The mind and the brain are one and the same. There is no separation. In fact, consciousness itself is merely a bi-product of our central nervous system. It’s almost inconsequential. That’s lucky for us, isn’t it? We get to experience all the colors, tastes and sounds of the world, but as Shakespeare said, in the end it is all just “sound and fury signifying nothing”. This is the common assertion from modern science – consciousness is a sideshow of biology, unimportant and playing no active role in the development of human physiology. Biology creates consciousness, not the other way around. So they say.
We’re just cogs spinning in the machine, waiting to break down. After that, it’s lights out, and in the end our consciousness has played only a small part in our fleeting proceedings.
And yet, our experience of the world doesn’t really reflect this position, does it? Consciousnessfeels central to who we are. We are immersed in it when making complex choices, and the experiences we have can be so emotive or profound that they lead to a spiritual awakening which can transform our lives. Furthermore, we can decide to make that happen. We have the choice. We can direct our consciousness at ourselves and alter how we perceive the world around us.
So how, then, can the scientific community so quickly dismiss consciousness as a mere product of biology at best, something which has little affect on us as individuals or as a species?
The truth is, it can’t.
Since the 1970s there has been a growing movement among consciousness researchers. Stalwarts of a purely materialistic view of consciousness such as Christof Koch, have had to reassess their perspectives on what awareness itself is, how it is produced, and what it means for us as a species and the universe as a whole.
This movement has been fueled by a failure on the part of neuroscience and psychology to prove the mechanical, biological underpinnings of conscious thought. The truth is that after centuries of enquiry we are no further forward in explaining how consciousness works. In fact, we may now be farther from a solution than we were a few decades ago. At least then we could say that we just didn’t understand the brain well enough and that, once we did, we would be able to explain why we are the way we are, why we think what we think, and why we feel the way we feel.
But no evidence has been forthcoming. The scientific community stays largely silent on this lack of evidence, hoping that eventually some proof will be found to support the accepted and materialistic view of conscious thought.
This is starting to change. With every passing year an increasing number of reputable scientists such as Sir Roger Penrose come forward, telling us to rethink consciousness. Indeed there are several exciting theories about how consciousness could be central to everything, that it could be affecting us as individuals and a species. Quantum Mind, the idea that consciousness actually creates reality itself, may be an extreme reaction to this shift in perspective, but there are newer theories which could be just as revolutionary, requiring no leaps of faith, and could force us to reinterpret consciousness as a powerful agency which can actually shape who we are and what our species is through the power of thought. In this way consciousness may be primary and could actually alter biology through the decisions we make.
A recent debate between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins illustrates the divide between materialism and this new form of duality perfectly – that mind and body somehow coexist and are both intertwined while having distinct qualities of their own. What’s most fascinating about this debate is that Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and argues a strict Darwinian interpretation of consciousness. In short, he proposes the status quo: We are conscious because the genes which create our brains have survived through a process of natural selection. They have survived because consciousness gives us an evolutionary edge – to be able to plan, anticipate and think creatively etc. Consciousness is created by biology, and this arrow of causality only goes in one direction.
A good summation of the debate was written up by Stuart Hameroff, but while plenty of people have cause to be skeptical of Deepak Chopra’s ideas, he may actually have a point. You see from Dawkins’ perspective consciousness is created by biology, therefore, it cannot have any affecton biology. This is the strictly materialistic view. However, there is evidence which suggests this might be incorrect.
For example, stress is a major killer. It leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, and there is evensome evidence that it can cause or exacerbate cancer. But, if Dawkins’ theory is correct and biology controls consciousness and not the other way around, then we should not be able to affect our own biology through sheer will. And yet, through relaxation techniques we can lower our blood pressure. We can make a conscious decision to exercise or reduce our caffeine intake to lower our stress levels. These are common conscious decisions which alter our physiology.
Taking this one step further, a physicist is claiming that consciousness doesn’t just affect ourindividual biology, but that it may have the power to change both personal and species wide evolution. In a recent research paper, Professor Beichler of the International Academy of Consciousness argues that just through thinking, the neuronal connections within our brains change. This describes consciousness as the actor, not the subject. In this way consciousness is altering biology, not the product of it. This explains how people can change life-long habits or transform their personalties for the better when choosing to do so. The brain is essentially rewired, and consciousness is the electrician.
There’s one more profound implication of this perspective. A position which completely contradicts Dawkins’, placing consciousness at the center of everything we are. Numerous studies have shown that changes to brain physiology can directly alter the body’s DNA through a process called epigenetics. Recently, an article for the Scientific American reported that a person’s DNA could be changed simply through meditation. If this is correct, then consciousness itself could change our genetic makeup. If these genetic changes are then passed on to future generations, it could transform the evolution of our species.
The question is, where are our thoughts leading us?