My Mind Is Not My Brain
How much hangs on that denial – or on its contradictory, that my mind is my brain!
If our minds are our brains, as I once thought, and as our educated contemporaries mostly still assert, it follows that one day we will all entirely cease to be. And, unless we’ve managed to become unusually famous, whoever survives to remember us will, sooner or later, also cease to be. If such is the case, and you’re anything like me, you won’t want to think about it too much.
It’s too depressing.
Not only is it depressing at the end. Prospective annihilation has some effect on us even before the bell tolls. For sufferers, oblivion might give the hope of curing life’s tumultuously painful disappointments. Others, more agile, might be spurred to seek compensatory entertainments that, however, still wear the Dreary Colors of Plan B. Meanwhile, the purveyors of purple prose are still posing next to their products: “Anxiety,” “Anguish,” “Despair” and of course, “the Absurd.”
On the other hand, if you’ve tried hard to corrupt or destroy a bunch of people and left a trail of hurtful damage behind you, a final fade-out after your last breath would be very good news. Hey, you won’t have to pay! Sorry subpoena servers! Bye now!
So far, we’ve been canvassing subjective attitudes toward identity theory’s reduction of mental states to brain states. But suppose we leave attitudes aside and look instead at scientific studies conducted by well-credentialed researchers and published in respected medical journals like Lancet. Could there be credible evidence that, when our brains die, we remain conscious?
Among the most respected researchers is Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel, who was originally persuaded by his own observations to conduct and report studies of patients in cardiac care units who were revived after prolonged brain death should have made their revival impossible. They reported verifiable observations that they could not possibly have seen or heard from their bodily position — lying on an operating table, under a sheet, after having been pronounced clinically dead.
What these patients reported observing while “dead” could only have been seen from the ceiling or overheard from conversations in the hospital corridor some distance away from the cardiac unit. By now, hundreds of such studies have been conducted and verified under the most exacting conditions.
The book that I’ve been reading recently on the topic is Pim Van Lommel’s Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (Harper One, 2010), translated from the Dutch edition of 2007. Although I’ve read or browsed a good many such books, in this one I was particularly struck by Chapter Nine, “What Do We Know About Brain Function?”
Here are some of its findings: (1) From detected neural activity, you can’t tell what’s occurring in consciousness nor, from reported conscious states, can you predict where the supposed neural correlates will be found. (2) Both electrical and magnetic stimulation wipe out brain function if done at high intensities. So they are of limited use for therapeutic or investigative purposes. (3) Although communication between “cerebral cortex, thalamus, hippocampus and brain stem” was believed to be a prerequisite for “the experience of consciousness” — and they all stop during cardiac arrest — near-death experiencers report heightened consciousness during cardiac arrest. (4) There are complex mathematical reasons why brain tissue cannot be the storage site for memories. (5) Subjects whose brain tissue is largely lost can show unimpaired brain function. Likewise, patients with dementia can experience “brief lucid moments (‘terminal lucidity’) shortly before they die.” (6) MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) mapping, PET (positron emission tomography) scans, and EEG (electroencephalogram) measurements have shown changes in “the anatomy and function of the brain” in patients given placebos comparable to the results delivered by antidepressants. It follows that the mind (supposedly the product of the brain) can change its supposed producer, the brain. (7) Although a computer cannot “adapt and change its own hardware and software to new demands and circumstances,” the brain can do all that. It follows that the brain is not a fancy computer.
In sum, consciousness does not track to brain tissue at specific locations, can be present without brain activity, and can itself produce and modify brain stuff and function. It follows that brain activity is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for consciousness.
If brain death does not make us cease to be, what does this do to a whole slew of commonplace attitudes? Let’s take a look at some of them.
Cynicism? That would look more like a defensive posture, rather than an unforced reading of the long-term score.
Cruelty? Ruthless manipulativeness? Bullying? Those would look more like willful blindness: pretending that nobody can see my victims and they can’t see me. By some accounts, in a life review after death, you do see what you did to others and how they felt about it.
Despair? Unlike the first two, that one looks more sincere: like a felt lack of loving understanding. In my own life, despair has been premature.
Exclusive fixation on success? That looks rather like short-term ambition. A better-grounded ambition would have to do with doing well what was worth doing.
Warranted choices? Those would involve persistence in the search for the purpose and the right pathway for the span of one’s time between birth and one’s physical death.
What about God? If there were a God, what would it change? Would the hypothesis of a divine Witness make any difference to the way one spends one’s time here?