Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain?

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The following is excerpted from Science and the Near Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death.

this materialistic age, dualists are often accused of smuggling outmoded
religious beliefs back into science, of introducing superfluous spiritual
forces into biology, and of venerating an invisible "ghost in the
machine." However, our utter ignorance concerning the real origins of
human consciousness marks such criticism more a matter of taste than of logical
thinking. At this stage of mind science, dualism is not irrational, merely
somewhat unfashionable.
–Physicist Nick Herbert, Elemental Mind.

In March 1987 Dawn Gillott was admitted to Northampton
General Hospital, seriously ill with pneumonia.  After being placed in intensive care, the physicians decided
to perform a tracheotomy because she could not breathe.

The next thing I was above myself near
the ceiling looking down.  One of
the nurses was saying in what seemed a frantic voice, ‘Breathe, Dawn,
breathe.'  A doctor was pressing my
chest, drips were being disconnected, everyone was rushing round.  I couldn't understand the panic, I
wasn't in pain.  Then they pushed
my body out of the room to the theatre. 
I followed my body out of the ITU and then left on what I can only
describe as a journey of a lifetime.

I went down what seemed like a
cylindrical tunnel with a bright warm inviting light at the end.  I seemed to be traveling at quite a
speed, but I was happy, no pain, just peace.  At the end was a beautiful open field, a wonderful summery smell
of flowers.  There was a bench seat
on the right where my Grandfather sat (he had been dead seven years).  I sat next to him.  He asked me how I was and the
family.  I said I was happy and
content and all my family were fine.

He said he was worried about my son;
my son needed his mother, he was too young to be left.  I told Grampi I didn't want to go back,
I wanted to stay with him.  But
Grampi insisted I go back for my children's sake.  I then asked him if he would come for me when my time came.  He started to answer, ‘Yes, I will be
back in four' — then my whole body seemed to jump.  I looked round and saw that I was back in the ITU.

I honestly believe in what happened,
that there is life after death. 
After my experience I am not afraid of death as I was before my illness


The near-death experience described above is not rare.  Hundreds of similar cases — involving
people reporting that while seriously ill or injured they left their bodies,
observed the surrounding scene, entered a tunnel, emerged in another world
where they meet deceased friends or relatives before returning to their bodies
— have been documented in several different countries.  The case above is not even a
particularly impressive one.  At
first glance, such cases seem to indicate that under life-threatening
circumstances the conscious part of us is capable of detaching from our
physical bodies, and may travel to another world.  The overwhelming majority of those who have had such
experiences are convinced of the existence of an afterlife.  

However, there are those that disagree, and who argue that
such experiences simply cannot be what they at first seem to be.  The strongest arguments against the
existence of an afterlife are those that deny the possibility of consciousness
existing apart from the biological brain.

The Greek atomists were the first to define the soul in
terms of material atoms. Epicurus (342-270 BC) defined the soul as "a body of
fine particles …most resembling breath with an admixture of heat."  He stressed the complete dependence of
soul on body, so that when the body loses breath and heat, the soul is
dispersed and extinguished.  The
Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BC) took up the arguments of Epicurus, and
continued the atomist tradition of describing the mind as composed of extremely
fine particles.  Lucretius wrote
one of the earliest and most cogent treatises advancing the arguments that the
relation between mind and body is so close that the mind depends upon the body
and therefore cannot exist without it.  First, he argued that the mind matures and ages with the
growth and decay of the body; second, that wine and disease of the body can
affect the mind; third, the mind is disturbed when the body is stunned by a
blow; and finally, if the soul is immortal, why does it have no memories of its
previous existence?  Similar
arguments, to the effect that the mind is a function of the brain, were taken
up with greater force nineteen centuries later, in the work of men such as
Thomas Huxley.

More recently, Corliss Lamont, former president of the
American Humanist Association, has written one of the most extensive statements
of the materialist positions in his book The
Illusion of Immortality
, the title of which speaks for itself.  He tells us in the preface that he
started out as a believer in a future life, but does not give us the reasons
why he held the belief against which he reacted so strongly.

Lamont rightly contends that the fundamental issue is the
relationship of personality to body, and divides the various positions into two
broad categories: monism, which asserts that body and personality are bound
together and cannot exist apart; and dualism, which asserts that body and
personality are separable entities which may exist apart.  Lamont is convinced that the facts of
modern science weigh heavily in favor of monism, and offers the following as scientific
evidence that the mind depends upon the body:


  • in the
    evolutionary process the versatility of living forms increases with the
    development and complexity of their nervous systems
  • the
    mind matures and ages with the growth and decay of the body
  • alcohol,
    caffeine, and other drugs can affect the mind
  • destruction
    of brain tissue by disease, or by a severe blow to the head, can impair
    normal mental activity; the functions of seeing, hearing and speech are
    correlated with specific areas of the brain.
  • thinking
    and memory depend upon the cortex of the brain, and so "it is difficult
    beyond measure to understand how they could survive after the dissolution,
    decay or destruction of the living brain in which they had their original


These considerations lead Lamont to the conclusion that the
connection between mind and body "is so exceedingly intimate that it becomes
inconceivable how one could function without the other … man is a unified whole
of mind-body or personality-body so closely and completely integrated that
dividing him up into two separate and more or less independent parts becomes
impermissible and unintelligible."[iii]

Lamont briefly considers the findings of psychical research,
but contends that they do not alter the picture, because of the possibility of
other interpretations, such as fraud and telepathy.[1]

In summary, the
various arguments against the possibility of survival are: the effects of age,
disease, and drugs on the mind; the effect of brain damage on mental activity,
and specifically, the fact that lesions of certain regions of the brain
eliminates or impairs particular capacities; and the idea that memories are
stored in the brain and therefore cannot survive the destruction of the
brain.  The inference drawn from
these observations is that the correlation of mental and physical processes is
so close that it is inconceivable how the mind could exist apart from the
brain.  Except for the appeals of
the modern writers to the terminology of neuroscience, the arguments advanced
in favor of the dependence of the mental on the physical are essentially the
same as those advanced by Lucretius. 


The Issues at Stake

There are really two separate issues here: one is the logical possibility of survival, and the
other is the empirical possibility.  The arguments of the epiphenomenalists,
the identity theorists, and the behaviorists are logically inconsistent with
the idea of survival: if
consciousness is merely a useless by-product of brain activity, or is identical
with brain activity, or does not really exist except as observed behavior, then
obviously what we call consciousness cannot survive the destruction of the
brain.  However, as we have seen
earlier, there seems to be compelling reasons for rejecting the first of these
theories, and it is questionable if the latter two theories are at all
consistent with observation and introspection — or for that matter, are
anything more than just silly.

If however, we are willing to admit the existence of
consciousness and not only as a useless by-product, then the post-mortem
existence of consciousness is at least a logical possibility — that is, there
is no self-contradiction in the assertion that consciousness may exist in the
absence of a brain.  Then the
question becomes whether or not survival is an empirical possibility – that is,
whether or not the idea of survival is compatible with the facts and laws of
nature as currently understood.


Assumption Behind the Empirical Arguments Against the Possibility of Survival

All the arguments mentioned above that are opposed to the
empirical possibility of survival are based upon a certain assumption of the
relationship between mind and body that usually goes unstated.  For instance, one of the arguments
mentioned earlier starts with the observation that a severe blow to the head
can cause the cessation of consciousness; from this it is concluded that
consciousness is produced by a properly functioning brain, and so cannot exist
in its absence. 

However, this conclusion is not based on the evidence
alone.  There is an implicit,
unstated assumption behind this argument, and it is often unconsciously
employed.  The hidden premise
behind this argument can be illustrated with the analogy of listening to music
on a radio, smashing the radio's receiver, and thereby concluding that the
radio was producing the music.  The implicit assumption made in all the
arguments discussed above was that the relationship between brain activity and
consciousness was always one of cause to effect, and never that of effect to cause.  But this assumption is not known to be
true, and it is not the only conceivable one consistent with the observed facts
mentioned earlier.  Just as
consistent with the observed facts is the idea that the brain's function is
that of an intermediary between mind and body — or in other words, that the
brain's function is that of a two-way receiver-transmitter — sometimes from
body to mind, and sometimes from mind to body.

The idea that the brain functions as an intermediary between
mind and body is an ancient one. 
Hippocrates described the brain as "the messenger to consciousness" and
as "the interpreter for consciousness." 
But, like the materialist theory, this ancient argument also has its
modern proponents — most notably Schiller, Bergson, and James.

Ferdinand Schiller was an Oxford philosopher in 1891 when a
book titled Riddles of the Sphinx
appeared which, according to the cover, was written by a "Troglodyte"
(cave-dweller).  This troglodyte
turned out to be Schiller, who in his book attacked the prevailing materialism
of the late nineteenth without revealing his name in order to avoid "the barren
honours of a useless martyrdom." 
Schiller likened himself to the man in Plato's Republic who has glimpsed the truth but finds that his fellow
cave-dwellers simply do not believe his accounts, and so consider him

In his book Schiller proposes that "matter is admirably
calculated machinery for regulating, limiting and restraining the consciousness
which it encases."  He argues that
the simpler physical structure of "lower beings" depresses their consciousness
to a lower point, and that the higher organizational complexity of man allows a
higher level of consciousness.  In
other words,   

Matter is not what produces
consciousness but what limits it and
confines its intensity within certain limits … This explanation admits the
connection of Matter and Consciousness, but contends that the course of
interpretation must proceed in the contrary direction.  Thus it will fit the facts which
Materialism rejected as 'supernatural' and thereby attains to an explanation
which is ultimately tenable instead of one which is ultimately absurd.  And it is an explanation the
possibility of which no evidence in favour of Materialism can possibly affect.[iv]

As for the effects of brain injury, Schiller argues that an
equally good explanation is to say that the manifestation of consciousness has
been prevented by the injury, rather than extinguished by it.  With regard to memory, he thinks that
it is forgetfulness rather than memory that is in need of a physical
explanation: pointing out the total recall experienced under hypnosis and "the
extraordinary memories of the drowning and dying generally", he argues that we
never really forget anything, but rather are prevented from recalling it by the
limitations of the brain.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson held similar ideas to
those of Schiller, although it is unclear if he ever read Riddles of the Sphinx
Bergson attempted to reconcile physical determinism with the apparent
freedom of human behavior by proposing a theory of evolution whereby matter is
crossed by creative consciousness: matter and consciousness interact, with both
being elemental components of the universe, neither reducible to the other.

According to Bergson the brain canalizes and limits the
mind, restricting its focus of attention and excluding factors irrelevant for
the organism's survival and propagation. 
He assumed that memories have an extra-cerebral location, but that most
are normally screened out for practical purposes, and in support of this,
refers to near-death experiences in which the subjects' entire life histories
flashed before their eyes. The brain is therefore both "the organ of attention
to life" and an obstacle to wider
awareness.  He speculates that if
the brain is a limiting obstacle, filtering out forms of consciousness not
necessary for the organism's biological needs, then freedom from the body may
well result in a more extended form of consciousness, which continues along its
path of creative evolution.

In 1898 the American psychologist and philosopher William
James delivered the Ingersoll Lecture. 
At the start of the lecture he first remarks that "Every one knows that
arrests of brain development occasion imbecility, that blows on the head
abolish memory or consciousness, and that brain-stimulants and poisons change
the quality of our ideas."  He then
makes the point that modern physiologists "have only shown this generally
admitted fact of a dependence to be detailed and minute" in that "the various
special forms of thinking are functions of special portions of the brain."

James then explores the various possibilities for the exact type of functional dependence between
the brain and consciousness.  It is
normally thought of as productive, in the sense that steam is produced as a
function of the kettle.  But this
is not the only form of function that we find in nature: we also have at least
two other forms of functional dependence: the permissive function, as found in
the trigger of a crossbow; and the transmissive function, as of a lens or a
prism.  The lens or prism do not
produce the light but merely transmit it in a different form.  As James writes,  

Similarly, the keys of an organ have
only a transmissive function. They open successively the various pipes and let
the wind in the air-chest escape in various ways. The voices of the various
pipes are constituted by the columns of air trembling as they emerge. But the
air is not engendered in the organ. The organ proper, as distinguished from its
air-chest, is only an apparatus for letting portions of it loose upon the world
in these peculiarly limited shapes.

My thesis now is this, that, when we think of the law that
thought is a function of the brain, we are not required to think of productive
function only; we are entitled also to
consider permissive or transmissive function. And this, the ordinary
psychophysiologist leaves out of his account.

James then raises an objection to the transmissive theory of
the body-mind relationship: yes, the transmission hypothesis may be a logical
possibility, but isn't it just unbridled speculation?  Isn't the production hypothesis simpler?  Is it not more rigorously scientific to
take the relationship between brain and mind to be one of production, not

But as James points out, from the standpoint of strictly
empirical science, these objections carry no weight whatsoever.  Strictly speaking, the most we can ever
observe is concomitant variation between states of the brain and states of mind
— when brain activity changes in a certain way, then consciousness changes
also.  The hypothesis of
production, or of transmission, is something that we add to the observations of concomitant variation in order to
account for it.  A scientist never
observes states of the brain producing
states of consciousness.  Indeed,
it is not even clear what we could possibly mean by observing such

And as for the objection that the transmission hypothesis is
somehow fantastic, exactly the same objection can be raised against the
production theory.  In the case of
the production of steam by a kettle we have an easily understood model — of
alterations of molecular motion — because the components that change are
physically homogenous with each other. 
But part of the reason the mind-body relationship has seemed so puzzling
for so long is because mental and physical events seem so completely unlike
each other.  This radical
difference in their natures makes it exceedingly difficult to conceptualize the
relationship between the two in terms of anything of which we are
familiar.  It is partly for this
reason that even though it has been more than a century since James delivered
his lecture, in all that time neither psychology nor physiology has been able
to produce any intelligible model of how biochemical processes could possibly
be transformed into conscious experience.

It has been pointed out many times that there is no logical
requirement that only "like can cause like" — or in other words, that only
things of a similar nature can affect each other.  But this consideration has not removed the mystery from the
mind-body relationship.  As James
wrote, the production of consciousness by the brain, if it does in fact occur,
is "as far as our understanding goes, as great a miracle as if we said, thought
is 'spontaneously generated,' or 'created out of nothing.'"

The theory of production is therefore
not a jot more simple or credible in itself than any other conceivable theory.
It is only a little more popular. All that one need do, therefore, if the
ordinary materialist should challenge one to explain how the brain
be an organ for limiting and determining to a certain form a consciousness
elsewhere produced, is to ask him in turn to explain how it can be an organ for
producing consciousness out of whole cloth. For polemic purposes, the two
theories are thus exactly on a par.

In short, James elaborated lines of reasoning laid out
earlier by Schiller, and argued that the dependence of consciousness on the
brain for the manner of its manifestation in the material world does not imply
that consciousness depends upon the brain for its existence.  At the end of his book The Varieties of Religious Experience he
admits to being impressed by the research of Myers and other members of the
Society for Psychical Research, and concludes that the issue of survival is a
case for the testimony of the facts to settle.

James wrote these works around the turn of the nineteenth
century, but since then these arguments have been endorsed and developed by
several more recent philosophers, neurologists, and psychologists, such as
philosophers Curt Ducasse and David Lund, neurologist Gary Schwartz, and
psychologist Cyril Burt.  The
latter elegantly summarized the position set forth earlier by Schiller,
Bergson, and James: 

The brain is not an organ that
generates consciousness, but rather an instrument evolved to transmit and limit
the processes of consciousness and of conscious attention so as to restrict
them to those aspects of the material environment which at any moment are
crucial for the terrestrial success of the individual.  In that case such phenomena as
telepathy and clairvoyance would be merely instances in which some of the
limitations were removed.

The argument in its essence is that the transmission and
production hypotheses are equally compatible with the facts materialism tries
to explain — such as the effects of senility, drugs, and brain damage on
consciousness — but that the hypothesis of transmission has the advantage of
providing a framework for understanding other phenomena that must remain
utterly inexplicable by the hypothesis of materialism.


Image by Ton Haex, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

  Lamont's portrayal of psychic research is extremely superficial, and contains
several false and misleading statements. 
For an excellent critique of Lamont's book, exposing a mass of
inconsistencies and non-sequitur, see
chapter XIII of A Critical Examination of
the Belief in a Life after Death
, by C.J. Ducasse.

[i]  Fenwick
& Fenwick, 1997, pp. 25-26.

[ii] Lamont,
1990, page 76.

[iii]Lamont, 1990, pages 86 – 108.

[iv]Schiller. F., 295.

[v] Cyril Burt, 1975, p. 60.


Related Links

Science and the Near Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, by Chris Carter.

Parapsychology and the Skeptics, by Chris Carter.


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