Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

Having sought to establish, in his book Close Connections, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, and that much that materialists see as explained away completely by the brain in fact has its roots in this other dimension, Hatcher shifts his focus onto a closer examination of some of the detailed implications of this.


Jenny Wade

For me,  perhaps the most fascinating one of all concerns the issue of memory. I’ve blogged about it a number of times. It is by no means settled yet what memory is and where it resides. Hatcher deals with this at some length. He explains his model in terms of spirit (page 251):

. . . . according to [the] Bahá’í perspective, the memory of self – even the recollection of specific events – will be retained by the soul and regained once the constraints of the associative relationship with the body are severed and the soul is released from its . . . . indirect connection with reality.‘

It may seem improbable that there could be any empirical basis for this. However, I have reviewed on this blog Jenny Wade’s book - Changes of Mind - and she is unequivocal that for her the evidence in favour of memory being held outside the brain is compelling. She reviews a mass of data based on careful investigations of the experiences of children, either from interviews with children or work with adults about prior experiences. What they described was carefully checked against the reports of independent witnesses (page 44):

Regression subjects … have accurately reported incidents long before any significant brain growthis possible, in some cases before the embryonic body was even formed.


William Wordsworth

Her model states that at conception the soul is independent of the body and its memories can be accessed by the child until about the age of four, after which the body becomes a barrier denying access. This is uncannily reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Ode on Immortality. I need to quote the whole stanza (lines 59-77):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

What other evidence have we for supposing something rather more special than a mechanical process is going on here?

For me the growing literature on near death experiences (NDEs), which I have reviewed elsewhere, settles the question that consciousness is not produced by the brain and resides somewhere else. The brain simply decodes it for our body to use. It’s a no-brainer then that memory is no different. The brain can access it but does not contain it. Hatcher discusses other lines of thought that tend in the same direction.

Computer models do not provide an adequate account of how new learning is recorded and memories laid down. On page 252 Hatcher quotes from an article by Joannie Schrof ‘What is a Memory Made of?’

Where a computer encodes data in strings of 0’s and 1’s, the brain forms ephemeral patterns of chemical and electrical impulses. Where computers record information in serial order like an index-card file, the human brain creates sprawling interconnections; more than a hundred billion nerves cells each connected to hundreds of thousands of others to form a billion connections.

In addition, he points towards Robert Rosen‘s book Life Itself (pages 253-54) who writes:

. . . no new information . . . can be processed by a computer if the computer has not already been programmed to consider this information. The brain, however, can effectively create new sequences and new pathways.

Others that I have referred to elsewhere have also raised radical doubts about the computer model. Take Pim van Lommel again, in his book Consciousness beyond LifeHe 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.


Karl Pribram (for the YouTube interview this comes from see link)

Though some critics feel that Lorber has overstated his case, the general point that severely compromised brains can function improbably well is not in question.

Where Hatcher goes next surprised me. He draws on the work of Pribram. I had read, as an undergraduate, his early work on plans and the structure of behaviour but perhaps I qualified too soon to benefit from the direction of his later work, that Hatcher refers to now. He describes (page 255) Pribram’s 1985  ‘holographic theory.’

As a concept of how the brain processes ideas or memory, the holographic theory implies that each portion of the brain contributing to the recollected idea would contain the complete thought, not a piece of it.

This took Pribram somewhere even more radically different from what I was taught in the 70s and early 80s (page 257-259):

Pribram has stated that the more he studies the brain and its functions, the more he feels that there may well be something outside the brain that accounts for its activity and capacity! . . . . .  the source from which the brain receives its “program” needs to be greater than the brain itself – the cause has to be greater than the effect it produces.’

And we find ourselves back with a familiar metaphor (page 257):

. . . Pribram has observed that when he studies the brain, he feels that in truth he is examining an elaborate transceiver rather than the ultimate repository of memory, the ultimate origin of self-consciousness, the primal engine of creativity, the seminal source of will, or the instigator of action.

Hatcher pushes this further and confronts the basic question which he feels is unanswerable in material terms (page 258): ‘. . . how can the brain be in charge of making itself function as a brain?’

This for him constitutes irrefutable grounds for believing in a transcendent reality imbued with a higher consciousness (page 258):

The most elaborate and powerful computer we have created or will ever create cannot program itself unless it is programmed to program itself. In short, there must exist for any given machine – or machine model of the brain – some willful input from an outside source for it to have any sense of goals or values, or for it to be capable of evaluating progress towards those goals.

And this brings him to a powerful and important point. We have a delicate and complex instrument entrusted to us for purposes that we are hardly even beginning to understand and we have to treat it with the utmost care and respect (page 259):

. . . the brain, as a counterpart of the soul and its faculties, . . . .  must be capable of mimicking in physical . . . terms everything the soul feels, conceives, decides, or wills. This fact explains why a human soul cannot associate with (operate through) anything less complex or less ingeniously devised than the human brain. . . . . Any practice or substance that distorts the associative relationship between soul and body or that tampers with the brain endangers our ability to function as complete human beings and, thereby, to fulfill our earthly purpose of attaining the knowledge of abstract reality . . .

For me this book pulled together thinking from many disciplines into a coherent and compelling case for the soul. The work he adduces usefully complements my own reading and suggests many directions I could now take it. For that I am most grateful. The least I could do, I felt, was bring this thoughtful book to  the attention of others.

CC books

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Connections 4 Oct 2013

At the end of the last post I rashly promised to pick up the threads of Hatcher’s overall position on the brain-mind-soul-spirit issue in his valiant effort to explain their interrelationships in Close Connections. So, here goes.

In spite of all that we are not sure about, what is clear, from Hatcher’s and my point of view, is there are four aspects to experience important to any consideration of consciousness:

  1. the body/brain which can up to a point receive messages from
  2. the mind which is related in some way to
  3. the rational soul/human spirit which in turn has some kind of access to
  4. the Spirit with a capital ‘S.’

I am certainly not competent to take the matter any further other than by unpacking what I have just said slightly more clearly.  It is this physical aspect of awareness – the brain – through which we consciously experience what we call our mind, which there is much evidence to suggest has access to a dimension of reality that seems best described as spiritual. I tend to see the ‘human spirit,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá terms it in one place at least, as the ‘soul.’ The mind, whose signals are decoded albeit imperfectly by the brain, emanates from this ‘human spirit’ or ‘soul’ which in turn has access to a spiritual realm of infinite proportions, whose complexities it seeks to transmit to the brain via the mind.

This may be the weakest point of Hatcher’s treatment and/or my understanding of this subject, but I am none the less grateful to him for triggering me to probe somewhat more deeply into the matter than I had done so far, and also to provide me with other avenues to explore for evidence and understanding.

This process by which this kind of communication between spirit and body brings ‘about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or inner life’ is by no means automatic. Willpower plays a critical role (page 223):

Within this context ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms that our own advancement, however much it may be assisted from forces outside ourselves, must be instigated and sustained by our own will.

And there is no wriggle room here, no get-out clauses (page 224):

… while we may have little or no control over the path our life will take or what tests and calamities will befall us, we do have control over how we respond to all circumstances.


Jeffrey Schwartz

This blog has explored two schools of empirically based thought which validate the importance of the exercise of willpower in personal change. Schwartz, in his thorough description of his understanding and its basis in the experimental literature - The Mind and the Brain - sees it this way (his model involves four stages – page 94).

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

The other approach, which is complementary not contradictory, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, explored by Hayes at al in the book of the same name (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Hatcher is not blind to the heated debate which continues to rage around this whole issue between materialists who wish to see everything, including consciousness, explained entirely in physical terms and others who argue for the reality of a metaphysical dimension. His response is clear (page 227):

… The simplest response to [materialistic] arguments is that if these hypotheses are fashioned by the author’s own illusory faculties, then the hypotheses themselves maybe illusory or baseless. In effect, any hypothesis to the contrary has quite as much weight if all suppositions about reality are purely subjective and self-constructed.


We’ve been here before with Alvin Plantinga‘s brilliant and cogently argued hoisting of naturalism’s arguments, rooted in evolutionary theory, with its own petard in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

Hatcher goes on to examine evidence that the will can affect not just the brain, as Schwartz has demonstrated, but also physical reality outside the body of the consciousness deploying its intentions. He looks at the work of Jahn and Dunne, for example. They were critically reviewing, amongst other things, what they concluded was the rigorous evidence for tele/psychokinesis (pages 228-29):  ‘Amazingly, the documented results revealed an interplay between the conscious will of the participants and the distribution of the [ping-pong] balls.’ This kind of evidence, as we know, is dismissed a priori by practitioners of scientism on the grounds that they know this is impossible and the experiments must by definition be flawed and therefore not worth looking at let alone seeking to replicate.

While I am not familiar with the experiments Hatcher is referring to I have read two books which look carefully at the research evidence as a whole in the field of parapsychology. Both books come down cautiously in favour of the idea that something genuine is happening in terms of psychokinesis, though the most compelling evidence is derived from studies which involved influencing a random number generator rather than dice, because methodological rigour is easier to achieve. Deborah Delanoy in Jane Henry’s book Parapsychology: research on exceptional experiences quotes Radin and Nelson (page 54) who:

. . . . concluded that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under certain circumstances, consciousness interacts with random physical systems.”

Harvey Irwin in his book An Introduction of Parasychology makes a very sophisticated point about these same data (page 134):

That this phenomena [sic] necessarily entails a “mind over matter” effect as implied by the PK [psychokinesis] hypothesis is another issue. . . . . Statistically significant performances may stem not from a psychokinetic process but from precognitive identification of an appropriate time to commence the experimental series or to make a response in the experimental task. . . . . .  Recent analyses … suggest that this explanation does not fit the data as effectively as the assumption of direct (PK) influence, but the simple fact that the intuitive data sorting hypothesis can be proposed is sufficient to indicate that the PK research is not conclusive for the issue of ontological reality. . . . It cannot be said that a “mind over matter” effect has been authenticated.

Even so, if PK cannot be definitively ruled in because some form of clairvoyance might be at work, this hardly boosts the materialists’ cause.

You may be relieved or disappointed to know that we are now close to the end of Hatcher’s brave and for the most part lucid account of this complex area. He next gets to grips with issues such as memory, the definition of whose exact nature still eludes the experts. More of that in the next post.

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No surrender

For source of image see link

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John Hatcher

At the close of the previous post, we saw that Hatcher’s explanation of his position in Close Connections so far had paved the way for a number of quotations from the Bahá’í literature.  I have been familiar with these quotes ever since I wrestled with the discrepancy between what I had been taught as an agnostic clinical psychologist in training and what my newly found spiritual path was telling me. They are central to the issues under discussion and were extremely useful to me in my search for a deeper understanding.

First of all he quotes the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 196):

Man has also spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

Hatcher then goes on to allude to a problem that is still challenging to grapple with – what are we talking about when we say ‘soul’ and what does it mean when we say ‘spirit’? He quotes the helpful words of Shoghi Effendi (page 206):

What the Bahá’ís do believe though is that we have three aspects of our humanness, so to speak, a body, a mind and and an immortal identity – soul or spirit. We believe the mind forms a link between the soul and the body, and the two interact with each other.

A translation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to clarify this in a further quotation (page 208): ‘. . . . the soul is the intermediary between the body and spirit.’ This carries an implication that there is a strong link between mind and soul, even if they are not identical. There is another useful quotation from a book which pulls together His responses to questions that people put to Him (page 209):

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

This indicates the closeness of the correspondence.

Light & Lamp

Hatcher spells out the importance for him of the distinction between soul and spirit (page 209):

For our purposes, this distinction will assume more importance as we elaborate the two methodologies by which the spirit operates as the conduit for information channelled to the conscious soul. Hence the distinction between soul and spirit is relevant to our study.

I have to confess I got a bit lost at this point and still am. I am not completely sure whether Hatcher is using ‘conscious soul’ as meaning the same as ‘mind’ in the quote immediately above his words. I am assuming at this point that he is, but that assumption will shortly be severely tested.

Before he deals with the two methodologies there is a bit more ground to cover in the translation of the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 213):

For the mind to manifest itself, the human body must be whole; and a sound mind cannot be but in a sound body, whereas the soul dependeth not upon the body. It is through the power of the soul that the mind comprehendeth, imagineth and exerteth its influence, while the soul is a power that is free.

As Hatcher points out later, this is why the Baha’i Writings place such emphasis on the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, both of which cause a degree of damage to the brain, the organ which even at its best will struggle to decode the complex information reaching it from the spiritual realm.

And now for the two methodologies (page 215):

The mind infers or induces the general from the particular and the unknown from the known. This is what we commonly allude to as the scientific method. However, the soul also has as its disposal methods for acquiring information about reality directly from the spiritual realm – through prayer and reflection, meditation, dreams, intuition, inspiration, and so forth.

It’s important to note, though, that (page 216)  ‘. . . regardless from what source information derives, it ends up in the same “place” . . . . . – it ends up in our conscious mind.’

At this point Hatcher summarises what he feels we have learnt so far before moving onto even deeper levels (page 218):

Between the human soul and the human temple is the intermediary of the human spirit, which employs the medium (perfect mirror or transceiver) of the rational faculty or the mind to bring about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or ‘inner’ life.

Brain-Mind-Spirit Diagram

I have refrained from bringing in other references that Hatcher makes to such terms as ‘rational soul’ and ‘common faculty’ as they would have complicated things further in ways that would have extended this discussion unduly without adding much to its essence. For instance, he explains at the end of the paragraph discussing the ‘rational soul’ (pages 207-208) that: ”Abdu’l-Bahá sometimes employs the term spirit to allude to the human soul, while at other times he may use the same term to refer to the power that animates the soul and emanates from it.’ Later he writes, of the  ‘common faculty,’ (page 238):

The ‘common faculty’ thus translates metaphysical ideas into a form that the physical brain can comprehend and subsequently translate into forms of action.

This is not a concept that I have met anywhere else and addresses a problem that I do not think is widely recognised. We  know next to nothing about how this ‘common faculty’ might perform its role. There has to be a bridge, though, between the immaterial and the material. It is not clear yet by what methods we might come to a better understanding of how it works.

Setting those aside for the purpose of  keeping this review within manageable bounds, if I can summarise my problem at this point it is that we have met, in the last few paragraphs, the following models:

  1. Body (the physical) – Mind (the intermediary) – Soul (the metaphysical): Shoghi Effendi’s explanation.
  2. Body (the physical) – Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation.
  3. Mind (an emanation) – Spirit (the immaterial source of the mind): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to a question,
  4. Body (the physical) – Conscious Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): Hatcher’s first formulation.
  5. Body (the physical) – Mind (means of inference from specifics) – Soul (direct access to the spiritual): Hatcher’s second formulation.
  6. Human temple (the physical) – Human Spirit using the Mind (the intermediary) – Human Soul: Hatcher’s final formulation.

So my provisional assumption that Hatcher is using ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ as roughly equivalent is not entirely consistent with his usage overall. It may well be that I need to re-read these sections of the book yet again, for the third time, in the hope that I will discover that the confusion is entirely mine. However, I do not have the time (or do I mean the motivation?) to do that at present and I suspect that the fault lies at least in part with the shifting sands of the terminology used here. I find the reasons the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, gave for his clarification quoted earlier most helpful in this situation. (To be fair, Hatcher also quotes it but I feel loses hold of its core warning on this issue as his discussion progresses.)

When studying at present, in English, the available Bahá’í writings on the subject of body, soul and spirit, one is handicapped by a certain lack of clarity because not all were translated by the same person, and also there are, as you know, still many Bahá’í writings untranslated. But there is no doubt that spirit and soul seem to have been interchanged in meaning sometimes; soul and mind have, likewise, been interchanged in meaning, no doubt due to difficulties arising from different translations.

I think we basically have to leave it there for now, at least as far as the Bahá’í explanation is concerned.  I will pick up the threads of this theme, as far as that is possible, in the next post. The picture below will be the link.

Connections 4 Oct 2013

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Dizzy heightsI recently read John Hatcher’s latest book Understanding Death. The second half was compelling reading and I’d thoroughly recommend it. However, it maps so closely onto so much that I have blogged about recently I thought I’d refrain from reviewing it in detail. It inspired me though to go back to an earlier book of his published in 2005 – Close Connections. Improbable as it might sound to a materialist, this book on spirituality helped keep me grounded in reality recently while I was staying on the dizzying 32nd floor of a Shanghai hotel. While the themes it deals with, unlike the hotel, are not exactly a million miles away from my well trodden home turf, it has much that enriched my understanding further, so I thought reviewing the second half of this book would be well worthwhile.

He looks in the first part of the book, at science, evolution and theodicy, amongst other preoccupations of mine, before he reaches the core topic of his book which I want to look at more closely. I am going to pick up his theme roughly halfway through (page 154): ‘our metaphorical self (our body) is the outward expression of our metaphysical self (our soul).’

The first half of his book has sought to establish that there is both a spiritual and a physical aspect to reality. This is a theme developed elsewhere on this blog so I thought I’d skip that aspect of his argument this time round. I am mainly interested for now on where he goes with this.

Much that he says has echoes of my other reading and I’ll point this up where it seems appropriate to do so.

He sees parallels between the maturation of the individual and of society (page 162).

Even as the advancement of the human body politic is portrayed in [Baha'i] terms of an “ever-advancing civilisation,” so the advancement of the individual can be portrayed in terms of an ever more inclusive or expansive definition of “self” . . . . an expanding sense of one’s relationships with and obligations to others, even eventually to the whole of mankind.


Robert Wright

The resonates with Robert Wright in The Evolution of God and Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation. Wright’s position is captured in a quote I’ve used in an earlier post:

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

(page 428-429)

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, takes a more nuanced position but nonetheless highlights the positive power of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

A recent article suggests that the empathy debate is a vigorous one.

From here Hatcher moves through familiar territory marshalling evidence in support of the metaphysical including near death experiences (NDEs) for example. There is much on this blog on this subject also (see the earlier links) so again I will not dwell on this.

It’s when he refers to Larry Dossey quoting the work of Paul Davies (page 180-81) that we move closer to the core of my current preoccupations.

‘What stuff is the soul made of?’ he asks.  ‘The question is as meaningless as asking what stuff citizenship or Wednesdays are made of. The soul is a holistic concept.’ This essential concept of ‘the mind,’ or ‘self,’ or ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’ as nonlocal and nonmaterial – though capable of interacting with physical reality – is critical to our discussion.

pim v l

Pim van Lommel

This proves to be a truly challenging issue once you get up close, as we will see in the sequence of four posts.

The start is deceptively familiar, straightforward even. He brings in, at this point, the metaphor of the ‘transceiver’ which I had already met in the work of Pim van Lommel who unpacks it in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 68 – see an earlier post for a fuller treatment):

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.

Hatcher puts it this way (page 181):

To consider that the consciousness and its powers (will, memory, rational thought) can function through a transceiver (the brain) without being localised is at the heart of the Bahá’í concept of an ‘associated’ or ‘counterpart’ relationship between the physical self (especially the brain) and the metaphysical self (the soul). Dossey states the concept succinctly: ‘the fact that the mind maybe nonlocal does not mean that it could not act through the brain.’

These ideas, I have recently discovered, have their roots in the thinking of a 19th Century pioneer in this area, FWHMyers. Kelly in the book Irreducible Mind summarises a key part of his position (page 73):

. . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self

After exploring the effects of prayer, he draws on the insights of Lothar Schafer (pages 184-85): ‘. . . the background of reality has mind-like qualities.’ This is reminiscent of what Amit Goswami, the physicist, described in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science.

This paves the way for a close consideration of the light that the Baha’i Writings shed on this intriguing and all-important matter. Consideration of that will have to wait till the next post. It’s where concepts get really slippery and hard to hold onto.

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mind diagram material

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

As time goes on my idea of what I think is happening in consciousness moves gradually more within the reach of speech. In my view, as modern humans in thrall to a materialistic ideology, we believe we live in a bubble largely mediated by the brain and to a considerable extent that is true. I’ve tried to model this idea in the diagram above: it’s not meant to replace the threshold model I’ve discussed elsewhere but rather to complement it. The threshold model represents an idea which was once more widely accepted in the West and needs to be again. The two ways of describing the situation are not incompatible. The threshold model allows for the fact that if you damage the brain as a receiver of transcendent wavelengths you end up locked into a very narrow range of signals, in some cases exclusively from the basest part of the spectrum.

Most brains most of the time for most of us have reasonably accurate access to our social and material environment. Transcendent reality is a no-brainer most of the time these days in the West, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense of the term.

Where’s the harm in that?

If my understanding of people and things keeps me safe and does no harm to anyone else, what’s the problem?

Well, for a start, it’s very rare for anyone’s brain to work that well all the time.  Our brains are far from perfect. The messages our brains convey to our minds are mucked up one way or another far too often for our comfort. Many of the ways this happens are relatively harmless and are dealt with in books such as those by Chris Frith - Making Up the Mind and Kahneman - Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow - I have touched on the latter in an earlier post.

Sometimes though, as a result of these distortions, we harm ourselves and others all too frequently.

A good place to start examining some of the ways the brain can be shaped to warp our understanding in dangerous ways is Adrian Raine‘s overview of the roots of crime in his book The Anatomy of Violence. He’s no believer in transcendence: he dismisses Descartes, for example, saying with confident incredulity, that he thought the brain ‘was an antenna for the spirit to communicate with the body’ (page 65). He’s also radically sceptical about the idea of free will, and regards it as an illusion (page 315): ‘You did not choose to read this book. Your brain made you do it.’

Nonetheless, you’d have to go a long way to find a better analysis of the ways that the physical and the social can interact to create a dangerous brain. And he bravely goes out a long way onto a tapering branch in a thoroughly justified effort to bring the taboo topic of biology back into the frame of reference for any discussion of the origins of crime and violence.

It will be impossible for me to do full justice to his position in such a short space as this, so I do not propose to dwell on what are for me some of the weaker sections of the book but they have to be mentioned. The book has the structure of a sandwich.

The first part advocates an unqualified evolutionary perspective on the reasons why men are the main perpetrators of violence in our society. The data he uses certainly support this gender bias unequivocally. Evolution has clearly played its part. Most of what he adduces by way of a supposedly complete explanation is a plausible myth for which, by definition, there can be little if any evidence.

The last part explores, depending on your perspective, either a utopian or a dystopian view of our future ability to reduce crime, for example, by only allowing those with a licence to have children and by placing in secure but reasonably pleasant environments those whom our much improved testing methods have defined as almost certain to commit serious harm in the future. It’s a brave presentation of possibilities, but not to everyone’s taste perhaps – we’re in the land of the Minority Report almost.

There is more to his thesis than that though. There is the wholesome protein of well-supported analysis between these two slices of white bread.

Dennis Rader

Dennis Rader

My interest in this aspect of the mind-brain relationship has always been there, hence for example my post on Baron-Cohen’s book – Zero Degrees of Empathy. This interest was recently reactivated by the above-average crime drama on BBC - The Fall. There we see the activities of a serial killer whose identity we know right from the start. The story line was based on the murders of Dennis Rader so it was well-grounded in the real world and a fascinating depiction of how a man can execute a series of murders while at the same time appearing to be an ordinary family man.

This motivated me to get past the off-putting opening section of Raine’s book and reach the fascinating core of his analysis. Raine acknowledges from the outset that social and biological influences interact (page 9):

I want to stress that social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence.

His Core Position

To summarise his strongest thesis brutally, he illustrates in compelling detail how impairments in various parts of the brain, which would usually result either from genetic imperfections and/or from pre-, peri- or post-natal insult or deprivation, though later injuries play a definite part, are compounded when attachment problems occur in infancy and early childhood. The damage that can occur to the developing brain is often preventable as in the case of the harm which is caused by alcohol, tobacco and drug usage. Sometimes, tragically, it is not preventable even though it should be, as in the case of post-war starvation conditions during pregnancy. It’s effects can be passed down the generations by means of the epigenetic effects – ie when our environment works to switch genes on or off.

Once the damage is done it is hard if not impossible to remedy when the person whose brain is impaired is unwilling to invest any effort in the process. Willingness to invest effort suggests that there are ways of repairing the brain even of a possible psychopath. I think the will to do so comes from the mind which is independent of the brain but requires an intact brain to operate: Raine, of course, would feel the drive to mend your brain comes from the brain itself.


To simplify somewhat, the focus of much of what he writes concerns defects in conscience, emotional conditioning and the organisation of one’s behaviour.


In terms of conscience and conditioning the limbic system plays a key role (page 90):

Josh Greene, an amazing philosopher and neuroscientist at Harvard, published the first study to describe what happens at a neural level during personal moral dilemmas. . . . Compared to more “impersonal” moral dilemmas that do not bring you face-to-face with someone else, your brain shows increased activation in a circuit that comprises the medial prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala. . . . . This is where that amygdala and other limbic activation comes in, contributing to the emotional “conscience” component of moral decision-making alongside some subregions of the prefrontal cortex.

It appears to account for the lack of conscience in a psychopath (page 115):

We can think of a conscience as essentially a set of classically conditioned emotional responses. . . . Because of this lack of fear conditioning, psychopaths lack a fully developed conscience. And it is that lack of conscience—a sense of what is right and what is wrong—that makes them who they are.

Two Types of Psychopath

The kind of thing that makes this book such an invaluable read is that Raine does not stop there. He looks at evidence that draws a distinction between two types of psychopath (page 124):

The unsuccessful psychopaths also show what we would expect based on prior research with institutionalized psychopaths, a blunted autonomic stress response—only small increases in sweat rate and heart rate from the resting baseline. The successful psychopaths, in sharp contrast to their unsuccessful counterparts, show significant increases in heart rate and skin conductance relative to their resting state. Essentially there is no difference between the successful psychopaths and the normal controls.

He is all too aware that this then raises another crucial question (page 128):

But if the successful psychopath does not have the autonomic impairments that haunt failed psychopaths, what made him psychopathic in the first place?

And as you would expect from such a thorough study, he has an answer (page 128):

The successful [psychopaths' pulse rate is] six beats per minute slower than the control group, and slightly below the level of the unsuccessful psychopaths. So, successful psychopaths have the low resting cardiovascular arousal that we argued earlier may result in stimulation-seeking, a cardinal feature of the psychopath.

As if that was not complicated enough, he throws another ingredient into the mix (ibid.):

. . . . .the successful psychopaths evidenced a psychosocial impairment not shown by the other two groups—being raised by people other than their natural parents or being brought up in a foster home or other institution. Parental absence and a lack of bonding may have helped shape the lack of close social connectedness and the superficiality that typifies psychopathic relationships.

Clearly then, brain abnormalities interact with environmental influences so we are not looking at a simplistically biological model here.

Learning from Mistakes

A different area of the brain comes into play when we look at impulse control and the organisation of behaviour (page 138):

Those with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder—lifelong persistent antisocial behavior—had an 11 percent reduction in the volume of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. . .

He goes on to explain why this matters (page 141):

 The ventral prefrontal cortex . . . .  connects to the limbic system and other brain areas to generate appropriate emotional responses within a social context, measured here by a sweat response. . . . Second, at a cognitive level, such neurological patients make bad decisions.

What is even more interesting is that such deficits impair the linkage with emotional learning in such a way that people do not get warning bells ringing in their heads when they enter situations which past experience has demonstrated to them are potentially dangerous. They never made the connection so they repeat the mistake. In a card choice experiment which required the participants to learn to discriminate between a high-reward high-risk deck with low longterm returns from a low-risk low-reward deck with high longterm returns, guess what? There were no alarm bells ringing in the lesion patients’ heads (page 142) ‘so they continue to pick cards from the bad decks.’

Only Simulations to go on

This is a very small sample of evidence from a book which is 453 pages long. While the incidence of extreme consequences such as murder and rape as a result of brain impairment is relatively low, the prevalence of distorted perceptions of personal and practical reality as a result of milder deficits in the brain are far more widespread. What is even more unsettling is that even the normal brain cannot be relied on to deliver completely accurate estimates of what is really going on outside our heads. I’ve explored that elsewhere so I won’t bang on about it again here. I simply wanted to do a bit more to dispel the complacency with which we all assume we know what’s real and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad.

Unfortunately, all we have is a relatively useful approximation of reality to go on, and we have to be prepared for it to sometimes let us down quite badly.

So, is there anything we can rely on more securely? Is there anyway our consciousness can reliably access a trustworthy simulation of a more viable reality? That’s something I hope to return to in due course when I might be able to speak to the possibility, even probability, of a model more like the one below.

mind diagram with transcend

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Regular readers of this blog will have seen this diagram before. No need to worry, though. This post is not a repeat of a previous one though it does return to an earlier theme.

I was at a meeting the other day where a conversation with a friend clarified that I am not the only one to find the idea of consciousness having thresholds an extremely useful one that resonates strongly with personal experience. It was only a snatched exchange of ideas as the meeting moved from one part of the agenda to another but it was enough for us to pass shared fragments of agreed reality to and fro.

‘Please, friends,’ shouted the facilitator. ‘We need to sit down. . . . ‘

‘I really like this idea of the brain as a filter,’ my friend whispered.

‘. . .  we really have to make a start. . . . . ‘

‘I know,’ I replied out of the corner of my mouth.’ It fits with the other analogy of the brain as a receiver.’

‘. . . we’ve got a lot to do still. . . . ‘

‘Yes,’ she hissed. ‘It tunes to a wavelength and only catches a tiny part of the spectrum.’

‘Right,’ came the shout from the front. ‘We need to watch the presentation on the make up of this neighbourhood.’

We had to sit back down again, keep quiet and tune into the broadcast of the meeting.

It was enough to trigger another spate of ideas on this subject. This is partly because, as I think I have said before, this blog all too often simply relays other people’s ideas and doesn’t share why they resonate so strongly with me at a personal level. Perhaps it would be useful to do bit more sharing at that level. It feels a bit scary though so I’ll start with a few generalisations.

Filtering – a mixed blessing

It is efficient for consciousness to be protected by filters. It would be hard to focus on what to do next if we were flooded with all the possible incoming data, most of which is not relevant to our present purposes. When the filter breaks down problems of distraction or destruction creep in such as with so-called ‘psychosis’. I read a paper by Hemsley on this many years ago, 1975 in fact, in which he examined ‘attention deficits in schizophrenia.’  “Inefficiencies in . . .  the ‘filtering’ . . . .  mechanism” is referred to as one of the factors behind this problem with focused attention. Attention is grabbed by passing distractions and their grip was thought to be too strong sometimes to resist. Much water has passed under this bridge since, particularly in terms of radically questioning the whole construct of schizophrenia, but the idea that we need a filter to keep out unwanted distractions if we are to function efficiently still seems plausible.

But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. This protection comes at a price. We are blind and deaf to much that would enrich our lives. When consciousness is controllably permeable there is an opportunity for creativity and/or mysticism. This is an area that Myers was very much concerned with and I will eventually return to that topic in this blog. (‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ Well. at least another 400 pages by my reckoning. I got bogged down for a long time in the rather swampy prose of the chapter on memory in Irreducible Mind.)


Anyway, to get back to the main point. What makes me feel that what I am conscious of is protected by filters that create a threshold that certain kinds of experience cannot or at least do not usually cross? I am not going to go into any detail about the way the brain works to control attention. One example of its reality should be enough to convince that a filtering process of stunning power exists. An experiment was run where people were asked to count the passes of the ball in a basket ball game. During the game a man in a gorilla suit walks across the court in full view. Half those watching the video and counting passes did not see him! The significance of this is discussed at the following link. A key comment for our present purposes is this:

Question: What does this experiment demonstrate to us about selective attention?

Christopher Chabris: What this experiment shows is that when we’re paying attention to something, basically doing a task that demands our attention such as counting the passes of the basketball in this case, or really any other kind of really attention-demanding task that we do, we can seriously overestimate our ability to do other tasks at the same time and especially to notice and handle unexpected or surprising things.  We think that we’re going to notice unexpected things that come into our field of view and we think we’re going to pay attention to the things we should pay attention to, but in fact, when we’re focused on one task, we’re noticing and paying attention to a lot less than we really think.

Coming up from below

Of course, I am not talking only of this kind of filtering, which most of us would readily accept as part of our makeup. I am talking about something more radical.

The idea that consciousness has material pressing upwards upon it from below has a long history, and Freud is probably its most famous proponent. While I do not accept that his description of my mental architecture is accurate nor that his account of the complexes is completely credible, I do agree that underneath my awareness there are strong currents of unacknowledged experiences flowing. This was brought home to me in 1974 in the most compelling fashion imaginable.

Shortly before this stunning experience, I had been standing in a pub in Hampstead, staring out of its leaded window panes onto the mishapen street outside as I waited for a friend to join me. An unexpected thought just flashed through my mind concerning my work as a teacher: ‘If I have to carry on with this another thirty years I’d rather shoot myself.’ I was shocked. Thoughts like that were not just rare occurrences in my consciousness – they had been non-existent until that moment at the age of 31.

I decided it was time for a little self-exploration. Not realising the risks I might have been taking and because of my antiestablishment stance at the time which bordered on the anarchic, it never occurred to me to try any conventional approach to self-understanding –  I had to go for the totally alternative. I got to hear of a group which called itself ‘People Not Psychiatry.’ I discovered that one of their followers ran encounter groups in a squat not far from where I was living at the time. I booked in for an ‘encounter group’ weekend.

The full story will have to wait till next time.

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