Consciousness Beyond the Brain

Part 4 of 7 in the series Who am I?

Traditionally, scientists have tried to define the mind as the product of brain activity: The brain is the physical substance, and the mind is the conscious product of those firing neurons, according to the classic argument. But growing evidence shows that the mind goes far beyond the physical workings of your brain.

No doubt, the brain plays an incredibly important role. But our mind cannot be confined to what’s inside our skull, or even our body, according to a Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and the author of a recently published book, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.

“In our modern society we have this belief that mind is brain activity and this means the self, which comes from the mind, is separate and we don’t really belong. But we’re all part of each others’ lives. The mind is not just brain activity. When we realize it’s this relational process, there’s this huge shift in this sense of belonging.”

Dan Siegel

So what is consciousness?

  1. You can never experience consciousness in the direct and immediate way that someone else can. Consciousness is individual and private.
  2. Conscious experiences are not able to be located, in the scientific sense, in a place, such as a part of the body.
  3. Conscious experiences are intentional in the sense that they are about something. Minds have the ability to direct themselves on things.

If that is not challenging enough, each human has three brains:

  1. The first of the three brains is the obvious one. It is the head brain, and the master of processes such as thinking, perception, and cognition. It recognises things, makes meaning of them, creates narratives and masters language. Head based language sounds like this: “I think”, “I reckon”, or “I understand”.
  2. The second is the heart. Ask a person where they feel an emotion, and their hand will land directly above their heart. Nobody gestures to their elbow. We know intrinsically that this is the place that processes deep emotion. What else is the domain of the heart brain? Here lie our values, along with the process of emoting, the process of valuing and the way we feel about relationships. Heart based language centres on “I feel” or on the expression of the deep emotions and values that lie in the heart brain.
  3. The third is the gut. Here we find our core identity. What is me, what is not me? This is the domain of the gut brain. It is also responsible for safety and protection. Our gut is extremely important in upholding our immune system, but it also takes care of self-preservation, fear, anxiety, mobility and action. Gut based language says things like, “it takes guts” or, “let’s do it.”

“We are not calling these brains. Science is calling these brains. There has to be a technical definition to what makes a brain a brain. Your elbow is not a brain. Your kidney is not a brain (as far as we know). But there are lots of good reasons why science can actually show that the head, the heart, and the gut are brains.

They have their own intrinsic nervous systems. They’ve got neurons. They’ve got the whole range of [capabilities] in order to do complex adaptive processes. They can take on information, process it, store it, change and adapt. Basically, if it can learn, it’s a brain.”

“Through behavioural modeling, we can discover how this applies to life. Low and behold, these different brains do different things.”

Marvin Oka

So you see the simplistic Western model of consciousness is ‘flat earth’. We are much more than a brain, and our consciousness is much more than brain(s) processing.

Where do you think consciousness resides? Try this IQS:

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