Does the brain fully explain consciousness?


According to neuroscience, the brain fully explains consciousness. Sensory impressions of what we see and hear cause electrical activity in the brain. Scientists found evidence that when we remember something, the brain makes new proteins. These form locally at the connection between nerve cells. This increases the strength of the connection and reinforces the memory. The journal Science reveals that neuroscientists have captured an image for the first time of this mechanism.

The researchers say that we store memories chemically and electrically in this way. So you may wonder does this mean that your brain is the be-all and end-all of your memory. You may further ask without your brain would you remember nothing after death? Is it true that the brain fully explains consciousness?

It would seem so. After all, many brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s can cause memory loss, as can brain injury.

Brain a necessary but insufficient cause?

And so nothing more than the workings of the brain fully explain the human mind? Neuroscientist, Raymond Tallis, believes that the brain is clearly necessary for our having memories. But he also wonders if it is a sufficient explanation of the experience of remembering. He points out that the brain is a mechanism. One of electrical impulses going along nerve fibres. At the same time however he suggests a mechanical process cannot entirely contain the content of memory. He feels we need a bit more and suggests what that bit more is, no scientist knows.

The spiritual thinker might point out that the redness of something remembered or its beauty cannot just be due to what happens in the activity of matter of the brain. Has it not also something to do with a consciousness of mind that transcends matter? The brain fully explain consciousness?  Well perhaps not after all.

Brain as detector or activator of mind?

Wilder Penfield was a brain surgeon. His patients frequently reported hearing hazy voices coming from some strange and unknown place when he stimulated the right temporal lobes of their exposed brains with a mild electric current. Elaborate recollections and other conscious experiences did occur at such times. However he went on to say these were either automatic, as in epileptic seizures, or only very briefly caused by the surgeon’s probes.  He thus concluded that direct electrical stimulation of the brain never activated the person’s mind.

A. R. Lauria, neuropsychologist, has pointed out that, for many centuries, philosophers and other scholars supposed that the brain was a detector (rather than an activator) of mind, which itself was seen as an inner, subjective state of consciousness. Like many spiritual ideas such a theory is these days seen as not amenable to scientific proof.

Personal choice

Imagine yourself in a noisy room full of people having separate conversations. You probably want to attend only, or mainly, to one specific conversation. It may not even be the one we are participating in! You want to do this without being too distracted by others. We can do this by focusing on the distinctive quality and volume of one particular person’s voice, and where the sound is coming from.

Divided attention is possible but the principle is the same – i.e. unattended input receives only minimal brain processing. In other words, our noticing something and reflecting on it, is necessary to fix some experience or fact into the patterns of memory. Without interest we remember less.

And so it can be argued that personal choice is relevant to what we attend and thus remember. Yet for the scientist, everything must be determined by some measurable entity: like what is seen or heard, the chemical state of one’s brain or one’s genetic makeup. No room here for the notions of intention and free will. No need to ask the question ‘Does the brain fully explain consciousness?’ It’s a no brainer!

Spiritual memory

What Emanuel Swedenborg wrote about ‘interior memory’. He said this differs from natural memory.  According to him, we don’t inwardly remember visually seen objects or symbols. We do, however, inwardly remember abstract ideas like honesty, goodness, integrity. When you are reminded of such spiritual concepts your thought can be raised out of the world of natural sense perception.

An important part of his philosophy is that what merely enters into the understanding does not affect one’s character but only that which one makes a part of the love of one’s life. We need, however, a memory of spiritual knowledge to draw on if our soul can confirm, sustain and build up our personal growth.

In the end the way you inwardly responded to life determines your destiny. The false external memories you erect for yourself to rationalise such intentions do not show your true character. Swedenborg claims that how we each actually lived results in a fixed internal memory found in our individual book of life. Writing in the 18th century he said:

“Man has an external or natural memory, and an internal or spiritual memory. Upon this internal memory is inscribed everything in general and in particular that he has thought, spoken and done in the world from his will, and that so completely and particularly that no detail is lacking. This memory is man’s book of life, which is opened after death and according to which he is judged.” (Swedenborg E, Divine Providence 227)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

If you like this, you may also like:

Science – Does it invalidate religion?

Free choice – An illusion?

Spiritual questions & answers about consciousness


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