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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, March 3, 2014

Astonishing Anomalies That May Support an Alternate Theory of Consciousness

In a previous blog post The Receptacle Hypothesis: Could Your Mind Have Come From an External Source? I suggested the hypothesis that human consciousness might come not from the brain, but from some unknown external source. It could be, I speculated, that our brains are mainly a kind of receptacle for our consciousness, rather than the sole producer of that consciousness. This may at first sound like some wild idea that cannot be supported, but in a later blog post 9 Strange Mental Phenomena That May Support an Alternate Theory of Consciousness I listed quite a few phenomena (real or alleged) that may tend to support this hypothesis. Since writing that post I have learned about other anomalies that may lend credence to this hypothesis: additional strange phenomena that lead one to question the conventional thinking that your brain is the sole source of your consciousness. I will discuss these anomalies now.

One such anomaly is the amazing fact that when a certain type of rare brain surgery is done, half of a child's brain is removed. Under the theory that your brain is the sole source of your mind, we would expect that removing half of a child's brain would either cause the death of a child, or cause the child to be doomed to a vegetative state. Instead, amazingly, children who have this surgery done suffer relatively little mental impairment.

The type of surgery in question is called a hemispherectomy, and is sometimes performed on children experiencing severe seizures. The operation is described in a Scientific American article entitled Strange but True: When Half a Brain Is Better than a Whole One. The article states: “Unbelievably, the surgery has no apparent effect on personality or memory.”

According to this link, 70% of the children who had half of their brains removed were able to speak well, and 42% older than 6 were able to read well. Given that only about 60% of the American population can read well, this 42% figure is amazingly high.

These facts seem to stand in stark opposition to the theory that your consciousness is being produced entirely by your brain. Under that theory, we should expect that removing half of the brain would have a crippling effect on someone's mental abilities. That is not at all what we observe. We observe a relatively small effect, at least in children. I may point out that when half of a child's brain is removed in a hemispherectomy, the other half does not grow back.

Now for another similar anomaly that is even more amazing. This is a case in which a human managed to function well in society as a French civil servant, even though he had almost no functional brain.
The case is discussed here. Inside a normal brain are tiny structures called lateral ventricles that hold brain fluid. In this man's case, the ventricles had swollen up like balloons, until they filled almost all of the man's brain. When the 44-year-old man was a child, doctor's had noticed the swelling, and had tried to treat it. Apparently the swelling had progressed since childhood. The man was left with what the Reuters story calls “little more than a sheet of actual brain tissue.”

But this same man, with almost no functioning brain, had been working as a French civil servant, and had his IQ tested to be 75, higher than that of a mentally retarded person. The Reuters story says: “A man with an unusually tiny brain managed to live an entirely normal life despite his condition, caused by a fluid buildup in his skull.” The case was written up in the British medical journal The Lancet (link).

In 1980 John Lorber, a British neurologist, recounted a similar case of a brain filled with fluid. “There's a young student at this university,” said Lorber, “who has an IQ of 126, has obtained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain.” According to Lorber, “We saw that instead of the normal 4-5 centimeter thickness of brain tissue...there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.” Lorber found other similar cases. Here is a link discussing his work.

These accounts seem to stand in stark opposition to the conventional theory that your consciousness is entirely produced by your brain. Under that theory, someone with the conditions described here should have been dead, in a vegetative state, or at best persisting with the intelligence of a squirrel – not working successfully as a French civil servant, or being an honors student with an IQ of 126. But these cases are perfectly compatible with the receptacle theory of consciousness I have suggested. If the brain is mainly just a receptacle for consciousness (consciousness which comes from some unknown external source), then it might not matter all that much if the receptacle is much smaller.

I am not saying that these cases show the likelihood of the receptacle hypothesis I have suggested, but they do make you wonder about whether such a hypothesis may be true, along with the other items I have listed in this post. 

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