Occasionally I find myself staring at my hands and contemplating all the physical mechanisms involved in simply moving my fingers. It’s as though I make a choice in my brain to move my fingers, and miraculously my fingers move. But how is it that I can somehow control my finger muscles with my mind? Or can I? What is my mind? I appear to be the author of my actions, but am I really? Biology, chemistry, and neuroscience can describe in detail the physical processes involved in my brain telling my muscles to move. In a very broad sense, my fingers move because the muscle fibers in my fingers are caused to contract by electrical nerve impulses sent from my brain. But what causes those nerve impulses to leave my brain in the first place?
Neurons transmit signals only when stimulated by sensory input (sight, sound, taste, etc.) or by neighboring neurons, which they do constantly, considering the fact that there are approximately 100 billion neurons in the brain. But if that’s the case, then where does my free will come into play? What is the “self” that is seemingly keeping some impulses at bay while letting others through? And what is the physical mechanism by which this “self” would do so? Am “I” somehow responsible for producing the electromagnetic forces that interact with the matter of my brain so as to force electrical signals through the nerves in my body and ultimately cause muscle contraction?
Think about how thoughts enter our mind. Do we choose which thoughts to think? Certainly not, because that would require we think a thought before we think it. Choosing to think about a pink elephant would require that the thought of making the choice to think about a pink elephant already be in our mind. Rather, all thoughts seem to come and go in the mind outside of our control. Upon such a seemingly trivial realization, the common notion that “I” am doing the thinking in my brain gets replaced by the idea that “I” am simply experiencing the thinking in my brain.
But what about a simple action? Do I choose to move my fingers as I contemplate the mechanisms by which they move? If the thought to move my fingers arises outside of my control, then do also the nerve impulses that cause my finger muscles to contract? Doesn’t every decision we make ultimately have a cause? If someone asks you why you chose to wear blue this morning, you’d likely give some reason, like the fact that you just “felt like it,” or it’s your favorite shirt, or you simply chose a shirt at random. But what is it about your brain that makes that shirt your favorite, or gave you the particular preference to wear it today? Even if you chose it apparently at random, there was still something physical that had to occur in the brain to trigger your hand to grab that particular shirt. And what made you choose a shirt at random, rather than carefully picking out the most appropriate outfit for the day?
There was a famous neurological experiment in which volunteers were asked to press one of two buttons; a left button with their left index finger, or a right button with their right index finger.  Moving the right and left hands each generates distinct signals in the brain, and the experiment monitored these signals in the volunteers through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Letters were also flashed in half-second intervals in front of the volunteers, and they were instructed to indicate which letter was being flashed at the instant they made their decision as to which button they would press. What the experimenters found was that the brain imaging showed a signal corresponding to the volunteer’s decision as much as seven seconds prior to the volunteer indicating their conscious decision being made. In other words, the volunteers’ brains were making the decision a significant amount of time before the volunteers themselves were consciously aware of having made their decision.
The implications of this experiment have been argued across the spectrum, but no doubt it brings into question the idea that we are the conscious author of our decisions. It certainly appears that our brain is making decisions a split second (and sometimes several seconds) before we are consciously aware of it, and that our conscious mind simply slips in after the fact and convinces us that we were actually the ones pulling the strings and making the decision.
Still, there may be room for free will. I think it’s fair to say that if free will were to exist, there would just need to be at the very least some small part of “me” that was not subject to the causal effects in my brain. If I am truly limited to the contents of my brain, then I am ultimately at the mercy of whatever physical processes are going on in my brain, such that any choice I make would ultimately be caused by natural phenomena in the physical structure of my brain, and my control of it would simply be an illusion that arises in my conscious mind. So is there indeed any part of me that is independent of the processes in my brain? Where would this part of me be located? Is it immaterial? How would we attempt to falsify such claims about the nature of consciousness?
Perhaps the closest we get to evidence of consciousness existing independently of the brain is in accounts of near-death or out of body experiences (abbreviated as NDEs and OBEs, respectively). Because such accounts have been so numerous and sometimes even consistent in nature with other accounts, the scientific community has taken a great interest in these cases. Many (not all) people who have had NDEs have reported various combinations of sensations of a bright light, an overwhelming sense of love, the sense of leaving their body or being one with the universe, and generally experiencing things to be “more real” than real life.
The point of interest for experimenters is to determine whether or not these patients’ conscious experience does indeed leave their bodies. If so, then it follows that a patient should be able to observe things in their environment that they would not otherwise be able to observe while limited to the perspective of their own body, and furthermore able to do so at times when brain scans show no brain activity whatsoever.
One of the most compelling cases involved a woman named Maria, who had an out of body experience during cardiac arrest in 1977, and reportedly floated outside of the hospital while being resuscitated, where she saw a tennis shoe on a third-floor window ledge, and was even able to describe the shoe in detail. Upon investigation, a tennis shoe was indeed reportedly found in the exact location she described, with many of the details she had mentioned as well. 
Naturally, multiple skeptics have taken up this case with much interest. Hayden Ebbern and Sean Mulligan investigated it as graduate students at Simon Fraser University in 1994, studying psychology and biological science, respectively.  They noted that Maria had been in the hospital for three days before her experience, and that a shoe in that location was quite obviously visible from outside the hospital, even in detail, such that Maria could have overheard others commenting on it, or perhaps seen it herself on the way in. Also noteworthy is the fact that after this case was initially reported by social worker Kimberly Clark, Maria was never successfully traced down to have her story confirmed. Thus, as compelling as it seems on the surface, many consider this case inconclusive at best.
Another noteworthy case is that of Pam Reynolds in 1991. Reynolds had a brain aneurysm that was on the verge of bursting, such that any attempt to operate on it would have burst it and killed her. To save her life, she was put under hypothermic cardiac arrest and her brain drained of blood to decrease the risk of bursting the aneurysm. The medical team put small speakers in Reynolds’ ears that played continual clicking sounds at 100 decibels, loud enough that the corresponding electrical signals in her brain that were being monitored would have been seen, should any part of her brain have been active at a given time. Brain monitoring confirmed that for a few minutes during the operation, Reynolds was indeed brain dead in the sense that there was no observable brain activity occurring.
Amazingly though, after being revived following the surgery, she gave an account of an NDE, and was able to accurately give details as to what was going on in the room during her operation, such as the shape of the medical tools being used on her, as well as some of the conversations in the room. The only problem is that none of the happenings in her account occurred during the period where her brain activity flatlined. In other words, she could very well have had what is called “anesthesia awareness,” a phenomenon that occurs in about 1 out of every 1000 anesthetized patients, all while her brain was still active and responding to the stimulus in her ears.
At the very least, what NDEs and OBEs certainly point to is the amazing and wild potential that consciousness has. Interestingly enough, various meditation practices as well as psychedelics often lead to similar experiences, in which subjects report losing their sense of self in one way or another, feeling at one with the universe, and an overwhelming sense of love for everyone and everything.
The very fact that under extreme and specific brain states people can be hyper-aware of their surroundings, even without actually seeing with their eyes in the moment, and have such transformative and lucid spiritual experiences as to cause complete shifts in their personality and worldview is of significant interest to those seeking to understand the nature of consciousness. What is not certain is whether these cases indicate that consciousness exists at all independently from the brain. So far, nothing conclusive can be said in favor of that idea.
To dig a little deeper into the nature of consciousness, let’s consider what is certainly one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in the neuroscientific world: the case of the split brain. The corpus callosum is the band of nerve fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, allowing one side to communicate with the other. In split-brain patients the corpus callosum either never developed or was severed as a means of treating severe epileptic seizures. The result for these patients is that the two sides of the brain can no longer communicate with each other, which has some freaky implications when analyzed up close. 
The left hemisphere is the side of the brain largely responsible for logical analysis, language, facts, and linear thinking. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is more responsible for things like creativity, spatial visualization, intuition, nonverbal communication, and in general more nuanced and holistic thinking. The way our bodies work is that any sensory information that we take in from one side of our body is sent to the opposite hemisphere of the brain. For example, the sensation of touching a soft blanket with my left hand will be first transmitted to the right side of my brain. Notably, our sense of sight works a bit differently. For vision, anything in my right field of view will be seen by both eyes and sent to the left hemisphere, and vice versa. In a normal brain, the two hemispheres are connected, and thus there is no difference between the way sensations from two different sides of the body get processed.
For a split-brain patient, however, anything they see, for instance, in their right field of view is processed solely by the left side of the brain, with none of that information capable of crossing over to the right hemisphere. For example, if they see the word “car” in their right field of view, then only the left side of the brain will process the information, and, being the language side of the brain, the patient will tell you, verbally, that he saw the word “car.” But if the same word is seen solely in the left field of view, then it will be processed by only the right hemisphere, and although the right hemisphere can read basic words and sentences, it is generally incapable of itself speaking. Thus, the patient will say (speaking from the left hemisphere) that he doesn’t know what he saw, which he is justified in saying because the left side of his brain indeed didn’t see anything. Amazingly, however, when the patient is then handed a piece of paper and told to draw with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere), he will draw his best representation of what the right hemisphere saw; in this case, a car. He will then look at his drawing, his left hemisphere will recognize it as a car, and he will then speak through his left hemisphere and say that it’s a car.
Like I said, mind-blowing.
Now, when only the right hemisphere is shown the word “car,” if instead the patient is then asked to choose from a series of pictures, one of which is a picture of a car, the patient will point with his left hand to the car, since that is what the right hemisphere saw. But when asked why he chose the picture of the car, he will speak from his left brain and invent some other reason for why he chose the car, such as the fact that he saw a car parked outside on his way in the building. In other words, the conscious left brain essentially rewrote the cause of his action to make sense of the action, since his left brain was unaware of having seen the word that actually prompted him to choose the car.
In general, what this and the button-pressing experiment point to is that the conscious mind retroactively convinces itself that it was responsible for a particular action that in reality it was not responsible for. It manipulates its recollection of past events in order to make sense of them. What the split-brain case in particular also seems to indicate is that consciousness does not reside in any one particular area of the brain, and arguably that severing the corpus callosum can even result in a person actually becoming two persons, having two completely separate conscious brains.
In another experiment, a split-brain patient was asked the big question of whether or not they believed in God, and depending on which side of the brain was asked, the patient gave a different answer, raising some profound theological questions for those who assert that our beliefs in some sense determine our eternal destiny. In the case of this patient, will the God-fearing half of their brain go to heaven, while the other will not? What if this patient’s brain had never been cut in half? Would they stay a single, unified soul in the afterlife?
One of the biggest problems with religion in general is that it does a supremely poor job accounting for the unfathomable complexity of the human brain. Rather, it reduces humanity to the blacks and whites of righteous versus unrighteous, good versus bad, saved versus unsaved, etc., creating the sort of polar division that we all know to be destructive to human progress and discourse. As scientific understanding of the brain continues to grow, people of faith, and all people for that matter, will have to start addressing the incredibly complex and nuanced nature of the human condition.
Granted, these ideas certainly bring up the question of criminal justice and accountability. If we truly have no control over our actions, then how can we be held accountable for what we do? In some sense, criminals are just unlucky victims of their genetic makeup, environment, and life experiences. But can we then just shirk all responsibility and blame our actions on the state of our brain? Well, you could, I suppose, but I would also argue that a truly healthy brain wouldn’t want to. Doing so would eventually lead to a miserable existence for both you and those who rely on your being a responsible human being. Instead, the question ought to be, how can we promote and encourage people to behave in a way that is conducive to human well-being, which includes healthy brains, not just for themselves, but for those around them?
Punishment for a crime may be necessary for deterrence of that crime, but non-violent crimes such as those involving illegal drug use may be better fought with methods of rehabilitation, and at the very least ought to be talked about by those in legislative authority. Consider the fact that someone who commits a horrific crime and who is later discovered to have a mentally-impairing brain tumor is usually relieved of much of the responsibility of his actions, and instead is treated as mentally ill. Why not treat all criminals this way? Does the fact that we can’t see specifically what’s wrong with a person’s brain change the fact that there is indeed something wrong?
Certainly, dangerous felons ought to be contained to prevent them from hurting others, but otherwise why not treat those with unhealthy minds just as we would those with unhealthy bodies? Our brain is part of our biology, so why should mental health be treated or valued any differently than the health of the rest of the body? The fact that it is the brain that is sick and not some other bodily organ does not change the fact that that person is indeed sick. Granted, such a task is going to be difficult and complex, and is one that will require far more scientific knowledge of how the brain works, but it’s nevertheless a worthwhile idea to consider.
As a necessary caveat to this post, it is no secret that I am not a neuroscientist or by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the workings of the human brain and how it relates to conscious experience. I am simply fascinated by what little I have learned on the matter and eager to share it with those around me. Many of the scientific results presented in this post are open to some level of interpretation, and I always seek to encourage other perspectives to way in. Open and honest discussion is where transformative ideas happen, and it is my goal to spark such discussion through the words that I share with you.
The wonderful thing about scientific understanding is that it’s always changing, and it is absolutely vital that scientists be open to such change. That is how new discoveries are made and how Nobel Prizes are won. Science forces us to be open to evidence that might indicate we were wrong, and that is exactly how I seek to live my life. So by all means, if conclusive evidence is uncovered in support of the idea that consciousness exists at all outside the brain, or that we do indeed have free will, then I will be forced to accommodate such evidence into my worldview. But until that evidence is found, the proper response is to suspend judgement and be honest with the evidence we currently possess, for without evidence all we are doing is playing a guessing game based on our presupposed intuitions about reality, which history alone will tell us are often utterly misguided.
On the question of what consciousness itself is and how it arises, the answer is simply that we do not know. This humble admission on the part of scientists often leads people of faith to feel justified in their claims about the nature of consciousness, but I must make the case that it is an utterly destructive fallacy to assume that any particular area of scientific ignorance is somehow evidence in support of the claims of the religion into which one happened to be raised. It’s not. It is simply evidence that we don’t know something, and part of the beauty of the scientific process is that we get to continue to explore these questions and seek to understand them, not through a guessing game based on religion and superstition, but through immense scrutiny of empirical evidence and rational inquiry, free from religious dogmatism.
I completely understand that the notion that there is no free will and that consciousness is in some way just the passive “self user interface,” so to speak, of the goings on in the brain is perhaps a crazy idea to some, and even frightening to many. Most of us have a lot at stake over the question of consciousness and free will. Our religious views often inform us of our own psychological and anthropological nature, and so naturally when science challenges such understandings, our faith is threatened, and the strong emotional tree we have rooted in our faith forces us to fight back against ideas like these. The key, however, is recognizing this nature in ourselves and seeking to transcend it in order to come to a better understanding of reality.
Because I’m aware that many will find the views I’ve expressed in this post to be rather depressing - that they point to a deterministic, fatalistic, and otherwise meaningless existence - in closing I’d like to make a case for just how beautiful and transformative this perspective actually has the potential to be.
Consider the volume of compassion such a perspective makes room for. Rather than seeing the less fortunate as the product of their own poor decision making, we instead are forced to see them as simply less fortunate; nothing more (or less). Rather than seeking vengeance against those who wrong us, we are obligated to shift our thinking to consider how we might help correct and promote our perpetrator’s mental health and well-being. Notions of what one deserves or doesn’t deserve in a certain sense get thrown out the window, making room instead for abundant grace and forgiveness for both ourselves and the whole human race, such that retribution ultimately gets replaced with rehabilitation.
The more we shift our perspective toward seeing ourselves as machines in need of repair, the less reason we have for anger or resentment towards the brokenness of our fellow machines. And although we are indeed complex biological machines, that need not detract from the life-giving ideas we hold to of what it means to be human. Love, joy, beauty, art, reason, hardship, conflict, pain, pleasure; these are all things that arise in the inner workings of human cognition. In other words, our nature as a complex biological machine is precisely what it does mean to be human.
As confusing and painful and magnificently beautiful as this life and all of its mysteries are, the fact remains that I get to take part in it, even if I can’t answer the most basic question of what, exactly, “I” am.
Read the full article from Yale Scientific on split-brains here. The split-brain phenomenon is also covered in very easy-to-understand terms in this ten-minute YouTube video, which I highly recommend watching. ↩