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Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

A recent article on the SciAm web site examines the similarities between NDE experience reports and experiences on psychotropic drugs, e.g. LSD, mescaline, and especially ketamine. Recall that those drugs cause their vivid psychtropic experiences by attenuating or mostly shutting down the mind’s default mode network. I.e., normal self-identity is temporarily shut off; but somehow, vivid consciousness continues. Something like that may happen for some people in the dying process. Thus, NDEs are reported to be very profound and spiritual, as LSD trips often are.

According to SciAm, “NDEs reflect changes in how the brain functions as we approach death”. (Well yea – when the body is shutting down, the brain is going to be affected !!) “Many cultures employ drugs as part of religious practice to induce feelings of transcendence that have similarities to near-death experiences. If NDEs are based in brain biology, perhaps the action of those drugs that causes NDE-like experiences can teach us something about the NDE state . . . In a fascinating new study, NDE stories were compared linguistically with anecdotes of drug experience in order to identify a drug that causes an experience most like a near-death experience. What is remarkable is how precise a tool this turned out to be.”

The new study that SciAm refers to compared the stories of 625 individuals who reported NDEs with the stories of more than 15,000 individuals who had taken one of 165 different psychoactive drugs. The drug ketamine had the strongest similarity to NDE experiences. This may mean that the near-death experience may reflect changes in the same chemical system in the brain that is targeted by drugs like ketamine. Within the recollections of NDE survivors and ketamine users, the word most strongly represented in both NDE and ketamine experiences was “reality,” highlighting the sense of an actual presence that is often reported by NDE survivors. Other words that had a high degree of commonality related to perception (saw, color, voice, vision), the body (face, arm, foot), emotion (fear) and transcendence (universe, understand, consciousness).

Ketamine is known to disrupt the frontal control of the default mode network and disconnecting the medial prefrontal cortex and the subgenual cortex from the “DMN” for a period of time, allowing other parts of the brain to take over the “train of thought”. This disruption of frontal brain control is why ketamine is associated with dissociation and hallucinations. These are the equivalent of “release phenomena” that occur in various brain networks when one node is disconnected from the network. Distracted from its negative ruminations, the brain comes up with alternative activities and thus thoughts. And those alternative thoughts are usually very vividly experienced.

So, it would seem then that NDE’s are all that spooky after all. They can be explained by science, just some monkeying with the default mode network. Or so it might seem at first.

Does everyone have an NDE at death? The woman who lived next door to me when I was growing up passed away a few years ago, and according to some members of her family, she experienced the “beautiful light” in her final minutes. However, my own mother did not; she just seemed to get on with it. Given that everyone dies differently and has different brain structures, you might expect that the default mode network effect will be different for everyone; obviously, for some people, a ketamine-like response can be experienced. For others, it just fades to black, no vivid “gateway to death”.

But even if the neurochemistry of an NDE can be known, documented and explained, a deeper question still remains. I.e., just what is “experience”? This goes back to the question of consciousness. What is it? Science still has not come up with a definitive answer as to the nature of it, why it exists. The physical manifestation of emotion and body reaction may have evolutionary importance; but the vividness of experience, what is that all about? Yes, an NDE, like any other mental phenomenon, is correlated with physical correlates. And yet why do some physical processes (i.e., the organic processes in the human brain) cause this “vividness”, and yet my computer does not yet seem to do so?

A philosophy professor named George Goff has a recent article in Real Clear Science proposing that panpsychism is the answer; in a nutshell, conscious feeling is in every thing; even neutrinos have some sentient feeling ! I find this interesting, so I am going to summarize what Goff said here.

Goff explains that the best that scientists are able to do right now is to correlate unobservable experiences with observable processes, by scanning people’s brains and relying on their reports regarding their private conscious experiences. By this method, it can be shown that the feeling of hunger (one particular example) is correlated with visible and predictable activity in the brain’s hypothalamus. But the accumulation of such correlations does not amount to a theory of consciousness, according to Goff. What we want is to explain WHY conscious experiences are correlated with brain activity. Why is it that certain activity in the hypothalamus seems to trigger a feeling of hunger?

Goff contends that modern science was explicitly designed to exclude consciousness. But there is a “new wave” of panpsychism being discussed by neuroscientists and philosophers that lacks any mystical / dualistic connotations. There is only matter – nothing spiritual or supernatural. However, according to Goff, matter can be described from two perspectives. Physical science describes matter “from the outside”, in terms of its behavior; but matter “from the inside” is constituted of forms of consciousness.

If so, then “mind is just matter”, and since the “mind” aspect of matter would be fundamental, then even elementary particles would exhibit some basic form of consciousness. Goff’s argument? Consciousness can vary in complexity. The conscious experiences of a horse (if there are any) are less complex than those of a human being, and that a rabbit’s consciousness would be even less sophisticated. As organisms become simpler, there may be a point where consciousness suddenly switches off, some sort of phase shift (like water becoming ice or steam). But it’s also possible that this conscious aspect of matter just fades but never disappears completely, meaning even an electron has a tiny bit of consciousness.

What panpsychism offers, according to Goff, is a simple, elegant way of integrating consciousness into the scientific worldview. He admits that this notion is not “science as we have known it, in that it cannot be tested. The unobservable nature of consciousness entails that any theory of consciousness that goes beyond mere correlations is not strictly speaking testable. But Goff thinks that this is about the best fitting way of relating consciousness to science. Panpsychism, per Goff, is the simplest theory of how consciousness fits in to our scientific story.

And what do I think? Well . . . if this is where science is going, then their guess is as good as mine! Despite Occam’s Razor (the rule of simplicity that Goff uses to justify his physical panpsychism theory), what appears to be simple ain’t always better. For complex subjects and subtle arguments (especially those that can’t be empirically verified), you’ve got to be really careful with the “simplicity razor”, it can lead you astray. But even more important – EVEN IF the neutrino is slightly conscious, the mystery remains as to how and why it is conscious! All you can say is that consciousness must be something VERY fundamental to the entire Universe. It looks like a GIFT, to me.

In my book, the NDE . . . AND ALL CONSCIOUS EXPERIENCE . . . still remains a mystery! And for those of us so inclined, a MIRACULOUS mystery! Sure, there isn’t a zap from heaven involved in a near death experience – it’s a matter of brain circuits and chemistry. But the whole matter of how consciousness arises on top of those circuits and chemistry – or perhaps how it arises in EVERY bit of physical phenomenon in the universe — still seems pretty incredible and awesome to me!

AND HERE’s A GOOD QUITE AS A P.S. — The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” – Alfred North Whitehead.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:10 pm      

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