Response to Dr. Christof Koch

In a recent interview he gave to Skeptiko, neuroscientist Dr. Christof Koch has criticized comments I had made in an earlier Skeptiko interview. Here is my original statement, as played back to Dr. Koch during his interview:

"The current paradigm says that conscious experience is an epi-phenomenon, or a by-product, or in any case generated by brain activity. So you should be able to always find a tight correlation between conscious states as reported by the subject and measurable brain states as measured, for instance, with an fMRI scanner. Usually this correlation is there, which indicates that there is a tight relationship between the brain and consciousness ... But there are instances, like this study that you alluded to in the U.K., where this correlation is not there in a very spectacular and repeatable way ... The only thing they could measure in the fMRI was a dampening down of brain activity in certain key areas. No excitation anywhere. Now, this breaks the correlation. The paradigm would require that an unfathomable experience, any experience what-so-ever, actually, should be correlated with brain activity and excitation of the brain, not a dampening down. That is a fundamental break with the paradigm as I see it. There is no way of escaping from this today."

The British study I refer to above was about the effects of psilocybin, the active ingredient of psychedelic mushrooms, on the brain. I discussed it in another article.

Now, here is Dr. Koch's criticism of my comments:

"In general he assumes that consciousness involves excitation of the brain, but not dampening. That is a naive notion ... Let me tell you that's wrong, because otherwise you would have to argue that the epileptic brain, when the entire brain is hyper-synchronized and massively electrically discharged, would be hyper-conscious, because that's the maximum amount of activity ... but of course usually people during an epileptic seizure are unconscious. Consciousness arises out of complex interactions among [parts of] the brain. They can be excitatory or inhibitory ... [It doesn't have] to be all excitation or all inhibition. It's just a pattern of different neurons, some fire, some don't fire, and out of this differential pattern different conscious experiences emerge ... It's the differential pattern of activity [that matters]."

Dr. Koch's chosen example – that of epileptic seizures – is irrelevant to the point in question. These seizures illustrate merely that brain excitation is not sufficient for subjective experience (hardly a surprise, otherwise we would be conscious of every autonomous process in our brains), while my claim was that brain excitation is necessary for subjective experience. The "differential pattern of activity" Dr. Koch alludes to aside, a subjective experience unaccompanied by an excitatory brain process would be a disembodied experience, which would clearly contradict the current paradigm of neuroscience. Dr. Koch acknowledges as much when he states, in the interview, that dream experiences "are caused by specific brain activity." This is a very simple point that shouldn't be lost in the contrivance of promissory explanations.


Dr. Koch suggested that my original statement reflected naive ignorance of the role that the interplay between inhibitory and excitatory brain processes plays in the rise of conscious experience. Therefore, although he stated that he had read my website, it seems that he missed a post where I explicitly elaborated on why I believe such interplay is not sufficient to explain the data. Be it as it may, it seems that Dr. Koch's point is the following: Even though the drug reduces brain activity as a whole, such reduction may be associated mostly with inhibitory processes in the "differential pattern of activity." Therefore, once the inhibitory processes are (partially) de-activated, excitatory processes may become conscious, which in turn causes the 'trips.' I can then imagine three scenarios:

First scenario: New excitatory processes could arise and grow due to the reduced inhibition. But these should then have been observed with the fMRI as deltas in the activation levels of certain brain areas, like e.g. the visual cortex, when compared to the placebo baseline. Such was not the case, as the researchers repeatedly emphasized in their paper. In fact, the researchers observed a further de-activation of higher-order visual areas.

Second scenario: The reduced inhibition could cause ordinarily subconscious excitatory processes, already in the placebo baseline of brain activity, to cross the threshold of awareness without any increase in their metabolic signature. This way, no delta in activation levels would be observed with the fMRI. Now, it is well-known in the psychedelic literature (see, for instance, Dr. Rick Strassman's "DMT: The Spirit Molecule") that psychedelic trances are extremely intense and often described as "more real than real." If subjective experience is brain activation, one would expect the intensity of the experiences to be proportional to the intensity of the corresponding brain activations. Therefore, activations behind psychedelic trips should be much higher than the placebo baseline. This alone seems to already contradict the second scenario, but let us pursue this a little further. Psilocybin 'trips' entail structured and complex contents like voyages through 'intergalactic space,' 'hyper-dimensional fractal' displays, and conversations with 'entities' often described as 'aliens' or 'elves' (see the 'trip' reports in Erowid's mushroom experience vault). Therefore, the second scenario implies that unfathomable 'sci-fi' fantasies are subconsciously playing themselves out in our brains on a regular, on-going basis. What evolutionary advantage could this possibly have? Finally, we know that there is a relationship between subconscious processes and dreams. Yet, when we dream of something as dull as the clenching of a hand, the brain lights up with excitatory processes that are discernible with an fMRI scanner. Shouldn't, then, obvious activations corresponding to these on-going subconscious fantasies regularly pollute any fMRI measurement in an unmistakable way?

Third scenario: Perhaps there are no subconscious sci-fi fantasies ordinarily going on in the brain, but merely subconscious 'noise.' Then, when the drug de-activates certain (inhibitory) control centres in the brain, this subconscious noise could, by some unknown mechanism, coalesce in the form of a psychedelic 'trip,' and yet with no change in its metabolic signature. This way, the corresponding brain activations would be masked by the placebo baseline measurements. Now, think about this for a moment. Even if we leave aside the fact that postulating such an unknown mechanism is quite contrived, this third scenario still implies that the brain activation signatures of unfathomable and mind-boggling psychedelic 'trips' are indistinguishable from ordinary, subconscious 'noise.' How reasonable a hypothesis is this, in light of the paradigmatic assumption that experience is brain activity?

All this said, it is important to notice that my original claim does not rest on this one psilocybin study; after all, as intriguing and compelling as it may be, it is but one study. My claim rests on what I believe to be a broad pattern associating peak subjective experiences with generalized reductions of blood flow to the brain. Many techniques for the attainment of mystical experiences entail such reductions in blood flow. Hyper-ventilation and Holotropic Breathwork, for instance, induce psychedelic-like trances through constriction of blood vessels in the brain. Pilots fainting under G-LOC report Out of Body Experiences (OBEs). And, of course, Near Death Experiences (NDEs) entail a total cessation of blood flow to the brain. All are linked to structured, coherent, intense, and complex subjective narratives. To explain these narratives along the lines suggested by Dr. Koch would require that a reduction of blood flow to the brain as a whole somehow had a highly selective, detrimental impact on inhibitory processes alone, while somehow delivering a net metabolic benefit to excitatory processes. This evokes absurd images of hordes of 'Maxwell's demons' coordinating blood traffic in the brain to ensure that all blood still available finds its way precisely to excitatory neuronal networks, to the detriment of inhibitory neuronal networks.

In another part of his Skeptiko interview, Dr. Koch made the following comments about the possible physiological mechanisms behind NDEs and OBEs:

"What happens in all of these cases, is the brain wakes up. It becomes unconscious, the blood flow goes out, then slowly the blood flow resumes ... and then different parts of the brain boot up at different times. It's not like there's zero activity; there is of course activity there. But it's differential activity. And so ... some parts of the brain are still offline, some parts of the brain are slowly getting online, the brain is trying to make sense of it and certain fractions of the time people report these intense experiences ... It's the activity in the brain that gives rise to these vivid experiences."


Basically, he is contending that structured, coherent, intense, and complex NDEs and OBEs can be explained by the progressive 'rebooting' of different brain structures as the brain wakes up. Therefore, what people like Dr. Eben Alexander report about their NDEs (see video above) is merely an artifact of the brain slowly coming on-line. If that is the case, I submit to Dr. Koch (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that we may, right now, be waking up in some meta-reality, our entire lives here being merely artifacts of the progressive 'rebooting' of our meta-brains. Life as we know it, including all of neuroscience, may be merely a meta-delusion! Light-heartedness aside, Dr. Koch's presumed explanation requires – unless we selectively and arbitrarily dismiss certain aspects of what NDErs report – that a mere lack of synchronization in booting up different parts of the brain can create the illusion of a lifetime in a reality (at least) as complex and vivid as the one we ordinarily find ourselves in. I leave it to you to judge how reasonable a hypothesis this is, by comparing the short video above with Dr. Koch's explanation.

I have much respect for Dr. Christof Koch and applaud his continuing attempt to bring consciousness into the fold of scientific inquiry. I also fully understand that he, as the interviewee, had no obligation to prepare extensively for an interview. Yet, I do think that his dismissal of my original claim was casual. Further, as far as neuroscience is concerned, I am merely an educated layman. My Ph.D. was in computer engineering, the only neuroscience-related work I've ever done being a couple of years of research on artificial neuronal networks and machine intelligence. But then again, this should only make it easier and simpler for Dr. Koch to address my questions and criticisms above. I emailed these questions to Dr. Koch several days before this article was published, but as-of-yet I've got no reply. If Dr. Koch chooses to reply to this article, I'd be willing to publish his reply here with the same prominence of the present rebuttal.

The thoughts above may come across as complex because I wanted to be very explicit and specific in my analysis. But you should not allow that complexity to take your eyes away from the basic fact behind all this:

Dreams and psychedelic experiences are similar in that neither can be attributed to sensory inputs. Yet, in a dream, when we do something as dull as clenching our dreamed-up hands, scientists can discern the corresponding brain activations with an fMRI image contrasted to the baseline brain activity. But when we have unfathomable psychedelic excursions into other universes, scientists see no brain activation whatsoever when contrasted to the baseline. That's it; it's just as simple. It's up to you to extract your own conclusions.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. wow... this is a great rebuttal!

    Koch is a good solider for the materialists, but the battle is over.

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    1. Nice article Bernardo... Hey, Alex, wouldn't it be interesting to have Koch and Bernardo have a discussion on a future podcast?

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  2. Doesn't it seem like an unsynchronized "rebooting" of the brain would produce an incoherent experience, rather than a very coherent hyper-real experience that seem to compose the NDE experience?

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  3. Bernardo,
    Is it possible that the reason we see such obvious and discernibly repeatable correlations in measurable brain activity with respect to the dreamed clinching of hands is merely physiologically memory based?

    Past studies have shown repeatable similarities with respect for brain activity in pregnant Moms and their carried fetus.Babies had the same precise physical reactions whether Mom really was smoking a cigarette or just imagined that she was smoking one. There was no difference.

    In this sense, one begins to wonder if the memory itself is truly the forward most device in what I have been hypothetically modeling as, "the translation of the energy of consciousness."

    Because the brain of an unborn fetus is fully actuated prior to life experiences, does this give credence to the idea that the memory itself is a functioning mechanism, apart from recall, prior to the act of initial perception?

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    1. Interesting comments, Jeff. The study about dreams that I refer to also found that the same areas of the brain light up whether the subject is actually clenching his real hand, thinking about clenching his hand while awake, of clenching his dreamed-up hand while asleep.

      We also know that there is no answer today to the question of where memories are stored. We know how skill memories are formed (e.g. the skill of riding a bike) -- in the strength of certain synapses -- but not experience memories like the memory of your first kiss. Rupert Sheldrake summarizes the status quo here in a chapter of his latest book.

      Henri Bergson thought that memories were simply dislocations of consciousness in space-time. They were not "stored" anywhere at all, but simply re-accessed as actual experiences in the past. This resonates with what you say, I think.

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  4. I find it strange that you keep commenting about the paradigm that requires excitation for experience. Dr. Koch a specialist in just the area you are claiming to know more about this paradigm than he does. He specifically refuted this claim when Alex proposed this concept in the podcast. Alex brushed it off. I would call it a strawman of your creation. Many experiences can be detected as increased activity in the brain - that is not the same as saying they all must do so. He also brought up the issue that fMRI only looks at the blood flow to area and about how it is much cruder tool than what the neurons do and misses detected changes as measured by micro-electrodes - putting a flaw in the logic of your premise. I am going to say with looking at his background and yours - I think he has a better grasp at what the current thought is on neural action is and the limits of the measuring tools. It is not that his 'status' makes his ideas right and yours wrong. But at the very least it does put a dent in your paradigm stance. If you could give some specific statements that state directly what you claim as the paradigm from leaders in the area and even better top organizations that state that as their position. Examples that fit your claim is different than your claim that it is the paradigm. Without that premise - the logic of your argument falls apart. Did it still surprise the mushroom researchers that they saw decreased blood flow in areas - Yes, that is different than your conclusion.

    On the lower blood flow -- brain as a filter for NDE's. What about the large chunk of NDE's that are not from Cardiac events and have no mechanism for lower brain blood flow? I also have a question (I have not looked to see if there is data on this - just putting it out there, I am assuming you would know the answer to this). In the self induced attainment of mystical experiences, Is there the studies that show a reduction of blood flow to the brain with any correlation to said experiences? If so, how do these reductions compare to normal variations experienced?

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    1. Have you actually read the article you're commenting on? It appears you completely ignore it. Why don't you tell me what parts of my rationale, as stated in the article, are wrong and why? Be it as it may, here are some further answers:

      You said: "...that is not the same as saying they all must do so." This is an attempt to play all sides and all possibilities. At the end of the day, every experience has to have a fingerprint in brain activity, otherwise it's disembodied and defeats the paradigm. It's just as simple.

      You said: "He also brought up the issue that fMRI only looks at the blood flow to area and about how it is much cruder ... putting a flaw in the logic of your premise." This is naive and ignores the scientific paper behind this entire discussion (a paper which Dr. Koch himself admitted in the interview to not having read, and even not knowing about). Try reading the paper and you will see that the researchers used two different fMRI signals (BOLD and ASL), as well as a physiological model to eliminate precisely the loop-hole you mention. Moreover, if fMRIs are so untrustworthy, why did Dr. Koch himself, in the same interview, say that he would believe in the reality of NDEs only if the subjects were inside an fMRI while having the NDE? Apparently he trusts the fMRI when done with proper protocols, as was the case in the study in question. In general, if you think fMRI results are invalid, why do you think there so many accepted scientific results derived from fMRI studies?

      You said: "I am going to say with looking at his background and yours - I think he has a better grasp at what the current thought..." I agree. Therefore, I look forward to his reply to my article! :) That aside, authority is no replacement for good arguments and sound logic. History is rich in people with a lot of authority who were, ultimately, drastically wrong.

      You said: "...But at the very least it does put a dent in your paradigm stance." There is just no logic to ground this statement. To "put a dent" in my stance we need data or arguments, not authority. What are your arguments against what I wrote in this article?

      You said: "If you could give some specific statements that state directly what you claim as the paradigm from leaders in the area..." This is naive. The point of a paradigm is that it is the generally-accepted position at a certain moment in history. If what you are asking for were possible right now, the paradigm would already be different. Paradigms change through accumulation of anomalies, usually pointed out by people without a vested interest in the paradigm (i.e. people who do not have academic positions to protect, for instance). Trying reading Thomas Kuhn to get a good picture of how paradigms, and paradigm changes, occur.

      You said: "Examples that fit your claim is different than your claim that it is the paradigm. Without that premise - the logic of your argument falls apart." I don't understand at all what you are trying to say here.

      You said: "On the lower blood flow -- brain as a filter for NDE's. What about the large chunk of NDE's that are not from Cardiac events and have no mechanism for lower brain blood flow?" We know that certain stress events can reduce brain activity and blood flow to certain key brain areas. So the mechanisms may be there every time.

      You said: "In the self induced attainment of mystical experiences, Is there the studies that show a reduction of blood flow..." The point of, for instance, meditation is to reduce brain "chatter", i.e. reduce brain activity. It's done in a self-induced manner, but you still have the correlation. There is also speculation about meditation-induced (or stress-induced) releases of endogenous DMT in the brain, which would work in the same way as psilocybin does, thereby reducing brain activity.

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  5. I was not commenting on a article - I was commenting on both your podcast with Alex, Dr. Koch's and this commentary. I am not calling into questions of the mushroom (or the others) you reference. I did lay out what I felt was wrong in your premise and therefore your conclusion/model.
    1 - Blood flow is not the same as neural activity. Because of the points that Dr. Koch and myself have pointed out. Neurons can use different transmitters giving different signals with no change in blood flow. Think of it as measuring power consumption on a computer GPU - measuring power use from red screen compared to green would be no different. He pointed to studies that show direct and specific examples of fMRI not detecting changes being more directly measured in the brain.
    2 - fMRI still is a great tool - the non-invasive nature provides possibilities and tests to great abundance. This is not having it both ways. It is knowing what the limits are of the tool you are using and what kinds of signals it can miss. You seem to think that if it does not see an change in blood flow that the experience profile of the subject must be flat. Researchers use treatments that produce known changes in fMRI as a rule - That is good use of an expensive tool and there time. This would weight the data to the increased fMRI and experience.
    3 - I was asking you to back up this 'current paradigm' you go on about that frankly I don't see as being what you make it. I was not asking you to back up what you feel the paradigm will shift to. Your premise is this 'current paradigm' and a few examples that don't fit. If it is your idea of the 'current paradigm' that is incorrect and the examples you cited are just not typical to what has been looked at yet still fit with the current models ... your conclusions lose their footing.
    4 - As I see it, your argument is based on the premise that experience - excitation = increased blood flow. I would say that excitation is needed for experience - but we are not coming from a zero starting point. We are talking about changes in, not existence of. What I am saying is your argument is built upon a false premise --> falls apart.
    5 - On various types of NDE's -- Are there studies showing reduced brain flow to key areas. If you are linking NDE's in the filter model then you need to show this decreased blood flow with the other types of stresses which produce NDE's - and look at the cases where you have the decreased blood flow and no NDE's.
    6 - In self induced attainment of mystical experiences I asked if there were studies that showed this decreased blood flow and if so how those changes compare to normal variations. I have no doubt that we can play with all kinds of things with drugs.

    As to your comment about memories being some rift in space/time -- why is it then that memories are more modified the more they are accessed?

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    1. Scott, the article above has my answers to the points you are raising. That's why I wrote it. Have a look at it, it's not that long. If you disagree with something you read there, go ahead and comment on it.

      Regarding the nature of memories, there are two things: the ontological status of memories, and the mechanisms of access. One must also keep in mind that, as we keep accessing memories, later accesses may in fact be accesses to earlier accesses, and not to the original memory. But memories are a different subject, rich in itself, that I didn't want to cover with any depth in this article. So I will limit my comments to the above.

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  6. Yes, I did read your response.
    I do not think you covered the questions I raised. Other than Dr. Koch has a lot more experience and background in the field.
    You have not supported your claim of this 'current paradigm' you even have a well rounded researcher in the area refuting your basic premise. Him saying that that dream experiences "are caused by specific brain activity." might also fit your ideas but that is not the same as him agreeing with you - (As you stated Dr. Koch acknowledges as much when he states ...) That is misleading at best, dishonest at worst (OK, worse would be if you had made up the quote). Koch represents the current work and researchers in this field. You state that the 'current paradigm' is challenged that you feel is challenged - though it is a paradigm that Koch challenges -- How is that 'the current paradigm'?
    All the rest of your argument is based on that premise. Dr. Koch nor I was rejecting the results from the mushroom study - just not concluding that it implies what you think it does.
    Alex cut Dr. Koch off when he was putting forth the argument on why that premise is faulty. A couple times in fact.
    Since you had brought up the blood flow - brain as a filter hypothesis for NDE's I was just pointing out that there are a lot of cases of reported NDE's that do not have any suspected decrease in blood flow to the brain.
    I then followed with a question that you implied in this post about the decreased brain blood flow in the self induced attainment of mystical experiences.
    The memories space/time topic was also one you brought up - I was asking your thoughts. Though, if they exist not in our brain - how do we access a previous accessing? Not to mention the back in time thing adds a whole new complication to the process.

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    1. Scott, you now say you read the article. Yet, you don't point out specifically what you think is wrong with it. You offer no arguments, other than saying that the paradigm does not entail what I claim it entails. What does it entail then? Tell me, what is the current position of neuroscience? And yes, Koch has more relevant credentials. When did this become a logical argument? I thought authority was for religion.

      Koch does acknowledge that experience must be grounded on brain activity; ask him.

      You seem to be dancing around trying to keep every door open: we can't conclude this, we can't conclude that; that's not entailed by the paradigm. What do you conclude from the psilocybin study? What is entailed by the paradigm?

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  7. Hi Bernardo,
    I think one significant issue is that there really could be multiple ways that a de-activation could manifest. In previous posts you've used the 'bouncer' analogy; but what if you consider a sport like basketball, football, soccer that has offense and defense as an analogy. Suppose that the offense is excitatory and the defense is inhibitory. The most overall activation/energy expenditure would be when the defense and offense are playing against each other. If you take away the defense (i.e., the inhibitory connections; which occurs during sleep/dreaming and some hallucinogenic experiences), the offense could work to score and actually expend less energy. This is plausible from a physiological perspective -- when inhibitory connections are dampened excitatory neurotransmitters have easier access at the synapse. Therefore, I think it's plausible that you could still have a rich conscious experience driven by a lower metabolic state.

    -MF

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    1. How would you relate this to the three scenarios in the article?

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    2. Next to my previous question, MF, I wanted to say something else. By the way, I think what you are bringing up is the more intriguing and well-articulated materialist possibility so far, so thanks a lot.

      Your point, if I understand it, is that neuronal networks could indeed be firing more than in the baseline, but spending less energy doing so because inhibitory processes are offline. Since the fMRI signal only captures the "fuel" being spent, and not the firings directly, these extra firings could be missed by the fMRI.

      But thinking about it, the assumption you make is that a significant amount (if not most) of the energy consumed in neuronal metabolism is NOT in firing, but in something else (like what?). I can't judge this with confidence right now, but I would imagine that most neuronal energy does go into actually creating the output potentials in the axoms... that is, the firing itself. That's the means of neuronal communication, and I would guess most energy has go there. If that is the case, then your hypothesis doesn't hold.

      If most energy goes into firing, and the neurons are firing more, you should see a fingerprint in the fMRI.

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  8. Thanks Bernardo for considering this. I do think that there could potentially be a situation where there is LESS firing not more once the inhibitory connections are removed. Without having to compete to access the post-synaptic receptor (because the inhibitory mechanism is disengaged), a feedback mechanism could then actually down-regulate the excitatory axons; in other words, there is more efficient transmission. There's no need to keep flooding a synapse with excitatory neurotransmitters if the NT's have easy access to the post-synaptic receptor (i.e., there's no one protecting the goal).

    I'll think more about how this relates to your scenarios above...

    MF

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    1. But could there be MORE experience with LESS firings? If so, what kind of metabolic process does subjective experience correlate to, if not firings?

      Koch points out that the only way to really see with 100% certainty if a neuron is active or not is to stick a micro-electrode in it, which suggests that he wants to measure whether it's firing, which in turn suggests that he correlates experience to neuronal firing...?

      Do you agree that most metabolic energy in a neuron will go into creating the potentials in the axon, i.e. firing?

      And one last comment: Can it be that the hypothesis you are bringing up sounds a little teleological? It sort of suggests that neurons are goal-directed and know when their goal has been achieved or not, as opposed to simply being electrochemical machines reacting blindly to stimuli.

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  9. Hi Bernard,

    Having now rediscovered your "publish" and "preview" buttons (see my reply to you over at Sceptiko), I can say I think Scott raises one interesting point. Namely, what about spiritual/transcendental experiences that occur with no apparent stimulus (such as taking hallucinogens or suffering a stroke/cardiac arrest, or even engaging in meditation)?

    This interests me because I've had such experiences without said stimuli - they just seem to have happened for no definite, discernible reason. Moreover, they are of a nature that doesn’t incapacitate normal functioning – I can carry on my life as normal (sometimes, they have lasted for hours, days, even weeks in one instance).

    I’m not sure what the neurophysiological picture would be here. That said, speaking in experiential terms, and also with reference to mystics and sages, it does seem possible for some people to live quite normal lives while in a permanent state of transcendent awareness, suggesting, perhaps, that human beings all have this potential.

    I’m wondering, perhaps fancifully, whether the energy required to maintain the ego might have a definite neurophysiological correlate. I’m wondering if it could be a bi-directional thing:

    On the one hand, suppose, perhaps after years of reading, contemplation and self-discipline, one manages to significantly diminish the influence of ego. As a result, energy spent in neurophysiological terms might decrease, allowing transcendental experiences to occur, leading to further diminishment of ego, even less neurophysiological energy spent, and an increase in depth of transcendental experience; and so on in a virtuous circle.

    On the other hand, some sudden impact such as occurs while taking hallucinogens or during an NDE, resulting in a huge neurophysiological effect, might flood the mind with a depth of experience that it isn’t equipped to handle: it might even be quite scary.

    I suppose I’m wondering if hallucinogens/physical trauma etc., whilst interesting and not without relevance, are rather missing the point of spiritual development, which could be more a matter of gradual integration of increasing depth of transcendental experience over a period of time, driven by the desire to reduce the influence of the ego. That there could be neurophysiological correlates of such a process might not be all that surprising.

    It does suggest something that might be testable. If the idea holds water, then one would perhaps expect long-time pursuers of spiritual growth to be less affected by the sudden events, having already integrated a certain amount of experience. Conversely, one might expect the greatest effects in those with no interest in spiritual matters – atheistic materialists for example.

    Michael Larkin

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    1. Hi Michael, welcome back. :)

      Spontaneous spiritual experiences are certainly an interesting topic. There is speculation that some may be caused by a sudden release of endogenous DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) in the brain. DMT is a psychedelic substance stronger than psilocybin, which is naturally produced by the body in normally low quantities. Some people speculate that DMT could be sequestered somewhere and sometimes released in high amounts following some kind of physiological trigger, like stress.

      The latest evidence on the physiological and anatomical correlates of ego functions is that the brain's "Default Mode Network" (DMN) hosts the ego. This is precisely the region whose activity is most dampened by psychedelics. It's entirely conceivable that meditation affects the same region.

      Moreover, we know that people can alter not only their brain function, but even their brain wiring, spontaneously (i.e. without drugs, just by adopting certain patterns of thinking). This is called "Self-Directed Neuroplasticity." So it is conceivable that some people can semi-permanently alter the function/wiring of the DMN to stay in a regular spiritual state (enlightenment?).

      Finally, people's brains differ genetically. It is conceivable that some people have an innate ease to dampen the DMN and stay in fairly spiritual states very matter-of-factly, just because of the way their brains are wired up.

      Anyway, these are my 2 cents... :)

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  10. Hi again, Bernardo,

    Thanks so much for your enlightening reply:

    “Spontaneous spiritual experiences are certainly an interesting topic. There is speculation that some may be caused by a sudden release of endogenous DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) in the brain. DMT is a psychedelic substance stronger than psilocybin, which is naturally produced by the body in normally low quantities. Some people speculate that DMT could be sequestered somewhere and sometimes released in high amounts following some kind of physiological trigger, like stress.”

    Yes, I watched the “spirit molecule” video: useful to tie that in with the idea of sequestration and also the linkage with stress, which I suppose could include psychological stress, e.g. a bereavement.

    “The latest evidence on the physiological and anatomical correlates of ego functions is that the brain's "Default Mode Network" (DMN) hosts the ego. This is precisely the region whose activity is most dampened by psychedelics. It's entirely conceivable that meditation affects the same region.”

    Very interesting to learn that there is actually a brain area associated with the ego – that seems consistent with the idea I had.

    “Moreover, we know that people can alter not only their brain function, but even their brain wiring, spontaneously (i.e. without drugs, just by adopting certain patterns of thinking).”

    Again, most interesting. Makes me think about NLP; mind you, I’m no big fan of that.

    “This is called "Self-Directed Neuroplasticity." So it is conceivable that some people can semi-permanently alter the function/wiring of the DMN to stay in a regular spiritual state (enlightenment?).”

    - Which would presumably mean a prolonged (and possibly at some stage permanent) dampening of DMN activity...

    “Finally, people's brains differ genetically. It is conceivable that some people have an innate ease to dampen the DMN and stay in fairly spiritual states very matter-of-factly, just because of the way their brains are wired up.”

    There’s an old Sufi contention that some people are born Sufis (insani-kamil, “perfected human beings”), and may live out their lives without ever knowing it. Links in with the idea of Karma, and of Karma in some way relating to genetic expression – but that’s a whole new kettle of fish, so leave that one there.)

    “Anyway, these are my 2 cents... :)”

    It’s worth a lot more than that, Bernardo. I’m getting an education here! :-)

    Michael Larkin

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  11. I think it's possible that there could be more experience with less firings. Maybe subjective experience corresponds to the number of neurons that are activated, not the absolute amount of firing; in which case, when inhibitory processes are dampened it's possible to excite a greater number of neurons with less net firings (because of greater efficiency).

    I wouldn't really regard this as teleological, it's just a property of the nervous system that there are feedback and feedforward mechanisms that guide the firing of neurons, quantity of NT's, and even the plasticity of the neurons/dendrites. It's the reason why we can manipulate the nervous system and major NT's for clinical purposes (e.g., the SSRI's for depression, and cholinesterase inhibitors for cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's).

    MF

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, in a way, ALL neurons in the brain are "active" in the sense that they are alive (but not necessarily firing). However, clearly you mean a different state of "activation" that goes beyond just a neuron being alive. So, in what way do you mean "active" neurons?

      Delete
    2. By activity, i mean neurons firing. So another way to think about the conscious subjective experience might be in terms of signal to noise ratio. In these terms there could be minimal activity (i.e., less firing), but if there's not much 'noise' (i.e., inhibitory processes are dampened), it might correspond to a rich subjective experience.

      MF

      Delete
    3. Hhmm... personally, I find this contrived and unlikely. Noisy or not, a highly complex and structured experience should require an equivalently complex and structured pattern of firings...

      Delete
    4. fair enough...just brainstorming about ways this could be accommodated in the current framework, and it might be worth thinking in more detail about how/why this isn't feasible. your argument that great complexity must be built/represented in a complex way sounds a bit like the ID/creationist argument against evolution (i.e. great complexity couldn't have emerged from much a simple constituents through natural selection)which isn't taken too seriously by academics.

      MF

      Delete
    5. Well, when the claim is that conscious experience IS patterns of neuronal firings, I think it's fair to expect that complex experiences should correlate to complex patterns of firings. I don't think the analogy with Intelligent Design holds in the case of a postulated identity, as is the case here.

      Delete
    6. ...you see, the claim is not that potentially simple patterns of firings slowly accumulate over time to build greatly complex experiences (that would indeed be analogous to evolution), but that each complex experience IS a pattern of firings occurring concurrently with the experience. Nah, the analogy with ID is not applicable...

      Delete
  12. This whole thing got me thinking - what do you think of the reports of blind people's experiences with hallucinogens?

    There are a some reports on http://www.shroomery.org/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey there,
      I didn't know this site. I went there and tried to look for these reports from blind people but they didn't show up on my search. Could you provide some specific links? I'm also very curious about whether blind people can actually see while 'tripping.' We already know they can see during an NDE, so this would be interesting confirmation, if true.
      Cheers, B.

      Delete
    2. http://www.shroomery.org/forums/dosearch.php?terms=blind

      You must select "search our forum".

      Delete

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