Could Consciousness Exist Beyond the Brain?
Updated: Oct 2, 2021
Activity below: Universal Consciousness Meditation (5 mins)
The great thing about consciousness is that no one has any clue where it comes from, so you can believe whatever you want. A few months ago I started playing with a new idea to see how it would impact my daily life. What if consciousness is not generated by the brain? What if consciousness pervades everything and our brains are the tools we use to perceive this phenomenon?
At its most basic, consciousness is the mind’s ability to be aware of itself and of the world. But the scientific community is pretty baffled as to how this mind is generated and held together to create the perception of a stable reality. While electrochemical signals in the brain can be measured, we still don’t know why certain types of brain activity show up when we’re hungry, anxious etc. Consciousness is ultimately unobservable and immeasurable, so the only way we can find out about it is to ask people about their experiences.
Dr. Peter Fenwick is a neuropsychiatrist who realized that physical science could not explain consciousness and then spent his 50 year career analyzing data on near-death experiences. He collected the stories of 1500 people from various countries who had survived being medically brain-dead. While he was initially skeptical of ‘life’ after bodily death, he found so many commonalities in their stories that he now believes that consciousness is an inherent property of the universe itself, like gravity, and that it can be experienced with or without a brain. Just as our eyes and ears can only perceive certain ranges of the light and sound spectrums, perhaps our brains are organs that can perceive and filter a small slice of a larger cosmic consciousness.
This line of thinking is supported by panpsychists who believe that the fundamental constituents of matter, like quarks and electrons, can have forms of experience, that is, they are conscious. Since humans are made up of these basic parts, we can derive an experience of reality from them. In this view, the separation between mind and matter is an illusion because the brain is matter and matter has consciousness. Of course this means that spatulas could also have a form of experience/consciousness. I don’t have any problem with this, but I can see how it may be a sticking point for some.
The question that really interests me is, if we believe that consciousness can exist independently of the brain, how does this effect how we live our daily lives? Are there any negative consequences to believing this? Here are some of my experiences so far and I'd love to hear yours in the Forum Discussion.
It is comforting to think of death as an expansion of consciousness, or an experience of pure consciousness, rather than as an end to everything I’ve ever known. Less anxiety around death has generally improved my quality of life.
I view meditation, dreams, walks and creative activities as opportunities to tune my brain radio into a broader range of consciousness stations. This belief can sometimes lead to an expanded sense of self and interconnection, which can be a peaceful place to hang out in.
So far the only negative consequence of this belief is that I can feel my brain breaking if I think about it too deeply and that is uncomfortable.
I hope you don’t break your brain while expanding your consciousness this week. But even if you do, who cares? There’s a chance you don’t even need that brain after all!
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #1: Universal Consciousness Meditation (5mins)
Through exercising 'mindsight', that part of us that knows that we know, listeners can experience a consciousness that exists beyond thought, emotion and bodily sensation. The idea of ‘mindsight’ was introduced to me by Dr. Dan Siegel. This meditation was written and recorded by me.
Art by my son, Xavier, Aged 5