The brain as a knot of consciousness

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

A small, natural whirlpool.

As regular readers know, I am an idealist; that is, I subscribe to the notion that reality – despite being solid, continuous, and apparently autonomous – is a projection of mind. I also subscribe to the notion that the brain is a kind of filter of consciousness: It localizes consciousness – which itself is primary, irreducible, and unbound  to the space-time location of the body. I've explored these two notions separately, not only in my books, but in several articles in this blog. So, here, I will not repeat the argument (logical or empirical) for these two notions, but will instead focus on how they can co-exist.

The idea that the brain does not generate consciousness, but instead limits and filters it down, seems to require dualism and contradict idealism. After all, if all reality exists in consciousness, how can the brain – which is a part of reality – filter down that which gives it its very existence? A water filter is not made of water; a coffee filter is not made of coffee; how can a consciousness filter be made of consciousness? It sounds like a self-referential contradiction. Yet, unless this apparent contradiction is resolved, idealism cannot be reconciled with the consciousness filter theory of the brain. Below, I will argue that, although this is a self-referential problem, it does not imply a contradiction.

The first step in resolving this apparent conflict is to emphasize that the word "filter" is used metaphorically here. What is meant is an image in consciousness of a process by means of which consciousness limits and localizes its own breath and depth. Since idealism is far less worked out as a philosophy than realism, we do not have an explicit and unambiguous terminology to articulate its ideas. Indeed, for the time being, we're limited to analogies and metaphors. So here is a metaphor to help one at least gain some intuition about how this could take place.

Think of consciousness as a stream. Water can flow along the stream through its entire length; that is, water is not localized in the stream, but traverses it unlimited. Now imagine a small whirlpool in the stream: It has a visible and identifiable existence; one can locate a whirlpool and delineate its boundaries precisely; one can point at it and say "here is a whirlpool!" There seems to be no question about how palpable and concrete the whirlpool seems to be. Moreover, the whirlpool somewhat limits and localizes the flow of water: The water molecules trapped in it can no longer traverse the course of the entire stream unbound, but become locked, swirling around a specific and well-defined location.

Now, there is nothing to the whirlpool but water itself. The whirlpool is just a specific pattern of water movement that reflects a partial localization of that water within the stream. When I talk of the brain being a structure in consciousness that reflects the self-limitation of consciousness, I mean something very analogous to the whirlpool in a water stream. There is nothing to the brain but consciousness, yet it is a concrete, palpable reflection of the localization of that consciousness. You can point at it and say "here is a brain!"

Let us try another analogy to deepen our intuition of this. Think of the brain as a "knot" that consciousness ties on itself. Indeed, a whirlpool is a kind of single-loop knot that water "ties on itself" and thereby restricts its own movement along a single, simple, circular trajectory. A single-loop knot is the smallest there is. Perhaps one could imagine the nervous system of a roundworm (C. elegans), with its 302 neurons, as a single-loop knot of consciousness that is extremely restrictive to awareness; the flow of consciousness in it is trapped into the simplest and smallest trajectory possible. As nervous systems become more complex, the constraints of the filter relax; more loops are added to the knot; complex tangles emerge. Although consciousness is still restricted to the localization system, it has more room to flow through more complex trajectories.

Knots. Source: Wikipedia.

Extrapolating this line of thinking, the broadest nervous system would be one the size of the universe, so the trajectories entailed by the countless loops of its unfathomably complex "knot" would be co-extensive with the degrees of freedom of existence itself, known and unknown. But this amounts to saying that such ultimate nervous system would be the universe (a whirlpool the size of the stream would be the stream), which brings us neatly back to our starting assumption: The ultimate nervous system  as far as the freedom, breath, and depth of consciousness in it – is no nervous system at all. The ultimate breath of consciousness is achieved when it is not limited by the brain that captures and "filters" it down.

To the idealist, everything exists in consciousness. So even a process by which consciousness limits and localizes itself should also produce an image in consciousness. It is thus not only unsurprising, but expected, that an image of the consciousness localization process should exist. And it so happens to be what we call a "brain." The very structure of the brain evokes an image of a complex knot and self-referential loops that somehow capture consciousness in a "closed tangle," as opposed to allowing it to flow freely. Carl Jung intuited this almost one hundred years ago in powerful, poetic words. The passage he wrote, and which I quote below, is from his personal diary, published in 2009 under the tittle "The Red Book" (the quote is from page 321). It takes the form of a conversation between his ego-consciousness ("I") and an autonomous psychic complex from his unconscious ("The Cabiri"):
I: Let me see it, the great knot, all wound round! Truly a masterpiece of inscrutable nature, a wily natural tangle of roots grown through one another! Only Mother Nature, the blind weaver, could work such a tangle! A great snarled ball and a thousand small knots, all artfully tied, intertwined, truly, a human brain! Am I seeing straight? What did you do? You set my brain before me! Did you give me a sword so that its flashing sharpness slices through my brain? What were you thinking of?
The Cabiri: The womb of nature wove the brain, the womb of the earth gave the iron [of the sword]. So the Mother gave you both: entanglement and severing.
I: Mysterious! Do you really want to make me the executioner of my own brain?
The Cabiri: It befits you as the master of the lower nature. Man is entangled in his brain and the sword is also given to him to cut through the entanglement.
I: What is the entanglement you speak of?
The Cabiri: The entanglement is your madness, the sword is the overcoming of madness.
Note: I'd like to thank the participants of the Skeptiko discussion forum for the spirited debates that inspired some of the articulations above.


  1. I find the whirlpool analogy very interesting.
    The only point that I am dubious about is to compare it to the "brain". This is very reductionnist.

    Not that the brain doesn't play a key role in consciousness ; sure it does. But when I meet someone in the street, I don't say "hey, this is a brain ! Oh, John's brain, hello".

    In that sense the brain is only the center of the whirlpool. But a brain alone is dead (and who ever saw a whirlpool-center without the rest of the whirlpool around?).

    As far as I know, if something can be identified as an autonomous entity, it is the whole organism.
    Focusing on the center alone could be misleading in the long run.

    1. Q, I think you raise an excellent point, and I actually agree with you. The separation between brain and body is arbitrary. So yes, the brain is merely the center of the whirlpool, and the body the rest. Thanks, B.

  2. Yet knots seem static while time and experience is dynamic. Are our experiences a single knot changing over time, or a series of relatedly shaped static knots that exist independently and platonically for eternity.

    1. Hi,
      I'm writing on this topic these days. I see the content of experience as not associated to the form of the 'knot;' but rather as 'ripples' on the 'surface' of the 'material' that forms the knot. I'll be elaborating on this in future work, using a terminology less loose than just knots and ripples.
      Gr, B.

  3. I love that Jung excerpt. Where should I start if I'd like to read something by him?

    1. HI there. The 'Red Book,' which I took the quote from, is quite esoteric for the uninitiated in Jungian psychology/philosophy, even though it is probably the best book I have ever read. I think it is a good idea that you first acquaint yourself with Jung the man, to have some context for his writings. Most of his writings are somewhat technical. So I would start with his autobiography (non-technical, and reads like a novel): 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections.' From there I would go to 'The Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes.' There are also some excellent PBS documentaries about Jung online:

    2. OOPS... "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious"

    3. Thank you very much for the response!

  4. So, in reading this (and going through *Materialism is Baloney*), I'm trying to clarify what you're getting at. The knot metaphor seems to describe not a filter, but a collector, a point perhaps where the flow of conscious is constrained and forced to slow down? A tight collection of self-reflecting loops? A tangle of multi-dimensional vibrations which is visualized as the brain externally while creating the internal sense of Ego?

    Also, I wonder if any of your books take an in-depth look at lucid dreaming? I think we recall our dreams as "movies". Little film-thoughts inside our head, a two dimensional image that feels pre-recorded. The reality of the awakened dream-space is anything but. It has a greater elasticity beyond a certain point, but before that, seems as physically real as any waking reality. Focused attention can affect it, but "it" creates it's own elements constantly. And a feeling of "time" exists as well, but is more easily understood as a "train of experience". The experience can create a lasting sense of "what the hell is that?"

  5. Why hasn't the experiment suggested by Lucian Hardy of consciousness be