Change is on the horizon

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

My attention this week has turned to a subject much spoken about but seldom considered thoughtfully: change. The Internet has been ablaze with discussions about consciousness shift, 2012, the Mayan calendar, climate change, the end of the world, and what not. The video clip above is just an example. How seriously can we take all this? Yet, when I say change, I do mean much more than the ordinary oscillations of the world 'out there.' I mean fundamental change of a nature and magnitude not witnessed for generations; a change in the nature of life and of our very way of looking upon reality. The most obvious harbingers of change are straight-forward extrapolations of current social and environmental patterns: the monumental increases in consumption, waste, and resource extraction; climatic impact, including global warming; population growth; increasing signs of vulnerability in our economic system; etc. It is unthinkable that our current way of life, and associated values, can be maintained for another 50 years; perhaps even a lot less. Other signs of change are of a more intuitive nature, difficult to pin down, yet obvious to the person who intuits them. They have to do with a subtle but palpable and intense shift in the way people seem to look upon, and relate with, the world. In this article, I'd like to discuss these issues a little more. Unlike more recent articles, I will not seek to substantiate my argument with references or strict logic. Instead, you should look upon this article as a more subjective essay; a sharing of impressions, if you will.

At any given historical juncture, the way we humans relate to reality is based on a coherent set of subjective values, beliefs, and assumptions about what can be real and valid, and what cannot. In science, this is called a scientific paradigm. Yet, we can use the word 'paradigm' more generically here. One can speak, for instance, of the various religious paradigms that have been used throughout history to give people a handle on how to relate to life. A pagan paradigm, for instance, would entail a form of animism that allowed people to relate to the elements of nature as living, conscious entities. This way, nature would be respected as a living organism, not as a depot to be plundered. A Christian paradigm allows us to relate to nature as the Creation of a higher Being, to Whom we owe respect and allegiance, and on Whose judgement we ultimately depend for salvation. This pretty much guides and calibrates our way of relating to one another and to nature. Moving on to philosophy, the materialist paradigm enables us to eliminate guilt and see nature as a resource. Since it equates our consciousness and personal identity with limited and temporary arrangements of matter (that is, the body and the brain), materialism entails the notion that our time is limited. Naturally, at any historical moment, multiple paradigms co-exist, often even in the same geographical location.

Truly fundamental change happens when the most pervasive paradigm of a civilization or historical setting is suddenly transformed. This is much more powerful than a change in external circumstances, like an economic collapse or sudden climate change. Indeed, a change of paradigm changes the entire way we see and relate to reality. Therefore, it's fair to say that a change of paradigm changes everything. Today, with globalization, for the first time in known history there is a large degree of paradigm uniformity across geographical boundaries. Human civilization is currently driven, even in the continuing presence of religion, by a tight alignment between the materialist paradigm and our economic system.

As readers of this blog, or of my books, know, I believe there are plenty of reasons to be at least highly suspicious of materialism as a valid paradigm. Not in that I subscribe to the notion of super-natural forces, but in that materialism is too limited, given the evidence, insofar as the forces it recognizes as natural. In a way, materialism survives partly because of inertia (developments that contradict materialism take very long to trickle down to society at large, because of their abstract complexity) but mainly because of its symbiotic relationship with our economic systems. By linking consciousness and personal identity to limited and temporary arrangements of matter, materialism inculcates the following subjective values: Life is short and you've only got one to live. The only source of meaning lies in matter (after all, nothing else exists), so the game is to accumulate as many things as possible. We should consume as fast as possible, even at the expense of others or the planet. We have nothing to lose by doing so, because we're all going to die soon and then it's all over anyway. It's easy to see how such value-system is conducive to runaway consumerism and reinforces current economic structures. Indeed, in a significant way, our economy depends on this value system. So, in turn, our airwaves are swamped with advertisements that aim at reinforcing materialism. Even governments stimulate it. And while pointing this out, it's hard for me to be outright against such reinforcement policy, since our jobs depend directly on it. Here is a catch-22, if there ever was one.

If you give this some thought, it may become clear to you what the true power of the materialist paradigm really is. Its main strength is not necessarily how well it explains the available data from a scientific perspective; after all, there are more than enough anomalies in science today to question materialism in its classic formulation. Neither are the philosophical foundations of materialism very strong, as I sought to point out before. The strength of materialism is its symbiotic relationship with the economic system upon which we have all come to depend. This creates a self-reinforcing loop from which it's very hard to escape. The combination of materialism and our current economic system forms a point of stable equilibrium from which one can only escape by temporarily making things worse. In technical terms, to escape it one needs to kick the system out of a local minimum. How to pull this trick off is the most urgent question to ever face our civilization, because all trends indicate that the current state of affairs is unsustainable.

Now, if the underlying paradigm of our civilization does shift, that would be the most profound, intense, and otherwise extraordinary change in generations. What on Earth could cause such paradigm shift? What reasons do we have to believe that we won't keep on with the same mad game of optimizing for short-term, egocentric goals until catastrophe and oblivion strike? Well, I believe there are strong forces building up in the collective unconscious of humanity that may just pull that trick off.

Never before have we been so wealthy and dominating as a species. But have our lives ever been as meaningless as today, from an inner, subjective perspective? Materialism crushed most of the myths that gave meaning to the lives of our ancestors. Today, we are orphans of meaning. As Alan Watts so cogently put it (see video above, starting at 6:53 minutes), we go on chasing one material goal after the other, as if there were a little bag of magic goodies at the end that would retroactively confer meaning to the entire enterprise. This amounts to chasing ghosts; there is no bag of magic goodies at the end. What do we live for? Life has become a mad scramble for the accumulation of things and the status they confer, for the sake of ultimately leaving it all behind at death. There is no permanence, no meaning.

Shockingly, it is illusions that keep our mental balance. We need ghosts to chase, because once we see through the game, and realize what is really going on, we may question the sense of it all and succumb to depression. Zen teacher Adyashanti calls this the "dirty little secret of spirituality." Therefore, instead of surrendering to what our intuitions scream to us in our inner-most minds, we increase the stakes. Not only do we chase ghosts, the ghosts began to chase us. Competition, so we tell ourselves, does not allow us to relax. We have to one-up the others, work even harder and more aggressively, or risk losing the precious illusions we've managed to accumulate thus far, at great cost to ourselves and our families. The more we accumulate, the more we have to lose, so the net effect of 'success' is the opposite of what we would have hoped: We become even more paranoid, even more stressed out. Life quickly turns into an appalling nightmare; a self-created horror show where we play both victim and perpetrator. And since we don't know of any other option, all we can do is create ourselves some new ghosts and then go chase those, till the cycle repeats itself enough times that the illusion no longer works and we are left mentally broken; defeated. Many a celebrity or wealthy person have come to this sad juncture, where addictive drugs or suicide become real options.

You see, the illusion only works for as long as it lies in the potential future, just out of reach. Like the proverbial carrot hanging in font of the horse, the entire allure of wealth, consumption, and status lies largely in not having enough of them. By not having them, space remains open for our minds to fantasize and project numinous meaning onto those things. It is the achievement of success, the catching of the ghosts, that gives away the game by revealing its meaninglessness. Therefore, as things become more and more available to the masses, it actually becomes harder to keep up the illusion. It is the very economic success of materialism that carries within it the seed of its own destruction. When having a television set was a magical, nearly untenable consumer dream, rich in projected meaning, its materialistic appeal was huge. Now, other things have to be invented that can serve as receptacles for all of our numinous projections, from smart phones, to cars, to better sex, to a job promotion, etc. As with any addiction, it gets increasingly harder to achieve the same 'high.' Eventually, when our creativity can no longer keep up as far as creating sufficiently numinous things, the illusion will shatter. Might we be close to this point?

Most of us are very good at keeping up appearances. We hide from even our most intimate friends, and often from ourselves, what is truly going on in our minds. We fear being perceived as different, odd. Social animals that we are, we have an innate need to fit in and belong. Therefore, even if massive numbers of human beings were intuitively beginning to see the ghosts for what they are, illusions, it would still be hard to tell from just watching the news or chatting with colleagues at work. Yet, from personal experience, which is all I can rely on, I dare say that people are indeed beginning to see through the game. I see this phenomenon everywhere, though its manifestations are very subtle and discrete. Something is stirring up in the human collective unconscious. Critical mass is building up and we may be not too far away from what Malcolm Gladwell referred to as the "tipping point.'

Again, the only reason we insist on the old, failed game, inventing new ghosts to chase after catching previous ghosts and discovering they were illusions all along, is that we don't know any better. We were just never told what else to do; not by our parents, not by our school teachers, not by anyone. Thus, we desperately try to avoid depression and other forms of mental pathology by the only means we know: Replacing old projections with new ones; accumulating more things and status. Yet, the only true, sustainable solution lies in seeing the projections for what they are, mere projections, not objective reality. The numinous power of things is only real insofar as we lend things this power. We are the source of what we desperately seek, not the 'outside world;' and it has been so all along. There is no 'external' meaning. But we are woefully equipped, in our society, to pursue a path of self exploration. Long ago have we dispensed with elders, with archaic traditions and myths, and many of the metaphors that could now illuminate our way. We orphaned ourselves from meaning. So we will have to face the inevitable breakdown of the illusion of meaning-in-things, whether it happens shortly or in many years, without much in the way of guidance. This is my concern for myself and the rest of us.

Materialism will be replaced as a paradigm, I believe, well within my lifetime. It has run its course and can no longer nurture the human psyche; we cannot survive in a vacuum of meaning. Thus, it is our own innate need for meaning that will kick the status quo out of the local minimum; out of the current equilibrium point. It is our need for a new way to relate to life that will, at first, make things worse, so we can find a new path for improvement. Our challenge will be to collectively find a way to bump the paradigm strongly enough to dislodge it from its current equilibrium point, but gently enough not to suddenly and completely destroy the economic system upon which we depend. Are we capable of doing it in a smooth way? Honestly, I am sceptical, though I remain open-minded. For the same reasons that I don't believe human beings are capable of organizing huge secret conspiracies, I also find it difficult to imagine that we can organize ourselves enough for a smooth and orderly transition of paradigm. It will be a bumpy road. But the prize on the other side of the storm will, certainly, be handsome.

Evolution, self-directed neuroplasticity, and quantum entanglement

I recently took part in an online discussion regarding whether recent scientific discoveries about self-directed neuroplasticity and quantum entanglement might be relevant to the theory of evolution. Since I've written about these topics before, both in my books and in this blog, I've decided to weigh-in for what it's worth. Indeed, at first sight, evolutionary biology seems to have no relation with either entanglement or neuroplasticity. Yet, I will argue below that there is indeed a very rational and clear link.

Let us first look at self-directed neuroplasticity. A book by UCLA Professor Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz summarizes the results of his experiments with patients suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). See video above for an overview. The observations were that, through mindful meditation or other forms of self-directing one’s intention and attention, a patient could physically alter his or her brain in such a way as to counter the OCD. At first sight, this may sound no more striking than our ability to physically alter our muscles by choosing to exercise more. But there is a crucial difference: When we choose to exercise, that choice is, supposedly, the deterministic result of electrochemical processes taking place inside the brain and affecting a system separate from the brain (i.e. muscles); no form of self-reference is entailed. But in self-directed neuroplasticity the brain supposedly changes itself; it “re-wires” itself. So if the original physical constitution of the brain was wired for OCD, and therefore physically bound to OCD, where do the degrees of freedom come from that allow for it to intentionally re-wire itself out of OCD? In a way, this sounds like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; so who is doing the re-wiring if not the brain? The suggestion is thus that it is a form of immaterial mind doing it; a mind that has direct causal efficacy on the inner-workings of the brain. This is called “downward causation” in philosophy of mind. Together with physicist Henry Stapp, Schwartz suggests that quantum wave-function collapse at the level of ion channels is the mechanism through which downward causation takes place in the brain. But note: Self-directed neuroplasticity is an empirically observed phenomenon not in dispute; what is in dispute is whether it necessarily entails downward causation.

Now, let me make clear what I am and am not saying here. Personally, I find self-directed neuroplasticity indeed highly suggestive of downward causation. But I don’t think it proves it. Indeed, as I wrote in Rationalist Spirituality, self-directed neuroplasticity “suggests that consciousness … is separate from, and can causally affect, brain functioning. Otherwise, how could something that is merely a result of brain activity choose to, and actually cause, a change in the very brain that generates it in the first place? That would be analogous to saying, for instance, that images of slides projected onto a screen could somehow choose and affect the inner-workings of the projector that generates them in the first place. The more technically astute reader may argue that … the projector has a built-in digital camera focused on the images projected on the wall, and that the signals captured by the camera are wired directly into the inner mechanisms of the projector, thereby causally influencing its functionality. Strictly speaking, there is nothing illogical or inconceivable with this possibility, though it would require a surprisingly complex and global feedback mechanism in the brain that neuroscientists today could not begin to explain.” Therefore, even though self-directed neuroplasticity, in my view, does not prove that mind is independent of the brain, it raises sufficiently difficult questions that it is certainly a legitimate point of debate.

What we need to do now is link downward causation to evolutionary biology. Indeed, an underlying premise of evolutionary biology is that, apart from the environment, genes are the only determinant of the survival fitness of organisms. By determining the anatomy, function, and behaviour of organisms, genes determine how effectively they survive and reproduce. Whether an organism has higher fitness because of an opposing thumb, or because its more sophisticated brain allows it to make more sound choices of action, it is the underlying genes that determine both characteristics. If there were another determinant of survival fitness, then evolutionary lines would be (partially) determined by something other than the supposedly random mutations of genes. This, if true, would contradict current thinking in evolutionary biology in a quite fundamental way.

Now, we know that genes largely determine the anatomy and function of our brains, which in turn largely influence our survival fitness. We also know, experimentally, that self-directed neuroplasticity (whether it implies downward causation or not) can also determine the anatomy and function of our brains, thereby influencing our survival fitness in exactly the same manner as some genes.Therefore, if downward causation could be shown to be the causal factor behind self-directed neuroplasticity, then a new determinant of survival fitness would come into play. This new determinant would be a form of immaterial mind imbued with intention. If the intention of an immaterial mind could (partially) regulate survival fitness in a way that does not depend on genes, current thinking on evolutionary biology would indeed need to be fundamentally revised. For instance, it is conceivable that a sufferer of OCD would have lower survival fitness than someone not suffering from the condition. If downward causation through self-directed neuroplasticity (partially) corrected the OCD, the entire fitness equation would be changed for that individual in a way that transcends genetics.

Note that the anatomical or functional brain changes induced through self-directed neuroplasticity are acquired characteristics and, as such, not passed on through genes (unless Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance hypothesis – see video above – is correct, in which case they could well be passed on). But the point is that these anatomical or functional brain changes, through altering the fitness equation, would influence how genes that potentially have nothing to do with the brain get passed on. For instance, even though someone cured of OCD through downward causation would still have the same “OCD genes” (in case these exist) in his or her genome, the individual’s other genes would stand a higher chance of being passed on after the cure. So downward causation would be an additional determinant of naturally selected genomic lines, in a way that is completely independent of genes themselves. This, if true, would bear relevance to the current thinking in evolutionary biology.

Now let us move on to the second point: quantum entanglement. A paper published in Nature magazine in 2007, was highly suggestive that reality is not objective and separate from mind the way we normally think. The scientists arrived at such conclusion through studying the phenomenon of quantum entanglement: two subatomic particles whose states remain correlated beyond space-time constraints (see video below). This phenomenon has been experimentally observed since 1981, with the initial Aspect experiments in France. But for over 25 years two potential explanations were on the table: (a) that reality and mind were fundamentally intertwined; or (b) that the subatomic particles were somehow “spookily connected at a distance,” as Einstein put it. The relevance of the 2007 Nature paper is that it eliminated most versions of explanation (b). The issue is still under debate, but the paper does place the idea of philosophical realism – the assumption that matter and its arrangements are independent of mind – in a precarious position.

Now, how does this link with evolutionary biology? Well, it is an underlying premise of mainstream evolutionary science that minds necessarily correlate with nervous systems (many would even say that minds are nervous systems); in other words, that there can be no mind without a nervous system. Recent studies indicate that the first precursors of nervous systems evolved some 600 million years ago. Since life had already been evolving for a couple of billion years before that, the implication is that much of evolution took place before there were nervous systems and, therefore, before there were minds. This requires that arrangements of matter not only existed but were also dynamically rearranging themselves for a few billion years before mind showed up. Such view of evolutionary history seems, at first sight, to be contradicted by the 2007 Nature paper. Therefore, the issue of quantum entanglement is indeed of relevance in a discussion about evolutionary biology.

Note that I am stating neither that (a) downward causation does happen in self-directed neuroplasticity; nor that (b) quantum entanglement observations defeat with certainty the idea of an objective reality independent of mind. What I am saying is that (a) there is enough scientific substance behind both hypotheses that they should be taken very seriously; and that (b) there are strong rational reasons to link these hypotheses to evolutionary biology.

My own views on evolution can be found in this earlier article, as well as this one.

Having it both ways in materialism

(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.)

The online discussions that followed my previous article have brought my attention to a peculiar point about how the reigning idea that consciousness is (generated by) brain activity is supported today. Uniquely among the sciences, neuroscience seems to be able to use not only knowledge, but also lack of knowledge to defend its current materialist assumptions about the mind-body problem. Allow me to elaborate on this a bit more.

Science operates on the basis of models of nature. A model contains a set of abstract elements that represent entities of nature, these elements being related to one another on the basis of mathematical equations. The dynamics implied by these equations determine how the elements of the model vary with respect to one another. These variations should then correspond accurately to observations of nature, otherwise the model is incorrect. For instance, we model temperature variations in a material by the intensity of vibration of the molecules composing the material. So when our mathematical equations predict that the molecules should be vibrating with higher intensity, we should be able to measure the temperature of the material and take a reading that corresponds to that prediction. This way, the observed entity of nature (that is, the material's temperature as measured with a thermometer) should follow the predicted dynamics of the elements of the model (that is, the vibration intensity of molecules) very closely, otherwise our model does not correspond to reality.

This correspondence between the dynamics of a model and the dynamics of observed phenomena in nature is called a mapping between a model and nature. Determining an unambiguous mapping between a proposed model and nature is the sine qua non of science. The proposed mapping sets the rules of the game by which a theory can be verified through experiment and observation. The theory is validated when the mapping is confirmed through observation, or invalidated when such correspondence is not observed.

When it comes to the problem of consciousness, we have no intuitive way, even in principle, to deduce the properties of consciousness from the properties of matter, as David Chalmers argued. In other words, there is no intuitive way to deduce the intensity, structure, coherence, or continuity of a subjective experience from mass, momentum, spin, or charge. Indeed, nature abounds with structures wherein mass, momentum, spin, and charge combine in extraordinarily varied ways and yet seem to lead to no subjective experience at all. Even in the human brain that is still the case: Much of the neuronal processing in our heads, entailing the exact same kind of neurons that apparently lead to awareness, are completely unconscious. This seemingly insurmountable difficulty in logically deducing the qualities of experience from unconscious matter is called "the explanatory gap," or "the hard problem of consciousness." One would think that such gap would only make it more difficult for neuroscience to defend its current assumption that consciousness is (generated by) material brain activity. But in fact, and surprisingly, the opposite seems to be the case. Here is why.

Since there is no intuitive way to establish a mapping between the qualities of electrochemical brain processes and the qualities of conscious experience, neuroscientists are free to postulate any mapping. This is, per se, not necessarily a problem. The problem is that they seem to also feel free to replace the mapping (not only refine it) depending on circumstances. This is akin to changing the rules of the game after you've already started playing it. For example: Many studies relating the qualities of experience with brain activity indicate a direct proportionality between the intensity, richness, and/or complexity of the experience and the amount of corresponding brain activation – that is, the number of neurons firing and how fast they fire (note that the opposite is not necessarily true, since not all brain activity is accompanied by subjective experience). For instance, the brain of someone sitting quietly with his or her eyes closed will be less activated than that of someone listening to music, which in turn will be less activated than that of someone watching audio-visual erotic material and engaging in sexual intercourse at the same time. This motivates neuroscience to postulate the following mapping: Subjective experience is caused by neuronal firings, therefore the former is directly proportional to the latter (note, again, that this proportionality works in only one direction, since not all brain activations lead to subjective experience). However, in some studies such proportionality is not there at all. Then, neuroscientists may postulate one of a host of different mappings: that experience is correlated to specific neurons, not to the amount of neurons firing; or that experience is correlated to something else going on inside the neurons, but not necessarily their firings; or that experience correlates to some undefined interplay between inhibitory and excitatory brain processes, in a way that breaks the proportionality; etc.

Again, neuroscientists can only do that because, due to the "hard problem of consciousness," we have no intuitive basis to judge whether a certain proposed mapping is reasonable or not. And by changing the mapping depending on what is observed, they can always claim that there is a conceivable way to explain any conscious experience through the assumptions of materialism; there is always a way out through ignorance. This way, on the one hand, they can claim that the proportionality between the intensity/richness/complexity of experience and brain activity, observed in many situations, can be explained under materialism because conscious experience corresponds to the amount of neuronal firings. On the other hand, in other situations they can also claim that, if there is a single neuron alive in the brain, an experience can be attributed to that one neuron because of specificity (never mind proportionality) and, therefore, materialism still holds. Well, one can't have it both ways in one's attempt to defend materialism; one certainly can't have it all ways. These different mappings proposed in different situations contradict one another; they can't all be true.

Neuroscience cannot claim ignorance, leave every door open to defend its materialist assumptions, and then turn around and still claim that they are making enormous progress in understanding consciousness on a material basis. Either they are making progress and can propose one unambiguous mapping between the qualities of physiological processes and the qualities of conscious experience that can be falsified through experiment and observation; or they just don't know what the mapping is and, therefore, there is no theoretical support for materialism as far as the mind-body problem.

In science, one can't have it both ways.

Response to Dr. Christof Koch

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in some of my academic papers. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

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.

Hacking the brain

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in some of my academic papers. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

A reader asked me a question that I find interesting and relevant, so I wanted to write a brief article summarizing my thoughts on it. His question is this: Since my philosophical position is that the brain is a mechanism for localizing consciousness, thereby modulating conscious perception without generating it (see this article for an overview of my position), we should be able to 'hack' the brain so to turn off parts of it and induce non-local, transpersonal experiences in a repeatable manner. Therefore, the reader asks, why can't we do it, for instance, through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)? Why can't we use strong magnetic fields to turn off parts of the brain and "leave our bodies," so to speak? As background, the short video above dramatically illustrates the effects of TMS.

As one can see in the video, TMS can impair our ability to perform the simplest tasks, depending on which area of the brain it turns off. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the brain simply modulates conscious perception: by interfering with different parts of the modulation mechanism, perception and cognition can be dramatically altered or limited, even though they are not generated by the brain. But, true to the question I got, it should also be possible to induce transpersonal, non-local experiences if the right areas of the localization/modulation mechanism are turned off.

This is precisely what happens.

The passage below is a fragment of a paper by Dr. Pim van Lommel:
[D]uring stimulation [of the brain] with higher energy [magnetic fields], inhibition of local cortical functions occurs by extinction of their electrical and magnetic fields (personal communication Dr. Olaf Blanke, neurologist, Laboratory for Presurgical Epilepsy Evaluation and Functional Brain Mapping Laboratory, Department of Neurology, University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland). Blanke recently described a patient with induced OBE [Out of Body Experience] by inhibition of cortical activity caused by more intense external electrical stimulation of neuronal networks in the gyrus angularis in a patient with epilepsy. (My italics)
The work of Dr. Michael Persinger with the 'God helmet' also illustrates how transpersonal experiences can be induced through TMS. I wrote an earlier article discussing my interpretation of Persinger's work. For a general overview of the 'God helmet' research, see the short video below.

The interesting thing is that materialists often point to these results as evidence that consciousness is generated by the brain. After all, they show that transpersonal experiences can be induced simply by a manipulation of very material brain mechanisms. Even proponents of, for instance, the transcendent reality of near-death experiences (NDE) often feel compelled to point out how true NDEs have elements that cannot be reproduced by TMS or hypoxia. Yet, NDE-like transpersonal experiences are exactly what one would expect from these TMS experiments or hypoxia episodes if the hypothesis that the brain merely modulates consciousness is indeed true. I fail to understand why people on both sides of the argument seem to take for granted that transcendent experiences are invalid if induced by brain function manipulation.

There is a clear pattern indicating that most transcendent experiences happen precisely when brain function is diminished in particular ways, as I argued before in this blog. So, for instance, if pilots undergoing G-LOC report NDE-like experiences, it's because they did have valid, transcendent, NDE-like experiences through hypoxia, which diminished their brain function and released their consciousness from the grip of the localization mechanisms operating in the brain. I believe it to be a flawed argument when materialists point at these G-LOC experiments to argue that NDEs have a purely physiological basis. I believe that the experiments show precisely the opposite, and I claim that my interpretation is a more logical and natural one: If the experience seems to transcend the brain, it's because it does.

Too many of our conclusions seem to be arrived at through mere prejudice or unconscious assumptions. A transcendent, non-local experience entails perceptions and cognition that far exceed the physical boundaries of the body. That the mechanism for inducing such experiences involves de-activation of specific brain processes does not necessarily mean that the source of the corresponding perceptions and cognition are brain processes. When I open a tap, the mechanism for inducing the flow of water is in the tap, but the tap itself is not the source of the water.