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LATEST DIALOGUES We are not our brain: How to break the spell of the neurosciences

What are we? Are we a soul? An immaterial mind? A flow of energy? A body? A series of neural patterns? Is there an answer to such questions that is compatible both with the hard sciences and with our personal insights? I believe there is, and it is not the one currently defended by neuroscientists (for instance, It’s an answer that will overturn the current accepted conceptual landscape in three steps and it is dubbed The Spread Mind ( Before getting there, let me outline the common ground with neuroscience.

To start with, I believe a common and accepted point is that we are one and the same with our conscious flow of experience. We exist when we feel, desire, perceive. If there were no experience, there would be no people. If we had no experience, we would not exist, no matter if our bodies were alive and well. If human beings were like that, this would be a zombie world populated by possibly intelligent automata, but no one would really be present. Thus, to understand what we are, we need to understand what is our conscious experience, or experience for short. Since I am a physicalist, let me set aside all spiritual solutions as inconsistent with empirical evidence. The key question is, what is our experience? What is the thing, in the physical world, that is identical with our experience? Is it a property of the body, or is it something else altogether? My goal is to offer an alternative to the current prevailing belief, in neuroscience and in philosophy of mind, that if one is a materialist, one must hold that consciousness is a phenomenon internal to one’s body. Prior to the current scientific age, the general consensus had been that people are different from their bodies; the most widespread notion was that we have a body rather than being our body. It is not by chance that our everyday language still betrays this original (and more intuitive) notion: we say things like “I have a body” or “I have a brain.” We don’t say, “I am a body” or “I am a brain.” Likewise, we have lungs, kidneys, a heart, and a skeleton. In contrast with this view, neuroscience and medicine have encouraged and supported a different and increasingly more popular view according to which we are one and the same as our bodies or, more precisely, as our brains. In science, this view was officially named, in the ’40s, the mind-brain identity theory, and it has been variously articulated in the ensuing decades. In fact, this idea had already been boiling for decades since the 1850s among the German physiologists. After the computational turn, the idea reincarnated in various versions in the neurosciences – the Neural Correlates of Consciousness, Giulio Tononi’s integrated information, and the recent interest in single neurons activation at the onset of conscious experience. These approaches move from the so-far undemonstrated enthusiastic statement by Francis Crick: “Consciousness is nothing but what our neurons do.” Give or take, all these authors backed up the notion that we are a brain or, at least, something that takes place inside our brains. Popular culture, encouraged by evocative and brightly colored computer-generated images of brain activities often construed as mental activities, has followed the same trend. From Wachowski’s The Matrix to Pixar/Disney’s Inside Out, through umpteen sci-fi tv series, the idea that we are one and the same as our brains has been convincingly and graphically represented on the silver screen. Finally, this propaganda has found in the computer paradigm yet another powerful ally in the form of the software inside the hardware – i.e. a digital ghost in the shell. Allegedly the brain is like a computer, neurons are like transistors, they process information, which is like the immaterial spirit only it sounds scientifically acceptable, and we will achieve immortality by means of mind-upload. Amen!

Unfortunately, this is all fantastical thinking that no one has ever demonstrated. Francis Crick himself was forced to admit that “No one has produced any plausible explanation as to how the experience of the redness of red could arise from the action of the brain.” The likely reasons why medicine felt obliged to follow the mind-body identity, in all versions of it, are rather simple. Medicine embraced materialism. This is the right thing to do in science but, due to lack of imagination or fear of dualism, most scientists believe there are only two viable options: either consciousness is an immaterial soul (which would run afoul of science) or it is one and the same as the brain. The former option seemed untenable and thus medicine, and eventually neuroscience, embraced the latter – to the extent that contemporary philosophers like Colin McGinn admitted unabashedly that “Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” The problem is so unsolvable that the official position of science is that it is, in practice, not solvable.

And yet there is an alternative solution, so simple that it has been ignored by most, if not all, scientists and philosophers, an alternative hidden in plain sight. It is a solution that merges what we know about the material world with what we feel every day. This is the alternative offered by The Spread Mind ( It is a solution that, notwithstanding the importance of our bodies, shows that we are more than a collection of cells and organs; we are more than lungs, hearts, blood vessels, bones, and, yes, a brain. According to this view, we are 100% physical and yet we are not our body. We speak and express ourselves through our body, but we are not identical with it. What are we then, according to The Spread Mind, if we are not our body? We are the world made of all those objects that, at any moment, our body brings into existence. In a nutshell, the hypothesis is that we are the external objects that are the constituents of the world we experience. We are our experience, and our experience is the world we experience.

So, when we think of our body and our experience of the world, we must ask ourselves, what is closer to our experience, the body or the world? When we focus on our experience, what do we find – people, objects, things, or cells, neurotransmitters, and blood? When I see a red apple, what is my experience made of? Is it made of neurons, or is it made of the bright red and round shape of the apple? The simple but breath-taking hypothesis is that the stuff our consciousness is made of is the stuff of the world.

At the same time, The Spread Mind does not diminish the importance of the body. On the contrary, the body plays a twofold role. On the one hand, the body brings into existence a world relative to itself and, on the other hand, it allows such a world to express itself. The body is the conditions that allow a relative world to exist, but such a world is neither the body nor inside the body. Our consciousness is no longer a mysterious phenomenon inside the brain. Our consciousness of the world is the world relative to our body. We are the world. We are world.

Thus, we are physical and we are not inside our body. The skin is no longer the boundary of the person, the skin is only the boundary of the organs that constitute our body. The person is beyond such a boundary.

As I mentioned at the beginning, The Spread Mind is based on three steps:

1) Experience of an object is being identical with that object.
2) Every object exists relative to another object (which, in our case, is our body).
3) Every object takes place in time (Dt>O).

I impressionistically outlined the first point in the paragraphs above. Due to lack of space, I will not address the last one, but I will briefly explain the second point (every object is relative) because it allows me to reply to the most immediate objection: how could we be identical to the external objects? Should we not be all the same? What about the fact that the world appears different to me than it appears to you? How could we find our unicity in a world made of objects? That’s where the second point – the object is relative – kicks in and that’s what I want to explain in the rest of this article. To make this point clear, we need to take a quick trip to the core of western science and uncover a puzzle that has remained unresolved since its very beginning in the XVII century.

In 1623, give or take, Galileo kickstarted the scientific method thanks to a great (over)simplification that, like all oversimplifications, had its advantages and its disadvantages. Galileo (and practically everyone else afterwards) supposed that the physical world is made up of fixed objective properties. On the one hand, such a great oversimplification allowed science to develop and grow almost overnight but, on the other hand, it has remained utterly mysterious how the world could appear different to each of us. Galileo himself proposed a solution that has remained unchallenged: the world of physical objects has objective properties that do not depend on the observers, the world of conscious experience is made of subjective qualities that depend on subjects. Such subjective qualities — later to be named qualia, phenomenal experiences, secondary properties, and the like — were believed to reside in the body. They are the stuff conscious experience is made of. For example, an apple has objective properties. It is round. It has a radius of 2 inches. It is not moving. It is red. If Stephanie, who is color blind, sees it as grayish, it is not because the apple is gray, but because Stephanie has a subjective experience of gray. In turn, when I see the apple as red, it’s not because the apple is actually red, but because I have a mental red. And so forth. The colors we see, be they red or gray, are no longer in the apple. Where are they then? Galileo placed colors, and all other sensations, in the mind, but he didn’t know what nor where the mind was. A classic example of explaining the unfathomable by the even more unfathomable! We have been looking for the mind because we have been looking for the lair of alleged subjective experiences. Their last hide out has been, of course, the brain. But nobody has ever found our familiar conscious experience in the brain, amidst neurons. Old theories are accepted like old friends of the family. They live on without being questioned, and too often they are assumed to be correct. Even when such theories are caught in an error, they are likely to be excused. It is time to question the starting point on which Galileo built Western science.

The Spread Mind offers a very simple solution. It goes back to the very root of science and takes a different turn. The world is not a collection of objective properties appearing to us through a veil of subjective appearances. The world is one, and it is all made of the same stuff. What is this stuff? The basic idea is that all physical properties are relative — size, velocity, shape, color, weight. They are all relative to other physical objects. Crucially, they are not subjective, which entails being relative to a subject. They are relative to other objects. Thus, there is no need to pursue the subjective-objective dichotomy. Each physical entity is what it is relative to another physical entity. In this way, we never get out of the physical world, but the physical world is much richer than Galileo had foreseen.

Let me take advantage of a couple of examples. First, consider velocity that, as every school boy knows, is a relative property. Suppose that a Ferrari sports car is speeding at 100 miles per hour on the highway. I’m on the same highway, with my more modest Ford, at a velocity of 70 miles per hour. The Ferrari has, relative to my vehicle, a relative speed of 30 miles per hour. The sports car is moving both at 100 mph and at 30 mph. Which one of the two velocities is the true one? Is 100 mph an objective velocity and 30 mph a subjective velocity? Of course not. They are neither objective nor subjective. They are both relative physical properties. The former speed (100) is relative to the ground and the latter (30) is relative to my vehicle. They are both physical. There is not an absolute or truer velocity. There are only relative velocities.

Now consider color. Take a computer LCD screen showing a uniform white background. At one meter distance, to a standard trichromat it looks white. I see it as white. However, if I were red blind, I would not be able to see the red component of the light emitted by the screen. The other two components are blue and green, and thus, I would see the screen as cyan-ish, which is the combination of blue and green alone. If I were green blind, the screen would appear magenta-ish to me. And so forth. Moreover, if I get closer to the screen, at less than 1 cm distance, I will see what the screen is made of – namely, an array of red, green and blue lights. Is the screen white, magenta, cyan, or is it multicolored? Are there any objective colors? No. There are only relative colors. The screen has different colors depending on which physical system it interacts with. As there is no absolute velocity, so there is no absolute color. All is relative to the appropriate physical system.

So, we can generalize the notion that there are no fixed physical properties. Every property, and thus every object, is relative. The screen is not absolute white, it is white relative to an eye capable of picking up in equal measure red, blue and green lights. At the same time, it is cyan-ish relative to red blind eyes. It is magenta-ish relative to green blind eyes. It does not appear cyan-ish or magenta-ish, it is cyan and magenta. A car is not speeding at 100 mph. It is speeding at 100 mph relative to the ground, and only 30 mph relative to my car. In the same way, I can show that all the familiar properties of the world are not absolute. Even size, shape and weight. A tree does not have an absolute size. It is, say, five meters tall relative to a stick arbitrarily called “a meter,” and placed at zero distance from it.

The second point of The Spread Mind is a formidable hypothesis: the world is not a monolithic bundle of absolute objective properties, but a multiplicity of relative properties coming into existence whenever there is the interaction between an object and another object. Thus, Galileo’s idea of an objective physical world that we perceive by means of multiple subjective experiences is revealed for what is has always been, namely, a gross oversimplification. The world is a collection of relative properties. Such a wealth of physical relative properties allows us to locate our unicity in the external world. The world I am identical with is no longer an inner subjective world, it is the external world as it comes into existence relative to that particular object that is my body. Each body brings into existence a different universe relative to itself. We live in a relative multiverse. It is in such a multiverse that we can find what we are.

The step I ask you to take is to abandon the idea that we are separate from reality – the flattering but untenable notion that we are subjects amidst objects. We are not different from the world. We are not special. We are objects too. The traditional boundary between internal and external does not mark the separation between us, our experience, and the world. It marks, more humbly, the separation between our body and the surrounding environment. But we are neither our body nor inside it. We are the world that exists relative to our body. Our consciousness is such a world. Our mind is spread to be a world.

Riccardo Manzotti teaches Psychology of Perception at IULM University, Milan, Italy, and has been a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at MIT. He has specialized in AI, artificial vision, perception and the issue of consciousness. After working in the field of artificial vision, he focused his research on the nature of phenomenal experience, how it emerges from physical processes and how it is related to objects perceived.

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2 Responses to “We are not our brain: How to break the spell of the neurosciences”

  1. July 22, 2018 at 7:27 pm, Joe Masterleo said:

    How about a simplification: Everything is a degree of one thing – light – vibrating at different frequencies. And that includes states of consciousness.

  2. July 29, 2018 at 1:00 pm, drpilotti said:

    YES! Experiences are outside brain. In SPACETIME.
    David Chalmers writes, ”There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experiences. But there is nothing that is harder to explain.” The first is obviously true, but is it really so hard to explain consciousness or rather why is it thought so?

    The situation concerning brain and consciousness is much like the situation in physics at the end of 19th century, with a huge amount of data without any theory and also unsolved very basic problems:
    In physics the stability of atoms, the very basics of matter, could not be explained by Newton’s mechanics and Maxwell’s electrodynamics. And we had a huge amount of information about the colour/wavelength atoms sent out or absorbed, and even exact mathematical formulas for that, but no explanation at all before the radical change of our view on matter which came with Quantum Theory.
    Also, at that time, all known physical objects had different velocities in different moving systems, that is velocity is relative. But light has the same velocity in all systems! Which was explained with Einstein’s radical “Theory of Relativity” which also showed that simultaneity as well as space and time taken separately are relative but spacetime interval, a calculation from both space and time measurement, is the same for all moving observers, is absolute. Thus 4D spacetime is an objective reality and ontologically more fundamental than space and time. Time as the forth dimension exists in its full extension i.e. all events, past, present and future exist at once in a 4D block universe. [1]

    Analogically to solve the age long “hard problem” of consciousness we need an even more radical change in our conceptions about the brain and mind. And Riccardo Manzotti shows this radical change – the way out of the skull. In the case of the revolutions in physics, the radical change was based on crucial experiments such as Michelson-Morley, showing that light as nothing else we knew has the same velocity in all systems and the photoelectrical effect, showing that light have both wave and particle qualities.
    Concerning experiences such a crucial, yet simple, experiment exists which anyone can do, anywhere at any time and without money and expensive apparatus, just using themselves:

    You are reading on a screen/paper.
    I think you agree that the screen/paper is some decimetres in front of your nose.

    After closing your eyes, take a deep breath, open your eyes and answer the question:

    “Where is my visual experience of the paper/screen located?”

    Those who say “in the brain or in the eyes” I ask: How do you know then that there is a paper/screen out there some decimetres in front of your nose?

    But of course they are, seemingly, in “good company”:
    “Projection of a sensation outside the body has probably been learnt … survival value”
    Georg von Békésy physiologist
    Survival value yes. But HOW learnt?

    “Subjective localisation of a sensory stimulus (visual images) in space…
    still mysterious…”
    Benjamin Libet , “Grand Old man” in neurophysiology

    I myself have never ever had any sensory experience, which I can localise to be in my brain.
    Sensations are located in the body, touch on the body, taste in mouth, smell in nose, sight, also on the body, but mainly as with hearing out there in the space outside the body. This is 100% replicable.
    So I claim that it is an experiential fact:
    Sensory experiences are not in brain but in space outside the brain.
    So I fully agree that The Spread Mind is the radical solution we need, at least concerning our sensory experiences and Manzotti argues convincingly that these experiences are not in the brain but identical with the material objects outside the brain.

    But why do many people and most scientists still strongly hold that our experiences are both created by brain and located in the brain?
    Of course there are, seemingly, reasons for that.
    First, affecting our sensory organs, e.g. closing our eyes, and so affecting our brain, changes our experiences.
    Yes, there are correlations, but this proves neither, necessary or sufficient, cause nor localisation, as a simple analogy with the broadcasted TV program and TV set shows.
    But even stronger, I think, it is our experience of memory, which seems to support ‘brainism’.
    You can remember that your body some short time earlier than now was at another place A in the room in which you now are at place B, some short distance from A.
    Where is your memory located of that event when your body where at A?
    You don’t see your body at A so where could the memory be located otherwise than hidden in the brain?
    Well but how?
    Aristotle said memory is as “carving in wax”.
    Then came tape recorder and computer memory.
    Now cell phone.
    With a SIM-card and a code you have access to a huge amount of information, which is not stored in the cell phone but in the “cloud”, that is on big servers at other places in space.
    I claim the same with our memory.
    It is enough to have the brain and a “code in brain” but the memory of the event is not stored in the brain.
    But where?
    Actually memory does not need to be stored at all as
    spacetime is, at least, 4 dimensional that is all past events still exist in spacetime.
    So a species, which in the Darwinian evolution learn how to tap the eternal, probably even infinite, “spacetime library”, will have some advantage over those who have to store everything in their brain. Because then the brain can be free to do what the brain should do and is good at: controlling bodily action as in writing, talking, walking, working, singing, dancing and creating art and in the early evolution fight or fly.

    I claim that when we experience change our consciousness is spread, not only in space but, also in time. E. g. when experiencing music we don’t hear one tone, one tone, one tone…., but a whole sequence spread in time at once.
    And even more pregnant in NDE: E.g. Anita Morjani was dying from cancer but was miraculously healed. She had a NDE in which she experienced:
    “Total awareness, I could see everything at the same time and it was not limited by distance and not limited by time either … felt as if everything was happening at once.
    Past, present and future, it all felt like it was happening simultaneously.”(my bold)

    This is a very good description of experiencing also time as space, that is spacetime.

    And even more clear in a NDE of a colleague, the Swedish anaesthesiologist Göran Grip [2]:

    “Time was not passing in the usual way … an entire episode its beginning, its middle and its end-stood out as a unit … What we ”saw” was actions, all the actions of an episode, “simultaneously” with a sound track … It was as if we were able to wander about, back and forth, in a static landscape the features of which were actions, words and emotions”

    which is interpreted as Göran moves in the 4D spacetime landscape of an entire episode.

    We can’t make a picture of 4D but as a model think of time as a line where every point is a whole 3D universe at that time point (according to relativistic simultaneity). This picture can explain where memory is and Anita Morjani’s and Göran Grip’s NDE:
    they experienced a broader part of spacetime.

    But evidently it has at least three scientific drawbacks:
    First in this 4D spacetime all is fixed and static and nothing happens at odds with our experience of change.

    Secondly it is seemingly deterministic whereas Quantum Theory is non-deterministic, calculating with many possible futures.

    Thirdly it is at odds with our experience of free will
    or at least of free choice between many possibilities.

    All these problems are solved in a mathematically possible and physically
    interesting extension of Einstein’s theory to six dimensions, three space and three time dimensions. [3]

    In analogy with the 4D picture where every point on the timeline is a full 3D world
    every point on a 2D “timesurface” or “possibility surface” is a full 3D possible world.
    So in this 5D picture all possibilities exists at once from the beginning and eternally.
    In religious parlance: God is All Mighty and have created all possibilities. And the sixth dimension is the time, which we experience as change when we move through this 5D landscape of all possibilities and has to learn to choose the good possibilities.

    Which of all possible worlds that become an actual physical world depends on all choices of all conscious beings as a simple model with A and B independently having two choices which decide which one of four possible worlds which will be actualised.

    What exists in (an extended) now are our sensory experiences. Memories are earlier actualised possibilities. Thoughts dream fantasies are possible not actualised worlds.

    Actually I think this view is best interpreted as that there exist
    ONE CONSCIOUSNESS = the whole 6D spacetime
    and our small individual minds are projections,
    small subsets of this 6D spacetime or ONE CONSCIOUSNESS.

    This view is fully compatible with Manzotti’s The spread Mind, even if it can be seen as an extension, and the question then is if it is a necessary extension.
    To me this depends upon how Manzotti defines the physical. If this means all that exists objectively even 6D spacetime is physical. If Manzotti means the now known 3D/4D physics I think that there are experiences which can not be explained by “reshuffling” of earlier physical experiences, as Manzotti use to correctly explain many experiences where there is no object now. I think we agree this is an empirical question, but it seems to me that some NDE experience, such experiencing new colours, flying with “another body”, or more dimensions than 4 needs more than reshuffling 3D/4D physical experiences. [4]
    A radical and important, but not so easy, part of The Spread mind, is the concept of relative object. I think it is necessary for a consistent Spread mind to change our simple view of physical objects, which Manzotti’s example e.g. of the colour of the LCD screen shows. I also think it is related or perhaps even equivalent to the existence of all possible experiences in the 6D spacetime. But I am not sure it is so that all our experiences are relative or as Manzotti states “I can show that all the familiar properties of the world are not absolute.” On this crucial yet difficult question I will just resort to the simpler physical theory of spacetime. It can be strongly argued that all the empirically verified kinematical effects of Einstein’s theory, as relativity of simultaneity, space and time, e.g. the time dilation, that is that moving clocks ”goes slow” could not exist if the world was just a 3D present changing in time, but only exists if the world or spacetime is, at least, 4D. So it can be stated
    ”that no relative quantities are possible without an underlying absolute reality.”[5]
    I think that Manzotti is one of the few and the best to clearly explain that experiences is identical to relative physical objects outside the brain, but my intuition is that the physical must be seen as part of, a projection of, an absolute world, perhaps describable in 6D spacetime. This for me is also close to and supports Rupert Spira who starts from CONSCIOUSNESS as the fundamental underlying reality of the apparent duality of mind and matter. Even if Spira truly says that the highest teaching is Silence he also knows that we often need to use language on our path to enlightenment. And Spira uses space and time metaphor for speaking of consciousness, ‘which in the form of thought appears to itself as time and in the form of perception, appears to itself as space,. This I think is close to 6D spacetime.
    Manzotti’s view that we are the world also liberates us from the prison of the skull and is radically democratic in that all of us really experience the world as it is and does not need experts to tell us not to trust our senses. Yet, again, it seems to me, as Spira so clearly argue, that there is “I, “I am”, which is ultimately ONE and SAME in ALL , which have experience or is the world, and which we also directly can experience.
    [1] To be accurate there is still an ongoing academic debate if the world is just 3D, presentism=only now exists,
    or 4D block universe where past present and future exits at once. There are strong arguments from physics to support 4D block universe. See e.g. V. Petkov, ed. Relativity and the Dimensionality of the World. Fundamental Theories of Physics 153, Springer (2007), which also include the debate.
    But I argue for a synthesis in 6D spacetime which also relates to consciousness see Pilotti J. How Einstein and Minkowski missed real valued Lorentz transformations for v>c which are possible in 2D and in extended special relativity to 6D spacetime (three space three time) and its possible relation to the nature of spacetime and consciousness . Paper presented at Fifth International Conference on the Nature and Ontology of Spacetime and abstract and references therein
    and the power point at
    [2] Grip, G. The Ins and Outs of NDE perception. In Aspects of Consciousness. Essays on Physics, Death and the Mind. Ed. Fredriksson, I. Mc Farland 2012

    [3] Pilotti J note [1] and reference therein especially 8- 11, 18 and
    Pilotti J. Conscious spacetime. An outline of experiential monism.
    In The mysteries of consciousness. Essays on Spacetime, Evolution and Well-Being.
    Ed. Fredriksson I. Mc Farland 2015
    [4] My mathematical conjecture: From N dimensions not possible to create, emerge N+1 dimensions
    [5] Petkov, V. From Illusions to Reality. Time, Spacetime and the Nature of Reality p.73
    Minkowski Institute Press (2013)
    See also Petkov,V.

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