Roberts, F.S. (1991). Some apparently non-cerebral aspects of consciousness. JSPR 58, 31-38.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Roberts.
List of papers by the author; archived at

Some apparently non-cerebral aspects of consciousness

by F. Somerville Robert

An assessment of some anomalies of visual perception, and of time distortion and regression under hypnosis, based on repeatable experiments, indicates that cerebral activity alone cannot explain their behaviour. The importance of this situation for the mental phenomena of parapsychology is described.

Parapsychology is not regarded as science by general scientific opinion, because it does not meet the one basic requirement of any science discipline. Although its literature is extensive and includes both ample experimental records and authenticated anecdotal accounts, it lacks the one factor necessary to render it acceptable. There is not a single record of a repeatable experiment giving positive results of a paranormal nature. This would indicate that psychical research at present does not cover those areas which might offer prospects of repeatable experiments. In any case, such work would probably be limited to mental experiments because no physical phenomenon examined so far suggests it might yield repeatable results under scientific test conditions.

Paranormal mental phenomena, e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance, apparitions, etc., are dependent on consciousness. It has already been suggested that a better understanding of some aspects of consciousness might open up a new field of psychical research, but so far little work appears to have been done in this direction. Any value in such a suggestion is entirely dependent on the mind being something more than a physical brain, which is dualistic, and the fact that this has never been established could tend to discourage scientific investigators from entering the field of parapsychology.

The academic arguments between materialists and dualists are indecisive because no proof has been advanced to sustain either attitude, although recently Penrose (1989) has put forward a case based on the solid foundation of mathematical deduction, which has been summarised by Smythies (1990) when he says, "Penrose provides compelling arguments [demonstrating that the theory] . . . that any computer of sufficient complexity must think and feel as we do is wrong". Nevertheless, many scientists will only accept as proof results from practical, repeatable experiments carried out under stringent test conditions. One such suitable experiment would put parapsychology firmly on a scientific basis.

Dualism maintains that consciousness includes an element which functions, at least to a certain extent, independently of the brain, although working in co-operation with it. If it can be shown that such an entity exists, or, in a negative fashion, that certain mental events cannot be the result of cerebral activity alone, then acceptance of dualism is difficult to avoid. Such a situation immediately raises questions as to the nature of a non-physical element (which it must be considered to be), and how it works in conjunction with the brain. There has been much discussion of a philosophical, religious and scientific nature on matters of this kind, but it does not arise here because this paper is concerned only with repeatable observations.

If we want to describe anything, we can only do it in physical terms, but clearly a non-physical element has no physical characteristics. It has no weight, dimensions or location, or any such attribute, by which it could be identified. In any case, the question as to where and how a non-physical consciousness functions is meaningless, because the human intellect would be incapable of comprehending such an entity, just as it is incapable of comprehending infinity or eternity—time with no beginning and without end—or a 4-space dimension. However, there is one way by which its existence can be established and that is if it produces observable effects which cannot in any circumstances be attributed to cerebral activity alone.

A close parallel to this situation exists in astronomy. Most people will have heard of black holes. These are bodies of enormous mass and density in distant regions of the universe, yet, as with consciousness, they cannot be detected directly. This is because their intense gravitational fields prevent any kind of informatory signal, such as light, from leaving their surfaces. Within such bodies the laws of physics (as we know them) break down completely, and black holes, again as with consciousness, could be described as 'non-physical'. Their existence is confirmed by the behaviour of other bodies on which they react by gravity. In fact, if gravitation had not been discovered, we would have here an exact replica of the situation which gives rise to the materialist's persistent query to dualists—how does an entity which exhibits no physical characteristics, and which cannot be detected by any kind of instrument, react with a physical system? Whilst no responsible scientist would deny the existence of black holes because they cannot be detected by direct physical observation, many materialists base their convictions on the fact that a non-physical element cannot be detected directly. As Ryle (1950) put it in an emphatic denunciation of dualism, "The experimentalist tries to open its doors [of the mind], but it has no doors. He tries to peep through its windows, but it has no windows. He is foiled." Therefore an undetectable mind does not exist. The logic is false— on this reasoning, black holes also do not exist.

There are phenomena relating to consciousness which strongly suggest that they are affected by a non- observable agent, and one of these is an anomaly of visual perception. In normal perception, light entering the eye falls on the retina, where it acts on the light-sensitive cells. As a result of photo-chemical and electro-chemical reactions, the appropriate electrical impulses travel along the optic nerve to the visual cortex, where they create electrical and molecular patterns. Up to this point materialists and dualists are in agreement, but henceforth they diverge. The former claim there is no step beyond cerebral activity, which in itself constitutes the visual images, whilst the dualists maintain there is a conscious element apart from the brain.

An hypothesis suggesting how this might operate was given by Tyrrell (1953) in his theory of apparitions, and later amplified by Roberts (1989), who indicated the additional wide range of perceptual phenomena which could be explained on this basis. Very briefly, the theory maintains that perceptual experience, whether visual, auditory, tactile, etc., is created within an independent stratum of consciousness, by consciousness itself. The creation and control of such images is determined by what the consciousness believes is the situation, irrespective of the sensory input to the brain and the resulting cerebral activity, which it is able to disregard. The apparent validity of this theory is illustrated by its application to the perceptual anomalies described below.

One of these is the ability to control visual perception by volition or 'will power'. The nature of 'will power' and how it operates are philosophical questions and have no place in this paper, which is concerned only with what happens after volition has taken place and whether it can be explained on a materialist basis. An example of voluntary control is when an observer is watching an object rotating in the line of sight at a suitable speed. Suitable objects for this purpose are radar scanners at airports or on board ships, anemometers and even the rotating advertising signs outside garages. Simply by 'willing' it, or convincing himself that it is so, the observer can, within a few seconds, see the object reverse its direction of rotation.

From the materialist's point of view it could be claimed that the reversed image created by volition is an alternative interpretation by the brain of the sensory clockwise image, and is not a distinct image in its own right. This is not so. Whilst alternative interpretation can plausibly be used to explain the perspective reversal of, say, a Necker cube, it is inapplicable to voluntary perception. A Necker cube is a dimensionally-stable design, and if one straight line crosses another there is nothing to indicate which, when viewed in perspective, is the upper or the lower. With the clockwise-revolving scanner, however, the left arm might be moving away from the observer and decreasing in size, yet at the same time the volition anti-clockwise arm could be created and would actually be seen to be approaching and increasing in size. It is almost impossible to accept that an anti-clockwise image could be created from a clockwise sensory pattern in the brain. The obvious conclusion is that visual images are not necessarily created by a pattern in the visual cortex, but that consciousness creates them within itself. The image we actually see, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, depends on whether volition or the sensory input is the dominant factor. The difficulties which this type of situation create for a physiological theory are extremely formidable.

It is interesting to consider the position when it is claimed that voluntary perception can be explained by the mind-brain identity theory. This theory states that all conscious activity is physical. If this is so, then 'will power' is a physical force which produces a material result. This result is the creation of a brain pattern which might itself constitute the image, or simply initiate it, and in the latter case it is then necessary to accept that the image is composed of some form of physical elements. The exact nature of 'will power', whether it is electro-neural or electro-chemical or some combination, does not affect the issue. The question which arises is how, once the physical initiation by 'will power' has taken place, the ensuing sequence of events will eventually result in a perceptual image.

Unless the visual cortex itself is the source of 'will power', for which there does not appear to be any evidence, there must be another area of the brain in which volition initiates the reversed image. In either case, the volition agency must know exactly how to arrange the brain pattern so that it eventually leads to a reversal of the rotating image. Neural impulses must be despatched to the required area of action, which presumably is within the visual system. There is no established neural path for them to follow, as in the optical system, yet they must not only know of the relevant area and its location within the brain, but find a neural path leading to it. On entering the visual system, these volition signals must recognize the specific cells needed and interpret the direction of rotation. They must then be able to displace the retinal pattern already existing there and impose their own pattern, which is of rotation in the opposite direction. The retinal pattern is a thoroughly reliable organic structure, recording in physical detail the sensory input, yet the incoming volition impulses have the power to supersede it. Moreover, as they do not originate from a sensory source, these signals cannot have acquired through normal channels the information necessary for this operation. As the background is the same in both sensory and controlled images, the volition impulse must know exactly which cells they must avoid in order not to distort the image. Because the rotating volition arm intermittently exposes the sensory background, the volition signals must know the precise instant in which to relinquish their dominance over retinal signals, and allow them to resume normal operation, yet a moment later to reverse the situation.

The is the kind of situation for which the materialist must give a physiological explanation if he wishes to discredit the neo-Cartesian approach. Perhaps the scientist most likely to be embarrassed by this situation is the materialist biologist when asked to describe the evolutionary steps by which such a procedure has developed. The dualist has no such problems. If the retinal pattern shows a clockwise rotation and the consciousness believes this is so, the perception image will rotate clockwise, but if consciousness believes the rotation is anti-clockwise, then the image will be anti-clockwise and there appears to be nothing the optical system can do to alter the situation. Philosophers who claim that all perceptual activity has a physical correlation will no doubt find voluntary perception an interesting study.

Another area of voluntary control, and one possibly even more damaging to the materialist theory, is the phenomenon of auto-kinesis. If a dim light such as a lighted cigarette, or the pilot light of a televison set, is placed at one end of a room in total darkness with the observer at the other, he will, within a few seconds, see the light beginning to move, although, of course, it is stationary. The movement is random and erratic, fast or slow, and it can be in any direction. Several physiological theories have been put forward to explain this phenomenon but none has received general acceptance. However, by the exertion of 'will power' the observer can bring the moving light under control. He can guide it in any direction he wishes, move it fast or slowly, or render it stationary. Most people find that they can carry out this simple experiment.

However, the most significant aspect of auto-kinesis is summed up in a statement by Gregory (1966) to the effect that people tend to see the light moving in the same direction as other people present claim to see it moving. This can be verified by any small group experimenting under the right conditions, and this fact renders invalid any theory based on a physiological function. There could be a group with perhaps a dozen observers each seeing the light moving in the same direction. If the movement is a cerebral action this means that a dozen individuals all suddenly develop exactly the same electro-neural pattern and molecular structure, at precisely the same moment in the same visual areas. If it is claimed that the light movement is the result, for example, of moving particles in the aqueous humour, then every observer must have the same-sized particles in the same place at the same time, moving in the same direction at the same speed, and this extraordinary situation arises every time the experiment is carried out. Even the most convinced materialist must find it difficult to maintain that there is a cerebral process by which random physiological conditions in a number of individuals suddenly and simultaneously coincide, and this applies to all theories based on a physiological function. The dualist has no such difficulties. As already stated, he agrees that the image of the light is initiated by a brain pattern, but claims its behaviour is controlled by what the observer believes. If he 'wills' it and convinces himself (that is, believes) that the light is moving upwards, the image will do so. And if there are a dozen people present and one claims he sees the light is moving upwards, then each person who believes him will also see it moving in that direction, and the result is general agreement in the group.

Other illustrations of the possible dualist nature of consciousness are shown by the phenomena of time distortion and regression under hypnosis. A considerable number of experiments undertaken by investigators of the highest standard have shown that a suitably-hypnotized subject is able to perform mental feats, or experience perceptual activity, in a fraction of the time required in a normal conscious state. As a result of their experimental work, two distinguished investigators, Cooper and Erickson (1952; see also Cooper, 1952), came to the conclusion that the amount of mental effort which could be undertaken, or halhicination experienced, in the subjective period of duration, was "greatly in excess of what the worldly time interval would ordinarily permit". Cheek and LeCron (1968) found that a child can be told he is going to see again (when under hypnosis) his favourite TV programme, and he will experience the detailed viewing of an hour's programme in a few seconds. The veracity of this situation has been confirmed by many different experiments and observations.

An interesting and somewhat amusing confirmation of this fact is recorded by Cheek and LeCron (1968), who relate how a ten-year-old boy was hypnotized and told he was going to see, as an hallucination, a film normally lasting two hours which he had already seen, within a matter of ten minutes. The boy suddenly began to lift his hand to his face and then drop it, and repeated this action innumerable times, all with the greatest speed physically possible. On being awakened, he was asked what he had been doing, and replied that he had been eating popcorn during the performance.

If such hallucinatory experience is the result of brain activity, the relevant area of the cortex will have to increase its rate of operation in some cases by a hundred times. The firing of neurons, the transmission of electrical impulses and all chemical reactions must suddenly operate at immense speed. The energy requirement of such a situation will be increased accordingly, necessitating a hundred-fold increase in the blood supply. It is doubtful whether the brain could function in these conditions. Dissipation of the energy would generate heat and raise the temperature, great pressures would develop in the blood-supply system and inevitably co-ordination would break down; yet the experimental work clearly shows that the perceptual images created are completely unaffected and remain indistinguishable from normal hallucinatory and sensory perception. Moreover, this remarkable change in the brain's operating conditions is not brought about by any sensory input, but by a state of 'belief generated within the consciousness. Cerebral activity can speed up for a brief period to meet the demands of a sudden emergency, but certainly not to the extent demanded by time distortion.

The ability to re-experience an event under hypnosis is not limited to activity immediately prior to the recall, and this applies to both normal physical time and distorted perceptual time. Suitable subjects can be regressed many years, or even decades, yet they will describe the hallucinatory experience with the same detailed clarity as if it were just taking place. There is every probability that subjects regressed to childhood or adolescence actually re-experience the suggested event. This is shown by their way of speaking, their movements (as far as age will allow), their general demeanour, their ability to name all the class-mates of fifty years ago, or even more, whom they are 'seeing' around them in their childhood classroom. Above all there is the childish handwriting, laboriously written, which could never be achieved except by a most accomplished forger.

It has been claimed that hypnotized subjects can be regressed to periods before they were born, and sometimes even hundreds of years previously. They are able to relate experiences with the same detailed clarity as with regression to adolescence, and this has given rise to claims that events in previous lives are being re-experienced. However, there does not appear to be any sound evidence to support this theory. In any case it obviously assumes the existence of many factors which do not arise with 'normal' regression, such as acceptance of reincarnation.

It is interesting to note that this type of 'regression' is an expected manifestation of Tyrrell's 'idea-pattern' theory of perception. If a mature subject is regressed to adolescence and instructed to describe, say, what he was doing on his eighteenth birthday, his consciousness will have available a detailed experience existing within itself and will relate that event exactly as experienced. If, however, the subject is instructed that he is re-experiencing a visit to a French town in the seventeenth century, his consciousness will believe that this is so, but will have no record of the event. It will therefore try to construct the required scene from such traces within itself as it has acquired from books, visits, films, television, etc., and the subject will then describe a situation which he believes he is experiencing at that moment.

The important question is whether or not regression is some heightened form of memory retrieval. It is most unlikely. During the intervening period of, say, fifty years, the memory areas of the brain, like all physiological processes, will have deteriorated. Memories will inevitably have faded, become vague, shadowy and distorted, and sometimes disappeared altogether. In contrast, the regressed account is clear, vivid, detailed and accurate. In order to explain this situation it is sometimes claimed that the detailed memories are stored in the subconscious, or in even deeper and deeper levels of consciousness, in a way different from normal memory. This theory is invalid. If regressed hypnotic hallucinations are a form of cerebral activity, then irrespective of whatever area of consciousness is involved, that area of the brain must deteriorate with the passing years. The second law of thermodynamics applies just as inexorably to physiological activity as to cosmological. However, observation shows there is apparently no deterioration in regressed experience and, if this is so, it is difficult to regard it as a physiological function. Whether or not there is any deterioration in retrieval under hypnosis could possibly be determined experimentally (see Appendix for an example of such a test).

Hallucinatory perception appears indistinguishable from sensory perception in the sense that both are equally real to the observer. To the hypnotized subject, hallucinatory solid objects are three-dimensional and can be handled, hallucinatory flowers have fragrance, hallucinatory food can taste delicious, and so on, yet these perceptual experiences do not arise from the appropriate sensory sources. Sometimes all the senses simultaneously participate in an hypnotic hallucination, and physiologically it is necessary to explain how a varying air pressure on the subject's ear-drum can generate a response in the five sense areas of the brain and merge them into a single perceptual experience. The dualist theory is comparatively simple. As a result of the hypnotist's suggestion that, for example, there are flowers on a table where there are none, the subject will believe there are flowers there and will be able to see, smell and touch them, irrespective of what the retinal and cerebral systems are signalling.

In addition to the extremely difficult task of finding a physiological basis for the perceptual anomalies described above, there is the equally formidable task of explaining how in the first place the faculties came into existence through evolution. For example, according to the tenets of evolution as at present accepted, the phenomena of controlled perception and hypnotic experience simply could not exist at all, inasmuch as they could not have evolved physiologically. All organs and faculties originating from a mutation mUst bestow advantages on their parent body as otherwise they do not develop. Controlled perception, hypnotic experience and all similar phenomena have no advantages whatsoever; in fact, in some circumstances, they can be distinctly disadvantageous. In addition, any faculty which does evolve must remain in constant and vigorous usage as otherwise it will atrophy and die away, but voluntary and hypnotic perception do not follow this natural law. Although they have been lying dormant for countless generations, practically everybody has the ability to use them to their fullest extent. Again, there is no reason to believe that the faculties have deteriorated since their inception. This means that as physiological functions they would contravene the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all physical processes must change and deteriorate with the passage of time. With a non-organic function, of course, this stipulation would not apply, as appears to be the case.

In addition to the fact that consciousness derives no advantage from hypnotic hallucinations, time distortion, etc., it must be remembered that they function only in the artificial and unnatural conditions of the hypnotic state. It is obvious that these conditions are so remote from the circumstances in which organic evolution takes place as to render their evolutionary development quite impossible.

It is thus clear that there are activities of consciousness which could not have originated physiologically and which in their functioning apparently contravene the laws of physics. For this reason they fall within the scope of the Society's interests, being faculties of man which appear inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis. Perhaps their examination without prejudice or prepossession, and in a scientific spirit, would open up new fields in both parapsychology and philosophy.


An experiment to indicate whether there is any deterioration in regressive recollection compared with the original experience.
The conditions required are: (I) a competent hypnotist, (2) a suitable adult subject having samples of his or her childhood handwriting, and (3) the services of an expert on handwriting.
Procedure: The subject, who must be free from muscular infirmity, is regressed to the time when he wrote the samples of childhood handwriting available. He is asked to write the same text. If expert opinion decides they are different, then it may be taken that the originating agency has changed in the intervening years and could be related to organic memory. If, however, it is maintained that the two sets of handwriting are identical, then the area of consciousness involved is not subject to physiological change and decay, indicating that it does not have an organic basis.

Ash ford, Kindlestown Hill
Delgany, Co. Wick low

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LeCron (éd.). New York : Citadel Press.
- Cooper, L. F. and Erickson, M. H. (1952) Time distortion in hypnosis II. In Experimental
Hypnosis L. M. LeCron (ed.). New York : Citadel Press.
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apparitions. JSPR 56(820), 216-221.
- Ryle, G. (1950) The Concept of Mind P. Laslett (ed.). Oxford : Basil Blackwell.
- Smythies, J. R. (1990) Mind, brain, space, time: an essay review of Roger Penrose's The
Emperor's New Mind. JSPR 56 (820), 229-234.
- Tyrrell, G. N. M. (1953) Apparitions. London: S.P.R./Duckworth.