By Patrick Howe
Does Consciousness Originate In The Human Brain?
The scientific view of consciousness is unable to accept the possibility that consciousness might originate not from inside the human brain but from outside the human brain. Because to acknowledge that possibility would be in their minds a slippery slope toward believing in a distant magical divine power. And that option does not sit well with scientists. But there is an entirely different way of looking at it.
As scientists haven’t the foggiest idea what causes consciousness and yet they do not hesitate to offer their opinions about it anyway—I therefore feel at liberty to offer my own opinions too. I am not a scientist, I am an artist and my opinions are born out of my own observations and my own philosophical inquiry, just as is theirs. In part, my views are reflective of the writings and lectures of philosopher Alan Watts, and other scholars who have examined consciousness from a deeper level than the conventional scientific view. What I am seeking to do in this essay, however, is to cut-to-the-chase in everyday language—even casual language, to summarize the topic of consciousness.
So let me start by saying that the idea that consciousness originates from inside the human brain through biological processes is flat out . . . probably incorrect. Why? because almost all human brain functions are activated, triggered, by things outside of the human brain.
Here are some examples: Take oxygen. The human brain will die within six minutes without it. Oxygen originates outside of the brain. And nutrients from foods fuel our brains and without food our brains would shut down. Our brains would also die in about six minutes without blood, which originates not in the brain but in bone marrow and the spleen. And our brains could not function if it were not continually hydrated by water. Our brain enables us to walk, but learning to walk would have been impossible where it not for the impingement of gravity. Memories are stored in our brains but they originated from past external experiences, not from the biological processes of the brain. The brain interprets the world beyond it through its senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. But if a person were born without sight, smell, touch, hearing or taste, the human brain could not produce them by itself. And the brain’s biological processing cannot create gravity, which has affected the shape and function of the brain over millions of years. And as a side note, scientists know lots about how gravity behaves but they do not know what causes it precisely. Gravity doesn’t play well with the theory that explains all the other forces, So while gravity is evident everywhere in the universe, it’s still a mystery—kind of like consciousness. And so, our human brains could not do all the cool things it does were it not for the many external stimuli that allow it to function.
Furthermore there are many studies of animals that show that their behaviors are activated not from within the animal’s brain but by external triggers such as day and night, the seasons of the year, and the electromagnetism of the earth. For example some migrating birds rely on electromagnetic pulses from the planet to help guide them in their migrations.
Imagine lovely flowers opening gently in the morning light. They are responding to the invisible radiation of light coming from the sun ninety-three million miles away! And flowers close at night but not caused by any biological process by itself, but because of the diminishing exposure to sunlight. Flowers would not close at night were it not for the setting sun.
In the case of humans, it’s a little harder to grasp that something similar, but infinitely more complex could be happening to them too. It takes an open mind to really get this idea.
Consciousness As A Field Of Energy
One theory is that consciousness is a field of energy that permeates the universe like the force of gravity does, in various degrees of intensity. And the complexity of the human brain has evolved to the point of being able to respond to that universal field of consciousness like a receiver, a receptor. In the same way a radio picks up radio signals. And much like the flower that opens by the sunlight coming to it from millions of miles away. In this analogy consciousness is like gravity that saturates the entire universe, and so touches our minds too. Mythologist Joseph Campbell stated that consciousness is like the light of a lightbulb. And if you smash the lightbulb the light will go out. But you will not have destroyed the source of electricity that enabled the lightbulb to shine. It may be discovered someday that consciousness, like gravity and electromagnetism, is a basic, irreducible quality of the universe.
So you can see that it is hard to believe that consciousness originates from biological processes inside the human brain when almost all brain functions are activated by things happening outside the brain.
The fact is, you could probably scrub the entire internet and you would find that nobody knows the origin of consciousness scientifically. Yes, you would find mountains of scientific opinions about the topic but most likely you would not find evidence that proves consciousness originates in the brain. If I knew of a scientist who claimed to know, I would like to talk to that person. I would ask them this simple question. “If consciousness originates in the brain then what specific biological process occurs to produce it?” The answer is, there is none.
Consciousness Is Not Thinking
And there is another problem with the conventional scientific assumption that consciousness originates in our brains. And many scientists make the same fatal mistake in their reasoning. They equate consciousness to thinking. That should be a tip-off right there that something’s wrong because it’s an unexamined assumption.
Consciousness is not the same as thinking and you can verify this for yourself by sitting in a chair and choosing to not think as you sit there. If you can do it, you will be conscious of not thinking without having to formulate any thought about not thinking. You’re just sitting there consciously without having to think. Just as you can be conscious of the lovely scent of a rose without the necessity of formulating any thought about it. You’re just conscious of the lovely scent.
Here’s another way you can experience consciousness without thinking. It’s one that is used in meditation. Sit quietly and breath normally and focus all of your attention on your breathing. You will notice that it is impossible to focus 100% of your attention on your breathing and think at the same time.
If you are able to do it, this experiment will show you that thinking and consciousness, though clearly related, are basically independent. You see, consciousness is not the act of thinking. Consciousness is what enables you to be aware that you are thinking. For you cannot think without consciousness but you can be conscious without thinking.
Consciousness As Light And Space
Now let’s go a little deeper. To do that we must leave the brick-and-mortar materialism of science behind and get into the misty domain of philosophy and metaphysics. Here’s a fact: All human biological processes produce chemical reactions. And all biological chemical reactions produce substances. In chemistry there is no such thing as a chemical reaction that doesn’t produce anything. Therefore, if a biological process could produce consciousness then consciousness would have be a substance that could be measured, weighed and dissected. However if you simply observe your own consciousness closely you will see that consciousness is much more like an empty space—and more like a light, than any biological substance that can be dissected.
Consciousness is like light because it illuminates your reality. It is what makes your reality perceptible. Right? And consciousness is also like a space because everything that exists must have a space in which to exist. When you look out upon the world everything you see corresponds to a space that it occupies. Your house, a tree, a mountain, this planet, everything occupies a space. But what about your thoughts? Thoughts are things too, so they too must occupy a space. But if you looked inside your head, there is no space in there, just brains. That is because the space that your thoughts occupy is your consciousness.
Even if you close your eyes and imagine a vast panoramic sunset, you will see it only because it is within the light and space of your consciousness. If you drag up old memories, they too only become perceptible as they enter into the light and space of your consciousness. How else could you possibly see them inside of your head? And when you are asleep dreaming, your dream appears to you in the light and space of your consciousness. And the fact that we can be aware of our senses of sight, smells, hearing, touch and taste shows that consciousness is very much like a light because it enables us to observe, or ‘see’ those sensations. So consciousness, far from being any kind of biological substance, is much more accurately analogous to a space that can be illuminated.
Philosopher Alan Watts offered this marvelous analogy of consciousness: Imagine reading a book. It’s an enthralling story and you’re gripped by every word. Pretty soon you lose awareness of the individual words because you are so immersed in the flow of the story. You are also completely unaware of the paper that the words are printed on. In this analogy, the paper is like consciousness. It is present as an invisible background behind the black type that is printed on the page, and yet the story could not exist without it. That’s why consciousness seems impossible to grasp: it is the ‘blank page’ upon which the world exists in our awareness.
A Portrait Of You As Consciousness
Now I am going paint a portrait of you as consciousness. Yes, you are consciousness, and I’m going to show you what you look like.
When you look in a mirror you see a reflection of yourself, right? But most of us know that our reflection is only our outer appearance and we are much more than an outer image of ourselves. We sense that there is something else inside of us that is the true us.
But when we look inside of our physical bodies, where is our true self to be found? In our organs? Our bones? In our blood? None of those answers make any sense. And when we look closer yet into our physical bodies—down to the subatomic level we see a vast amount of empty space, with a few subatomic particles occasionally zipping by. So when you try to find yourself inside your body, you can’t be found.
Some people will try to tell you they are their brains. But consider this: you cannot be your brain because you have a brain. You see, logically you cannot be something that is a possession of yours. And you are not your emotions because you have emotions. And you are not your body because you have a body. If you can observe anything that is ‘over there’ and you are ‘over here’ then that thing over there cannot be you because you’re over here. So your true identity, if it is to be found, must be distinguished from anything you can observe. And your are not your DNA or your genes. And taking it further, the true you is not your nationality, race, nor your gender. You could even have gender reassignment surgery but afterwards you would still be you. You might feel more comfortable and natural with your new gender but those are conditions of your environment that can be changed and observed, so they are not you. They are not the deeper you that never changes.
Some would agree that we are not our bodies, minds or emotions separately, but they would insist that we are all of them put together like a car made of lots of parts. Unfortunately that’s not correct. Why? Because while an assemblage of auto parts is called a car, a car does not have a self identity like you do.
Imagine if you lost a leg. Your leg could not complain that it lost it’s torso. No, your leg was separated from you and your identity stays with the larger part of you. So while you may have lost a leg, you did not lose any part of the true, deeper you. And consider this: from the time you were born almost every cell in your body has been replaced many times over. To put that in perspective, in your lifetime you have already lived in several different human bodies! You just didn’t notice it when you slipped out of one body and into another because the change from one to the next was happening so gradually and piecemeal. One cell sloughing off at a time as another was being formed. And yet you were there all along, you haven’t gone anywhere.
There is also the persistent misconception that we are our minds. It only seems that way because language is formed in the mind. So when we hear ourselves talking to ourselves in our heads it seems very convincing that we are in there. But self-talk is not your true identity. Because self-talk is a form of thought, and you are obviously not a thought.
Now all of this could be frightening to some people to learn that there is no one at home inside, but here is the kicker: Through all of this searching, you—the real you, was there all along doing the looking. Because you are the consciousness, you are the awareness that makes looking for yourself possible. That’s the true picture of you. The only thing about yourself that you can verify for certain is that you are conscious. Or better yet, you are consciousness. And that fact can be known because you can experience it first-hand. You are the consciousness that knows your body, emotions, thinking and perceptions.
Throughout art history consciousness has been symbolized by a light glowing around a figure. Similarly it could be said that you are the light that illuminates your reality. And I think that’s much cooler than being just a brain anyway. When you think you are you, you might be thinking of the mental, emotional and physical part of you, and that’s there for sure. But because you can observe your human dimension, then you are not merely human, you are more than just human. You are also the consciousness that occupies your humanness.
The old thinking is that we are skin encapsulated identities. But the new awareness is more fluid and more relational. Long ago humans were shocked to learn that they were not at the center of the universe. And now we come to a time of realizing that we are not isolated skin encapsulated identities. Philosopher Alan Watts also said “You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way a wave is something the whole ocean is doing.” And he is right. You are the consciousness that flows through everything. And at this very moment you are flowing through your unique human form.
I have tried here to describe consciousness. But in the deepest sense consciousness cannot be understood. Not because you are not smart enough to get it. But because consciousness, the reality of you, cannot be reduced to an object of thought. Because you are the light and space in which your thoughts and perceptions appear. But you cannot observe your true self any more than a flashlight can shine on itself. Or an eye see itself. You, the deeper you, cannot be turned into an object. You are universal consciousness shining brightly through the lens of your extraordinary human body and mind and through you the world is illuminated. And when you know that, really know that, you can see the same in others and in the natural world. Then you become a more compassionate human being and the world becomes a more beautiful place.
Patrick Howe is an artist, author and educator. He was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1951 and has been living in Seattle, Washington, since 1981. His art theory book, The Awakening Artist: Madness and Spiritual Awakening in Art, was nominated for the Robert Motherwell Book Award for outstanding and original thinking on the topic of Modernism in Art. Patrick also owned a successful art gallery in Seattle for 10 years (2004–2014), where he sold his artwork, which had an easy commercial appeal. After the gallery closed, he was able to pursue other artistic concepts, which lead to Post Personalism, founded together with Christopher Gasper. https://www.patrickhowe-postpersonalism.com/
Photo © Patrick Howe.
Thanks to Patrick Howe for permission to repost this article.