Marco Masi: Is your brain the source of consciousness? Or is it more like an antenna?

Are your sense of “self” and your experiences and memories just a set of brain states? Is a human basically a wet computer? Or is your brain just a mechanism for channeling these things into the physical world?

Physicist Marco Masi is fascinated with consciousness studies and evolution. He lives in Germany.

Are we purely physical beings? Or are our minds extensions of something larger?

Marco Masi’s new paper “An evidence-based critical review of the mind-brain identity theory” challenges the current materialistic view. 

Masi points out cases of people living normal lives despite missing large chunks of their brains from birth defects, surgery, or disease… like a man missing 75% of his brain tissue.

Since consciousness continues after a huge connection loss between brain areas, Masi argues theories that whole-brain integration is probably not the a good explanation for consciousness.

The cortex is often believed to be the seat of consciousness in mammals. Yet birds, fish and octopuses appear conscious – without a cortex. Bird brain circuits resembling mammalian cortex suggest advanced intelligence doesn’t require an exceptionally complex cortex. Evidence that octopi and lobsters feel pain also challenges cortex-centered views of consciousness.

Psychedelic drugs famously alter consciousness; fMRI studies link decreased brain activity with more intense psychedelic experiences. He says this matches ideas like Aldous Huxley’s ‘reducing valve’ metaphor – which says normal brain processes constrain rather than produce consciousness.

Masi also questions whether memory and intelligence are stored exclusively in the brain. He cites cases of people retaining memories after losing brain hemispheres, and worms holding on to learned behaviors after regenerating new brains.

This casts doubt on theories that long-term memory is stored in synapses. Masi says the rapid turnover of brain proteins is incompatible with stable, indefinite memory storage. Intelligent behaviors in plants and cells without brains further undermine brain-centric views of cognition. 

See Bonnie Bassler’s brilliant TED talk “How Bacteria Talk”; and my previous blog post about Michael Levin’s Anthrobots for fine examples of cognition without brains – in this case, lung cells.

Neuroplasticity is frequently used to explain skills and memory retention even after brain damage. But, Masi cites studies questioning whether true functional remapping after strokes underlies their recovery. He points out mysterious bursts of mental clarity in dementia patients nearing death, which plasticity has trouble accounting for.

This suggests neural plasticity alone cannot account for all resilience following brain damage.

He says observing function loss after brain lesions is a fine example of “correlation is not causation.” He offers other valid ways to interpret such correlations without assuming the brain actively generates mind or consciousness.

Despite rumors that the mainstream view has it “figured out,” the mind-brain problem remains unsolved.

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