On the nature of consciousness

Dear colleagues,

As thoughts pass through your mind, do they arise from your brain? Or is your consciousness created in some other way?

Pim Lommel is a Dutch heart surgeon. In 1986, after reading a book about near-death experiences (NDEs), he began asking his patients about memories during their heart attacks. This led him to a lengthy investigation into the nature of consciousness.

NDEs have several typical features, including a feeling of peace and contentment, awareness of viewing one's own body from the outside, going through a tunnel towards a bright light, and having a review of one's life. NDEs occur to a minority of people who survive events such as heart attacks, near drowning or coma from an accident.

Most studies of NDEs are retrospective: investigators track down individuals who report them and compile stories. Lommel led a big prospective study that involved all heart attack survivors at several Dutch coronary care units whether or not they had NDEs. Survivors were interviewed after their recovery and again two and eight years later. With this research design, it was possible to compare personal changes in the minority of survivors who had NDEs with the changes in those who didn't.

During a heart attack, all brain functions cease. The conventional understanding of consciousness is that it depends on the brain: when brain activity stops, a person should have no capacity to observe or experience thought. Yet a few of those who have NDEs, and who report seeing their body from the outside, provide information about the room they could not know from their waking state. All NDEs involve memories that, by conventional thinking, could not be created while the brain is inactive.

The Dutch prospective study of NDEs was reported in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet in 2001 and caused quite a stir. Lommel later wrote a book that has now been translated into English under the title Consciousness Beyond Life, in which he reports on studies into NDEs, including his own study, and their implications for the nature of consciousness.

Lommel's approach is cautious, logical and systematic, rather than the dramatic approach found in some treatments of NDEs. He presents information on the frequency and features of NDEs and on their lasting effects on personal attitudes. For anyone not familiar with NDEs, and even those who are, this information, including many quotes from survivors, is striking.

Lommel concludes that NDEs are incompatible with the conventional view that consciousness derives from the brain. He explores philosophical conceptions of the mind and examines materialist explanations for NDEs, putting them against available evidence. For example, some say that NDEs are created by oxygen shortage in the brain. However, some NDEs occur in circumstances where there is no oxygen shortage.

If consciousness can sometimes be independent of the brain, what is going on? Lommel lays out a number of models and gives his preference for consciousness existing in a separate space. In his view, the brain is a medium for realising individual components of nonlocal collective consciousness, rather like when computers are a medium for downloading files from a server.

To see how this view of consciousness can be made compatible with scientists' ideas about reality, Lommel presents views about quantum theory. In the orthodox interpretation, the world is a set of probability waves that only realise specific outcomes through consciousness, via what is called the collapse of the wave function. Some quantum physicists could be said to interpret the physical world as a product of consciousness rather than the other way around.

Throughout Lommel's treatments of NDEs, consciousness and quantum theory, he writes as a careful investigator, giving clear accounts, honest assessments and plenty of references. I found Lommel's treatment of quantum theory very well informed, though admittedly it is a long time since I studied the topic.

Normally in my missives to colleagues, I like to spell out implications for those of us working in universities, especially in the social sciences and humanities. The study of consciousness - especially the possibility that it transcends the body - has relevance to everyone. Is there some special connection with academic work?

People who have NDEs often find it extremely difficult to use words to describe what they experienced: NDEs are "ineffable". Scholars use words to articulate their understandings; some say truth is a linguistic construction. If humans can have powerful experiences beyond words, does this indicate the possibility of new domains and methods for scholarship?

If Lommel is correct about the relationship between consciousness and physical reality, then our thinking processes operate differently than we usually imagine. Each one of us is drawing on a collective consciousness and contributing to it. I'm not sure how this might affect the way we go about teaching and research.

If a person's individual consciousness is simply a partial, highly limited window into a vast conscious whole, this can make the competitive struggle for personal advantage seem rather pointless. A collective consciousness, not dependent on the body, makes all of us intimately linked.

Another implication of NDEs is to be prepared to rethink basic assumptions. If the nature of consciousness becomes open to question due to studies of a neglected phenomenon - the NDE - then other things normally taken for granted might also be open to destabilisation.

Personally, I remain agnostic. I have read about NDEs for decades and think they provide some of the best evidence for the inadequacy of the conventional materialist worldview. But there is much more to be learned. Lommel has provided the most careful and well argued treatment I've seen. This is the book to read if you have any interest in these issues.

9 September 2011

I thank Chris Barker, Frank Huang, Nicola Marks and Michael Matteson for useful comments.


Pim Lommel, Consciousness beyond life: the science of the near-death experience, translated by Laura Vrooman (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

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