Where Does Consciousness Originate?
Most neureoscientists would agree today that consciousness emerges from the physical brain. Thus, when the brain dies, consciousness ceases to exist.
Dr. Peter Fenwick, a highly regarded British neuropsychiatrist, has studied the brain and consciousness for 50 years. He says this view is incorrect. Although he initially did not believe in the phenomena associated with Near Death Experiences (NDEs), Fenwick now believes that consciousness continues after death. Furthermore, Fenwick now believes that consciousness exists independently of the brain. He looks at it as belonging to the universe, a property of the universe, just like gravity.
The Brain Does Not Create Consciousness
Fenwick believes the brain filters and steps down what it receives from consciousness. Thus, the brain does not create consciousness, like a funnel, it narrows the vast element of consciousness so some portion of it can be managed within the limitations of the physical brain of an individual. Think about this as similar to other processes in the body. For example, the eye filters and interprets only a very small sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the ear registers only a narrow range of sonic frequencies. Similarly, the brain takes in only a tiny part of the cosmos’ intrinsic “consciousness”, filters it, and makes some of it available to each individual.
Reflecting on this further: When the eye is no longer alive, the electromagnetic spectrum does not die but the eye can no longer perceive, be stimulated by, and react to light energy. The electromagenetic energy it previously perceived still remains. When the ear physically dies, it can no longer transduce sound waves, but the energies that the living ear responded to still exist. Fenwick believes it is the same with consciousness. Just because the brain that usually filters, perceives, and interprets consciousness dies, the phenomenon of consciousness still exists.
Consciousness Can Trick Us
“What’s more, according to Fenwick, our consciousness tricks us into perceiving a false duality of self and other when in fact there is only unity. We are not separate from other aspects of the universe but an integral and inextricable part of them. And when we die, we transcend the human experience of consciousness, and its illusion of duality, and merge with the universe’s entire and unified property of consciousness. So, ironically, only in death can we be fully conscious.” -Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D
As compelling as this theory is for meditators and those involved with deliberately expanding awareness to experience a non-dual reality, there is at this time still no empirically established explanatory framework for the understanding that consciousness exists independently and outside the brain.
What Are the Stakes?
If we believe consciousness is generated outside the brain then we have a physiological explanation that some piece of us survives death. Call it soul or spirit, if you wish. And, if something survives–then death is not a total annihilation, as some fear. Instead, it is a release into something much larger than the individual self, what many NDE experiencers have described as “going home”. This understanding can bring great peace to those who fear death. It can also lead us into contemplating the possibility that there is a dimension where spirits exist. Indigenous people and Spiritists live with this as truth, honoring the spirit dimension and evoking connection to highly evolved spirits to improve their lives.
What do you sense is correct? How has it changed your emotional response to death and dying?
Author: Emma Bragdon, PhD, is the Executive Director of Integrative Mental Health for You, IMHU.org. IMHU hosts 40+ online courses.
Fenwick, P. & Fenwick, E. (2008). The Art of Dying. Bloomsbury: London.
Peter Fenwick, Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78SkTuk8Zd4