Are we really Separate Individuals?
Posted November 4, 2016
We normally perceive ourselves as individuals, living inside our own brains and bodies. ‘You’ are an entity that seems to occupy your own mental space, inside your head, with the rest of the world appearing to be ‘out there’, on the other side. The conventional scientific view seems to validate this impression of individuality. It suggests that, in essence, we human beings are agglomerations of material particles, atoms and molecules that work together to form different parts of our bodies and organising the interactions between them. Our minds - and all our mental phenomena - are the result of the combined activity of brain cells.
So it seems indisputable that we are distinct, isolated entities living in separateness to one another. I have my body and brain, and you have yours, and we can touch each other physically or communicate with one another through language, but our sense of being - as produced by our brains - is essentially enclosed within the physical stuff of our bodies.
However, most of us regularly have experiences that seem to contradict this impression of separateness. I call these ‘interconnective experiences', and identity three types of them.
Three Different Types of Interconnection
The first - and most common - is ‘interconnectedness of feeling’, or ‘empathic connection.’ Empathy is sometimes seen as a cognitive ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and imagine what they are experiencing. This is certainly a type of empathy, but only what I have called ‘shallow empathy.’ There is a deeper kind of empathy which stems from actually sensing - rather than just imagining - what another person is experiencing. In this ‘deep empathy’ our consciousness seems to expand outwards, and merge into other people’s. We seem to enter into other people’s mind-space, and share their feelings. If they are feeling sad, we sense their sadness. If they are hurt, we sense their pain. This often leads to altruism - acting to try to alleviate their suffering. We want to alleviate other people’s suffering because, in a sense, it is our own suffering.
The second type of experience is ‘interconnectedness of being.’ For many years, I have collected reports of what I call ‘awakening experiences’, in which people experience a more expansive and intense state of being. One of the most prominent characteristics of these experiences is a ‘transcendence of separateness.’ It’s very common for people to sense that they are deeply connected to - even one with - the natural world, other human beings or even the whole universe. There is a sense of sharing one’s being with other phenomena, a sense that we share the same fundamental essence as them. For example, in my research one person told me that “I feel a part of nature … I feel a connection with people, but I also feel connected with trees and birds and grass and hills.” Or more intensely, one person described to me how “the deep aliveness of space is so amazing it takes your words away. I don’t just feel connected to it. I feel like I am it.”
The third type of experience - which I admit is more controversial than the previous two - is ‘interconnectedness of knowing.’ There are many anecdotal reports of individuals spontaneously communicating with each other without any direct interaction. Common experiences are thinking of someone you haven’t seen for years and then receiving a phone call from them and bumping into them on the street. Other examples are having a ‘strong feeling’ that a friend is pregnant, has been diagnosed with a serious illness or has died without being told this - and then finding out that this is the case shortly afterwards. Such incidents might be explained away as coincidence, but there are also scientific experiments which appear to show that such communication can sometimes occur. Some of the most well known are ‘ganzfeld’ experiments, in which a person tries to ‘send’ a randomly chosen target image to a receiver, who then has to choose the correct image from four choices. Obviously, the success rate for this by chance should be 25%. However, ganzfeld experiments consistently show higher levels of success than this. Large scale ganzfeld experiments conducted under the most strongest scientific conditions typically show a success rate of around 35%. This doesn’t seem like a significant figure, but the odds against it occurring by chance are astronomical. Meta-analyses of thousands of experiments conducted over decades show similar results. (1) There is also evidence suggesting that animals - especially dogs - may have a telepathic connection with their owners, which enables them to sense when they are coming home. (2)
It’s difficult to account for these phenomena from a materialist point of view. Materialists would claim that ‘deep empathy’ doesn’t really exist, and that our altruistic impulses are not due to a sense of connection, but due to a disguised selfishness - e.g. a desire to impress other people, or feel good about ourselves, or a kind of insurance policy to make sure we are helped in return. The sense of connection which awakening experiences can perhaps be explained as wishful thinking, or in terms of unusual brain activity. Similarly, ‘interconnective knowing’ can be explained as coincidence, or in terms of flawed experimental procedures.
However, there is another possibility: that in actuality we are interconnected. It is possible that these three forms of interconnection are not illusions, but the manifestations of a fundamental lack of separation between human beings. This makes no sense from a materialist point of view, but it is possible that what we know as consciousness is not produced by the brain, but is a fundamental quality of the consciousness. This is what is sometimes known as the ‘panpsychist’ view, and it is becoming increasingly popular amongst philosophers and psychologists who struggle to explain consciousness from a materialist perspective. According to panpsychism, consciousness is not dissimilar to mass or gravity - a fundamental, irreducible quality which has always been ‘built into’ the universe. Consciousness is both fundamental and universal - that is, it is everywhere, and in everything (at least potentially). The function of the cells, nervous systems and the human brain is not to ‘receive’ this consciousness and channel it into individual beings.
If we take this view, our own individual consciousness is part of a wider network of consciousness, as a wave is part of an ocean. So it’s not surprising that we are able to tune in to other people’s feelings, to feel a sense of oneness with nature, or sometimes ‘pick up’ on information without any direct communication. We are simply experiencing the fundamental connectedness of all beings, and the universe itself. Feeling, being and information flow between us all, across this network of shared consciousness.
So we are not enclosed within our own mental space. We are not islands, but part of the ocean. We don’t live in separateness, but in connectedness. We are not alone. Essentially, we are one.
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(1) see Bem, D. J. (1996). Ganzfeld phenomena. In G. Stein (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the paranormal (pp. 291-296). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. See also Parker. A. & Brusewitz, G. (2003). A compendium of the evidence for psi. European Journal of Parapsychology. 18: 33-51.
(2) In a long series of experiments over two years with a dog called Jaytee, the paranormal researcher Sheldrake found that it would sit by the window for a significant proportion of the time that her own was on her way home – 55% of the time, compared to just 4% during the rest of her absence. (The difference is highly statistically significant, with odds against chance of over 10,000.) There was a great deal of controversy when the skeptical researcher Richard Wiseman attempted to replicate Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments. Wiseman’s 4 experiments actually yielded an even more positive result than Sheldrake’s – Jaytee sat by the window 78% of the time that her owner was travelling home, compared to 4% during the rest of her absence (Sheldrake, 1999, 2000). % during the rest of her absence (Sheldrake, 1999, 2000). That would seem to be an incontrovertible successful replication of Sheldrake’s experiments. However, Wiseman chose to ignore this data, and instead to use a different criterion of success: Jaytee had to go to sit by the window at the exact moment that her owner set off home. If Jaytee went to the window before this, this would mean that she had ‘failed.’ And not surprisingly, by this criterion, the experiments were judged to be unsuccessful and bizarrely presented as ‘proof’ that Jaytee (and dogs in general) do not have ‘psychic powers’ (Wiseman et al., 1998; Sheldrake, 2000).