Are Minds Confined to Brains?

October 31, 2012 | By | 9 Replies More

Rupert Sheldrake
Waking Times 

The following is reprinted from the book Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake. Copyright © 2012. Published by Crown Archetype/ Deepak Chopra Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Materialism is the doctrine that only matter is real. Hence minds are in brains, and mental activity is nothing but brain activity. This assumption conflicts with our own experience. When we look at a blackbird, we see a blackbird; we do not experience complex electrical changes in our brains. But most of us accepted the mind-within-the-brain theory before we ever had a chance to question it. We took it for granted as children because it seemed to be supported by all the authority of science and the educational system.

In his study of children’s intellectual development, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget found that before about the age of ten or eleven, European children were like “primitive” people. They did not know that the mind was confined to the head; they thought it extended into the world around them. But by about the age of eleven, most had assimilated what Piaget called the “correct” view: “Images and thoughts are situated in the head.”…

Images outside bodies

Not all philosophers and psychologists believe the mind-in-the- brain theory, and over the years a minority has always recognized that our perceptions may be just where they seem to be, in the external world outside our heads, rather than representations inside our brains. In 1904, William James wrote:

“[T]he whole philosophy of perception from Democritus’ time downwards has been just one long wrangle over the paradox that what is evidently one reality should be in two places at once, both in outer space and in a person’s mind. ‘Representative’ theories of perception avoid the logical paradox, but on the other hand they violate the reader’s sense of life which knows no intervening mental image but seems to see the room and the book immediately as they physically exist.”

As Alfred North Whitehead expressed it in 1925, “sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature.”

A recent proponent of the extended mind is the psychologist Max Velmans. In his book Understanding Consciousness (2000), he proposed a “reflexive model” of the mind, which he illustrated by this discussion of a subject (S) looking at a cat:

“According to reductionists there seems to be a phenomenal cat ‘in S’s mind,’ but this is really nothing more than a state of her brain. According to the reflexive model, while S is gazing at the cat, her only visual experience of the cat is the cat she sees out in the world. If she is asked to point to this phenomenal cat (her ‘cat experience’), she should point not to her brain but to the cat as perceived, out in space beyond the body surface.”

Velmans suggested that this image might be like “a kind of neural ‘projection hologram’. A projection hologram has the interesting quality that the three-dimensional image it encodes is perceived to be out in space, in front of its two-dimensional surface.” But Velmans was ambiguous about the nature of this projection. A hologram is, after all, a field phenomenon. He called it “psycho- logical” rather than “physical” and in the end said he did not know how it happened, but added, “not fully understanding how it happens does not alter the fact that it happens.”

My own suggestion is that the outward projection of visual images is both psychological and physical. It occurs through perceptual fields. These are psychological, in the sense that they underlie our conscious perceptions, and also physical or natural in that they exist outside the brain and have detectable effects. Human perception is not unique in being extended through seeing and hearing. Other animals see things through fields projected beyond the surfaces of their bodies, and hear things through projected auditory fields. We are like other animals.

The senses are not static. The eyes move as we look at things, and our heads and entire bodies move around in our environments. As we move, our perceptual fields change. Perceptual fields are not separate from our bodies, but include them. We can see our own outer surface, our skin, hair and clothing. We are inside our fields of vision and action. Our awareness of three-dimensional space includes our own bodies within it, and our movements and intentions in relation to what is around us. Like other animals, we are not passive perceivers but active behavers, and our perceptions and behavior are closely linked.

Some neuroscientists and philosophers agree that perceptions depend on the close connection between perception and activity, linking an animal or person to the environment. One school of thought advocates an “enactive” or “embodied” or “sensorimotor” approach. Perceptions are not represented in a world-model in-side the head, but are enacted or “brought forth” as a result of the interaction of the organism and its environment. As Francisco Varela and his colleagues expressed it, “perception and action have evolved together . . . perception is always perceptually guided activity.” As the philosopher Arva Noë put it, “We are out of our heads. We are in the world and of it. We are patterns of active engagement with fluid boundaries and changing components. We are distributed.” The psychologist Kevin O’Regan, a committed materialist, prefers this approach to the mind-in-the-brain theory precisely because he wants to expel all magic from the brain. He does not accept that seeing is in the brain, because this would “put you in the terrible situation of having to postulate some magical mechanism that endows the visual cortex with sight, and the auditory cortex with hearing.”

Henri Bergson anticipated the enactive and sensorimotor approaches more than a century ago. He emphasized that perception is directed toward action. Through perception, “The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them.” The images are not inside the brain:

“The truth is that the point P, the rays which it emits, the retina and the nervous elements affected, form a single whole; that the luminous point P is a part of this whole; and that it is really in P, and not elsewhere, that the image of P is formed and perceived.”

My own interpretation is that vision takes place through extended perceptual fields, which are both within the brain and stretch out beyond it. Vision is rooted in the activity of the brain, but is not confined to the inside of the head. Like Velmans, I suggest that the formation of these fields depends on changes in various regions of the brain as vision takes place, influenced by expectations, intentions and memories. These are a kind of morphic field and, like other morphic fields, connect together parts within wholes, and have an inherent memory given by morphic resonance from similar fields in the past. When I look at a person or an animal, my perceptual field interacts with the field of the person or animal I am looking at, enabling my gaze to be detected.


Our experience certainly suggests that our minds are extended beyond our brains. We see and hear things in the space around us. But there is a strong taboo against anything that suggests that seeing and hearing might involve any kind of outward projection. This issue cannot be resolved by theoretical arguments alone, or else there would have been more progress over the last century — or even over the last 2,500 years.

I am convinced that the way forward is to treat fields of the mind as a testable scientific hypothesis rather than a philosophical theory. When I look at something, my perceptual fields “clothe” what I am looking at. My mind touches what I am seeing. Therefore I might be able to affect another person just by looking. If I look at someone from behind when she cannot hear me, or see me, and does not know I am there, can she feel my gaze?

This book excerpt was originally posted at RealitySandwich.com, the place on the web for modern mystics and evolving souls.  

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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Category: Body, Consciousness, Evolution, Ideas, Inspiration, Meta-physics, Mind, Philosophy, Self, Time & Space, Transformation

Comments (9)

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  1. mothman777 says:

    In Russia, they are far more enlightened about these things, and have found that mental faculties reside in the subtle body, rather than just the gross physical body.

    They have found that by working on the aura, or subtle body of stroke victims, they have, in cases, been able to restore up to 95% of normal mental function, by training stroke victims to exercise their mental faculties within the subtle body, beyond the physical brain.

    Whether or not that means there is some corresponding recovery in the physical brain is another matter, but they have achieved 95% restoration of mental faculties nonetheless.

    In truth, this physical dimension is merely a slightly more condensed version of the astral dimensions we think of as being ‘the other side’ beyond this world, and some dimensions are seemingly quite solid and real, just as this one is, and some are even more vivid in some ways in fact.

    I know that consciousness can survive this physical body as I have been able to communicate with ‘dead’ people all my life, and very frequently stay in extrasensory communication with yogis, and some family members who have passed over the other side, and many people still in this world who are still incarnate, but living many miles away. There is no limit to distance, and sometimes I communicate with Vaishnava gurus who are presently living in the Krishna Goloka planet, thousands of billions of light years away. This is not so much an ability rather than them just tuning in to me through Lord Krishna, who is immanent, and thus able to transmit communication across any distance instantaneously.

    In fact, Lord Krishna is the third party who facilitates this in all instances, as this communication takes place through the very substance of His Being, whether through Krishna Himself in the spiritual dimension, or whether through Krishna as revealed in the form of material maya,through the subtle material ether of space, on the various subtle planes of consciousness.

    Only in this world do we have an external body; in the transcendental world we are our own eternal forms, like Krishna Himself, but on a smaller scale, though He can share His awareness and potencies with any of His jiva soul companions to any degree whenever He wishes, in the nitya siddhi of sarshti for instance, when He enables a devotee to share His mystical potencies and enjoy on the same levels as He does. That is one of five principal devotional types of relationship with Krishna that can be enjoyed.

    Even atheists can practice telepathy on the more basic materialist level, though to be free of maya and karma and all that materially binding stuff with all it’s troubles, the siddhi is best practiced within Krishna as a ‘nitya siddhi’ or mystical ability on the eternal spiritual plane, as a devotee.

    We are all eternal spirit souls, not our external gross material or even our subtle material bodies, so ultimately, we require nothing more than the companionship of Krishna to be fully self-cognizant of our true eternal nature.

    We do not in truth require anything more than Krishna to be conscious; just as our eyes require sunlight to function, so the soul requires Lord Krishna to function.

    That is the key to genuine consciousness, free from all anxiety, beyond the artificial material dream reality that we now find ourselves in, due to having turned away from Krishna in the past.

    • Flying high mouthman says:

      Article is fine.. But i really enjoyed the Krishna deal of mothman below and his communications with ETs of billions of miles distance! :)) No wonder why most of us hard time thinking beyond established boundaries. Hey mothman pls. ask your ETs for the next lottery winning number.. In fact do that every other week and share the info with us, pls. pls… So we all can get out of our real tangible boxes and become free for good! :) What do ya say bod?? Chears..

    • bobkat says:

      Hard physics even says that what appears to be ‘solid’ matter is mostly empty space. The material world is an illusion. What we call ‘matter’ is nothing but condensed energy. Everything is energy, even our thoughts. Yes, our mind is much more than our physical brain.

  2. jim says:

    What is never discussed is the obviously “formless and therefore timeless” Being, that is the root of all consciousness. There is an old occult axiom that states, that which has form will be born and die, while that which is formless is eternal, knowing neither birth nor death. Clearly Being is eternal and essential for existence.

    Unfortunately, most all scientists today have no belief in the Infinite Creator (Ocean of Being) or any conception of tangible philosophy at all. They deny Life and the second greatest gift Free Will. All they do is regurgitate what their masters have told them too, and the lot of you are too God Damned stupid to think for your selves.

    Power is for those who are their own masters, and slavery is for the vast majority of the masses.

  3. walter russell has the a answer

    you tube

  4. Bob says:

    I guess it really is hard to pass off that we are different to what is all around us, it should give one more controll on the journey.

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