scientific community.
This narrow focus, however, ignores the importance of integrating contributions of knowledge from other disciplines. Consequently, bias is created through this filtered lens, as if searching for gold with blindfolds and stone knives. Surprisingly, however, most scientists are not materialists. A 2009 Pew poll on religion, for instance, found that only forty-percent of the scientists polled considered themselves to be atheists, while fifty percent believed in God, a universal spirit, or a higher power.1 And “you can bet your bottom dollar” that a large percentage of those who prey to a “higher power” on a Sunday, denounce the validity of the peak experiencer (PEr) who claims to have interacted with a “Supreme Being” and/or other forms of NHEs on Monday. Their biased contradiction is annoyingly palpable.
Consciousness: An endless stream of papers written on consciousness have been generated by scholars across many disciplines over countless decades in an attempt to better understand the nature and meaning of consciousness, and how your brain provides a sense of an individual “self.” But despite these efforts, there remains no widely accepted theory of how the brain facilitates self-awareness, intention, and abstract thought. This overwhelming mass of information has even failed to generate a uniformly accepted theory as to what consciousness actually is. And so with apparently nothing to lose, my two-cents worth is that consciousness may be defined by five behavioral attributes: 1) Realization of one’s location and relative position in space and time, 2) Recognition and reaction to other people’s physical and emotional behaviors, 3) Recognition of one’s social behavior within the context of environmental situations, 4) Intuition – one’s insights, feelings, and impressions to understand something without thinking or reasoning of possible future events relative to one’s knowledge of situations, events, and laws governing the universe, 5) Free-will or the decision of choice to decide if and how to pursue one’s destiny. This is enabled through one’s ability to constantly sense, interpret, and make predictions based on information received which is then acted upon to create expected future outcomes to oneself and others, and 6) ESP – non-local communication with other minds.
The search for a neural correlates of consciousness may never explain the essence of the mind-brain relationship or the “hard problem” of consciousness (how reality comes about from the physical activity of our nervous system) or help to better understand “qualia” which has never been proven as fact. Some scientists, however, believe that the subjective attributes of consciousness will eventually be found within the nervous system. Hard-core materialists, for instance, believe that the “mind-body” concept is a misnomer because there is only the body.2 According to the materialist mindset, all aspects which define a specific thing (color, smell, behavior, physical attributes, etc.) are represented as bits of information in neurons which the brain synthesizes to arrive at the final neural representation. Consequently, a neural analog for everything we know and experience subjectively may provide the biological foundation which enables you to determine that this is a flower, a car, or a human, etc. Related to this theory is the view that your conscious activity, subjective experience, and decision making processes are facilitated from the collective functioning of computational networks of correlated neurophysiological activity which incorporate all incoming sensory information among many brain regions (cortical-thalamic, brainstem and limbic networks) that is interpreted into a meaningful whole.3,4,5 In other words, consciousness may not emerge from a specific brain region but instead arises from the integrated output of billions of neurons which communicate with one another. Or not.
The reason is that “consciousness” equates with the brain in conventional science since manifestations of consciousness, such as free will, determinism, and planning for the future are considered to be driven by neuronal impulses of the brain. Consciousness, which escapes objective measurements of its space, time, and functionality, creates your life and reality. Your conscious intention is capable of great things such as playing a major role in your health and well-being, sharing love, modifying brain activity, and even by affecting your genes. It can be trained through meditation to improve your emotional state, cognitive abilities, and to even reduce pain. So, is it my brain telling me to meditate, or is it me telling my brain to execute the behavior of meditation to improve certain aspects of my world? Besides confusing, the question comes down to who is minding the store? Several assumptions applied in the study of these topic areas have served as a foundation to test the consciousness-brain distinction. These include:
1. Consciousness is a by-product of brain activity. Consciousness is eliminated along with the body upon death. We are gone forever;
2. Consciousness is not dependent on the brain and can affect physical matter outside the body. It extends beyond normal space/time, and;
3. Consciousness extends beyond the brain and persists after bodily death. It suggests a mechanism and explanation for the PE and associated phenomena.
The mind doesn’t seem to follow the rules we usually apply to the physical world. The connection between human consciousness and the physical world is precisely why so many of the founding fathers of quantum physics were so preoccupied with learning more about consciousness, and “non-material” science in general. Max Planck, for instance, regarded “consciousness as fundamental” and matter as “derivative from consciousness.” Eugene Wigner, another famous theoretical physicist and mathematician, also emphasized how “it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness,”6 and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger believed that ESP could be explained by realizing that our consciousness is immersed in the quantum mechanic wave function which serves as a “field of consciousness” over the Earth.7 Sir John Eccles, the physiologist who received the 1963 Nobel Prize for his work on the nervous system also believed that “ESP and PK are weak and irregular manifestations of the same principle which allows an individual’s mental volition to influence his own material brain.”8
The expression “what comes first, the chicken or the egg” seems to apply to the different perspectives of the PE. The Western scientific community, for instance, does not support the conclusion by those who have had a PE that they have interacted with another reality. This notion is inconsistent with their cultural background and scientific mindset which views matter as the ultimate form of reality, and that consciousness is a characteristic of it. The Eastern perspective, is the exact opposite, with the ultimate reality being consciousness and the physical universe is simply a byproduct of it. In other words, science considers that what is perceived with the senses is the highest form of reality, whereas, the Eastern view considers that higher faculties of mind must be developed in order to interact with reality in a more direct way. But a paradox exists with the scientific perspective since discoveries in physics tell us that matter is profoundly different from what our senses tell us. In fact, noted physicist David Bohm, agreed that it makes “no sense to separate physical effects from spiritual effects.”9
Although the conclusions by such great minds are grounded in scientific logic and were arrived at methodically, experientially, rationally, and even mathematically, the concepts that emerge of interconnectedness, consciousness, and higher intelligence are decidedly non-material. And if they are correct, then consciousness may indeed be an aspect of “I” and not the brain and possibly even persist in some unseen, unknown realm of existence upon death. But if mainstream materialist scientists are correct, once the hard drive is shot, so goes memory and one’s conscious perception of reality – it’s all “dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” But while the general scientific community considers consciousness an aspect of brain function, there exists anecdotal, theoretical, and experimental evidence to suggest that consciousness may actually be independent of the physical body and somehow capable of transcending the physical world. This concept is a dilemma that ultimately rests with you. You may regard this indefinable, unproven, and intangible thing called “consciousness” as irrelevant and not worth discussing since it may represent wishful thinking, religious and/or cultural indoctrination, scientific, emotional, and/or intuitive reasons or possibly even a touch of your “gut feeling.” The brain obeys all the physical laws of the universe. It’s not anything special. And yet it’s the most special thing in the universe. That’s the paradox.
Is the Universe Conscious? Is consciousness a basic feature of the Universe? It is according to the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) theory proposed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi.10 The ITT, the most popular neuroscience theory on consciousness today, provides the foundation for a mathematical formalization of both the quantity and quality of conscious experience. The IIT, in other words, considers that a “central network of brain regions” with high capacity for information integration, enables consciousness.
The IIT applies not just to the human brain but also to all physical matter. That is, every particle in existence has a form of consciousness, and if the information contained within the structure is sufficiently “integrated,” it will allow for more complex forms of consciousness, such as humans’ subjective experiences. The ITT essentially tells us that the “more possible links between cells, the more possible combinations there are and therefore a greater number of thoughts are possible.”11 Consciousness, in other words, is informationally very rich and depends on physical matter but is not regulated by it. That is, your experience of seeing and hearing a bird in flight is networked to your brain but is different from your brain. The bird’s color and sound are an integrated part of your experience which cannot be subdivided. A computer analogy may explain this elusive concept. When you have a family picture up on your computer screen, for instance, the machine doesn’t know that the boy and girl are your children. To your computer, the children represent a meaningless random cascade of 0s and 1s. But the picture obviously has meaning to you because your memories and feelings are uniquely integrated with your children’s picture.
Not to purposely confuse you more than you already may be, just about everyone in consciousness studies is now adopting the view that consciousness is a universal feature of all things. This represents an extension of the ITT called “panpsychism.” And guess what, “panpsychism” says that consciousness exists in molecules and atoms, perhaps as some kind of quantum mechanic effect that somehow represents a well-designed explanation for your subjective experience. Even eminent neuroscientist Christof Koch, considers that ITT offers a “scientific, constructive, predictive and mathematically precise form of panpsychism for the 21st century” and a “gigantic step in the final resolution of the ancient mind-body problem.”12 Does this view imply that the universe may be self-aware? It has even been proposed that the “quantum vacuum, which is thought to contain all the information of our history – from the Big Bang to now – is also consciousness. Everything in the universe, therefore, has consciousness; from a pebble to a tree, to a cloud, to a person.” Now, try to wrap your head around the notion that these informational fields of consciousness, called the zero-point-field or Akashic Field, contain all knowledge, wisdom, and Unconditional Love. Language alone just doesn’t do it.
Maybe the evolving field of ITT and “panpsychism” will eventually provide an answer to the subjective experience and associated questions in the form of the existence of a higher consciousness, Divine consciousness, or Cosmic consciousness.13 No one can say for sure, despite statements made with certainty by so many in the absence of supporting evidence. What we do have, however, is anecdotal evidence to support theories of “interconnectedness,” “unconditional love,” from those who have had a PE triggered by a NDE. One individual NDE account that illustrates this notion is as follows: “My mind and spirit felt as if they might burst with all my new-found knowledge. At once, I was taken up into a brilliant light. An energy and vibration deep and profound, shook me like thunder in my bones. A booming voice spoke… “I AM” … and I knew immediately who was with me. The spirit of God surrounded me, and His light permeated every part of me, filling me to overflowing. As His radiant love soaked into me, every question I ever had was answered. Every wondering and pondering was put to rest with knowledge from this higher source. Answers from the universe were downloaded into my DNA. I didn’t have to try to remember or retain the information, it became part of me. As questions came to mind, the answers were immediately there. All my past hurts were reframed by the bright shining love of God that surrounded me”14
Similar to the reported accounts by NDErs, this perceptual description is certainly inconsistent with the view of mainstream science. But nevertheless, there are many highly respected scientists who contend that the universe is, in fact, conscious. And if it is indeed true that each subatomic particle exists as a tiny conscious entity, then maybe consciousness actually represents the missing link from Einstein’s Unified Field Theory. Consciousness, in other words, will be on par with electromagnetic, gravitational, and the nuclear forces that describe universal reality.
Many scholars of our time consider that “fields of consciousness are stored in a dimension without our concept of time and space,” with non-local and universal interconnectedness in the “quantum vacuum, with a holographic cosmic memory by interference patterns of scalar wave fields.”15-17 It is hard, if not impossible to fathom that, “the interconnectedness with these informative fields of consciousness explains enhanced intuition, prognostic dreams and visions – seeing apparitions at the moment of death and in the period following death, like being in contact with the consciousness of dying persons on a distance, or of deceased relatives, the so-called peri- and postmortal experiences or after-death communication.”18 But if consciousness is in fact, non-local, then why don’t we sense it routinely as part of our normal waking experience? And if nonlocality is a core feature of consciousness, as it is in ESP, then what prevents you from using it? Must it be cultivated through awareness and teachings from childhood before it becomes vestigial like your appendix? Nonlocality, along with meditation, would seem to be much more productive to the well-being of the individual if such teachings began early in life to cultivate the mind-brain potential. Such educational pursuits would seem to be more important than the established fruitless and non-productive practice of forcing young kids to remember the dates of historic events, and debating who discovered America, among other useless information that serves no beneficial and creative purpose.
Are You the Brain?
Overview: Think about this. The brain makes you human. It helps to facilitate art, music, language, ethics, rational and abstract thought, and how you sense and interpret the world. But making sense of the brain’s mind-boggling complexity isn’t easy. It is incomprehensible to think that all this comes from a jellylike mass of fat and protein consisting of some 100 billion neurons and associated 100 trillion synapses where substantial local and long-range simultaneous communication appear to be involved in very complex decision making tasks. But this does not still provide evidence to explain the elusive “subjective experience.” Science simply has yet to identify the neurological substrate which facilitates many aspects of our extraordinary brain’s behaviors.
The Brain: Neural processes may explain functions such as how sensory input is represented as a motor output, and certain cognitive activities like working memory, but how and why these functions are accompanied by conscious experiences remains unknown. In other words, how does your personal experiences, emotions, actions, and free will emerge from this three pound sophisticated biological learning machine that constantly learns by re-wiring its’ neural networks over time to life events. The sheer complexity of your brain’s interrelated network alone actually requires the application of mathematical and neurobiological models to attempt to understand how it functions. It is impossible to fully comprehend. And given its’ extraordinary complexity, it is not surprising that no one knows exactly how information is coded through this system and how it facilitates consciousness. After all, to understand the basics of brain function, we need to know the current state of the billions of neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections in terms of their output intensity, frequency and phase of these connections, and the state of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each synapse. And on top of all that, how do we account for the distinct differences of each brain brought about by the uniqueness of each person’s life history?
Neurologists and neurosurgeons are constantly dealing with matters of life and death in patients who have fallen into the deep hole of unconsciousness. Inevitably, many ponder spirituality and the soul’s domain to consider an afterlife. Neurosurgeons often attempt restoration of the brain using deep brain stimulation or ablation and some operations are even executed on awake patients. These procedures can provide clues to the functions of the mind in relation to the brain. For example, when an electrical current stimulates certain brain regions, the person can have a vivid lifelike experience, and when brain chemicals go array, they can alter one’s perception, personality, and cognition.19 Chemicals within the nervous system, such as adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and the endorphins, allow for and modify the many functions of your brain, mind, and body we take for granted – “Our personalities, the entities that make us both unique and predictable as individuals, emerge out of these patterns of chemical release.”20
By studying brain abnormalities, we have learned that emotion and thought are correlated with brain regions. And when brain tissue dies, a part of the mind can disappear. One may lose the ability to name common objects, recognize people, anticipate outcomes, empathize with others, or accurately identify their location in space. The left and right hemispheres, for example, are characterized by qualitatively different modes of cognitive processing – the left being basically analytic and sequential, the right spatial, nonverbal, non-mathematical and non-sequential in nature. And now, new technologies can literally read a person’s mind and tell a cognitive neuroscientist whether the person is imagining a face or a place. Neuroscientists can even delete a gene in a mouse that actually prevents the mouse from learning, or insert extra genes to facilitate faster learning.21
Studies on patients who have suffered brain injury provide clues on the mind-brain relationship. Damaged frontal lobes, for instance, lose their inhibitory influences on the limbic system which result in aggressive behaviors, and abnormalities to a specific area in the dominant cerebrum results in expressive and/or receptive language disorders. Damage near the base of the left temporal lobe abolish the capacity to understand spoken language. Speech continues to be heard but the meaning is lost.22 This tells us that word comprehension resides in the left hemisphere. A few examples of specific areas of the brain linked to characteristics attributed to the mind include the relation between the volume of grey matter in the frontal lobes and intelligence; the inferior parietal lobules and spatial reasoning and intuitions on numbers, and the third interstitial nucleus in the anterior thalamus and homosexuality. Despite your brain’s ability to organize your experience of “self” and the world into a seamless unity, the loss of brain activity in damaged regions can have dramatic effects on the whole person.23-25
Moreover, electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain trigger vivid memories of past events.
According to neurosurgeon William Penfield: “This is a startling discovery. It brings psychical phenomena into the field of physiology. It should have profound significance also in the field of psychology provided we can interpret the facts properly. We have to explain how it comes about that when electrical impulses are applied steadily to the cortex it can cause a ganglionic complex to recreate a steadily unfolding phenomenon, a psychical phenomenon.”26, 27 And when activated, it reproduces the thoughts and emotions experienced during the original experience.
Nobel Laureate, Roger Sperry, described the implications on concepts of the mind of the observations made after splitting the corpus callosum and thus, the two brain hemispheres.28 Sperry’s experiments showed that the cat with divided corpus callosum now had two minds either of which was capable of learning on its own, and of responding intelligently to changes in the world around it on its own. Such experiments led Sperry and others to conclude that each of the separated hemispheres has its own sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings and memories. That is, they constitute two separate minds, two separate spheres of consciousness: “splitting the brain amounts to nothing less than splitting the self.”29, 30 According to Sperry, “The more we learn, the more complex becomes the picture for predictions regarding any one individual and the more it seems to reinforce the conclusion that the kind of unique individuality in our brain networks makes that of fingerprints or facial features appear gross and simple by comparison.”31 Moreover, neuroscientist R. Carter, who described techniques for mapping the brain and mind stated: “It is now possible to locate and observe the mechanics of rage, violence and misperception and even to detect the physical signs of complex qualities of the mind like kindness, humor, heartlessness, gregariousness, altruism, mother-love and self-awareness.”32 Carter pointed out the on-going debated implications of such findings by concluding: “whilst the optimist might wish for a complete understanding of human nature and experience from such studies, others may insist that a map of the brain can tell us no more about the mind than a terrestrial globe speak of Heaven and Hell.”33, 34
The brain is able to convert incoming stimuli to action in particular ways. But the manner in which its neurons and infinite connections that result in chemical and electrical reactions within it and its unimaginable complexity of structure and function remain poorly understood. The question still remains, therefore, whether the brain and/or mind are interrelated components which give rise to YOU and your sentient life. It even seems strange that science often equates the brain with a lifeless computer. Neuroscientist, E. Krishnamoorthy, for instance, used an analogy based on computers to explain the mind: “The mind is a virtual entity, one that reflects the workings of the neural networks, chemical and hormonal systems in our brain. The mind cannot be localized to particular areas within the brain, though the entire cerebral cortex and deep grey matter form important components. Consciousness, perception, behavior, intelligence, language, motivation, drive, the urge to excel and reasoning of the most complex kind are the product of the extensive and complex linkages between the different parts of the brain.”35 The highest-level of consciousness, in other words, is thought to depend on the integrity of the brain’s prefrontal activity. And many scientists consider your “Self” as a manifestation of this activity – it enables you to become aware of individual experience in a way that gives a “sense of an inner life.”36
The Mind-Brain Relationship: Millennia ago, we embarked on a mission to understand the human condition. And the organ that puzzled most throughout time was the human brain. We are now aware of nerve cells, their connections and their modes of communication amongst themselves and with a variety of other structures. Abnormalities of the brain provide crucial insights on the role of its different parts. Modern technology such as computerized tomography and magnetic resonance, for example, localize function within the structure of the brain and correlate abnormalities of its structure and function. Even so, two entities remain enigmatic: the mind and the soul. Are they located within the brain?
What we have left from the endless stream of papers written on consciousness and the mind-brain relationship are only different theories to digest. And so we continue to wonder what region(s) and processes in the brain, if any, facilitate the conscious experience and the mind-brain relationship, which philosopher D. Chalmers termed “The Hard Problem”37 Nobel laureate Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, however, doesn’t consider consciousness a “hard problem.” He stated, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personality and free will, are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”38 While not all scientific researchers studying consciousness today have this same physical reductionist view, it’s probably safe to say that a great many do. But of course not even the most avid materialists live their lives as if the mind is not real. That’s why, when they kiss their children goodnight, they say, “I love you,” not “My brain loves you.”39
But not all great minds share the materialistic view. Residing on the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum, are philosophers, such as Kant, Berkeley, and Hegel, who contend there is no mind-independent reality; the mental realm is the only realm and everything in the world is your mental construct. This is called “Idealism.” But the list of theories doesn’t end here. Those who ascribe to “Substance Dualism” claim there is no direct correspondence between mental and physical states; they are independent of each other. The mind-brain relationship has even been explained using mathematical models.40 And for decades, scholars on human behavior have also been telling us that the brain operates like a computer. This concept is a version of materialism, called “Functionalism,” which suggests the mind-body interaction behaves like a computer in terms of their functional interaction as input, process, and outcome. And in some ways, it does. They process, store, and retrieve information, without exception, by algorithms. Humans, on the other hand, do not. No matter how hard neuroscientists try, I doubt they will never find a copy of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet in the brain.
Scientists have tried to suppress the innate feeling that you are not your brain to remain objective and their discoveries have been remarkable. Regardless, however, they have lost sight of the big picture that the “impossible” may be possible. I challenge the materialistic mantra that the brain functions likes a computer and that YOU are your brain. If this is true, then why are any two of us changed the same way by the same experience? If you and I watch Romeo and Juliet, for example, the changes that occur in my brain will be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes are built upon a foundation of existing neurological representations developed over a lifetime of unique experiences. This is why, ten people at the scene of the same crime will tell ten different stories to the jury. Recitations of the same story diverge more and more. And more and more, the evidence suggests YOU are not you’re your brain.
Symbiosis: YOU and the Brain
Overview: The “hard problem” of consciousness is knowing how reality comes about from the physical activity of our nervous system and realizing how you become aware of and experience reality (qualia). And today, science has no definitive answer to this problem. Many of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, feel intuitively that our consciousness exists apart from the brain. Human cultures throughout history have adopted this same important principle, that “YOU” survive bodily death and exist eternally as an individual spirit.
My answer, for what it’s worth, is that “YOU” and “YOUR” brain are likely separate entities that are interdependent but symbiotic. Your sense of reality, for example, is nothing more than the response by your central nervous system’s ability to convert external forms of energy (light, sound, pressure, etc.) to a form of neuro-electrical energy the brain can process for YOU to realize, process, and interpret, in an appropriate manner that is driven your experiences, current circumstances, and memory. Your brain’s physical interpretation of incoming energy, in other words, allows YOU to act accordingly to the information received using free-will and intention. The brain, therefore, is essential in helping YOU react accordingly to the world at large. And YOU depend on a normal functioning brain to allow YOU to perceive and react to all reality and associated circumstances presented within that reality.
Our nervous system enables us to have different sensory experiences and an ability to reason. And although humans are thinking creatures that feel; biologically, we are emotional beings that think. Experimental findings in the form of “neural correlates of consciousness,” cognitive science, and effects of brain injury on consciousness using brain imaging technology, has allowed us to better understand how the brain converts energy to a form of energy which enables us to realize and act upon. A very brief and simplistic explanation is as follows: All incoming physical energy (light, acoustic, and tactile, etc), which is initially processed in each sensory system, is composed of a complex cascade of neurons that process and transmit neural activity almost instantaneously to appropriate areas in the brain. This neurological code of information is then integrated with sensations about movement and position, memory, and emotion to facilitate a decision to act, as appropriate. And any disruption of this integrated process can influence an aspect of consciousness.
Behavior is modifiable, and it is controlled by the anticipation of pain or pleasure, punishment or reward. And the anticipation of pain or pleasure is coded in the brain – emotions have biochemical correlates located primarily in the limbic system below the cortex, the old mammalian brain. Remember the experiments in which rats were given the chance to self-stimulate different parts of the limbic system by pushing a lever? They stimulated the pleasure center in the brain until they fell from exhaustion. Well, it turned out that the electrical stimulation caused the release of brain chemicals associated with pain or pleasure. The endorphins, for instance, are very pleasurable.
For this complex delicate process between YOU and the brain to be successful, a symbiotic relationship exists which requires a great deal of balance. We see evidence of symbiotic relationships in many forms of living processes and systems that are product of millions years of co-evolution. Mutualism is a form of a symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit. Parasitism, for example, where one microbe is harmed, is balanced so that the host lives long enough to allow the parasite to spread and reproduce. Another example of mutualism involves goby fish and shrimp. The nearly blind shrimp maintains a burrow in the sand in which both the fish and shrimp live. When a predator arrives, the fish touches the shrimp with its tail as a warning to enable them retreat to the burrow to avoid the predator and to allow a safe environment for the fish to lay its eggs. The question, of course, is whether or not YOU and the brain maintain a type of mutual symbiotic relationship whereby you maintain a healthy brain (diet, exercise, meditation) to allow the brain to provide you with an accurate interpretation of the physical world to manage in as appropriate manner as possible. YOU need the brain and the brain needs YOU. That is, YOU interact with your brain.
What we see, for example, depends to a large extent upon what YOU anticipate seeing. The activity of neurons in the primary visual cortex is affected by brain regions involved in prediction and planning. When the brain can predict what you see, it readies areas in the primary visual cortex and other regions to enable you to interpret visual stimuli more quickly. And if you stop to interpret all the sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and sights right now, you realize that this moment is continuous with every other moment leading to this one. It does not stand alone. Instead, every one of the moments in your life is not separate from all moments to come. In other words, perception is based solely on subjectivity. You interpret reality based on the accumulation of your personal experiences. You can’t isolate yourself from your experiences or to view the world outside of yourself from a non-judgmental standpoint. We try to be objective to view reality in a non-judgmental sense. But in practice, objectivity facilitates a type of aberration of consciousness that leads many people to be extremely judgmental of others because they think their points of view are absolute. They refuse to acknowledge the existence of any other reality paradigms than their own because they are not willing to see their own biases as being biased in the first place. This boarders on illogic insanity, and most scientists who ascribe to the materialist reductionist mindset fit this mindset. This is one reason why science is slow to even just consider the possibility that the PE and its triggers allow for one to experience an alternate reality.
Our Unconscious Feedback Loop: We tend to reconstruct the traumas in our life in the world around us. Think about it. Doesn’t the same horrible events happen to you repeatedly, as if your mind contains a neural feedback loop that you can’t control? The same patterns play out along with the same adverse consequences. Why do we often engage in the same kind of destructive behaviors – we drink and eat too much, argue with and criticize others too often, and/or keep making bad financial decisions – despite trying so hard to change? What are we, insane?
Albert Einstein once said insanity is, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If this is insanity, then we all must be insane. After all, despite our best intentions to change our counterproductive behaviors, we find ourselves thinking, acting, and feeling the same way every day for months and years on end. The founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud may have discovered the reason for this behavior. And that is, the unconscious mind. Freud thought there was something significant below your state of awareness responsible for this unwilling impulse to repeat your anxieties and misfortunes – even when you are trying to do otherwise. What motivates, concerns you, and impedes your objectives reside in your unconscious mind. And since you often unconsciously assign meaning to events, whether they are inherently meaningful or not, coincidences can create meaningful synchronicity.41
When you have an expected outcome in mind, it actually changes the outcome of the event. In other words, experiences perceived as coincidence may not be chance; it may represent an aspect of what psychologist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious” – a governing foundation of human experience that incorporates history, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual experiences.42 Like the blueprint of your home, the “collective unconscious” is the unseen mind humans share. And this shared “unconscious” may be part of the reason why we repeatedly behave in a neurotic manner.43
Perceived threats are stored in the unconscious. Freud called this defense mechanism, “repression.” Repressed or not, these threats exert great influence on your behavior. Like the PE, it is an unseen force. And the problem is that you are not even aware of them. The only proof of its existence is how you unconsciously impede the changes you want to make and believing you are a victim of the action of others, your environment, or life itself. Unless you realize your repetitious behavior is facilitated by an unsolved emotional issue from the past, you will continue to act the same, only for it to be reflected back in your environment. The problem resides beneath your awareness in the unconscious mind which governs most of our behavioral actions and reactions to important matters in life – we usually act without conscious thought.
Most of us never stop following the habitual and conditioned nature of our unconscious mind and this is why we suffer. Our unconscious ego continues to criticize, analyze, process and argue. Ego is habitual. It is a conditioned psychological reflexive unseen force. Yet, most of us fully identify with this force without judgement because we are not aware that this drive actually arises from you. But we are never satisfied because this force exists without awareness and thus drives both our good and bad actions and decisions. To be immune from this negative force, you must realize that your destructive behaviors and thoughts are governed by that which may not be in your best interests. This is what psychologists charge plenty of money for – to help tap the unconscious through conscious awareness and interpretation – to break this negative feedback loop. As Freud stated, “You can look at the events and think about the emotional tone and content and figure out what your own unconscious is processing at any given time.44
Freud tells us we are held hostage by our unconscious mind. But if you can somehow learn to master the interrelated characteristics of synchronicity, intuition, and precognition, you may be able to evolve to the next level of high order thinking – to take better control over your actions and reactions that are, all too often, governed by your painful memories. In other words, recognizing your synchronistic events can help reveal negative feedback loops of your unconscious mind. It is certainly easier said than done, but it achieves better results in the long term than suppressing the unconscious mind with frequently prescribed pills which don’t suffice!
Can You Affect Your Body? You can intentionally change processes in your body that are under voluntary control. You can improve your cognitive ability by learning to control the electrical activity of your brain using neurofeedback. And you can exercise your mind through meditation and yoga to change the structure of your brain to enhance brain activity and to improve psychological well-being and attention. Meditation, for instance, has been associated with decreases in stress, depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life. Maybe that is one reason why there is growing interest in meditation in the United States. A 2017 government survey, for example, found 14 percent of adults said they had recently meditated, up from 4 percent from a similar survey five years earlier.
At one level, I hold great admiration for scholars who attempt to better understand the mind-brain relationship, but on another level, I wish they would apply more their mind instead of just their brain towards this analysis. To most of them, the mind doesn’t exist. The brain is it and nothing more. The brain, of course, enables the body to work efficiently without any conscious contribution from “YOU.” But definitive conclusions regarding the mind-brain relationship must be interpreted with caution since the interrelated concepts of the “self,” “consciousness,” and the brain are poorly defined phenomena. What we do know, which has been largely ignored from mind-brain theories, is that your intentions and feelings are vital to your well-being. You steer the ship. You tell your brain what to do to keep your body healthy. In fact, your psychological state can even affect genetic behavior. Stress can turn genes “on” or “off” making you more or less susceptible to illness. And this causal relationship between stressful life events and the manifestation of disease has been a common clinical observation and the focus of much research. Meditation and yoga for instance, have been shown to improve psychological well-being and have a positive effect on the structure and function of the brain.
Stress-related health problems are responsible for up to eighty percent of medical related visits and account for the third highest health care expenditures. But less than five percent of doctors discuss how to reduce stress with patients. This is a paradox to the extreme, especially since the medical community largely ignores this mind-body relationship, despite the fact that several techniques have been shown to have many health benefits, including improving heart health and helping relieve depression and anxiety. Mind-body practices like yoga and meditation, for instance, have been shown to reduce the body’s stress response by strengthening your relaxation response and lowering stress hormones like cortisol. And you thought your doctor knows how to treat diseases? Think again.
The causal relationship between stressful life events and the manifestation of disease has been a common clinical observation and the focus of much recent research. Several studies, for instance, have clearly established the link between stress in the year prior to the onset of symptoms and a number of diseases that affect many biological systems, such as endocrine, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, autoimmune, and skin.45 Stress has also been shown to induce inflammation in the body through the mediation of a variety of neurotransmitters, pro-inflammatory cytokines, and hormones.46 Such an outcome has been implicated in the pathophysiology of cancer and cardiovascular disease.47-49 Psychiatric illness is also strongly associated with physical diseases. Depression, for instance, can increase susceptibility to illness as characterized by an increased concentrations of inflammatory markers which increase the risk for cardiovascular and neoplastic disease. But while stress can have adverse biological consequences, several studies have suggested that positive emotions can have a beneficial influence on the course of disease.50, 51 For example, individuals with high psychological well-being present reduced gene expression to adversity, suggesting a potential protective role of psychological well-being in a number of medical disorders.52, 53 In fact, some “psychosomatic medicine” researchers are telling us that by understanding the mind-brain relationship, an overdue reappraisal of medicine is forthcoming. A major obstacle to overcome, however, is that since psychosomatic medicine goes hand-in-hand with the mind-brain relationship, it is not accepted as medical reality. Medical training largely ignores this, and as a result, appropriate health care is questionable in many cases.54
This ignorance is compounded by studies that have clearly demonstrated the beneficial effects of complimentary alternative medicine such as yoga, reiki, and meditation interventions on depression, stress, and anxiety. A review and meta-analysis of 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants conducted by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University Department of Medicine, for example, found that meditation significantly reduced stress with outcomes relating to depression, anxiety, and attention, eating and sleeping habits, pain, and weight. For instance, seven studies on the effect of Reiki for pain and anxiety yielded statistically significant results either for pain or anxiety or both.55 Research also suggests that yoga increases parasympathetic nervous system activity (responsible for sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation, urination, digestion and defecation), and GABA (neurotransmitter that regulates communication between brain cells) levels in the thalamus and that these increases are correlated with improved mood.56, 57
The Veterans Administration also uses meditation, yoga and similar mind-body training techniques to supplement traditional therapy in many of the 400,000 veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One recent study by the Department of Defense, for example, reported that meditation (repeating a mantra to calm the mind) worked as well as traditional therapy for military veterans with PTSD. More specifically, researchers measured symptoms in about 200 veterans who were randomly assigned to one of three groups: 1) meditation training; 2) Traditional behavioral therapy; and 3) attended classes on nutrition and exercise. After three months, 61 percent of the meditation group improved on a standard PTSD assessment, compared to 42 percent of those who received behavioral therapy, and 32 percent of those who went to classes on nutrition and exercise.82
Moreover, a study by neuroscientist Sara Lazar, found that in comparison to a non-meditator control group, those who participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program had larger brain volume in specific key regions. This included the: 1) Posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance; 2) Left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation; 3) Temporal-parietal junction, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion; 4) An area of the brain stem where regulatory neurotransmitters are produced; and 5) Amygdala – the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general.83
All of these regions increased in volume except the amygdala. This area actually got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels. Lazar also found that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. This makes sense, because “when you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”84 But despite a wealth of scientific data showing that certain emotional states can lead to chronic illness, many who work in mainstream medicine remain entirely ignorant of these concepts. And those aware of it, often don’t take advantage of it to the benefit of the patient. One example is the placebo effect.
The Placebo Effect: The mind can be a powerful healing tool when given the chance. This is clearly illustrated in the placebo effect which has generated increasing attention by academics around the world. The placebo effect is the idea that you can convince your body that a fake treatment is the real thing, and thus stimulate healing. Although a placebo is a fake treatment, in some cases it can produce a positive health outcome. In most cases, even though placebos contain no real treatment, they can produce a variety of both physical and psychological effects. The interaction of our thoughts with the physical material world, in other words, can be just as valuable as traditional treatments.
Studies have found that placebo treatments can stimulate real biological and physiological responses – everything from changes in heart rate to blood pressure and even chemical activity in the brain. A placebo is a substance with no known medical effects, such as sterile water, saline solution, or a sugar pill. The placebo is designed to seem exactly like the real treatment, so people receiving it believe that they are the recipient of the real treatment. This belief alone can have positive outcomes and has been demonstrated experimentally in many different physical conditions such as: migraine headaches, allergies, fever, the common cold, asthma, various kinds of pain, nausea and seasickness, ulcers, depression and anxiety, and arthritis, to name a few.
Placebo-related research reveals that your state of mind produces physiological effects. The cognitive influences of conditioning and expectation act to become the two main drivers of placebo responses, each influencing different biological pathways.58 The placebo effect, for instance, has been extensively researched and on average thirty-five percent of all people who receive a given placebo will experience a significant effect. One of the most studied and strongest placebo effects is in the reduction of pain. According to some estimates, approximately thirty to sixty percent of people feel that their pain has diminished after taking a placebo pill. One major review of more than two hundred studies involving the use of placebos found that the placebo had no major clinical effects on illness. Instead, the placebo effect had an influence on patient-reported outcomes, particularly of perceptions of nausea and pain.59-61 Placebos often work because people don’t know they are getting one. But what happens if you know you are getting a placebo? One study explored this by testing how people reacted to migraine pain medication.62 One group took a migraine drug labeled with the drug’s name, another took a placebo labeled “placebo,” and a third group took nothing. The researchers discovered that the placebo was fifty percent as effective as the real drug to reduce pain after a migraine attack. This finding showed that: “people associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect. Even if they know it’s not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.”63
One study demonstrated the power of the placebo effect in surgical outcomes for patients with severe and debilitating knee pain. The patients were divided into three groups. The surgeons shaved the damaged cartilage in the knee of one group. For the second group they flushed out the knee joint, removing all of the material believed to be causing inflammation. The third group received a “fake” surgery; the patients were only sedated and made to believe they had knee surgery. Doctors simply made the incisions and splashed salt water on the knee as they would in normal surgery. All three groups went through the same rehabilitation process, and incredibly, the placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups who had surgery.64 The surgeon involved in the study, concluded that his “skill as a surgeon had no benefit on these patients,” and that “the entire benefit of surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee was the placebo effect.”65
Another example of the power of the placebo effect was demonstrated in a 1999 report by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The report discovered that half of severely depressed patients taking drugs improve compared to the thirty-two percent taking a placebo.66 This finding was reinforced in a study published in the American Psychological Association’s Prevention and Treatment journal, which showed that eighty percent of the effect of antidepressants in clinical trials are attributed to the placebo effect.67
The Quantum Brain
The Quantum Brain: You know that different parts of your brain interpret different types of incoming physical energy from your world remarkably fast, and that this complex neurological process culminates in a unified experience called consciousness. And this activity actually occurs more quickly than can be explained by our current understanding of neural transmissions in the brain. And because of this, some scholars like eminent neuroscientist Karl Pribram, consider that brain activity and memory are facilitated by encoding incoming energy in a holographic manner.68 Our brain, therefore, may operate like a 3D holographic matrix which influence our experiences. Each brain fragment, in other words, translates information of the whole that enables aspects of your consciousness to be connected among different areas of stored information. Look at it this way, the brain is like a mirror. If you break the mirror into thousands of pieces, each piece still captures the whole image. You can, therefore, comb your hair using the reflection from just one tiny piece of the mirror in the same way you use the full size mirror. Similarly, each brain fragment may behave like each piece of the broken mirror – each piece, in other words, represents the whole. And this holographic concept may explain the brain’s ability to operate in accordance with principles in quantum mechanics (QM). And consciousness may even be explained in this way.
The neurons in your brain may actually behave as “quantum computers” which interact non-locally with other neurons to facilitate a “conscious event.”69 More specifically, this theory proposes that conscious moments manifest as quantum computations in microtubules (protein polymers which form the cytoskeleton in neurons which govern neuronal) inside brain neurons. Consider this, to accomplish the same task that just one of the hundred billion neurons in the brain completes, a modern day computer the size of the United States would be required. And for this reason alone many scientists support a model of quantum consciousness – the “orchestrated objective reduction” (Orch-OR) – to explain your brain’s ability to facilitate consciousness and process information.70
Based on the brain’s apparent ability to retain quantum states, S. Hameroff and R. Penrose contend that microtubules serve as carriers of quantum properties inside the brain.71 Consciousness, in other words, may be facilitated by the rules of QM and holographic principles within the microscopic spaces between neurons in the brain. This yet to be realized network, therefore, may actually facilitate nonlocal communication and integration of purposeful information at the neuronal and DNA level for memory and learning.72 But if you disagree that your self-awareness emerges from the “quantum space-time micro-wormhole network” within the brain, what do you think of the idea proposed by esteemed physicist Bernard Haisch, who declared that, “quantum fields permeate all of empty space (the so-called “quantum vacuum”) which produce and transmit consciousness.”73 Like you, I admit to be somewhat confused too. Yet, it is difficult to completely ignore the ideas proposed by leading respected scholars that this is indeed true. But how do we know if they are correct? Well, no one actually does – that’s why it’s called a “theory.” And if such theories are proven valid, these poorly understood self-organizing systems in your brain may have significant implications towards understanding the PE, consciousness, and even reality itself.
Although this thought is an admitted stretch, the Orch-OR theory may actually serve as the foundation for consciousness. And if this is indeed true, consciousness may then, “exist apart from the brain and body, perhaps indefinitely, as a soul”74 In fact, this model of microtubule consciousness may explain the PE and associated altered perceptions of time and space.75 According to Hameroff and Penrose, for example, “the quantum information within the microtubules is not destroyed, it can’t be destroyed. It just distributes and dissipates to the universe at large. It’s possible this quantum information can exist outside the body, perhaps indefinitely as a soul. This account of consciousness explains things like near-death experiences and out of body experiences” And several physicists agree with these perspectives. One of them is my former colleague and physicist Claude Swanson, who stated, “some of the weird phenomena we have called “paranormal” might really be just quantum mechanics working its strange magic on the large scale of everyday life”77 Leading physicist W. Tiller also advanced the idea that the holographic properties of space are key to understanding the effects of consciousness and how ESP can take place in single living cells.78
Summary: What scientists seem to be telling us that is that like both the wave and particle aspects of light, your consciousness may also have an aspect of interacting waves and particles. The implication is that both the subjective (conscious) and corresponding objective physical properties are actually two different aspects of the same one underlying deeper reality.79 The more profound implication of this deeper reality may be that during a PE trigger (NDE or OBE), and upon death, the “wave aspect of our consciousness in phase-space will no longer have an aspect of particles, but only an eternal aspect of waves.”80 Thus, we may be immortal.
The book you are reading right now may actually be a hallucination. You, the part of you that’s conscious, that makes decisions, is on the very front tip of the brain. The rest of the brain, those automated systems that do all this wonderful stuff for you, are creating the reality around you. But you are the captain of the ship and steer the brain to filter the most important aspects of physical reality YOU wish to experience, process, interpret, and react to. What we observe every moment in time, for instance, are photons (light energy) emanating from the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago that are just now bouncing off physical objects and entering your visual system where your eye and brain help to convert this energy into a form of energy (electrophysiological and chemical) that the brain can only understand. Your reality, in other words, is literally created by photons from the Big Bang. I can’t, however, firmly accept this as true reality.
Look at it this way. The brain initially filters out information coming in from the senses and then takes trillions of bits of information and constructs the reality that you’re experiencing right now. Then, based on your thoughts, emotions, and intentions, the brain determines what patterns are of most interest to you. It filters the important and meaningful information you desire by sensing and then presenting those for you. Your amazing brain, however, only shows you the patterns that it thinks are most relevant to what you want to see. So, in a real sense, “you create your own reality” by crafting the neurological representation that is of most interest to you each moment in time. You don’t create the external reality that the senses are reporting on but instead direct the brain to help you experience what YOU decide to experience. In other words, YOU give rise to the physical universe.
If Nobel Prize winning father of quantum mechanics, Neils Bohr is correct in his statement that: “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real,”81 then “physical reality” is non-existent – reality is a non-localized energy and empty space. And if we extrapolate this notion to the subjective experience, then your thoughts and the sensory information the brain interprets should also have these same characteristics. In other words, since your thoughts are also part of the physical world, then your free will and intentions may actually occur within the same quantum realm prior to manifesting in physical reality. Consequently, consciousness and reality are not only interrelated – they may be one of the same. YOU and the universe are a cosmic connection.
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