The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Aunt Millie’s Mind

published July 2012
The death of the brain means subjective experiences
are neurochemistry
magazine cover

“WHERE IS THE EXPERIENCE OF RED IN YOUR BRAIN?” The question was put to me by Deepak Chopra at his Sages and Scientists Symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., on March 3. A posse of presenters argued that the lack of a complete theory by neuroscientists regarding how neural activity translates into conscious experiences (such as “redness”) means that a physicalist approach is inadequate or wrong. “The idea that subjective experience is a result of electrochemical activity remains a hypothesis,” Chop ra elaborated in an e-mail. “It is as much of a speculation as the idea that consciousness is fundamental and that it causes brain activity and creates the properties and objects of the material world.” “Where is Aunt Millie’s mind when her brain dies of Alzheimer’s?” I countered to Chopra. “Aunt Millie was an impermanent pattern of behavior of the universe and returned to the potential she emerged from,” Chopra rejoined. “In the philosophic framework of Eastern traditions, ego identity is an illusion and the goal of enlightenment is to transcend to a more universal non local, nonmaterial identity.”

The hypothesis that the brain creates consciousness, however, has vastly more evidence for it than the hypothesis that consciousness creates the brain. Damage to the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe, for example, causes face blindness, and stimulation of this same area causes people to see faces spontaneously. Stroke-caused damage to the visual cortex region called V1 leads to loss of conscious visual perception. Changes in conscious experience can be directly measured by functional MRI, electroencephalography and single-neuron recordings. Neuroscientists can predict human choices from brain-scanning activity before the subject is even consciously aware of the decisions made. Using brain scans alone, neuroscientists have even been able to reconstruct, on a computer screen, what someone is seeing.

Thousands of experiments confirm the hypothesis that neurochemical processes produce subjective experiences. The fact that neuroscientists are not in agreement over which physicalist theory best accounts for mind does not mean that the hypothesis that consciousness creates matter holds equal standing. In defense, Chopra sent me a 2008 paper published in Mind and Matter by University of California, Irvine, cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman: “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem.” Conscious realism “asserts that the objective world, i.e., the world whose existence does not depend on the perceptions of a particular observer, consists entirely of conscious agents.” Consciousness is fundamental to the cosmos and gives rise to particles and fields. “It is not a latecomer in the evolutionary history of the universe, arising from complex interactions of unconscious matter and fields,” Hoffman writes. “Consciousness is first; matter and fields depend on it for their very existence.”

Where is the evidence for consciousness being fundamental to the cosmos? Here Hoffman turns to how human observers “construct the visual shapes, colors, textures and motions of objects.” Our senses do not construct an approximation of physical reality in our brain, he argues, but instead operate more like a graphical user interface system that bears little to no resemblance to what actually goes on inside the computer. In Hoffman’s view, our senses operate to construct reality, not to reconstruct it. Further, it “does not require the hypothesis of independently existing physical objects.”

How does consciousness cause matter to materialize? We are not told. Where (and how) did consciousness exist before there was matter? We are left wondering. As far as I can tell, all the evidence points in the direction of brains causing mind, but no evidence indicates reverse causality. This whole line of reasoning, in fact, seems to be based on something akin to a “God of the gaps” argument, where physicalist gaps are filled with nonphysicalist agents, be they omniscient deities or conscious agents.

No one denies that consciousness is a hard problem. But before we reify consciousness to the level of an independent agency capable of creating its own reality, let’s give the hypotheses we do have for how brains create mind more time. Because we know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, until proved otherwise, the default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness. I am, therefore I think.

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14 Comments to “Aunt Millie’s Mind”

  1. Ted Christopher Says:

    I think “Aunt Millie’s Mind” misses the real issues.

    Whatever the cause – whether Chopra’s delivery and/or in Shermer’s subsequent framing – the fundamental concept in a number of Eastern religious traditions (and perhaps in common with much of mysticism) is not as stated here. The fundamental truth suggested is that one’s ultimate identity is as an aware and immortal backdrop to reality, including the workings of the brain. More subtly this awareness/soul is taught to have both a passive aspect (emptiness) and an active aspect (luminosity). Most tangibly it is sometimes conveyed as the underlying sense “I am” and it is thhus asserted that anything you perceive including the workings of the brain/mind is NOT you.

    The neuroscience findings cited are thus not relevant.

    What is relevant here is what kind of objective evidence is available for this immortal me or soul? These mystical concepts were presumably built on or borrowed from the common premodern transcendental beliefs. Such beliefs were probably acquired as people in small groups sensed the continuity of individuals – probably personalities – across lives. How the commonly associated belief in causal transcendental connections – as with karma – were come upon is not apparent.

    Evidence for such a transcendental soul should show up as a contradiction to the material-only, DNA-created-you,-body-and-mind model. An easy starting point is with the suggestive stuff – prodigies, unexpected sexual orientations, inexplicable phobias and philias, the mysteries associated with monozygotic twins, young children’s innate soul/spirit-based understanding of life, etc. What explanation comes to mind when encountering people who have spent their entire lives wishing they were the opposite sex and a related recent study that found that many of them who have undergone sex-change efforts (transitioned) “knew they had been born into the wrong gender from childhood”?

    The big picture footprint should be a general breakdown in the “DNA-created-you,-body-and-mind model”. Otherwise a soul would have to wait forever to get a conceptus with DNA aligned with its trajectory. Here is a recent assessment from the relevant DNA-search front lines,

    If Shermer et al want to defend science’s model of life – which of course negates any soul-based understanding – this is where the attention belongs. The missing heritability problem is the natural religion versus science worldview collision point. I have an article in the Nov/December 2011 issue of Elsevier’s EXPLORE on this. A number of mysteries appear to fall coherently out of considering contributions from a complementary transcendental aspect of life – the common premodern perspective.

    I close with a related observation on the current miserable state of religion versus science. In “Born Believer’s” Justin Barrett lays out some of the growing evidence that young children (even atheist’s kids) express an innate soul/god/gods/religious understanding of life. What is noteworthy is that Barrett – who is apparently a sincere Christian – can offer nothing more than empty consolation. He concludes that our religious beliefs are innate delusions as opposed to conditioned delusions. In a useful Freudian slip, thou, he opens the book by conveying the explanation offered to him by a man on a train in India. That this explanation has to be removed from consideration underscores the ridiculous state of affairs.

  2. dave shannon Says:

    wow, Ted, so many words, so little meaning!

  3. Roland Sassen Says:

    “No one denies that consciousness is a hard problem”.

    Maybe here is no one.

    Several chaotic systems evolve from the electrical activity of our brain. Consciousness emerges from the interplay of these systems.

  4. Will Pitkin Says:

    Human consciousness, including the recognition of dreams, the beginnings of narrative memory, and a coherent sense of self, begins for most of us about age 4 or 5, as we’re fully cracking the code for creating narrative/discursive language. The animal consciousness we have before that, and that we share with non-human species, isn’t what we humans refer to as consciousness.

  5. Max King Says:

    Redness is a red herring. Different cultures would disagree on what is red – or more to the point, where are the boundaries of redness (red-orange? red-pink?).
    The experience of redness occurs when the red photons hit the red cones in the retina. The conscious experience (perception) occurs when the higher centres of the brain process the retinal data. But, WTF is consciousness?
    Further to the matter of choices and anticipatory responses in the brain, where and how do thoughts originate; what is the stimulus that fires off the motor cortex neurones if I spontaneously decide to make a meaningless motion?
    These questions have tormented me for the last 55 years.
    Undoubtedly a living, conscious brain is required, but all my years of research in neurophysiology and neurochemistry have only revealed how the nervous system works and how everything in the brain is connected to everything else.
    Sadly, I will never know, because I believe that if the human mind could understand how the human mind works, it would be greater than itself.

  6. Roy Niles Says:

    Hoffman was more correct than Shermer or Chopra. Energy “creates” matter, and no-one should claim to know how the process of energy reforming itself “materially” in a myriad of ways has come to work. But matter appears to have been fashioned with an awareness of what it had been formed to do. An electron is formed to behave as an electron. It is aware (if not cognizant) of the strategy it needs to use. Awareness doesn’t cause it do anything. It’s the best word we’ve come up with to describe what’s been seen as an ability in universal systems to react according to whatever they’ve been somehow programmed to exist to do. They can’t not react. They can’t not be aware of their reactive strategies.
    And since we’re “aware” that we exist as self programming beings, we have to consider that we cannot have been the first things in existence to have a quality of self awareness, whatever the hell that is. As to our human form of consciousness, of course it’s the product of our brain. It (or more correctly our version of it) didn’t exist until our brain was formed as an end product of whatever this mysterious thing called energy has continuously caused to rise from the evolutionary processes of the universe over its vast sea of sequential change.

  7. Mark Van Houten MD PhD Says:

    If you are intrigued by this discussion, then you might enjoy reading my mini-book entitled “The Apocryphal Gift”, which is an ebook, free download on The book is a sarcastic allegorical tale that contrasts the understanding of human evil from the modern neuroscientific perspectives with that representing the traditional Judeochristian perspective. Enjoy! Mark

  8. Ted Christopher Says:

    Why put so much emphasis on the hard question? The material-only model of the brain (and life) is of course the framework for the hard question (i.e., ‘how can the brain pull off consciousness?’)

    The more immediate and pressing question for this understanding of life is – where is the DNA which lays out many aspects of an individual’s innateness? From my above comment you can see the link giving a geneticist’s take on the overlapping missing heritability problem. This is a huge (or “beyond belief”) deal and if an analogous situation were facing a religious understanding of life the intellectual realm – and certainly the skeptics’ realm – would be very aware of the situation.

    If you strip out Chopra’s focus on the metaphysical crapola the undercarriage is a transcendental – and soul-bearing – understanding of life. As I pointed out above this understanding of life and its potential coupling with the missing heritability problem is the natural collision point between a material-only understanding (with its hard problem) and a dualistic understanding of life.

  9. Dukunocil Says:

    I do not get it. Why this fella MS, is allowed to write a column in every issue of Scientific American. Are editors on strike there?

  10. Henry Harris Says:

    When we shut off the radio the music dies. Does that prove the radio creates the music?

  11. Iria Says:

    Hello! Would anyone please explain out the meaning of “Aunt Millie”? What does it refers to? We are translating that paper into Galician and we don’t understand the sense of the title.
    Thanks a million!

  12. Pokerjoe Says:

    Iria, the name “Aunt Millie” doesn’t mean anything important. It just puts a common name to the idea of any older person with Alzheimer’s.

  13. A.Sriskandarajah Says:

    Dr Schermer,

    Please answer my questions.
    You ask where is Aunt millie’s mind when her brain dies of alzheimer’s.
    Do you know what is mind? Why do you refer to Aunt millie’s mind? Do you know where your mind is now?
    Before searching Aunt millie’s mind we should find out where am I or you during deep sleep? Where does our mind go during deep sleep? Where will be the mind during the time when a patient is under anesthesia or coma? How does the mind come back from unconsciousness? Is the patient not in a state of non experiencing?
    Why Neuro Scientists do all the researches to heal the damaged brain?
    If the damaged brain is healed wouldn’t the lost mind come back again? If a Alzheimer patient is cured can’t the mind of the patient come back again? If not why Scientists do all the researches to heal the brain? If they can’t heal the brain why do we need a Neuro Science at all?

    You also ask this question.
    How does consciousness cause matter to materialize? We are not told. Where (and how) did consciousness exist before there was matter? We are left wondering.

    Same questions I am asking you sir, but the other way around. We are also not told and we are also left wondering due to lack of scientific knowledge in the field of consciousness. There are many fundamental questions Scientists are unable to answer and Science has failed to solve the problem of sorrow of death.

    How does matter cause consciousness? How does matter cause pain sensation? Please do not escape by saying brain neural net work and neurochemical activity. Please explain the final activity that makes us to feel a subjective experience. Where did matter exist before there was consciousness? How matter came into existence? Please do not say it came from energy or x. Then I have to ask again how energy or x came into existence. So please give a complete answer.

    You say that thousands of experiments confirm the hypothesis that neurochemical processes produce subjective experiences. Then why should Scientists are unable to produce a sensation in the test tube?

    We receive experiences through the brain. If the brain is damaged we could not receive any experiences. We will be in a state of non experiencing. We may feel many experiences with our brain. But we do not feel all experiences together at a time. We may hungry at a time. Another time we do not feel hungry. At that time we are in a state of none experiencing of hungry. When we eat something we feel the taste sensation. Otherwise we remain not experiencing the taste sensation. We do not always touch memory. When need arises we tap some information from memory. Otherwise memory is intact. We need external and internal factors to receive an experience. Brain is an internal factor. Food is an external factor. We may remain without sensing any experiences. It doesn’t mean that I am dead. Still I exist but without experiencing anything. So an Alzheimer patient may not sensing all experiences. Its all. But who knows the patient is conscious or not. May be there is still an existence in a state without experiencing any sensations.


  14. A.Sriskandarajah Says:

    To Dr Michael Shermer.

    This refers to your video talk on what happens after we die.

    First thing we should know what happens when we are alive. Without knowing that talking on what happens after we die is meaningless. So, please answer my following questions which are purely related to life not death. If you don’t know the answers to my questions then what you say is false. Something misleading the people.Please answer my questions about what happens before death. Without knowing what happens before death talking about what happens after death has no meaning at all.

    Before talking what happens after we die we should know what are we. Do you know what am I?

    All our experiences, feelings, emotions arise through our brains. But there should be an existence whether a part of brain or something other than the brain to feel or to know all the experiences, feelings and emotions. What is that? Is there any center in the brain which is able to feel all kind of different sensations? Definitely there should be a center in the brain because I am able to feel all kind of different sensations. If there is no such center in the brain then which feels all sensations? Is it something other than the brain?

    You are talking about death. Good! What you mean by death? What is it that dies or come to a final end when the physical body stops its function? Is it this material body? There is continuity of material bodies by birth of new babies. So there is no final end to material bodies. This material body consists of atoms. When we die all atoms go safely without being annihilated. Really what happens in the material world is assembling of molecules and disassembling of molecules. There is no material loss. According to the reality of matter there is no death. You seemed to be a materialist to whom only real existence is matter. So, why do you talk about death? Is death end of brain process? Although brain process stops in a physical body it starts again in a physical body of a new born baby. Is it end of the mind? What is mind? Mind cannot be a separate existence. Mind is mortal. Mind does not come to an end only at death. It is always dying while we are living because its contents which are experiences, thoughts and memory are impermanent. Experiencing and thinking process start again with the birth of a new born baby. Really death means ending of a permanent existence which lasted during our entire life time. So, is there anything permanently existing in this physical structure to end at last? If not what is the meaning of death? Your judgment of death comes only by seeing this physical body in which death has already been taking place. Don’t you aware of the deaths of impermanent things in your existence during your life? So what is it that dies or coming to a final end or goes for ever? Here I am asking what is that gone when this body ceased to function. Is there anything come to a final end apart from cells, brain process, neural net work, electro chemical neural activities, thoughts, memory and experiences? But in your talk you say “you” gone after death. So we should understand what is that “you”. Please tell what is that you? What it refers to? What you mean by this “you”. When you say you gone forever after death what is it that you gone forever? What is there to go in this material world? What am I? What exists now as you or I to end or go for ever after death?
    You say that Science knows that nothing happens after death. So, let the Science answer my questions. Science is still unable to answer many fundamental questions. Science is still unable to solve the problem of sorrow of death.

    You say that everything will be gone and erased after death. Don’t you know even while we are living everything goes? Nothing exists permanently. Don’t you aware that whatever goes or erased may return? When our eyes are damaged our vision goes. But we can’t say that vision gone forever. If our eyes are transplanted our vision returns through other eyes.

    You say that after death you gone that is what Scientists say. When we are alive the “you” goes and come back under certain situations. The “I” or “you” often disappears and reappears during our life time. That is the mystery. How this is happening? What is the neural mechanism involved in this process of disappearing and reappearing? During deep sleep and under anesthesia the “I” or “you” disappears. Where it goes? How it come back again?


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