Are We More Than Our Brains?

November 18, 2022
IONS Communications Team

What is the relationship between the brain and consciousness? Scientists and philosophers have tried to answer that question for centuries. 

In this ConnectIONS Live member video, IONS Scientist Arnaud Delorme, PhD, interviewed Distinguished Professor Jonathan Schooler, PhD, from the University of California Santa Barbara. Dr. Schooler is studying how to bridge the objective/subjective divide and how consciousness might relate to the physical universe.

As most of us know, the materialist worldview does not account for the existence of consciousness. Consciousness is seen as an emergent rather than fundamental property – and one that lacks scientific explanation. 

In this fascinating presentation, Schooler shares his take on the topic – which, as you can imagine, differs vastly from the materialist one. 

According to Schooler, there are three self-evident truths:

1   Experience exists (more certain than physical reality) 

  • “I think, therefore I am”

2  Experience is defined by change

  • Time flows

3  Experience is always NOW

  • “Now” is special

Around 7 minutes and 30 seconds into the presentation, Schooler shares how science sees the mere concept of experience as an illusion. This is often referred to as “the hard problem of science”. 

In addition, the flow of time is considered an illusion. Eight minutes in, Schooler shares a quote from Einstein: “The past, present, and future are all illusions – even if stubborn ones”. Another quote from Paul Davies reaffirms this: “Nothing in known physics corresponds to the passage of time. Indeed, physics insists that time doesn’t flow at all: it merely is.” 

Why do physicists reject the flow of time? Relativity theory sees time as a dimension in a so-called Block Universe, where everything exists simultaneously. Time is just the fourth dimension in addition to the three spatial ones. 

But as Schooler says about 10 minutes in: “Science provides no way of conceptualizing the three things I’m most certain of:

  • Experience
  • Flow of time
  • Uniqueness of “now”

This lack of explanatory power encourages the idea that science will need to find a place for subjectivity in its foundation. 

So what is missing? How can you move through the block universe if consciousness is present simultaneously in all blocks?

To explain this, we could add an additional dimension of subjective time. This provides the degree of freedom necessary to allow time to move through the conscious universe. You’ve probably experienced how your perception of time varies drastically with the situation! For example, time spent with a loved one often feels too short, while the time you spend in the dentist’s chair for a root canal treatment seems never-ending. 

The idea is to introduce subjective time as the z-axis in a coordinate system with physical space on the x-axis and objective time on the y-axis. 

Consequently, an observer can “step into the future” at various speeds depending on their subjective time. This is related to the possibility that different conscious entities may move in objective time relative to subjective time in different size steps. In fact, it seems like the consciousness of smaller animals may move through subjective time relative to physical time at a faster rate than larger animals. This could explain why it’s hard to hit a fly: their frame rate is higher than ours.

Toward the end of the presentation, Schooler returns to this topic when explaining how different conscious beings may move at different rates. For example, spirits may move at a frame rate that’s too fast for us to perceive, while trees move at a very slow pace.

Is the construct of consciousness fractal?

Schooler explains how consciousness might be organized: as Nested Observer Windows (NOWs). Maybe you have seen pictures made up of smaller pictures? That’s the idea. Pixels act as windows to higher levels of consciousness. Each window may have its own conscious experience. This means that within our bodies, neurons may have their own conscious experience – but WE identify with and perceive only the highest level of consciousness that exists on the human scale.

Around 17 minutes in, Schooler explores the idea that objective time could branch into a second dimension. This would be compatible with the many worlds theory of physics by Everett: how the observation of quantum events causes a splitting of the universe.

An alternative explanation could be that an observer window rotates in the second dimension of objective time. This model would include free will since it allows for consciousness to select alternative futures.

A speculative toy model of time and consciousness could comprise three dimensions of time:

  • Objective time = clock time
  • Subjective time = time as it is experienced
  • Alternative time = the many branches of possibilities (provides opportunities for free will)

Observers move through time as windows, where each observer is a pixel in higher-level windows. This gives rise to the opportunity that we and our consciousness are pixels in a larger conscious unity.

Likewise, consciousness may trickle down and exist at all levels, even down to subatomic particles like photons. 

Schooler also mentions the Integrated Information Theory (around 32 minutes in), which suggests that consciousness emerges from complexity. We have seen how intelligence can be generated by complex networks of binary units in AI (such as neural networks).

Schooler further believes that consciousness is a fundamental unit of the universe. Around the 35-minute mark, he explains how consciousness cannot be explained because it’s an axiom. His model is compatible with quantum models because there is no fixed future; consciousness “chooses” the future it wants to explore. It can be seen as having navigational capacity. He further hypothesizes that consciousness can be considered a field of physics like electromagnetism, the strong force etc. 

Free will has a place in the model, but it is a degree of freedom that can be removed without causing the model to fail. Schooler argues that free will is self-evident based on causality and the physical universe – but it’s still possible that it doesn’t exist.

Become an IONS member to watch the full story

IONS members have access to the full webinar replay – in the discussion following the presentation, some interesting topics are covered. Arnaud Delorme explains the similarities between the brain and a particle accelerator. Schooler discusses how we might be in a simulation created by consciousness to sustain itself.

They even talk about near-death experiences (NDEs) and reincarnation, how the relationship between consciousness and the physical body might be more complex than what we know and how Schooler’s model suggests the exhilarating thought that we might die and be reborn in every moment (about an hour into the presentation).

Where does this leave us? Schooler thinks that we as humans will understand more and more, but that there will always be more mysteries to uncover. Perhaps when we die, we realize everything – then, for those who believe in reincarnation, we forget it again when we’re reborn. And so, the quest for understanding begins again. 

On the topic of humans being more than our brains, we’re excited to announce the Linda G. O’Bryant Noetic Sciences Research Prize. This is a $100,000 annual prize designed to help IONS gain greater visibility and stature in the world and to attract top-level scientists and their potentially life-changing research and results. 

To be eligible, the essay topic should be about testable scientific theories that you are more than your brain. Learn more at

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