Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist and neurobiologist and the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California. He says (4.12) that if we didn’t have consciousness we wouldn’t know anything about the world, there would be no pain, no joy, etc. There would be no ability to love or to create. Over the course of our history it has proven to be very difficult and, at times, controversial to define consciousness or explain what consciousness is. According to Damasio, the simplest definition of consciousness is that it is what we gain when we wake up and what we lose when we fall asleep (or are knocked out or put under anesthesia). The question is, what is it that we lose when we are under anesthesia? Damasio says that the answer is:
1. A mind with a flow of images and data from the senses.
2. However, we are not simply observers we are also present. This means that a conscious mind is a mind with a “self” in it. A self introduces a subjective perspective in the mind. We are only fully conscious when self comes to mind.
Damasio says that getting a better understanding requires that we get a better understanding of two things: how minds are constructed and how selves are constructed.
He says that the connectivity between the brainstem and other parts of the brain are required in order to have consciousness and in subjects where this connectivity has been disrupted the subjects do not have consciousness. He says that the human brainstem is shared with many other species and therefore he believes that those species also have conscious minds (although their consciousness is not as rich as that of humans because their cerebral cortex is not as well developed). He strongly disagrees with the idea that consciousness should be considered as a product of the cerebral cortex.
Damasio says that there are three levels of self to consider – proto-self, core self and autobiographical self. The first two are shared by many species and originate in the brainstem. The autobiographical self is much more rare. Humans have it, certain primates have it and dogs have it. The autobiographical self consists of a combination of past memories and memories of plans that we have made. In other words, it is the past that we have lived and the future we anticipate. The autobiographical self has prompted extended memory, reasoning, imagination, creativity and language. This in turn resulted in the instruments of culture – religious, justice, trade, the arts, science and technology. In turn, this resulted in things that are not part of our biology, rather they are the results of our collective input into our communities and societies.
Pim Van Lommel is a cardiologist and had lost several patients that has suffered from heart attacks but some managed to survive after being clinically dead for a short period of time. He asked patients if they could remember anything during the time they were unconscious. 12 out of 50 patients said that they could so he decided to research near-death experiences more formally. According to our existing medical knowledge it’s impossible to experience consciousness during cardiac arrest when circulation and breathing have ceased. In science we assume that consciousness is something that is not possible without the brain so it should be impossible to experience consciousness when you have cardiac arrest. In the meantime, Van Lommel says that there is literally no scientific evidence indicating that consciousness is produced by the brain. This is just an assumption, a hypothesis – it has never been proven.
An important feature of this particular research is that it was a prospective study, meaning that they selected patients that had a known medical condition, being cardiac arrest, and asked them what they could recall then had the ability to analyze the answer within the context of the known medical condition and the medical environment in which they were treated. This is in contrast to a retrospective study where the researcher might advertise to ask for people that have had a near-death experience to participate in the research but there is no way to analyze all confirm any of the medical circumstances surrounding the near-death experience (including confirmation of clinical death) so this leaves researchers in a situation where they have to believe the patient and therefore this type of research is not meaningful. In his research, he’s able to provide evidence of clinical death in each case and each case was not selected arbitrarily it was 44 consecutive cases and all of the medical data for each case is available for analysis. This means that anybody can subsequently research factors like medications that were prescribed and any other factor that anybody may think somehow contributed to the near-death experience all proves anything one way or the other.
A critical point to address when discussing new death experiences is answering this question, how do we know that the people that claimed to have a near-death experience are not lying? The answer to this question is that there are numerous examples of people that could recall certain events that happened in the operating room while they were clinically dead and their recollections have been corroborated by the doctors, nurses and other people in the room.
Van Lommel says that cardiac arrest is very important in this research because there are several different situations that can lead to a near-death experience. Experience that these patients describe involves a consciousness with emotions, memory, perception, etc yet we know that it was happening at a time where there is no brain activity and therefore it challenges the assumption that consciousness is the product of a functioning brain. Van Lommel says that people that reject the possibility of near-death experiences reject it because they associate consciousness with a functioning brain. The scientists that engage in scientific research of consciousness take the view that consciousness arises from the matter of the brain and therefore consciousness is an expression of a machine controlled by classical physics and our behavior is the outcome of nerve cell activity within the brain. If this scientific view is correct then there is no free will and consciousness is just an illusion. Yet there is evidence that consciousness can control the brain. This is neuroplasticity. The structure of the brain can change due to changes in consciousness. This can be seen in the placebo effect. In situations where the placebo effect has worked, not only do you see clinical improvement of the symptoms, you also see changes in the structure of the brain and this is due to people believing that they have been successfully treated with a drug even though there was no active drug involved.
In the 2005 Journal of science published a special anniversary featuring 125 questions that scientists have failed to answer. The number one question is, what is the universe is made of? The number two question is, what is the biological bases of consciousness? Van Lommel proposes that the question be rephrased to, does consciousness have a biological basis? In his study 62 out of 344 patients (18%) reported a near-death experiences and 282 patients did not report a memory. It doesn’t appear to be any reason to explain why 18% had a near-death experience while the others didn’t. There was no correlation relating to the period of time they were dead, gender, fear of death, expectation of the experience and no physiological explanation. Lack of oxygen to the brain could not be an explanation because they all suffered from this. There was no pharmacological explanation. Therefore, Van Lommel says that we should approach the situation by asking, how do we know that the brain is not functioning then ask, is there a neurobiological basis for consciousness?
So how do we know the brain is not functioning? There are many people that challenge the near-death experience by suggesting that, if the patient has a memory, and then the brain must have been functioning and the diagnosis that it was not functioning must have been an error. Van Lommel says that, when you look at experiments involving an induced cardiac arrest you can see that blood flow to the brain reduces to zero within one second and therefore people are unconscious within one or two seconds. Their body reflexes are gone (a function of the cortex of the brain). They are not breathing. You can use an EEG to measure the activity of the brain and you will see (after an average of 15 seconds) a total flatline. Therefore, we know that the brain doesn’t function after an average of 15 seconds. We also know that you need at least 60 to 120 seconds to do a successful resuscitation, most likely more. In this study all of the patients had a flatline EEG but still reported having, not only consciousness, but an enhanced consciousness.
How is this possible? Van Lommel says that we have to change our concept of where consciousness comes from. He suggests that the brain is a transceiver.
Van Lommel says (4.13) that the brain has the function of a transceiver. I it receives information from consciousness and it sends information from our body and our senses to our consciousness. It’s an interface function. The brain facilitates the experience of waking consciousness and consciousness itself is not localized to the body or the brain. He says that he thinks that this consciousness is in a dimension without time and space and everything is connected and this is what he called nonlocal consciousness.
Van Lommel also says that if people are accessing memories during the near-death experience (while the brain is dead) then the only conclusion is that memories are not stored in the brain or the body.
People that had near-death experiences people cannot hear and see because their eyes and ears don’t work. They perceive. There have been reports of blind people that were able to describe things that happened in the operating room while they were clinically dead. Therefore, if they somehow “perceived” these events, you can also ask, who is perceiving while you are awake?
Van Lommel says that consciousness is fundamental in the universe and that everything emanates from it. He reminds also us that this is not a new view. It has been part of the the Eastern religions and philosophies for thousands of years. It has essentially been rejected as a result of the last 200 years of Western science. In India, if you have a near-death experience, everybody is happy for you but not acceptable in the West because it’s considered to be impossible. Some people in the Western world have even been put into mental isolation as a result of continuing to talk about their near-death experience.
Next articles in this series: “Dealing With Difficult Situations”