Brain, Mind, and ConsciousnessAugust 23, 2013
This is a summary of some discussion points made in another forum on the topic of the origin of consciousness. This is one of those chicken and egg arguments. First, that consciousness is an effect of brain functioning:
“Barry Beyerstein points out that the view “that consciousness is inseparable from the functioning of individual brains remains the cornerstone of physiological psychology” (Beyerstein 44). This is due, he says, to “the theory’s parsimony and research productivity, the range of phenomena accounted for, and the lack of credible counter-evidence” (45).
“Beyerstein lists five main types of empirical evidence which support the dependence of consciousness on the brain. First, phylogenetic evidence refers to the evolutionary relationship between the complexity of the brain and a species’ cognitive traits (Beyerstein 45). Corliss Lamont sums up this evidence: “We find that the greater the size of the brain and its cerebral cortex in relation to the animal body and the greater their complexity, the higher and more versatile the form of life” (Lamont 63). Second, the developmental evidence for mind-brain dependence is that mental abilities emerge with the development of the brain; failure in brain development prevents mental development (Beyerstein 45). Third, clinical evidence consists of cases of brain damage that result from accidents, toxins, diseases, and malnutrition that often result in irreversible losses of mental functioning (45). If the mind could exist independently of the brain, why couldn’t the mind compensate for lost faculties when brain cells die after brain damage? (46). Fourth, the strongest empirical evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from experiments in neuroscience. Mental states are correlated with brain states; electrical or chemical stimulation of the human brain invokes perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental states (45). Finally, the experiential evidence for mind-brain dependence consists of the effects of several different types of drugs which predictably affect mental states (45).“
Curiously, the quote comes from a large article arguing against life after death, framing it as immortality.
I can also note Jill Bolte Taylor’s interpretation of her stroke experience.
I studied brain physiology a couple of years ago in grad school. The mind-brain-consciousness dynamic is fascinating, especially some of the more recent discoveries of quantum mechanical effects in the brain.
There is no doubt that our conscious experience is strongly influenced by brain chemistry and dynamics. That is obvious in experience and clearly established by science. But this does not explain a wide range of types of human experience. I’ve found it much more useful to frame is as “the interdependence of consciousness and the brain.“
My current working model suggests mind is actually a side-effect of consciousness and that consciousness and the brain inter-relate. Some suggest the brain is a receiver of mind. This becomes much more clear in studying transpersonal stages of development.
When we are what is described in eastern philosophies as body-mind identified (ie: we see ourselves as this body-mind in some way), our conscious experience is strongly impacted by physical states as in the above quote. This is the experience of the vast majority of people.
But when we have certain kinds of experiences, that influence can briefly change. And when we shift into transpersonal stages of development (post Loevinger, etc), the identification shifts to consciousness itself.
One of the key features of that is what is called “witnessing”. We are the conscious observer of the body-mind rather than being the body-mind. And no, this is not a disassociate state or some astral thing. This is a permanent shift in our sense of being.
Consciousness is then awake to itself throughout waking, dreaming and sleep states of body and mind. An EEG of someone in deep sleep who is witnessing shows alpha waves of alertness overlaid on the delta of deep sleep. They experience the body, then mind going to sleep but continue to have wakefulness. In other words, this stage of consciousness is influencing the brain, not the other way around. And consciousness continues, whatever the state of the body-mind. There are also a number of other body and brain correlates.
Such changes in perspective and functioning cannot be accommodated by models such as quoted. What I describe is not a weird aberration but is the normal experience of thousands of people. It is an experience well documented in many old texts but we’re only just beginning to understand in the west.
From this perspective, it is very clear that consciousness is not dependant on physical functions but is interdependent in our personal experience. Consciousness is ongoing and independent but experienced through this form, the 2 aspects influencing each other.
There are more advanced stages where consciousness comes to be seen as the source of all experience and form, but that is beyond the range of this discussion.