This new book sums up the latest thinking in the controversial area of consciousness studies
I will write my paper about scientific experiments. Scientific experiments which have been made on consciousness and time have led to all kinds of mix-ups and conflicting conclusions.
Yet what comes out strongly in psychiatrist Chris Nunn's study is that we are not going to properly understand our everyday conscious experience, or the true nature of our selves for that matter, until physicists have achieved a deeper understanding of time.
This is because, for one thing, paradoxically, tests have shown that the brain processes the planning of an action more than one-third of a second before the person actually has a conscious desire to act. In terms of activity in the brain, this is an extremely long time.
What Is Consciousness and What Does It Do?
This 'pre-sponse' effect, as it has become known in consciousness studies, must mean that either time is not as we ordinarily suppose, says Nunn, or that 'mind' can somehow transcend normal temporal limitations, or both.
It remains to be discovered whether consciousness, per se, has a part to play in producing the 'pre-sponse', or whether consciousness is irrelevant to it.
Questions such as 'what is consciousness?', and 'what does it do?', are still unanswerable, and are likely to remain so for some time yet. The 'last great mystery of science' – how to account for the existence and nature of consciousness – has become an arena of heated controversy with biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers all entering the fray.
Field Theories of Consciousness
Nunn, who has researched mind/body relationships and has been involved in consciousness studies for 20 years, is well placed to survey the scene. His view is that as far as 'mind' is concerned we need to take into account, as well as neurology, genetic, environmental and social factors. Close connections hold sway between experience, memory and personhood.
He warns that field theories of consciousness have a 'somewhat wacky, New Age reputation', but admits they have a very long history, especially in Eastern cultures, and have attracted the attention of esteemed Western thinkers, including Alfred North Whitehead and, more recently and notably, Erwin Laszlo with his Akashic field ideas.
But it is not clear how consciousness arises under these non-local field theories for, as far as we can see, says Nunn, consciousness is somehow linked to brains. If one wants to consider field theories he feels they must be strictly local to the brain or start off local. Similarly, 'quantum consciousness' theories have not cashed out as hoped.
His book also takes a level-headed look at near-death, out-of-the-body and mystical experiences, as well as other altered states of consciousness, including those induced by ayahuasca and other 'theogens'. Such experiences appear to be 'potentialities' in all human consciousness and could be useful pointers to its nature.
Stability and Boundaries of Conscious Selves
But what about the title of the book? It refers to Winifred Coombe-Tennant, a Welsh suffragette, politician, philanthropist and patron of the arts who, a century or so ago, used the pseudonym Mrs Willett to conceal her mediumistic activities and involvement in spiritualism. As Nunn points out, communing with the spirits of the dead wasn't good for the reputation of ladies of the manor.
Nunn uses this well-documented case to illustrate issues to do with the stability and boundaries of conscious selves, and the nature of time. Deceased leading lights of the Society for Psychical Research – its key founders, in fact, Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgwick – made voluminous contact with Mrs Willett from beyond the grave, so it was said, complete with their personality traits.
Despite Mrs Willett's colorful story being used to frame the treatise, this is a book written for a multi-disciplinary quasi-academic readership, although the general reader with a scientific bent and interested in the fascinating question of consciousness will also find it rewardingly informative.
Nunn, Chris, Who was Mrs Willett? Landscapes and Dynamics of the Mind. Imprint "Write My Paper for Me", 2021. UK £14.95 / US £29.90.