Does the Brain Generate Consciousness or Channel Consciousness?

There are two ideas about the relationship between conscious awareness and the brain.

  1. The brain creates consciousness through its computational functions. Consciousness is an emergent feature of physical computation having attained a certain kind of complexity. For example, Hofstadter says that consciousness arises when a computational system is able to reference itself.
  2. Consciousness is a primitive element of reality with an existence independent of matter. The brain is a transceiver that channels sensory input from the physical world into consciousness, and transduces intention into thought, nerve signals, and ultimately into motion of the body. This idea is associated generally with Descartes, and it was articulated explicitly by William James

Many of the smartest people in the world are trained in physics and steeped in computation. Overlapping this group is the set of researchers in artificial intelligence. Almost all these people tend to favor #1.

The Scientific World-View which has arisen in the last 150 years regards physical matter and its fields as a closed system in which all causality is accounted for. There is no need nor indeed is there room for consciousness as a separate element of reality.

Weighing in for #2 is a 30-year course of experimentation in the Princeton University laboratory of Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne, 1975-2005. Jahn had a PhD in physics, and was department chair and at one time Dean of the School of Engineering. Their signature experiment demonstrated the ability of human consciousness to modify probabilities that are treated as random in standard quantum mechanics.

They used voltage fluctuations in a Zener diode to generate random numbers, and asked self-selected experimental subjects to sit in front of a computer screen and use their will to make some function of the quantum-random input higher or lower in each trial. At the end of 800,000 trials, the difference between those in which the subjects intended “high” and intended “low” was over 5 sigma. The probability of this occurring by chance is less than 1 in 10 million.


If you believe the result of Jahn and Dunne, it is decisive evidence in favor of paradigm #2.

(Incidentally, in parallel to the two views of the mind, there are two views of the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. 

  1. The wave function never collapses, and quantum probabilities derive from the relative number of branches of the universe in which an observer might find himself. (Everett, de Witt, Tegmark) 
  2. The wave function collapses when the result of a measurement is registered by a conscious being. (Bohr, von Neumann, Wigner, Bohm)

The results of Jahn and Dunne provide support for #2 here as well, and the Inverse Quantum Zeno Effect provides a mechanism. Kauffman’s experiments on quantum criticality in superposition states of neurotransmitters are evidence that the brain is evolved not for maximum reliability (as we engineer computers) but rather for the opposite: maximum quantum indeterminacy at the level of individual neurons.)

Why do so many smart physicists and computer scientists ignore the experiments of Jahn and Dunne? Some don’t know about the experiments, which mainstream physics journals have refused to publish. Most assume there must be some mistake in Jahn’s methodology, and feel confident enough in their paradigm that they don’t judge it a worthwhile use of their time to delve into details of the experiments looking for the error. We should not underestimate the psychological power of cognitive dissonance. Scientists, like most humans, are subject to confirmation bias and herd mentality.

Here are some reasons we should take Jahn and Dunne seriously:

  • Jahn was uber-competent as a statistician and experimental scientist.
  • Recognizing the high burden of proof to which he was subject, Jahn included far more confirmations and calibrations in his experimental design than would be expected in any other kind of physics experiment.
  • The most direct check was to substitute computer-generated pseudo-random numbers for the quantum random numbers. When they did this, results were within 2 sigma of expectation.
  • Jahn and Dunne’s results were replicated directly in two European laboratories.
  • Working with a very different physical system but just as much experimental rigor, Dean Radin has also found an effect of human consciousness on quantum systems.
  • The effect that Jahn found was ~10-4, a few bits altered out of every 10,000 bits with subjects drawn randomly from the population. Experiments in which screened, talented psychics are used yield much larger effects. Effect size also rises as subjects have an emotional stake in the outcome, rather than just a random number on a computer screen.
  • Jahn was not motivated to fabricate or inflate his results. In fact, simply because he took parapsychology seriously, he paid a high price in his personal life, in his academic life, and in his career as an aerospace engineer.
  • Jahn and Dunne’s result is much less surprising in light of a well-established and well-maligned science of experimental parapsychology that has produced a body of knowledge which the Scientific World-View is at pains to accommodate.

If our commitment to the methodology of science is to have any meaning at all, we have to pay careful attention to replicated findings that contradict our fundamental theories.

3 thoughts on “Does the Brain Generate Consciousness or Channel Consciousness?

  1. It’s a fundamental message of QM that the observer participates in creating reality. There is no such thing as an objective universe apart from the questions that experimenters choose to ask about it. This is a radical message, to be sure, and it cuts into the heart of the scientific method.

    But there is no excuse for our collective failure, the failure of the scientific community to take this message to heart and revise our world-view accordingly. We have had 94 years to assimilate the quantum revolution and 56 years to acknowledge Bell’s proof that there is no other way out.

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