Does Consciousness Originate Outside the Brain?

UCLA psychologists recently added another complication for solving the enigma of human consciousness. This happened when they used brain-imaging techniques to study what happens when the brain slips into unconsciousness. They found that “Consciousness does not ‘live’ in a particular place in our brain but rather arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another. It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another.” Their discovery appeared in the October 17, 2013 online UCLA Newsroom.

Consciousness and Self-Awareness

Moreover, other new research discoveries suggest that waking consciousness does not originate in the brain itself. These findings come from neuroscience, psychology, and cardiac arrest resuscitation. They surround the concept of self-identity — the innate and most cherished characteristic of waking consciousness. This too continues to be an enigma to science.

The concept of so-called “qualia” also is a challenge. For example, this describes your conscious appreciation for a particular shade of red in a rose — but how do you verbally enable another person to know that particular color?

The Unconscious

Neuroscience reveals that, around two to three years of age, several cognitive developments occur in the brain (Chiron et al). These generally result from maturation of the left cerebral hemisphere (Sheedy). However, the right cerebral hemisphere matures first, the part of the brain that stores memories of which we normally are not aware (Schore). Neuroscience researchers apparently agree that the right hemisphere matures as much as two years earlier than the left and is therefore dominant in infants. That suggests that waking consciousness and self-awareness do not become evident until at least two years of age. This is supported by research showing that babies do not recognize themselves in a mirror until about that age (Benjamin).

Fetal Consciousness

Prenatal psychology found an advanced consciousness in the womb, distinct and impossible from the immature fetal brain. It has been called “fetal consciousness” among other terms. Psychotherapist David Chamberlain, one of the pioneers in the relatively new discipline of prenatal (i.e., before birth) and perinatal (i.e., surrounding birth) psychology, explains, “This resulted from increasing public interest during the past — twenty-five years in the many different dimensions of consciousness research, some of which were previously considered ‘unscientific’” (Chamberlain 2013). Other researchers in this field prefer the terms “transcendent self” (McCarty) and “transcendent source of consciousness” (Wade 1996, 1998).

Subconscious Memories from the Womb

Chamberlain’s 2013 book is entitled Windows to the Womb: Revealing the Conscious Baby From Conception to Birth. That book offers a case study illustrating the incredible impact of subconscious memories from the womb even later in life. As early as 1979, in a book entitled The Psychosocial Aspects of Abortion, psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar described four of his unrelated teenage patients who each attempted suicide at least five times. Curiously, each teenager tried to end his life over and over again about the same time of year for five years. These repetitive patterns encouraged Feldmar to interview the mother of each boy. Reluctantly, each mother admitted having attempted abortion during her pregnancy but she never told her son. That had occurred about the same time of year as her son repeated his suicide effort. Once the mothers admitted their failed abortions to their sons, the suicide attempts stopped. Feldmar concluded, “Once the [conscious] connection is made, the child is relieved of compulsively having to act out the [subconscious] memory” (Feldmar).

Researchers Debate Consciousness

In Wade’s article “Physically Transcendent Awareness: A Comparison of the Phenomenology of Consciousness Before Birth and After Death” appears in a 1998 issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. She acknowledges that our typical understanding of consciousness is “a brain-based source of awareness which gives us our everyday experience of the world.” But she believes that “consciousness” also can provide “a physically transcendent source of awareness” which “predates physical life and survives bodily death” (Wade 1998).

An Undiscovered Entity

In Sam Parnia’s book Erasing Death: The Science That is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death, he writes, “To better explain the scientific situation we find ourselves in, it is as if we have discovered a wholly new type of substance that we can neither account for nor even explain in terms of anything we have ever seen and dealt with before in science.” For clarity here, he concludes the final chapter with, “That entity that we define as consciousness, the soul, or the self — that which makes me who I am — does not stop existing just because someone has entered the period beyond death” (Parnia).

The Hard Problem

Therefore, since science cannot explain the source of the most basic characteristic of “waking” consciousness — the sense of self — this opens the door for a new hypothesis. Does “waking consciousness” independently take shape as the result of brain-based abilities that arrive around ages two to three? Or does it result from adaptation of an already present “consciousness” to life on earth as cognitive brain faculties become active and our experiences expand?

Two Historic Reminders

The idea that self-awareness may originate outside the brain is not new. For example:

• Nobel Laureate and Australian neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles claimed, “The odds are 10 to the power 10,000 against the uniqueness of the individual self being derived from the genetic uniqueness that built the associated brain. The uniqueness of the individual self must therefore arise from some external source.”

•The idea the “self” was our most prized, yet unexplainable, possession reaches back to Greek philosophy (Chaffee). This is also discussed in the online Encyclopedia Britannica (Encyclopedia Britannica). Both it and Parnia seem to convey immortality on the new entity. As such, it reasonably might be expected to possess a unique identity of its own. Would this then continue to serve waking consciousness as our perceived self-identity? Remember that we normally are not aware of memories stored in our right cerebral hemisphere hence we forget the source of our self-identity.