Consciousness without brain

Conscious awareness? What enables it? Is it a healthy brain, whether awake or asleep? What about an individual in a … Continued

Conscious awareness? What enables it? Is it a healthy brain, whether awake or asleep? What about an individual in a coma (no brain function), does that mean no conscious awareness? What about death?

A new book by neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, in which he describes his conscious awareness during seven days while in a coma under the care of neurosurgeons at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virgina, challenges the common understanding that consciousness is the domain of a healthy brain function.

In 2008, while “doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open,”Alexander writes. Rather than experiencing seven lost days of no conscious awareness, with “my higher order brain functions totally offline”, he describes a life-altering journey into a very different world, which he recalls in vivid detail.

His training and experience as a neurosurgeon had taught him that consciousness was impossible during this coma, given that “the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity”, but he found he was conscious and aware.

Prior to this experience, Alexander notes that he considered himself a faithful Christian, in name more than in belief. This experience while his “neocortex was inactivated”, gave him “reason to believe in consciousness after death.”

His story is uplifting, and for those suffering from the loss of a loved one, may bring comfort. For me, his story raises serious questions to ponder – to even consider how they might reframe my own view of life. That is, if conscious awareness is not dependent on brain (physical substance), where does consciousness reside? Is this “other” consciousness close at hand and accessible in life, not just in near death or after life?

As a lifelong Christian, I turn to the Bible for insight and guidance. There, in the New Testament we have Jesus saying that “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” Could that kingdom of heaven be a conscious awareness or spiritual sense that is independent of brain?

To the inquisitive Pharisee, Nicodemous , he said that man must be “born again” or “born from above”, and continues by telling him he must be born of “the Spirit”.

It was like he was saying – Nicodemous, you must hit the “reset” button on your entire view of what life is, and where it comes from. Nicodemous didn’t get it. He thought Jesus meant another physical birth – reentering his mother’s womb. Like Alexander before his seven days in a coma, he thought that if something is not physical then it is not really life.

According to the Bible, Jesus spent three days in a tomb after his crucifixion. The Roman soldiers at the cross (who had plenty of experience with recognizing death) saw that he was dead, but just to be sure had put a spear in his chest before they let the body be taken away to a tomb. Like Alexander, the brain function was gone, but perhaps, like Alexander, consciousness was active, and we all know that the Bible says on the third day he walked out of that tomb.

What these two stories and my own experience tell me is that I need to question the widely held belief that brain function equals consciousness. And if consciousness is not in the brain, what does this say about current medical theories about pain and illness being in – or in many cases tied to – brain activity or brain abnormalities?

I had a glimpse of this many years ago. In 1971, as a young pilot, lieutenant junior grade, in the Navy preparing to join a fleet A6 Attack Squadron on the USS Independence (CV-62), like all carrier aviators, I had to attend “SERE” school. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. In 1971, the Vietnam War and specifically the air campaign against North Vietnam was escalating, aircraft were often shot down and pilots and crew captured and placed in various POW camps. The skills taught at SERE training were more than an academic interest.

One cold March night in the snow covered mountains of Maine in a simulated POW camp, I found myself in an interrogation room with an ominous looking guy. The interview quickly went downhill and I found myself in a headlock with a mouthpiece of a tobacco pipe up one of my nostrils, a hand over my mouth and other nostril, “Igor” blowing into the bowel of the lighted pipe sending heavy, choking smoke into my head.

I have never been a smoker so within a short time, I found myself conscious, up against the ceiling, looking down at an unconscious me, in the grasp of Igor as he continued to pour smoke into me. I felt calm and quite detached, but more than anything, I felt it was going to be “ok”. I felt no animosity toward my interrogator and had no concerns about the physiological state of my body.

How long I was in this state I don’t know, but “awoke” as my new friend was slapping my face to bring me around. I felt fine, ready for the next test, and there were no after effects.

Interestingly, Alexander says that if he had to translate what one of the beings in his journey said it was: “You are loved and cherished dearly, forever;” “You have nothing to fear”, “There is nothing you can do wrong.” I had that same feeling.

This experience and that of Alexander raise new questions and make me wonder if those “intuitions” that have come to me throughout my life, are not glimmers of a full conscious awareness of “the kingdom of God” within here and now.

Roger Whiteway, a former A-6 pilot in the Navy, is a Christian Science spokesman in Virginia.

  • SODDI

    There is a lot more to the human nervous system than the brain.

    Mystifying it up with hoodoo mumbo jumbo from any religion isn’t going to provide any more real answers. Unexplained does not mean “it’s MAGIC!”

    Since you are obviously very ignorant of what you are prattling on about, you should remain silent and let neuroscientists and doctors have their say.

  • jubao

    Thanks for this thoughtful commentary. I see the mockery has already begun, which is sadly predictable. But dismissing the disproofs of exclusively biological and chemical assumptions about human existence is as unscientific as it is narrow-minded. Spiritual insights and metaphysical explorations are not irrational or merely speculative, and quite the opposite of “voodoo” magic and other contemptuous comparisons. There is an abundance of evidence that hints at a reality beyond the merely material view of life and of the so-called consciousness of the material brain and nervous system. Dr. Alexander’s article is just one example of the courage and intelligence that many open-minded and spiritually intuitive observers have reported, including many of the most greatest thinkers over the centuries. Modern science would do well to give them more respect.

  • arensb

    “There is an abundance of evidence that hints at a reality beyond the merely material view of life and of the so-called consciousness of the material brain and nervous system.”

    Could you please present some of this evidence? Assuming, of course, that it’s actually solid evidence, the kind that doesn’t go away when you look at it too hard, which is the only kind I’ve seen so far.

  • EricRNielsen

    The Doctor is correct. There is consciousness behind the mind. It is the likeness that the soul has with God. Many of us were taught to believe our likeness to God is our body, but that isn’t true. I too had an experience like the Doctor, but it happened to me by accident after I had learned to meditate. And yes as it is written above Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus that you can go within, see the Source we all call God and be reborn. It will change anyone’s life if they should be blessed enough to witness what is within all of us. If your readers are interested they can read my Soul Series to see what it is like when you go within and experience your soul.
    Author Eric Nielsen
    EricRobertNielsen.com
    “Beyond God’s Veil… A true Story of Piercing the Cloud of Unknowing”

  • slowe111

    Oh PLeeeeeeeeze. more mumbo jumbo. A mis-interpretation of merely a personal, subjective psychological experience. Not related to reality at all. So tired of fantasy wishing being treated as reality. Yawn…….

  • slowe111

    Consider how REAL dreams seem when you awake? Christians are “primed” meaning they are taught to want, expect, even long for such afterdeath experiences. No wonder that the brain might dream or imagine such things and that 2 seconds of dreaming might seem like 2 weeks.

  • itsthedax

    BS. Our minds are a product of our brains, nothing more.

    This is why our minds and conscious state are affected by drugs, illnesses, injuries to the brain, and a thousand other physical factors.

    Don’t believe me? Try disconnecting your brain and see how long your mind lasts.

  • itsthedax

    Or, as Dr. Novella discusses in his article (below), Dr. Alexander just had a dream as he was going into, or coming out of, the coma.

  • di89

    So you suggest Jesus wasn’t really dead, just in some kind of suspended state analogous to coma or drug trip. OK, suit yourself, but you aren’t a Christian.

  • omstoad

    Very interesting article. Human beings are merely expressions of consciousness, not the creator or operator of it. We wrongly identify ourselves with the body/mind, but the body is the vehicule through which consciousness operates in order to taste experiencing. The reason why there has not been and can not be any documented evidence is that this is something which must be realized by an individual him or herself. Hence the term ‘Self-realization’, often simply referred to in spiritual fields as ‘awakening’. Consciousness isn’t observable phenomenally; our true self is consciousness/pure awareness and so our true self cannot be observed, and so can’t have tests done on it. Anything that is observable, ie phenomenal, is transient: thoughts, sensations, objects, images, dreams, etc all appear in consciousness. Even our bodies all appear in consciousness. They come and go. What is there to witness the coming and going of phenomena? Contemplate what I’m saying. Without you, the ultimate observer, nothing can be observed and therefore known. If anyone wants to know more about this, I’d suggest you check out some of the advaita teachers. Mooji is a great example. You can find videos on youtube.

  • ThomasBaum

    Have you ever thought that someone who actually experiences something might know more about that something than the “experts” that only study about that something from other people’s experiences rather than experiencing that something theirself?

  • ThomasBaum

    As far as “disconnecting your brain and see how long your mind lasts”, how would you or anyone else know “how long” a mind would last?

    Would you or anyone else have to “know” that the mind was lasting for it to actually be lasting?

    By the way, when you wrote “Our minds are a product of our brains, nothing more”, do you know this to be a “fact” or is this just something that you write as fact when it is merely your opinion?

  • PhillyJimi1

    I also ask the question as to why ghost only haunts people’s home who believe in ghosts. Isn’t it funny how it is only old homes that seem to be haunted.

    If I come back as ghost I promise I won’t go scaring some little old lady in her 200 year old home. I will only haunt the physics labs of MIT to help humanity understand how the physical world works and I’ll let the little old ladies sleep.

    I find the idea that he was told “There is nothing you can do wrong” to be offensive. It is not moral. Yes, there are things you can do that are wrong. Kind of like asking for forgiveness and having forgiveness granted. In the Christian world view nothing is really wrong if forgiveness is always granted.

  • itsthedax

    Thomas, as I stated earlier, our minds are affected by drugs, illness and injury to our brains. Do you believe otherwise?

  • itsthedax

    People have hallucinations all the time. The fact that they experience hallucinations doesn’t make them real.

  • ThomasBaum

    The fact that you believe people are experiencing hallucinations does not mean that they are.

    In fact one day you may experience a “hallucination” and change your mind concerning what you now believe.

  • ThomasBaum

    I am not talking about our minds being affected by drugs, illness and/or injury to our brains but having an experience with a Being.

    I believe/know that there is more to life than will ever be proven scientifically.

  • ThomasBaum

    You wrote “In the Christian world view nothing is really wrong if forgiveness is always granted”, this is not even close to being the “Christian world view”.

    The “Christian world view” is that there are things that one can do or not do that are wrong and being forgiven does not mean that the wrong someone has done has, somehow, suddenly become something right but that one is forgiven and there is a big difference between being forgiven for doing wrong and a wrong suddenly becoming not wrong.

  • itsthedax

    If you want to believe in your hallucinations, go right ahead. As you’ve already demonstrated in this discussion, sanity isn’t mandatory.

  • itsthedax

    Thomas, when you understand the physical causes for a phenomenom, there’s no need to look for a supernatural cause.

    Read the link I posted below for an analysis of Dr. Alexander’s story.

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.