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Susan Pockett

THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A HYPOTHESIS


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Susan Pockett has bravely set out to solve that "most ancient of philosophical saws, the mind-body problem". It should be said at the outset that, whatever one concludes about the success or otherwise of her theory, at least she writes exceptionally clearly, with a light touch, and that is by no means something one can take for granted in books on this topic. An example of her style:

The mind-body problem boils down to the question of whether consciousness (mind) is a physical phenomenon or a non-physical one. The position that consciousness is a physical phenomenon is known as materialism and the position that it isn't is called dualism. Almost all modern-day scientists are, at least on the surface, fierce materialists. Indeed, in scientific circles these days the word "dualist" is so unacceptable that it tends to be reserved as a last-ditch imprecation, to be hurled only when all else has failed to dispose of an opponent's argument.
And still maintaining this admirable level of clarity, she goes on to express the essence of her hypothesis in one short sentence: "…consciousness is identical with certain spatiotemporal patterns in the electromagnetic field".

To expand this statement a little: it has been known for almost a century that the brain generates an electromagnetic field which can be detected by suitable instruments. This is the basis of the electroencephalograph (EEG), which is routinely used today in the diagnosis of epilepsy and other brain disorders. Typical EEG patterns occur in waking, sleeping, and dreaming, and to some extent reflect what the subject is thinking and experiencing. Most researchers regard the EEG as merely an accompaniment of brain activity, a reflection of what is going on inside. Pockett's idea, in contrast, is that consciousness is actually a configuration of, or pattern in, the electromagnetic field. This implies that although consciousness is not material in the usual sense, it is nevertheless real and physical in the way that radio waves are real and physical. This idea, Pockett insists, is not mere philosophical speculation but is a serious scientific hypothesis supported by good-quality evidence.

An immediate objection that presents itself at this point is the difficulty of making viable connections between EEG patterns and mental states. In other words, do there exist configurations of the electromagnetic field that correlate with different states of consciousness? Separate chapters discuss the evidence for this in relation to smell, hearing, and vision. There is, it seems, good support for such a correlation in the case of smell and this has been demonstrated not only in mammals (rats, cats, and rabbits) but even in insects. I think there is some question-begging going on here: in saying that insects are "conscious" of smells, she seems to assume that insects are conscious in the first place, whereas many would regard them as automata.

For hearing and vision there is also some evidence for correlation with EEG patterns but it is, she acknowledges, a good deal less complete.

There is considerably more to Pockett's hypothesis than I have indicated so far. She is deeply interested in what are usually classed as mystical states of consciousness, notably those deriving from the Indian Vedantic tradition; and here she refers in particular to the interpretation of Vedanta advanced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in connection with his Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique. There are generally said to be three "ordinary" states of consciousness, waking, sleeping, and dreaming, each of which is now known to have a fairly well-defined EEG pattern associated with it. In the Upanishads we also encounter a fourth state, reachable in meditation and other ways, in which the person is awake and conscious but not conscious of anything. Reports of a similar state also arise from other mystical traditions. There are claims that the reality of this state is attested by the finding of characteristic EEG phenomena, and Pockett thinks these claims are valid. Both Zen meditation and TM appear to produce such a state, with the accompanying EEG patterns, but TM is alleged to bring it about more quickly and easily. It has to be said that Pockett quotes only a few EEG studies of Zen and TM meditators, and these are mostly now quite old and in the case of TM were all carried out by TM enthusiasts.

In her final chapter Pockett really lays her cards on the table by claiming that her hypothesis supports the idea of a universal mind, otherwise known as God. She regards the localized patterns of electrical activity generated by our brains as "localized patterns of perturbation in a universal, all-pervading field which is presently known as The Electromagnetic Field". The universe as a whole is supposed to be conscious, by "continually experiencing, in real time, every sensation and perception, every thought, every emotion that is generated by the mind of every conscious being in the universe." Mystical experience of oneness is a reflection of this universal field. We can call this field God, but Pockett is rather coy about saying definitely whether it is our individual minds that collectively create God or the other way about.

There are echoes in all this of the physicist Erwin Schrodinger's view that there is only one Mind and also of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. Both men were influenced by Eastern ideas. What Pockett has done is to provide a possible physical basis for mystical ideas of that kind. However I found it difficult to avoid the feeling that she started from the metaphysics and devised the science to support her mystical intuitions rather than the reverse, though this does not necessarily invalidate her arguments, which must be judged on their merits. So how far do they stand up to criticism?

She has a chapter in which she considers various objections to her theory, but she does not offer many predictions by which it could be tested. And she did not really dispel my impression that the EEG is too imprecise a tool to sustain the weight of interpretation that is placed on it here. As Pockett herself explains in some detail, there is no agreement even about the origin of the best-known EEG rhythm, the alpha rhythm; indeed, some researchers believe that it is not generated by the brain at all. It seems rather ambitious to erect such a large metaphysical construction on such a flimsy foundation.

One problem with a theory of this kind is that it is likely to please neither monists (materialists) nor dualists. Probably few of those who believe that mind and brain are identical will care for Pockett's mystical speculations, while people who favour a metaphysical view of consciousness will not wish to see it equated with anything as mundanely physical as an electromagnetic field. It could also be objected that the theory does not really come to terms with David Chalmers's "hard question": that is, we are not told why a perturbation in the electromagnetic field should give rise to subjective experiences—the perceptions of colours, sounds, tastes and so on that philosophers refer to as qualia. It seems that we must just accept that this is what a perturbation in the electromagnetic field feels like; but proponents of mind-brain identity seem to say much the same thing about interactions among neuronal networks.

I have to say that I remain unconvinced by the hypothesis, but the book is undoubtedly written with considerable charm and the author's hope that it will at least be an entertaining read is certainly fulfilled.


%T The Nature of Consciousness
%A Pockett, Susan
%I Writers Club Press
%C San Jose, New York, Lincoln, Shanghai
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-595-12215-9
%P xvii + 190 pp
%K brain and mind
%O paperback
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