Why it is urgent to dispel the myth that the brain produces consciousness.
Most of my life was spent as a materialist. I regarded physical matter as the basis of reality. From matter emerged biological organisms such as humans, which developed brains, and out of the brain emerged consciousness. The inescapable conclusion I was forced to accept was that life is meaningless—because once the brain and body die, consciousness and all associated memories must also die. Any “meaning” given to life while alive must necessarily be wiped out with physical death. If one wanted to create meaning under this paradigm, it was nothing more than a rationalization.
I understood these implications well. As unpleasant and nihilistic as this philosophy was, I wasn’t prepared to alter my worldview. As far as I knew, this paradigm was well-established as scientific truth. And the truth happened to be bleak.
That all changed for me starting in late 2016. I learned of phenomena that mainstream science would call “paranormal” or “anomalous”—phenomena which suggest that we all have innate psychic abilities (though sometimes subtle); that consciousness doesn’t die when the physical body dies; and furthermore that a single, underlying consciousness is the basis of all reality, existing beyond space and time. The more I researched, the more I realized that my old paradigm—which dominates modern scientific thinking—was false at its core. This was a disorienting and jarring realization that radically changed my worldview. In the summer of 2017, I put my research on paper, which turned into a book entitled An End to Upside Down Thinking (Waterside Press; October 9, 2018).
I realized that the central misunderstanding was around the origin of consciousness. Modern science assumes that consciousness arises from activity in our brains. However, I was shocked to learn that modern science has no clue how this could possibly happen. Science magazine has even called this the #2 question remaining in all of science: “What is the biological basis of consciousness?” In other words, how can physical matter in our brain create a consciousness that isn’t physical?
If I asked you to touch your arm or your leg or your head, you can do it. Easy. If I asked you to touch your mind, you can’t. This is precisely the issue: how can a physical body produce something non-physical? The open secret is that modern science doesn’t know the answer. As neuroscience PhD Sam Harris puts in: “There is nothing about a brain, studied at any scale, that even suggests that it might harbor consciousness.” This is known as the “hard problem” of consciousness.
Many great scientists have looked at this problem and have failed to come up with a solution. For example, Francis Crick, after co-discovering the structure of DNA, devoted the rest of his life to trying to show that consciousness comes from the brain. He failed. But he wasn’t alone. No one has succeeded.
So why is it often assumed that consciousness comes from the brain? One reason is that our sensory organs are located near our brain. It feels like our consciousness is also located there. Additionally, we know that brain activity is strongly correlated with the type of conscious experience we have. If a woman damages her brain in a car accident, she might experience cognitive impairments. There is a strong relationship between brain states and consciousness.
Then can’t we conclude that consciousness comes from the brain? No, we can’t automatically conclude that. Why not? Because correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things are related or co-occur doesn’t mean that one must cause the other.
There is an alternative explanation that would also fit the data. What if the brain is a processor of a consciousness that does not originate in the body? In other words, what if the brain is like an antenna/receiver for consciousness, or, more precisely, a reducing valve or filter that processes a consciousness that isn’t localized to or produced by the brain? Then we would also see a high correlation between brain states and consciousness.
This issue might be the root cause of one of the biggest misunderstandings in human history—a redefinition of who and what we are. If consciousness comes from the brain, as is often assumed in mainstream science, then a human being is a body that has a consciousness. Alternatively, if the brain doesn’t produce consciousness, our identify might be a consciousness first and foremost that is experiencing a physical world through a body.
Quantum physics points toward the latter perspective. For example, in the famous double slit laser experiment, a particle behaves like a wave of probability until it is observed. Once it is observed it behaves like a particle. The act of observing changes the particle’s behavior. Physicists often debate whether “consciousness” is playing a role in the act of observation. Is consciousness somehow impacting the particles’ behavior? If so, then perhaps we can infer that consciousness plays a role in shaping or steering physical matter—a notion that would point towards the possibility of a consciousness-centric reality.
Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences Dr. Dean Radin has examined this idea. And he has found, in 17 studies conducted over 8 years, that by simply putting one’s mind to the double slit laser experiment, people affect a particle’s behavior ever-so-slightly. Dr. Radin’s staggering results have been published in two peer-reviewed science journals: Physics Essays (2012 and 2013) and Quantum Biosciences (2015). And the results were massively significant from a statistical perspective: he got between four- and eight-sigma results across the studies. To give context for how significant this is, physicists at CERN won the Nobel Prize for discovering the Higgs particle after achieving five-sigma statistical results. Unfortunately, Dr. Radin’s groundbreaking findings haven’t received mainstream attention.
However, the notion that consciousness might have a central role in reality isn’t new in physics. Early quantum physicists, such as Nobel Prize-winner Max Planck, were well aware of what the quantum reality implied. In 1931 Planck stated: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” In other words, consciousness isn’t produced by a physical brain; rather, it is the reverse: consciousness creates the brain.
While quantum physics certainly provides a basis for a consciousness-centric paradigm, we should additionally consider “paranormal” or “anomalous” phenomena. In my book, I summarize the existing evidence for remote viewing, telepathy, precognition, psychic animals, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, communications with the deceased, and children who remember previous lives (a chapter on each). I reason that if even one of these phenomena is real then it would not be well explained by materialist assumption that consciousness comes from the brain. However, if consciousness is the basis of reality, then these phenomena are not paranormal; rather, they are what we would predict to be true.
Although the research is often swept under the rug by mainstream science, I found, to my incredible surprise, that there is an abundance of high-quality evidence for these phenomena. Credible research comes from the US government; Princeton University (the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab was run by Princeton’s former Dean of Engineering Dr. Robert Jahn, Brenda Dunne, and Dr. Roger Nelson); the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies (e.g., Drs. Ian Stevenson, Jim Tucker, Ed Kelly, Bruce Greyson, and others); the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Drs. Dean Radin, Julia Mossbridge, and others); and other institutions. I was stunned that I never learned about this during my undergraduate years at Princeton.
I will provide a few brief examples here. For instance, the US government ran a nearly 25-year program in which it used “psychic spies” for national security purposes. In 1995, Congress and the CIA asked Dr. Jessica Utts to examine the evidence of psychic phenomena. Dr. Utts is a professor of statistics at University of California, Irvine and was the 2016 president of the American Statistics Association. In her publicly available report she states clearly: “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance.”
In fact, the US government’s recently declassified documents make similar statements. One such document states that the psychic phenomenon of remote viewing (i.e., seeing something with one’s mind alone, from a distance) is “a real phenomenon,” that the “evidence [is] too impressive to dismiss as mere coincidence,” and that the “implications are revolutionary.”
Furthermore, in May 2018, Lund University professor Dr. Etzel Cardeña published his analysis of the available scientific studies on psychic abilities. The results were published in American Psychologist, the official peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Psychological Association (i.e., a very mainstream journal). Dr. Cardeña’s findings are clear: “The evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of [psychic phenomena]. … The evidence…is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines.”
Finally, consider research on near-death experiences. Medical doctors have found that people have lucid memories, some of which are later verified as being accurate, while the person is clinically dead in cardiac arrest and has no brain function. Reports along these lines have been reported in peer-reviewed journals such as The Lancet (cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel) and Resuscitation (Dr. Sam Parnia). If these experiences were hallucinations caused by a dying brain, people wouldn’t report accurate events when their brain was off. If consciousness came from the brain, then they shouldn’t be capable of remembering anything. But they do. The results suggest that consciousness is existing independently of a functioning brain.
If there is so much strong evidence, then why don’t more people know about it? I discovered that there is immense resistance to the notion that our current theories need to change drastically. There is a tendency to brush anomalies to the side to preserve existing frameworks. We saw something similar around 1900 when one of the world’s leading authorities in science, Lord Kelvin, said that most of science had been figured out, aside from two “clouds”—two anomalies that were not well explained by then-existing theories. Those little anomalies turned into quantum mechanics and general relativity, two of the most revolutionary theories in the history of physics. Today, we might be dealing with something similar, where the anomalies of consciousness could turn science upside down.
Unfortunately, however, the ideas are often left unexplored by mainstream science. Dr. Utts states: “Most scientists reject the possible reality of [psychic] abilities without ever looking at data!…I have asked the debunkers if there is any amount of data that could convince them, and they generally have responded by saying, ‘probably not.’ I ask them what original research they have read, and they mostly admit that they haven’t read any!”
This dynamic is eerily similar to what Galileo faced when certain members of the clergy refused to look in his telescope. They didn’t want to look at the evidence. Is that what is happening today around the anomalies of consciousness?
I’ve looked in the telescope, and to me the evidence suggests at least some of the anomalies (if not many) are in fact real. And that points in the direction of a reality in which consciousness is the basis of reality rather than a byproduct of the brain. This notion is one that mystical, nondual traditions have been saying for millennia. Science now seems to be catching up and suggesting the same thing. Science is bringing us to nonduality.
The implications are immense. Science and medicine will transform if they recognize consciousness as something more than a mere byproduct of the brain. Who knows what kinds of technological advances we might see.
But beyond that, there are implications for how we should treat one another. The materialist notion that consciousness comes from the brain fosters a belief in separation and duality. It creates a “you” and a “me.” It creates a subject and an object. This sense of separation is the root cause of many problems we see in the world today, such as social prejudice, violence, war, geopolitical unrest, and more. As Rupert Spira puts it: “If humanity does not still exist in five hundred years’ time, it will most likely be because materialism prevailed. Humanity cannot survive the materialist paradigm.”
What if the unproven assumption that “the brain produces consciousness” is false, however? What if, instead, the nondual notion that consciousness is the underlying medium of existence is true? What if we are actually the same consciousness at the most fundamental level? As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger stated: “Multiplicity is only apparent, in truth, there is only one mind.”
Under this framework of interconnectedness, it becomes irrational to harm another. By harming another, one harms one’s self because there is no separation between “self” and “other.” Imagine what this understanding could do for interpersonal relationships, interactions between nations, and even world peace.
To me, the path to the nondual truth of a consciousness-based reality starts with the need to dispel the myth that the brain produces consciousness. Given the turbulent state of affairs in the world today, is anything more urgent?
Mark Gober is an author, a partner at Sherpa Technology Group in Silicon Valley, a former investment banker with UBS in New York, and former Princeton tennis team captain. He wroteAn End to Upside Down Thinkingto encourage a much-needed global shift in scientific and existential thinking. The book has been endorsed by well-known thinkers such as former Harvard neurosurgeon and #1 New York Times bestselling author Eben Alexander MD, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Ervin Laszlo, Pixar founder Loren Carpenter, IONS chief scientist Dr. Dean Radin, University of Virginia professor Dr. Ed Kelly, former Princeton researchers Dr. Roger Nelson and Brenda Dunne, Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul), Goldie Hawn, and others. For more information, see http://markgober.com/.