Researcher Johnjoe McFadden has developed, in the last 20 years, a theory that, according to him, explains how consciousness emerges in human beings. Instead of just studying the hundred billion neurons in the brain (which is matter) and the way they interconnect, through electrical signals, we should pay more attention to the electromagnetic field (energy) they generate. It is there, says McFadden, that a whole multitude of information will be concentrated that gives thought to our mind. But the warning remains: in this theory, there is no room for ghosts or telepathy, although it admits that consciousness can survive death.
The debate about what consciousness is, or, better saying, what is the best definition capable of representing it, is not scientifically consensual. As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains in The Brain – Discovering Who We Are (book published in 2015), “we know a lot about the mechanics of neurons, networks and brain regions, but we don’t know why all those signals that run through it have some meaning for us, how can the matter in our brain make us worry about whatever it is ”, from reading the text that the reader has right now in front of him and making sense of it, to contemplating the sunset sun and think that we feel loved by someone or make plans for the future.
To a large extent, we are only able to obtain lean and crude definitions of what consciousness is, for example, of is the “immediate knowledge of one’s psychic activity” or the “feeling of oneself”. However, no explanation completely satisfies, and, above all, it does not tell us how it is even possible that thoughts arise in our brain, which we call conscience.
Nowadays, what science tries to do with greater vigor, to come close to perceiving the phenomenon of consciousness, is to measure the activity of our neurons inside the brain, either through an electroencephalogram or an MRI, giving us an ‘image ‘of millions of neurons firing, detecting the electrical signals that are produced inside our skull.
To begin with, it must be explained that the outside world, for the isolated human brain, would not exist if the information did not reach him through our sensory organs. “Eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin act as interpreters, detecting a variety of sources of information (including photons, air compression waves, molecular concentrations, pressure, texture, and temperature) and translating them into the brain’s currency: the electrochemical signals ”, summarizes Eagleman.
“These electrochemical signals travel quickly through dense networks of neurons, the main signaling cells in the brain. The human brain has a hundred billion neurons, each of which sends tens or hundreds of electrical impulses to thousands of other neurons every second of our lives. Everything we experience – every sight, sound or odor – is not a direct experience, but an electrochemical interpretation in a dark auditorium. ” It is from here that the brain tries to understand what is in its (our) surroundings.
Contrary to what was previously thought, the brain does not operate in a compartmentalized manner, there is no specific function associated with a single region of the brain, so neither does consciousness emerge from any specific area. The brain, we know today, functions from the network interaction of the neurons that compose it, interconnected networks that can spread over small or vast areas of brain tissue. David Eagleman, in trying to explain what is at stake, compares the brain to a city and asks the following question: where is the economic activity located within it? We know that it is everywhere, that it exists (or emerges) thanks to banks, stores, merchants and customers, among whom there is an intricate and complex web of relationships, both local and at a distance.
In order to understand, mechanically, how human consciousness arises, we can also weave parallelism with an ant colony, a superorganism that, in some cases, even comprises millions of ants. Seen with the proper distance, this superorganism exhibits more sophisticated collective properties than its small insects and its individual actions. “This phenomenon, known as” emergence “, is what happens when simple units interact in the right ways and something bigger comes up,” summarizes the neuroscientist at Stanford University, USA. In the case of our brain, if a sufficient number of its cells (the neurons) “come together and interact in the right ways, the mind arises”, although “without awareness of the thing they have built together”.
What makes everything quite special is the fact that each neuron in our brain is able to establish ten thousand connections with other neurons, and “they connect in a very specific way, unique to each person” – which is why the mind, the way we are aware of ourselves and the world, is different from individual to individual. “Our experiences, our memories, everything that defines us as people is representing the unique pattern of the billion connections between the cells of each of our brains.” For Eagleman, we are facing a “standard too big to be understood”.
It is this ignorance, despite all the scientific advances that are made each year in the study of the brain, that gives rise to different theories that try to explain exactly what human consciousness is, creating an aura of mystery about what it really is, making it something that sometimes sounds mystical. As a rule, and for the moment, studying consciousness is to scrutinize the neurons and the electrochemical interconnections that they create, the network that forms: that is, to analyze their mechanics.
However, it is precisely this specific type of mechanical analysis that Johnjoe McFadden, a researcher in molecular genetics at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, calls into question. According to him, and as he explains in an essay published in the magazine Aeon, instead of focusing on neurons, in the material part of the brain, we should be looking for human consciousness, where it resides, elsewhere. At where? In the electromagnetic field of the brain. An unconventional view of looking at the question, in a search for more satisfactory answers.
Billions of neurons ‘firing’ atoms and creating pulses of energy through the brain
For this British scientist, the electrical activity recorded by the electroencephalogram that his son was undergoing – for a tumor that proved to be benign – was one of the moments that made him wonder about the nature of human consciousness and what the risks on the paper (the signs of electrical activity) of the exam could say about it.
In the end, what is being detected in one of these typical exams, he says, are the electrical discharges of the brain’s neurons as they are stimulated by different sensory information raised by the outside world. What the brain is doing at the moment of the encephalogram, therefore, is processing information, a lot of information, just like a computer does. However, this alone is not enough to explain, in Johnjoe McFadden’s view, the notion that there is awareness in us, that we know how to be aware. “Computers process a lot of information, however, they never showed the slightest spark of consciousness,” he says.
“It can be argued, of course, as neurobiologists usually do, that even though a single neuron doesn’t know anything [what’s going on], the collection of 100 billion neurons in my son’s brain can know everything and, therefore, they would end up feeling something. But this explanation comes up against the so-called ‘linking problem’, which questions how all the information in millions of neurons widely distributed by the brain [located in different points and brain regions] come together to create a conscious, complex perception, of, for example, a room ”, he concludes.
Another issue that arises, for McFadden, is related to an “omission” that cannot continue to be ignored by the researchers. “Why do we know nothing [we are not aware] of the complex network of information input and processing between immune cells, responsible for deciding what type of immune response our body should implement to protect itself from infection?”
In short, there is a puzzle to be solved, that of trying to understand why there are some types of brain activity capable of conferring awareness and thinking capacity, while others do not. And what makes a particular brain activity so special that it cannot be replicated at an artificial level?
For the scientist at the University of Surrey, the starting point, to start to understand the problem through another angle of approach, is to realize that when a neuron ‘fires’ and interconnects with others, it is, in fact, emitting a signal in the form of electrically charged atoms – these atoms are called ions. These ions, once in motion, enter and leave neurons in a chain reaction. Basically, we are talking about the emission and reception of particles, of matter. So far, nothing new.
For the story in question, it is also interesting to know that when electrically charged atoms travel and spread along a certain path of our brain, they also emit a small pulse of electromagnetic energy in the surrounding space, similar to when we send an SMS by cell phone. In short: in addition to matter, in the form of particles, we also have energy.
It is already known, therefore, that when you hear the window or the door close, for example, a process is triggered that takes billions of neurons and sends signals, at the same time that other billions of small ones are generated electromagnetic pulses in our brain.
All of these pulses of energy, McFadden stresses, come together and end up forming an electromagnetic field: an area covered by an electric current and where magnetic actions are manifested, such as that generated around a magnet. “Something that neurobiologists neglected when probing the nature of consciousness,” she criticizes.
But let’s get to what really matters. “There is a crucial difference between millions of scattered neurons ‘firing’ and the electromagnetic field generated by their ‘firing’”, begins by explaining, and one of the consequences is that “the information encoded by millions of discrete pieces of information, within of millions of scattered neurons, is physically unified within a single electromagnetic field in the brain ”.
A kind of Wi-Fi network from which our conscience emerges?
What follows is pure physics. A Wi-Fi network uses radio waves to transmit information from the Internet, which we receive through a receiver, such as a computer or a smartphone. In other words, waves of electromagnetic radiation (energy), immaterial and containing information, permeate a certain space and are accessible to anyone who has a suitable device to capture and decode the information that, said in an extremely simple way, walks freely through the air.
When in the presence of an electromagnetic field, there may also be information encoded within it, also in an immaterial form – in the form of electromagnetic radiation -, points out Johnjoe McFadden. This is what happens with the electromagnetic field in the brain, which is precisely where the substrate of our consciousness is, she defends.
“Locating consciousness in the brain’s electromagnetic field may seem bizarre, but is that even more bizarre than believing that it resides in the matter?” He writes in the essay for Aeon.
This theory is not new, having been first presented in 2000 by McFadden himself. Since then, some similar theories have emerged on the part of scientists in the fields of neurobiology, neurophysiology, and data science. The most recent scientific article on the subject, authored by the researcher at the University of Surrey, dates from September 2020, having been published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness, linked to the University of Oxford. In it, McFadden updates the theory, based on investigations carried out in the last decade and a half, and deepens it with new ideas and observations.
According to him, the theory of the “electromagnetic field of conscious information” – the one that gave the name CEMI theory – fills some of the holes left open in the study of consciousness.
For example, it serves as an explanation for the aforementioned ‘linking problem’, for the question of how information encoded in billions of neurons (matter), distributed throughout the brain, unites and emerges in the form of a mind. endowed with conscience: unification is done through the electromagnetic field (energy). Within this logic, the experience of hearing a door close is “a disturbance in the electromagnetic field of the brain” that correlates with what has already been memorized and associated, in a network of neurons, as being the closing of a door.
As for the processes of our immune system, there is no record that they produce interactions at the level of the electromagnetic field, and that is why, to believe in the CEMI theory, that from the multitude of information exchanged and processed to defend us against diseases, nothing that emerges contributes to give us conscience.
One of the biggest speculations of the CEMI theory is that our evolutionary history, as a species, may also have dictated which brain activities did or did not confer consciousness and thinking capacity. As our skull was filling up with neurons, some of them, due to the electromagnetic field they formed, may have started to interfere with the field of other neurons, which could be harmful for us, so natural selection may have entered in action and “insulated” some vital neurons – as if a kind of insulating plastic was placed on them, just like the one that exists around electrical wires.
At the same time (and this is another speculation that needs a lot of proof), somewhere in our evolutionary past, and occasionally, “electrical interference may have been beneficial”, promoting interactions in the electromagnetic field that helped to compute pieces of information, coming from the neurons, which once joined has become quite complex. This may have led to an increase in the sensitivity of the brain’s electromagnetic field, but it also created a problem: “different ideas thrown into the brain’s CEMI field interfere, similarly, with each other”, hence our mind is only capable of consciously doing one task at a time. In other words, and as much as we want, we can’t even write a text with complex ideas, on the mobile phone, while driving a car along a busy road.
One of the curious predictions of the CEMI theory is related to artificial intelligence. According to her, or rather, believing in McFadden, computer engineers will not be able, using conventional technology, to create a form of intelligence that emulates that of humans, endowed with some kind of conscience, because the computers used for these purposes try, for efficiency reasons, avoid interference caused by … electromagnetic fields.
A warning. In this theory, there is no room to justify ghosts or telepathy
To avoid confusion and misunderstanding, Johnjoe McFadden, since he introduced the CEMI theory, tries to prevent esoteric ideas from undermining his scientific work. Hence, on his personal website, he gives an answer to anyone who may have more transcendental doubts.
Can the CEMI theory confirm the existence of telepathy? “I am sorry, but no. The electromagnetic field outside the head is too weak and it is highly unlikely that another brain will be able to detect it. And it is even more unlikely that another brain will be able to decode the informational electromagnetic field that has been encoded by our brain (which, I think, is a good thing) ”.
And ghosts? “Definitely not. If ghosts were an electromagnetic field, they would be very easy to detect. Furthermore, electromagnetic fields are generated by charged [electrically] molecules – they don’t walk around without an obvious source. If ghosts were a kind of electromagnetic field, then we would be able to locate the source of the field. ”
Finally, the question that many should already be waiting for. Can the CEMI camp survive death? “It is an interesting question. My hypothesis is that consciousness is the experience of information, from within. There is a postulate in physics that says that information is not created or destroyed – it is the ‘law’ of information conservation. It is, however, just a [scientific] postulate, no one has ever proved it. But, if it is true, it may suggest that consciousness (if associated with the information) – and in a certain way – can survive death. ”
Source: The Brain – Discovering Who We Are (book published in 2015)