The Mind vs Brain Debate (What is Consciousness?)

Guest Author – Christina Sarich

The mind vs. brain debate has been going on since before Aristotle. He and Plato argued that the soul housed intelligence or wisdom and that it could not be placed within the physical body. In a well-described version of dualism, Descartes identifies mind with the consciousness and self-awareness of itself, with an ability to distinguish itself from the brain, but still called the brain the seat of intelligence

In yogic science, the mind is considered to be pure vibrating energy. It is an element (non-physical by nature) which conducts “thought” faster than the speed of light and retains all experience whether consciously addressed by the thinker or not. It can create substance from nothing. It contains the aura, or energy body and can project to other minds, and receive from them also. It communicates in the language of feeling. It has a profound effect on the energy level of the physical body, which temporarily houses it, and has the capacity to heal its own physical house as well as that of others. It is often referred to as a Spark of the Divine or as a wave on the vast limitless ocean of the cosmic ever-present possibility of what is. Our minds, due to their nature as a spark or wave of a much greater, infinite intelligence, are capable of unbelievable things.

In yogic science, the brain is simply a physical manifestation of the mind itself. This is a complex idea to grasp. Let us look at one profoundly odd phenomenon to try to understand the mind/brain difference.

About 80% of people who have lost a limb due to accident or illness report feeling excruciating pain, burning, aching, or even as though this absent part of their bodies is being crushed even when it is no longer there. This is often referred to as the phantom limb. The sensations of pain are created by the brain and are experienced no differently than someone with a present limb.

This incredible phenomenon has stumped doctors for over a hundred years. Only now are they beginning to understand, partly through research by Dr. Ramachandran, that “the touch signals from the entire surface of your body are mapped on the surface of your brain – in a strip between your two ears called your sensory cortex. The area that ‘feels’ your hand is very close to the area for your face.”

To make a complex phenomenon simple, when patients that were blind folded were touched on the face, they felt corresponding feeling of being touched on the phantom limb, say on the middle index finger. The feelings are very specific. In order to eliminate the pain felt by the patient with the missing limb, Drs. Giraux and Sirigu have shown that merely training patients to imagine their paralyzed arms moving in relation to a moving arm on a screen in front of them can relieve phantom limb pain. That posits an interesting set of questions. Is it the mind feeling the limb, or the erroneous assumption of the brain? Why would the brain feel something that wasn’t there? Is this true consciousness?

Consciousness: Mind vs Brain

The human brain has three principal structures. The largest is the cerebrum and is the center for intellectual functioning or reasoning. The cerebellum is the second structure, located at the back of the skull. It helps us to stand tall and not fall over. It is in charge of balance. The third structure is the medulla, a stem leading into the spinal column, which helps to handle involuntary tasks like respiration. These three structures work together to help carry out the role of cognition, but they are not mind itself. Mind is not a physical entity.

Although it is theorized that memories in the brain are just stored chemical structures such as in a neural network, some doctors are pointing to evidence of awareness once the physical structure of the brain is considered “dead.” Dr. Peter Fenwick has studied the phenomenon of near-death experiences in his patients and documented people’s accurate descriptions of what is happening in the room after they have flat-lined and been pronounced clinically dead.

Peter Fenwick, M.D., F.R.C.Psych., is Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, and associated with the Mental Health Group at the University of Southampton. He is also Consultant Neuropsychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital and at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. His studies have shown that across cultural differences, sex, age and type of death there are remarkable experiences reported with many similarities by patients who experience near-death.

Some have argued that near-death experiences could have been caused by chemical reactions in the brain due to drugs being given at the time of death; however, “Thirty-seven percent of our respondents reportedly were receiving drugs at the time of their NDEs, and 63 percent were not. So the theory that NDEs are all drug induced could not be correct. About two thirds had their NDEs during illness, operations, childbirth, or accidents. Two percent occurred in suicide attempts and 20 percent in other circumstances that included anxiety states, dreams, relaxation states, or quite spontaneously in the normal course of life.” Neuroscience maintains that conscious experience is not possible during physical unconsciousness, so that leads to the question of mind or consciousness being something alive beyond the confines of brain death.

More double blind, randomized, controlled trials on many aspects of spiritual medicine are being conducted, many with the focus of determining the locality of consciousness. But with the ideas of Fenwick and others, the medical world is not the only field of science asking questions about consciousness. Physicists have been asking this question too. In his last autobiographic paper, Einstein wrote: “. . .the discovery is not the matter of logical thought, even if the final product is connected with the logical form.”

Two other philosophers seconded Einstein’s feeling. Neither Hume nor Kant understood Newton’s laws as laws of the Universe. Hume thought that there really were no natural laws for the reason that all theories claiming that fact are underdetermined and subject to rebuttal. Kant would say that Newton’s laws concerned only the appearance of things and not things as they really are, therefore, all things are not laws of the universe but products of human thought. To Kant, Newton’s laws were “transcendental” but not transcendent. Quantum mechanics is now struggling with these same philosophical questions, which all lead back to an understanding of consciousness. The emergence of quantum mechanics forces physicists to be become philosophers again.

Quantum Mind Theory

One of the basic premises of quantum study is that the quantum (of energy) is indivisible. In Neils Bohr’s words, there is “an indivisible wholeness, an unanalyzable wholeness. At the moment of observation, the observer and observed make a single, unified whole.” The wave/particle theory also describes the presence of greater intelligence at least insofar as understanding the power of the mind. Not only is intelligence not relegated to the workings of the brain, it is not even relegated to the atoms and quarks we observe. When looking at waves and particles and their behavior physicists find that they act differently once observed. Consciousness, in fact, may create them.

Further, Max Born’s colleague Pascual Jordan declared that observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. In a measurement, “the electron is forced to a decision. We compel it to assume a definite position; previously it was, in general, neither here nor there, it had not yet made its decision for a definite position….We ourselves produce the results of the measurement.”

So is consciousness merely the collection of chemical functions in our brains, of neuronal networks of billions of cells communicating with one another, or is it even more complex, existing not just outside the brain, but completely separate from it? Does the brain’s functioning proscribe the ability of consciousness to exist without this physical apparatus? Kant, Bohr, Einstein and others would say no. It seems philosophy and science have circled around themselves to return to the same house on the cul-de-sac.

Consciousness or mind is not matter. But even quantum mechanics is having a hard time describing consciousness.

In the Quantum Mind Theory, supported by the well-known mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, it is assumed that large-scale quantum coherence is necessary to understanding the brain and mind. Quantum coherence is a state of balance when two quanta’s individual frequencies are in constructive interaction.

The main argument against the quantum mind is that the brain is warm, wet, and noisy and that the structures of the brain are much too large for quantum mechanics to be important. Consequently, it is difficult for coherent quantum states to form for very long in the brain, and impossible for them to exist at the scales on the order of the size of neurons. These issues have led Penrose to argue that consciousness is not a consequence of interactions between neurons in the brain but arises as from microtubules within cells, which are much smaller and for which quantum effects could be significant. This was originally the theory of Stuart Hameroff.

On the other hand, a system does not cease to be quantum because it is wet and noisy. And then, what was previously dismissed as “noise” in the brain has recently been discovered to be complex signals. Then again, if the brain is fractal in character, it may well exhibit sensitive dependence on initial (quantum) conditions. Given the fractal character of dendritic arborizations, brain function may depend on self-similar processes at lower spatio-temporal scales. Or, neural form follows quantum function. If all matter consists of quantum fields, as Dyson makes explicit in his Scientific American article on “Field Theory,” then the brain just is a collection of such fields.

Can Neurons Made of Microtubles Explain the Physical Basis of Consciousness?

In a recent article in EnlightenNext Magazine, Stuart Hameroff, MD describes microtubules as a possible quantum-physics-based solution to the question of consciousness, ” Microtubules are molecular assemblies; they’re cylindrical polymers composed of repeating patterns of a single peanut-shaped protein called tubulin that can flex “open” and “closed.” The tubulin proteins self assemble into these beautifully elegant hollow cylinders with walls arranged in hexagonal lattices. . .neurons need a lot of microtubules. If you look inside a single neuron, there are hundreds of microtubules composed of something like one hundred million tubulin protein subunits. You could say the neurons are actually made of microtubules.” Hameroff supposes that although heretofore scientists believed that communication between neurons was the basis for consciousness, the presence of microtubules may actually explain the physical basis for consciousness.

Even though there are one hundred billion or so neurons in our brains, there are 100 times as many microtubules in every neuron. So, every neuron has consciousness or at least some structure to support consciousness. This brings us to the question, yet again, of how to get mind out of matter. Sir Roger Penrose believes that consciousness involves something non-computable. This is described in Gödel’s theorem. Gödel’s are actually two theorems of mathematics. They establish inherent limitations “of all but the most trivial axiomatic systems for mathematics. The theorems, proven by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. The two results are widely interpreted as showing that Hilbert’s program to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics is impossible, thus giving a negative answer to Hilbert’s second problem.

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an “effective procedure” (essentially, a computer program) is capable of proving all facts about the natural numbers. For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem shows that if such a system is also capable of proving certain basic facts about the natural numbers, then one particular arithmetic truth the system cannot prove is the consistency of the system itself.”

Hameroff used Penrose and Gödel’s findings with his own intuition to conclude that it isn’t just a human observer which is required to collapse a state of superposition (often called the Copenhagan interpretation of quantum mechanics), but instead, superpositions naturally collapse themselves. In this model, consciousness happens as a series of discrete events (these collapsing superpositions in the quantum field) that we experience as consciousness. Still, the conscious moment and the quantum wave function are one and the same event. It goes back to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Roger assumes that the gravitational curvature of spacetime also occurs in this very small scale, such as in the functioning of microtubuls in the brain. So, to these thinkers, mind is not matter, but consciousness and matter are inextricably linked.

The yogic philosopher, Patanjali told us that “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and your discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”

Regardless of whether mind is contained in the brain or exists beyond these physical boundaries, it is evident that it is something quit immense. The spark of an eternal fire or the wave of a vast ocean are apt metaphors to describe it. The cosmic nature of mind has been described for centuries prior to Kant and Plato, Descartes, Einstein, Bohr, and Socrates offered their musings. Mahatma Ghandi told us, ” You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” If mind is indestructible, and vast beyond our perception, then do the semantics of its origins really even matter? It is natural for the mind to want to know itself, and this era of human development marks the ability for consciousness to know it is conscious. This alone is an evolutionary leap.

Perhaps we can agree with David Chalmers, “. . .much of the work going on now in neuroscience and psychology, where people are studying the relationship of consciousness to neural and cognitive processes without really trying to reduce it to those processes. . .[I agree with that.]” The brain vs. mind debate may not be a question of either or after all, but a question of quantum reality: the interweaving of mind and matter into one. This is the simple definition of yoga. From the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning “to control,” “to yoke” or “to unite.” Yoga derives from “yujir samadhau,” which means “contemplation” or “absorption.” Perhaps we will yoke our mind with the body by the contemplation of consciousness itself.

Guest Author: Christina Sarich

Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny,  Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her website/blog is Yoga for the New World