Does the physical brain produce consciousness and the mind? Are consciousness and mental activity simply epiphenomena of brain activity? In other words, are our mental activities and the consciousness that we experience nothing more than byproducts or secondary effects of chemical, electrical, and other processes among the neurons that make up our brain? Does biological death, cessation of the physical body and the workings of the brain in particular, extinguish the mind and consciousness? Most neuroscientists today, as well as most scientists more generally, would answer, “Yes” to all of these questions.
Indeed, this physicalist and materialist paradigm of the relationship of mind, mental states, and consciousness to brain activity has entered the mainstream of society, and many people outside of the scientific community either accept it or pay lip service to it. But is this modern materialistic dogma really true? There is strong evidence that mind and consciousness are separate from and independent of, yet intimately related to (one might say entangled with), the brain during biological life. When the brain dies, consciousness and mind may continue.
One important line of evidence for the independence of mind and consciousness relative to brain activity comes from “near-death experiences” (NDEs). There is a vast literature on this subject, and indeed the last major published work that my late colleague John Anthony West (1932– 2018) participated in was editing and partially coauthoring a book focusing on NDEs with his late friend David Solomon. Their book, titled The Dead Saints Chronicles: A Zen Journey Through The Christian Afterlife (by D. Solomon with J. A. West, 2016) is not a scientific study of NDEs but, rather, a reflection on NDEs from a predominantly Christian perspective, as David Solomon was a Christian minister. Reading their book inspired me to look more closely at NDEs in the light of the consciousness-mind-brain problem.
(In this article I am focusing on the relationships of consciousness, mind, and brain activity in humans. The broader issue of consciousness in nonhuman organisms, as well as potentially in nonbiological entities, is another fascinating topic. Certainly, I have no doubt that other organisms possess consciousness at some, perhaps varying, levels—lions, cows, pigs, cats, dogs, and so on, are undoubtedly conscious and possess mental states. Personally I suspect that consciousness is pervasive throughout the cosmos, in agreement with St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2–1226) who, as Solomon and West note [p. 95], “believed all levels of creation were endowed with consciousness including, Sun, Moon, Earth, wind, creatures, as well as human beings.”)
Near-death experiences are profound subjective mental experiences that are recounted by some people who have closely faced death, who have “clinically died”, yet been resuscitated. There are a number of features that have been reported as generally common among NDEs. These include going through a dark tunnel, seeing a bright light, meeting deceased relatives or others (perhaps God or Jesus, in the case of Christians), experiencing a life review, and perhaps most importantly for the subject of mind and consciousness versus brain, some people report being separated from their physical bodies during an out-of-body experience (OBE).
In general, NDEs are accompanied by a sense of peace and heightened reality. Aftereffects of having had an NDE often include a renewed sense and appreciation of life, a loss of the fear of death, reduced anxiety, less competitiveness and a de-emphasis on materialism, and an increased concern and love for others. NDEs are often described as mystical and transcendental. However, there can also be various physical and physiological aftereffects that may be viewed as somewhat negative, including increased sensitivity to sounds, lights, smells, and so on; increased allergies; synesthesia (stimulation of one type of sensory impression triggers or evokes another, such as “seeing” colors when hearing sounds); and electrical effects such as inadvertently (and without direct physical contact) interfering with electronic equipment that is nearby.
(For reviews of NDEs and their effects, see: Pim Van Lommel, “Near-Death Experience, Consciousness, and the Brain,” World Futures, vol. 62, pp. 134-151, 2006; Robert G. Mays and Suzanne B. Mays, “A Theory of Mind and Brain that Solves the ‘Hard Problem’ of Consciousness”, 2011, posted at http://selfconsciousmind.com/TheoryOfMindAndBrain-12052011.pdf).
Near-death experiences have been associated with comas resulting from brain injuries, shock from loss of blood, asphyxia (suffocation, near-drowning, or other situations where there is a deprivation of oxygen that causes loss of consciousness), cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating), and other traumatic medical situations. NDEs have also been reported as occurring in situations where death seemed inevitable, such as during a serious traffic accident or falling from a mountain (referred to as “fear-death experiences”; see Van Lommel, 2006). Related to NDEs are deathbed visions that may occur just before a person passes away.
The standard materialistic explanation for NDEs can be termed the “dying brain hypothesis” (DBH; Mays and Mays, 2011). According to this theory, the dying brain (particularly when deprived of oxygen, and perhaps releasing various chemicals and undergoing physiological changes) hallucinates and forms mental constructs that are then later reported, after resuscitation, as the NDE. If there are any veridical or objectively truthful elements to the NDE, such as awareness regarding what was happening around a patient while apparently unconscious, according to the DBH this might be due to such factors as subliminal awareness, information gathered after consciousness is regained, or possibly the patient was not really as clinically unconscious as was initially thought to be the case. It is difficult to ultimately disprove such factors in all cases, and indeed near-death types of experiences may be induced by various drugs and other means, but such “pseudo-NDEs” (my term) do not exhibit all of the properties of genuine NDEs, including the positive life transformation reported after many NDEs (Van Lommel, 2006).
Simple anoxia, for instance, can induce some elements of NDEs, but is generally accompanied by elements not found in true NDEs such as jerking movements, compromised memory, and general mental confusion (Mays and Mays, 2011). Furthermore, and very importantly, most patients who suffer from cardiac arrest, anoxia, and so forth, do not consistently report NDEs. Referring to his study of over 300 cardiac arrest patients, Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel (2006, p. 137; material in italics added by R. Schoch) stated that, “In our prospective study it could not be shown that psychological, pharmacological, or physiological factors caused these experiences [NDEs] after cardiac arrest. With a purely physiological explanation such as cerebral anoxia, most patients who had been clinically dead should report an NDE [yet less than 20% of the patients reported any kind of NDE]. All patients in our study had been unconscious because of anoxia of the brain resulting from their cardiac arrest.”
As it can be difficult to know exactly when and for how long a person has been clinically dead, some NDE studies have focused specifically on cardiac arrest survivors, as the physiological details of what happens in terms of oxygen loss to the brain, cessation of brain activity, and so forth, between cardiac arrest and resuscitation are relatively well understood. Across a number of studies of hundreds of cardiac arrest survivors, about 9% to 18% reported an NDE (Van Lommel, 2006, p. 138; Sam Parnia and thirty coauthors, “AWARE—AWAreness during Resuscitation—A prospective study,” Resuscitation, vol. 85, pp. 1799-1805, 2014).
Phenomena that occur with some NDEs, and elude any conventional or materialistic explanation in the best-documented cases, are out-of-body experiences. Skeptics have generally dismissed OBEs as hallucinations, part of the dying brain hypothesis. However, how can a mere hallucination relate true, veridical, information from a vantage point unavailable to the physical body and during a time when the brain is clinically inactive and the physical person declared unconscious? Yet there are well-documented cases of just such situations.
In their study of cardiac arrest survivors, Sam Parnia (Stony Brook Medical Center) and his coauthors (representing seventeen additional institutions in the USA, UK, and Austria) documented a case that can be classified as a genuine out-of-body experience. Here is a quote from the patient (p. 1803; material in parentheses in the original transcript):
“And I was still talking to (the nurse) and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I must have (blanked out)…but then I can remember vividly an automated voice saying, ‘shock the patient, shock the patient,’ and with that, up in (the) corner of the room there was a (woman) beckoning me…I can remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t get up there’…she beckoned me…I felt that she knew me, I felt that I could trust her, and I felt she was there for a reason and I didn’t know what that was…and the next second, I was up there, looking down at me, the nurse, and another man who had a bald head…I couldn’t see his face but I could see the back of his body. He was quite a chunky fella….He had blue scrubs on, and he had a blue hat, but I could tell he didn’t have any hair, because of where the hat was.”
The medical records and attending staff confirmed that what the patient described was true, yet the patient had undergone cardiac arrest and was unconscious without brain activity at the time, and even if conscious, could not have been aware of, or seen, what the patient subsequently described. Parnia and colleagues write (p. 1803):
“Within a model that assumes a causative relationship between cortical activity and consciousness the occurrence of mental processes and the ability to accurately describe events during CA [cardiac arrest] as occurred in our verified case of VA [visual awareness] when cerebral function is ordinarily absent or at best severely impaired is perplexing.”
To put it succinctly, Parnia and colleagues acknowledge that this case does not fit into the standard materialistic paradigm which posits that brain activity gives rise to mental states, mind, and consciousness.
The case described by Parnia and colleagues is just one example of a number of independently verified OBEs during which the subject of the OBE sees things and gains verifiable information that she or he could not have gained otherwise, and certainly not while in a state of clinical brain inactivity (see Van Lommel, 2006). Indeed, there are instances of persons who are either visually impaired or blind in physical life having OBEs associated with NDEs during which they can see (Mays and Mays, 2011).
In my assessment, such cases of OBEs provide powerful evidence that the mind and consciousness are independent of, although in living humans intertwined with, brain function. Just because brain activity is correlated with mental activity, mind, and consciousness, this does not mean that brain activity is the cause of mental activity and consciousness. It may be the other way around; consciousness and mind may be the ultimate causal factor behind brain activity, even if manipulation of the brain (artificially and purposefully, accidentally, or during death) may also affect mental activity or, perhaps more accurately, the perception of mental activity and consciousness.
Building on modern developments in quantum physics, Van Lommel hypotheses that consciousness ultimately resides in what can be referred to as “phase-space.” He writes that,
“Phase-space is an invisible, nonlocal, higher-dimensional space consisting of wave-fields of probability, where every past and future event is available as a possibility…. Our whole and undivided consciousness with declarative memories finds its origin in, and is stored in this phase-space, and the brain only serves as a relay station for parts of our consciousness and parts of our memories to be received into our waking consciousness. This is like the Internet, which does not originate from the computer itself, but is only received by it…. Life creates the transition from phase-space into our manifest real-space; according to our hypothesis life creates, under normal daily conditions when we are awake, the possibility to receive only some parts of these fields of consciousness (waves) into or as our waking consciousness, which belongs to our physical body (particles). During life, our consciousness has an aspect of waves as well as of particles, and there is a permanent interaction between these two aspects of consciousness. When we die, our consciousness will no longer have an aspect of particles, but only an eternal aspect of waves. The interface between our consciousness and our body is eliminated.”
Of course, Van Lommel is only proposing a hypothesis, one that is subject to further testing, but it is consistent with the evidence at hand and helps to explain the distinction between, and relationship of, the brain (in the realm of the physical/material) relative to mind and consciousness (in the realm of phase-space). Independently, as I was not aware of Van Lommel’s work at the time, and along somewhat the same lines, I have hypothesized that there might be a subatomic particle (which I designated an “information”) that serves as a fundamental information particle in the physical world. Any such subatomic particle would be expressed as a wave function in phase-space (see my 2012 book, Forgotten Civilization, p. 258).
If consciousness and mind ultimately reside in phase-space, which is (as suggested by developments in quantum physics) nonlocal, then consciousnesses (minds) should be able to connect across space (and also, it appears, across time) without any intervening mechanism; that is, not using standard sensory apparatuses, such as sight or sound, and without the intervention of some conventional physical means, such as electromagnetic waves (for instance, radio waves). This is the stuff of telepathy and clairvoyance, at the core of parapsychology, a field much maligned by conventional status quo scientists. Yet parapsychological phenomena have been repeatedly verified. Indeed, mainstream researchers have documented such phenomena.
For instance, Jiri Wackermann (Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology, Freiburg, Germany) and colleagues have studied electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings (measurements of brain activity) in human subjects totally isolated from each other, with no means of communication, in separate rooms that were visually, acoustically, and electromagnetically shielded (thus brain waves of an electromagnetic nature could not be exchanged).
By conventional thinking, there should not be any interaction between the subjects, yet the researchers found “that correlations between brain activities of two separated subjects may occur, although no biophysical mechanism is known” (J. Wackermann, C. Seiter, H. Keibel, and H. Walach, “Correlations between brain electrical activities of two spatially separated human subjects,” Neuroscience Letters, vol. 336, pp. 60–64, 2003). Such results can be explained if consciousness and mind have an independent existence from the physical brain and body—mind and consciousness are not biophysical and thus biophysical mechanisms do not explain them.
The independence of consciousness and mind from the physical body/brain has profound implications. Perhaps most significantly, it implies that the cessation of brain activity—death—is not the cessation of mind and consciousness. Rather, death is simply the transition to a different state of consciousness. Furthermore, in this different state of consciousness it is easier for any particular consciousness (mind) to connect with other minds, and also to transcend time and space. Reports of NDEs often include meeting with deceased persons, life reviews, and even apparent future events may be viewed. All of this makes sense if mind and consciousness are independent of the brain.
Robert M. Schoch, Director of the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization at Boston University, a full-time faculty member at B.U.’s College of General Studies, and an Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. Best known for re-dating the Great Sphinx, he is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, and many other books. Website: http://www.robertschoch.com.