Big fanfare a few days ago: The Human Consciousness Project kicked off. This is a major initiative with some big sponsors looking to turn a scientific eye onto the brain-consciousness problem.
Their first project: the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study, looking at brain function and conscious experiences during near-death experiences. They’re trying to match up reported experiences during near-death with brain activity – ultimately to try to figure out at what point the ‘mind’ dies. Now this is fascinating stuff, and a really interesting topic. From the news announcement, it all looks very sensible. Sadly, the guy running it, Dr Sam Parnia, has some loopy ideas about the mind. Here’s what they’re going to do:
During AWARE, investigators will place images strategically in hospital bays, such that they will only be visible by looking down from the ceiling and nowhere else.
If after 36 months, hundreds of patients report being “out of body” yet no one can report seeing the images, then we must consider these reports to be nothing more than illusions. (BBC)
Say what??? They have a major, multinational study, and they’re going to use the opportunity to see whether minds really can fly off from the body somehow and go zooming around looking at things (How? With ghost eyes?). In other words, (and heis explicit about this in his keynote lecture), it’s clear that Parnia is a subscriber to old-fashioned Cartesian dualism. This is really daft – these days not even theologians accept that crude concept of the mind.
This is not to say that the conventional wisdom that the mind is a straight product of brain cell activity (a concept that glories in the name of ‘monism’) is without challengers in the modern world. The key problem, as Susan Greenfield points out, is trying to figure out how “the water of the bump and grind of boring old brain cells somehow translated into this special wine of consciousness”.
The philosopher David Chalmers leads the field on behalf of the modern-day dualists, arguing essentially that the mind is too weird to be explained as mere physical functioning. But Chalmers most emphatically does not support he idea that the mind and the brain can be physically separated.
Parnia points out that many people report out-of-body experiences near death, and argues that “surely they can’t all be wrong”! But of course they can be! Many people are wrong about many things, especially recall. Why shouldn’t we expect recall to be particularly bad after a near-death experience? Many people report an awful lot of strange experiences on drugs, but that doesn’t mean they actually happen in reality. And that highlights a further problem with the dualist argument – if the mind is not a product of the brain, why is it that drugs which change brain chemistry can affect conscious thoughts?
In fact, out of body experiences are a classic example of monism, because they show how messing with someone’s brain can seriously affect their mind. The ‘out-of-body’ sensation can be caused by brain damage and also by drugs. And last year two studies showed that similar experiences can be generated in the lab by confusing the body’s visual and spatial sense.
Results from the AWARE study should be available in two-and-a-half years. Hopefully they will at least be the nail in the coffin of these kinds of supernatural beliefs. But I doubt it!