By October 13, 2012 28 Comments Read More →

Consciousness Is Not In The Brain

Ray Tallis
Waking Times

Most neuroscientists, philosophers of the mind and science journalists feel the time is near when we will be able to explain the mystery of human consciousness in terms of the activity of the brain. There is, however, a vocal minority of neurosceptics who contest this orthodoxy. Among them are those who focus on claims neuroscience makes about the preciseness of correlations between indirectly observed neural activity and different mental functions, states or experiences.

This was well captured in a 2009 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Harold Pashler from the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues, that argued: “…these correlations are higher than should be expected given the (evidently limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality measures. The high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain much detail about how the correlations were obtained.”

Believers will counter that this is irrelevant: as our means of capturing and analysing neural activity become more powerful, so we will be able to make more precise correlations between the quantity, pattern and location of neural activity and aspects of consciousness.

This may well happen, but my argument is not about technical, probably temporary, limitations. It is about the deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is.

Many neurosceptics have argued that neural activity is nothing like experience, and that the least one might expect if A and B are the same is that they be indistinguishable from each other. Countering that objection by claiming that, say, activity in the occipital cortex and the sensation of light are two aspects of the same thing does not hold up because the existence of “aspects” depends on the prior existence of consciousness and cannot be used to explain the relationship between neural activity and consciousness.

This disposes of the famous claim by John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley: that neural activity and conscious experience stand in the same relationship as molecules of H2O to water, with its properties of wetness, coldness, shininess and so on. The analogy fails as the level at which water can be seen as molecules, on the one hand, and as wet, shiny, cold stuff on the other, are intended to correspond to different “levels” at which we are conscious of it. But the existence of levels of experience or of description presupposes consciousness. Water does not intrinsically have these levels.

We cannot therefore conclude that when we see what seem to be neural correlates of consciousness that we are seeing consciousness itself. While neural activity of a certain kind is a necessary condition for every manifestation of consciousness, from the lightest sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self, it is neither a sufficient condition of it, nor, still less, is it identical with it. If it were identical, then we would be left with the insuperable problem of explaining how intracranial nerve impulses, which are material events, could “reach out” to extracranial objects in order to be “of” or “about” them. Straightforward physical causation explains how light from an object brings about events in the occipital cortex. No such explanation is available as to how those neural events are “about” the physical object. Biophysical science explains how the light gets in but not how the gaze looks out.

Many features of ordinary consciousness also resist neurological explanation. Take the unity of consciousness. I can relate things I experience at a given time (the pressure of the seat on my bottom, the sound of traffic, my thoughts) to one another as elements of a single moment. Researchers have attempted to explain this unity, invoking quantum coherence (the cytoskeletal micro-tubules of Stuart Hameroff at the University of Arizona, and Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford), electromagnetic fields (Johnjoe McFadden, University of Surrey), or rhythmic discharges in the brain (the late Francis Crick).

These fail because they assume that an objective unity or uniformity of nerve impulses would be subjectively available, which, of course, it won’t be. Even less would this explain the unification of entities that are, at the same time, experienced as distinct. My sensory field is a many-layered whole that also maintains its multiplicity. There is nothing in the convergence or coherence of neural pathways that gives us this “merging without mushing”, this ability to see things as both whole and separate.

And there is an insuperable problem with a sense of past and future. Take memory. It is typically seen as being “stored” as the effects of experience which leave enduring changes in, for example, the properties of synapses and consequently in circuitry in the nervous system. But when I “remember”, I explicitly reach out of the present to something that is explicitly past. A synapse, being a physical structure, does not have anything other than its present state. It does not, as you and I do, reach temporally upstream from the effects of experience to the experience that brought about the effects. In other words, the sense of the past cannot exist in a physical system. This is consistent with the fact that the physics of time does not allow for tenses: Einstein called the distinction between past, present and future a “stubbornly persistent illusion”.

There are also problems with notions of the self, with the initiation of action, and with free will. Some neurophilosophers deal with these by denying their existence, but an account of consciousness that cannot find a basis for voluntary activity or the sense of self should conclude not that these things are unreal but that neuroscience provides at the very least an incomplete explanation of consciousness.

I believe there is a fundamental, but not obvious, reason why that explanation will always remain incomplete – or unrealisable. This concerns the disjunction between the objects of science and the contents of consciousness. Science begins when we escape our subjective, first-person experiences into objective measurement, and reach towards a vantage point the philosopher Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere”. You think the table over there is large, I may think it is small. We measure it and find that it is 0.66 metres square. We now characterise the table in a way that is less beholden to personal experience.

Science begins when we escape our first-person subjective experience

Thus measurement takes us further from experience and the phenomena of subjective consciousness to a realm where things are described in abstract but quantitative terms. To do its work, physical science has to discard “secondary qualities”, such as colour, warmth or cold, taste – in short, the basic contents of consciousness. For the physicist then, light is not in itself bright or colourful, it is a mixture of vibrations in an electromagnetic field of different frequencies. The material world, far from being the noisy, colourful, smelly place we live in, is colourless, silent, full of odourless molecules, atoms, particles, whose nature and behaviour is best described mathematically. In short, physical science is about the marginalisation, or even the disappearance, of phenomenal appearance/qualia, the redness of red wine or the smell of a smelly dog.

Consciousness, on the other hand, is all about phenomenal appearances/qualia. As science moves from appearances/qualia and toward quantities that do not themselves have the kinds of manifestation that make up our experiences, an account of consciousness in terms of nerve impulses must be a contradiction in terms. There is nothing in physical science that can explain why a physical object such as a brain should ascribe appearances/qualia to material objects that do not intrinsically have them.

Material objects require consciousness in order to “appear”. Then their “appearings” will depend on the viewpoint of the conscious observer. This must not be taken to imply that there are no constraints on the appearance of objects once they are objects of consciousness.

Our failure to explain consciousness in terms of neural activity inside the brain inside the skull is not due to technical limitations which can be overcome. It is due to the self-contradictory nature of the task, of which the failure to explain “aboutness”, the unity and multiplicity of our awareness, the explicit presence of the past, the initiation of actions, the construction of self are just symptoms. We cannot explain “appearings” using an objective approach that has set aside appearings as unreal and which seeks a reality in mass/energy that neither appears in itself nor has the means to make other items appear. The brain, seen as a physical object, no more has a world of things appearing to it than does any other physical object.

About the Author

Ray Tallis trained as a doctor, ultimately becoming professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, UK, where he oversaw a major neuroscience project. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a writer on areas ranging from consciousness to medical ethics.

This article originally appeared at, an excellent source of information about optimal health and wellness. 

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  • Dan Kucheran

    The brain is in the other film/layer/being of each CELL – hence called the membrane (Brain).The day you recognize this will be when you begin to look after each cell of your body with excercise, nutrition, selective though processes and positive living

  • CNZ

    The brain (nervous system) is hardware to the correlation-seeking software of beings.

    A single being would not develop consciousness. It would manage its world at its best. Its brain would be self-sufficient.

    Consciousness appears when a being perceives another being, and attempts (intentionally) to unite, as intimately as possible, its brain to the perceived being’s one, and reciprocally.

    Consciousness is the intentional, imperfect, and evolving interface between two or more brains. As any interface, it synchronously: wraps-up an entity (the “I, me, mine”) and intra-connects a unity (the “us”).
    There exist other attempts to brain unity, but they are not conscious. These attempts turning into conscious are the evolving of the “pathetic 4%” that the mind uses towards the “ideal 100%”.

    This “unconscious turning into conscious” process ends up with the unity (at synaptic depth, even in wireless mode) of all living things, no matter what type is their chemistry.

    The scope of this unity is (and occurring in parallel to) the aggregation of all things into a living single thing, by complete understanding of the existing correlations between-, and the management (through self-regulatory loops) of- all possible existing world parameters.

    This process is consuming entropy/disorder (or produces negative entropy), decreasing (balancing) the chaos.

    The diversity of life is aimed at finding the absolute optimum, as opposed to local optimums; diversity-, together with the death- of individuals, are the ways of life to avoid local optimums (closed/uninteresting ends).

    Life and chaos are transforming one in the other, successively, in a special pendulum phenomenon. Life and chaos are not optional, but intrinsic to each-other.

    Chaos is rather slowly becoming completely alive and completely conscious/unconscious – this antinomy loses meaning in fact. The process is called also “the Universe”.

    At this very stage, life is rather quickly becoming chaos. This is called also “the Big-Bang”.

    And so on…

    • Iemand

      Ok, if you agree that something cannot come from nothing …

      then who or what CAUSED the Big Bang? In other words, where did the original matter & energy come from that started the Big Bang?

      And if you say that the universe always was there … Well, if you’re right, that menas the Universe defies the law of cause and effect!

      Doesn’t it? And that would make the existence of our Univese SUPERNATURAL! Which menas we BOTH belive in a Super natural cause for our existence! and how would the Universe create itself ??? That would also break the law of cause and effect!

      You just said that was a big reason you don’t believe in God!

      So then … shouldn’t you stop believing in our Universe? If you talk about ”Virtual Particels” If that might come into existence from literally nothing … and you think something CAN come from nothing … Well, if you’re right, doesn’t that make God scientifically possible? If the Universum comes from other dimension of time, or a enternally oscillating Universe … Wow. Well, can those things be observed scientifically?

      That means you can no longer use that law to argue against God!

  • Don Gilmore

    My narcissistic brain has always insisted to me that it is much more important than all of my other organs combined, and I had to concede the point, but once it started claiming to be transcendental, independent of materialism, I realized my brain just makes shit up whenever it feels like it.

    • Linda Childs

      Yes, Don, I agree – I’ve just spent a week inquiring into the pith teachings of Dzochen Buddhism, the first two lines of which: VISION IS MIND. MIND IS EMPTY. And, when one nakedly observes the moment from that perspective, there is NOTHING and EVERYTHING to express.

  • gregorylent

    time to start distinguishing between awareness and consciousness, mind and brain .. these are different things, as you can see in languages like sanskrit, and is experience, as subtlety grows. english concepts are too clunky for neuroscience.

  • Lazarus Short

    I believe that the brain is a mere transducer, and that consciousness is located in another place, unknown ut us.

  • mia

    For all the bashing of religion, I have to say I like a passage in the Bible – “Jesus came to free those who were all their lives held in bondage by fear of death”. I think he wasn’t saying what most religious leaders said he was saying.

  • Sensory consciousness has two components, qualia which are transduction processes and internal neurological information – action potentials. The general non- specific support and regulatory activity of the CNS is probably the rest of consciousness or non specific awareness with the content being defined by the specific activity that develops in the output space of the brain. I.e.,we are aware or conscious of something only if we can respond to it, if it is a potential cause of behavior, though this behavior need not actually be produced or externally manifested, i.e., thoughts.

  • …the eyes only see a small portion of existing light-frequencies – the ears only hear a limited range of sounds – I would say that the senses function as filters on a larger reality.Maybe when our DNAs scalar-wave-antennas have been restored we may have 10 more DNA-options available.

  • Kesava Krsna Dasa

    Aside from the mind, which is frequently acknowledged, we have to understand what propels it, with it’s remembrance and experiental faculties. There has been no mention of intelligence, which is the actual driver of the self. How can we distinguish between the mind and intelligence?

    If while at a dinner table your smelly pet dog quickly approaches the table to grab a share of your meal and experiences your chastisement and annoyance, the dog will hesitate to do the same thing again.

    Next time you have your meal, and your dog sits nearby, watching and waiting – longing for a tasty remnant – it also knows not to repeat it’s last action for fear of rebuke. The mind of the dog wants to eat, but the intelligence of the dog restrains – mind and intelligence are functioning. We are not even speaking of heightened human awareness here yet.

    These urges and the suppressing of them for self-preservation and pleasing others (In this case, the dogs owner) reveal a wider set of conscious involvement that escapes scientific scrutiny.

  • Excerpts from: The Three Parts of Man –

    “Man is not simply a complex biological organism. The physical body with which we are all so familiar is only one part, one component of a rather complex composite.”

    “The brain, being a part of the body, is essentially a very complex biological computer and control center for the body, but it also serves as a complex user interface port.”

    “The mind has often been confused with the brain by those who see man as nothing but a biological organism, but the mind is actually not a part of the body at all, and is not biological in nature, but rather, energetic. It is primarily composed of energies and masses, the masses themselves being composed of condensed energy.”

    “The mind is an artificial construction originally designed to do our “thinking” for us, and it typically sits and acts as a buffer between the being and his environment, altering his view and perception of it; as well as between he and his body, affecting its operation as well.”

    “The spiritual being is like the driver in a car (the body), and can exist and be aware independent of a body, and even for that matter, independent of a mind.”

    More at:
    Section 2 – The True Spiritual Nature of Man

  • Our whole structure of society is based on fear, and the coercion that fear enables. If the collective realised that they weren’t these organisms that could be injured or hurt, that there was something to them that was beyond damage and death, that would collapse the system in an instant. The powers that be will find as many moronic experts as money can buy to prop up the idea that you are this physical creature that can be permanently ended and hurt. To do otherwise would destroy the real illusion – their power.

  • jesse

    I studied neurology and artificial intelligence, and I assure you that those people :

    “Most neuroscientists, philosophers of the mind and science journalists feel the time is near when we will be able to explain the mystery of human consciousness in terms of the activity of the brain. ”

    Are braindead zombies.

  • Bjorn

    Of course consciousness isn’t located in the brain, the body is a meat-suit or Terrestrial-Bio-Vehicle & the brain the on-board computer with sensors. Its piloted (albeit by most on auto-pilot) by the occupant inside. The occupant inside is obviously the genuine self which is most often mistaken for the vehicle.
    Mystery solved have fun & now toast some Pop-Tarts! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the brain is a sense organ for consciousness, just as the eyes are a sense organ for light or the ears for sound.

  • I am a painter. That link is not ‘my’ website….but the page contains a painting I made one year prior to the 9/11 attacks. I’ve always wondered how I received and put onto canvas, multiple elements that were eerily similar to the New York skyline of that morning. Thank you for your article. I was not able to grasp it’s fuller meaning….only a fraction. Yet I agree that consciousness is quite apart from just brain activity. I believe NDEs prove that notion. They baffle doctors who insist that one can not ‘exist’ when brain activity flatlines. One of my favorite quotes on the subject is from John Carew Eccles, who said, ‘The brain is a machine that a ghost can operate’.

    • mia

      Well this a flaw in “science” – the arbitrary designation of physical measuring sticks to determine the existence of anything. Using the 5 senses as exclusive tools for measurement says these are the only ones that exist, which is about as non objective as you can get.

  • Anonymous

    are they not looking at the soul,you can leave your body and still be conscious

    • Larry

      An injured brain can completely change a person’s personality, including memories and interpretations of experiences. So wouldn’t something as traumatic as death change the soul into a completely different personality? If not, then how can someone exist outside of their body? It would take in the very least a new form or body of spirit which would have to be given by a non-corporeal, otherwise you wouldn’t be you.

      • Anonymous

        do you know who you are?

      • mia

        I think the brain assigns a personality to consciousness. Disembodied, it still exists, but is no longer limited to that narrow view of the physical world by the body it inhabited. If you consider the view that all consciousness is one, as drops of water are part of the ocean, then perhaps this feeling of being separate is an illusion. Buddhism touches on this by saying the ego fears death because that aspect of consciousness, I.e. a distinct personality ceases to exist after physical death. But when people come back from a near death experience, they seem to remember it as a distinct, individual observer, despite having no physical body during that time. I notice that many talk about this feeling of oneness with everything while disembodied, but still retain a feeling of being a distinct being, observing. So is this because now they are remembering it back in the body? Tickles the brain, pardon the pun. 🙂

        • mia

          This oneness while being expressed as a seperate “drop” of the whole, could be looked at like a hologram. The holographic universe is an excellent book.

    • Bobby

      Well, then, the deacon said to Dr. Jekyll at the evening dinner, “Call it the soul”. Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde, 1942 Sepncer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner,etc.

  • Henry

    I think the Brain is a filter between physical and spiritual realms.

    Conciousness is spiritual, and the brain is required for it to exist in the physical world.

    • Anonymous

      good answer!

    • mia

      I think the brain is like the computer that plays the software, or perhaps interprets the observation of the physical world by the consciousness.

    • Victor Gagnon

      I tend to agree.

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