In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’Does consciousness exist outside the brain?’’ We will define what consciousness is and discover the interaction of consciousness and the brain.
Does consciousness exist outside the brain?
We do not know if consciousness exists outside the brain, it is a very strong philosophical and scientific discussion. So far there are only theories.
Consciousness is a continuous, unified, subjective state of mind. It lies mainly in posterior areas of the cerebral cortex. The functional integrity hypothesis is currently the one that best explains how the brain creates it. The human brain might not have evolved enough to understand how matter turns into imagination.
Imagine for a moment that you can go into a working television to see what is going on inside. I don’t think it has crossed your mind that inside you would find images, colors and sounds, like the ones you can see on that television screen.
What you would find would be myriads of tiny, unintelligible electrical currents going back and forth between the components of multiple electronic circuits. These micro-currents encode the information that the television has received through the antenna in a similar way to how the dots and dashes of the Morse code encode the messages in the old telegraph.
When they have processed the information, the television’s electronic circuits convert the results of their work into the images and sounds that appear on its screen.
Consciousness, that state of mind that allows us to realize our own existence that of the rest of the world and the things that happen, is something very similar, since it is nothing other than the intelligible result of the processing of information that it takes place inside the brain.
It is something like a mental screen where the brain continuously presents the information that we need to know at all times to guide behavior.
But that does not mean that everything that the brain processes ends up producing a conscious result, because there is a lot of brain work that we never know about.
Consciousness is a very special, intimate and personal state of mind, since we can only feel our own consciousness and never that of others. That is, there is no way to penetrate another person’s mind as we do our own thanks to consciousness.
Furthermore, there is currently no scientific means that allows us to fully ensure that the other people we live with are also sentient beings like ourselves, as they could be sophisticated and perfect zombies that behave identically to sentient beings, and neither we would find out.
Whoever writes here could be one of those zombies, that is, an unconscious being so perfect that it was capable of behaving identically to a conscious being. You, you wouldn’t notice.
Nor can the writer be sure that you, the reader, are not another one of those zombies, with the extraordinary ability to read and behave like a conscious person. In short, my conscience is mine, and mine alone. Yours, only yours.
Consciousness, what is it and what does science say?
To begin with, it should be noted that consciousness is not the same as consciousness. There are those who fall into mistakes and it is necessary to delimit each aspect: consciousness is the ability of most living beings to perceive reality and recognize themselves in it.
Conscience is related exclusively to the moral aspect, with what is right and wrong based on a social code.
Once this is clarified, it is also interesting to talk about that idea that is so popular today: the need to be aware, to open our consciousness. This recurring message in the field of personal development and spirituality also has nuances.
Our consciousness, in reality, is always receptive, it is impossible not to perceive, for example, that toothache, the freshness of the freshly cut grass or the approach of a storm.
Moreover, in 2012, a group of Cambridge scientists made a breakthrough in the study of consciousness by stating that this faculty is not only exclusive to the human being. Animals have this attribute as well, and they specified it in what is known as The Cambridge Statement on Consciousness.
Likewise, renowned neuroscientists such as Dr. Philip Low, from Harvard University, also indicated that it is time to separate the spiritual aspect from the concept of consciousness. Neuroscience already offers us revealing and fascinating answers on this topic. Let’s get to know them.
Consciousness is the result of our brain complexity and our interactions
Fritjof Capra is a physicist at the University of Vienna who has written a book called The web of life. In this work he explains that the degree of self-awareness of an organism is based on its interactions with the environment in relation to a brain.
In other words, every time we perceive something, that we feel, that we see, that we establish a relationship, a conclusion, learn or experience something, our consciousness gradually builds up.
There comes an instant when all those millions of synapses and nerve impulses cross a threshold where the formation of that entity that we call consciousness and that defines human beings and animals takes place.
Now, there are those who, knowing this, ask themselves the following question: could a computer or artificial intelligence become conscious if we made it experience things day after day? Well, Antonio Damasio, a well-known neuroscientist tells us that no, this will never be possible because machines simply do not have emotions.
Likewise, we have another interesting study carried out by the physicist Roger Penrose and the anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff where they point out certain aspects no less interesting.
According to both experts, consciousness would be an inherent property of every biological system, of every living being. It is the result of certain quantum changes that take place in our neural circuits and microtubules, which little by little generate a certain structure formed by billions of moments of what is known as protoconsciousness.
Where is consciousness?
Rene Descartes affirmed that the seat of consciousness is in the pineal gland. Perhaps that small structure located in the center of our brain seemed like a good place to attribute its presence. Yet scientists tell us something very different. Harvard University has already published the first clues from a study in the journal Neurology.
Also, the son of one of the scientists who shaped and promoted this work wrote a very comprehensive article in Psychology Today in which he details this interesting work. In this way, today we can say that that place where all the processes that configure our consciousness are concentrated are actually in three regions:
- The rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum of the brainstem.
- Left ventral anterior insula
- The pregenual anterior cingulate cortex.
To this day, this investigation is still in progress under what is known as the Connectome Project. One of its purposes, for example, will be to bring back to consciousness patients in a vegetative state or in a coma.
Getting them to return not only to our reality, but to do so with all their faculties, is an exceptional challenge that science has ahead of us and that we will undoubtedly be very aware of.
So, does consciousness exist outside the brain?
According to a study recently published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, a journal of the University of Oxford, our consciousness is nothing more than an energy field generated by the brain.
Johnjoe McFadden, professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey and author of the work, believes, in effect, that it is the electromagnetic energy of the brain that gives us our ability to be conscious and to think.
The theory could pave the way towards the development of a truly conscious Artificial Intelligence, with robots that have a full capacity for thinking and evaluating their environment.
Early theories about the nature and origin of consciousness pointed to the supernatural, suggesting that humans (and probably other animals) possess an immaterial soul that gives them the ability to be conscious, to think and to choose (free will), something that inanimate objects completely lack.
Most scientists today, however, have discarded this explanation for a consciousness generated by the brain itself and its network of billions of nerve endings.
But McFadden goes a step further, and proposes a scientific theory focused on the difference between matter and energy, rather than between matter and soul.
His theory, in effect, is based on scientific facts: when neurons in the brain and nervous system are activated, they not only send the well-known electrical signals through nerve fibers (for example to activate a muscle), but they also send a pulse of electromagnetic energy to the surrounding tissue.
That energy is generally ignored, but it carries the same information as nerve “shots”, only in the form of an immaterial wave rather than a simple stream of atoms traveling through the nerves.
This electromagnetic field is well known by researchers around the world and is routinely detected with common brain scanning techniques, such as electroencephalography or magnetoencephalography. But until now it had been ruled out as irrelevant to brain function.
Instead, McFadden proposes that this information-rich brain electromagnetic field is, in fact, the seat of consciousness, from which free will arises and each and every one of the voluntary actions that we carry out in our lives.
The new theory also explains why, despite their immense complexity and lightning-fast operation, computers have so far not manifested the slightest hint of consciousness. However, according to the scientist, with adequate technical development, “conscious” robots capable of thinking for themselves could soon become a reality.
In McFadden’s own words, “how brain matter becomes conscious and manages to think is a mystery that has been tackled by philosophers, theologians, mystics and ordinary people for millennia.
I think that mystery has now been solved, and that consciousness is what the nerves experience as they connect to the brain’s self-generated electromagnetic field to give rise to what we call free will, as well as to our voluntary actions.
In this post we answered the question ‘’Does consciousness exist outside the brain?’’ We defined what consciousness is and discover the interaction of consciousness and the brain.
If you have any questions or comments please let us know!
Hameroff, S., & Penrose, R. (2014). Consciousness in the universe. Physics of Life Reviews, 11(1), 39–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2013.08.002
Fischer, D. B., Boes, A. D., Demertzi, A., Evrard, H. C., Laureys, S., Edlow, B. L., … Geerling, J. C. (2016). A human brain network derived from coma-causing brainstem lesions. Neurology, 87(23), 2427–2434. https://doi.org/10.1212/wnl.0000000000003404
Harvard Study Decrypts the Ancient Mystery of Consciousness. (2016). Retrieved February 13, 2021, from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201611/harvard-study-decrypts-the-ancient-mystery-consciousness
McFadden, J. (2020). Integrating information in the brain’s EM field: the cemi field theory of consciousness. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2020(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niaa016