Most scientists now embrace monism, that the stuff of mind is the same as the stuff of the brain, matter. Many, particularly in the artificial intelligence field, take the view that consciousness is just an inevitable product of complex computation, as the evolutionary biologist T. H. Huxley put it, like the steam whistle, which accompanies the work of a locomotive [but] without influence upon its machinery.
In the steam whistle view, consciousness just pops out of the complex interconnected computations performed by the network of neurons within our brain. But why should it? The Internet now links up millions of computers in a gigantic superbrain that will soon rival our own organic version in computational capability. But does anyone seriously believe that, like HAL, driven by its digital consciousness, the Internet may soon turn on us its creators? The plain fact is that nothing rendered in silicon remotely resembles a conscious mind.
Another problem with the steam whistle is that it goes against the grain of everything we have learnt since Darwin about how complex biological systems evolved. Every bit of our body and our mind is here today because it provides some function some advantage to us – that been captured, and improved upon by natural selection over millennia. Bodies dont have steam whistles, but if they did, they would have a role to play in the survival of the creature that blew them. Consciousness is a product of evolution and, as such, it has a role to play in our survival. What is that role?
The most obvious answer may be the right one – we are aware because we then have the power to change our actions. Consciousness endows us with free will. There are many operations that our brain performs automatically, without conscious control simple tasks like walking, to incredibly complex tasks like playing a musical instrument from a written score. But it is hard to remove the impression that under some circumstances, our conscious brain takes over, to influence and will these actions.
Consider driving along a familiar road. You may be listening to the radio, thinking about some problem at work, but your brain is busy performing all the complex computations necessary to control your limb movements and maintain your car on the busy road, unconsciously. You spot a hazard sign Roadworks Major Congestion Ahead!and immediately your conscious mind takes control, to slow the car and perhaps try to find an alternative route home.What is it that is taking control in these situations?
What we need to look for is something that is a product of the brains activity, that integrates information but which also has the power to influence that activity. Surprisingly, we have known for years that such an entity exists within our brain. The neurons in our brain transmit electrical signals along and between nerve fibres. It is always assumed that the electrons and neurotransmitters moving down these nerves are the movers and shakers of neuronal computation.
However, all electrical circuits – and that’s basically all neurones are generate an associated energy field, known as an electromagnetic field or em field. This field contains precisely the same information as the circuitry that generated it. However, unlike neuronal information, which is localised in single or groups of neurons, the brain’s em field will bind the neuronal information into a single integrated whole.
This consciousness electromagnetic information field (cemi field) theory may sound far-fetched, but it rests on just three propositions. The first is that the brain generates its own em field, a fact that is well known and utilised in brain scanning techniques such as EEG. The second is that the brain’s em field is indeed the seat of consciousness. This is far harder to prove but there is plenty of evidence that is at least consistent with this hypothesis. Em fields are waves that tend to cancel out when the peaks and troughs from many unsynchronised waves combine. But if neurones fire together, then the peaks and troughs of their em fields will reinforce each other to generate a large disturbance to the overall em field.
In recent years neuroscientists in many laboratories across the world have become interested in the phenomenon of neuronal synchrony. Experiments from Paris’ Laboratoire de Neurosciences demonstrated synchronous firing in distinct regions of the brain when a subject’s attention is aroused by a pattern that resembled a face. When the subject saw only lines then his neurones fired randomly but when the subject realised he was looking at a face, his neurones snapped into step to fire synchronously. In this, and in many similar experiments, neurone firing alone does not correlate with awareness but the em field disturbance generated by synchronous firing, does. The simplest explanation is that the brain’s em field is conscious awareness – the cemi field.
The last cemi field proposition is that the brain’s (conscious) em field can itself influence neuronal firing. Like the first proposition, this is easy to prove and is indeed inevitable. Radio sets and TVs are designed to be sensitive to the electromagnetic fields of radio waves; but in fact all electrical phenomena are sensitive to the surrounding em field. Neurones are fired by specific structures, known as voltage-gated ion channels that respond to the external em field. Mostly they are gated in such a way that only massive changes to the brain’s em field are likely to influence neurone firing. However, in a busy brain there will be many neurones teetering on the brink of firing and these undecided neurones may be exquisitely sensitive to the em field. The cemi field our consciousness – will come into play when the brain is poised to make delicate decisions. Several recent papers have indeed demonstrated exactly this phenomenon, for example, in their 2011 paper ‘Ephatic coupling of cortical neurons‘, Christof Koch’s group at Caltec demonstrated that weak EM fields, of similar strength to natural brain EM field, synchronze neuron firing patterns. Similarly, in their 2010 paper ‘Endogenous Electric Fields May Guide Neocortical Network Activity‘ David McCormick’s group at Yale demonstrated that brain-strength EM field influennce neural firing in the brain. There’s also a nice Scientific American article on McCormick’s paper.
That concept of information encoded as an electromagnetic field is actually a very familiar one. We routinely encode complex images and sounds in em fields that we transmit to our TV and radio sets. What I am proposing is that our brain is both the transmitter and the receiver of its own electromagnetic signals in a feedback loop that generates the conscious em field as a kind of informational sink. This informational transfer, through the cem field, may provide distinct advantages over neuronal computing, in rapidly integrating and processing information distributed in different parts of the brain. It may also provide an additional level of computation that is wave-mechanical, rather than digital; one that drives our free will. This is the advantage that consciousness provides: the capacity to make decisions.
I first described my theory that integrated neuronal information in the brain’s EM field is the seat of consciousness in my 2000 book, Quantum Evolution.
I have also published several papers that outline the cemi field theory. Click on the images below to get the pdf files:
J McFadden. The conscious electromagnetic field theory: the Hard Problem made easy. Journal of Consciousness Studies 9 (8):45-60, 2002.
J. McFadden. The CEMI field theory: Seven clues to the nature of consciousness. Chapter 12 of “The Emerging Physics of Consciousness” ed. Jack A. Tuszynski. Springer Berlin Heidelberg 2006. pp 385-404.
Johnjoe McFadden. The CEMI Field Theory Gestalt Information and the Meaning of Meaning. Journal of Consciousness Studies 20 (3-4):3-4 (2013)
Johnjoe McFadden. The CEMI Field Theory Closing the Loop. Journal of Consciousness Studies 20 (1-2):1-2 (2013). This paper generated a comment/criticism from me and Jonathan C.W. Edward which is answered here.
You can also read an interesting exchange about the cemi theory between me and Steve Grand here.
Other EM theories of consciousness
Several other researchers have also proposed that brain em fields are the substrate of consciousness, including:
Dr. Susan Pockett, University of Auckland
E. Roy John, NYU Medical Center, New York
Some common questions
Are endogenous em fields known to have any other biological role?
Yes. Colin McCaig’s group at the University of Aberdeen have shown that naturally-occuring em fields play a vital role in wound healing in the cornea of rats (published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 99, p. 13577) and Kenneth Robinson (Perdue University) and Michael Levin (The Forsythe Institute, Boston) have demonstrated that endogenous em fields are involved in embroyo development – see review in Science News. There is an interesting review on this topic, “The Body Electric”, written by Diane Martindale in the 15 May 2004 edition of New Scientist.
Can the cemi theory account for telepathy?
No, I’m afraid not. The em field outside the head is far too weak and it is highly unlikley that any other brain could detect it, and still more unlikely that the other brain could decode the em field information that was encoded by your brain (which i think is a good thing).
Can the cemi field theory account for ghosts
Definately not! If ghosts were em field they’d be very easy to detect. Also, em fields are generated by charged molecules – they don’t hang around in space without an obvious source. If ghosts were some kind of em field then we would be able to locate the source of that field.
Why don’t external fields (from power lines, mobile phones etc.) affect our thoughts?
The head acts as a pretty effective Faraday cage that screens out most static electric external fields. Static magnetic fields (from eg. MRI scanners) will penetrate the head but don’t induce currents so are unlikely to change neuron firing patterns and thereby produce a reportable effect. High frequency fields (eg. from mobile phones) may penetrate the head but are unlikely to interact with low frequency brain waves. Low frequency magnetic fields may penetrate the head and interact with the cemi field – and there is plenty of evidence for this in Transcranial Magnetic stimulation (TMS) that induces lots of behavioural effects – see my first JCS paper for more details.
Does the cemi field survive after death?
mmm an interesting question. My hypothesis is that conciousness is the experience of information, from the inside. There is a postulate in physics that information is neither created or detroyed – the conservation of information ‘law’. It is however just a postulate, nobody has ever proved it. But, if true, it would suggest that awareness (associated with that information) – in some form – might survive death.
David Chalmer’s Homepage – one of the clearest thinking philosophers on consciousness
Stuart Hameroff’s Homepage learn all about those busy microtubules and their proposed role in quantum consciousness.
Bruce MacLennan’s Homepage – field computing and its role in the brain
Cognitive Science at the University of Southampton – excellent archive of papers
Steve Lehar’s homepage – excellent introduction to Gestalt ides in perception and consciousness