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The Brain Does Not Create the Mind; It Constrains It.

Near-death experiences in which people report seeing things that are later verified give some sense of how the mind works in relation to the brain

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did a recent podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.”

In the previous segment, they discussed the way that the split-brain research that followed Roger Sperry’s findings has increased the evidence for the reality of the mind. In this segment, they discuss the way in which the brain actually constrains the mind. That may seem counterintuitive at first but consider the evidence:

Here is a partial transcript and notes for the 1 hour 12 minute mark to the 1 hour 25 minute mark:

Arjuna Das: So, this relates to how I understand perception in the brain, despite the mind being non-material: “The brain is a reducer of consciousness rather than a producer of consciousness.” (01:12:24)

It limits the mind to some extent; it puts a filter over it. You have a light source and you put a lampshade over it — that’s the brain. You can put different lampshades and get different results. So the evidence that the brain produces consciousness is the same evidence you might have that a tap produces water. You tinker with the tap and the flow of water changes…

Michael Egnor: Precisely.

Arjuna Das: So, what follows from that is that the brain affects our access to our cognitive functions. So that the Vedic idea that we have five senses separate from the body, the soul exists separate from the body, but we occupy the body as a machine. While we’re in the body, our ability to do things is limited by this machine. And that applies cognitively…

Well, it’s very simple. You were like that as a baby anyway, went through different stages, and these different things exist. It’s just, when a brain injury happens or something goes wrong, then our access to those cognitive faculties becomes restricted. And this is what we see with the split brain thing. So, one side of the body has access to perceptions from that side of the body only. It’s an access problem. (01:13:40)

Michael Egnor: I totally agree. The philosophical influence that the brain doesn’t generate the mind, the brain constrains the mind, is one of the deepest insights into philosophy of mind.

It’s particularly born out with results from studies of near-death experiences, that when the soul is freed from the brain, from the body, one has an enormous enlargement of experience, enlargement of knowledge rather than a loss of knowledge. The body constrains the soul. It’s not the source of it. (01:14:06)

Arjuna Das: People who have near-death experiences will often report that, while they’re out of their body, their thinking is faster and more clear. Many of them will report seeing colors and hearing sounds that we don’t hear or see in this current body. (01:14:49) …

Note: There are colors humans don’t see and sounds we don’t hear because our human physiology constrains us to observe only a certain spectrum for these senses. See, for example, “Do near-death experiences defy science? NDEs do not defy science. They sometimes challenge human senses. which are based on our biology.”

Michael Egnor: Matters slows us down. The angels, which are immaterial, have much more power than we do. And, of course, God is omnipotent. So, matter allows us to function in the material world but it’s a constraint. It doesn’t broaden our mind, it limits our mind. (01:16:17)

Arjuna Das: Someone’s asking if neuroscientists have explained NDEs…

Michael Egnor: Neuroscience has worked extraordinarily hard to explain them away but they haven’t explained them at all. There are probably 20 different explanations that were offered by various materialist neuroscientists, to explain away near-death experiences. None of them work.

Obviously, near-death experiences represent real things in many cases. Near-death experiences are exceedingly common. It’s estimated that, even just in modern times, there have been tens of millions of people who’ve had near-death experiences. (01:17:09)

In the category of near-death experiences I think one should include also out-of-body experiences that can occur in various situations that are not necessarily at the moment of death. There’s a wonderful book that I would encourage everyone to read, by Carol Zaleski called Otherworld Journeys. She’s a literature professor at an East Coast college, but it’s a beautiful book.

She points out that near-death experiences are just a small subset of the kinds of experiences that people have had for thousands of years, in all cultures, at all times. They’re very common. (01:17:50)

They include religious experiences, spiritual experiences. And she points out the enormous similarities between people in ancient Egypt to people in ancient Greece and Rome, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, have these experiences. And there are so many commonalities. But she also says that our understanding of them is filtered through cultural lenses so that we tend to see these things through cultural lenses. However, when you look at the core experiences, they’re remarkably alike. (01:18:29)

Note: In Otherworld Journeys (Oxford University Press, 1987), Smith College professor of the philosophy of religion Carol Zaleski argues that “argues that the “otherworld vision” is a key to understanding imaginative and religious experience in general.”

Michael Egnor: The scientific efforts to explain near-death experiences are frankly funny. One of them, I’ve heard a popular one about a decade ago was that the tunnel experience that people have is a vague memory of being born, that you went through the vaginal canal, and that was the tunnel. So, as you’re dying, you have this panic response where you feel you’re being born again and you see a tunnel. It doesn’t explain how people who were delivered by C-section, for example, [would experience it]. Suddenly you see this bright light, because obviously you would not necessarily have a tunnel there. (01:19:03)

And obviously the neuroscientific effort to explain near-death experiences is simply an effort to explain them away, not to explain them in any meaningful sense. (01:19:22)

Arjuna Das: That makes sense. One thing they can’t explain is veridical experiences. When someone sees a shoe on the roof of the building, they go and look and there’s a shoe there, or if they see a sticker on top of the fan in the room where they were for their operation and they look and there’s a sticker. (01:19:38)

Note: Veridical near-death experiences are those in which “Veridical near-death experiences are NDEs in which people reportedly out-of-body have observed events or gathered information that was verified by others upon the experiencer’s return to a conscious state.” – “Key Facts about Near-death Experiences – Veridical NDEs” International Association for Near-Death Studies

“Near-death experiences (NDEs) are reported by about 17% of those who nearly die. NDEs have been reported by children, adults, scientists, physicians, priests, ministers, among the religious and atheists, and from countries throughout the world.

While no two NDEs are the same, there are characteristic features that are commonly observed in NDEs. These characteristics include a perception of seeing and hearing apart from the physical body, passing into or through a tunnel, encountering a mystical light, intense and generally positive emotions, a review of part or all of their prior life experiences, encountering deceased loved ones, and a choice to return to their earthly life. – Long J. Near-death experience. Evidence for their reality. Mo Med. 2014;111(5):372-380.”

Michael Egnor: It’s been estimated about 20% of near-death experiences can be confirmed to be veridical; they can be tested. One of most famous ones was Pam Reynolds, a woman who had aneurysm surgery in Phoenix about 25 years ago. And she was operated on by a neurosurgeon named Robert Spetzler

She had a very bad aneurysm at the base of her brain where Dr. Spetzler had to stop her heart for about 30 minutes to rebuild the artery. It was a critical artery in her brain. And he couldn’t rebuild the artery if the blood was flowing through it. (01:20:24)

So, he put her on a cardiac bypass machine, and then he stopped her heart completely after he cooled her body temperature down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit [15.6 degrees Celsius]. Then he did the surgery, warmed her back up again, and restarted her heart. The operation went very well. But for about 30 minutes her brain was completely dead. There was no electrical activity. Everything was monitored very carefully.

So, after the surgery, in recovery room, she told him that she watched the entire operation, and he thought she was kidding or she was hallucinating. Then, she described the details of the operation to him, including very tiny technical details of the instruments he was using and the contents of conversations that he had during the surgery, and she described them in meticulous detail. And she wrote a book about it, and it became very famous. So, there are very clear examples of veridical near-death experiences where there was no doubt that people genuinely were able to perceive and understand without any brain function at all.

Note: Pam Reynolds (1956 – 2010), an Atlanta-based singer-songwriter, is one of the best-known near-death experiencers who provided an account of her experiences. Here is a sympathetic account. Here is a skeptic’s view.

This photo is from Reynolds’ obituary.

Michael Egnor: Besides having flat brainwaves, and therefore no evidence of any brain activity at all, she had headphones on in which very loud sounds were being continuously fed into the headphones so they could see if there were any responses in her brainstem that would allow them to monitor her brain during surgery. There was so much noise going on that she couldn’t possibly have heard what was going on in the operating room, even if she had been awake. So, people had try very hard to explain away Pam Reynolds’ experience, and none of the explanations work. (01:21:50)

Arjuna Das: Right. If you just hear the debunking without actually knowing the story, it might sound like a debunking, because they could construe things in such a way, whereas if you actually know the case, you might say, “Oh no, they’re misrepresenting that,” or, ‘They’re ignoring this problem for their view.” (01:22:41)

Michael Egnor: I’ve actually not encountered a near-death experience with any of my patients. Of course, patients don’t always tell the doctors about it. The other thing is that neurosurgeons don’t see them very often, because when patients have near-death experiences in neurosurgery, they commonly have major brain damage, which limits their memory, limits their ability to remember these experiences.

Where you see a lot of near-death experiences is in cardiology where people will have a cardiac arrest and be resuscitated rather rapidly before they have brain damage, so they are capable of remembering. (01:22:56)

I do have a neurosurgical colleague who had a patient have an out-of-body experience. This is a young child who was having a repair to a hole in the skull under general anesthesia. And it wasn’t near-death, but the kid had the operation. Then, after the surgery the child explained to the surgeon exactly what he did during the surgery in great detail. And the operation the surgeon did is an operation that the child couldn’t possibly have known the details of because it was an idiosyncratic procedure that the surgeon had not explained to either the child or the family — or anyone actually. (01:23:38)

The technique was his own technique, and the child told him exactly what he did, and said, “Yeah, after I went to sleep, I went up on the ceiling and watched you. It was really fascinating.” In fact, the parents were upset with the surgeon because they thought the surgeon forgot to give the child anesthesia. (01:24:20)

And they said, “Why didn’t you get my son anesthesia?” He said, “I did.”

He’s not a particularly religious guy. This was a very cynical guy, who told me about this years ago, and he said, “Yeah, I don’t have any explanation for this, but this kid saw my operation. And he was under general anesthesia with a brain monitor showing that he was fully out under surgical drapes. He couldn’t possibly have seen.” And he described exactly what I did. And what I did, I didn’t tell anybody about. (01:24:42)

Arjuna Das: Right. I have a friend who had a heart operation and he had an NDE. He said he got to spook the doctor. Maybe I’ll do an interview with him. (01:25:11)

Michael Egnor: Sure. So, NDEs are real things. And I actually think the most important aspect of the neuroscience of NDEs is the enormous discredit that the neuroscientific efforts to deny NDEs brings to the profession. It just shows you that these people will make up anything. The evidence is so overwhelming. So, it just tells you that they’re not playing an objective game. They have a preconceived ideological commitment, and don’t say anything [except] to back up their ideology. (01:25:21)

Here are transcripts and notes for the first hour and twelve minutes, starting from the beginning:

Why neurosurgeon Mike Egnor stopped being a materialist atheist. He found that materialism is just not working out in science. Most propositions in basic science are based on mathematics and mathematics is not a material thing.

How science points to meaning in life. The earliest philosopher of science, Aristotle, pioneered a way of understanding it. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talks about the four causes of the events in our world, from the material to the mind.

How we can know mental states are real?
Mental states are always “about” something; physical states are not “about” anything. Michael Egnor argues that doing science as a physicalist (a materialist) is like driving a car with the parking brake on; it’s a major impediment to science.

What’s the best option for understanding the mind and the brain? Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

How did Descartes come to make such a mess of dualism? Mathematician René Descartes strictly separated mind and matter in a way that left the mind very vulnerable. After Descartes started the idea that only minds have experiences, materialist philosophers dispensed with mind, then puzzled over how matter has experiences.

How philosopher John Locke turned reality into theatre His “little theater in the mind” concept means that you can’t even know that nature exists. It may just be a movie that’s being played in front of your eyes.
Aristotle and Aquinas’s traditional philosophical approach, Michael Egnor argues, offers more assurance that we can truly perceive reality.

The brain can be split but the mind can’t. Neuroscientist Roger Sperry found that splitting the brain in half does not split consciousness in half. It just gives you a rather interesting, but very subtle set of perceptual disabilities.
Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has split patients’ brains, while treating serious epilepsy, and the results are not at all what a materialist might expect.

How the split brain emphasizes the reality of the mind. Fascinating research following up Roger Sperry’s work — which showed that the mind is not split when the brain is — has confirmed and extended his findings. One investigator, whose work followed up and confirmed Roger Sperry’s, called her split brain findings “perceptual disconnection with conscious unity.”

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The Brain Does Not Create the Mind; It Constrains It.