What is Consciousness?
From the Material Brain to the Infinite Mind and Beyond
BY ERVIN LASZLO
everything neuroscientists and brain researchers think they know about what consciousness is, is being shaken up by findings at the cutting-edge of science and medicine.
A New Concept of Consciousness
What is consciousness? What about the mind? If the world is vibration, is also mind and consciousness a form of vibration? Or on the contrary, are all vibrations, the observed world, a manifestation of mind and human consciousness?
Although it is true that when all is said and done all we know is our consciousness, it is also true that we do not know our own consciousness, not to mention the consciousness of anyone else. We do not know what consciousness really is or how it is related to the brain. Since our consciousness is the basis of our identity, we do not know who we really are. Are we a body that generates the stream of sensations we call consciousness, or are we a consciousness associated with a brain and body that displays it? Do we have consciousness, or are we consciousness? Human consciousness could be a kind of illusion, a set of sensations produced by the workings of our brain. But it could also be that our body is a vehicle, a transmitter of a consciousness that is the basic reality of the world. The world could be material, and mind could be an illusion. Or the world could be consciousness, and the materiality of the world could be the illusion.
Both of these possibilities have been explored in the history of philosophy, and today we are a step closer than before to understanding which of these theories of consciousness is true. There are important insights emerging at the expanding frontiers where physical science and consciousness research join.
On the basis of a growing series of observations and experiments to answer the question of “What is consciousness?”, a new consensus is emerging. It is that “my” consciousness is not just my consciousness, meaning the consciousness produced by my brain, any more than a program transmitted over the air would be a program produced by my TV set. Just like a program broadcast over the air continues to exist when my TV set is turned off, my human consciousness and conscious awareness continues to exist when my brain is turned off.
Consciousness is a real element in the real world. The body and brain do not produce consciousness; they display it. And it does not cease when life in the body does. Mind and consciousness is a reflection, a projection, a manifestation of the intelligence that “in-forms” the world.
From the Material to the Infinite
Mystics and shamans have known that this is true for millennia, and artists and spiritual people know it to this day. Its rediscovery at the leading edge of the science of consciousness augurs a profound shift in our view of the world. It overcomes the answer the now outdated materialist science gives to the question regarding the nature of mind and consciousness: the answer according to which consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a product or by-product of the workings of the brain. In that case, the brain would be like an electricity-generating turbine. The turbine is material, while the current it generates is not (or not strictly) material. In the same way, the brain could be material, even if the consciousness it generates proves to be something that is not quite material.
On first sight, this makes good sense. On a second look, however, the materialist concept of what is consciousness encounters major problems. First, a conceptual problem. How could a material brain give rise to a truly immaterial stream of sensations? How could anything that is material produce anything immaterial? In modern consciousness research and science this is known as the “hard problem.” It has no reasonable answer. As researchers point out, we do not have the slightest idea how “matter” could produce “mind.” One is a measurable entity with properties such as hardness, extension, force, and the like, and the other is an ineffable series of sensations with no definite location in space and an ephemeral presence in time.
Fortunately, the hard problem does not need to be solved: it is not a real problem. There is another possibility: mind is a real element in the real world and is not produced by the brain; it is manifested and displayed by the brain.
Mind beyond Brain: Evidence for a New Concept of Mind and Consciousness
If mind is a real element in the real world only manifested rather than produced by the brain, it can also exist without the brain. There is evidence that mind does exist on occasion beyond the brain: surprisingly, states of consciousness and conscious awareness seem possible in the absence of a functioning brain. There are cases—the near-death experience (NDE) is the paradigm case—where mind and consciousness persists when brain function is impaired, or even halted.
Thousands of observations and experiments show that people whose brain stopped working but then regained normal functioning can experience human consciousness during the time they are without a functioning brain. This cannot be accounted for on the premises of the production theory of consciousness: if there is no working brain, there cannot be consciousness. Yet there are cases of consciousness appearing beyond the living and working brain, and some of these cases are not easy to dismiss as mere imagination.
What Near Death Experiences Can Teach Us
A striking NDE was recounted by a young woman named Pamela. Hers has been just one among scores of NDEs that help to answer the question of what is consciousness; it is cited here to illustrate that such experiences exist, and can be documented.
Pamela died on May 29, 2010, at the age of fifty-three. But for hours she was effectively dead on the operating table nineteen years earlier. Her near demise was induced by a surgical team attempting to remove an aneurism in her brain stem.
After the operation, when her brain and body returned to normal functioning, Pamela described in detail what had taken place in the operating theater. She recalled among other things the music that was playing (“Hotel California” by the Eagles). She described a whole series of conversations among the medical team. She reported having watched the opening of her skull by the surgeon from a position above him and described in detail the “Midas Rex” bone-cutting device and the distinct sound it made.
About ninety minutes into the operation, at which point she should have had no brain function or conscious awareness, she saw her body from the outside and felt herself being pulled out of it and into a tunnel of light. And she heard the bone saw activate, even though there were specially designed speakers in each of her ears that shut out all external sounds. The speakers themselves were broadcasting audible clicks in order to confirm that there was no activity in her brain stem. Moreover, she had been given a general anesthetic that should have assured that she was fully unconscious. Pamela should not have been able either to see or to hear anything.
It appears that human consciousness is not, or not entirely, tied to the living brain. In addition to NDEs, there are cases in which mind and consciousness are detached from the brain in regard to its location. In these cases consciousness originates above the eyes and the head, or near the ceiling, or above the roof. These are the out-of-body experiences: OBEs.
There are OBEs where congenitally blind people have visual awareness. They describe their surroundings in considerable detail and with remarkable accuracy. What the blind experience is not restored eyesight, because they are aware of things that are shielded from their eyes or are beyond the range of normal eyesight. Consciousness researcher Kenneth Ring called these states of consciousness “transcendental awareness.”
Visual awareness in the blind joins a growing repertory of experiences collected and researched by Stanislav Grof: “transcendental experiences.” As Grof, a pioneer in the science of consciousness and the mind, found, these beyond-the-brain and beyond-here-and-now experiences are widespread—more widespread than anyone would have suspected even a few years ago—and give us a clue into what consciousness is.
The Evidence of After Death Experiences
There are also reports of ADEs, after-death experiences that help expand on the question “What is Consciousness?” Thousands of psychic mediums claim to have channeled the conscious awareness and experience of deceased people, and some of these reports are not easy to dismiss as mere imagination. One of the most robust of these reports has come from Bertrand Russell, the renowned English philosopher. Lord Russell was a skeptic, an outspoken debunker of esoteric phenomena, including the survival of the mind or soul beyond the body. He once wrote, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive.” Yet after he died he conveyed the following message to the medium Rosemary Brown.
You may not believe that it is I, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, who am saying these things, and perhaps there is no conclusive proof that I can offer through this somewhat restrictive medium. Those with an ear to hear may catch the echo of my voice in my phrases, the tenor of my tongue in my tautology; those who do not wish to hear will no doubt conjure up a whole table of tricks to disprove my retrospective rhetoric.
. . . After breathing my last breath in my mortal body, I found myself in some sort of extension of existence that held no parallel as far as I could estimate, in the material dimension I had recently experienced. I observed that I was occupying a body predominantly bearing similarities to the physical one I had vacated forever; but this new body in which I now resided seemed virtually weightless and very volatile, and able to move in any direction with the minimum of effort. I began to think I was dreaming and would awaken all too soon in that old world, of which I had become somewhat weary to find myself imprisoned once more in that ageing form which encased a brain that had waxed weary also and did not always want to think when I wanted to think. . .
Several times in my life [Lord Russell continued] I had thought I was about to die; several times I had resigned myself with the best will that I could muster to ceasing to be. The idea of B.R. no longer inhabiting the world did not trouble me unduly. Befitting, I thought, to give the chap (myself) a decent burial and let him be. Now here I was, still the same I, with the capacities to think and observe sharpened to an incredible degree. I felt earth-life suddenly seemed very unreal almost as it had never happened. It took me quite a long while to understand that feeling until I realized at last that matter is certainly illusory although it does exist in actuality; the material world seemed now nothing more than a seething, changing, restless sea of indeterminable density and volume.
This report “from beyond” appears hardly credible, were it not that it is supported by other ADEs. One of the most striking and difficult to dismiss of these ADEs is the case of a deceased chess grand master who played a game with a living grand master.
Wolfgang Eisenbeiss, an amateur chess player, engaged the medium Robert Rollans to transmit the moves of a game to be played with Viktor Korchnoi, the world’s third-ranking grand master. His opponent was to be a player whom Rollans was to find in his trance state. Eisenbeiss gave Rollans a list of deceased grand masters and asked him to contact them and ask who would be willing to play. Rollans entered his state of trance and did so. On June 15, 1985, the former grand master Geza Maroczy responded and said that he was available. Maroczy was the third-ranking grand master in the year 1900. He was born in 1870 and died in 1951 at the age of eighty-one. Rollans reported that Maroczy responded to his invitation as follows.
I will be at your disposal in this peculiar game of chess for two reasons. First, because I also want to do something to aid mankind living on Earth to become convinced that death does not end everything, but instead the mind and consciousness is separated from the physical body and comes up to us in a new world, where individual life continues to manifest itself in a new unknown dimension. Second, being a Hungarian patriot, I want to guide the eyes of the world into the direction of my beloved Hungary.
Korchnoi and Maroczy began a game that was frequently interrupted due to Korchnoi’s poor health and numerous travels. It lasted seven years and eight months. Speaking through Robert Rollans, Maroczy gave his moves in the standard form: for example, “5. A3 – Bxc3+”; Korchnoi gave his own moves to Rollans in the same form, but by ordinary communication. Every move was analyzed and recorded. It turned out that the game was played at the grand-master level and that it exhibited the style for which Maroczy was famous. It ended on February 11, 1993, when at move forty-eight Maroczy resigned. Subsequent analysis showed that it was a wise decision: five moves later Korchnoi would have achieved checkmate.
In this case the medium Rollans channeled information he did not possess in his ordinary state of consciousness. And this information was so expert and precise that it is extremely unlikely that any person Rollans could have contacted would have possessed it.
Neurosurgeons and Chess Grandmasters
When it comes to the debate around what is consciousness, there is also firsthand testimonies of human consciousness without a functioning brain. The well-known Harvard neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who was just as insistently skeptical about consciousness beyond the brain as Lord Russell had been, gave a detailed account of his conscious awareness during the seven days he spent in deep coma. In the condition in which he found himself, conscious experience, he previously said, is completely excluded. Yet his experience—which he described in detail in several articles and three bestselling books—was so clear and convincing that it has changed his mind. Consciousness, he is now claiming, can exist beyond the brain.
The above-cited cases illustrate that there is remarkable, and on occasion remarkably robust, evidence that consciousness is not confined to the living brain. Although this evidence is widespread, it is not widely known. There are still people, including scientists, who refuse to take cognizance of it. This is not surprising, given that the evidence is anomalous for the dominant world concept. Those who strongly disbelieve that such phenomena exist, not only refuse to consider evidence to the contrary, they often fail to perceive evidence to the contrary when asking the question of what is consciousness.
Nonetheless, the view and theory of consciousness as a fundamental element in the world is gaining recognition. The Manifesto of the Summit on Post-Materialist Science, Spirituality and Society (Tucson, Arizona, 2015) declared: “Mind represents an aspect of reality as primordial as the physical world. Mind is fundamental in the universe, i.e., it cannot be derived from matter and reduced to anything more basic.”
An In-Formed World
It appears that consciousness is not limited to the individual body and brain; consciousness is a fundamental element in the universe. The universe, as we now know, is not a domain of matter moving in passive space and indifferently flowing time; it is a sea of coherent vibrations. These vibrations give us the phenomena of physical realities such as quanta, atoms, solar systems, and galaxies, and they also give us the phenomena of nonphysical realities: mind and consciousness.
The affirmation that physical vibrations give rise to nonphysical mind phenomena is not just another version of the “hard question” of consciousness research—the problem of how something as material as the brain can give rise to something as immaterial as consciousness. This however is a pseudo-problem, since clusters of vibration do not produce the phenomana of consciousness; they manifest and display them. The cosmos that gave birth to the universe is fundamentally an intelligence, and that intelligence is manifest in—“in-forms”—all phenomena.
The hard question of the brain and consciousness evaporates if we realize that the physical world is a domain, a segment, and hence a manifestation, of the intelligence of the cosmos. The vibrations that produce the phenomena of physical and nonphysical phenomena, including the mind and human consciousness, are part of the reality of the world, a world that is in-formed by, and manifests, the intelligence that is not only “of” the cosmos, but is the cosmos.
Cosmic Intelligence and the Primacy of Consciousness
The vibrations that manifest the cosmic intelligence are not physical entities in the classical sense of the term. They have a physical as well as a nonphysical aspect. Viewed from the outside, every cluster of vibration is a physical phenomenon, a pattern of vibration in space and time. But viewed from the inside—from the perspective of the given cluster—it is a perception, an awareness, a “feeling” of the world in and by that cluster. This internal, seemingly subjective but objectively real aspect is a fundamental feature of the universe that’s been uncovered by the science of consciousness in response to asking, “What is consciousness?”. It is the consciousness-aspect, one that did not emerge in the course of time but was present when this universe was born in the wider reality of the cosmos.
The bottom line is that the phenomena that appear as conscious awareness were not created or produced by the clusters of vibration in which they appear: they are manifested by them. Consciousness is, and has always been, present in all clusters, from quanta to galaxies. It is not limited to those with a complex brain and nervous system, even though the level of its manifestation corresponds to the level of evolution of the clusters that manifest it—chimpanzees manifest a more advanced brain, mind, and consciousness than mice.
The clusters that manifest consciousness in the universe were not, and cannot have been, the product of chance—chance alone does not explain the presence of any cluster of vibration more complex than a hydrogen atom. It does not explain the presence of the simplest of biological organism. Calculations relevant to the theories science of consciousness show that a random mixing of the proteins that constitute that DNA of the common fruit fly would have taken more time than was available since the Big Bang. There is something in the universe—a mind, a principle, or an intelligence—that orders and “in-forms” the phenomena that structure and hold together the phenomena we observe in the world.
The medium of this “in-formation” is the ensemble of the laws that govern events in the universe. Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modern powers must feel humble.” Planck came to the same conclusion. He said that we must assume the presence of an intelligence even behind the vibrations that constitute the nuclei of atoms. This must be a universal intelligence. It is the intelligence that not only holds together the proton and the neutron in the nuclei of atoms but holds together atoms in molecules—and molecules in the multi-molecular structures that are the physical objects of the observed universe.
We have reason to maintain that a cosmic intelligence is manifested in ours as well. Evidently, not everything that appears in our everyday awareness is a mark of a cosmic intelligence; our everyday human consciousness is mainly furnished by sights and sounds, textures, odors, and tastes conveyed by our bodily senses. They result from our brain’s decoding of vibrations in our environment. Our eyes pick up a narrow band of vibrations in the electromagnetic field and transform them into shapes and colors of determinate brightness; our ears pick up a likewise narrow if somewhat wider band of vibrations in the air and transform them into sounds of specific pitch and intensity. But sensory experience, while it produces the principal content of our experience of the world, is not the totality of our conscious awareness. Beyond the data of the senses there are images and intuitions, experiences and feeling tones that are not decoding of ambient vibrations by our eyes and ears: they are trans-sensory, “transcendental” elements of consciousness. They emerge into prominence when the everyday operations of the brain are slowed, or are shut down.
Transcendental experiences are a standard feature of NDEs, but they surface also in other states of consciousness like sleep, and in the hypnogogic states between sleep and wakefulness. They appear in traumatic, uplifting, or otherwise life-transforming experiences. And, if the reports channeled by psychic mediums are true, they emerge following the physical death of the body. That they do stands to reason within the theory of consciousness presented here. Following the demise of the brain, the sensory elements of consciousness are withdrawn, and the transcendental elements alone dominate.
Consciousness beyond the brain was previously an esoteric assertion, but it now has a scientific foundation. The clusters of vibration that convey our conscious awareness of the world include clusters that convey transcendental experiences. These clusters are not fundamentally different from those that convey everyday phenomena; they merely occupy a different frequency domain. Clusters at the frequency corresponding to the square of the velocity of light produce the phenomenon of pure energy, per Einstein’s mass-energy equation E = mc2. Clusters in the frequency domain of the speed of light produce the sensation of light, and those at the frequency domain of the living cell—about 150 megahertz—give us the perception of the everyday world.
There are vibrations of an extreme low frequency as well. These low-frequency, long-wavelength vibrations are likely to convey elements of the intelligence that in-forms our body and our brain—and in-forms the universe.
Indirect support for this hypothesis emerging from the theory and science of consciousness comes from the measurements of the EEG frequencies generated by the brain. In everyday states of awareness, pronounced excitations of the brain trigger EEG waves in the gamma domain, a frequency range of up to 100 hertz. The everyday world appears in the beta range, which is between 12 and 30 hertz. Deeply relaxed or meditative states of human consciousness occur in the low-frequency band known as alpha: 7.5–12 hertz. Transcendental experiences occur mainly in the still lower band of theta, between 4 and 7 hertz.
Below theta, we have the super-low range of delta, between near-zero and 4 hertz. Delta waves are normally produced by the brain and consciousness only in deep sleep. But there are exceptions. The brain of some psychic healers has been known to descend into this region while they are engaged in healing. And spiritual leaders in deep meditation also function in this super-low region, although they are not in the unconscious state of deep sleep.
We need to revise the widespread assumption that non-ordinary “spiritual” experiences occur at a high-frequency domain. They do not occur above the frequency of everyday experiences, but below it. Ordinary, bodily sense-based experience is not the totality of human experience, only a small part of it. We are a cluster of vibration that manifests phenomena of a far wider range than the narrow segment that gives us the sensory data the old theories of the brain and consciousness told us is the totality of our experience of the world.
This article on what is consciousness is excerpted from The Immortal Mind: Science and the Continuity of Consciousness beyond the Brain by Ervin Laszlo. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.
About The Author
Ervin Laszlo is a systems scientist, integral theorist, and classical pianist. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he is the founder and president of the international think tank the Club of Budapest as well as the Ervin Laszlo Center for Advanced Study. He lives in Tuscany. Visit his website: ervinlaszlo.com
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