What is Consciousness? From the Material Brain to the Infinite Mind and Beyond

everything neuroscientists and brain researchers think they know about what consciousness is, is being shaken up by findings at the cutting-edge of science and medicine.

by Ervin Laszlo

A New Concept of Consciousness

What is consciousness? What about the mind? If the world is vibration, is also mind and consciousness a form of vibration? Or on the contrary, are all vibrations, the observed world, a manifestation of mind and human consciousness?

Although it is true that when all is said and done all we know is our consciousness, it is also true that we do not know our own consciousness, not to mention the consciousness of anyone else.

We do not know what consciousness really is or how it is related to the brain. Since our consciousness is the basis of our identity, we do not know who we really are. Are we a body that generates the stream of sensations we call consciousness, or are we a consciousness associated with a brain and body that displays it? Do we have consciousness, or are we consciousness? Human consciousness could be a kind of illusion, a set of sensations produced by the workings of our brain. But it could also be that our body is a vehicle, a transmitter of a consciousness that is the basic reality of the world. The world could be material, and mind could be an illusion. Or the world could be consciousness, and the materiality of the world could be the illusion.

Both of these possibilities have been explored in the history of philosophy, and today we are a step closer than before to understanding which of these theories of consciousness is true. There are important insights emerging at the expanding frontiers where physical science and consciousness research join.

On the basis of a growing series of observations and experiments to answer the question of “What is consciousness?”, a new consensus is emerging. It is that “my” consciousness is not just my consciousness, meaning the consciousness produced by my brain, any more than a program transmitted over the air would be a program produced by my TV set. Just like a program broadcast over the air continues to exist when my TV set is turned off, my human consciousness and conscious awareness continues to exist when my brain is turned off.

Consciousness is a real element in the real world. The body and brain do not produce consciousness; they display it. And it does not cease when life in the body does. Mind and consciousness is a reflection, a projection, a manifestation of the intelligence that “in-forms” the world.

From the Material to the Infinite

Mystics and shamans have known that this is true for millennia, and artists and spiritual people know it to this day. Its rediscovery at the leading edge of the science of consciousness augurs a profound shift in our view of the world. It overcomes the answer the now outdated materialist science gives to the question regarding the nature of mind and consciousness: the answer according to which consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a product or by-product of the workings of the brain.

In that case, the brain would be like an electricity-generating turbine. The turbine is material, while the current it generates is not (or not strictly) material. In the same way, the brain could be material, even if the consciousness it generates proves to be something that is not quite material.

On first sight, this makes good sense. On a second look, however, the materialist concept of what is consciousness encounters major problems. First, a conceptual problem. How could a material brain give rise to a truly immaterial stream of sensations? How could anything that is material produce anything immaterial? In modern consciousness research and science this is known as the “hard problem.” It has no reasonable answer. As researchers point out, we do not have the slightest idea how “matter” could produce “mind.” One is a measurable entity with properties such as hardness, extension, force, and the like, and the other is an ineffable series of sensations with no definite location in space and an ephemeral presence in time.

Fortunately, the hard problem does not need to be solved: it is not a real problem. There is another possibility: mind is a real element in the real world and is not produced by the brain; it is manifested and displayed by the brain.

Mind beyond Brain: Evidence for a New Concept of Mind and Consciousness

If mind is a real element in the real world only manifested rather than produced by the brain, it can also exist without the brain. There is evidence that mind does exist on occasion beyond the brain: surprisingly, states of consciousness and conscious awareness seem possible in the absence of a functioning brain. There are cases—the near-death experience (NDE) is the paradigm case—where mind and consciousness persists when brain function is impaired, or even halted.

Thousands of observations and experiments show that people whose brain stopped working but then regained normal functioning can experience human consciousness during the time they are without a functioning brain. This cannot be accounted for on the premises of the production theory of consciousness: if there is no working brain, there cannot be consciousness. Yet there are cases of consciousness appearing beyond the living and working brain, and some of these cases are not easy to dismiss as mere imagination.

What Near Death Experiences Can Teach Us

A striking NDE was recounted by a young woman named Pamela. Hers has been just one among scores of NDEs that help to answer the question of what is consciousness; it is cited here to illustrate that such experiences exist, and can be documented.

Pamela died on May 29, 2010, at the age of fifty-three. But for hours she was effectively dead on the operating table nineteen years earlier. Her near demise was induced by a surgical team attempting to remove an aneurism in her brain stem.

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