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Consciousness, the brain and mystical experience

Sam Dugan, Staff Writer

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As much as science has advanced, we still do not know much at all about consciousness.

The typical theory on the origin of consciousness is nested within a materialist paradigm, insofar as it sees consciousness as having emerged from the evolution of matter. Consciousness is here viewed as an epiphenomenon; it is assumed that the brain produces consciousness.

But, let us see the insight of philosopher Henri Bergson on the issue. In his book “Mind-Energy,” he writes:

“It is sometimes said that in ourselves, consciousness is directly connected with a brain, and that we must therefore attribute consciousness to living beings which have a brain, and deny it to those which have none. But it is easy to see the fallacy of such an argument. It would be just as though we should say that because in ourselves digestion is directly connected with a stomach, therefore only living beings with a stomach can digest. We should be entirely wrong, for it is not necessary to have a stomach, nor even to have special organs, in order to digest. An amoeba digests, although it is an almost undifferentiated protoplasmic mass.

What is true is that in proportion to the complexity and perfection of an organism, there is a division of labor; special organs are assigned special functions, and the faculty of digesting is localized in the stomach, or rather in a general digestive apparatus, which works better because confined to that one function alone. In like manner, consciousness in man is unquestionably connected with the brain; but it by no means follows that a brain is indispensable to consciousness.”

Bergson’s use of analogy here shows us that as an organism differentiates and develops in complexity, organs are created to specialize in certain functions but the functions existed prior to their localization in organs. In other words, the function creates the organ rather than the organ creating the function. Bergson then continues:

“The lower we go in the animal series, the more nervous centers are simplified and separate from one another, and at last they disappear altogether, merged in the general mass of an organism with hardly any differentiation. If, then, at the top of the scale of living beings, consciousness is attached to very complicated nervous centers, must we not suppose that it accompanies the nervous system down its whole descent, and that when at last the nerve stuff is merged in the yet undifferentiated living matter, consciousness is still there, diffused, confused, but not reduced to nothing? Theoretically, then, everything living might be conscious. In principle, consciousness is coextensive with life.”

But, we might ask, if the brain does not produce consciousness, then what is its role in consciousness?

In the words of philosopher C. D. Broad, “[Bergson’s] suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.”

The idea is that the brain, rather than producing consciousness, acts as a sort of filter of consciousness. Raw, naked reality, in its immensity and fullness, would leave unfiltered consciousness utterly overwhelmed, awestruck and confused. So, the brain creates barriers between our conscious awareness and all that is going on outside of that awareness in order for us to be able to make sense of the world and to act in it. That is what gives us the ability to focus.

A micro example of this can be seen in the case of the famous Invisible Gorilla experiment. The psychological experiment is to watch a video of two groups of people passing basketballs to each other and to count how many times one of the groups passes the ball. But, while doing this, most people completely fail to see a person dressed up in a gorilla costume who blatantly walks across the set, and even stops halfway to wave at the camera.

People are usually blown away when they realize they did not see the gorilla. But they miss it for a simple reason. The point of the experiment is to show that our perception is constrained by our motivations. In other words, our goal in a given situation limits our awareness by blocking out all that is irrelevant to that goal.

To apply this principle on the macro level, what we must realize is that humans, having evolved chiefly to survive, are almost always only aware of reality insofar as it is essential to survival. That is our meta-motivation. Thus, our dominant and constant perceptual filter is that of utility for survival. We have evolved to see reality not as it actually is but as we need to see it in order to survive.

This is to say nothing more than that we see reality as it is relevant for and constructed by humans; we see a human reality, but not the thing itself.

However, people throughout human history have had experiences of breaking out of this human world as constrained by abstractions, concepts and language and moving into the fullness of reality. These experiences are called religious, or mystical, because they penetrate past the shroud of mystery surrounding all phenomena and bring one into the realm of the transcendent.

Bergson’s view of consciousness intuitively makes sense to those who have had a mystical experience. These experiences occur when the perceptual barriers constructed by the brain break down and the floodgates of consciousness are opened. The infiniteness of reality to which we are usually unaware becomes overwhelmingly but also unavoidably apparent. There is so much data pouring in to the perceptual system that all one can truly do is stand in awe, captivated by the wonder of what has always existed but is rarely seen.

Our materialistic age is very skeptical about the credibility of such experiences. We are inclined to insist that these experiences are nothing more than illusions created by the brain. But those who have had the experiences, or, more accurately, those whom the experiences have had, ardently deny that these were false. In fact, they will tell you, the reality revealed to them was much more real than our everyday reality.

In an age that places so much importance on subjective truth, that indeed elevates subjective truth over objective truth, it is strange that the only personal truths we tend to not lend credence to are those which deal with the transcendent realm of God.

Broad said, “we should do well to consider much more seriously . . . the type of theory which Bergson put forward.” Indeed, we should. And we should take seriously the connection between his theory and mystical experiences.

Sam Dugan is a fourth-year student majoring in economics and philosophy. ✉ [email protected].

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Consciousness, the brain and mystical experience