Philosophy Magazine

Three Arguments for the Non-Locality of Consciousness

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk
Three Arguments for the Non-Locality of Consciousness

Consciousness is hard to understand. I’m conscious as I write this, and you are conscious as you read. But it is very hard for scientists to understand just what our “consciousness” amounts to. The resources in philosophy help. Some philosophers only allow an explanation of consciousness to be formed in materialistic and reductionist terms. For example, Daniel Dennett thinks that consciousness is matter.[1]  Others think that brain matter itself, while correlating with our experience of consciousness, cannot be the cause of conscious experience. In other words, we are not our brains. Rather, we have brains.

A theory is emerging called the non-locality of consciousness. It comes from the field of Quantum Physics, and the observed phenomenon of quantum entanglement (QE). QE describes the behavior of two sub-atomic particles that once entangled, remain mysteriously connected over long distances with no apparent physical connection existing between them. Pim van Lommel, cardiologist and Near-Death Experience (NDE) researcher for over 30 years describes a theory of nonlocal consciousness:

Our endless or nonlocal consciousness with declarative memories finds its origin and is stored in a nonlocal realm as wave-fields of information, and the brain only serves as a relay station for parts of these wave-fields of consciousness to be received into or as our waking consciousness. The function of the brain … [is as a] transceiver.[2]

In this blog, I want to give three examples of phenomena that seem to support the hypothesis of nonlocality of consciousness. All three relate to the practice of medicine:

1 – neuroplasticity

2 – terminal lucidity

3 – consciousness during a period of brain malfunction

1 – Neuroplasticity

Mindfulness studies show the ability of the human mind to shape the physical composition of the brain. Van Lommel observes that both neural networks and electromagnetic activity are shaped by one’s mind. He asks, how can we explain this scientifically if the conscious mind is merely a side-effect of a functioning brain, or if consciousness is just an illusion?[3]

He cites an example of a three-year-old girl whose left-brain hemisphere was removed surgically to alleviate symptoms of epilepsy. This procedure would be disastrous on adults. However, young children appear to have a high degree of adaptability, or plasticity, in their brain function. The number and location of neuron connections is highly adaptable. A year after her operation, she showed virtually no symptoms and could see and think clearly. She proceeded to develop normally, did better at school than others with a whole brain, even though she only physically possessed half a brain.[4]

Three Arguments for the Non-Locality of Consciousness

Clearly, for this outcome to have been achieved, the girl must have been able to form new neural connections that allowed all function to be taken over by the remaining half of the brain. She re-programmed her brain because she had the conscious will, and the ability to do so. Her conscious mind changed the construction of her brain. 

For this to be possible, that means brain and mind cannot be the same thing, though they are closely related things. If the mind is the product of the brain, we would expect her mind to suffer the massive loss of brain matter. Yet this was evidently not the case over the long term. She was able to overcome the loss of brain tissue and carry on after a period of recovery. If the mind is an illusion, we would not expect it to have the ability to rewire the functioning of the brain. And yet this is evidently what it did.

2. Terminal Lucidity

Sometimes, in the last week or day of a terminal patient’s life, they regain capabilities that are not easily explainable by normal neurological processes. David was dying of lung cancer. His head was stuffed full of tumors, and on his final scan, he had virtually no brain tissue left. All he had were haphazardly growing gray masses. He was non-responsive, his body kept alive on machines.

On his final evening, the consultant checked on him and noticed his breathing indicated that death was imminent. He did not expect David to survive the night. The next morning, the room had been cleaned, and the bed made up following David’s death. However – the nurse that had cared for David as he died stopped the doctor in the corridor to talk.

He woke up, you know, doctor – just after you left – and said goodbye to them all. Like I’m talkin’ to you right here. Like a miracle. He talked to them and patted them and smiled for about five minutes. Then he went out again, and he passed in the hour.[5]

This was a wonderful opportunity for David’s heartbroken family to say goodbye. But notice this. It couldn’t have been David’s brain that woke him up. He didn’t have any brain tissue, only metastases. This strongly suggests that David’s mind was able to push through the physical impairment for a short time prior to death. This is hard to explain on a materialistic understanding of brain but makes sense on the non-locality of consciousness hypothesis.

3 – Conscious During Brain Malfunction

On patients under general anaesthetic, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and registration of electrical activity of the brain (EEG) show functional loss of all major brain tissue. Connections are temporary severed while under anaesthetic, making information flow between neural centres impossible. In this state, conscious experiences should not be possible on a materialistic understanding of consciousness (where mind = brain). Van Lommel gives the following report from an anaesthetised patient that challenges materialism:

I suddenly became aware of hovering over the foot of the operating table and watching the activity…soon it dawned on me that this was my own body. So I … heard everything that was said: ‘Hurry up, you bloody bastard,’ was one thing I remember them shouting … I could also read the minds of everybody in the room…I later learned … it took four and a half minutes to get my heart … going again. As a rule, oxygen deprivation causes brain damage after three or three and a half minutes. I also heard the doctor say that he thought I was dead. Later he confirmed saying this, and he was astonished to learn that I’d heard it. I also told them that they should mind their language during surgery.[6]

A common response to this phenomenon is to suppose that the person’s hearing remained active during the procedure, and they imagined a visual scene based on prior experience of medical procedures seen in their lives, perhaps on TV or films. If so, their memory is not an example of the non-locality of consciousness. 

However, this materialistic explanation has been well studied by Dr Penny Sartori. She shows convincingly that the recall of patients who claimed an out-of-body (OBE) experience is much more accurate compared to patient recall based who did not claim an OBE and were working on their limited background knowledge.[7]We therefore have good reasons to believe van Lommel’s patient when she claims to have seen and heard her operation while physically unconscious and unable to do so in a natural sense.

4 – Conclusion

The clinical examples quoted in this blog are not easily explained on a materialistic account of consciousness. They are, however, compatible with the non-locality of consciousness. When taken together with the evidence of NDE, this forms a robust argument for the non-locality of consciousness and refutes the physical argument for consciousness.

[1] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, (1991), mentioned in Pim van Lommel, The Continuity of Consciousness A Concept Based on Scientific Research on Near-Death Experiences During Cardiac Arrest, Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies,

[2] van Lommel, 20.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Penny Sartori, A Five Year Clinical Study; Sartori et al, ‘A prospectively studied near-death experience.’

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