Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ken Wilber Stops His Brain Waves

This video has been around for a while, but I have been thinking about neuroscience lately and how the reductionists insist that consciousness is a function - even a by-product - of brain activity. In this view, anything that we consider consciousness or mind is just not real. This is partially true, and even Buddhists believe this, though in a different way.

But what The Ken does here completely explodes that point of view. He is able to use consciousness to stop the brain. In the reductionist neuroscience perspective, this should not be possible. What Wilber demonstrates is that consciousness dictates brain states, or at least can, and not that the brain dictates consciousness.

Certainly, this is not how it is for most of us, but he shows that the way neuroscience views the brain and consciousness is partial at best.

You already knew that Ken has no heart, now we find out that he has no brain, either!

That's right, Ken can stop his brainwaves on demand. Actually—and in a more serious vein—this is the famous EEG machine recording where Ken enters various meditative states, one of which is a type of "thoughtless," "image-less," or "formless" state, whose correlate is that his brainwaves come to an almost complete stop, as clearly recorded on this portable electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. (This video is discussed in One Taste, April 10 entry.)

We asked Ken to do a short 10-minute commentary on these various meditative states and the corresponding brain-wave patterns that are shown on the EEG machine in the video. Ken enters four meditative states (nirvikalpa closed eyes, nirvikalpa open eyes, sahaj, and mantra-savikalpa), each of which has a very distinctive brain-wave pattern. In his commentary, Ken emphasizes that the patterns shown on this machine may or may not be typical, but they do emphasize that profound consciousness states can be evoked at will, and these show immediate correlation in brain-wave patterns.

If nothing else, seeing somebody's brainwaves flatline in about 4 seconds is a sight not easily forgotten! It also explains why we once heard Ken's girlfriend say, upon delivering news that she thought might not be happily received, "Now, um, honey, make your brain waves go to zero...."

More seriously, as Ken often says, "If you want to know God, you've got to get your brain out of the way first. It's just one big stupid filter...."


Karl Higley said...

The argument begs the question! For consciousness stopping brain waves to show that consciousness is different from brain activity, it would first have to be something different than brain activity. Otherwise you'd just be saying "Hey, the brain stopped its own activity!" So far as I know, there's nothing in neuroscience that says that shouldn't happen. Is there?

william harryman said...


According to neuroscience, there is no consciousness to begin with. Then, for them, a brain without brainwaves is dead, since life in the brain is defined by brainwaves. So for Wilber (and other meditation masters) to be able to do this defies their thinking on the subject.

See, that's the issue. Here's a quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the neural stance toward consciousness:

"Neural theories of consciousness come in many forms, though most in some way concern the so called “neural correlates of consciousness” or NCCs. Unless one is a dualist or other non-physicalist, more than mere correlation is required; at least some NCCs must be the essential substrates of consciousness. An explanatory neural theory needs to explain why or how the relevant correlations exist, and if the theory is committed to physicalism that will require showing how the underlying neural substrates could be identical with their neural substrates or at least realize them by satisfying the required roles or conditions (Metzinger 2000).

Such theories are diverse not only in the neural processes or properties to which they appeal but also in the aspects of consciousness they take as their respective explananda. Some are based on high-level systemic features of the brain, but others focus on more specific physiological or structural properties, with corresponding differences in their intended explanatory targets.

A sampling of recent neural theories might include models that appeal to global integrated fields (Kinsbourne), binding through synchronous oscillation (Singer 1999, Crick and Koch 1990), NMDA-mediated transient neural assemblies (Flohr 1995), thalamically modulated patterns of cortical activation (Llinas 2001), reentrant cortical loops (Edelman 1989), comparator mechanisms that engage in continuous action-prediction-assessment loops between frontal and midbrain areas (Gray 1995), left hemisphere based interpretative processes (Gazzaniga 1988), and emotive somatosensory hemostatic processes based in the frontal-limbic nexus (Damasio 1999) or in the periaqueductal gray (Panksepp 1998)."

The people cited are some of the biggest names in neuroscience - their position is the standard, reductionist model.


Anonymous said...

The brain generates electromagnetic and dielectric waves. The present
EEG instruments can not detect the
dielectric waves.
People have been pronounced dead by
indications of limited instruments.
Quite a few people have led normal
lives after awakening from suspended
animation. The brain is still light years ahead of our limited reflex condition responses.