This is part of FJN’s Topic Briefs for Journalists series.

Humanity has always pondered what consciousness is, although other ethereal terms like spirit or soul have often been used.

In most of human history, and in most cultures, thinkers and scholars have not made a distinct separation between the physical and the non-physical aspects of life. The Western idea that consciousness is produced by the brain, or even a side effect of physical processes, is a very recent development. 

Philosophers like Plato and Descartes established–in different ways–the notion that consciousness is separate from the physical world.

Notions analogous to Plato’s theory of ideas and his cave metaphor appear in belief systems and philosophies from Christianity to idealism and the modern simulation theory. Long before Plato, the notion that the physical world is illusory was central to Eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism.

With the advent of the scientific revolution in the 17th century, all studies of a possible non-physical realm were referred to the Church. Descartes’ mind-body dualism had some influence on the division.

From there on, mainstream science has in principle not dealt with phenomena that are not physically measurable.

In the 19th century, the novel scientific discipline of psychology became a modern Western avenue into the nonphysical human reality, the mysterious psyche.  

One of its pioneers was William James, who in the 1890s described the brain as something that might filter rather than produce consciousness. This enabled him to explain the findings of his own psychical research. 

With Sigmund Freud, dream interpretation became accepted. His colleague C G Jung went further and launched the idea of a collective unconscious. Jung tried to integrate psychology and spiritual traditions.

In the early and mid-20th century, some of the groundbreaking quantum physicists also ventured into comparisons with spiritual teachings, especially Eastern traditions, which seemed to tie in with the nonlocality and timelessness of the quantum world:

  • David Bohm engaged in long discussions and became close friends with philosopher and spiritual teacher Krishnamurti.
  • Wolfgang Pauli collaborated with C G Jung.
  • Fritjof Capra explored the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism in a book entitled The Tao of Physics.

Theoretical physicist John Wheeler proposed the idea of a participatory universe, where observers’ consciousness is required to bring the universe into existence. 

The cross-border work and views of scientists like the ones mentioned placed them to some extent on the fringe of mainstream psychology and natural science.

For decades, it was detrimental for a scientific career in the West to study consciousness. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the door was ajar again.

In 1995, philosopher and neural scientist David Chalmers coined a term that describes a conundrum for materialistic science: the hard problem of consciousness. It refers to the fact that nobody has been able to satisfactorily explain how brain activity is connected to awareness, sentience or indeed any subjective experience. No brain neurons have been shown to produce consciousness.

All a human being can know for certain is real is the awareness of experiencing life. That is the ”first person perspective” (the experiencer’s perspective). Any causation between neurons firing off and subjective sense perceptions, qualia, has yet to be proven. The activity that can be measured in the brain is the ”second person perspective” (the observer’s perspective).

While the cerebral origins of consciousness continue to escape neuroscientists, the number of studies that point to the possibility that consciousness is non-physical is rising.

Near-Death Experience (NDE)

Since the 1960s, medical science has been able to resuscitate ever more people who have had a cardiac arrest and thus temporarily been clinically dead. Today, there are thousands of well-documented accounts from people who have had near-death experiences, NDE. Some have been subjected to peer-reviewed studies, like cardiologist Pim van Lommel’s 2001 prospective study published in The Lancet.

The crucial common feature is that during the time period when brain activity has been extremely low or nonexistent, the NDE’ers have had vivid, life-changing experiences. As a rule, they have felt as if they have left their bodies and visited a realm they describe as far more real than this one, and they have had a sense of being enveloped in unconditional love.

In many cases, the resuscitated NDE’ers have been able to reproduce events in the hospital or in other places during their temporary death that they could not possibly have known about, events that have been corroborated by other people.

Similar accounts have been documented from people who have had out-of-body experiences, OBE, in other contexts, without having suffered severe trauma.

Past Life Memory (PLM)

Another category of studies concern young children who claim to remember previous lives. Researchers at the University of Virginia have compiled and analyzed hundreds of such stories over many decades.

In many cases, the child’s statements have been shown to correspond accurately to facts in the life and death of a deceased person. In some cases that person has lived in a completely different part of the world than the child.

These memories tend to fade away as the child grows older. 

The effect of psychedelics

Psychedelics like psilocybin, DMT and LSD in many cases appear to evoke powerful, even life-changing, inner experiences among those who take them. The state of consciousness seems to alter.

When researchers have looked at brain activity during psychedelic sessions, they have been surprised to find that it decreases significantly. Especially the Default Mode Network goes down, which entails that the sense of self temporarily shuts down.

The very different kinds of studies mentioned above all imply that altered states of consciousness can be reached only when the brain ”gets out of the way”.

Parapsychology (psi)

Parapsychological phenomena, psi, are an array of abilities that defy the standard view of the limitations of perception, such as telepathy, remote viewing, precognition, clairvoyance and psychokinesis.

According to leading researchers in this field, the evidence for psi is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines. 

Outside of the scope of religion, today’s discussion about the nature of reality spans from classical modern physicalism to the idealist philosophy that consciousness is primary and precedes matter, and the notion that we live in a simulation.

Some physicists and neuroscientists today adhere to what is called panpsychism, a theory entailing that everything in some sense is conscious. In astronomy, the notion of a conscious universe has been put forward.

In the West, materialism, or physicalism, has long been viewed as the natural basis for science, but it is in fact one of many possible philosophical worldviews, most of which also encompass a non-physical reality. Science works fine in any of them, since it is about exploring reality, whatever its nature proves to be.

Written by Anders Bolling for FJN

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