Consciousness and its Brain: a New Paradigm by John Smythies M.D.

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This essay presents an account of a new paradigm in physics, cosmology and neuroscience that involves a change in our concepts of space, time and consciousness. This is a variation of brane theory in physics. It has been fitfully developed for a periond of over 300 years by various scientists and philosophers including Henry More, Joseph Priestly, C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Carr, and myself. The theory suggests that the real universe has more than 3 space (or 4 space-time) dimensions. It distinguishes the phenomenal space B of a person?s consciousness from physical space A, as two different cross-sections of a common higher-dimensional space.

A is occupied by spatially extended atoms, brains and stars. B is occupied by the spatially extended sensations and images found in a phenomenal consciousness. A and B are linked by higher-dimensional spatial, as well as causal, relations. The advantages of this paradigm over previous paradigms are discussed.


Many people believe that the problem of the relationship between a person?s brain and that person?s consciousness does not have, at this time, any satisfactory solution. Some authorities (e.g. Roger Penrose (1994) and Noam Chomsky (1975)) have suggested that we need a paradigm change in physics and cosmology, particularly in the field of our concepts of space and time, in order to achieve this goal. It is therefore of interest that a distinguished astrophysicist Bernard Carr (Carr 2008) has recently added his influential voice to others, who have suggested just what this paradigm shift should be.

Exposition of the theory

The new theory can be called ?extended materialism?. The origins and development of this theory, over the course of the last 300 years, have been as follows. The old paradigm to be replaced had two versions. Newton?s version was that the Universe has three dimensions of space and one of time. Einstein?s version altered this to the claim that the Universe has four dimensions of space-time. In psychology Cartesian Dualism ruled the roost for centuries but recently has faded from fashion. This says that physical space is the only space there is and that minds are unextended thinking spirits.

The new paradigm is that the Universe has more than 3 dimensions of space (or more than 4 dimensions of space-time). Again there are two versions of this. The first version concerns only the physical world of atoms, brains and stars. Recent theories in physics (Kaluza-Klein theory, string theory, M-theory and brane theory) increase the dimensionality of physical space to 10 or 11. In some of these theories the new dimensions are curled up so small (10 to the power of -33cms) as to be undetectable. In others, such as brane theory, the new dimensions are not rolled up, but form other universes (or ?branes?) that lie parallel to our own brane in an all-encompasing higher-dimensional manifold (the ?bulk?). These other branes are normally invisible because they lie outside the light cones in our brane. Our own brane was previously thought of as constituting the entire physical universe. In a lower dimensional analogue we can arrange any number of planes (branes) into a cube (bulk). Of course simple geometry suggests that some of these branes need not be parallel to our own brane but may intersect it.

The second version introduces phenomenal space into the system. Phenomenal space describes the space in which our visual and somatic sensations and images (including dream images) are extended and located. Na´ve ?common sense? simply identifies phenomenal space with physical space in a theory called by philosophers ?na´ve realism?. Alternatively some neuroscientists have identified phenomenal space with only that part of physical space that is occupied by the brain. However, work in neurology, psychophysics and neuroscience has thrown doubt on this theory, and the idea that phenomenal space and physical space are actually two geometrically, topologically, and ontologically different spaces, with different contents, has emerged into the light.

In Western science the idea appears in embryonic form in the writings of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1671). More disagreed with Descartes and claimed that no unextended thing, like Descartes?s mind, could be any type of entity ??it is plain that if a thing be at all it must be extended.? So for More ?spirit? too must be extended. This led him to suggest that there is a fourth dimension to space, to accommodate mind, to which he attached the curious name ?essential spissitude?. One hundred years later, the great chemist Joseph Priestly (1777) was the next to take up this idea. He too rejected Descartes?s theory, and, using Locke?s term ?idea? for what we call a ?sensation? or ?sensa??that which we experience in vision, he said? ?The vulgar who consider spirit as a thin, aerial substance would be exceedingly puzzled if they were to endeavour to realize the modern idea of a proper immaterial being, since to them it would seem to have nothing positive in its nature, but only a negation of properties, although disguised under the positive appellation of spirit. To them it must appear to be the idea of nothing at all, and to be incapable of supporting any properties. It will not be denied but that sensations or ideas properly exist in the soul, because it could not otherwise retain them?Now whatever ideas are in themselves, they are evidently produced by external objects, and must therefore correspond to them; and since many of the objects or archetypes of ideas are divisible, it necessarily follows, that the ideas are divisible also?and how is it possible that a thing (be the nature of it be as it may) that is divisible, should be contained in a substance, be the nature of it likewise be what it may, that is indivisible.

If the archetypes of ideas have extension, the ideas expressive of them, and actually produced by them, according to certain mechanical laws, must have extension likewise; and therefore the mind in which they exist, whether it be material or immaterial, must have extension also. But how anything could have extension, and yet be immaterial, without coinciding with our idea of mere empty space, I know not. I am therefore bound to conclude, that the sentient principle in man, containing ideas which certainly have parts [is] not the simple, indivisible, and immaterial substance that some have imagined it to be; but something that has real extension and therefore may have the other properties of matter.?

However, as mathematics had not yet produced higher-dimensional geometry, this promising idea sank without trace for another hundred years. Then the mathematician Charles Hinton (1880) specifically suggested that minds are extended in a fourth dimension of space. At the same time another mathematician E. A. Abbott (1983) wrote his famous book ?Flatland. A romance in many dimensions.? This describes the difficulties that a Flatlander, who lives in a world of only two spatial dimensions, has in understanding the Cubeland that surrounds his little Flatland in all directions in the third dimension. By analogy Abbott implies that we Cubelanders have similar difficulties in understanding the yet higher dimensions of space that may envelop our world.

Then, in 1923, the Cambridge philosopher C. D. Broad added higher-dimensional geometry to the new theory? ?For reasons already stated, it is impossible that sensa [his name for visual sensations] should literally occupy places in scientific space, though it may not, of course, be impossible to construct a space-like whole of more than three dimensions, in which sensa of all kinds, and scientific objects literally have places. If so, I suppose, that scientific space would be one kind of section of such a quasi-space, and e.g. a visual field would be another kind of section of the same quasi-space (pp. 392-393)?.

In 1956 I reviewed the whole subject and formulated the new theory as follows. Firstly I suggested that Broad had no need to talk about a ?space-like whole of more than three dimensions? or ?such a quasi-space?. He should have said simply ?A space of more than three dimensions?. This extra space must have contents, which are the phenomena of consciousness as we experience them?the sensations, images, emotions and thoughts belonging to one subjective self. We can call this entity a ?consciousness module?. Then there must be causal relations between these events in phenomenal consciousness and certain events in the brain of that person. These latter events are called ?neural correlates of consciousness? (NCCs).

To give these new causal interactions physical meanings we can use the four-dimensional solid the tesseract, which is made up of eight cubes. We can locate the physical world (+ the brain) in one of these cubes A, and the phenomenal space of a consciousness in another adjacent cube B. We can then draw a line from any point in the brain in space A to any point in the consciousness module in B. A directional arrow added to one end of this line will convert it to a higher-dimensional vector?what Eccles (1953) called a ?minute mind influence?, and which we can call (afferent: brain to mind) and (efferent: mind to brain). The causal interactions between a brain and its consciousness module can be expressed by this new higher-dimensional vectorial system. In 1955 the Oxford philosopher H. H. Price agreed that a brain and its associated consciousness module must be related by causal mechanisms. Bertrand Russell (1948) puts this clearly:

?The objects of perception which I take to be ?external? to me, such as coloured surfaces that I see, are only ?external? in my private space . . . When on a common-sense basis, people talk of the gulf between mind and matter, what they really have in mind is the gulf between a tactual percept, and a ?thought??e.g. a memory, a pleasure, or a volition. But this, as we have seen, is a division within the mental world; the percept is as mental as the ?thought??.

On considering the nature of visual consciousness, and how this is constructed by brain mechanisms, I later suggested that these causal; mechanisms linking brain and the visual field in consciousness operated according to the principles used by engineers in digital television (see Smythies 1994 and 2008 for details). Carr (2008) has rebased the theory on a much more sophisticated mathematical structure, and has paid particular attention how it should deal with more than one individual consciousness module.

Advantages of the new paradigm: introduction

Any new theory should have demonstrable advantages over the old theory in the manner and scope of explanations it provides. But before reaching that topic it will be helpful to discuss two largely overlooked failures in the present paradigm.

The first failure relates to not incorporating known facts into our account of our experience of our own bodies. Almost everyone believes, without thinking anything about it, that the body we experience simply is the physical body. However, evidence from clinical neurology, particularly in relation to phantom limb phenomena, show that this is not the case (see Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1999) for details). The great Viennese neurologist Paul Schilder (1948) put it thus: ?The empirical method leads immediately to a deep insight?that even our own body is beyond our immediate reach, that even our own body justifies Prospero?s words, ?We are such stuff as dreams are made on: and our little life is rounded by a sleep.??

The philosopher John Searle (1992) says ?The brain creates a body image, and pains, like all bodily sensations, are parts of the body image. The pain-in-the-foot is literally in the physical space of the brain.? Here Searle gets it half right. The somatic sensations (including pain) that make up the body image are certainly not in the physical body, e.g. in the actual foot, but neither are they, according to this new paradigm, literally in the brain either. They are located in the consciousness module located in phenomenal space outside the brain. The mistaken identification of the body image with the physical body retains such a grip on our ?common sense? ideas, and the philosophy of perception, so as to muddy almost all the waters concerned.

The second failure to incorporate known facts into our system, which failure causes a similar degree of confusion in modern science, arises from the fact that contemporary biology and neuroscience are still based on Newtonian cosmology of the world as a collection of material objects extended in three-dimensional space and evolving in a separate Newtonian time. In contrast, Special Relativity unifies Newtonian space and time into space-time. It does not recognize any special universal ?now? of time. Instead, it states that objects consist, not of 3D entities enduring in time, but as 4D world lines existing and extended from the big bang to the big crunch in a block universe.

As Louis de Broglie (1959) put it: Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them. . . the aggregate of past, present and future phenomena are in some sense given apriori.

And Stannard (1987): Physics itself recognizes no special moment called ?now??the moment that acts as the focus of ?becoming? and divides the ?past? from the ?future?. In four-dimensional space-time nothing changes, there is no flow of time, everything simply is . . . It is only in consciousness that we come across the particular time known as ?now? ?.

Penrose (1994) says that in the universe described by Special Relativity
?. . particles do not even move, being represented by ?static? curves drawn in space?time?. Werth (1978) makes the important point that this new formulation applies to somatic sensation as well as to vision: ?Our apparent body [?body image? is the neurological name for this] at each instant is simply a ?slice? of our four-dimensional body. That is the experiencing subject sequentially ?intersects? his four-dimensional body and ?projects? the sequence of three-dimensional intersections upon the ?screen? of his consciousness: his body appears to him as being ever changing though in physical reality it is a static and immutable four-dimensional object.?

As Broad (1953) noted this system requires two times. One is just the fourth spatial dimension of special relativity. The second (real) time is that in which the world of consciousness, that we can now identify as space B defined above, is in relative motion to physical space-time (A as defined above) from the ?past? into the ?future?. As Alexander (1975) put it ?. . . the present being a moment of physical Time fixed by relation to an observing mind?.

Thus what we perceive as moving 3D objects are really successive cross-sections of immobile 4D objects, past which our field of observation is sweeping. In the physical world waves do not really beat on a beach, tree leaves do not really wave in the breeze, dinosaurs do not really lumber through the swamp. It is just that their world lines have complex 4D spatial structures that evokes these illusions of movement in the visual field of a consciousness time-travelling past them. None of the observed facts of Darwinian evolution change?just their physical basis. Evolution does not involve the dynamics of a 3D Newtonian world but the structure of a 4D Einsteinian one.

Thus the observer in a block universe with a shifting ?now? of time must be some entity in addition to the static4D physical body. So how could the conscious observer, or subject with its ?gaze of consciousness?, be additional or external to the brain? As we saw earlier the new paradigm suggests that the consciousness module is indeed external to its brain, as it is located in a space (brane) of its own that encloses the phenomenal space of a consciousness. Special relativity indicates that brane A and brane B defines above are in relative motion in real time in the direction from past to future
More advantages of the new paradigm.

The first is that it provides viable theories of mind-brain relation and perception, whereas its rivals do not. The current orthodox theory of mind-brain relation held by almost all neuroscientists and many philosophers is the Identity Theory (IT). This states that the phenomenal events in our consciousness simple are certain specific brain events, or are ?identical with? such brain events. Unfortunately, this formulation does not meet with the requirements of Leibniz?s Law of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This states that for any object (or event) to be identical with another object (or event) they must have the same properties. Clearly, however, collections of neurons have quite different properties to sensations. A collection of neurons that is the NCC of a specific after-image, for example, has a particular arrangement in space, a particular colour, and particular internal ionic movements. The after-image, that I can plainly observe in my visual field, has quite a different spatial arrangement, colour and movements. As Quinton (1962) said, ?My after-image is plainly a spatial thing, it occupies at any one moment a definite position in my visual field?? So sensations and their NCCs cannot be identical. The events in the nerve nets can code for the properties of the after-image (and ipso facto other sensations) but not be the events in the after-image (and other sensations). The visual brain certainly contains a large number (<30) of topographic maps of current events in view ?out there? in the external world that it uses for its neurocomputational purposes. But we cannot say that one, or all of these, are identical with the unitary visual field we are presented with in visual awareness because 30 maps cannot be identical with one map, and because each individual brain map is distorted in the way Lord Brain (1946) describes:
?Thus when we perceive a two-dimensional circle we do so by means of an activity in the brain which is halved, reduplicated, transposed, inverted, distorted, and three dimensional. If physiological idealism [actually realism] is to be really physiological it must admit that its theory of projection breaks down because the circle which is said to be projected from the cerebral cortex never existed there at all.?

If the phenomenal circle indeed never existed in the cerebral cortex, then, I suggest, the Identity Theory becomes unsustainable (see further Smythies 1956, 1994).

If we eliminate the Identity Theory, because it fails Leibniz?s Law, what then is left? An alternative theory is Eliminative Materialism. This denies that we have any experiences at all. These do not exist any more than phlogiston and the luminiferous ether exist. All that exists in cognition and perception are brain events. The Identity Theory tries to make us accept its claim that our sensations, e.g. the body image and the visual field itself, simply are made up of collections of neurons. We have reviewed reasons to reject this claim. But Eliminative Materialism expects us to accept that we have been suffering from delusions all our lives when we thought that we did have experiences of many kinds. But it is no defense against the accusation that we are suffering from delusions merely to deny the fact. For who would believe a deluded person? Luckily there may be another way to undermine this theory and that is from clinical neuro-opthalmology. We know that there are two main types of blindness?retinal and cortical. Blind people cannot see things put before them. But a retinally blind person still has a visual field, even if it is always black (or occasionally enlivened with hallucinations), both of which she sees. In contrast, a person with a total lesion of her occipital cortex has no visual field and sees nothing at all, not even blackness. Such a situation can be induced in normal people in stabilized retinal image experiments?and they find it terrifying. But, according to eliminative materialists no one has a visual field. So how can the theory describe the difference between retinal and cortical blindness, where one retains, and the other loses, the visual field?

A third theory put forward by some philosophers is to clam that na´ve realism can be saved if we agree that, in perception, all that the brain does is to effect the act of perception, the experience, of an external object. In other words all that the elaborate machinery of the visual brain does is to trigger ?an experience? and what is experienced is the external physical object itself. Somehow we are thus enabled to peer through our physical eyes at the external object. In my opinion this theory makes no neurological sense at all.

Other theories of mind-brain relation include forms of functionalism and a wide variety of linguistic skirmishes conducted by Wittgensteinian philosophers. None, however, deal with the nut and bolt issue of how neuronal activity generates consciousness in any way that is remotely plausible.
The second advantage of the new paradigm is that it is much simpler than its rivals. In it the sensory brain is allowed to do only what it does i.e. perform neurocomputations that build an internal model of the events in the world around. It does not have to take the next step of creating from this information the visual field (and other sensory fields) that we experience. This is done by the additional TV-like mechanism that is provided by the consciousness module (located in higher-dimensional space), which uses its ψ vectors to scan the brain and build up the final visual field i.e. Crick?s (1994) phenomenal ?world? large and clear, full of objects in vivid Technicolor,??. In fact, vision works just television?with some differences. The ordinary TV process occurs in one 3D space (ignoring time for the moment). Vision, in contrast, occurs in two intersecting 3D spaces. In a lower dimensional analogy two 2D planes can be cut as cross-sections in a 3D cube and intersect about a 1D line as they do so. Likewise two 3D cubes, A and B, can be cut as cross-sections in a 4D tesseract and intersect about a 2D line as they do so. A contains the brain and B contains the consciousness module. The visual process is started in A by photons striking the retina, which the equivalent of the TV camera. The resulting neuronal activity is conducted to the cortex, where an extensive series of neurocomputations build up a model of the outside world. This corresponds to the model of the world constructed inside the studio computer that operates digital TV. This brain model is scanned by the ψ mechanism of the consciousness module, which then constructs the final picture on the visual field that we experience. This corresponds to the transmission of the TV signal to the TV set and the final build up therein of the TV picture on the screen. None of this may, of course, be true?the actual answer may lie quite elsewhere in a manner as yet totally unimagined by anyone?but at least the theory presented here actually exists and is coherent. Perhaps some theory of the required paradigm shift is better than none at all?

This account has been criticized by some (e.g. Ryle (1949), Crick (1994). Their argument runs as follows. ?We cannot permit theories of vision to include internal pictures, because, if we do, we have to ask what inside the person is looking at these pictures, and,? as Crick pithily put it, ?trying hard to understand what is going on. This means that we have to posit a little green man inside our heads, and inside that little green man?s head, there must be another little green man, and so on.?

However, as Fodor (1981) pointed out, this argument is spurious. He pointed out that, if seeing an object requires an image in our minds this does not in the least entail that experiencing the resulting image requires the same mechanism i.e. another picture in the observing Self. The two processes are essentially different. The causal chain that connects the retina to the visual field (i.e. extremely sophisticated television) is quite distinct from the ostensively indicated interaction between a Self and its visual field. Crick?s argument is put forward because of the fear of ?dualism? that ideas of internal pictures is supposed to produce. However, although ontologically dualist, extended materialism is a monistic theory as regards process. So this fear is quite uncalled for. Crick (1994) made the mistake of thinking that the stimulus field and the visual field are the same thing, whereas, of course, they are quite distinct. The former is the input to the brain?s neurocomputational system?the latter is the output of this system. It is surely obvious that the input to a computer cannot be the same as its output.

A third advantage of the new paradigm. emphasized by Carr (2008) is that it can account quite simply for the facts of parapsychology. All we have to suppose is that the ψ forces have their normal focus on the brain but also have a ?penumbra? that can extract information from other objects and other minds. This can account for the transfer of information that take place during telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis (see Carr 2008) for details).

A fourth advantage is that it enables us to look at the possible nature of after-death experiences in a rational manner. Of all the paradigm changes that have taken place in science, the one presented here is certainly the most dramatic and far reaching?and therefore most likely to be greeted with shock, horror, and hostility by the orthodox. Yet it does not require any great stretch of the imagination to see that the assumption that we live in a 4D spatio-temporal world is just that?a metaphysical assumption generated by our failure to understand how our own organisms work?particularly those parts mediating perception. There is nothing necessary about a 4D world. The Universe could have any number of dimensions, and its subsections could contain any number of different kinds of events. To think otherwise is mere parochialism.

The concept of the ?next world? that the soul enters after the death of its body undergoes a radical change in this new paradigm. In the old paradigm humans saw themselves as earth-bound creatures looking wistfully beyond the sky, or beneath the earth, or outside space and time altogether, for another, and hopefully better, world, that their souls would enter, as their priests told them, after death. The new paradigm suggests that a human consciousness module is located in this ?next world? already, and that its view of what was previously regarded as the (one and only) world (i.e. the physical universe) is mediated by a complex multidimensional TV-like mechanism strung out in, and between, two branes. In this view the physical world becomes a communication device between individual consciousness modules located in different branes. Therefore, on the death of the physical body, most of the consciousness module would become redundant, as there would now be no brain for it to interact with. However, the Self could remain, and perhaps the sensations, that used to be organized by the brain via the visual and other sensory fields, could rearrange themselves, or be reorganized by something else, into new forms of experience. Stephen Spielberg expressed this idea very well in the final scenes of his film ?2001. A Space Odyssey.? Charles Williams (1945) introduced us to similar ideas in his novel ?All Hallows Eve?.

A fifth advantage is that the new paradigm may be tested by experiment. If minute ψ forces penetrate and scan the physical universe for information from an adjacent, or intersecting, brane, then perhaps they can be detected by means of a suitable instrument. It is possible that this has inadvertently been done already. Fifty years ago Professor Ehrenhaft, a Viennese physicist, reported that minute dust particles suspended in a semi-vacuum in a strong beam of light started to execute movements in the form of a variety of regular and complex helices, for which he was unable to provide any explanation. I have suggested that they may be reacting to the ψ scan (see Smythies 1994 for full details).


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