Michael Persinger and the Extended Mind

I’d like to follow up on my recent post about Michael Persinger’s research on the non-local electromagnetic aspects of consciousness. There is a growing contingent of cognitive scientists taking what has come to be called the “extended mind” theory quite seriously. Andy Clark is most associated with the idea, but Levi Bryant has been blogging about it lately. The idea is pretty straightforward: while the brain may be necessary for mental phenomena (including consciousness, memory, thinking, vision, etc.), it is not sufficient, since it is primarily through the fully embodied nervous system’s transactions with the surrounding extracranial world that such phenomena are made possible. The mind may still be characterized as entirely material, but it’s circuitry is understood to extend beyond the skin to form cognitive assemblages with other people and the various media technologies we share. Without learning to read and write an alphabetic language, for example, the kind of individuated subjectivity that Westerners take for granted as basic to human nature could never arise. Consciousness is, from this perspective, still an emergent property, but an emergent property of social activity and cultural artifacts as much as neural processes.

Now, what Persinger is suggesting is similar, but way more radical in some respects. He is suggesting (with experimental data to back it up) that the brain is something like a radio receiver/transmitter that tunes in to and is affected by a globally distributed “mental-field” (or “noosphere”?) closely associated with particular electromagntic frequencies. This is more radical than Clark’s “extend mind” hypothesis only because, if mental phenomena are indeed generated or carried by electromagnetism, this implies not just the local extension of mind, but the possibility of non-local, instantaneous connections between brains independent of space-time.

I’ve shared the video of Persinger’s lecture on this research with a long-time interlocutor of mine, Julian Walker, in the hopes that his generally more skeptical approach to consciousness studies would provide for an interesting discussion. I’ve not been disappointed.

Julian raises several difficulties that I’ll respond to in turn.

First, Julian praises Persinger for his work on the relation between psychoactive plants/fungi and the origins of religion, as well as his work with the “God helmet.” This research provides down to earth accounts of what might otherwise be explained supernaturally. I agree with Persinger (and Terence McKenna!) that psychedelic substances played a crucial role in the formation of, not just religious practice, but human culture generally. I’m not so sure this account explains away religion as the byproduct of a long history of hallucinations, however. “Hallucination” never struck me as the best term to describe what occurs during the non-ordinary states of consciousness produced by psilocybin and other tryptamines. It seems far more likely to me that the profoundly opening, spiritual experiences reported by most people who have ingested such substances actually provide a closer look into reality than our ordinary consciousness (which after all evolved to allow us to survive in a world of other hungry animals, not to commune with the ground of being). If there is a hallucinatory mode of consciousness, it is the everyday, ego identification that makes us feel like tiny points of apperception lodged somewhere inside the skull. So if religious practice arose out of the psychedelic experience, I think this implies that, where religion is based in experience rather than sectarian dogma, it is of great value to humanity, since it provides us with a window into a form of life not motivated solely by biological survival, but by more spiritual values like creativity and love. It’s not that psychedelics provide proof of anything “supernatural”; rather, I think a powerful entheogenic experience can reveal just how impoverished our modern, industrialized view of “nature” has become.

Moving right along, Julian criticizes Persinger’s application of phenomena observed by quantum physicists (like non-locality) to biological organization and human subjectivity. I’d agree that such transdisciplinary work remains highly speculative, but unlike most of the thinkers who mobilize quantum physics to explain the paranormal, Persinger is actually doing the experiments to support his applications.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Skeptico:

Skeptico: …you do seem to be…leaning in the direction of saying that there might be other ways [other than direct sensory contact] that consciousness interacts with other consciousness… [A]re you open to the possibility that the physical structure of our brain is more of a transceiver than the agent that creates consciousness, as some people have suggested. Is that on the table for you, or…

Dr. Michael Persinger: Absolutely. There is, of course, the idea that the brain is the source of all experiences because, obviously, if you terminate it you don’t have experiences; but the counter hypothesis – actually it’s not even counter, it’s a parallel hypothesis – is that the brain is microstructured. This infinitesimal, complex pattern, is microstructured so that it can serve as a substrate for electromagnetic patterns. And those electromagnetic patterns are the behaviors and the experiences, which means technically they could exist somewhere else. That means that if indeed there is an electromagnetic pattern, a complex one though it may be, associated with consciousness, if you recreated a substructure in another kind of setting, for example, a computer or in rocks or in trees, could you have some simulation of that. This, of course, is a hypothesis that definitely deserves testing.

So I think Julian’s worry is that the well-confirmed microcosmic weirdness of quantum physics is often used to explain all sorts of phenomena on the macroscopic scale purely through analogy or other non-scientific correspondences. This is one of dangers of cross-disciplinary research. But this does not mean such research should not and cannot be done scientifically! What good is science for understanding the universe as a whole if its many theorems are locked away from one another in the watertight compartments of narrow disciplinary research? Perhaps the biggest outstanding challenge for science in the 21st century will be uniting the truths of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and, dare I say it, spirituality. Scientific disciplines are human constructs; the universe itself is a single evolving process. Yes, it appears to be differentiated and layered, but there are no gaps between layers. Neural activity is conditioned by quantum activity “below it” and by social activity “above it.” Any account of psychological/mental phenomena will remain incomplete unless these conditioning links are fully explored. I think it is especially significant that Persinger finds the brain-based and electromagnetic accounts of consciousness “parallel” rather than contradictory. I am fascinated by his research in this area, not because it implies mental phenomena are non-physical, but because it forces us to expand (quite literally) our understanding of matter.

Julian is convinced that any account of mental phenomena that suggest it is not physiologically caused contradicts everything we know about the universe dating back to the big bang. Having recently engaged with the ideas of Quentin Meillassoux concerning the ancestral statements of science, this notion seems especially shortsighted to me. Our scientific knowledge of deep time (back to the big bang) might imply something like a primordial field of awareness as an invisible background underlying the complexification of matter. Cosmologists can make claims about what happened before human consciousness or biological sentience arose, even before atomic structure arose, because they are tapping into a layer of information or memory that does not depend on complex biology. These events are based on mathematical inference, you say? Certainly, but as soon as we attempt to translate this information into some sort of physical picture, we do so “as if” there was an observer there to witness it all happening. This is a great paradox. If we are to take cosmology at its word, we either tuck this paradox under the rug or we acknowledge its strange implications. Obviously there was no biological creature around 13.7 billion years ago to witness the big bang, but without assuming a witness of some kind, there is no way to make sense of the event. Even given that some unconscious but still mind-like field connecting everything in the universe at the quantum level was present to witness the big bang, it remains difficult to imagine how time might have a beginning, or what visible space might be expanding into as it grows. It is no more difficult to imagine what the nature of this field might be like. Stranger ideas have come to be scientifically accepted.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Jovanovic says:

    Matt,

    That was excellent.

    You make the point that: “…if mental phenomena are indeed generated or carried by electromagnetism, this implies not just the local extension of mind, but the possibility of non-local, instantaneous connections between brains independent of space-time.”

    That is to say, synchronicity.

    Mental phenomena produce electromagnetic signatures, readily captured using EEG’s or fMRI’s. That aspect of consciousness is uncontroversial, and taken advantage of by medical science. It would be remarkable were it experimentally demonstrated that signal reception and decoding were possible regardless of time and distance. Of course, that would only imply that we have an incomplete understanding of physics, rather than that there is something “supernatural” going on. Nevertheless, if the signature of consciousness extends extracranially, then we should investigate what salient variables either enhance or degrade the signal. Why does having an emotional connection between people seem to aid remote communication, and what are the implications of that?

    Are you familiar with Upton Sinclair’s wife? If not, I think you’ll find this little known book quite fascinating: http://www.sacred-texts.com/psi/mrad/index.htm. The introduction to the German edition was written by Albert Einstein.

    I think that we’re on the cusp of a radical revision of physics as we now understand it. What, to us, may smack of mysticism (interpreted by most scientists to mean fraud or hysterical irrationality) today may prove to have physical foundations.

    Mike’s work is interesting and suggestive, but let’s cut to the heart of the matter: the survival of consciousness past bodily death. Near-death experiences are a fact. They occur. No one disputes this any longer. No theory put forth by the annihilationists has proven tenable, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against remote perception, as reported anecdotally by experiencers and later verified by others. The sheer volume of these reports cannot be ignored. Something–something quite remarkable–seems to be going on, and if we take the core message that most experiencers give, not to mention how they live their lives, it appears incontestable that the experiences are utterly transformational, and our most potent source for optimism that our lives matter, with a significance that we can scarcely guess.

    What if we, as individual rays of consciousness, so to speak, are here to learn and to grow, or simply to have an adventure? What if the suffering actually counts for something, rather than solely being a harmful artifact stemming from the deep structures of Darwinian evolution within the Earth’s biosphere?

    As Coleridge wondered:

    What if you slept?
    And what if, in your sleep, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower?
    And what if,when you awoke,you had the flower in your hand?
    Ah, what then?”

    Steve

  2. John Bryant says:

    “Of course, that would only imply that we have an incomplete understanding of physics”

    Yes. Indeed, Steve. I think our understanding of physics will always be incomplete. There is truly nothing that is supernatural, it’s just our limited understanding of nature that makes it seem so.

    Specifically, at the level of electron modeling all sorts of unexpected phenomena are slipping through the cracks. Most of them are dismissed out of hand by scientists because we tend to favor tidy abstractions over the messy reality.

    We don’t really have to understand how they work to make and use electronic technologies. Radio existed as a natural phenomena long before we learned how to transmit light and sound facsimiles. And radio (EM) waves are being made without a complete understanding of their underlying nature or the implications of making them.

    If you’re brave and want to see the next big step for physical modeling, I’ll suggest you take a look at the Common Medium Carrier Hypothesis underlying Astrotometry.

    http://astrotometry.com/html/theory1.html

    This theory explains spin entanglement which is going to be a requirement for physically approaching the finer points of consciousness.

    Cheers!

    -John

  3. julian walker says:

    hey matthew!

    very nice piece – and fair summarizing of some of my concerns… you are a gent and a scholar as always. i appreciate that my perspective provokes you to clarify your thinking and expression so beautifully, i similarly require dialog to really get my brain’s juices flowing! (or maybe to allow it to tap into the vast electromagnetic filed of quantum possibility..)

    i don’t have a problem with cross-disciplinary research – not at all! i think it is an exciting a promising way of looking at reality from multiple angles so as to focus the lens more effectively…. what i do have a problem with is cross-disciplinary confusion of the sort you get when (as you well know) people claim that, for example the observer effect from quantum physics “proves” that thought creates reality, or that quantum entanglement validates healers who claim to be able to transmit healing energy at a distance to their poor duped “clients” who lie there during a session while their “distance healer” is more than likely playing a round of golf.

    people like chopra, and more recently mctaggart are the prime offenders in the category of best supporting philosophy to charlatanism. the later is especially bad in “i am,” the latest melange of new age inspiration balanced precariously on “quantum” pseudoscience claims that bash evolutionary theory as being to blame for our perception that human life is competitive while taking dawkin’s famous book ‘the selfish gene” at face value as being a paean to our selfish nature – when really it is a theory about why we co-operate in altruistic ways!

    anyway – i don’t personally think there is any reason to think of human consciousness as something other than a product of the natural world, a product of evolutionary processes that led to organisms becoming more complex and eventually developing complex feedback loops in highly complex brains that provide for self-awareness, culture, abstraction, metaphor, religion and a variety of mental illnesses…

    i must say too that this insistence that our ability to peer back into the pre-biological past and imagine based on evidence (some of which is visible to our own eyes via telescopes that see so far into space that they are actually seeing the galaxies that were formed in the first 100 K years after the big bang) is somehow meaningless without positing an observer in that pre-biological past is a kind of mind game.

    is it idealism, or solipsism, or some odd conviction that a material universe cannot exist without a mind in it or a mind being aware of it that has gotten you stuck here?

    the paradox is hard to swallow for us self-important hairless monkeys: there has never been mind without matter, but there was for a long, long time matter without mind. facing this forces us to let go of the anthropocentric parental “god” our brains imagine MUST be behind everything in some eternal absolute uber human sense – but i think that is ok.

    include some of my criticisms of the hidden reductionism that actually is one step further back from the dreaded neuroscience “reduction” of mind being caused by brain. i want to see how you deal with those.

    all the best
    ~julian

    1. Hey J,

      Quantum physics is very, very weird, and while its no excuse for lazy thinking, it’s no surprise that the Deepak Chopras of the world have exploited people’s fascination. I recall seeing a debate between Chopra, Michael Schermer, and Sam Harris where he would somehow find a way to bring up the power of photons as an answer to every question. Harris told him that no one on the stage was qualified to make claims about quantum physics, and Chopra’s rebuttal was that he had a medical degree. I never really got excited about the guy, but after watching that performance, I can assure you I won’t be buying any more of his books for my mom!

      I would say, in response to the bashing of Dawkins’ book in “I am” (which I have not seen), that evolutionary biology has made quite a few advances since “The Selfish Gene” was published in the 70s. The late Brian Goodwin (systems biologist) really exposed the Protestant individualism that ironically provided the ethos for much of Dawkins take on the animal kingdom in his book “How the Leopard Changed Its Spots.” Lynn Margulis has published extensively about the shortsightedness of Dawkins’ approach; her theory of symbiogenesis is now pretty mainstream. In general, systems approaches to evolution have shown that the most significant unit of selection is not the gene, but the whole organism-environment field. A “gene” is more of an abstraction than an actual biological component, anyways, so talking about “selfish genes” is doubly metaphorical. In almost every case, there is nothing like a one-to-one correspondence between particular bits of DNA and particular traits. The genome is a complex network that cannot be understood in isolation from the living cell that houses it or the ecology that sustains the cell. To top it all off, research on the adaptive strategies of bacterial colonies is forcing molecular biologists to question whether Lamarck’s understanding of inherited characteristics can be totally jettisoned in favor of the Darwinian explanation that had gained favor for most of the 20th century. So in short, Dawkins may still be an articulate opponent of creationists, but the biological science he did back in his laboratory days is now mostly obsolete. Also, I have to say, in the discussions I’ve heard, he comes off as rather naive philosophically, which I suppose is to be expected since natural scientists are often trained to take positivism for granted as common sense. This is another reason that transdisciplinary study is so important; science majors are generally never exposed to the rich tradition of philosophy in the humanities, nor are humanities majors exposed to the latest science. I majored in cognitive science because it was the only cross-department major available at my school.

      Anyways, on to consciousness. I do not think supernatural explanations are tenable anymore. I am only interested in naturalistic accounts, but since at least Spinoza, nature and divinity need not be understood as contrary or opposed substances. I’ve written extensively about what a “naturalistic panentheism” looks like. Click on the Alfred North Whitehead tag on the right if you’re interested in seeing what this entails. From Whitehead’s perspective, what we experience as consciousness is a very high grade form of a more basic feeling-sense (what he calls “prehension” to avoid sounding anthropomorphic) pervading the material world. Matter, for Whitehead, is not devoid of interiority; it is at least proto-experiential, since if it were not, the emergence of interiority in more complex organizations of matter could only be a miracle. Simply changing the arrangement of a fundamentally dead and inert substance would never give you sentience, no matter how many billions of years of natural selection it was subject to. The process of evolution could not even get underway without some sort of Eros, or groping inner desire, motivating material bodies to go through the grueling endeavor of gradual complexification.

      Science has given human beings the knowledge and power that only a few hundred years ago would have been deemed supernatural, wielded by gods perhaps, but certain not humans. “Supernatural” in our contemporary context can really only mean misunderstood. But in moving beyond theologies of “super” nature, science need not also disenchanted the natural world. The ascendency of the metaphysics of mechanistic materialism for much of the last 300 years has more to do with the capitalist economics of colonial empire than it does with scientific observation. There was wealth to be made, and the earth community could be more effectively exploited for profit if industry treated its ecologies as mere matter in motion, lacking all sentience or value (aside from the monetary values assigned by the human marketplace). The earth may or may not have a mind of its own, but the emerging scientific field of geophysiology testifies to the fact that it is a self-organizing living being. Even earth’s tectonic plates and molten core cannot be understood absent the life processes at work on the surface. We are not living on a dead rock! The earth is alive. Whatever “matter” is, it must be understood as active, agentic, and inherently self-organizing. Check out Jane Bennett’s new book, “Vibrant Matter,” or look into the field of “posthumanities” for some fascinating perspectives on what moving beyond anthropocentrism entails for our conception of nature and of matter.

      I don’t think the paradox concerning science’s ancestral statements is a mere mind game or idealist ploy. Cosmologists call it the anthropic principle, and plenty of very bright scientists and philosophers are unable to so easily dismiss it. The sort of divinity that emerges from a Whiteheadian reflection on the cosmos is not a sky daddy, but more like classical conceptions of the World-Soul, something like what Plato posited in the Timaeus. Whitehead’s God is not all-powerful, but a creature of creativity much like the rest of us. I won’t go into the details here, there is more on this in my essay “Towards a Naturalistic Panentheism” if you have the time for it!

      As for your claim that Persinger’s electromagnetic account of consciousness is even more reductionistic, I disagree. Maybe this is our principle area of disagreement or misunderstanding. I am ALL in favor of bringing physics into the discussion surrounding the causes and potentials of consciousness, since only by doing so can we find a genuine path beyond substance dualism. Neuroscience isn’t a fundamental enough science to do the trick on its own. I’m pretty confident that accounting for consciousness will require some rather large changes in our conception of what matter really is. When I see research Iike Persinger’s, it excites me because it is an example of exactly the type of convergence and transdisciplinary study that cracking the consciousness code is going to require.

      Thanks for taking the time to engage me on these issues, J. Thinking is best done in conversation.
      Yours,
      Matt

  4. julian walker says:

    oh – i am remembering something i heard alan watts recite once that you might like:

    “there was a young man who said god
    i find it exceedingly odd
    that the tree as a tree
    simply ceases to be
    when there’s no-one about in the quad…

    young man your astonishment’s odd
    i’m always about in the quad
    so the tree as a tree never ceases to be
    since observed by your’s faithfully, god.”

    of course this “solution” to the first year philosophy student’s struggle with idealism is a cop-out.

    1. There are geniuses like Foucault, Derrida, and Latour, and then there are pretenders who try to imitate their methods and end up replacing brilliance with obscurity, or at best, cliche. Not one of the three thinkers I’ve listed is an epistemic or moral relativist or has ever referred to themselves as a postmodernist. I think you might actually really enjoy Latour’s book “Science in Action,” an empirical look at what actually happens in the lab as a result of interactions between scientists, machines, money, and natural objects. A lot goes into making a scientific fact. Latour only demystifies the process by applying the empirical method to the activities of scientists themselves.

  5. Steve Jovanovic says:

    Hi Julian,

    You write, “i don’t personally think there is any reason to think of human consciousness as something other than a product of the natural world.”

    Indeed, it’s unhelpful to declare something to be “supernatural” as opposed to simply being a part of nature that we don’t yet understand. Am I correct in inferring that you mean something stronger than this, though–specifically, that you believe that personal identity is annihilated at bodily death? It is that single, decisive question to which we must always return.

    Survival or utter and permanent annihilation, which is to say oblivion?

    I claim that it simply doesn’t matter whether psi exists or can be explained by electromagnetic fields (and more broadly, by the laws of physics). Neither does a physical explanation of consciousness matter. What matters, always, and only, is whether or not we survive bodily death. If the answer is no, then let’s stop writing here (or anywhere else), and eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

    ONLY if the answer is yes–we survive as immortal beings–does any form of meaningful life become possible, in radical contradiction to the violent protestations of certain atheists such as Clinton Richard Dawkins. He may be suffering from the delusion of believing that a finite life span somehow makes life “more” meaningful than immortality would, but I asseverate that annihilation would render human life utterly meaningless and futile, not to mention unimaginably absurd.

    I exist for the purpose of bringing people back to the Greatest Question, the only question that matters, and the one from which all questioning–which is to say, all philosophy–arises. People don’t want to be reminded. They don’t want to be reminded of aging, sickness, and death, not to mention accidents, natural disasters, and premature terminal illness. They are afraid (as well they should be). The only legitimate response to the prospect of annihilation, as I see it, is paralyzing, soul-destroying terror. It is the Apocalypse writ small within the human skull.

    But the Greatest Question will not go away. It demands an answer, and how you answer it says everything about you, and nothing about it.

    And let us not pretend that we can sweep the Greatest Question under the rug by declaring that energy is conserved and there is only transformation. The Greatest Question is about the survival of personal identity in perpetuity past bodily death, not some disconsolate and vague transformation and recycling of atoms.

    The death of a human is something entirely different from the death of a lepton.

    The Greatest Question forever presses itself against us, and we’re forced to confront it again and again. It will never retreat until we’ve replied with nothing short of the Greatest Answer. By definition, such a great answer–indeed, the apex of all possible answers–must be a true answer.

    Annihilation would negate all possibility. It would ultimately annihilate the ability of any entity to even ask the question. But we can and do ask it, and we must give an answer–today, and the next day, and the next. And one day, we will either have our Greatest Answer, or existence will eventually close in upon itself, leaving nothing whatever–not even a burned-out castle.

    Steve

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