Are Minds Confined to Brains?

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, the place on the web for modern mystics and evolving souls.  

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