My Mind Is Not My Brain

Guest Post by Abigail L. Rosenthal      

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?

Try it and see.


This article has been republished with permission from VoegelinView.

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9 Responses to My Mind Is Not My Brain

  1. kaysee kaysee says:

    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.

    In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl examines the meaning of life and says that it cannot be discussed in general terms. The meaning is specific to a person and the given moment.

    Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique, as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

  2. Old bloke says:

    I learned recently that electrical energy doesn’t actually flow in the wires, it flows around the wires. Similarly our self-consciousness exists as an energy force surrounding the brain in the same relationship as electrical energy to wires.

    There was a report some years ago about a Frenchman who lost most of his brain due to some rare disease which caused the grey stuff to just wither away, and he was completely unaware of it. He was middle-aged, worked in the French Post Office, and it had no impact on his daily life.

    The brain isn’t the only organ which holds memories, beliefs, likes and dislikes, and the other ethereal componentry by which we describe ourselves, our other organs also appear to hold some memories and preferences. There have been studies undertaken which show that people who have undergone organ transplants of one sort or another acquire new interests and discard old interests as the transplanted organ melds into their consciousness.

    On the topic of near-death experiences, the account of a New Zealand surfer in Mauritius is very enlightening –

    IAN McCORMACK GLIMPSE OF ETERNITY RE-ENACTMENT

  3. kaysee kaysee says:

    On the topic of near-death experiences, the account of a New Zealand surfer in Mauritius is very enlightening

    We tend to use the terms ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ as synonyms. If they are not, what does it mean?

    The writer of the essay poses this query:

    Could there be credible evidence that, when our brains die, we remain conscious?

    I have watched a few of these near-death experience videos and the descriptions of life in the next world. The video you posted is an enactment of what happened to McCormack.

    In this shorter video, Ian McCormack is asked: How do you prove it?
    He says: .…It is by Faith….

    Another short one: 11 Minutes in Heaven.

  4. Shy Ted says:

    Just read her profile. She’s a philosopher – paid to think and never come to a conclusion. Nice work if you can get it.
    I think the experiences after brain death are easily explainable. As we’re not moving, digesting etc any available oxygen is used in tiny amounts by the brain as it always is. Tiny amounts. If you’re going to be revived or “come back from the dead” the CPR or other medical care will keep the oxygen moving and the brain “alive” including some senses. So it’s perfectly feasible to be “aware” of what’s going on.
    As for the white light experiences and “my life flashed before me”, the fight/flight mechanism sends O2 to the major muscles and away from elsewhere. Perfect conditions for visual hallucinations which seem more real than actual reality. Lots of people with permanent brain damage suffer chronic hallucinations.

  5. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare says:

    I’ve just finished reading ‘Still Alice’ a novel published in 2005 by Lisa Genova, a neurobiologist. As the blurb says, it can be difficult reading for anyone who has had a ‘senior moment’ or lost their glasses, but not to worry; that can be quite normal. This story however follows an academic woman aged fifty, at the height of her career, who is suddenly aware she is developing problems of mind and memory, including issues with spatial orientation and visual perception. She is diagnosed with early onset dementia and the book sensitively provides her interior experiences and faltering comprehension of herself through her five years of deterioration into non-awareness of her past self and being. A popular movie was made from this novel.

    The author points out that standard medical thought was once that amyloid plaques and/or neurofibrillary tangles caused neuronal death – but later research suggests that the dementia comes before the plaques, due to too much production of the protein amyloid-beta 42 which fails to clear, affecting synaptic plasticity. Synaptic dysfunction, not neuronal loss due to amyloid plaque, is the issue. What causes the over-production of amyloid-beta 42? Unknown. Genetic evidence shows it is hereditary in some people. Is this mind working upon brain? Interesting to speculate. Short-term memory is the first thing to go haywire. Very sad when it occurs so early in life.

  6. kaysee kaysee says:

    She’s a philosopher – paid to think and never come to a conclusion. Nice work if you can get it.
    I think the experiences after brain death are easily explainable.

    The word “Philosophy” means the love of wisdom. The pursuit of truth and knowledge to deepen understanding. We have to differentiate between the study of philosophy that has been around for centuries, and the woke neo-philo-fake-ophy uni courses that dimwit lefties take up to study about diversity, equality and inclusivity.

    In McCormack’s interview he says that it is not about proving his experience, it is about Faith. Since you have explainable answers (medical-scientific) for the near death experiences, here is something you may like to watch.

    Why This Atheist Scientist Became a Believing Christian

    Dr. Sy Garte is a retired biochemist. For most of his life, he was an unbelieving atheist. In this interview, he details his journey from being an atheist scientist to a believing Christian.

  7. kaysee kaysee says:

    Is this mind working upon brain? Interesting to speculate. Short-term memory is the first thing to go haywire.

    In her post, Abigail Rosenthal is putting forth questions because there is so much that is unknown. To the question: What do we know about brain function?:

    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.

    We think we know. Then again, do we?

  8. Shy Ted says:

    Just to stir the pot-

    In 2020: The top five leading causes of death remained the same as in 2019 (Ischaemic heart disease, Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, Cerebrovascular diseases, Lung cancer and Chronic lower respiratory diseases) .

    Question: How do you die from dementia? What’s the mechanism that causes death?

  9. Eyrie says:

    Reminds me of Heinlein’s “I Will Fear No Evil”.

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