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.

Michael Persinger on non-local consciousness.

Most of you have probably already heard of Michael Persinger. He is a distinguished and extensively published cognitive neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Ontario. He is best known for his research with the “God Helmet,” which is supposed to give most people who wear it a non-ordinary state of consciousness often described as encountering a divine intelligence or spiritual presence. Richard Dawkins tried it and only reported feeling a bit more relaxed in his limbs. Susan Blackmore (another cognitive neuroscientist) reported having one of the most profound experiences of her life. The helmet produces a weak magnetic field that alters the neural activity in a specific brain region in the temporal lobe of the right hemisphere. Persinger sometimes sounds like a bit of a reductionist when we speaks about the implications of this helmet, but recently he gave a lecture about other experiments he has done showing the connections between the electromagnetic activity of human brains and the activity of earth’s electromagnetic field. Really fascinating stuff, especially since it is coming from a very well respected and experimentally-grounded neuroscientist.

Persinger’s lecture

He ends up suggesting that the brain is analogous to a radio receiver or a television. This implies that consciousness isn’t produced inside the skull, but is a non-local field within which information is shared at the speed of light (i.e., independent of space-time). He seems to suggest that his lab has developed the beginnings of a communications technology capable of reading and/or controlling minds.

I have seen plenty of other “experts” in whatever-ology present their theories about these sorts of connections, but Persinger’s has hit me at a deeper level for some reason.