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.

6 thoughts on “Consciousness Without a Brain?”

  1. Lukas, are you constantly confronted with people who try to spin natural phenomena as a religious miracle or something? I couldn’t even imagine somebody trying to apply religion to this story without making an extremely weak argument.

  2. Yes I met with people who try to do this several times. Even if you look in some forums or books of the believers they try this. Take for example Terminal Lucidity:

    This is from the site posted above:

    The next speaker, Dr Michael Nahm, a biologist and author of Evolution and Parapsychology , followed with an overview of terminal lucidity based on an impressively wide-ranging survey of literature from Europe (in a number of languages) and the USA, dating from before 1800 to the present day, concerning cases where mental clarity was restored before death in persons with psychiatric and neurological disorders (such as stroke, brain tumour, dementia, schizophrenia, or meningitis). Dr Nahm quoted numerous examples, such as a case of a 91-year old woman, speechless and paralysed after two strokes, who regained mobility and joyfully called out her husband’s name just before she died.

    These phenomena pose far-reaching questions: could all these cases be explained by brain chemistry, or does an alternative explanation for terminal lucidity involve the soul loosening its bonds from the obstructive brain matter acting as a filter or a channel? No firm conclusions were on offer, and the subject awaits investigation.

    I had a discussion sometimes back with a believer who pointed this out and several believers point this as a evidence for dualism. I even posted this on the Skeptical Society and Thinking atheist web-site which they explained me the basics and that this is no evidence for dualism in the first place.

    Now but back to the the argument with Nickolas Coke:

    I had a discussion with believer who pointed out this story and wanted some rational explanation about this. I could not give him none because I never heard of this in the first place. He then began attacking me with this argument:

    Before Nickolas Coke there was this argument for the materialist that mind = brain but Nickolas Coke had no brain. I later replied that he had his brainstem and there could be some form of consciousness and even pointed him out to this site:

    He then replied this: Before Nickolas Coke mind= brain and now mind= brainstem and said that atheists are now in a corner because they are reducing the brain to a brainstem. After that he also said Descartes the founder of dualism said that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul and it is located in the brainstem. So he confused me and pointed that in the end the dualists will win because consciousness is now reduced to the brainstem.

    So this was his argument sorry for the long post but this is how it all happened.

  3. Key phrase right here: “No firm conclusions were on offer, and the subject awaits investigation.” The events described don’t support any specific hypothesis to any significant degree. The obstructive, dying brain matter may have been acting as a “filter or channel” for other brain matter, which worked very well in the few moments before it shut down completely. The range of motion of your arm improves a great deal after you’ve dislocated your shoulder, but in the long term it’s terribly harmful.

    Anyway, back to the Coke story. As we’ve discussed, even after Nickolas Coke there’s no indication of a mind existing within a mere brainstem, besides his mother’s interpretation of either random or instinctual actions.

    That said, Mike the chicken demonstrated long ago that the brainstem has enough neural material to allow an animal to function far beyond Nickolas’ capabilities. Maybe it is possible for a rudimentary mind to form within the brainstem alone, enough to produce a genuine smile or an involuntary chuckle. If that’s true, it means current medical understanding has underestimated the potential of the brainstem as a substitute brain, regardless of how that potential comes about. It does not support the idea that a soul is doing all the work through the brainstem.

    Descartes, assuming from the outset that souls exist, would have asserted that they interact with the brainstem because that’s the one part of the brain a person really can’t live without. That’s good for dualists; if the soul depends on the brainstem as much as actual essential bodily functions then it means nothing that people can’t live without one. Thus, dualism can’t be disproved by dying people, and the soul is conceptually in the safest place it can be.

    Regardless, there is still no unambiguous evidence of the actions of a soul beyond the workings of a partial brain or equivalent, and dualists are still at square one.

    I’d like to know why your believer fellow thinks “dualists will win in the end,” that is, what the next piece of evidence will be that clinches the existence of consciousness with no physical means of support. Mind you, thinking they’ll win in the end is an admission that they haven’t won yet, because there is no evidence or argument to properly convince anyone of dualism who didn’t believe to begin with.

  4. I agree with you SmartLX on this but as a example like Terminal Lucidity believers like to interpret it their way and are likely to point to the supernatural explanation rather to the natural one. Take for example this a thread about Terminal Lucidity on a believers forum:

    Suddenly, the argument that the mind has to equal the brain because Alzheimers can get rid of our memory “cache” seems to hold less credibility. A receiver hypothesis now makes mores sense; these memories were simply inaccessible to the subjects as the result of structural damage, but became accessible near death as the result of some miraculous healing of the structures of the body – as is evident from instances of limb paralysis terminal lucidity.


    Believers always try to find something that is not explained and claim that their receiver hypothesis is more plausible. Besides about Terminal Lucidity it is a normal thing because what I learned it normal lucidity that happens in Alzheimer or dementia several times those who pointed it as a terminal lucidity were only cherry picking normal lucidity cases that happened near death.

  5. Exactly, believers tend to insert their preferred hypotheses into any gaps in scientific knowledge (a la “god of the gaps”) and interpret any results in light of their prior beliefs. Neither of these tactics gets them any closer to establishing that their idea of events is what’s actually happening.

  6. Terminal lucidity is probably just that Lukas – lucidity near the end indicating that the end is near. Its probably the dying gasps of a brain trying to power itself up somehow. I’ve personally seen patches of terminal lucidity in one of my uncles who died due to brain damage … but devout though my family is, none of us attributed it to the soul engaging and disengaging with the ruined /damaged brain. The doctors told us it just happens sometimes.

    A lot of the believers you seem to have encountered are essentially using the “god-of-the-gaps” argument i.e. “We don’t know how to fully explain a rare natural phenomena (or the phenomena is at odds with currently accepted scientific fact) so it points to the existence of a supernatural realm and thus possibly a god.”

    The thing is that science progresses incrementally – explanations/ theories are devised for “aberrant” natural phenomena and tested for their truth. If they are proved correct then they become a part of commonly accepted scientific fact. If not, then the quest for understanding the phenomena continues. This is often the case in physics.
    For e.g. the fact that light below a particular frequency simply cannot knock out the electrons from a conducting plate, no matter how much the intensity (and thus “energy” in the common-man’s sense) of the light pulse used in experiments was a serious puzzle till science came to recognizing and explaining the wave-particle duality of photons.

    The same’s true for the biological sciences I guess, but the unexplained bits in biology are obviously more open to god-of-the-gaps type reasoning. (Not even a true-blue religious apologist would dream up a soul for a photon – though you never can tell with that type of people).

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