Consciousness Without a Brain?

Question from Lukas:

I came across one thing which I had a really hard time explaining and still can’t find the answer.

I hope it doesn’t bother you SmartLX that I have so many questions but I come from Slovakia where there are many people who desperately want to believe in magic and I as a non-believer sometimes must face their challenge. Secondly I want to thank you very much for the answers and this site and I hope you will never stop doing this because its like a shelter for those who want to keep a rational mind in a sometimes irrational world. Thanks very much but now for the question.

The thing I came across is case of Nickolas Coke who according to the media had some form of consciousness:

Nickolas had anencephaly, meaning he was only born with a brain stem. Most babies with that condition are still born or die shortly after birth. But Nicholas lived a remarkable life.

Some of the final images of Nickolas Coke show him smiling at a pumpkin patch. “He was laughing because he thought it was funny that we couldn’t get him to stay still enough to roll off the pumpkins,” said Sherri Kohut, Nickolas’ grandmother.

Taken from:

How this is possible that he has some form of consciousness?? When people with anencephaly is usually blind, deaf, unconscious, and unable to feel pain. Some individuals with anencephaly may have a partial brain stem, which means that certain reflex actions (such as breathing or responding to touch or sound) may occur. However, the lack of a working cerebrum entirely rules out the possibility of ever gaining consciousness.

Taken from:

I even posted this on the Skeptic Society forum. They told me that the grandmother could have interpreted this as a smile and laugh because grandmothers think of their children this way.

Here is the link:

I would like to know your thoughts about this because dualists take this as evidence of their survival hypothesis – because they are taking it that there is no brain but there is a form of consciousness.

Thanks for reading this and your time. Have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Lukas. Successive questions aren’t a problem, especially when we’re not otherwise busy, and it’s great to provide answers when and where they’re needed.

I might have been more impressed by the story of Nickolas Coke if I hadn’t just come back from the local Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, where I was reminded of the story of Mike the Headless Chicken. Briefly, in 1945 a rooster was left with most of his brain stem intact after he was clumsily beheaded for the dinner table, and continued not only to survive but to act exactly like a rooster. He walked, jumped, perched, even tried to preen and crow with the beak he didn’t have. His owners worked out how to feed him through the neck with an eyedropper, and he lasted another 18 months. Very complex behaviours clearly required only a very small and relatively primitive part of the brain. (I just hope the hatchet robbed Mike of the ability to register pain.)

Compare this with Nickolas Coke, who had about as much brain as Mike and apparently did a lot less. There’s video of the kid in your first link; his eyes were open, his mouth and body moved, but his responses to stimuli don’t appear to extend beyond instinct. During the pumpkin patch episode, for example, the fact that they were trying to keep him still might have meant they were physically touching him enough to provoke a primal response to that alone.

There was doubtless some neural tissue in the brain stem performing some of the work of a complete brain (as with Mike) but, as the Society suggests, only a mother could think there was any kind of mind there. In the undeniably fascinating case of Nickolas Coke there nevertheless is little support for mind-brain dualism, so I wouldn’t worry about it.