Why Thoughts Aren't in Your Head (1: Brains and Consciousness)

Even a detailed knowledge of the brain’s workings and the neural correlates of consciousness may fail to explain how or why human beings have self-aware minds.

– David Chalmers

B. F. Skinner actually put forward – and this is a measure of scientific desperation over consciousness – the idea that consciousness was a weird vibrational by-product of the vocal cords. That we did not actually think. We thought we thought because of this weird vibration caused by the vocal cords. This shows the lengths that hard science will go to to banish the ghost from the machine.1

– Alan Moore

Where does Consciousness come from? Whence does thought arise? Surely, you say: ‘my brain’. Thinking is caused by the brain, right? It’s inherent in everyday language – an impromptu idea comes ‘off the top of my head’; when we’re tired of thinking we say, ‘my brain hurts’, or we must ‘give our brain a rest’. This implies that thought, or consciousness, is literally inside my cranium. Just how this might be, no one knows –scientists have failed to locate any thoughts inside a human brain. But we know there’s a weak electrical charge when we’re thinking, feeling, or sensing, hence scientists speak of neurons (nerve cells) firing due to electro-chemical changes that accompany physical or emotional response. (Dopamine, for example, will be produced as a natural reaction to pain.)

Electrical impulses (as neurons ‘fire’) in the brain certainly can be detected, and for the materialist these are the same as our desires, memories, impressions. They’re just poetic licence for neural activity and what we call consciousness is essentially illusion, or brain by-product with no substance. (The technical term is epiphenomenalism.) The co-discoverer of the DNA helix Francis Crick had this to say:‘The astonishing hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’2

Likewise, the Philosophy professor Daniel Dennett would proclaim that: ‘We are organic robots created by a research-and-development process called natural selection.’ In his Consciousness Explained he writes that: ‘The prevailing wisdom, variously expressed and argued for, is materialism: there is only one son of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of chemistry, physics and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain.’3

Carl Sagan added to the mechanistic echo-chamber and insisted: ‘I am a collection of water, calcium, and organic molecules called Carl Sagan,’ whereas other people are simply a different combination of ‘almost identical molecules’ This is scientific materialism at its most pernicious – we can be reduced to nothing more than a set of chemicals, driven by an electrical charge in our brain, like so many Frankenstein’s monsters. The result is that we are nothing more than brain activity, and what we feel and think is just accompanying ‘noise’. And so, Francis Crick could add that we are ‘nothing but a pack of neurons’. Crick is referring to the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain, but we have neurons all over the body. It has never been explained by materialists why neurons in our brain are any more special than, say, neurons in our arms or legs. Those in our head are, apparently, specially-endowed consciousness creating neurons!


So let’s look a little more closely at what the brain, actually does. To start with, we’ve ascribed all sorts of sophistication and complexity to it, and it certainly contains an impressive number of nerve cells (neurons) at up to 120 billion. Neurons carry messages through what physicist Nick Herbert describes as a ‘wet electrical network’ to other neurons via the so-called ‘synaptic gap’(because neurons don’t actually make physical contact with each other.) There are a lot of synapses, however, they can number more than 100 trillion.

The brain’s outer layer, the cerebral cortex, is said to play a major role in our memories, and perceptions – in other words, what we call ‘the mind’. It is this ‘sheet’ of neural matter which was famously ‘mapped’, so that we now know which area of the brain is ‘responsible’ for, say, having a sensation in the fingers, indeed, which particular finger. Essentially – sensations are created as we interact with the world, and these are channelled as electrical impulses through our nervous system. These, in turn, are received and processed by the brain which (so the prevailing wisdom goes) transforms them into something humanly recognisable – the taste of strawberries, birdsong or the touch of silk. We know there’s a weak electrical charge when we’re thinking, feeling, or sensing. Neuroscientists can also tell you in which region of the brain, to the nearest millimeter, this is occurring.

But Consciousness itself is much more subtle, much richer and nuanced. That the brain can electrically register the fact that your finger has touched a particular surface (and that that actual finger corresponds to a tiny area of the cerebral cortex) tells us nothing about our conscious experience of it. For example your index finger may touch a cold, hard surface like stone; or it may sense something warm and wet (as you test the bath water.) These sensations are vastly different – even though the same area of the brain will respond, because it’is only cognisant of the fact that your index finger is sending a ‘message’. It tells us nothing about the personal quality of the experience. Electrical signals and Consciousness are hardly the same thing. They don’t even compare.

What about when we have rich and intense sensations or profound, spiritual longings? Is an image of a gorgeous sunset, the pain of headache or the taste of chocolate identical to a mere electrical signal? What about the emotion of being in love? Is that, too, just a chemical reaction in your head? How can three-pounds of pinkish-grey matter give rise to the sonnets of Shakespeare, Beethoven’s symphonies or the genius that was Plato, Aristotle, Isaac Newton and Einstein? Your brain has essentially the same chemical composition as your kidneys, so – in short – how can Mind come from meat?

Interestingly, though the brain also ‘tells us’ when we experience pain, the brain itself doesn’t feel anything. The brain, it seems, is not aware of itself, but isn’t this a bit of a conundrum? Think about it – if the brain contains all the ‘information’ about what our senses do (I put my hand near a fire = it’s hot) then why doesn’t it ‘know’ when a doctor is inserting a scalpel into its very surface? In any case, if brain-awareness was merely a matter of sensory input-output, then hypnosis couldn’t work. Under hypnotic influence, one can tolerate real physical stress and hurt: teeth have been extracted from hypnotised patients without using an anaesthetic and no pain was felt. The ‘information’ that told them they were not feeling pain is coming from elsewhere. Obviously, the Unconscious. As we’re reminded in the movie Inception, pain is really all in the Mind. (Or not there at all, under hypnosis.) Isn’t this circumstantial evidence that the brain isn’t the same thing as the Mind?: That consciousness is separate from it? That the brain does not cause Consciousness? And what could this really mean?

The physicist Paul Davies summed it up well when he said we are :

‘still stuck with the problem of what is it about a particular complex electrical pattern that has thoughts or sensation attached to it, let alone specific ones like love or a sense of greenness. What distinguishes those from the swirling electrical patterns in the Victorian electricity grid, which presumably doesn’t have thoughts and sensations attached to it? That is what a physicist would like to know. So it still seems to me, as a physicist, deeply mysterious, the problem of consciousness.’4

1. “Alan Moore Interview” by Matthew De Abaitua (1998), later published in Alan Moore: Conversations (2011) edited by Eric L. Berlatsky

2. Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis – the Scientific Search

for the Soul, NY: Scribner, 1994.

3. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little Brown, 1991.

4. Davies, quoted in article: ‘Mind games’, by Pheasant, Bill,

Australian Financial Review (http://afr.com/)