The Brain as Prism

September 24, 2007

Here’s that post I promised you from last week. About consciousness and the mind-brain dilemma.

First, it should be noted that what I’m doing here is purely speculation. I don’t have a degree in neuroscience [yet], and I certainly haven’t reached any sort of level of contemplative mastery [also yet]. Luckily that doesn’t mean I can’t look at a little info, toss it around in my head, and possibly come out with something interesting. So here it goes!

The study of consciousness in any sort of ‘scientific’ form really just got its legs during the end of this century. Coming from a physicalist perspective, Western science has tried to narrow down the possible origins of consciousness. Surely we’ve come a long way from the Egyptians who thought the brain was a giant waste of space and the heart is the seat of all intelligence [mmm, brain slurries!]. And yet Western science still has a ways to go towards explaining how subjective experience arises.

Let’s put it this way: it’s entirely possible that you could have a ‘zombie’ person that went about their day, doing all the things that a normal person might do, and yet that zerson would have no subjective experience of what’s going on. Another word for zerson is robot.

Yet, we all know that at the very least we all experience subjectivity, and we therefore assume that others too must experience it. If all this whirlwind of activity goes on in my head, and you seem to act in a similar manner to me, then you too must experience this subjectivity. Now, that’s a hypothesis. One that I don’t know if you can actually check. Kind of weird. But not the main point yet.

As Western science has become more and more powerful, with new technology and theory intertwining to provide a complex picture of the interaction between subjective experience and objective correlates in the brain, the general assumption upon which all consciousness studies rest is that the brain creates the subjective experience. That it’s a matter of direct causation, and that we just haven’t quite figured out how all the flashing of neurons can create the colorful experience we all know and love [and I mean the colorful part literally. It’s the old question about the color red: does it have any objective significance? Or is it just a subjective thing? Yes, there is a objective wavelength associated with red. But the redness is purely subjective, only attributable to beings with our specific eyes, brains, etc.]

The reason we make that ‘brain = mind’ jump is because when we see firing in the brain, the subject also reports [either through actions or words] a certain emotion, thought, or behavior. Simply, I think of a loved one, and a certain part of my brain lights up on an fMRI. But just because two things happen co-incidentally does not mean that one causes the other. It means that both are happening at the same time.

An alternate hypothesis, in the works for a very long time [about as long as people have been sitting in diapers on cushions, meditating] is that there is a unique part of the universe, separate from matter-energy, something we might call the substrate consciousness (SC). This SC pervades all things, much like vacuum energy can be found anywhere, even in ’empty’ space. [NOTE: please excuse my mixing of different topic areas as if I know what I’m talking about. I don’t, but this is what’s coming to me as I write.] This hypothesis then posits that the mind stems from this consciousness. And if this is true, then the brain must be thought of as a prism, not a flashlight. Western science claims that consciousness comes directly from the brain, as light from a flashlight. Eastern wisdom [and all contemplative practices in general] posit that consciousness is a given, and that the brain merely directs the substrate consciousness, bending and dividing it much like a prism.

Now, the brain makes a very complicated prism, as made clear by the abundance of subjective experiences made available to humans, not to mention other animals. Every brain filters a very unique personality, spawned from a unique combination of genes and life experiences. The brain then can be studied as a way to see how consciousness may differ from person to person, as Western science already does.

I suppose this is all just a matter of world play and metaphor. Do you want to see the brain as a filter or a generator? Living life for so long seeing the brain as a generator, I find it a pleasurable experience to see it as a filter. All the facts of science still hold, except for the Hard Question of where the subjective experience comes from.

And this change of metaphors creates a whole new outlook on all things related to life, also opening a whole avenue of possibilities previously made ‘impossible’ by the laws of physics. If there really is a fundamental aspect of reality not yet discovered by scientists, as Buddhist contemplatives would argue, then perhaps some of the oddities of human myth and legend could be rationally explained.

Take reincarnation, for example. The traditional view that every person has an individual soul that moves from body to body seems a little far out. But consider that the interaction between the brain and the mind changes the substrate consciousness in some way, just as a physical interaction with an electric would change the field strength. Then that change could, upon interaction with a similar brain, manifest itself in the recollections of past lives. In fact, one might suppose that all past lives [and by that, of course, we mean past memories of those lives] still exist in some form in the substrate the consciousness.

Of course, this also leaves open an explanation for psi phenomena: if everyone is just a filter, an antenna of sorts, for one pervading medium, then it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a message being sent through that medium, perhaps in a wave-like fashion [but that’s also a metaphor, because we don’t actually know what the medium, let alone the method of motion, is like], from receiver to receiver.

As I said earlier, all of this is extremely speculative. Well, at least in the manner I’m going about discussing it. But it really does open whole new branches of thoughts / possibilities, in addition to entirely novel ways of looking at existing phenomena and experiences.

Take this all with a grain of salt. A very interesting grain of salt that merits further scientific investigation and personal reflection.

PS – I hope at this point the meaning of the previous post becomes clear. Just as in a dream there is the substrate consciousness [the consciousness of the dreamer] manifesting through the persona in the dream as well as all the different individuals encountered in the dream, waking life could be thought of as the substrate consciousness [in this case, a pervading ‘something’ that has yet to be identified] manifesting through the persona [YOU] and as well as the different individuals encountered in the waking life [ME, and everyone else in the world]. Carrying this metaphor further, we can think of the subjective experience of everyone stemming from one universal ‘something,’ which we all the substrate consciousness, and only seeming to stem from many different sources because, just as in a non-lucid dream, we do realize the unity of it all. Yeah, I just thought that was pretty cool. And worth reiterating.

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2 Responses to “The Brain as Prism”

  1. dave in the back said

    So if I have this straight, you’re talking about how there’s some other path of physics that explains how the brain works and how thoughts and feelings create some sort of … well, energy field that everyone can tap into.

    That sounds kinda iffy, but I guess on some level… meh… grain of salt.

  2. Victor said

    Really perfect…
    I’m so glad finding somebody with same idea and same methodology with me…
    I liked your way of mixing material into each other , I think this way too and enjoyed reading your precious words , I believe that this is a very innovative way of thinking (I know I’m narcissist now!! but also very happy of finding same idea holding person)
    My dear friend , happily I too have thought about ReIncarnation, A Homologous “something” which exists in upper dimensions and we are all aspects of it in unknown lower dimensions (like infinite possible 2D pictures that could be taken from just a single but 3D mountain) , and mixed them and found that both exist and reincarnation is an aspect of that “something” too , and in my opinion , not only that Something holds all lived memories (that can lend them to newly created brains) but also it holds the memories of future as well. BECAUSE IT MAY EXIST UPPER THAN ANY OTHER DIMENSIONS including time itself. therefor not only , reincarnation may exist ,but also everything (no matter where in our felt time vector is determined and is given existence from some kind of upper dimensional something.

    When I was writing my AI software, I wondered whether my computer or my Windows or my software , thinks that its thinking to solve the problem? or its a Zombie… whats the threshold of complexity of activity that makes some program works without consciousness (like my software) and another one works intentionally. Where from do we know that it doesn’t think and doesn’t feel Subjectivity? If its because it (computer software) doesn’t claim that it thinks? well it needs a simple code segment to educate it to claim that way!!
    Well…Actually when I was writing it and watched it running , many times I thought : “it may temporarily get aware of itself” …is there any needed code to make something get aware? or just reaching a threshold of complexity is enough to getting aware?

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