Leading neuroscientists and Buddhists agree: “Consciousness is everywhere”
Posted on January 16th, 2019


Neuroscientist Christof Koch discusses scientific theories of consciousness with the Dalai Lama.

New theories in neuroscience suggest consciousness is an intrinsic property of everything, just like gravity. That development opens a world of opportunity for collaboration between Buddhists and neuroscientists.

The heart of consciousness,” says neuroscientist Christof Koch, is that it feels likesomething. How is it that a piece of matter, like my brain, can feel anything?”

In 2013, Koch, one of the world’s leading experts on consciousness, went to a monastery in India to discuss that question with a group of Buddhist monks. He and the Dalai Lama debated neuroscience and mind for a full day.

They had different approaches. Koch offered contemporary scientific theories on the subject, and His Holiness countered with ancient Buddhist teachings. Yet, at the end of their discussion, the two thinkers agreed on almost every point.

Christof Koch explains the neuroscientific view of consciousness to the Dalai Lama.

What struck me most was his belief in what we in the West call ‘panpsychism’ — the belief that consciousness is everywhere,” says Koch. And that we have to reduce the suffering of all conscious creatures.”

Panpsychism, the idea of universal consciousness, is a prominent thought in some branches of ancient Greek philosophy, paganism, and Buddhism. And it has been largely dismissed by modern science — until recently.

In his work on consciousness, Koch collaborates with a researcher named Giulio Tononi. Tononi is the father of the most popular modern theory of consciousness, called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which Koch once called the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.”

Tononi’s theory states that consciousness appears in physical systems that contain many different and highly interconnected pieces of information. Based on that hypothesis, consciousness can be measured as a theoretical quantity, which the researchers call phi.

Tononi has a test for measuring phi (the amount of consciousness) in a human brain. It is similar to ringing a bell; scientists send a magnetic pulse into a human brain and watch the pulse reverberate through the neurons — back and forth, side to side. The longer and clearer the reverberation, the higher the subject’s amount of consciousness. Using that test, Koch and Tononi can tell whether a patient is awake, asleep, or anesthetized.

There are already pressing and practical needs for a way to measure consciousness. Doctors and scientists could use phi to tell if a person in a vegetative state is effectively dead, how much awareness a person with dementia has, when a foetus develops consciousness, how much animals perceive, or even whether a computer can feel.

That’s more urgent,” asserts Koch. We’re witnessing the birth of computer intelligence. Is a machine conscious? Does it feel like anything? If it does, it may acquire legal rights, and I certainly have ethical obligations towards it. I can’t just turn it off or wipe its disc clean.”


Christof Koch speaking at TEDxRainier Seattle.

IIT also marries these practical applications with profound ideas. The theory says that any object with a phi greater than zero has consciousness. That would mean animals, plants, cells, bacteria, and maybe even protons are conscious beings.

Koch sees IIT as promising because it offers an understanding of panpsychism that fits into modern science. In an academic paper, Koch and Tononi make the profound statement that their theory treats consciousness as an intrinsic, fundamental property of reality.”

Modern research and recent dialogues between Buddhists and scientists have focused mainly on understanding the physical brain. But scientists have barely begun to develop an understanding of mind — or consciousness — itself.

On the Buddhist side, however, this is a discussion that has been going on for thousands of years. Buddhism associates mind with sentience. The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche statedthat while mind, along with all objects, is empty, unlike most objects, it is also luminous. In a similar vein, IIT says consciousness is an intrinsic quality of everything yet only appears significantly in certain conditions — like how everything has mass, but only large objects have noticeable gravity.

In his major work, the Shobogenzo, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, went so far as to say, All is sentient being.” Grass, trees, land, sun, moon and stars are all mind, wrote Dogen.

Koch, who became interested in Buddhism in college, says that his personal worldview has come to overlap with the Buddhist teachings on non-self, impermanence, atheism, and panpsychism. His interest in Buddhism, he says, represents a significant shift from his Roman Catholic upbringing. When he started studying consciousness — working with Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick — Koch believed that the only explanation for experience would have to invoke God. But, instead of affirming religion, Koch and Crick together established consciousness as a respected branch of neuroscience and invited Buddhist teachers into the discussion.

At Drepung Monastery, the Dalai Lama told Koch that the Buddha taught that sentience is everywhere at varying levels, and that humans should have compassion for all sentient beings. Until that point, Koch hadn’t appreciated the weight of his philosophy.

I was confronted with the Buddhist teaching that sentience is probably everywhere at varying levels, and that inspired me to take the consequences of this theory seriously,” says Koch. When I see insects in my home, I don’t kill them.”

The theory of IIT shows promise for the future. With more research, Koch and Tononi could better test consciousness, to prove scientifically that all beings are sentient. Meanwhile, Buddhists around the world are constantly working to develop an understanding of the mind. Traleg Rinpoche said that analytical methods can only go so far toward understanding the mind. Instead, he says, by resting his or her mind and contemplating it, a meditator can develop an understanding of the nature of mind and how it relates to everything else.

Critics of IIT argue that the theory fails to explain where consciousness comes from. Science writer John Horgan argues, you can’t explain consciousness by saying it consists of information, because information exists only relative to consciousness.”

Understanding the source of consciousness is an extremely difficult hurdle, but Koch is up to it. He says that his ultimate goal is to understand the universe. Some say that the best way to do that is to look inside your own mind. Maybe Koch is on to something.

7 Responses to “Leading neuroscientists and Buddhists agree: “Consciousness is everywhere””

  1. Charles Says:

    Moment Scientists try to explain some thing that had been said and understood from ancient times, it takes a different turn and it becomes much more complicated than it really is. Now they have taken up human consciousness and even goes as far as to explain that even computers have a consciousness.

    In Buddhism Buddha explains this phenomena conventionally and in ultimate terms-metaphysically. The ordinary Buddhists understand it in conventional terms in listening or reading the Sutta Pitaka of the Tripitaka. The Consciousness and the material form of all beings are a combination of the form and the consciousness- the mind. – mind and matter (Nama-Rupa). Though it to are inseparabley bound, it is often treated as to entities like two bundles of firewood kept one against the other. If one falls the other falls as well. It had been said that the mind is in the heart , and not in the brain. When the Buddha was asked where the mind is he had simply said where ever it is. But in Samannaphala Sutta it is said that the mind could be taken out like taking a sword out of its scabbard. That means that the consciousness or the mind is evry where. Each sense faculty -eye, ear,nose, tongue, body and the mind has its own consciousness. Hence the whole system of a being functions according to the consciousness which gives it “life”respiratory system, blood circulation, digestive system, nervous system all functions because the consciousness provides life to them. Of course in explaining one has to take into account the problem of the language in explaining these phenomena or these factors of dhamma.

    There was also a question being asked as to where the consciousness comes from. This is explained by the Buddha in Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada) It is the ignorance of the four noble truths of suffering , impermanence and absence of a self: A being in ignorance of these factors (avidya), presumes every thing is permanent, is pleasant and gives pleasure and there is a self to enjoy the pleasures coming in contact with the sense faculties. Thus he accumulates defilements(kilesa) which turn into wholesome and unwholesome kamma( sankhaara) it is these kamma that forms the last consciousness that escapes at the death, which enters a foetus with a similar kammic energy to form a being……..

  2. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    No harm in investigating consciousness in the context of modern science. In fact the most highness Dalai Larma with a few dozen of tibetan monks are taking part in the discussion.Listen to Dalai Larma’s explanation without confronting like you.

    Chales, don’t try to impose your own way of Yoniso Manasikara (proper attention) in the process of realisation of dhamma.

    This is the scientist’s yoniso manasikara. and more appropriate for those who try to understand consciousness through modern science.Your explanation is very dogmatic, and you just recapitulate and repeat what is written in dhamma books, and no sign of moving from pannapti (conceptual) view to paramatta view.

  3. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Although ultimate realities exist as the concrete essence of things, they are so subtle and profound that an ordinary person who lacks training cannot perceive them. Such a person cannot see the ultimate realities because his mind is obscured by concepts, which shape reality into conventionally defined appearances. Only by means of wise or thorough attention to things (yoniso manasikara)can one see beyond the concepts and take the ultimate realities as one’s object of knowledge.

  4. Charles Says:

    NMY: My teachers have told me that there are three means of learning Buddhism. One is by reading, two by listening and three by discussing. So it does not matter our writing what we know on the subject so that it would be a dhamma sakachcha. It is not showing off by all means. I had been into learning the teachings since 1995. Subject of mind and consciousness interest me. I have written a book on Mind Matter and Meditation which is available in Sri Lanka in MD Gunasena, Sarasavi, Vijitha Yapa book shops and at the Dalanda Maligava Bookshop. It could also be down loaded from Amazon.

    If you had listened to the end of the 2 and half (almost) hour discussion, Ven.Dalai Lama said that scientific search of Consciousness is futile, though perhaps it may be possible in 20 or 30 years time. He and Ven. Mathew Ricard said there other means of investigation, such as children who speak of past lives, near death experiences and personal meditation experience.
    At the end they allowed persons to speak on the subject and there were three who spoke or rather asked questions. So it does not matter writing about it even if you think it has been copied from books, because it may help some one to question more on the subject.

  5. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Yes my last comment was copied from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Manual of Abhidhamma. My point is that you can have many teachers and you can read many books, then what you understand is conventionally defined concepts about dhamma. What is in sutta pitaka or in Abidhamma pitaka are also conventionally defined (pannapti) ultimate realities (paramatta dhamma). There is only one way an individual can convert these concepts into ultimate realities and that is only through yoniso manasikara (thorough attention). Buddha has shown the way through Sathara Sathipattana (The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) under Dhammanu passana.

    My way of understanding should be different from your. I am a retired engineer and whole of my life spent on analysing problems scientifically. So I like to understand five aggregates (panchaskandha) in more scientific way and then only I will be able to realised it easily. You may have your own preference.

    So when a scientist or particularly neuroscientist try to understand consciousness in his own familiar way let his do it. Don’t try to throw spanners to the spinning wheel dhamma.

  6. Charles Says:

    I do not do that Dear NMY. Did you listen to the whole of the tape and did you note what Dalailama told about the scietific research? I do not want to make this a private discussion through Lnka web, so if you like to discuss it further plerase send me your e-mail to discuss it at that level.

  7. Charles Says:

    There is one more question I as just an ordinary Buddhist would like to state for the information of the learned scholars of the Lions Roar. That is about memory. It is said in Abhidahamma that no two thoughts arise at the same time . It is when one thought that has arisen falls away that the next arises. The thoughts arise in the consciousness (vinnana) when an exterior object comes in contact with a sense faculty. The whole of a beings existence (bhava) is rising and falling away thoughts. (The body is only a vehicle for the mind to exist. When the mind or consciousness departs from the body , the body become a dead body which rots and gets assimilated into the four elements in nature.)

    Each thought when arising after the falling away of the thought before takes over all the information of that thought ( memories , previous wholesome or unwholesome kamma etc.), and when that thought falls away all that information is taken over by the thought arising next. It goes on until the final thought of a dying man’s- departing citta (cuti citta)…….Then it continues by joining with a re-linking (patisandhi citta) of a foetus…so on through out Samsara.

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