Can human consciousness exist without a brain?
There's no solid evidence in support of this hypothesis, which lies at the core of most religious dogma and mystical practices. Sure, the notion of an immaterial conscious soul is appealing, as this would survive bodily death.
Almost everyone would agree that immortality is more desirable than the alternative: dying and not existing, forever. So I understand why people cling to the possibility that brains aren't the real us.
After I wrote a blog post, "Unmediated experience doesn't exist," where I said that experience isn't possible without a brain, I got an email from someone who challenged this assumption:
"The boy with no brain" gives a completely different dimension to the conclusion stated in your "unmediated experience" posting.
He shared a link to a Buddhism and Science talk by Ajahn Brahmavamso that included a description of the boy with no brain. Brahmavamso felt this unusual scientific finding demonstrated the separability of mind and brain.
Well, not really.
The original story of this clinical curiosity was published in the well-respected journal, Science, back in 1980. Though provocatively titled "Is Your Brain Really Necessary?" the article doesn't suggest that the boy in question, who functioned normally, actually had no brain.
Download Is Your Brain Really Necessary?
Rather, neuroanatomist John Lorber reported that the university student had hydrocephalus, resulting in "a cranium filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid." This finding was based on the rather crude CT brain scans available in the 1970's. Nobody opened up the boy's head and peered inside.
The article contains cautionary interpretations from other experts. The boy could have more brain tissue than was evident in the scan. Other areas of his brain could have taken over functions usually performed by a normal cerebral cortex.
What's indisputable is that the boy definitely did have a brain, albeit a damaged one. Yet on Yahoo Answers, someone asked how a young man could live without a brain. This was a response from a Ph.D. in Biochemistry/Neuroscience.
One should certainly be careful about accounts such as these, as I think it is pretty well documented, and proven, that a human cannot survive without a brain. The individual referred to in this question, and examined by Lorber, more than likely has sufficient gray matter and a brain stem, to support normal function. Probably even has cortical matter to support cognition and intellect.
The criticism of the study is that Lorber mis-interpreted the CAT scan, as CAT scans can be tricky to read. Lorber himself admits that reading a CAT scan can be tricky. He also has said that he would not make such a claim without evidence. In answer to attacks that he has not precisely quantified the amount of brain tissue missing, he added, "I can't say whether the mathematics student has a brain weighing 50 grams or 150 grams, but it is clear that it is nowhere near the normal 1.5 kilograms."
I also found a good critique of Lorber's "almost no brain" claim from an anthropologist, John Hawks. He notes the logical flaw in focusing on the small proportion of people who have serious brain damage, yet can function almost completely normally.
Consider an analogy: take a large sample of high-speed rollover auto accidents and study all the victims who received no injuries requiring hospitalization. This sample of victims is a large set, although it is a small minority of the total number of victims. Now, what conclusions will we draw from our set of low injury accident victims?
Perhaps we will conclude that seat belts actually increase risk of injury, because uninjured victims were preferentially thrown clear of the crash. Or perhaps we will conclude that swerving to avoid hitting a squirrel is better than running it down, because rollover accidents present no significant risk of injury. Whatever we conclude, the biased sample is likely to mislead us, particularly if we do not recognize the direction of the bias.
The human brain is marvelously adaptive. It can rewire itself after an injury. Yet the fact remains that usually brain damage results in reduced capabilities. Just because some people have injured brains and function normally doesn't demonstrate the separability of mind and matter.
Neurological case studies like the "boy with no brain" are interesting. They illustrate how marvelously complex the brain is, and how little we know about many aspects of brain function.
But there's still no convincing evidence that consciousness is possible without a brain.
I just came across some passages in a TIME magazine article about people in vegetative states which confirm the thrust of this blog post.
"Francis Crick took a reductionist view of things in the 1970s, coining the term 'the astonishing hypothesis': the idea that all feelings, thoughts, and actions are just the products of a mass of brain tissue and that we all exist only one well-placed head trauma away from the irrevocable erasure of the self.
...Cricks's mechanistic view has prevailed, with scientists treating the brain as merely another organ, albeit a highly complex one. Nowhere is that complexity more evident than in our understanding of how consciousness works -- and fails to work. Minor accidents like Filipov's can lay waste to cognitive processes. Major traumas like the shooting wounds of Gabrielle Giffords can leave remarkable room for recovery.
...For years, doctors assumed that consciousness was a diffuse and global brain process. But studies of sleeping, anesthetized and vegetative brains have shown that it is instead localized in a network consisting of three discrete parts.
...Should connections among the three sections be severed -- or should one be destroyed -- consciousness ceases. "You don't need a lot of gray matter to be conscious. You only need the right parts of the brain to function together. That was a huge surprise," Laureys says.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 28, 2011 at 01:35 PM
“You rely too much on brain. The brain is the most overrated organ.”
Posted by: cc | November 28, 2011 at 05:01 PM
What is it, that would be an example of being spiritually significant? What exactly does spiritual mean? Don't worry, i'm not going to make a research project out of this. That said, the hot babes at the lake of fire was rather interesting.
Posted by: Roger | November 29, 2011 at 09:51 AM
Roger, if science showed that it was possible for people to be conscious without a brain, that would be big news for religion and spirituality, since the soul and God are believed to be conscious immaterial entities.
I'm still waiting for a true believer to volunteer to have his/her brain opened up and all of the contents removed. If they still were able to function normally, that'd be damn good evidence that the brain isn't necessary to exist. So far, I gather, volunteers are lacking.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 29, 2011 at 10:14 AM
Yes, but within religion and spirituality, what would be an exact example of something that is spiritually significant? Find this example, then have it confimed through science. But, but where is such an example?
If not, then there is really nothing that is spiritually significant. Am I being clear, or should I focus more on the hot babes in doom land.
Posted by: Roger | November 29, 2011 at 10:53 AM
OK, I see what you mean, Roger. I think you're right: scientifically, nothing is spiritually significant. For a REALLY strong example of this, check out "The Atheist's Guide to Reality." This guy is uncompromising on why science (mainly physics) has it right and religion has it wrong.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 29, 2011 at 10:57 AM