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Controversial Theory Says Human Consciousness Is ... Electromagnetic?

It may sound crazy, but it’s based on science.

Popular Mechanics

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Could the thorny question of human consciousness be answered by simple electromagnetic waves? One improbably dualist scientist believes so, and he suggests the human mind is a combination of physical matter and electromagnetic field. This is a big question, and the proposed answer here is controversial.

The University of Surrey’s Johnjoe McFadden “posits that consciousness is in fact the brain’s energy field,” the university says in a statement, making McFadden’s dualism a question of matter and energy, the institution says—not the classic “body and mind” distinction. Throughout history, philosophers around the world have tried to account for the special-seeming nature of human beings within the world or even, some fear, the entire universe.

From where does our robust self-awareness and sentience arise? People who believe everything is physically present and caused are called materialists, meaning there’s nothing extra that can’t be measured—what you see and touch is what humans are. Dualists instead believe there’s something extra.

The mind, dualists say, is separate in some way. That could mean a separate, immeasurable, living soul that lives after death, or it could be as “simple” as the hotly contested idea of qualia: the hint at an extra color humans can’t see, for example, as that relates back to consciousness.

The idea of a scientific lampshade on mind-body dualism certainly isn’t new, but McFadden’s research, published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness, is the latest to try to marry the fields [this article was written in October 2020]. Deep breath:

“I argue here that nearly all examples of so-called ‘integrated information’, including neuronal information processing and conventional computing, are only temporally integrated in the sense that outputs are correlated with multiple inputs: the information integration is implemented in time, rather than space, and thereby cannot correspond to physically integrated information. I point out that only energy fields are capable of integrating information in space.”

Basically, McFadden is saying he doesn’t believe the physical structures inside the brain account for how information extends through our “minds” and form integrated ideas. That, he says, must be happening within the added medium of the brain’s electromagnetic field.

And all of this, McFadden claims, is supported by experiments on the nature of brain activity. This sounds wild—it genuinely is wild—but McFadden is a molecular geneticist and is following a centuries-old tradition of introducing the absolute latest knowledge into a new theory of what makes us human.

That means as long as the human brain is alive, McFadden says, it generates an electrical glow in which the real nitty-gritty human stuff is happening. And the best part is that his theory is testable in the laboratory.

“There are of course many unanswered questions, such as degree and extent of synchrony required to encode conscious thoughts, the influence of drugs or anaesthetics on the cemi field or whether cemi fields are causally active in animal brains,” he explains in the paper. “Yet the cemi theory provides a new paradigm in which consciousness is rooted in an entirely physical, measurable and artificially malleable physical structure and is amenable to experimental testing.”

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This post originally appeared on Popular Mechanics and was published October 27, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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