Consciousness: can brain matter have it?

consciousnessThe brain, is a soft, mass of gray and white matter. It has been estimated that there are more connections between the nerve cells within each one than all the particles in the universe! But how on earth can a piece of mere biological tissue – albeit an incredibly complex one – have consciousness? How can something physical have a subjective sense of redness, or sourness, or feel pain or pleasure, or experience ideas and fantasies?

This question is really a hard question science cannot answer.

Ill-health and consciousness

We know that when the brain is damaged or unhealthy, then external awareness is often affected. Such patients may be less than fully alert and responsive: their understanding of what is said may be limited: they may be disorientated, or delirious. This shows how much we depend on a functioning well brain. But how do we know if someone say in a coma is not experiencing consciousness of their inner world? After all consciousness is not confined to the waking state of awareness. You experience dreams when you are asleep.

Deep brain stimulation and consciousness

Findings in neuroscience are demonstrating close links between changes in specific parts of the brain and changes in subjective experience. Deep brain stimulation involves surgically implanting electrodes and stimulating a part of the brain for brief periods before being removed. This is a painless procedure that is carried out with a fully conscious person. One example is the work of Prof Yves Agid, and his team at the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris. They found that by tiny variation in the position of the electrode, they caused one woman to change from an impassive, immobile, switched-off state, to one of severe depression. Less than 90 seconds after stimulation was stopped, the depression disappeared, and by moving the probe minutely, she became not just cheerful, but over the moon and restlessly active – all within a brief time.

I would point out that this kind of evidence fails to explain how consciousness is possible, only that the physical brain is somehow implicated in it.

Subliminal perception and consciousness

One suggestion is that much of what passes for conscious thinking is actually the brain functioning in an automatic and skilled way. This reminds us of a computer that has learned how to process information using artificial intelligence. Take for example the not uncommon experience of driving to work and, on arrival at the destination, having no memory of the journey there. You have negotiated several traffic islands, adjusted your speed according to congestion on the road, and taken all the correct turns at junctions. Some or a lot of this was done without any conscious awareness. Does this mean that consciousness is merely a by-product of a very small proportion of brain function?

But a brain that can at times successfully function like a zombie without your conscious awareness of what is happening, doesn’t mean that you lack subjective experiences. It is just that your mind was on other things. Perhaps you went to work in a day dream about your next holiday. We are still left with the question about the rich quality of consciousness.

HOT theory and consciousness

It is possible to use introspection to examine as much as you can of your experience including fleeting thoughts and images at the edge of awareness. Then it becomes clear that there are always lots of threads – ideas, images, memories – all going on at once, and none is really ‘in’ consciousness until it is grasped.

One notion is that sensations are conscious only if the person grasps them by having higher-order thoughts regarding them. What is seen is only consciously noticed when it carries meaning. So, for example, the driver ’s perception of a red light becomes conscious only if accompanied by a higher order thought that this is a traffic-light junction where one must stop to avoid an accident.

Alternative to ideas of materialist science

Materialist science considers anything non-physical as a delusion. On the other hand dualism sees consciousness as something real in its own right and not merely a by-product of the brain. If physical matter of itself hasn’t conscious awareness, where does consciousness come from?

Swedenborg and consciousness

Spiritual philosopher Emanual Swedenborg wrote about what he called rational understanding. He maintained that being human gives us access to rational thoughts coming from a different degree of reality to that of the material plane. I would suggest this different degree of reality is the plane of consciousness. For him this higher dimension gives us the quality of subjective experience, with its property of continuity together with a sense of self who is conscious.

Swedenborg suggests that when we are in a state of strong desire for pleasure – one example that comes to mind is excitedly watching a horse we have gambled on winning in a race – we don’t necessarily bother to check with our ideas of good sense. Being carried away by our desire to win, we often use little rational consciousness of what we are doing.

“Consciousness is from the understanding” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

Swedenborg’s view of where subjective consciousness ultimately comes from is in terms of an inspiration of what is good and true. This is said to originate from a Divine source of love and wisdom.

According to this view, our understanding of good and bad is our higher conscious mind at work. Worldly concerns may use some sort of sense whereas self-insightful understanding, ethical and more profound ideas come from a higher source. He thus regarded consciousness as due to an understanding illuminated by spiritual inflow.

Many spiritual writers would add that, driven by a desire for bodily pleasure, social status or power, we need to wake up from our limiting awareness of, and thus pre-occupation with,  material things: instead they say we need to become more conscious of higher things – things of the spiritual side to life – ethics, community, service, integrity, etc that go beyond the focus of the material world.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (

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