160. Dr. Christof Koch on Human Consciousness and Near-Death Experience Research

Interview with Cal Tech professor and author of the upcoming, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist,  Dr. Christof Koch.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Christof Koch, author of, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.  During the interview Dr. Koch discusses the limits of near-death experience research for understanding consciousness:

Dr. Koch: …once again it’s all about the details. The only way you can do such an experiment would be to have a near-death experience while your brain waves are being recorded, while you’re in a brain scanner. Because otherwise, how do I know? Otherwise, the guy wakes up an hour later, right, and then you ask what happened to his brain an hour before. Of course, an hour before he wasn’t in the brain scanner. So the only way to do the experiment is while you’re having this near-death experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Great. And that makes it impossible to do the experiment. We’re back to ground zero. But hold on. I don’t think that’s the case. You referenced the GLOC experiments with the pilots. Well, by deduction you’re incorporating in human experience. You’re saying that of course, which is obvious, people can say what happened to them.

The other thing about it is that they have this continuity of experience, right? They say, “Oh, I was awake and then I started blacking out and then this happened and then I woke up.” They have a continuous experience. Now you can say they recreated that continuous experience after they woke up but the burden is really on you, especially when it’s consistently reported as a continuous experience. Why would we assume that it’s not continuous? That’s the way it’s being reported.

Dr. Koch: When I go to bed I suddenly wake up inside and I fly. I just did this tonight. I have no experience of the intervening two hours, right? So suddenly I’m flying. Well, wonderful. So now what? So now you’re going to say it’s not up to you to find out through which space that I flew? No. I have this experience every night. My brain gives rise to all sorts of experiences. Of course I realize them. I don’t deny them for one second. But they’re caused by specific brain activity.

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Today we welcome Dr. Christof Koch to Skeptiko. Dr. Koch is recognized as one of the world’s leading consciousness researchers. He has a very distinguished academic career and was a Caltech professor before becoming the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Christof, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.

Dr. Koch: My pleasure, Alex.

Alex Tsakiris: Christof, along with the late Nobel Prize winning co-discoverer of DNA, the famous Francis Crick, you are known as being one of the pioneers in straight-ahead attacking the question of consciousness from a very scientific, neurobiological perspective. The first question is why was that such a radical idea? And is it still such a radical idea to approach it in this head-on way?

Dr. Koch: No, I mean, once you think about it it’s a totally commonsensical idea to approach it that way. We know since we’ve come up with ideas–unlike the ancient Greeks, we do know that the brain has a very close relationship to mind. We know this because for instance if you damage your brain you will damage your mind. If you knock your brain out you will become unconscious.

So we know there’s a very intimate relationship with the brain and with the mind so then it’s really just another step to say, “Well, let’s try to understand at the very mechanistic level what is the exact relationship between mind, particularly conscious mind or any one specific conscious experience and the specific brain mechanism.”

So Francis Crick used this idea of NCC, the neuronal correlate of consciousness, which is the minimal neuronal mechanism that are sufficient to give rise to conscious experience. So when I have the conscious experience of listening to you, Alex, the claim is that there is some neurons in my head or some mechanism, some physical mechanism in my head, inside my skull, that gives rise to this unique experience of listening to you.

When I listen to my son or when I listen to the Queen of England or when I hear a symphony or when I see the red sunset, those are all distinct conscious experiences and they all must be caused by something in my brain. So the question is, what is common among all those?

You know, if I look at all those experiences, what’s common to all the neural correlates? Do they always activate the same sets of neurons? Do they always activate neurons in a similar mode? What is it about these mechanisms that ultimately we are those mechanisms, and what is it about these mechanisms that gives rise to these different conscious experiences?

Alex Tsakiris: In your upcoming book which has a working title of, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, which by the way, I love that title. I hope your editor sticks with it.

Dr. Koch: It is coming out two months from now under that title.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great, great! So one of the reasons I really was drawn to that title is of course because it talks about this idea of Reductionism, this idea that we can reduce consciousness to brain function like you just talked about. But that title, it also suggests that this might be a romantic idea—almost maybe a passé idea. Is it? Is it a romantic idea that we can reduce consciousness to brain function?

Dr. Koch: No. That’s not a romantic idea at all. That’s sort of everyday business for brain scientists. The assumption is, as I said before, that your brain, and only your brain—not your liver, not other parts of your body—give rise to specific conscious experience. What’s romantic with the title is that it’s something else that doesn’t really directly relate to consciousness. It relates to the fact that I do believe that where the universe has some meaning intrinsic to the universe and the question is where does this meaning come from? And that’s what romantic refers to in the title.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m going to try and push it back to the other definition of romantic because in the last few years, of course, there’s been this chorus—maybe a faint chorus—among some researchers and academics who have suggested that Reductionism and Materialism are dead.

Even one of your great mentors, Francis Crick, in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, wrote, “There is always a third possibility that the facts support a new alternative way of looking at the mind/body problem that is significantly different from the…” I love this, “…rather crude Materialistic view that many neuroscientists hold today and is also different from the religious point of view.” What do you think of that quote?

Dr. Koch: Yeah, and I adopt that and so I take the point of view that ultimately that consciousness is something real; it’s ontologically distinct. It’s different from the brain that gives rise to it. So when my tooth hurts I have a feeling of pain. That is different from the neural mechanism that gives rise to pain. Those are two different things. They’re not the same. They relate to each other and the way they relate to each other is through this idea of information.

That ultimately what matters, what gives rise to consciousness and conscious experience is a particular type of complex information positing. It leads ultimately to the complexity of the underlying system that gives rise to consciousness, whether it’s a human brain or it’s a fetal brain or it’s the brain of a monkey or mouse or a bee. They all have some intrinsic measure of complexity which one causes to define mathematically and we live in a universe where complexity by and of itself gives rise to conscious experience.

This is a very nontraditional view. It’s a view that one can quantify, that you can measure. You can compute this in principle. I find it a very elegant view but it’s a view that’s quite different from the sort of standard Materialistic view that there’s only matter and energy in the universe. If you say there’s matter and energy and there’s the physics of my brain but then in addition to the physics of my brain, there’s this experience and the experience comes out of complexity.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, but I think there’s a lot of folks who would on one hand commend that and on the other hand say there’s a lot of hand-waving that goes on when we talk about this third way. And what we’re really looking at is a need to break completely from the Materialistic model. I mean, Nature 446, “Test of Nonlocal Realism.” Also some folks we’ve had on this show, Ed and Emily Kelly, The Irreducible Mind. The end of materialism is something we hear bubbling up in a number of different ways.

Are you trying to find a middle ground there that doesn’t really hold? Don’t we have to consider abandoning more completely this idea of Materialism?

Dr. Koch: I don’t see any reason for that. I mean, day to day we can explain an ever-larger number of facts about the mind based on the underlying brain. We can explain quite minute aspects of your visual perception, for example, that relate to very minute aspects of your brain. We can explain how a particular type of illusions correlate with the thickness of your visual cortex. So there are some beautiful examples where specific aspects of your conscious perception can be shown to relate directly to physical correlates in the brain or to molecular correlates in the brain.

The way you see color and the way I see color. There’s a 50-50 chance that you and I have a slightly different photo—that we have one mutation in our photo receptors that mediate the sense of air and that this minute single-point mutation gives rise to discreet differences in our conscious perception of air. We have many, many instances of these beautiful, very specific sometimes even causal relationship between the physics of the brain, the biophysics and the molecuology of the brain and our conscious perception.

So given all this, why should I abandon this method that works so spectacularly well? I admit there are many, many things we can’t explain right now. It’s no question about it. But just like anywhere else in science, slowly, bit by bit we’re explaining more and more. I see no reason to abandon this so-far very successful program.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I hear you and there are wonderful advancements. But as you and I know, the real action is always going to be on the edge, you know? So great, you’re tackling the hard problem of consciousness. But what keeps creeping into my head and makes it harder for me to really totally buy into what you’re saying is the harder problem of consciousness. That is, how do we explain these human experiences that do seem to keep popping up that are completely at odds with the way the brain works?

I sent you earlier this morning, and I don’t know if you had a chance to listen to it, a clip from Bernardo Castro, who was a recent guest on Skeptiko. I think that leads into the point that I’m trying to make here. If I can I’d like to play that clip for you and then get a response. Is that okay?

Dr. Koch: Okay. I did read the website.

Alex Tsakiris: Why don’t I play the clip and I’ll edit it back in so it sounds better but at least it’ll freshen your mind. You can respond either to the clip or the website. They’re really the same. Let me go ahead and play this, all right?

“The current paradigm says that conscious experience is a phenomenon or by-product generated by brain activity so you should be able to always find a tight correlation between conscious states as reported by the subject and measureable brain states as measured for instance with an FMRI scanner. Usually this correlation is there but there are instances like this study that you alluded to in the U.K. where this correlation is not there in a very spectacular and repeatable way.

Now, this breaks the correlation. The paradigm would require that an unfathomable experience, any experience what-so-ever actually, should be correlated with brain activity and excitation of the brain, not a dampening down. That is a fundamental break with the paradigm as I see it and there is no way of escaping from this.”

Dr. Koch: All right, I don’t know this experiment that he’s referring to. I would have to read it to comment specifically on that. I’m not aware of any major such paradigm shift that’s going on. Although pretty much know all the research going on in the field but let me say something general. In general he assumes that consciousness involves excitation of the brain but not dampening.

That is a naïve notion that Sigmund Freud incidentally had in the very famous unpublished letter in 1895 talking about the energy levels, positive/negative energy. Of course not that much was known about electricity and synaptic activity in the brain.

Let me tell you that’s wrong because otherwise you would have to argue that the electric brain, when your entire brain is hyper-synchronized and massively electrically discharged would be hyper-conscious because that’s the maximum amount of positive activity you can have in your brain. But of course usually people do have an epileptic seizure unconscious.

The consciousness that I speak of is complex interaction among the brain. They can be excited or inhibitory. It’s symmetry that it all has to be excitation or all inhibition. It’s just differentiated. It’s just a pattern of different neurons, some fire, some don’t fire. In this differential pattern different conscious experiences emerge.

When the brain is all active then you have an epileptic seizure and you’re unconscious. When the brain is all shut off like during a certain traumatic case like a certain kind of vegetative state, people who are in coma, the EG is flat and the cortex is all shut off, again you are unconscious. So it’s somewhere it is a differential active pattern of activity.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I don’t want to take this too far because you haven’t had a chance to read the research. I don’t think that’s quite a fair characterization of what Bernardo was going for. If I can I’ll slip in a little bit of a quote from the original research of Professor David. Anyway, here’s what he says about his experiments where they gave psilocybin, hallucinogenic mushrooms to their patients:

“We thought when we started that psilocybin would activate different parts of the brain but we haven’t found any activation anywhere. All we’ve found are reductions in blood flow.”

So he was quite surprised. I think this also relates to some other guests we’ve had on this show. We had a nice chat before this interview that you were nice enough to take part of, and we talked about the near-death experience.

I don’t want to get into that too much but we did have an interview a few weeks back with a former Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon, very, very highly qualified guy named Eben Alexander, who had a very traumatic spinal meningitis, almost died, measurably no blood flow, no brain activity, and has this overwhelming unconscious experience. Of course, then there’s Jill Bolte Taylor who wrote the famous Stroke of Insight bestseller book. Same thing.

We have this pattern that emerges again and again where there’s reduced brain function. A situation where we would expect dramatically reduced brain function…

Dr. Koch: No, no, no! Let me correct that. The only way you can do this experiment is to follow it. You have to put a patient inside a magnetic scanner because a magnetic scanner by itself is a very crude device and we know in a lot of cases where what you see in the scanner doesn’t cause—all these brain scanners they’re cool devices but they’re very crude.

They look at brain blood flow; they don’t look at the underlying neural activity. Very often it can be associations between the underlying neural activity and the so-called epiMODE BOLD signal. They often don’t correspond nicely to each other because you’re looking at power consumption; you’re not looking at the underlying neutral activity. It’s very important…

Alex Tsakiris: Wait, wait. They do. They are highly correlated. There may be some differences but the whole basis of that research suggests that in every experiment with both animals and humans we’ve found there’s a very tight correlation in there.

Dr. Koch: No, I’m sorry. That’s just not the case. There are many cases when you can go in the cerebellum and image that. There are well-known cases. I’m not telling you anything that’s not accepted. This is widely known. Sometimes you can simultaneously record with a microelectrode. You can only do this in monkeys and animals. You record at the same time with a microelectrode and while the animal is in an FMI scanner. You can see the associations.

When you have some sets of neurons that fire very vigorously but the overall brain activity doesn’t follow that. Or the converse. You can get this association in general and very often there’s no question there is a reliable relationship between neural activity and FMRI and the FMI signal. But that certainly not always the case. In each case one has to investigate it. This is what the community does. This is not magic; this is well known. The fact that the signal correlates, often it does correlate but in each specific case you have to do—particularly if it gets controversial you have to go and look at what the underlying neurons did because…

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, okay, okay, maybe. But I just hate to lose the overall picture because this is a point that’s been brought up on this show many times. We actually went out and interviewed one of the foremost EEG experts, Dr. John Greenfield. He’s written several books on this topic and he…

Dr. Koch: But that is EEG. No, no…

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I know, EEG. But the FMRI research–the FMI tools that follow it and I just think you said it there and I don’t want to drag out and make a big deal out of a very small point. But the whole reason that we use these tools is because there is this correlation most of the time. So you’re saying when there is a difference we do have to investigate it and make sure that it isn’t some exceptional situation. But for the most part there is that correlation. That’s why these tools are so effective, right?

Dr. Koch: Yeah. That’s why I use them. I do FMRI and we publish on it. Okay so that’s point #1. But the details do matter. Science is all about the details. If the details don’t work out, the entire method doesn’t work. So one has to investigate those details. It’s absolutely essential.

Second, in all these near-death experiences, there was a study done in 1942 by the Navy where they wanted to find out in “volunteers” how long does it take for the average male if you suffocate them around the neck—you put a collar electrode around the neck and pull it tight–how long does it take for the average healthy American male to faint? It takes them seven seconds as it turns out, okay? Now, remarkably some of these volunteers when they wake up they had very intense experiences.

You have the same thing in test pilots in the 50s and 60s, they spin them at very high G’s to train them for the astronaut programs until 6, 7, 8 G’s. They faint; they wake up. Intense experiences. Usually these are not of a religious nature so they’re not called near-death experiences because people don’t think they’re dying. But they’re very intense experiences.

So what happens in all of these cases, the brain wakes up, right? It becomes unconscious; the blood flow goes out and then slowly the blood flow resumes within a few seconds. If it’s more than eight or ten seconds you’re in big trouble. It resumes and then different parts of the brain boot up at different times. It’s not that there’s zero activity. There is of course activity there and it’s differential activity. And so the brain, some parts of the brain are still off-line; some parts of the brain are slowly getting online. The brain is trying to make sense of it and a certain fraction of the time people recall these intense experiences.

If you’re 18 you interpret this experience just like a dream. But if you’re 18, you’re about to die, you’re concerned with life and death and you give it a religious experience. But it’s just what the brain does every night. In the privacy of my head I have vivid experiences. I fly, I walk through the night, I walk through walls. But I don’t assume there’s another alternative where I actually fly. I know it’s my brain that gives rise. It’s my activity in the brain that gives rise to these vivid experiences.

Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough. I don’t want to get too sidetracked on this but I do have to say that I could take the very same data that you’re looking at and offer what I think is a better explanation for it, which is in every case that you’re talking about and the parallels are interesting between the near-death experience and the GLOC experiments where they put the pilots into g-force both in both cases there was this reduced blood flow, this reduced brain activity, that led to this super-conscious experience.

So you’re talking about the precision that we need in investigating it and the timeline is important but all the accounts that we have, both from them and from the near-death experiencers put that experience at the time when the brain was shut down, not when the brain is recovering. So we’re both here filling in that gap and saying where we think it is, but you don’t have any hard evidence that suggests that the sequence of things is exactly the way that you said during boot-up, do you?

Dr. Koch: No because nobody has done—all these experiments that you were telling me about, that I am telling you about have not been the way to do it. You have to induce in such an experience in a patient or in a subject while they are being EG monitored, while they’re being epiMODE monitored, okay? So you have to look at the exact time clock. See, because afterwards if I wake up 10 minutes later and then I see I have to explain, it’s impossible to assign the timeline.

The only way to assign the timeline you have to do high position temporal precise judgment and measurement while the subject has this experience, not after the fact. I mean, the claim is very simple and so far it doesn’t explain all the known facts about the claim that at any one particular time the differential pattern of brain activity doesn’t even matter whether some part of the brain is suppressed or not.

What matters overall is the differential pattern, the fact that some nuance, not brain region, not FMRI, but that some neurons are firing where many of the neurons are not firing. At that given point in time that experience gives rise to conscious sensation. I know people want to believe, there are all sorts of reasons for believing…

Alex Tsakiris: Don’t go there. Let’s just stop there. Don’t go with people won’t want to believe because we can turn that around. Let’s move on. We can’t wrestle that one to the ground. I can’t let you go with people want to believe because we can argue that until the cows come home.

Instead, let’s turn back to your book because it’s a fascinating book and it also brought up another essay that you wrote which I’d love to quote but I’m not allowed to cite here because you put a ban on anyone citing it. It’s an essay titled, “Religion and Science: Trying to Nail My Colors to the Mast.” It’s really fascinating; it’s surprising I think for a lot of people who know you and would read this.

But I guess people who know you more closely wouldn’t be surprised because these ideas keep bubbling up throughout your work. Such things as God and your Catholic upbringing and your love of beauty and family and all good things that feely-touchy people like to talk about. And also your musings on what might come after death. Tell us this other side of Christof Koch here and what you’re really trying to get at.

Dr. Koch: I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family so I always this dilemma. I was trying to reconcile my Sunday experience going to church and thinking about extra-temporal matters with my experience in the lab and as a scientist in the world at large. There were really two different worldviews and therefore not easy to reconcile.

And so it took me a while, several decades of my life, to live with this dilemma until—I discuss this in my book. Finally I do have now a single set of moralistic worldview, as it were, which is quite different from the worldview I grew up with which was maybe very comforting but just is not consistent with what I perceive to be the known facts about the universe.

Alex Tsakiris: Oh come on now. There’s more there in this essay and what looks like is coming in this book are more—I don’t know—philosophical musings about God, about what our relationship is to some higher order of understanding that may be out there. Also to what might come after death. I’m not saying that you’re pointing to any religious conversion on your part because you’re not, but there’s more there.

Dr. Koch: As far as I know, when I die that’s it. Unless I can resurrect my brain in some sort of computer—you know, what people call the singularity and I can reconstitute my consciousness in some sort of different medium but otherwise once my brain dissolves, my consciousness dissolves. It’s an unfortunate fact of life. I wish it were other, but that’s the way it looks. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

It takes some deep and elementary organizing principle that created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose that I can’t comprehend and I personally grew up and called this entity God but it’s really much closer to Spinoza’s God than it is to the God of Michelangelo’s painting. The great quote by the mystic Angelos Sikelianos who’s a 16th Century mystic and he has this quote, “God is elusive. Nothing, no null, no here can touch Him.” So that’s more of my view of all things.

We do live in this universe and that gives rise to matter and then matter begins to reflect upon itself and becomes conscious and becomes self-conscious. So that’s all a great mystery but I just don’t see any evidence that once my brain dissolves, my brain is just going to return to the rest of the matter that makes up the universe but my consciousness, this ephemeral thing, some of my feeling, that will dissipate.

Alex Tsakiris: But you do seem to allude to—and correct me if I’m wrong and just tell me where you’re coming from—on the notion of there being some higher order of decision-making, of free will, of direction in this brain functioning, in this biological robot.

Dr. Koch: I don’t know what you mean by robot.

Alex Tsakiris: This is a Richard Dawkins term that becomes—I mean, you don’t fully engage in the culture war, the science and religion war, but I think you do in this book a little bit. But the folks who do, the front-line soldiers, Richard Dawkins, are quite direct about the implications of this position that you have. And that is that we are essentially biological robots. We do not have free will. We do not have any real sense of directing or creative force. It’s a biological function of who we are.

So you have two children who are grown and have moved away but it sounds like you had a wonderful relationship and miss them. When you put them down in bed at night and you saw the love in their eyes and the connection between you and them, you knew that was completely false. It was fake. Not fake, I shouldn’t say but it was purely a biological function. There is nothing more to that than neurons and chemicals coursing through the veins.

So I don’t know where you sit on all that. You seem to have a couple of different views where you hold to that idea of the biological robot but you do want to sneak in some other ideas that there might be more than that. Or maybe I’m misreading you.

Dr. Koch: Well, Alex, those are all very loaded terms. I mean, if you use “robot,” that’s a very loaded term. And if you use the idea of soul that’s a very loaded term. Those are all very culturally loaded terms and provoke a very strong emotional relationship to these terms. And Dawkins exploits that.

We are biological organisms and our brain is part of the rest of the universe. It’s not a different kind and I’m related to all the rest of the universe. My brain is closely related to that of a dog and to many other creatures. That doesn’t make this less glorious a life and that doesn’t make my love for my children less meaningful. You can call it robot, you can call it soul. One way you can think about it, the modern conception of the brain is an information-depositing device that gives rise to these conscious sensations.

You can see that as the modern incarnation of the soul. It has all the aspects of the soul. It’s linked to the brain but it’s different from the brain. It represents my pure unconscious state; ultimately my soul has access to all my personal memories. The one thing it’s not, it doesn’t last after death. It’s not the old tripodal edition of the body and soul and mind. It’s linked to my body and when my body dissolves my soul will also dissolve. I think that’s just the way the universe seems to be. That doesn’t make my relationship to the universe any less meaningful.

Alex Tsakiris: Of course it does by definition. I mean, someone that claims that your relationship to the universe is more and that we’re all connected and that consciousness somehow, in some way, survives death, I think that is more meaningful, because by definition your understanding, your cosmology, there is no meaning. There is no meaning to your existence kind of by definition. You’re just this biological entity that goes on. There’s no purpose to your life, right?

That’s all philosophical and I appreciate the fact that you want to push philosophical arguments to the side and get down to the science because I do, too. But I can’t let you just say that they’re equal because they’re really not.

Dr. Koch: Oh no, they’re not equal. I didn’t say they’re equal. I didn’t mean to imply they’re equal. They’re just different conceptions of the universe. There’s a very famous young Lichtenstein, the meaning of the universe cannot be found in the universe if there is such a meaning, right? So to me it’s a meaning called universe. To many others it is and to others it isn’t so that’s the metaphysics and it’s a question of personal belief.

The only thing we can really ascertain for sure are the facts about biology and the facts about the brain. I think they’re really quite solid and I really don’t see any need to abandon that. We have to continue to refine our views of the relationship between the biology of the brain and consciousness. We have to refine our views on causal affectation on other conscious sentient creatures such as computers or the Internet, etc. There are a lot of interesting ideas there going on.

But I see in principle no objective scientific reasons or empirical reasons to abandon this view that’s served us spectacularly well over the last several hundred years. Once again, there are many things it doesn’t explain yet but I’m very confident that in the fullness of time it will explain all of those things.

Alex Tsakiris: Promissory notes, okay. No, that’s very good and it’s certainly a well-articulated point of view on your part. Tell us a little bit more about what’s going on for you. You’ve taken a position pretty recently at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. What is your role there and what’s coming up for you in terms of this book and what’s going to be associated with that?

Dr. Koch: I continue to be at Caltech and here and the Allen Institute. Here at the Allen Institute we’re starting a very large project focused on trying to understand the cortex itself. What makes us so different, or what makes mammals so successful is the cerebral cortex of this planar, two-dimensional sheet of neurons that’s unique to mammals and expands rapidly. We don’t even have the biggest. Like whales and dolphins have even bigger cerebral cortexes. We’re trying to understand it.

As I mentioned before, you can’t be understanding all that well using brain scanning. That’s a cool device but it’s still relatively crude. So the way to do it is to try to engineer brains. Of course, this we can only do with animal brains such as mice. We can essentially do a brain CD. We can watch every single neuron as the animal behaves.

My personal interest continues to be consciousness in a mouse. To me there’s no doubt that a mouse is also conscious. It doesn’t have the same consciousness as you or I. Its brain is much simpler but it’s going to have conscious smells and conscious sights and conscious sounds and it’s going to be scared when it hears a big animal or cat approaching. So there we can study things like memory and consciousness in a much more precise way than we can ever hope to do in people.

At Caltech we continue to do brain imaging. We do other techniques with single neurons in patients during surgery. Once again we can establish, we’ve found these so-called “Jennifer Aniston” neurons where we can find very, very specific neurons in the human brain that respond to very specific things such as the sight of Jennifer Aniston or somebody else that you’re very familiar with. But it’s another beautiful example of the very specific relationship between a set of neurons and a conscious experience. In this case, yes that’s Jennifer Aniston or it’s the Queen of England, but at the level now of an individual nerve cell we can find this beautiful correlation.

Alex Tsakiris: And the book out in a couple of months you say, right?

Dr. Koch: Yeah, the book Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist will be out in two months from now, yes.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, again I thank you so much for joining me today. It’s a fascinating discussion and I really appreciate the way that you engage these topics. Thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. Koch: All right. You’re welcome, Alex. Take care.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, Christof, great. Really appreciate it. Have a good rest of the day. Hope it melts down there. Well, what? Come on, tell me.

Dr. Koch: Well, I hope it’s also melts. I hope you got what you wanted.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, you know, it’s not—I mean, yes. Get what you wanted—I don’t think you’re fully engaging the data but that’s just the argument that we’re going to have. I mean, even Alexander from Harvard, neurosurgeon, top-notch, Harvard Med School, he’s no dummy. So he has a near-death experience. To deny these experiences and just say, “It’s the brain booting up.” Hey, he went and looked at that as extensively as he could. He went back and looked at all his—he tears people’s brains apart for a living.

He believed like you did. He went back and re-examined all his work over the years and said, “You know what? I was wrong.” These experiences cannot be explained in the way that you’re explaining them. So to kind of brush that aside and just push it off the table with, “No, no, no, it’s rebooting of the brain,” I don’t think that’s quite going to hold.

Dr. Koch: I’ve never denied. I’ve written about this somewhere. I do not deny the reality of the psychological reality of people having this…

Alex Tsakiris: That’s not what he’s talking about, Christof! He’s not talking about the psychological effects. He’s a fricking neurosurgeon, man! He’s talking about what happened to his brain.

Dr. Koch: …once again it’s all about the details. The only way you can do such an experiment would be to have a near-death experience while your brain waves are being recorded, while you’re in a brain scanner. Because otherwise, how do I know? Otherwise, the guy wakes up an hour later, right, and then you ask what happened to his brain an hour before. Of course, an hour before he wasn’t in the brain scanner. So the only way to do the experiment is while you’re having this near-death experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Great. And that makes it impossible to do the experiment. We’re back to ground zero. But hold on. I don’t think that’s the case. You referenced the GLOC experiments with the pilots. Well, by deduction you’re incorporating in human experience. You’re saying that of course, which is obvious, people can say what happened to them.

The other thing about it is that they have this continuity of experience, right? They say, “Oh, I was awake and then I started blacking out and then this happened and then I woke up.” They have a continuous experience. Now you can say they recreated that continuous experience after they woke up but the burden is really on you, especially when it’s consistently reported as a continuous experience. Why would we assume that it’s not continuous? That’s the way it’s being reported.

Dr. Koch: When I go to bed I suddenly wake up inside and I fly. I just did this tonight. I have no experience of the intervening two hours, right? So suddenly I’m flying. Well, wonderful. So now what? So now you’re going to say it’s not up to you to find out through which space that I flew? No. I have this experience every night. My brain gives rise to all sorts of experiences. Of course I realize them. I don’t deny them for one second. But they’re caused by specific brain activity.

Alex Tsakiris: But Christof, I’m talking about the kind of temporal continuity there. You just went through the temporal continuity, right? You felt you were awake. You were consciously awake. You fell asleep. You had a dream. You woke up. You remembered the dream. We don’t reverse it and say, “You didn’t have a dream. You woke up and then you kind of imagined that you had a dream.” You experience it as being continuous.

Dr. Koch: Well, yeah but exactly. That’s exactly my point. But in the meantime, my brain went through all sorts of different space. Of course you can say well clearly that proves my brain isn’t related to my phenomenal experience, but the fact is during certain types of brain states my experience might be off. Like folks in deep sleep when the brain is having very slow oscillations. My brain doesn’t seem to generate any experience. And for me it’s just like nothing. I mean it’s an abrupt transition.

Although in the meantime, 40 minutes intervened of this deep sleep activity. In other words, we have to be very careful when we infer, particularly to how actively our experiences, what actually happened to us because our experience depends on the nature of our underlying brain states and when we go to different brain states our experience might be discontinued. It objectively discontinues but subjectively is experienced in one flow.

Somebody has to do this experiment, okay? One of these days somebody’s going to do this experiment and that’s going to be the end of it. That’s all I’m saying.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Maybe, maybe. Very tough experiment to do when you’re talking about near-death experience, but I hear you.

Dr. Koch: Yeah, but there are all sorts of difficult experiments that people are doing, so yeah. That’s what has to happen. Until that happens I’m not really sure there’s all that much—that’s not going to stop people from going on giving talks. But that’s the experiment that has to be done.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Well hey, it’s not going to stop you either from going on and giving talks so it kind of cuts both ways. Hey, if it’s okay with you, some of this after-conversation I’ll include in as well because it’s interesting to folks I know who listen to this show. Thanks again so much for doing this. I do appreciate it.

Dr. Koch: All right. Okay. Take care.



Alex Tsakiris: Today’s guest was a nuclear physicist before becoming one of the best known and most well informed UFO researchers. I’m talking about Stanton Friedman and Stan, it’s a great pleasure and an honor to welcome you here today on Skeptiko.

Stanton Friedman: I appreciate that. I always like doing it. I grew up with radio. I’m one of the old guys, you know. Put the pictures in my head instead of on a tube.