By Eric Marcum:
The answers to these questions are hard to answer. The standard
model as held by many in the neuroscience community would say that it is all supplied by that 3 pound mass of gray and white matter stuffed into our skulls called the brain.
The evidence gathered from decades of CT and MRI scans showing where certain stimuli cause a certain area of the brain to become active has helped neurologists to pinpoint where many functions lie. However this is merely the nuts and bolts of the brain so to speak.
These scans do not show us where the actual seat of consciousness exists. There is no one area we can point to and state unequivocally that “X” marks the spot. We do have evidence to suggest that the frontal lobes of the brain are where much of our personality resides. We have Phineas Gage to thank for that. In 1848 Gage, who while working was using a large iron rod to tamp blasting powder into a hole when the powder went off sending the iron rod up and through his skull, and destroying much of his left frontal lobe.
Gage survived the injury, but his personality was greatly changed. Many that knew him before the accident went on to state that he was like an entirely different person. Is this consciousness though? Is this where the voice that carries out the internal dialogue within our thoughts really is? Hard to say. At this point in time science falls short of even being able to define what unconsciousness is.
Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander does not agree with the current model nor its associated dogma and believes that he has the requisite experience to argue the point. While Dr. Alexander was in a vegetative state known as a coma, he had a rather profound experience. According to the medical instruments monitoring his body and brain functions while he was comatose, his cortical areas showed no activity. This means that the parts of the brain associated with higher cognition were not showing any activity.
For all intents and purposes as far as neural-science was concerned, Dr. Alexanderwas brain dead. In this state his brain should have been incapable of having any experiences at all. This was not the case however. In his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Alexander recounts a tale reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy starting with an abyssal existence, what in his book he calls the “worm’s-eye view” and ending in a sublime vision of cosmic illumination and love.
Some of his detractors suggest that he was only dreaming, but with the condition his brain was reported to have been in, dreaming should not have been able to take place.
The standard scientific model suggests that all higher brain functions and cognitive activities are performed mostly by the cerebral cortex and specifically the frontal lobes. If for any reason these areas are showing no functionality, there can be no cognitive experience. Alexander’s case would seem to render this model false, or at the very least, incomplete. One of the
most important challenges that Alexander makes to current scientific dogma is that his experience strongly suggests that consciousness is not produced exclusively by the brain.
So now we are left with a vivid challenge to the accepted dogma with regards to the mind/consciousness, and the brain. Alexander is a neurosurgeon himself. That means he understands the neurology behind his own case. He knows what the readouts on the instruments monitoring his brain activity were saying and what they meant. All of this is very difficult to explain away through any simplistic materialism.
We have here a case study in which a patient with a brain that was clinically inert did, in fact, have some kind of experience. Alexander’s case may not serve as definitive proof that human consciousness exists apart from the brain, but it’s an important piece of evidence that can’t be dismissed just because it sounds too mystical.