Friday, July 20, 2007

Consciousness and the brain

Cool cover story in Newsweek this week: Back from the Dead. It talks about new medical knowledge that says cooling the body down can help people survive heart attacks, etc.

In what is primarily a physiological article, there is one section that gets metaphysical. What is consciousness? it asks. Here’s the intriguing passage:

But there's another answer to the question of where [someone’s mind goes when the brain shuts down]. This is the view that the mind is more than the sum of the parts of the brain, and can exist outside it. "We still have no idea how brain cells generate something as abstract as a thought," says Dr. Sam Parnia, a British pulmonologist and a fellow at Weill Cornell Medical College. "If you look at a brain cell under a microscope, it can't think. Why should two brain cells think? Or 2 million?" The evidence that the mind transcends the brain is said to come from near-death experiences, the powerful sensation of well-being that has been described by people like Anthony Kimbrough, a Tennessee real-estate agent who suffered a massive coronary in 2005 at the age of 44. Dying on the table in the cath lab during angioplasty, he sensed the room going dark, then lighter, and "all of a sudden I could breathe. I wasn't in pain. I felt the best I ever felt in my life. I remember looking at the nurses' faces and thinking, 'Folks, if you knew how great this is, you wouldn't be worried about dying'." Kimbrough had the odd sensation of being able to see everything in his room at once, and even into the next room. He is one of about 1,200 people who have registered their experiences with a radiation oncologist named Dr. Jeffrey Long, who established the Near Death Experience Research Foundation in 1998 to investigate the mystery of how unconscious people can form conscious memories.

That's also what motivates Parnia, who has begun a study of near-death experiences in four hospitals in Britain, aiming for 30 by the year-end. The study will test the frequently reported sensation of looking down on one's body from above, by putting random objects on high shelves above the beds of patients who are likely to die. If they later claim to have been floating near the ceiling, he plans to ask them what they saw. Parnia insists he's not interested in validating anyone's religious beliefs; his idea is that death can be studied by scientists, as well as theologians.

Does the mind, or consciousness, exist separate from the brain? I believe it does, and it fascinates me that some doctors believe so as well.

Sometimes I get caught in thinking that someday, somehow, I’ll be an entirely spiritual being. But when I remember that my consciousness is already entirely spiritual, i.e., my thoughts, my ideas, my imagination, are all entirely free from matter, I realize I’m a spiritual being *now.* I don’t have to wait to be my true self. That true self exists now.

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or Contact Laura.
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At 7/23/2007 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Al Belote said...

This is a fascinating topic and one that I keep encountering in all kinds of contexts: What is consciousness? Does it exist indepenent of the brain? What level of consciousness do other beings (animals) have? Great to see the world tackling this because as long as the brain is seen as the center of consciousness, we'll be isolated and limited, and we know what that leads to...

I've thought this through in a bunch of ways, and here's just one way to look at it: the brain is just an interface, a device, for use in the context of this material world, for interacting with a bunch of information (our being or consciousness) that actually exists outside of it. The brain is just so transparently engineered that after working with it for a while, we end up thinking it IS the information...that it IS us...and when it crashes or dies...that's the end of us.

OK, this is full of all kinds of metaphysical/spiritual disconnections when you try to reconcile it with a particular theology...I'm just throwing it out for discussion.

Time for an analogy...My Mac laptop, which I love, connects me to all my online stuff (like Fickr), servers at work, and the internet. But after working with it day after day it actually feels like all that stuff is in that little box...but if it has a fatal crash...well, most of that stuff is still there, still goes on...

At 7/23/2007 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Kim said...

This is just good. Really good.


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