Van Lommel, in his book Consciousness beyond Life, is attempting to persuade us that consciousness is not a product of the brain: in fact, the brain, in his view, may simply be our means of accessing consciousness, rather as a computer gives us access to the internet.
After the first shock of becoming a Bahá’í, which came at the end of twenty years as an atheist including seven years exposure to a reductionist psychological orthodoxy, I had to fight to integrate my new understanding into my current worldview. Now I was reading that the mind is an emanation of the spirit, whereas previously everything that I had read told me that the mind was at best an emergent property of the brain, at worst simply a by-product of neuronal complexity. It was a steep learning curve.
For anyone reading this who is where I was in terms of this collision of ideas, Pim van Lommel is at the top of an ideological Everest. I am not naïve enough to suppose that a sequence of three blog posts is going to do much to shift such a person from where they are at present into this very different paradigm, especially given the bias of mainstream science against the whole idea as completely preposterous.
I would like to argue though that the only tenable position for any true science to adopt is agnosticism, and, moreover, an agnosticism that does not rule out anything a priori, that is prepared to examine any evidence on its merits no matter how dissonant with its prevailing ideas, and that is also capable of realising that evidence and explanation are not the same thing at all. While I might feel that van Lommel’s evidence and the arguments he builds upon its foundations are compelling in their demonstration that there is indeed a soul and an afterlife (in fact, he’s not quite saying that), there might be other conclusions to draw from that same evidence that we will be deprived of if we dismiss it out of hand as virtually delusional.
So, in that spirit, I hope I can carry along any convinced atheists among the readers of this blog at least to the end of this post and of the next one so that they can hopefully get a glimpse of the cogency of his arguments through my rather brutal summary. It has not been possible to also include a detailed explanation of his evidence base. For that a close reading of his text would be necessary. You will have to take my word for it that the evidence he musters, beyond the fragments I refer to here, is not to be easily dismissed as fantasy.
Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case (pages 132-133):
The fact that an NDE is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.
What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition. The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):
Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.
and for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):
The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.
The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);
As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.
What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’
He is, of course, not claiming that there is no relationship at all between brain activity and consciousness, only that the brain does not produce or completely determine consciousness in any way we currently understand and any assumption of that kind is unwarranted. He also produces reasons for concluding that our technology is not sophisticated enough as yet to capture what is actually going on. For example, our equipment can only scan once every two seconds whereas cerebral processes take place in milliseconds. This, he says, (page 180) is like ‘reading a book by reading only one of each thousand words.’
Further to this point, he quotes the interesting experience of a sophisticated subject who wanted to test this for himself, unknown to the experimenters. They were testing for the mind/brain’s reaction to either having one’s foot tickled or seeing one’s foot tickled. He decided he was going to think about football in the one case and about his cat’s funeral in the other. The results showed no difference between his thoughts and the thoughts of all the other participants as far as the fMRI scans were concerned (pages 180-181):
At present, scientific research methods appear to be incapable of accurately studying the neural processes associated with our experience of consciousness. . . . . . Given the fact that Roepstorff’s thoughts fell outside the scope of the experiment, the test leader should not have been able to understand the findings. But the leader failed to notice anything strange about the scans. They were no different from the scans of any of the other subjects. . . . .. only the subject himself has direct access to his thoughts.
Consciousness is fundamentally unverifiable, and thus fails to meet scientific criteria…. This evaporates the hope for completely objective knowledge about consciousness. Sooner or later, you will have to talk to your subject, so there will always be a subjective link.
Brain as Transceiver
Van Lommel then moves on to even more interesting ground (pages 183-184):
The hypothesis that consciousness and memory are produced and stored exclusively in the brain remains unproven. For decades, scientists have tried unsuccessfully to localize memories and consciousness in the brain. It is doubtful whether they will ever succeed.
He quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):
Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.
Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):
John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.
This leads him to feel that the usual conclusion we draw when brain damage impairs functioning may be simplistic and misleading (ibid.):
. . . [F]unctions can also be lost after brain damage brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage, serious head trauma with permanent brain damage, long-term alcohol abuse, or encephalitis. The obvious and correct conclusion must be that the brain has a major impact on the way people show their everyday or waking consciousness to the outside world. The instrument, the brain, has been damaged, whereas “real” consciousness remains intact.
There is also a two-way relationship between mind and brain, something to which the latest work on neuroplasticity conclusively testifies (see earlier posts for more information). As van Lommel puts it (page 184): ‘A conscious experience can be the result of brain activity, but a brain activity can also be the result of consciousness.’ He expands on this point later (page 200):
In summary, the human mind is capable of changing the anatomical structure and associated function of the brain. The mind can change the brain. There is unmistakable interaction between the mind and the brain and not just in the sense of cause and effect. As such, it would be incorrect to claim that consciousness can only be a product of brain function. How could a product be able to change its own producer?
He therefore feels justified in stating (ibid.):
. . . . switching on your computer, connecting to the Internet, and navigating to a Web site does not determine the content of this Web site. The activation of certain areas of the brain cannot explain the content of thoughts and emotions.
Later he unpacks the implications of this more fully (page 268):
We are not aware of the hundreds of thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of television and radio broadcasts, and the billions of Internet connections around us day and night, passing through us and through the walls, including those of the room in which you are reading this book. . . . . . We only see and hear the program when we switch on a TV set,. . . . . The computer does not produce the Internet any more than the brain produces consciousness. The computer allows us to add information to the Internet just like the brain is capable of adding information from our body and senses to our consciousness.
Where this leaves us
He strongly questions the default position of contemporary neuroscience (page 185):
Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Consciousness does not happen in the brain… despite the fact that a majority of contemporary scientists specializing in consciousness research still espouse a materialist and reductionist explanation for consciousness,
He explains exactly where key mechanisms for consciousness fail in a cardiac arrest and why an alternative explanation is necessary for those cases where full or even heightened consciousness exists in such a brain state (page 193):
During a cardiac arrest the cerebral cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, and brain stem as well as all connections between them stop functioning, as we have seen, which prevents information from being integrated and differentiated—a prerequisite for communication and thus for the experience of consciousness. The experience of consciousness should be impossible during a cardiac arrest. All measurable electrical activity in the brain has been extinguished and all bodily and brain-stem reflexes are gone. And yet, during this period of total dysfunction, some people experience a heightened and enhanced consciousness, known as an NDE.
Not surprisingly, this line of thought has spiritual implications (page 302):
Physicist and psychologist Peter Russell compares the ability to experience consciousness with the light of a film projector. As the projector throws light onto a screen, the projected images change constantly. All of these projected images, such as perceptions, feelings, memories, dreams, thoughts, and emotions, form the content of consciousness. Without the projector’s light there would be no images, which is why the light can be compared to our ability to experience consciousness. But the images do not constitute consciousness itself. When all the images are gone and only the projector’s light remains, we are left with the pure source of consciousness. This pure consciousness without content is called samadhi by Indian philosophers and initiates and can be experienced after many years of meditation. It is said to bring enlightenment.
This brings me to a consideration of what van Lommel makes of this possibility. That will have to wait for the next post.