A window into consciousness?

Learning how things work by observing what changes due to damage

Phineas P. Gage earned his place in the history books when he survived a massive metal rod passing right through his brain in  1848.

Gage was a railway worker responsible for blasting rock to make way for new rail tracks. In an unfortunate accident, his tamping iron – 1 14 inches (3.2 cm) in diameter, three feet seven inches (1.1 m) long, and weighing 13 14 pounds (6.0 kg) – set off an explosion, and was shot, like a bullet, through his head, passing straight through the left side of his brain.


Remarkably, not only did he survive, but he “spoke within a few minutes, walked with little assistance, and sat upright in an oxcart for the 34-mile (1.2 km) ride to his lodgings in town” (Harlow, John Martyn (1868). “Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head”. Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society 2 (3): 327–47.)

He lived for 12 years after the injury, dying eventually from epilepsy. But he is noted medically for the gross personality changes associated with his injury, and as a resuly, his case “influenced nineteenth-century discussion about the mind and brain, particularly debate on cerebral localization, and was perhaps the first case to suggest the brain’s role in determining personality, and that damage to specific parts of the brain might induce specific personality changes”

This is also a lovely example of how, for much of the history of medicine, we have come to understand how the body works by observing what changes when it is damaged. This is particularly true in the study of the brain, where we have been able to correlate localised areas of damage (usually due to strokes) with the corresponding loss of neurological or cognitive function.

Shared experiences

So, consider the following descriptions of three different human experiences:

And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end,because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy — energy.

And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me? What is going on?” And in that moment, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight. TED.com

“But as I looked, this purely aesthetic, Cubist’s-eye view gave place to what I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality. I was back where I had been when I was looking at the flowers-back in a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance. The legs, for example, of that chair–how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness! I spent several minutes–or was it several centuries?–not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them—or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for “I” was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were “they”) being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.

To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence, of the given, unconceptualized event. In the final stage of egolessness there is an “obscure knowledge” that All is in all–that All is actually each. This is as near, I take it, as a finite mind can ever come to “perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.””

Aldous Huxley: The Doors of Perception

People attempt to describe it [enlightenment] in many ways. Ramana Maharshi says that when you realise the Self (enlightenment), the sense of yourself as distinct from the world disappears.

Another person describes it by saying, ‘I was sitting opposite someone during an enlightenment intensive workshop. We had been posing the question for days – “Who are you?” Suddenly I realised that it was a silly question, because I was the answer. All thought stopped and I existed as the answer. My being had always been this. In this state there was an awareness of being connected with everything around me, in the beginning of creation.

Another person says, ‘Unexpectedly everything changed and my fundamental self was something that existed throughout all time. It didn’t have a beginning or end. There was no goal to achieve. I am.’

Slightly different but still the same enlightenment. ‘Everything seemed to slip away and I felt as if I melted back into the primal being of the universe. It didn’t seem as if my ego was gone, just melted into everything else. It was blissful.’

In her book Collision With the Infinite, Suzanne Segal writes, ‘In the midst of a particularly eventful week, I was driving north to meet some friends when I suddenly became aware that I was driving through myself. For years there had been no self at all, yet here on this road, everything was myself, and I was driving through me to arrive where I already was. In essence, I was going nowhere because I was everywhere already. The infinite emptiness I knew myself to be was now apparent as the infinite substance of everything I saw.’

Exerpts from a blog post by Tony Crisp

So, the first experience is brain damage due to a stroke. The second experience is a drug-induced ‘trip’. And the third experience is ‘enlightenment’ in different people’s words.

But do you notice the similarities between the descriptions of these three experiences? I do, and this interests me. In particular the last one. Why? Because these experiences seem to be glimpsing the same ‘state’, albeit arrived at by different routes. And I wonder whether, just as Phineas Gage’s injury and subsequent personality changes shed light on the nature and source of personality, this ‘altered consciousness state’ provides us with a tool to learn about the nature and source of consciousness.

Future research?

And what intrigues me most is that, whereas the previous two routes to a “state of one-ness with the universe” rely on an external trigger – an injury or a chemical – the meditation route involves people purely thinking themselves into this state without any exogenous stimulus.

Surely this marks meditation and enlightenment out as an avenue of potential research into the nature of consciousness which might be less plagued by ethical difficulties than using brain asphyxia or psychoactive drugs as an intervention!

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